Of all the features of the compressed schedule the NBA is planning to fit a 66-game season into about four months, none sparks as much as interest as teams having to play back-to-back-to-back games. While teams often played three consecutive games in the league’s early days–remarkable given the league still traveled by commercial flight back then–such stretches have been banned by rule for decades, with the only exceptions coming following the last two lockouts. Playing two nights in a row is already considered hard enough, so going back-to-back-to-back seems like death to teams.
To try to quantify the difficulty posed by the back-to-back-to-back, I used Dougstats.com’s game results for the 1998-99 season to study the impact of rest during the last lockout-shortened schedule. Here’s how win-loss records broke down by rest (note that X denotes season-opening games):
So, by this measure, the back-to-back-to-back was rough on teams, which won just 43.8 percent of the time. Of course, with sample sizes this small, one close game or two can swing the numbers. As a result, we’re better off looking at point differential.
Now, while back-to-backs look much worse, back-to-back-to-back games look basically average. Turns out there are a couple more layers we have to consider. One is location of games. In general, back-to-backs seem much harder than they are because they are primarily played on the road. During 1998-99, for example, more than 60 percent of the time the second game of a back-to-back was played on the road. However, the league granted a break to the teams playing three games in a row. The final game of a back-to-back-to-back was at home half the time.
At the same time, teams on back-to-backs got a break of their own. On average, they played teams with an adjusted point differential of -0.3 points per game. When we combine both of these factors to get ratings for each game adjusted for opposition and location, here’s how performance breaks down by rest.
When we account for all these other factors, rest simply doesn’t make a huge difference except on the rare occasions where teams had multiple days off–enough time to fully recuperate from the busy schedule. (And those numbers are based on tiny, tiny samples.) A team that’s been off for two days facing one on a back-to-back derived an advantage of just 1.2 points. While that’s not insignificant–it represents a swing of about 4 percent in the chances of winning a game–it’s also typically not a determining factor.
Considering everything, back-to-back-to-backs apparently were actually somewhat easier for teams than back-to-backs during 1998-99. What we haven’t considered here is the cumulative effect of fatigue, and teams that knew they were playing three games in a row may have adjusted their rotations in the first two, meaning back-to-back-to-backs had an impact that can’t be felt from the last game alone. Still, when this year’s schedule is released Tuesday night, it’s probably not worth obsessing over how many back-to-back-to-backs your favorite team has. (Each team will have at least one such stretch and a maximum of three.) It’s unlikely to have much of an impact on how their season goes.