I've been hearing the chatter lately about the length of the NBA season and how the number of back-to-back games within each season, are too hard on player's bodies. As an 18-year NBA veteran and lifelong fan of the game, this chatter coupled with my experience as a player and fan, gave me the opportunity to explore and share my perspective with you. I hope it helps in bringing greater clarity to the dilemma in addressing player fatigue and productivity while still giving the fans what they want.
Before we get into the heart of this blog, let's get something out of the way... Yes! I’ll say it for you….”NBA players are paid unimaginable amounts of money while being blessed to play a game that they love as their job.” BUT the truth is, they deserve every penny of it. They're entertainers and they are blessed to have chosen a profession that is in high demand. High Demand equals Higher Pay. That goes for any area of skilled or professional labor and the NBA is no different. NBA Basketball is a lucrative business and the owners as well as the players are receiving the financial benefits from it. With gratitude to all the fans that support and love the game, both players and owners live a fruitful lifestyle that pushes them to give love back to the fans through superior effort, dynamic plays and winning seasons. It all goes hand in hand. So again I’ll say, yes the amount of money paid is high but the players earn every penny.
Now that that's out of the way... let's talk back-to-back games in the NBA. Below are my thoughts on:
How it affects the product on the floor – meaning the players and how their bodies are able to produce.
Whether or Not Back-to-Back (B2B’s) need to be changed.
If any changes are made, which changes need to be made.
How it feels to play in a back-to-back set of games.
So let’s begin….
The last few seasons we have seen a rise in Did Not Play – Rest (DNP-rest) in the NBA. Some fans have been the victims of purchasing tickets to see their favorite player play just to find out he's not going to play that night due to the wear and tear that occurs on his body because of the grueling NBA schedule. Listen, being a fan of the game and being on the other side in the “stands” now, it also pisses me off not having the chance to see certain match-ups during the regular season. But since I have spent over 18 years of my life experiencing the exhaustion of a 82 game NBA season, I understand needing a DNP-rest. When I was playing there was always this sense of accomplishment felt and recognizable grit needed to get thru an 82 game season without missing a game due to injury or fatigue. Seeing that today's athlete is noticeably bigger, stronger, more flexible, faster and privy to all the new science and information out there on recovery and training... It makes you ask the valid question why can't today's athletes handle it while their predecessors did? No one knows the exact answer to this question. However, today's medical staff and technology does support the hypothesis that players are more prone to injury due to lack of the proper rest, recovery and diet while maintaining their intense physical lifestyle. Or playing devils advocate, maybe the new DNP-Rest is a product of teams protecting their investments with the way salaries are increasing. It makes more sense to sacrifice the possibility of a game here and there to increase the chances of having a healthy, recovered and energized player in the latter part of the season and heading into the playoffs. But that's the team and front office perspective.
Looking back I wish I would have sat out a game here and there just to give my body rest. I still can't believe the string of games I played when I had to have an equipment manager tie my shoe because my back was in such bad shape that I physically couldn't touch my shins smh (That was all my bad decisions. We were in the hunt for a playoff position and I didn't want to let my teammates down, so I pushed my body far beyond its breaking point). Given the circumstances, even now, I wouldn't change a thing. This supports the fact that sometimes players need to be saved from themselves and sat for a DNP-rest by their coaching staff. With public opinion being that it shows toughness to play through injuries and players wanting to be known as tough, intervention is necessary. But how much and how that’s done is the big question. The truth is that the NBA schedule is grueling and that anything that can be done to put its best product on the floor while giving the fans an unforgettable experience should be looked at and examined.
Options for Eliminating B2B’s
I do realize that it's impossible to eliminate all back-to-backs due to arena availability. One option would be to extend the length of the season by eliminating some preseason games, which though I’m mentioning it, I definitely don't want to see happen. I'm cool with cutting the preseason to 4-5 games but be aware that anything less than that won't give coaches enough time to implement their systems, style of play or get the players in game condition. I think anything less would cause an increase in injuries. Remember, with most professional sports, it takes time to get your body conditioned for the fast pace of a season, specifically the NBA season. There's a huge difference in pace between off-season training and NBA games.
