The NBA season isn’t a sprint. It’s a marathon, a triathlon, an Iditarod and a nine-month LeBron-fest all rolled into one.
The NBA office claims to have its best computers working on the math — 162 playing dates, 30 teams, 82 games each.
But the average team in the league is still playing on back-to-back nights this season 17.8 times.
The Dallas Mavericks have played 12 back-to-backs so far, with five still to go.
Some teams will play as many as 20 back-to-backs this season, and there’s the problem. Prime-time basketball, followed by a flight to another city, followed by a brief hotel nap, followed by another 48 minutes of NBA play is demanding enough without having to do it 17.8 times a season.
On 27 occasions — mercifully down from 70 — teams are scheduled for four games in five days.
The resulting numbers tend to vary. Teams playing on the second night of a back-to-back do win a fair amount of the time. After being blown out at Golden State on Wednesday, the Mavericks are 5-4 when the second game has been on the road.
But there’s a price to be paid, and Mavericks fans are starting to see it. Coach Rick Carlisle rested three starters earlier this season in Houston, four starters in New Orleans. And against the Warriors, who are 42-4 and all but playing in their own league on most nights, Carlisle took one look at his injury-depleted bench and Dirk Nowitzki’s 37-year-old knees and went with the B lineup.
Gregg Popovich has been doing this for years, of course, in San Antonio, much to the league’s chagrin. Pop and the Spurs were infamously fined $250,000 in 2012 for sending Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Danny Green home, rather than to a back-to-back road game in Miami.
Then-commissioner David Stern cited the Spurs for operating “in a manner contrary to the best interests of the NBA.”
But wait a minute. Since when are scheduling 17.8 back-to-backs in the best interests of the NBA?
Forget the fairness aspect and the won-lost factors involved. Players are going to be tired on those second nights. Athletes could be injured.
The league has suggested there’s an entertainment mandate in the “contract” between teams and their ticket buyers. But who’s getting their money’s worth when one of the teams is dragging its tired posteriors up and down the court?
They’re not all Cal Ripkens. In the NBA, back-to-backs usually include a plane trip. It’s hard to fault Carlisle or Popovich for wanting to rest star players in January for games that they may have to play in April, May or June.
Interestingly, Nowitzki and Cleveland’s LeBron James are among the NBA stars who think 82 is too many games. But the players union would never go along with any idea that would reduce games and, thereby, lower salaries.
Mavericks owner Mark Cuban thinks one solution is to extend the regular season by about 10 days.
“I think spreading out will be great for the league,” Cuban said. “I just think television has changed so that the difference in households watching television on June 12 versus June 24 or 26 isn’t that big, because football hasn’t started yet.”
He’s right. But Popovich, for one, is on record as being opposed to any proposal that would extend the season.
“If there’s a game in July, count me out,” Pop has said. “Life is too short.”
Mavericks fans, for now, had better get used to the “rest” days. Dirk’s knees aren’t getting any younger.
Carlisle knows which months of the season are more important.