Last week the Sacramento Kings found themselves bruised and battered and--much worse--back-to-backed. Trying to keep pace with the San Antonio Spurs, Phoenix Suns and Seattle SuperSonics in the Western Conference, the Kings were in desperate need of a few days off to ease the sore left knee of power forward Chris Webber, the aching back of small forward Peja Stojakovic, the cranky right ankle of point guard Mike Bibby and the entire corpus of shooting guard Cuttino Mobley (back, ribs, groin, ankle). And if they couldn't get rest, then they at least needed time for a decent practice to search for cohesion with so many players going in and out of the lineup.
Instead, Sacramento was playing four games in five nights, bunched in two-game clusters known as back-to-backs, a torture endemic to the NBA. "Other than defending the pick-and-roll," says reigning MVP Kevin Garnett of the Minnesota Timberwolves, "back-to-backs are the most difficult thing in this league."
The Kings lost at home to the Sonics 106--101 on Feb. 1, then beat the Warriors 111-107 the following night in Oakland. After a day off they needed a combined 75 points from Bibby and center Brad Miller to squeak by the New York Knicks 116-115 in the friendly confines of Arco Arena; some 21 hours later, last Saturday night, they succumbed to the inferior Trail Blazers 114-108 in Portland.
The Blazers themselves were playing their fourth game in five nights, having beaten the expansion Charlotte Bobcats 101-89 at home on Friday night. But there are degrees of toughness in back-to-backs (chart, page 54), and Sacramento's home-then-road combination is the toughest. "The Kings had to do a lot of battling to win their first game, and then they had to get on a plane and come up here," said Portland guard Nick Van Exel, who combined with Damon Stoudamire for 53 points in Saturday's win. "We knew that. You definitely study the back-to-backs. We were waiting, and we went right after them."
Cue the chorus of cynics. All together now: Soooooo whaaaaat! Auto mechanics, teachers, chimney sweeps--all have work schedules that are back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back. Plus, NBA players fly on charter jets that would please a Turkish pasha, stay in first-class hotels, ride cushy buses to and from arenas and airports, and get paid millions to drag their behinds up and down 94 feet of hardwood.
True. But in no other sport--indeed, in few other professions--is the grind so extreme and the wear and tear as concentrated as it is in the NBA, and the worst of it is back-to-backs. NHL teams (when they're not locked out) endure them too, but with half the frequency. Baseball players may play more games in a row, but their sport is less physically demanding. And aside from travel days, they never bounce from city to city; they can actually hang up their clothes in a hotel room during a road stand and fall into some semblance of a routine. NBA players are leaves in the wind, at home tonight, in Houston tomorrow, at home two days later, in Denver the day after that.
By design, the number of back-to-backs generally diminishes as the season goes on, and they're rare in the playoffs, when the NBA spaces out its schedule to maximize television coverage. However, a team's character can be forged in those difficult winter months when it guts out W's in tough back-to-backs, when legs are tired and there's little time to prepare. Last year's champions, the Detroit Pistons, won the second leg of back-to-backs 15 of 23 times, and the 2003 champions, the San Antonio Spurs, won 13 of 18. "It's the time to make a statement in those second games," says Van Exel.
It's also the time for coaches to make hard decisions. Rest an injured player on the first night? Cancel a practice if a difficult back-to-back looms? Tell your team to fast-break against a back-to-backed opponent, even if your team isn't particularly strong in transition? "Back-to-backs are not only physically taxing," says Adelman, "they're mentally taxing too."
Not to mention a provocative topic in the National Bitching Association. "A young team like us gets loaded up on back-to-backs," says the Atlanta Hawks forward Kevin Willis, the senior member of that team--of the league, in fact--at 42. "The teams that are going to be on TV have to get their rest." He happens to be right. Along with the Chicago Bulls, the Hawks, by season's end, will have played the most back-to-backs (112) since 2000-01. They can also lay claim to the most nightmarish back-to-back so far this season. After losing 106-96 to the Miami Heat at home on Jan. 28, they got caught in an ice storm at the airport and didn't make it to Memphis until 5:45 the next night. The 7 p.m. tip-off was pushed back until 8, and Atlanta lost an 84-83 heartbreaker.
Even execs, coaches and players on good teams whisper that back-to-backs are doled out inequitably. (Such is their paranoia that they won't speak for attribution, lest they get back-to-backed to death on next year's schedule.) "The league was able to make sure Shaquille O'Neal and the Miami Heat played Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers on Christmas Day," says one Western Conference coach, "so they can do anything they want with the schedule." The Los Angeles Clippers would seem to have a reasonable beef: By season's end they will have played 107 back-to-backs over five years, which is not only more than any other Western Conference team but also 12 more than the team with whom they share Staples Center, the Lakers. Isn't it hard enough being a Clipper without getting slapped around by the schedule?
The Dallas Mavericks, on the other hand, will have had 86 back-to-backs over the same span, the league's fewest. Is that a meaningful advantage for the Mavs? Absolutely, says one Western Conference general manager: "It's a question of competitive balance. Every team should play between 15 and 18. It's never going to be exact, but it should be close."
