Every year in the NBA’s offseason, there’s a news drought after most free agents have been signed, and trade rumors have either come true or vanished in the airwaves. Kevin Durant has kept things interesting this year by urging the Brooklyn Nets to trade him unless they fire coach Steve Nash and basketball operations president Sean Marks. However, aside from Durant’s drama and Donovan Mitchell’s potential move to the New York Knicks, much of significance is likely to happen in the NBA world by the time preseason begins.
This is exactly why the NBA releases the full schedule for the upcoming season around this time every year. The search for more headlines and a year-round news cycle continues. Therefore, we continue to submit to the demands of the almighty agenda-setter Adam Silver.
This year, the release of the schedule brings exciting news for the Timberwolves. A posh NBA analyst, Ed Kupfer, has boldly pulled together a series of numbers to present the masses with an estimated strength of schedule for every team in the NBA next season. The model inputs to Kupfer’s calculation were the strength of a team’s opponents based on Vegas win estimates, days off for a team versus days off for an opponent, and whether a team is home or away in certain encounters.
Here are the results:
Surprisingly, the Timberwolves top the list with the easiest estimated schedule and an average expected points difference of over 0.2. The calculation and its results can change significantly if a player is substituted or injured and Vegas’ estimated total winnings change. For now, though, it’s worth celebrating that Wolves have the opportunity to take advantage of a slight schedule advantage with what is quite possibly the most talented roster in franchise history.
As a product of the power of schedule calculation using estimated Vegas winning totals, the top of the list is full of many teams to expect. The Los Angeles Clippers, Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics are 2nd through 4th on the table. If you do a quick search you will find that at most sportsbooks each of these teams is estimated to be in the top 5 in overall wins, with some variation in the order by site. As a result, all of these teams should logically have one of the “easiest” schedules in the league, as they’re rated as significantly better than most other teams.
Given that Vegas expects the Timberwolves to win between 47.5 and 48.5 games, which puts them 10th or 11th in estimated winnings totals, they’re more of an outlier on the chart. Logic would then follow that rest time and cheap home games, Kupfer’s two other model inputs, play a significant role in elevating Wolves to the top of the simplest schedule, according to his calculations. If that weren’t the case, Wolves would rank closer to the 10th or 11th weakest schedule, below teams expected to win four to seven games more than them. This is good news for Wolves fans. They may have some actual advantages due to their scheduling this season. Therefore, it makes sense to examine how these factors may manifest themselves in Minnesota’s schedule.
On The Crossover NBA Show, Howard Beck interviewed the Schedule Czars, aka three of the key people responsible for creating the NBA schedule, to get an idea of the process behind planning each season. The Czars noted that one of their recent focuses has been reducing the average number of consecutive games each team plays. Beck notes that the average team will play 13.3 consecutive games this season, down from an average of six per team since the 2014-15 season. Overall, this appears to have been a positive move in reducing injury risk and creating more competitive games. Rested teams tend to play better, and they will hear fewer complaints about “planned losses” from fans.
According to Kupfer, however, the wolves are not benefiting from fewer tackles. They have 14 back-to-backs this year, putting them in the top half of the league and just above the 13.3 average.
NBA Head of Basketball Strategy Evan Wasch provided an interesting explanation. “One thing we’ve heard on our relentless crusade to reduce back-to-backs is that by definition you’re also reducing the number of times teams get two or three consecutive days off because the season is just so many days,” he says. Wasch also notes that these extended breaks are “typically when teams are recharging when they’re doing real practice, as opposed to just walkthroughs and shootarounds. And that’s what the teams told us [they] I might not want a schedule of 10 straight days and rarely, if ever, two days off, so I think together we feel we’re at the right level.
Given this feedback from teams, it appears that Wolves could benefit from a slightly above average number of back-to-backs as it means they have longer periods of rest. They have several new players in their roster and could use whatever practice they can get to learn how to get together. As such, one of the most important factors that will benefit their schedule this year could be the number of games Wolves have this season where they have more rest days than their opponents.
Wolves rank 6th on this list with 5 other teams and have played 21 games in which they are more rested than their opponents. In comparison, the Bucks have 19, the Clippers have 18, and the Celtics have just 16. Three teams top the list with 23, while the Knicks are at the bottom with just 13. Also, the Timberwolves will only play 16 games next season against teams with more rest than themselves, which puts them fifth from bottom in the NBA.
One caveat to this calculation is that you believe longer rest periods have a greater impact on team wins than back-to-back games. Wasch and the Czars believe they do, noting that the only thing that has a statistically significant impact on winning probability aside from being the home team is “playing back-to-back if your opponent isn’t playing back-to-back.” This impact is 5%.”
Regardless, it’s difficult to quantify how many wins that 5% and a weak schedule could add to the Timberwolves’ expected overall wins. Still, I’m sure the team will happily accept any advantage they get, no matter how small. The road to a top-four seed in the Western Conference and home field advantage in the first round of the playoffs is about as clear as it might look for now.