On the eve of the Nov. 18 draft, the NBA announced the finalized format for its 2020-21 season.
As has been widely reported, the campaign will open on Dec. 22 and each team will play 72 regular season games. The league also made it official that a play-in tournament will decide the final two playoff seeds in each conference and revealed that its full schedule will be released in two waves.
The first segment of the schedule will be made public “around the start of training camps,” per a release, which is scheduled to open Dec. 1 (preseason play begins Dec. 11). The second segment will come “during the latter part of the First Half portion of the schedule” in case any postponements necessitate scheduling gymnastics.
Vague, and an omnipresent reminder that the season will begin amid a global pandemic and in a country in which COVID-19 cases are spiking by the day.
An All-Star break will split the middle of those two schedule portions from March 5 - 10.
Though the league can still reduce travel by strategically ordering teams’ schedules, each team’s slate won’t be weighted toward geographic neighbors en masse. Each team will play 42 games against teams in their own conference (three per opponent), and 30 games against teams in the opposite conference (two per opponent).
The Bulls will split one home and one road game apiece with each Western Conference foe they face. They’ll host two home games (and travel for one) against the Southeast Division, plus two of their Central Division rivals (Cleveland Cavaliers, Milwaukee Bucks). They’ll travel for two games (and host one) against the Atlantic Division, plus the remaining two teams from the Central Division (Detroit Pistons, Indiana Pacers).
Home-court advantage may matter less than ever this season. But here's how that all breaks down anyway, in table format:
Bulls home/road schedule breakdown
2 Home Games, 1 Road
2 Road Games, 1 Home
1 Home Game, 1 Road
BOS; BKN; PHI; NYK; TOR; CLE; MIL
ATL; CHA; MIA; ORL; WAS; DET; IND
The Western Conference
The order in which those games are played? That will have to wait, as mentioned above, until the start of training camps.
The Bulls didn’t receive any help from the schedule-makers in skewing their schedule toward the Central Division -- and, in turn, the Pistons and Cavaliers, who constituted seven of their 22 wins last season. But their playoff odds do benefit from the implementation of play-in tournaments to decide the Nos. 7 and 8 seeds in each conference.
In this year’s format, after the conclusion of the regular season, the seventh-seeded team in each conference will host the eighth-seeded team in each conference in a playoff game for No. 7. The loser of that contest would then host the winner of a game between the ninth- and tenth-seeded teams -- which the No. 9 seed hosts -- for a single-elimination bout for the final playoff spot.
So the Bulls need to finish the 72-game regular-season slate with the tenth-best winning percentage in the East or better for a chance to snap their three-season playoff drought. We broke down the recent history of the Eastern Conference No. 10 seed -- and the Bulls’ recent performance relative to said standard -- here.
- Dec. 11-19: Preseason
- Dec. 22 – March 4, 2021: First half of regular season
- March 5-10: All-Star break
- March 11 – May 16: Second half of regular season
- May 18-21: Play-In Tournament
- May 22 – July 22: Playoffs
So, uh, what about the pandemic?
The release sent out by the league made no mention of extra coronavirus-related mandates other than alluding to the possibility of postponements throughout the season.
Earlier this month, The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported the NBA sent a memo to teams detailing necessary precautions for allowing a limited capacity of fans into games. Some teams, such as the Oklahoma City Thunder, have issued similar instructions governing their arenas.
Charania also reported that players are due in markets by Nov. 30 at the latest to begin COVID-19 testing in anticipation of December training camps:
No word yet on leaguewide protocol for testing players and team staff, exact procedure if a player tests positive or other health and safety guidelines. Something robust on that front should likely come soon -- if it’s not circulating privately already -- with the 2020 offseason well underway and training camps fast approaching.