Sunday, January 11, 2009

A Look at Back-to-Backs

I was talking with a team exec recently who mentioned he thought his team had played an unusual number of back-to-backs already this year. We both wondered whether the league spread out the back-to-backs equally among all 30 teams. But I also wondered something else: does the league try to make sure a team playing the second game of a back-to-back faces an opponent who also played the night before? 

I compiled the numbers for the Eastern Conference and found this:

TEAM                # Back-to-Backs         Opponent Also in 2nd Game 
Boston                           17                             8
New Jersey                   22                             13
Philly                            21                            10
Raptors                         16                                6
Knicks                          18                             6
Bulls                              22                               11
Cleveland                     19                             6
Detroit                        16                             4
Indy                             21                             9
Milwaukee                  22                            10
Atlanta                        22                             11
Charlotte                     21                            12
Miami                          19                            6
Orlando                       16                             7

So every team has between 16 and 22 back-to-backs. In an 82 game season, having six more back-to-backs than another team in your conference probably makes a slight difference in playoff odds. A couple of larger studies of back-to-backs (including this one Mark Cuban got Elias to do and a shorter-term look from NBC Sports last year) have confirmed what coaches, GMs and fans already know: teams struggle on the second end of back-to-backs. Both studies found NBA teams win that game about 43 percent of the time (an average league-wide win percentage would be 50 percent). 

Great quote from our fave NBA analyst JVG in that story, by the way: "I think the back-to-back thing is the most overblown excuse in the NBA. Why should games on consecutive nights be a problem? Because the other team's more rested? That's no excuse." I wonder if he really believes this. 

The fatigue disadvantage disappears, though, if a team's opponent is also on the second game of a back-to-back. In general, it looks like the league tries its best to make sure that's the case about half the time. I assume that's part of the scheduling equation, anyway.  But, because scheduling is an impossibly complicated task, there are some variations. Detroit has only 16 back-to-backs, which has to be nice for the aging legs on that team. But only four of those back end games come against teams who also played the night before. That's a big disadvantage. New Jersey, on the other hand, has a conference-high 22 back-to-backs but plays a similarly tuckered out opponent 13 times. The Knicks and Cavs both look to have rougher b-to-b schedules, which is just fine with us C's fans. 

As is inevitable, there are other scheduling quirks. The Bucks had played eight back-to-backs before the calendar even hit December, by far the most in the Eastern Conference. My beloved C's, meanwhile, may have the friendliest b-to-b schedule in the conference--just 17 total, with 8 back end games against teams in the same situation. They also had gone through six b-to-b's by mid-December and have only one after March 21. Perhaps this team might be well-rested for the playoffs after all...assuming they're not tanking


  1. "(an average league-wide win percentage would be 50 percent)." Duly noted.

  2. Well, I have to assume some people didn't take Math for Animals.