The release of the NBA's shortened 2011-12 schedule on Tuesday gave us all much to be excited about. There's a Christmas kickoff quintuple-header to look forward to, plus plenty of debuts, rivalry renewals and high-octane matchups on the docket, including the 10 games that Eric Freeman highlighted Tuesday night.
After a five-month drought that saw viable explanations for Loving This Game™ slow to a trickle, the imminent return of games has restored a steady flow of reasons (or, at least, rationalizations) for being NBA fans. Not the least of which, of course, is another time-honored Schedule Day tradition:
The only thing more fun than shared exultation in your team's good fortune is communing in misery over its cruddy lot in life, how the boys got jobbed, how someone's clearly out to get them. In that vein, the unveiling of the schedule — created in secrecy in some office, then delivered fully formed and immutable like tablets down the mountain — offers the perfect opportunity to gnash teeth and rail against a controlling force fans never see: the nameless, faceless, schedule-making Fates.
For eager complainers, this year's truncated 66-game calendar offers ample cause to grumble. The 30 NBA teams will play a combined 529 back-to-back games, as Shaun Powell noted at NBA.com, a grueling pace that can be spun as either murder on veteran teams with old legs or a killer for young teams lacking experience, depending on who's on your team's roster. Plus, the shuffling of the dates includes an unbalanced nonconference program that leaves some teams playing top-notch competition more often than others, according to CBSSports.com's Ben Golliver.
But while every team faces such hardships, including back-to-back-to-back stretches for all, 11 teams drew a teensy-tiny scheduling straw — playing three straight days on two separate occasions. Fans of these 11 teams have griping honors; this holiday season, they get first crack at the Airing of Grievances.
The unlucky 11 slated to post the bummer type of triple-doubles are:
• The Atlanta Hawks, who play back-to-back-to-back from Jan. 5-7 (home for the Miami Heat, at the Charlotte Bobcats, home for the Chicago Bulls) and March 23-25 (home for the New Jersey Nets, at the Washington Wizards, home for the Utah Jazz);
• The Detroit Pistons, who play three straight on the road from Jan. 30-Feb. 1 (at the Milwaukee Bucks, at the New York Knicks, at the Nets) but do get a couple of home games from April 17-19 (hosting the Cleveland Cavaliers, at the Hawks, home for the Minnesota Timberwolves);
• The Indiana Pacers, who kick off one three-night run on Valentine's Day (home for the Heat, at the Cavs, home for the Nets) and another on World Water Day (at the Wiz, home for the Phoenix Suns, at Milwaukee);
• The Los Angeles Clippers, who play two of three at Staples Center from Jan. 16-18 (home for the Nets, at Utah, home for the Dallas Mavericks) before hitting the road from March 20-22 (at Indiana, at the Oklahoma City Thunder, at the New Orleans Hornets);
• The Minnesota Timberwolves, who celebrate the New Year at home with what looks to be a murderous troika, welcoming Miami, Dallas and the San Antonio Spurs from Dec. 30-Jan. 2, then follow it up eight days later with a Jan. 10-12 stretch (at Washington, at the Toronto Raptors, home for Chicago);
• The New Jersey Nets, whose triples run from Jan. 21-23 (home for OKC, home for Charlotte, at Chicago) and Feb. 18-20 (at Chicago, home for Milwaukee, at New York);
• The Philadelphia 76ers, whose sure-to-be terrifying new mascot will work overtime from Jan. 9-11 (home for Indiana, home for the Sacramento Kings, at New York) and April 16-18 (at Orlando, home for Indiana, at Cleveland);
• The Phoenix Suns, who'll face three straight from Feb. 13-15 (at the Golden State Warriors, at the Denver Nuggets, home for the Hawks) and March 14-16 (home for Utah, at the Clippers, home for Detroit);
• The Portland Trail Blazers, who will cross their fingers and hope for the lower-leg best from Jan. 23-25 (home for the Kings, home for the Memphis Grizzlies, at the Warriors) and Feb. 14-16 (home for the Wiz, at the Dubs again, home for the Clips);
• The San Antonio Spurs, whose back-to-back-to-backs come later in the season, from March 23-25 (home for the Mavs, at New Orleans, home for Philly) and on the road in California from April 16-18 (at Golden State, at the Los Angeles Lakers, at Sacramento); and
• The Washington Wizards, who will follow Noted Team Leader and power forward Andray Blatche into three straight battles from March 24-26 (home for Atlanta, at the Boston Celtics, home for Detroit) and April 4-6 (home for the Pacers, at the Pistons, at the Nets).