The length of the season is perfect as is. It gave me a good mix of work, preparation for the season and family time for decompression. During the season most players are walking zombies existing in 1 of 3 modes: 1. Game Day Mode, 2. Practice Day Mode or 3. Preparation for the Next Game Mode - which likely is less than 24 hours away. Another option would be to shorten the length of the season, which most players don't understand also computes to less money. The amount of our TV deal is one of the biggest reasons why salaries continue to rise. NBA games fill hours of programming for networks because fans demand it. The TV networks give their subscribers hours of basketball entertainment. Companies buy commercial slots and ads from networks during those game times and that allows them to pay the NBA billions of dollars for TV rights. This money is eventually put into a pot with other revenue and divided between players and owners. Now take away some expenses - charter flights, hotels, coaches, etc. and there you have it - a soft NBA salary cap that allows players to EARN millions of dollars. So less games means less programming. Less programming means less advertising opportunities for companies and disgruntled TV subscribers. Less advertising dollars equals less money from TV deals. Less money from TV deal means less money for the NBA as a whole and a smaller piece of the pie for the players. So for those players who say they want less games get prepared for a pay cut.
As a player, I hated back-to-backs. There just wasn't enough time to be fully recovered from the night before. I guess that's what makes us professionals or at least what comes with the territory. We had to be able to perform on the biggest stage at the highest level regardless of how good or bad we felt. There were nights when I got dressed for the game and really didn't know how I was going to make it thru the game. Yet, there were other nights when I felt the exact same way and ended up playing a great game. I guess you really never knew what to expect. The crazy part of this duality is that I went through a stretch where I played horrible on the 1st night of back-to-backs and great on the 2nd night. That made absolutely no sense at all to me at the time. I've actually chalked that up to anxiety and looking too far ahead trying to pace myself for both games instead of attacking them one at a time.
I've done a little research on the effect of back-to-back NBA games on a teams wins and losses. What I found out was quite surprising. The truth is that B2B’s have little to no effect on the outcome of the game (winning percentage is a few percentage points lower in B2B's). Past statistics have shown that the road team roughly has a 40 percent chance of winning in NBA games. Most NBA back-to-backs are Road/Road games. Next is home/road, road/home and then there's the almost never home/home back-to-backs. So the real question isn't if it's effecting the outcome of the game. The real question is are the fans seeing the best possible basketball the NBA can offer. The answer to that is "no!" If eliminating B2B’s aren't about wins/losses then the real concern has to be about resting the stars and putting them in position to play healthy in all games. I can definitely understand that because for the most part those are the players that fill the seats.
Back to Back Games % of Occurrence
Fans Matter Too!
The NBA is a star driven league with fans coming to see those stars perform. Some fans don't really have teams nowadays. They just have players that they follow because they either really like them or really hate them. Regardless of their like or dislike they pay money to see them play. The schedule has changed the fans ability to know without a doubt whether an injury free player will be suiting up or not. This trickles all the way up to the TV networks. As a fan there is nothing worse than waiting on a marquee matchup between players or teams and your favorite player or key contributor is sitting out due to rest. I hate when the schedule has the home team waiting for the road team that just played in a hard fought overtime game the night before. As players we don't care about an opponent's schedule because at some point we know we will have the short end of the scheduling stick but as a fan I'm pissed when that happens. Statistics show that fans have nothing to worry about when it comes to the stars they come to see play on the 2nd night of back-to-backs when it comes to production. Most of the NBA's elite who fill seats perform at equal to higher levels on the 2nd night of a back-to-back.
Top Player Performances in 2nd Night of B2Bs:
Russell Westbrook averages a triple double
5 Games – 26.6 ppg, 10.8 apg, 11.4 rpg
DeMarcus Cousins: 32 ppg, 14.8 rpg in 4 games
DeMar DeRozan 29.3 ppg in 3 games
Isaiah Thomas 27.8 ppg in 5 games
Kevin Durant 26.5 ppg in 4 games
Steph Curry 25.0 ppg in 4 games
Damian Lillard 25 ppg in 3 games
So the real problem when addressing limiting back-to-backs is really the DNP-Rest that has plagued the league in recent years. An accumulation of DNP-Rest over a season might prevent players from injuries caused by overuse. The body was not designed to do the things athletes do on the court and field these days, especially with the frequency and volume of an NBA season. The only thing that can be done is try to increase the opportunity to recover and put them in the best possible environment to make that happen. After all, the show must go on. It's a blessing to play a game that you love and there are sacrifices you make for that type of living. Despite this dialogue, I want to be clear, I would do it all over again even if we played back-to-back-to-backs every night. I was passionate about being the best player I could be and 99.9% of those in the NBA feel the same. They will do whatever it takes, but at what cost to their physical bodies after their time as a professional is over…but that’s another blog post for another time.
