If a press release could swell with pride, this one did. The second paragraph of an Aug. 14, 2017 announcement from the NBA touted the elimination of four games in five nights. Back-to-back sets of games had also been reduced to an all-time low for the third consecutive season. The league had said it would alter the schedule to favor players. It felt it had delivered.
Part of the adjustment was allowed by starting the season two weeks earlier than normal. That spread things out, creating more off days and opportunities for rest. It also creates a longer news cycle for the league, though that was not brought up in the release.
Some players are arguing little has changed. They are thankful that they no longer play four games in five nights. They are also pleased about extra time off here and there. But, the change in the schedule has created other quirks that makes the 82-game grind not seem all that different from recent years.
“My first year was the lockout and we were having back-to-back-to-back games, they were trying to fit all of them in,” Wizards forward Markieff Morris said. “But, honestly, you don’t really see a difference. Four in five nights. That’s the only thing that’s changed. You still get three in four nights. You still, like, we’re going to [expletive] Memphis [on Thursday] and got to come back, won’t get back until 3 in the morning, got to come back and play Milwaukee [on Saturday]. Same [expletive]. Doesn’t really change.”
Reasons for the changes ranged from rest, to avoiding coaches intentionally sitting players, to better performance, to simply a more coherent existence. For decades, NBA players have talked about not knowing which city they are in when their eyes opened. They played a game, boarded a plane, shuffled into another hotel room and went to sleep. Where they were on a Wednesday morning in mid-January was anyone’s guess. Some said they looked out the window to get a sense of geography — snow or palm trees?
Morris said he is still discombobulated at times despite the spread-out schedule.
“You’re playing 82 games a year, that’s not including the playoffs,” Morris said. “We play in 41 different cities. It’s like… you need it. Some days I wake up and don’t even know where I’m at. You don’t think I need a day off when I wake up like that?”
The schedule change has also spurred a time-honored tradition of previous generations complaining about current ones. Former Boston Celtics star, and current NBA TV broadcaster, Kevin McHale, groaned this week about players having time off “out the ying-yang” now. McHale even suggested that the time away from the court may be limiting development of younger players. It was a standard get-off-my-lawn take from a person in a time gone by.
“That’s just the way it is,” Wizards coach Scott Brooks said. “My mom complained about the music I listened to. I’m doing the same to the music my kids listen to. It’s the times. It’s changed. We had two-a-days for the entire month of October [when I played]. Now, you can only have six. In those six, you only go one contact. Those you can do for 3 ½ hours total time. It’s different. You have to change with the times, and if you don’t, you’ll get left behind.”
This season’s gaps in the schedule have not prevented John Wall from having a knee problem, Otto Porter from having his hip issue pop up again, or Ian Mahinmi from having to work with sore knees. However, like any preventative method, it’s impossible to quantify how different the results would be if the attempted prevention was not in place.
“Four in five nights was tough, but three in four nights is still the same to me,” Wall said. “Ain’t no big difference. Back-to-backs are still there. It’s part of being in the NBA. We know what it’s about. They tried to fix the schedule as much as possible to help the players. At the same time, we still have to take care of our bodies as much as possible. There’s not really a big difference.”
What is clear is that the new schedule altered things for Washington. It concluded both of its West Coast trips before the new year. Since the season started two weeks earlier, and Capital One Arena is occupied by the week-long Washington International Horse Show in late October each season, the Wizards were on a West Coast trip just two games into the season. That had never happened.
Those trips have become more drawn out because of the spacing in games. One thing that jumped out to Brooks so far is that a five-game road trip lasts longer. In the past, it was eight or nine days on the road. The Wizards’ second West Coast trip of the season — which oddly concluded in Brooklyn after starting in Utah — kept them away from home for 11 days. When it ended, they flew from New York back to Washington and played the next night.
“It does give you a lot of days off on the road, which is kind of new,” Brooks said. “I don’t know if that’s good or bad. We’ll see the next couple years.”
As much as the players may not see a difference, the year-over-year changes are apparent. Since this season started earlier than any previous NBA season, the Wizards played 38 games by Jan. 4. In that span, they have played five sets of back-to-backs, the first coming in the 16th and 17th games of the season. Last season, they had played six sets in 34 games by the same date, the first set coming in games four and five. The prior season delivered seven sets of back-to-backs in the 32 games before Jan. 4. The first pair arrived in games two and three.
“Hopefully, it works out, saves players from injuries and keeps guys fresh so you have a better product on the court,” Brooks said. “I think some of the best basketball in the game’s history is being played right now. A lot of good things are happening.”