(If you're scoring at home, that's six teams from the Eastern Conference and five from the Western Conference. Way to confirm your West Coast bias, NBA.)
Let's dig in a bit, shall we?
• In terms of quality of competition in the two back-to-back-to-backs, the Pacers and Blazers look to have gotten lucky (relatively speaking, of course).
Both face just one team that made the postseason a year ago — Portland squares off with the Grizz on Jan. 24 and Indiana gets the defending Eastern Conference champs from Miami on Feb. 14 — and both get those matchups at home. (Portland's luck gets way tougher if Chris Paul finds himself headed west to either the Warriors or Clips, two potential destinations for the All-NBA point guard reported Tuesday by Y!'s own Adrian Wojnarowski.)
On the other end of the spectrum, the Clippers, Wolves, Nets, Sixers and Spurs will all face four 2011 playoff teams in their six contests. While Blake Griffin's crew gets the defending champion Mavericks in L.A., they also face the champs at the tail end of their first three-game set, then run into roadies against the Pacers, Thunder and Hornets in March. Philly gets a bit of a break, as none of their postseason comp — two games against the Pacers, one against the Magic and one against the Knicks — seems set to number among the East's truly elite teams.
As for the Timberwolves ... well, at least their games against last year's two NBA finalists and each conference's top seeds come at home, I guess.
Atlanta, Detroit and the Suns all get two 2011 playoff teams. Washington is the only one to get three such matchups.
• In terms of home/road splits, the Blazers, Hawks and T-Wolves (four home games) get the most time in the friendly confines, while the Pistons, Clippers, Suns and Spurs (four road games) spend the most time away. The Pacers, Nets, Sixers and Wizards all play three each way.
• While three straight games can wipe any team out, both the Pacers and Timberwolves figure to be dog-tired by the end of their two triples, as both of their stints feature back-to-back-to-backs as the final piece in a four-games-in-five-days stretch, according to a rest-day analysis conducted by the folks at the excellent site NBAstuffer.com. San Antonio, Washington, Phoenix and the Clippers avoid that exhausting fate, while the other five teams have one such stretch.
Now, how much any of this will actually matter in terms of each team's record remains to be seen, of course. In fact, based on his analysis of the effect of back-to-back-to-backs on teams' winning percentages during the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season, the great Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus wrote that the three-game stretches are "unlikely to have much of an impact on how [a team's] season goes." On the other hand, as both Our Fearless Leader and SI.com's Zach Lowe have written, using the '99 season as a guide to what this year might hold — outside of some ugly basketball, of course — seems like a dicey proposition.
Having two late-season back-to-back-to-backs could kill the Spurs' veterans right as they're trying to make a playoff push, but avoiding heavier early season duty could help them get out to a quick start. Having two-plus months between sets could help the Hawks be fresher for both, but maybe we'll find that there's something to be said for the effects of young teams like the Wizards and Wolves having their three-game sets so close together, getting more floor time for young pieces who need it and finding out who'll be best equipped to deal with adversity and go to war down the line. We just don't know yet, which is half the fun of this chaotic scramble.
The only thing we know for sure is that your team totally got screwed, man. (Especially, by the looks of things, if your team is the Timberwolves.)