To be fair--one hates to bring fairness into a paranoia-laced discourse--NBA vice president of operations Matt Winick, the league's schedule maker for the last decade, does a reasonable job of distributing back-to-backs, considering he has to work schedules around tractor pulls, ice shows and rock concerts at the arenas, as well as around each team's desire to hold games on nights when crowds are likely to be large. He gives teams no more than 24 back-to-backs per season, while aiming for a minimum of 15; rarely sends a team more than one time zone away for the second game; and never schedules three games in a row. (Eastern teams, Winick concedes, generally have more back-to-backs because the cities there are closer together than those in the West.)
Even conspiracy theorists admit that back-to-backs are easier now because of team charters. "When those morning commercial flights were delayed, you'd get into a city like Chicago at 3:30 in the afternoon," remembers Charlotte Bobcats veteran Steve Smith. "There was no preparation, no eating right, no stretching." The further you go down memory lane, of course, the worse the stories get. Minnesota assistant coach Jerry Sichting recalls the 1983-84 season when his Indiana Pacers played at home on Friday night, took a commercial flight into Chicago and bused to Milwaukee for a game on Saturday night, then bused back to Chicago for a Sunday-afternoon game because the NHL Black Hawks had claim to Chicago Stadium that night. The Boston Celtics and the Baltimore Bullets used to play home-and-home back-to-backs in the 1950s that involved both teams' riding a train all night. "Today's back-to-backs are for wimps," says Orlando Magic vice president Pat Williams, who recalls the 1967-68 Chicago Bulls' playing five games in five nights in five cities.
"The whole back-to-back thing and how tough it is is very overstated," says coach Stan Van Gundy, whose Miami Heat had won five back ends of its eight back-to-backs through Sunday. "It becomes an excuse and a self-fulfilling prophecy. It's another game. Show up and play."
Some show up less than others, like the New Jersey Nets' Vince Carter. That's not shocking since Carter's effort has been denigrated from time to time, even by himself. The list of players who have lifted their scoring the most in the back end of a back-to-back has a surprise or two, including Raptors forward Donyell Marshall. But as Carter's Toronto teammate in many of those games, perhaps he needed to compensate for Vince's falloff.
Carter's weakness in back-to-backs has almost certainly been noted by the many coaches who study back-to-back performance. "There are definitely some alarming stats," says Bulls coach Scott Skiles, "but none that I want to make public, especially about my team." He must have shared them with his charges somewhere along the line: After losing the second game in their first four back-to-backs, the Bulls have now won four back-enders in a row. Skiles, like other coaches, will make concessions when confronted with a back-to-back: He never holds a morning shootaround on the second day of a back-to-back; he substitutes more freely in the first half of the first game of the set; he removes key players more quickly in a blowout. But there are limits. "You rest guys on the first night and end up losing that game just so you can have them fresh to maybe lose the second game?" says Adelman. "That doesn't make a lot of sense."
Though young players tend not to think much about back-to-backs--or anything else besides XBox--veterans look for every edge. Heeding the advice of Sam Mitchell and Doug West, his mentors on the Timberwolves when he broke in, Garnett said he makes a conscious effort to practice extremely hard on an off day between games because "it helps you mentally prepare for a back-to-back." Willis studies the schedule, looking for opponents who'll be playing back-to-backs at the end of a long road trip. "In that situation," said Willis, "they're just thinking about getting home." Charlotte's Smith makes careful note of the kind of team he's playing when the Bobcats have a second game in two nights. "The Spurs are great, but they're a walk-it-up team," says Smith, "so you'd rather have them [than a running team] on the second night."
Chicago power forward Antonio Davis says he would try to push the pace if an opponent had played a tough game the night before. That's exactly what Van Exel and the Trail Blazers did against Sacramento. "You can't have a heart," says Van Exel, "because somebody's going to do it to you. Probably soon."
As the Kings left the Rose Garden on Saturday night, they were disappointed but not crushed by the loss, having emerged from their back-to-back week with a 2-2 record. And there are worse things than a heavy menu of games. "Back-to-back practices," said Miller, "now there's something that's bad. Fortunately, with this schedule we don't get many of those." ‚ñ†
Here's who thrives under the pressure of consecutive games--and who buckles
Among players who, through Sunday, have averaged 10 points and played at least 15 back-to-backs since the start of last season, these had the biggest scoring swings in the second games.
[THis article contains a table. ¬†Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]
PPG Since '03-'04
PPG in 2nd of B-to-B
RASHARD LEWIS, Sonics
DONYELL MARSHALL, Raptors
NICK VAN EXEL, Blazers
ANDRE MILLER, Nuggets
CARLOS BOOZER, Jazz
VINCE CARTER, Raptors/Nets
LATRELL SPREWELL, T-Wolves
CARMELO ANTHONY, Nuggets
PEJA STOJAKOVIC, Kings
GORDAN GIRICEK, Jazz
ELIAS SPORTS BUREAU
Home and (Blown) Away
All back-to-backs are not created equal. Here's a breakdown of the degrees of difficulty
At week's end this is how teams had fared in the second of back-to-back games since 2000-01. By comparison, overall winning percentage at home was .609, on the road .391.
ELIAS SPORTS BUREAU
Photograph by Robert Beck
Less than 24 hours after a draining home win over the Knicks, the Kings were in Portland, where the Blazers tried to run them off the court.
Photograph by Robert Beck
Bibby & Co. faced the toughest task--playing home, then away.
BRIAN BAHR/GETTY IMAGES (LEWIS)
THE BEST: Rashard Lewis
JEFF ZELEVANSKY/ICON SMI (CARTER)
THE WORST: Vince Carter
LAST LEGS Bibby was wobbly in Round 2.