You might not be able to tell it from the Timberwolves’ current busy stretch, but interim head coach Sam Mitchell looks at his team’s schedule this season and sees a difference.
He sees evidence of NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s pledge to improve the game by improving each team’s schedule by reducing physical demands on players. That means an attempt this season to schedule fewer back-to-back games and fewer times when a team will play four games in five days.
“That’s something we talked about at the coaches’ meeting,” Mitchell said about the annual gathering of coaches in Chicago before every season, “because it’s about the health of our players and what’s best for our game.”
The Wolves played four games in five nights ending Friday at Indiana and on Wednesday in Orlando will complete a stretch where they play seven games in 10 nights.
That’s the exception this season, though, not the rule. Or at least less than it has been in recent seasons. Seeking to lessen player fatigue and injuries and ensure the NBA’s star players participate in as many regular season games as possible, Silver pushed to modify schedules without lengthening the season, a possibility he has left open for coming seasons by a week.
“It’s a math formula at the end of the day in terms of the number of days in the season and the number of games we play,” Silver told reporters earlier this year.
At the time, Silver acknowledged too many games in too short a time will never be eliminated, but he hoped the league could make “tremendous progress.”
This season, the Wolves play 14 sets of back-to-back games after doing so 19 times last season.
“No question it’s better,” Indiana coach Frank Vogel said before Friday’s game against the Wolves. “We were looking to see if Kevin [Garnett] was going to play back-to-backs and they’d only played one so far. That’s pretty rare. I’m seeing it not only with our schedules but everybody’s schedule.”
The league’s schedule-makers have attempted to reduce travel involved in back-to-back games, particularly across time zones. The results vary from team to team this season: Eight teams — including NBA champion Golden State and title contenders San Antonio and Houston — don’t play four games in five nights at all. Five teams, including the Wolves, do so twice.
“Certainly, there have to be some back-to-backs when you play 82 games,” said Charlotte coach Steve Clifford, whose team is one of the eight that don’t play four games in five nights. “Even having one day in between makes a big difference.”
More off-days in between games in theory mean fewer injuries. They also might persuade coaches, most notably San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich, to play their best players every night rather than resting older star players, particularly late in the season before playoffs.
“A lot of concern came when a lot of teams starting resting high-profile players,” Mitchell said. “For the league, you want those guys on the court and it’s better if you can stretch the schedule out and not have so many back-to-backs. It’s not the games, it’s the travel.”
Atlanta played its third game in four nights and fifth in seven nights when it trailed the Wolves by 34 points Monday night, rallied back to lead by a point and then allowed the game’s final 11 points in a 117-107 loss. Like the Wolves, they are one of the five teams that must play 4-in-5 twice this season.
“It’s just better for the product, better for the players, better for everyone involved,” Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said of the attempt to avoid such situations. “I think it helps the fans. I’m confident they’re working on it and trying to do their best.”