Note: I am a huge San Antonio Spurs fan. (I went to Wake Forest, alma mater of Tim Duncan, so it was a natural fit!) I have closely followed the franchise and its 20 years of success. I believe one of the many keys to their five championships is an ability to keep the players healthy. I think Gregg Popovich and the Spurs have been way ahead of the curve recognizing and managing the players’ fatigue from months of travel and back-to-back games. I think that this is a problem the NBA should address, so I discussed it in detail for my latest newspaper column.
With 162 regular season games, fans might assume that Major League Baseball has the most demanding schedule. Even with about half that number, I would argue that the NBA’s schedule takes a larger toll on its players than those of the other major professional sports.
NBA teams travel more than teams in other sports
According to a recent article by ESPN’s Tom Haberstroh, citing statistics from NBAsavant.com and BaseballSavant.com, NBA teams travel more miles in a season than do teams in any other sport. The average NBA team flew 44,214 miles last season, compared to MLB teams
flying 29,374 miles on average.
Those travel miles, sleeping on planes and in hotels for months on end, and playing 82 games in roughly 170 days take their toll on the players in two ways.
Basketball performance can suffer due to fatigue
First, the performance of the players suffers. The athletes struggle in the second game of contests played on back-to-back nights, and they often struggle late in games. Haberstroh notes that NBA teams average three points per 100 possessions less in the second game of a back-to-back series.
Maybe even worse for fans, NBA players tend to dunk about 20% less in the fourth quarter compared to the first quarter.
A player’s risk of injury might increase with fatigue
From a sports medicine standpoint, the schedule causes more problems in terms of injuries. Research by ESPN’s Kevin Pelton noted in the article suggests that the number of games missed by NBA All-Star players is almost twice as high now as it was in the 1980s.
Most orthopedic surgeons believe – and research seems to agree – that the more games that athletes play with less rest, the higher the risk of bone, joint and soft tissue injuries.
Rest can help basketball teams
It might not be a coincidence that the two teams with the best records this season are the Golden State Warriors and the San Antonio Spurs. Both teams manage their players’ minutes better than anyone, often having star players sit out in the fourth quarter or giving them nights off altogether.
Potential options to give NBA players more rest
The NBA could explore options to decrease the wear and tear on its players’ bodies. The league could extend the 82-game regular season schedule over a longer period of time. It could shorten the playoffs. It could even group games between opponents together. For instance, San Antonio could travel to Oakland to play its two games against Golden State in one trip – maybe Thursday/Saturday or Friday/Sunday instead of traveling there on two separate occasions. Major League Baseball has grouped games into three- and four-game series for decades.
The length of the NBA regular season
In its defense, the NBA has tried to decrease back-to-back games and the travel teams make each season. One aspect the league doesn’t seem willing to change, though, is the overall number of games. The 82-game schedule has been in place since 1967-68. Currently teams play some opponents in their conference four times – twice at home and twice on the road. They play teams in the opposite conference twice.
The NBA could shorten the regular season by having teams play every opponent only twice each regular season. That would mean fewer games, but it would also lead to fewer tickets sold and fewer games for which networks could sell advertising on TV.
The NBA and the National Basketball Players Association should explore all options to give players more rest. Fans would see more scoring, more dunks and fewer stars sitting on the bench in street clothes. The overall NBA product would improve dramatically.
How do you think the NBA could give players more rest during the season? Or do you think that this isn’t really a problem? Please share your thoughts below!
Note: A modified version of this articles appears as my sports medicine column in the February 18, 2016 issue of The Post and Courier.
The Cruel, Unrelenting, Back-Breaking, Knee-Busting Anti-Logic of the NBA Schedule. By Tom Haberstroh. ESPN.com. February 12, 2016 and ESPN the Magazine. February 29, 2016.