Much of the first half of this season has been defined by parity.
A more level playing field is undoubtedly a good thing for a league where more than half the teams make the playoffs, but this level of balance is far from the norm.
It's strange to look up and see 12 teams within four games of .500 this far into the season. On average over the past six years, just under eight teams were in that range through 36 games. Last year, the number was only two.
The NBA's middle class has been reinvigorated. There is certainly still a crop of elite teams, as well as those assuredly headed to the lottery, but the middle of the league is deeper than it has been in years.
That trend can be connected back to the quirks in this year's schedule.
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The late December start, continued health and safety precautions, as well as the desire to start next season on time, have all pushed the league to tweak a traditional schedule to fit this year's unique parameters. So much of the NBA's usual day-to-day had to be altered for this season. Amongst all those changes, the domino effects from three scheduling quirks stand out: back-to-backs, "sets" and homecourt advantage.
Back-to-backs are obviously not a new phenomenon in the NBA, but the league's desire to build more rest into the structure of the regular season saw their number plummet over the last few years. This season, the league had no choice but to bring them back in full force.
There have already been 193 back-to-backs this season, an average of almost 6.5 per team. That means at least one team has been on the second end of a back-to-back for over 18 percent of all games this season.
The first notable trend is that the bottom of the league has played more than their share of back-to-backs. The nine teams sitting at least five games below .500 have played 7.0 back-to-backs on average compared to 6.2 for the rest of the league. That isn't to say that the extra game is why those teams have struggled, only to point out that so far they have gotten the short end of the stick.
The more relevant trend is how teams have fared in those games. The league-wide winning percentage in the second game of a back-to-back is 45.1 percent. The 12 teams within four games of .500 are just 30-47 (38.9 percent) in those games. That's an extremely poor number and only marginally better than the 34.9 percent won by teams at least five games below .500.
It's fair to say that back-to-backs have been an inflection point for many teams. It feels obvious, but teams that played well in the second leg of back-to-backs have largely over-performed their preseason expectations while those who have struggled in those games have generally underperformed.
Boston is a great example, as its 5-11 stretch over most of February directly overlapped with a period where it went 0-4 in back-to-backs. Similarly, Toronto's struggles can be at least partially traced back to its 1-6 record in back-to-backs.
On the flip side, Phoenix has gone an incredible 7-1 in the second leg of back-to-backs with its lone loss coming in double-overtime. The Suns have had an outstanding season in almost every capacity, but their success in those eight games is a key reason why they've been able to separate from the middle of the league and join the league's elite.
The next area of focus is sets, or the term I'm using for when a team plays the same opponent twice in a row, though not necessarily on back-to-back nights.
Like back-to-backs, sets are not a new creation but emphasis on reduced travel has made them far more common this season. So far, 21.2 percent of all games this year have come as part of a set.
In theory, sets shouldn't hold much of an impact on results. Each leg should act independently of the other and, in practice, that's mostly what we've seen. So far, 51.3 percent of all sets have finished split, with both teams winning one of two games.
That trend only holds true on a league-wide scale, though. Looking closer at how different sections of the standings have performed in sets provides some interesting results.
Teams within four games of .500 have won 45.0 percent of their set games, a number not too distant from their overall win rate of 49.7 percent. However, that 45.0 percent is far closer to the 36.7 percent won by teams solidly below .500 than the 72.4 percent won by teams solidly above .500.
In other words, sets have been another pretty clear way for the league's elite to separate themselves from the pack. When you consider that sets are the closest thing we get to the structure of a playoff series during the regular season, the disproportionate success of those good teams makes sense.
The final aspect to examine is how attendance restrictions have impacted homecourt advantage. As you'd likely expect, the boost from playing at home this season is dramatically diminished from years past. Home teams have won just 53.4 percent of the time this season, down from 72.3 percent in the 2018-19 season.
Again, this only holds true on a league-wide scale. Health and safety protocols have not lowered the elevation in Salt Lake City, and the Jazz have used that to their advantage to jump out to the best home record in the league. The Nuggets, interestingly enough, haven't had the same elevation-related success and have actually been worse in Denver (9-9) than on the road (12-6).
As we look past the All-Star Break, the league appears to be heading towards a more typical schedule. The second half of the season will feature fewer scheduled back-to-backs and sets, though both are always subject to increase given the possibility of postponements and make-ups. Additionally, as more and more fans return to arenas, we may start to see homecourt advantage become a real factor once again.
Ultimately, it's impossible to say for sure if any of these quirks have had a definitive impact on these teams. The correlation is certainly there for some, but causation may be a step too far. Either way, any small step back towards normalcy is a fantastic thing for the NBA.
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