How to build the NBA schedule

If you're the kind of person who thoroughly enjoyed the process of figuring out the seating chart for your wedding or loves to take LSAT diagnostic tests just for kicks, Matt Winick has the world's greatest job.

But if the mere sight of a Sudoku puzzle gets you queazy, you probably think Winick is a masochist.

That's because in his role as senior vice president of scheduling and game operations for the NBA, Winick is in charge of making the NBA schedule.

Everyone loves to complain about the schedule -- coaches, fans, players. But there's a smart explanation for why your team travels to Milwaukee, but somehow can't get to Chicago during the same trip. And there's a good reason why your team plays only three times at home during the month of February. Winick has looked into it. He has spent weeks asking himself these questions. And now he answers ours:

Where do you even start? Is there some sort of template for how to do this?

You start by getting dates from the various arenas. There's a certain number of dates that each arena must provide. That's your starting point.

What's your next building block from that?

The games against the other conference, because they normally involve long road trips. You look for gaps in the home schedule when the building is not available and you try to schedule the longer road trips during that time when the team can't play at home. So if a team from the east is going to be out of their building for 8-10 days, you look to send them west.

So circuses, rodeos, conventions --

Whatever it is, and it doesn't really concern me what it is. As long as the team provides the required number of dates, it doesn't matter.

Do teams get to offer any input or make any specific requests?

They're allowed three priority dates -- dates when they'd like to play at home. They have no input as to who their opponent would be, but they get three priority options. Teams use them for various reasons. Some for competitive reasons. Some for marketing reasons. In some situations, maybe they need a Friday or Saturday in a certain time of the year because they know they can do a big group business, or there's a big convention coming into town and they think they can partner with that organization and sell a large number of tickets.

How much has technology changed this job? Is there software that does most of it? Is there a group of you sitting around a conference table in New York during early August with pizza boxes everywhere?

The group is me.

You are the group?

I am the group. There's a computer program I work with that helps. But basically it's me -- and the computer prevents me from doing stupid things.

You must love this job, right? You've been doing in for 25 years. From a personal standpoint, does it appeal to a certain sense of order?

Relief is probably the best word. It's a great feeling of accomplishment once it's completed. There are some bumps in the road, but once it gets done it's a great feeling.

Like anybody who has done a job for a quarter of a century, you've gotten better as you've learned --

I'm not sure about that. I think there are different issues every year. No two years are the same. As much as you might think experience helps, it might help in certain areas, but there are always new issues and you have to work through them.

But you must've picked up shortcuts that have made the process easier, right?

Nothing is easy. The computer program is great. It puts everything together in an orderly way and makes it as easy as possible, but there are no easy schedules. And I'm not just talking about the NBA. I'm talking about football, baseball, hockey. We all have issues. They might not be the same issues, but we all have them.

Come on, the NFL schedule must be child's play compared to what you have to deal with?

No it's not. It seems very easy but it's not. Everyone has something -- a team is going to complain about or the network is going to complain about. Somebody will complain.

We always hear about the "four games in five nights" and back-to-backs. Are there certain limitations or considerations you take into account?

This year, for instance, we had an outer limit of 23 back-to-backs and four "four out of fives." At some points during the process, there were teams with more than that. You look at those things and you correct them before the schedule is final. "Oh, this team has 25 back-to-backs? We can't go with this. We have to find a way to get them down."

Are those numbers the league furnishes you with?

No. They're numbers that, based on user experience, we don't think we can get any lower, based on everything else that is involved in the schedule. You're playing 82 games and the season is 171 days. You take out the All-Star break. You take out some other days. You have to play back-to-back games -- there's no other way around it.

Does a relatively new advent like the Thursday doubleheader make the process easier or harder?

Depends what team you are. If you're playing the Thursday night, it might help your schedule a little bit because it spreads out the games over more days during the week. If you're not a team that would normally play on Thursday night, it cuts down one day into your schedule and might lead to more condensed scheduling on the other days and therefore more back-to-back games.

As far as scheduling teams for those Thursday night games, you don't make that determination do you?

We discuss that with our broadcast partners and come up with a schedule.

What are some of the funnier or more absurd complaints you've gotten about the schedule?

I don't consider any complaint funny.

Normally, somewhere around January, some coach will blame the schedule for having a rough streak of games and will wonder why they played x number of games in that stretch on the road. They'll say that not knowing the building was not available and they couldn't play at home. It comes with the territory.

There have to be aggravating parts of this exercise --

You send a team to Golden State on a trip, yet they can't go to Sacramento. You have to send them on another trip when they go to Sacramento and people say, "Why?" Well, the two times they were going west, Golden State wasn't available one time and Sacramento wasn't available the other. You'd like to schedule orderly trips as much as you can, but if the buildings aren't available, they aren't available. In Los Angeles, this coming season, the Lakers have four games at home in February and the Clippers have two. Well, the Grammies are in Staples Center for 10 days followed by a week when the building is unavailable because of the NBA All-Star Game. If teams can't play at home, they have to play on the road.

Is your background in math or statistics?

I was a statistician for the Mets in the early years, but I have a degree in accounting.

How long do you see yourself doing this?

As long as they'll have me do it. There are not a whole lot of people who may be able to do it. When I started this -- whatever year it was, it was the early 80s I guess -- Scottie Stirling was my boss at the time. He was the vice president of operations at the NBA. He said, "Matt, I want you to do the schedule. We'll provide the program," the program that has assisted me to a great extent. And I said, "Why would I want to do that?" And he said. "Think about it. You'll have a lifetime job." I said, "What do you mean I'll have a lifetime job?" He said, "You'll have a job nobody else will want."

I guess I have a job nobody else wants.