NBA Schedulers are Copying the Playbook of Physician Schedulers

The total number of times NBA teams had 4 games in 5 days decreased from 69 in 2014 to 20 in 2016 according to NBAstuffer. One potential reason for this is the significant change that occurred during September 2014, when the NBA transitioned from hand-built schedules to schedules built by a collaboration of human and software.

For 15+ years, medical staff schedulers have been working with software to create better schedules. This hybrid model of schedule building is able to handle complex scenarios, and the NBA took notice.

In 2015, the Dallas Mavericks were going through a difficult stretch of games and Mark Cuban said the following about 4 games in 5 days: “There’s all kinds of different software ways to [eliminate] it… When you schedule nurses or doctors in a hospital, you have to have it so you can’t work more than X number of hours, X number of days, etc.”

The similarities go beyond patterns like working a certain amount of days in a given stretch. The first part of building a NBA schedule begins by collecting stadium dates availability, whereas physician schedules start by collecting physician vacation dates. Filling in coverage for schedules include TV deals, which is comparable to hospital staffing levels, and opponents matchup requirements, which is comparable to a doctor’s responsibilities in certain areas of the hospital.

The programming currently used to build NBA schedules took 2 years to develop. The NBA copied a few methodologies from the physician scheduling process, but there is room for improvement.

Balance over Time

Reducing difficult stretches of games is a good first step, but there must be an equal distribution of these difficult stretches to each team over the years. If a team benefits one year, it is important to balance them with the following schedule.

According to data gathered from NBAstuffer over a span of five years, the teams with the fewest 4 games in 5 days include Oklahoma City, Utah, and San Antonio, with 5 times each. The teams with the highest count include New York, Portland, Atlanta, Washington, and Milwaukee, all with 12 times or above. The data shows a wide range with higher teams having more than twice the amount of lower teams.

There are also outliers when matching the data with an unfavorable number of back-to-back games over the last five years. Dallas had 6 occurrences of 4 games in 5 days along with 81 back-to-back games, whereas teams like Atlanta and Milwaukee were higher in both areas. Atlanta and Milwaukee had 12 or more occurrences of 4 games in 5 days and 100 or more back-to-back games.

Fairness is a key component in physician schedules. It is important to reduce the range between each physician for things like weekends and holiday shifts. Proper reporting plays a major role in offering transparency, while including historical data in the programming helps with balancing.

Team Preferences

Working 4 games in 5 days can be tough on players, but some hospitalist doctors work 7 days in a row with 12-hour shifts each day!

One unique thing about the hospitalist schedule is the 7 days off in a row after 7 consecutive days on. This type of schedule is more favorable among younger physicians; indeed, physicians in their later stages tend to favor scheduling with more flexibility, like shorter work days in a row.

Controlling resting periods and work days in a row length are common in physician scheduling software. Perhaps younger teams in the NBA like Philadelphia and Portland with an average age of less than 25 can handle a rigorous schedule. Their bodies can handle more games in a row, which allows them to have more days off in a row for things like practice time. The chart below highlights teams like Brooklyn, Detroit, and San Antonio, with longer away or home stretches shown by darkest colors.

Older teams like Cleveland, LA Clippers, and San Antonio, with team average ages of above 29, may elect to have longer road stretches. They could take on shorter resting periods for less consecutive games.

It is possible for schedules to include team preferences into its scheduling building process.

Availability Standards

Steve Ballmer, owner of LA Clippers, was on the Bill Simmons’ podcast recently and described the shortcomings of being the third tenant at Staples Center behind LA Lakers and LA Kings. Staples Center holds many large events on lucrative dates, and the LA Clippers are stuck with dates that are not ideal.

LA Clippers are like residents or first-year physicians; they have the lowest seniority and lowest priority when selecting vacation dates.

When selecting vacation dates, scheduling software will show all vacation requests to the team and can flag limits like the maximum number of doctors off on a given day or the maximum number of a specific group of doctors off on a given day. This type of flagging helps to ensure that areas have enough coverage and reduces scheduling conflicts.

Showing owners each other’s venue block-off dates and flagging requesting restrictions will help owners hold each other accountable. Moreover, better control of dates in the stadium will limit periods where teams play 4 games in 5 days.

Coaches in the NBA copy effective strategies from each other to gain a winning edge, and the same could be said about scheduling.

NBA schedulers and physician schedulers organize the time of highly trained and highly paid professionals. Indeed, making scheduling improvements is about taking control of time to increase the overall experience for fans and patients.

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