The Suns have just completed the first month of the NBA season, and, by most accounts have played better than expected. They are 14-5 and currently in second place in the Pacific Division. Of their 5 losses 3 have come on the second night of back to back games, the most recent of which was in Cleveland on Wednesday night. The Suns have the look of a highly competitive team that is capable of beating the NBA elite if they play their best. The current and ongoing schedule in December is particulary brutal however, and the Suns chief competition in the Pacific Division, the Lakers are currently enjoying a cushy schedule with a heavy dose of home games. This schedule will likely help an already imposing Laker team to continue to win and possibly build a comfortable lead in the Pacific before they hit their heavy stretch of road games. Let's take a look a some of the scheduling peculiarities that seem to favor the group from Los Angeles.
Let's start by looking at the number of so-called "Back To Back" (B2B) games that have been or will be played by both the Phoenix Suns and the Los Angeles Lakers, the two teams that most basketball analysts and pundits would say are going to compete for the Pacific Division title.
While the LAKERS schedule has them playing 20 Back To Back games this season, the Suns are slated to play 21 such games. Of course some of these games have already been played by each respective team, so the total number remaining for each team is smaller.
It is generally accepted among basketball observers that the difficulty associated with the so-called "Back to Back" game is largely due to the a combination of travel and fatigue that would be associated with playing two games on consecutive days. It is not unusual to hear NBA coaches tell post game interviewers that "we had dead legs tonight" or "we couldn't match their energy." This is due in large part to the rigors of travelling; i.e. late night arrivals, less sleep etc. This is frequently the case since all teams play the preponderance of their B2B games on the road rather than at home.
Of the Lakers 20 B2B (again, here we are referring to the SECOND game of the consecutive night contests)games it can be said that 4 are at home and 16 are on the road. Two contests which are scheduled against the Clippers with the Lakers as the so-called "road" team are on the 2nd night of B2B. I am counting these as home games since the Lakers will be sleeping in their own beds and playing in "their" arena. Contrastingly, the Suns have 21 games total on B2B with 7 at home and 14 on the road. This fact seems to favor the Suns. When we look more closely however, we see that the strength of the opponent played seems to drastically favor the Lakers.
Of the Lakers 20 B2B games only 8 are against Playoff Teams from the 2008-9 season. They only play one single B2B game against a Division Winner from last year, and they play zero against a Conference Champ (since they were one it would obviously eliminate one possible opponent). When we look at the Suns however, we see quite a different scenario( one which legitimately gives the Suns brass alot to say to the NBA powers that be and the schedule makers). In contrast to the Lakers the Suns play 12, count them 12 B2B against 2008-9 playoff teams, 5 games against 08-09 Division Winners and 3 B2B against Conference Champions from last season ( two against the Lakers and one against Orlando). In addition, six of the first seven B2B played by the Suns will be versus Playoff Teams from 2008-9. Interestingly, the Suns were beaten badly in the first two of the three B2B against last season's respective Conf. Champions. How much of the lopsided nature of those games was due to fatigue related to B2B can only be speculated on. It is however important to add that playing in a B2B puts one at a psychologcial as well as a physical disadvantage. The fact that so much is written and said about such games being "scheduled losses" is certain to weigh on the minds of the players participating in such games as the team without rest.
It is further of note that as regards the Suns and the Lakers that Phoenix has to play the Lakers TWICE, on THE LAKERS HOME COURT on the second night of B2B, while the Lakers never have to play the Suns when they are toiling under similar conditions. In short, the NBA seems to have provided the Lakers with a competitive advantage by giving them a noticeably easier schedule in their back to back games. The fact that they enjoy such an advantage against their chief competitor (and probably only realistic competitor ) for the Pacific Division crown is even more appalling.
Where am I going with all this you ask? Well, I'll tell you. One need only look at the historical standings in the NBA to see the point. Winning one's division is crucial in determining relative success or lack thereof in the NBA playoffs. Of the last 14 NBA Champions crowned 11 have won their division. In addition, of the last 28 Conference Champions 22 of those teams have won their division. This is a very high percentage as you can see. Unlike the NFL and MLB where slipping in as a wild card can often be advantageous, in the NBA the Division Winners are King. We almost never see a team win the big prize without having won their division. This is why the apparent League bias towards the Lakers is so crucial, so important. None of this of course guarantees the eventual playoff success of the Lakers or any other team, but, the fact that one squad is given such a blatant competitive advantage over a division foe should raise more than a few eyebrows.
Why the Lakers you may ask? The answer is simple : TV dollars. It is well knows that the Lakers represent a ratings windfall when they are in the playoffs and especially in the NBA Finals.This would presumably be a motive for NBA and network power brokers to help them out a bit. The TV contracts are so lucrative that the NBA likes to keep their client/s happy.
You still don't believe? Take a look at the Cleveland Cavaliers schedule of B2B games. They play fewer than the Suns AND the Lakers. The Cavs play only 16 TOTAL B2B this season! And NONE of those games are against Division winners from last season. In fact only 6 of those 16 games are against playoff teams from last year.
Whatever it takes to help out NBA flag bearer King James, apparently. And whatever it takes to help out the glitzy and glamorous King of Ratings: the LA Lakers.
While the likes of the Lakers and Cavs are dining on NBA scheduling caviar the Suns are left with three day old rancid beef.