NBA Limits Back-to-Backs, Travel in Push to Improve Game Quality

Creating an NBA schedule is complicated. The league takes availability of arenas, team preferences, conversations with network partners and thousands of other variables, and plugs all of them into its own proprietary algorithm to generate potential schedules before yet another round of human input.

To put the complexity in perspective, once they know all the matchups of one team’s 82-game season, there are approximately 10^115 ways they could order those games. That is an unfathomably large total, trillions of times greater than the theoretical number of atoms in the universe (and that’s without taking into account dates or times of the games, or any of the other 29 teams’ schedules).

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Sometimes the league adds new priorities and constraints from the prior year, such as precluding four games in five nights, for example. During the day-to-day of an NBA season, it’s hard to perceive these changes. Over 82 games, however, the differences add up.

In an era with increased focus on rest, the NBA has substantially reduced back-to-backs. Between the 2002-03 and 2014-15 seasons, the average team played just under 20 back-to-backs per 82-game season, or around 24% of all games. In 2018-19, not a single team played more than 15, and the league average was 13.3, meaning the NBA eliminated about a third of its two-in-a-row games in less than half a decade.

The pandemic caused a temporary relapse—during the heavily condensed 2020-21 season, more than 20% of all games on each team’s schedule were back-to-backs. Furthermore, the addition of the play-in tournament removed several days from the regular season, slightly compressing the calendar. Despite these challenges, the frequency of back-to-backs will return to the 2018-19 level in 2022-23. NBA executive vice president of basketball strategy and analytics Evan Wasch says that the league is unlikely to further decrease the number of back-to-backs.

It’s counterintuitive, but the league’s data reveals no relationship between back-to-backs and injury rates. Rather, maximizing rest is primarily about improving the quality of basketball. “You can look at a back-to-back and see reduction in team performance, and our tracking metrics show less energy exerted,” Wasch said.

Interestingly, the league’s war on back-to-backs has led to a trade-off by limiting opportunities for teams to get three or more consecutive days of rest. In 2022-23, teams will have an average of 2.1 such instances, compared to 4.1 in 2013-14 (not counting the season opener and the first game after the All-Star break). Teams use those extended rests to conduct practices, which teams generally don’t do if they have only one day off between games. “We started to hear from teams, ‘Wait a minute, we’re not practicing,’” Wasch said. “So that’s when the conversation shifted towards the quality of the back-to-backs as opposed to the number.”

One measure of improved quality has been a reduction in travel. The average team will travel less than 42,000 miles over the course of the 2022-23 season, a massive change from just five years ago, when the mean was more than 46,000.

Implementing the “series model,” in which two teams play each other in the same arena two games in a row, has helped. The NBA rarely did this before the pandemic, but after logistics forced them to do so in 2020-21 (there were 90 such “series” that year), the league added 23 to the 2021-22 calendar, and there are 55 in 2022-23.

While COVID-19 instigated that innovation, there are three other clear upsides to limiting travel: lower environmental impact, improved player health and fewer expenses. While the financial rewards of cutting travel are roughly proportional to the miles reduction, and a welcome bonus for teams, commuting costs do not make up a large chunk of teams’ expenses. “We’re much more concerned with the product side and the footprint side than the expense reduction,” Wasch said.

Perhaps more significant from a business perspective: the NBA has increased the number of weekend games, which are more lucrative from a ticketing standpoint.

While league-wide improvements benefit everyone, it is also in the league’s interest to remove inequities between individual teams. To that end, the NBA has made strides to reduce instances of rest disadvantage (i.e. games in which one team played the previous day but the other didn’t), cutting out nearly one quarter of such games since 2012-13.

Going forward, the NBA could expand its series model to reap even more travel benefits, depending on how the experiment goes this season in terms of fan interest and gate revenue. “If you ran a Thursday Saturday series, and it’s a high profile matchup—Thursday night on TNT, Saturday night on ABC—you create that narrative,” Wasch said. “If we can see the fan engagement impact and the local business impact, then we could push it even more.”

Teams appreciate not only the increased rest but also the chance to repeatedly gameplan for the same opponent, as one would in the playoffs. A mid-season tournament in 2023-24 would add even more postseason atmosphere to the regular season, but could also make logistics more convoluted. It’s already a miracle that a schedule even gets made, much less one that is satisfactory for players, fair, and improves the bottom line.

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