As you’ve no doubt noticed by now, the NBA regular season is starting ten days earlier than usual this year. Now the real action starts before anyone buys the candy corn that nobody is going to eat.
That might not seem like much, but cutting two games off the preseason slate isn’t a move that exists in a vacuum. Every day added to the schedule has far-reaching implications as part of the league’s initiative to both protect the players and improve the quality of the game.
It may seem like common sense that more time for players to rest and recuperate may lead to fewer injuries, but we can’t take today’s thinking for granted. After all, it took more than two decades for teams to properly capitalize on the value and spacing of the three-pointer. With science suggesting that players are more susceptible to injury when playing on back-to-backs or after heavy travel, the NBA has had to take that thinking and find ways to apply it to the structure that currently exists. And that structure is incredibly complicated, what with 30 teams and 29 multi-purpose buildings to service.
This isn’t a one-decision process, either. The willingness to cut the preseason and training camp helps, but so does a flexible broadcast schedule allowing more games on Thursday and Saturday nights. And with the Ringling Brothers Circus taking its final curtain call, teams aren’t forced into long road trips at the same time each year. Now Miami gets to take a six-game trip in early November as opposed to the usual marathon in January.
Just ten years ago, the Heat started their season on November 1st, playing in 21 back-to-backs and four separate stretches of four games in five nights.
This year they’ll jump up to Orlando on October 18th. Their back-to-backs have been reduced to just 13 and no team will play more than 16. Four-in-fives have been eliminated entirely.
And the league has even managed to fit in a longer All-Star break.
“The focus the last couple of years has been to try and reduce back-to-backs even more,” said HEAT General Manager Andy Elisburg. “This year their goal was to eliminate four-in-five nights. It’s always been a goal.”
You might think that eliminating back-to-backs, and therefore rendering the schedule as irrelevant as possible by having every game played by teams following a day off, is the ultimate goal, but that might not be the case as long as travel and the general concept of time still exists.
All back-to-backs, Elisburg says, are not created equal.
“Would you rather have that extra day to be home with your family or would you rather be on the road? There are times when back-to-backs are fine.”
As long as the league is trying to fit 82 games per team into about half a year, road trips are going to make sense. Long travel – and Miami might fly the most miles of any Eastern Conference team this year – can be just as much of a hindrance as playing games themselves. And a back-to-back against the Lakers and Clippers, who share a building, isn’t quite the same as traveling cross-time zones from Los Angeles to Denver.
Sometimes it might just be better to skip a shootaround and play the game rather than spend another night in a hotel, especially with the way minutes are managed in the modern game.
“You’re always looking to different things, and what are the ways to find rest,” Elisburg said. “Whether it means you’re resting in games, resting in practices or you’re looking at your off days. You’re always examining the ways to get the players off their feet.”
By that same token, new rules indicate that there might be less of an opportunity to rest within games themselves this year. Breaks can be nice, but nobody likes too many timeouts. The league agreed.
“It’s a flow issue of your game,” Elisburg said. “We’ve always been focused on the fact that one of the great things of NBA basketball is the stream of action. You want to make sure you’re watching the number of stoppages.”
So, combined timeouts have been reduced from 18 to 14. There’s no more full or twenty-second timeouts – now each team gets seven that are 75 seconds long. And in the last three minutes of the game, a period that often felt like it could take nearly half and hour, teams can only call time twice.
While the overall time spent in official break might not change too much – some of this is about simply enforcing those times, such as abiding by an official clock for the 15-minutes halftime – it’s more about the stoppages themselves. The fewer stoppages there are the more often we get those long, thrilling stretches where one team’s run is countered by another run all before any whistle is blown. A consequence of that is those longer stretches could create more fatigue, but the length of games were already suffering due to changes in instant-replay rules.
“You may lose some of that rest from timeouts, you’re now picking up the rest that you’re getting in replay stoppages,” Elisburg said. “You’re getting to the same place. When you had both on top of each other, you were getting five or six minutes that wasn’t there before.”
There could still be some teams that find a small, one or two percent advantage in fewer breaks in the game. There are teams like Miami that have always placed a premium on getting players in world-class conditioning, but also Denver and Utah that play at altitude which could enjoy a nice, situational bump.
Or, the differences all these changes make could be negligible to everyone but the coaches who have to change rotations around the new television timeouts. We won’t know until the games are played, at which point the league will take another look and continue to adjust.
In the end, winning is still going to be about talent. But the recent changes are intended to help ensure that talent, your favorite talent, can stay on the court in games that are more fun to watch. Every little bit helps.