Playing Back-to-Back Games in the NBA

Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Brooklyn Nets

Erik Drost/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

In NBA terms, "back-to-back" is used to describe a stretch of schedule when a team plays two games in as many days.

Playing back-to-back presents a number of challenges for NBA players. The biggest, of course, is fatigue. Playing two nights in a row doesn't give players much time to rest and recover. That can be exacerbated by travel schedules; playing a back-to-back in, say, New York and Philadelphia or Miami and Orlando isn't as bad as playing one night in Portland and the next in Denver or Salt Lake City.

Back-to-back scheduling can also create a major advantage for one team over another in a given game when one team is playing the second game of a back-to-back and the other is better rested.

Cutting Back on Back-to-Backs

Players have an open disdain for back-to-back games in the regular season, even while understanding there's no way around them when trying to wedge 82 games into 170 days. A major reason is the wear and tear they experience. In fact, the NBA has been working to modify the regular season schedule with the goal of protecting its players’ bodies. The league is using new software to adjust the variables to soften the grind of travel, back-to-back games, and strength of schedule.

Currently, the league has successfully reduced the number of back-to-back games for each team, along with significantly reducing four-game stretches in five nights for teams. For the 2018-2019 season, the average number of back-to-back games per team is 13.3.

In comparison, teams played four games in five nights 70 times just a few years ago, so there has been significant progress.

Preparing for Back-to-Backs

Some teams spend part of the preseason preparing for the inevitable back-to-backs.

NBA teams get to largely dictate their own preseason schedule, and nine clubs opted to have at least one set of back-to-back games on their exhibition slate.

"It's good practice for us," Toronto coach Dwane Casey said. "We want to approach it the way we're going to approach it a few weeks from now because they're coming. And so the way we mentally approach back-to-backs ... we've got to get excited about it. Even though deep down we know it's exhibition, we've got to get into a mindset of how do we prepare mentally, how do we prepare physically."

Back-to-Backs and Fantasy Basketball

Fantasy basketball players will want to stay aware of back-to-backs when drafting teams and setting weekly lineups; some players are more impacted by back-to-back games than others. For example:

  • Players working their way back from injury
  • Older players 
  • Players with chronic conditions, such as bad knees, sore backs, etc. 

Resting Strategy for Back-to-Backs

Coaches often opt to limit the playing time of such players in back-to-backs or sit them out of one game entirely.

Back-to-back scheduling can also impact the playing time of key players on teams with championship aspirations. San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is well-known for resting his key players when the opportunity presents itself, in the hopes of keeping his key players healthy for the postseason.