Like parents with multiple children, the NBA pretends that it treats and cares about all of its teams equally. Anyone with half a brain has noticed, though, that certain teams tend to get promoted much more by the league, tend to be the beneficiaries of questionable or one-sided referee decisions or foul counts in the playoffs, and tend to do much better than you'd expect when they face Mark Cuban’s (the owner who butts heads with league commission David Stern more than anyone) Mavericks in important situations.
There have been all sorts of accusations over the years, the most damning come from ex-referee Tim Donaghy. Some fans claim it’s simply paranoids and haters who think the league is actively trying to help any particular era's glory teams, but with the release of this year’s schedule, the league continued to give those “paranoids” and “haters” more ammunition (prior ammo: NBA has never challenged or sued over any of Donaghy’s published statements, there have been only seven different champions during Stern’s 27 years in charge, the 2006 Finals).
The easiest way the league can show preference during the regular season is in its scheduling of back-to-backs. Teams have to play approximately 20 back-to-backs (a pair of games that occur on consecutive nights) in any one season, and clubs want as few as possible because they put a lot of physical and mental stress on the players who are starting two contests only 24 hours apart. They often come out slow and sloppy in the second contest, plus there is very little time for the coach to prepare his players for the second team.
If the league were to show a preference, you’d think it would be for the Lakers, Heat, Magic, Boston, and Thunder. Well as it turns out, all five just happen to be in the bottom half of the league in terms of the number of back-to-backs they have to play in 2010-11. The Lakers have the least of everyone with only 15. Chicago, Milwaukee, and Atlanta lead the league with 23, a whopping 53% more than the reigning champs.
If I had to take a wild stab at the next couple teams the NBA seems to like, I’d probably say San Antonio and Phoenix. They just happen to be two of the bottom four teams with 18 and 16 back-to-backs, respectively. Here’s the complete list from Basketball Prospectus.
Another caveat the league decided to create this year was the playing of two games in London in early March. The NBA wants to expand its fanbase into Europe in order to make lots of money show the world how fan-tastic this game is. Unfortunately, that means two teams have to fly five hours across the Atlantic, go through customs, play in a back-to-back on March 4 and 5 while probably still feeling jetlag, then do it all over again the other way. Players complain about cross-country flights over three time zones to American cities they’re familiar with, so you can imagine how this type of trip would tax their bodies, which is especially detrimental one month before the end of the season if either team is trying to make a playoff push.
So who is the NBA sending? You’d think two teams with track records of success, stable rosters that could put on a good show, and at least one superstar on each squad to really get the Brits pumped. No, they’re sending the Nets and the Raptors. It’s a giant “fuck you” from the league to both those teams while also doing its best to convert zero Londoners into NBA fans. For the record, the Nets are also playing in the 4th most back-to-backs, with 22 on the schedule (the Raptors are 18th with 19).
Thanks NBA for again making us wonder how consciously you favor certain teams.