My Personal Experience and Opinion
I have lived through arriving at hotels at 2-3am on the 1st night of a back-to-back. Getting to my room still wide awake from the adrenaline of the game, the long bus ride, the flight, another bus ride to a hotel, waiting on the Bellman to find your bag amongst the 100 bags that teams travel with – is overwhelming just to think about. All happening while I’m starving because the plane food wasn't up to par or to my expectations. I usually wouldn’t fall asleep until 5am after ordering room service and watching a movie to settle down so that I didn’t toss and turn all night. Only to wake up at 11am for a mandatory brunch, film session and treatment. I would be left with enough time to take a short nap then head back to the gym to get prepared for the next game. And this experience of exhaustion is coming from a guy who never averaged over 30 minutes a game. I can only imagine how other players felt and especially those who participated in extracurricular activities (LOL). With that being said, I definitely understand the want for an end to back-to-backs, but I just don't like the alternatives. So, I thought of a few of my own.
2nd Night Back to Backs, 2016-2017 Season thus far
Some Top Team Records:
Some Bottom Team Records:
Other Notable Team Records:
Cavs 1-2 (LeBron DNP Rest in one of them)
Since we can't get rid of all back-to-backs because of arena availability issues unless we extend the season, then why don't we just tweak the parameters in which they're allowed. The real problems have always been the road/road B2B’s and the home/road B2B’s. I would love to see more home/home B2B’s which account for only 2.5 percent of all B2B. Not having to travel after a game and getting the opportunity to sleep in your own bed will enable players the opportunity to start the recovery process a lot sooner after games. On most road/home back-to-backs most coaches cancel shoot around and meetings to allow players extra rest. If this practice was continued in a home/home format, then players would have the opportunity to be as rested as possible in these situations. With most 7pm games ending around 9:30m, this gives players from 10pm until about 4pm the next day before they have return to the arena. This also allows about 21 hrs from the end of 1 game to the next. It's not perfect but it will definitely help their performance on the court and give them enough time to hydrate and recover in an environment that is optimal for playing their best given the circumstances. It also evens the playing field in the sense that home teams win close to 60 percent of NBA games. A home team that played the night before vs a fresh road team sounds like a 50/50 chance of winning for both teams and a helluva competitive game (Nazr math lol). Now let's talk about the road/home back-to-back. The road/home back-to-back is a tough one. Statistics tells us that the home team on the 2nd night of a back-to-back coming from the road wins 60 percent of the time. That's a staggering stat and supports my thinking about how important it is to sleep in your own bed and recover in a comfortable environment. So why don't we leave this type of back-to-back alone. Last but not least is the road/road back-to-back... This type of back-to-back is unavoidable when teams take long road trips to play teams in the opposite conference. But I would still like to see road/road back-to-back tweaked to even the playing field and provide a better product for fans. My thoughts on tweaking this is to move the time of games on the 1st night of a back-to-back to late afternoon/early evening games to account for travel times and distances when scheduling. I'm not saying all back-to-backs have to be done my way but those extra few hours do wonders for athletes getting ready to perform. I still expect to see a few of today's traditional back-to-backs on the NBA schedule but using some of these methods might help when scheduling. A rested athlete is a better performer and provides a better product to the fans. The fans are a big reason why we're able to play a game as a means to support our families. So anything we can do to give them better entertainment of our competition is worth looking at.
Back to Back Games Win %
I don't want to let coaches completely off the hook either. Coaches need to develop their benches. There are 13 players available each night on their roster. If these players at the end of benches are developed and used then they will be ready and willing when their number is called. Give them a shot and the few back-to-backs that are on the schedule won't be a problem. Then hopefully we won't see any more of those DNP-Rest. This is just my two cents from 18 years of experience.