How the NBA fell backward into a darn-near perfect opening week of games
There’s no way the NBA could have predicted its opening schedule would work out this well.
It’s a project seven months in the making. It started in January, before the 2016-17 season had even reached All-Star Weekend, with the league’s schedule makers making calls and crunching numbers, getting ready to build the grid for the following season, the one that opens Tuesday with an Eastern Conference finals rematch between the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena in Ohio.
There are consultations about rest and discussions of arena availability and peeks back at the previous year’s schedule. Analytics are employed. There is give and take between the league office and each team. Adjustment after adjustment is made until finally, a finished product comes into focus in the later stages of the summer. A few days later, that final product gets released to the public. This year, that release came on Aug. 14.
“Opening night, that’s a tentpole,” said Tom Carelli, the NBA’s senior vice president of broadcasting, in a phone interview. “Especially as it relates to the biggest story lines of the offseason. There’s a tradition where the champs get their rings, so that means Golden State is playing. And then you crunch [numbers]. Who else should we put on opening night? We put Cleveland there and eight days later, we look like geniuses.”
The genius part comes from an unexpected turn of fortune — two massive trades that ratcheted up interest in not just the league itself, but the opening week schedule. In both cases, the star players being exchanged would face their former franchises in their first game with their new teams. The league couldn’t have planned it better if they tried.
On Aug. 22, just over a week after the schedule’s release, the Celtics and Cavaliers made a monster deal, headlined by the swap of point guards Kyrie Irving and Isaiah Thomas. A month later, on the eve of training camp, another blockbuster trade went down when the New York Knicks finally parted ways with Carmelo Anthony, sending him to Oklahoma City to join Russell Westbrook and Paul George on the Thunder.
The teams that participated in each deal were all slated to face off on national television during the league’s opening week. First, the Cavs and Celtics will clash in an Eastern Conference finals rematch to kick off the season on TNT opening night. And then, rather amazingly, the Knicks will visit the Thunder Thursday, also on TNT.
After all of that hard work and exhaustive planning, the NBA was enveloped by a tidal wave powered by almost unthinkable luck, and fell into one of most highly anticipated opening week television slates in recent memory.
“It was kind of amazing how that laid out after we’d worked to create the schedule,” said Carelli, who has been with the league for 27 years and was promoted to his current position in 2008.
Interest in the start of the regular season was already high before the twin lightning bolts of the Cavs-Celtics and Knicks-Thunder trades. Opening week will also feature a handful of other nationally televised matchups built for maximum intrigue and entertainment.
The defending champion Warriors will indeed get their rings before squaring off against a top Western Conference challenger, the new-look Houston Rockets, in the second half of the opening night doubleheader on TNT. The Washington Wizards, just a game away from the conference finals last season, kick off the season’s ESPN on Wednesday night with a visit from the Philadelphia 76ers, now at the stage of “The Process” that has some believing they’re a playoff contender. Adding to that matchup is the debut of Markelle Fultz, the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s draft, who will be playing his first NBA game just a few minutes from where he grew up in Prince George’s County.
Following Sixers-Wizards on ESPN is Spurs-Timberwolves, featuring the Minnesota debut of its all-star trade acquisition, Jimmy Butler. And on Thursday night, back on TNT, the battle of Los Angeles reignites when much-hyped No. 2 overall pick Lonzo Ball makes his Lakers debut against the Clippers, playing their first game without Chris Paul.
Carelli noted that each of the league’s national broadcast partners, Turner Sports and Disney — parent company of ESPN and ABC — has its own tent poles, with opening week the common denominator.
“You look at opening week and you ask, ‘What’s going to be intriguing that people will want to see?’ ” he said. “You hope then that you’re attracting more casual fans who would say, ‘Oh my, I need to see this.’ We’re very fortunate it worked out so well.”
This year’s schedule looks different from past editions due to an extra week of games, resulting in an earlier than usual opening week. The league looked for ways to cut down on the number of back-to-backs on each team’s docket — the third consecutive year of that downward trend — as well as eliminate four games in five nights scenarios.
Carelli said opening week setting the tone for the season is what matters most. And two trades gave his team a boost in that department.
“I look at it in terms of the totality of the season,” he said. “[After this week], it’s followed by the rest of the season. We’ve done a lot to focus on rest and health. There are great matchups throughout and I’m excited. We’re looking at 1,230 games and asking, ‘Did we do the best we can?’ If that’s my barometer, we can say we did that.”