NBA schedule has small-market bias, even after the lockout

Earlier today, Kelly Dwyer noted (and rightfully criticized) Suns owner Robert Sarver's complaints about his team losing out in the 66-game schedule released by the NBA on Tuesday night. His argument, in case you hate clicking links, was that by not hosting the top five teams in the East this season, Phoenix basketball fans will miss out on the joy of watching great players like LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Derrick Rose. Never mind that Sarver was one of the hardline owners whose intransigence shortened the season in the first place, or that he also deprived Suns fans of a better shot at a championship by pinching pennies during the narrow window when the team was a legit contender. Self-awareness has never been Sarver's strong suit.

Yet, while Sarver might be an exceedingly poor messenger, his point holds some merit. If you look at the schedules of small-market lottery teams, the majority do not play more than one game against the best teams from the other conference, which means that many have lost out on hosting some of the most exciting players in basketball. The Raptors schedule is indicative. Here's more from Doug Smith for The Toronto Star:

Steve Nash and the Phoenix Suns? Not on the list. Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder?  Nope. Blake Griffin and the Los Angeles Clippers? Sorry. The defending champion Dallas Mavericks? Won't be here.

And for a team coming off a 22-60 season, a third straight year without a sniff of the playoffs and firmly in a rebuilding mode, those four virtually certain sellouts will undoubtedly put a crimp in the attendance figures.

Instead of those marquee teams, the only Western Conference teams that will come to the Air Canada Centre in an unbalanced year are the Los Angeles Lakers (for the lone Sunday matinee in the season, Feb. 12), Denver, Houston, Memphis, Golden State, Minnesota, Portland, Sacramento and San Antonio.

The Raptors will see some good players in Toronto, including Kobe Bryant and the Spurs troika of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker. However, as a general rule, it does seem that many of the most obvious draws for Toronto fans -- especially Nash, a hero in his native Canada -- will be missing. And that's a curious situation in a league that crowed about small market teams' inability to compete financially for the better part of six months.

Any shortened schedule was going to force certain teams to miss out on quality draws, but it does seem as if the NBA made special effort to ensure that the best teams in the league would play each other as many times as they would in a normal season. So while the Raptors only play the Lakers once, LA will face Miami in their usual two-game series despite the travel being no less difficult than flights to and from Toronto. This schedule could not have been random. There's a possible competitive balance explanation for it -- if bad teams play mostly other bad teams, they can pile up more wins -- but then there would be no reason for the Knicks, the sixth-best team in the East last season, to play a schedule better fit for a team that made the conference finals. The 66-game schedule was clearly built with TV ratings in mind.

That's a fine strategy, and likely a better outcome for the majority of the league's fans, who'd rather watch Kobe face LeBron on a holiday weekend than Pau Gasol vs. Amir Johnson on a random Tuesday. But it's also a reversal of the argument David Stern and Adam Silver made at every lockout press conference. If the league were serious about helping the league's poorest teams financially, everyone would have been given more marketable home games, whether that involved bringing in star-laden teams or much-loved players like Nash. Instead, it appears that the league was more concerned with making an argument as a means to an end than as a sincere comment on the state of the NBA.

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