When your legs are jello and your torso feels like a piñata because you’ve just spent 43 minutes bodying up Tim Duncan, there are several recommended remedies for recovery: Get a thorough massage, kick your feet up on the coffee table, turn up the hot-tub jets, etc.
But one technique definitely not on the list is this: Do it all over again the next day.
Yet NBA players are frequently asked endure this very task — play a grueling, physically-draining game, hop on a plane, fly 1,000 miles, land at 3 a.m. and suit up again 16 hours later.
They are the dreaded back-to-backs, and they’re about as celebrated among players as attic-cleaning.
“Back to backs are the hardest. Those are the hardest ones,” Blazers forward LaMarcus Aldridge said. “If it’s 18 back-to-backs, that’s easily (costing a team) five to six wins.”
Don’t feel too bad for the players’ physical strain. As Aldridge said, “That’s why we’re athletes.”
But the disparity of back-to-back games between certain teams may be cause for justifiable anger.
For instance, the Bulls, Bucks and Hawks each have 23 back-to-backs this year. The Blazers have 22, as do five other teams. However, division rivals such as the Jazz, Timberwolves and Nuggets have just 19 apiece, while the Thunder have 17 and the Lakers 15.
If Aldridge is right about the number of wins back-to-backs may be costing teams, then this disproportion may have serious playoff-seeding implications in the ultra-competitive Western Conference. Perhaps that’s why Wesley Matthews’ phone blew up with text messages when the NBA released the schedule last August.
“I didn’t even realize how ridiculous it was until people kept texting and calling me to tell me how many back-to-backs we had,” said the Blazers guard, adding that in the end he thinks it will toughen up his team. “It’s just ridiculous. I don’t know how that schedule came out, or how we were so lucky.”
Portland coach Nate McMillan didn’t need texts or calls to inform him of the back-to-back burden. His reaction upon seeing the schedule? “That we had a lot.”
Of course, logic would suggest that the benefit of playing a multitude of back-to-backs is that players get to enjoy three, four, sometimes five days off between games.
This allows for recovery.
This allows for rejuvenation. This…
“I don’t like it,” Matthews said. “Too much down time.”
And it’s not just the consecutive games that can so thoroughly drain players and coaches. It’s the travel involved with them, as well. Of the Blazers’ 22 back-to-backs this year, only once have both games been at the Rose Garden, and given Portland’s isolation in the Northwest (Vancouver and Seattle no longer have franchises), they’re certainly not low on frequent flyer miles.
“We’ve traveled to Denver when we’re not getting in until 3 or 4 o’clock. We’re traveling more than anybody right now,” McMillan said. “If the Sacramento team moves to Anaheim, that puts even more miles on us … I think next year, we have to look at that schedule and try to get to the league.”
But Stu Jackson, the NBA’s executive vice president of basketball operations, insists there is no conspiracy. He said that in terms of total miles traveled, the Blazers aren’t nearly the highest in the league. Plus, two years ago, Portland’s 16 back-to-backs were among the NBA’s fewest.
“It varies year to year, team to team,” Jackson said. “Having coached, I understand Nate’s mindset. But it may be a venue issue. The way the NBA calendar unfolded, there may have been two or three dates that made the back-to-backs impossible to avoid.”
The NBA is responsible, after all, for scheduling 1,230 games.
And this schedule has to accommodate various concerts, circuses, rodeos, or anything else certain NBA arenas host throughout the basketball season.
And when you factor in television obligations, or the fact that teams rarely if ever want to play on a Monday, suddenly trying to accommodate everyone becomes an expert-level jigsaw puzzle.
“It happens every year,” Jackson continued. “There will be an issue where we have to tweak the schedule, and one change can make the process somewhat difficult.”
In addition to ample rest, Matthews said the trick for preparing for the second half of a back-to-back is to “not think about it. It’s in your mind.”
His teammates seem to be embracing this approach.
While the Blazers are 16-21 on the road this year, heading into tonight’s game against the Spurs, they are 10-9 on the tail end of back-to-backs.
Who knows? Maybe they’ll lobby for a couple more next season.