This task became even more difficult this year, with the league seeking to reduce instances of teams playing on back-to-back nights, or having stretches of four games in five nights. Basically, it’s impossible to achieve perfection on all of these competing priorities, but this season’s slate of games represents some remarkable achievements.
Total travel has been cut significantly, with some estimating miles flown in 2015-16 will be 82 percent of the amount seen in 2014-15.
The schedule pileup has also been cut significantly; stretches four-games-in-five down to only 27 total from 70 a season ago, while there are also 45 fewer back-to-backs.
Further, as NBA.com’s Sekou Smith notes, the schedule has cut down on the travel involved prior to those back-to-backs which remain:
- “Long distance” back-to-back games have been reduced by 25 percent, from 111 last season to 84 this season.
- Back-to-backs that cross a time zone have been reduced by 18 percent, from 194 last season to 160 this season.
(Based on my conversation with NBA Director of Basketball Analytics Jason Rosenfeld as well as the emphasis placed on their reduction, it seems clear the NBA’s internal data has revealed that travel which crosses time zones — presumably more so going west-to-east — is particularly damaging in terms of fatigue.)
That’s all good. However, given the obstacles, it could never be perfectly fair. Some teams will have small built-in advantages over others. Some of this is geographic — it’s hard for Portland to not be one of the leading teams in terms of total travel. Moreover, teams might rise and fall in our estimation based on hitting easier or harder patches in their schedules.
The following chart illustrates a month-by-month estimate of strength of schedule for all 30 teams:
These strength of schedule estimates are taken from 2014-15 expected records based on point differential (a slightly more accurate measure of team strength in the regular season than simple W-L, thanks to Jared Dubin for some of the legwork). By this method, some trends become apparent.
New Orleans faces the toughest set of October/November opponents but their closing stretch in April is the easiest of any team all season. Memphis starts with the second hardest schedule and ends with the most difficult month of any team all season. Should Atlanta fade in the second half of the season, it might have as much to do with them playing one of the easiest schedules before the all-star break and one of the hardest after.
The above chart isn’t adjusted for things such as fatigue or differentials in rest. Some initial research by Adam Yudelman indicates teams playing on the second night of back-to-backs face significant disadvantages in terms of their ability to get good shots, whereas teams which have had three full days off are at an advantage. Interestingly, that study did not show a marked difference, on average, between performances with one and two days of rest, even though their might be in the case of certain players (such as Derrick Rose).
So which teams have the most games where they have a possible rest advantage?
Categorizing “an advantage” as a situation where a team is either playing against an opponent on the second night of a back-to-back while not also playing on consecutive nights themselves, or having three days of rest while the opponent doesn’t, the average team has an edge in 14.3 games in 2015-16. Obviously, the average team is at a disadvantage in a similar number. However, only two teams (the Bucks and Wizards) have identical “for and against” games under these conditions. Here are the 10 teams with imbalances of four or more games:
In terms of total number of contests where one team or the other has a rest advantage, 36 of Phoenix’s games fall into this category, more than any other team. Meanwhile, only 18 of Charlotte’s games have this feature. The Knicks have the biggest net advantage at seven games.
There are also 30 encounters where one team is playing on a back-to-back while the other has had three or more days off. Both the Lakers and Sacramento benefit from three of these situations, while being on the opposite side of none. Meanwhile, the poor Timberwolves are the only team who get the short end of that particular stick twice while not also benefiting from it at least once.
One of these two games might include the single largest scheduling advantage held by any team in any game this coming season. On Dec. 16, Minnesota plays their fourth game in six nights, on the second half of a back-to-back (the first game being a home contest against Denver) against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden. Meanwhile, the Knicks will have had three full days off before that contest.
In fact, the middle of December for the Wolves looks soul-crushing. Over 11 days (Dec. 11- 21), Minnesota plays seven games, traveling for each of them. Over that stretch, their travel takes them to Denver, Phoenix, Minneapolis, New York, Minneapolis, Brooklyn and Boston. So while progress has certainly been made, there is still room for further improvements.