I tend to think that we in the media make too much out of the NBA schedule announcement, a frenzy which happens mostly because it comes at a time in the NBA calendar where we're deep in the offseason and desperate for #content to write and talk about.
The truth is, in the NBA the schedule is largely formulaic, and doesn't have nearly as much of an impact on a team's chances as it does in other sports, especially when compared to something like the NFL. Every year* the Philadelphia 76ers play 82 games, with 95% (78 out of 82) of the opponents being predetermined. The Sixers play all 15 Western Conference opponents twice each, then they play 10 of their Eastern Conference opponents four times and the remaining four** in-conference teams thrice each to arrive at the total of 82 games.
(*COVID seasons excluded)
The when and where will change year to year but the who is almost entirely the same. You're just left wondering which of the four in-conference opponents you'll play one time fewer than the rest.
(**For those wondering, the Eastern Conference teams that the Sixers will play only three times this year are the Cavs, Pistons, Heat and Hornets).
I tweeted about this yesterday and took a little bit of (deserved) flak for it, mostly because I did a poor job of explaining what I meant. I don't know when or why, but for some reason being able to convey thoughts in a clear manner became a job requirement for being a reporter. I object to that.
In reality, the snarky (and fleeting) point I was trying to get at wasn't directed at fans who want the information, but more how the league and media have evolved to cover it: the slow drip of leaks in the hours leading up to the full schedule being announced, the instant reactions, the live streams and TV shows and podcasts to break it all down. It all just feels like the league is trying very hard to make a random day in August into an appointment viewing event, when it feels to me like the schedule release warrants something more in the range of a PR release and a couple of "well that's interesting" tweets about scheduling quirks.
So now I'm going to write a newsletter post about the Sixers' schedule and be an absolute hypocrite about it. I'm acknowledging that and owning it. Let's move on and not draw attention to it.
Part of the reason for my about-face is that the "quirk" in the Sixers' schedule is outlier level in its quirkiness, with an absolute gauntlet of tough games to end the season. In fact, the Sixers' final 12 games goes like this: vs Bulls, @Bulls, @Warriors, @Suns, @Nuggets, vs Mavs, vs Raptors, @Bucks, vs Celtics, vs Heat, @Hawks, @Nets.
If you look at the latest FanDuel odds, that includes games against teams with the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 5th, 6th, 8th, 10th and 12th best odds to win the title. The four remaining "easy" games include two against Chicago, one against Atlanta and one against the Raptors, all teams who very well should make the playoffs. In addition to that, it comes during one of the most travel heavy portions of the Sixers' schedule.
Significant caveats apply, of course, and a lot can change between now and next April. Injuries, rest and availability will play a significant factor in how tough the games actually are, and who knows what the eff will happen with the Brooklyn Nets. But that's about as tough of a stretch as you can imagine this far out in advance.
Beyond that, it's a difficult stretch because of how many games the Sixers play over that span: the Sixers play 17 games in the month of March, including four sets of back-to-backs. That packed portion of the schedule comes at a time of the year when the Sixers will be hyper-aware of Embiid's workload (and when he's historically had availability problems), and when the Sixers could be cognizant of managing the workloads for older players in James Harden and Kevin Durant who have had their past few seasons plagued by late-season lower body injuries.
(Just threw that last one in to see if y'all are still paying attention. Just a joke! Probably.)
If that all seems like an absurdly tough stretch, it's because it is. Ed Kupfer, an analyst for the Houston Rockets, did a good job of presenting this in graph form. (I'm embedding the image in this post for ease of us, but it's from a tweet from @EdKupfer. He's a good follow for this kind of visual representation.)
In the image, the schedule is broken down into four time periods (pre-Thanksgiving, Thanksgiving to New Years, New Years to the All-Star break and the All-Star break to the end of the season), with higher numbers indicating an easier strength of schedule and lower numbers being tougher.
By Ed's metrics, the end of the Sixers' season is the toughest stretch of basketball any team will play this season.