Inside the NBA’s impromptu process for scheduling around the in-season tournament

The clock had passed midnight in Manhattan, last Tuesday turned into Wednesday, and the final slate of Eastern Conference in-season tournament games had finished. So Evan Wasch couldn’t help himself. The NBA’s executive vice president of basketball strategy and analytics oversees the league’s complicated scheduling, and as one of the leading developers of this first NBA Cup in-season tournament, Wasch was also spearheading the NBA’s frenetic race to slate its 30 teams into resulting games across the map, from the eight clubs that advanced into the quarterfinals to the 22 teams that now were suddenly in need of two more regular-season matchups this week — all beginning just six days after the group stage concluded.

Only the Kings and Warriors were still battling for in-season tournament positioning when Wasch let his anticipation get the best of him and asked a member of his staff to run the optimization model they’d created to help instantly schedule a combination of matchups and travel arrangements — even as both Sacramento and Golden State could have still hosted or visited the New Orleans Pelicans in the quarterfinals, depending on how the teams’ point differentials and tiebreakers unfolded.

“Out of curiosity, I asked the team to start running it for those two scenarios,” Wasch said. “One where the Kings won and one where the Warriors won.”

Wasch first became involved in the NBA’s scheduling process in 2015. Shortly after, the league renovated a space in its Secaucus, New Jersey, office it dubbed “The Scheduling Room.” The private quarters held a giant map on the wall and an expanse of screens displaying different schedule permutations for both regular-season and playoff matchups. “It had special key access and frosted windows,” Wasch said.

COVID ended the in-person bunker as the NBA was forced to format a dizzying amount of schedules within a truncated window — one Bubble schedule, the first-half schedule of 2020-21, the second half schedule of ’20-21, then the entire ’21-22 campaign — while employees worked remotely. Ever since, the league has conquered its calendar from various “VSRs” — virtual scheduling rooms — where staffers pop in and out of long-running Zoom calls and turn cameras off and on, depending on their tasks.

Nov 3, 2023; Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA; Logo for the NBA In-Season Tournament for game between the Milwaukee Bucks and New York Knicks at Fiserv Forum. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Last Tuesday, in the NBA’s first effort to land this in-season tournament plane, the league had about 30 people along for the virtual ride throughout several different Zoom meetings, making sure the correct messaging on tiebreakers and advancement went out to team personnel and on social platforms for fans’ greater literacy of the event. “It was a confusing couple of hours there,” Wasch said of the final group night.

The league’s initial discussions surrounding the in-season tournament once involved having only teams that advanced to the knockout-round play games this week, leaving the 22 franchises eliminated from contention with just 80 regular-season contests. But that would have presented both business and basketball issues. Team personnel provided plenty of pushback that eight days off and a week without games during the season could have been detrimental to players’ rhythms. And no team is gung ho about losing a home night of gate revenue, plus other lanes of in-stadium profits.

Plotting all of this week’s games, without first knowing the identity of the eight knockout-round teams, though, naturally presented a logistics time crunch. So Wasch’s team took out two matchups from the scheduling matrix from each team’s intraconference non-division possibilities. Every team plays two home and two road games against divisional opponents, and one home and one road game against teams from the opposite conference. That left teams with the possibility of playing non-divisional opponents in their conference three times, with either two home contests and one on the road, or vice versa. The NBA wanted to add each of the teams’ two remaining games into two of those 3x matchups, and avoid turning any 4x matchups into instances of 5 games, if possible.

That’s where the optimization model was born, written code that guides the league through roughly a million possible combinations between the 11 teams in each conference left on the outside of the knockout round. The code eliminated the options where Team A would play itself, or Team A and Team B played the added games against one another. That narrowed down the possibilities to only hundreds of thousands of combinations.

The league went even further, aiming to not add situations where a fourth contest between two teams provided an imbalance to where one club had three home games versus that rival compared to one road game. If there was a three-to-one imbalance that just had to come about, the NBA decided to assign the extra home game of the matchup to the team that finished higher in the in-season tournament standings — further incentivizing the point-differential tiebreakers throughout the competition. And if the model was still left with more options to choose from, the NBA wanted an outcome that presented a minimal amount of travel.

The last monkey wrench was figuring out which teams could host their new regular-season games on Wednesday or Friday. Most franchises had both Dec. 6 and Dec. 8 available on their arenas’ calendars, but some teams could only be home for one of those nights. Many clubs share buildings with NHL organizations and house long-standing yearly concerts. The annual Jingle Ball, presented by New York radio station Z100 at Madison Square Garden, for example, is an anchor at the World’s Most Famous Arena and scheduled for Dec. 8. And when the Lakers locked up a spot in the knockout round, the NBA had to protect against the possibility that Los Angeles loses in the quarterfinal and would have to host a regular-season game Dec. 8. So that meant the Clippers would have to host a game at Arena on Wednesday, to then play a road game on Friday and avoid a potential conflict.

Finally, after the Kings staged their exciting comeback to beat the Warriors and clinch Group C, the league ran its model one last time. Fortunately for Wasch and his collaborative group of schedulers, it spit out zero instances of 5x matchups. There is only one occurrence where a team will visit another three times compared to hosting that rival once — reigning champion Denver now goes to Los Angeles on Wednesday, while the Nuggets will only welcome the Clippers into their mile-high elevation a single time this regular season. Every other matchup this week added one more home game and one more road outing for teams in those 3x matchups, leaving even splits of four games between the opponents.

The final step was identifying the national TV games, collaborating with ESPN executives to mark which matchups Wednesday — including that Nuggets at Clippers game — and Friday should be elevated to the network’s broadest audience. Then the NBA was able to publish its final schedule, sending out a tweet with all the new slated games at 1:45 a.m. ET Wednesday. It was up to league and team representatives to work with Delta from there to determine travel itineraries and flight logistics.

“Mostly just relief,” Wasch said of the work coming to a close, “in getting to finally turn our attention to the knockout games.”

That quarterfinal round begins Monday night, with the Celtics visiting the Pacers at 7:30 p.m. ET, followed by the Pelicans visiting the Kings.