Back-to-back games are a natural byproduct of running the league calendar on time. However, the balance and frequency of consecutive games have rapidly changed over the past decade.
The fact that 580 back-to-back sets took place in 2014-15 feels like a different era. That equated to 19.3 per team, representing 23.5% of all regular season contests. Nine seasons later, the average NBA team will play 14.0 back-to-back sets — 419 in total over the course of the upcoming season. Over time, the scheduling strategy has become essential to keep players healthy and provide competitive balance.
2023-24 Back-to-Back Scheduling Logistics
Total back-to-backs have decreased by 27.5 percent since 2014-15. The upcoming season likely represents the plateauing of the trend, as teams averaged 13.3 back-to-back sets last season. Despite overall back-to-back quantity trending slightly upward for 2023-24, no team has more than 15 or fewer than 13 — marking the tightest range in league history.
Another element of competitive balance associated with back-to-backs is the league’s “Fresh-Tired-Even” factor, which considers opponents’ potential fatigue in every matchup. Speaking on The Athletic’s podcast, Evan Wasch, the NBA’s executive VP of basketball strategy and analytics, described it as a “measure of your back-to-backs relevant to your opponent’s back-to-back. This year’s range is minus-5 to plus-5, so no team has more than five net disadvantage or five net advantage games.”
Additionally, the league is cutting travel demands in back-to-back situations by scheduling consecutive opponents in similar areas. Teams average just nine back-to-backs that include extensive travel between games, which is a new low for a season. Games that are home-home back-to-back sets or very short trips combine to account for 35% of all back-to-backs in 2023-24, leaping from 26% last season. Examples of “short trips” include San Francisco to Sacramento, Chicago to Milwaukee or New York to Brooklyn.
The Suns received the most favorable back-to-back schedule, as Phoenix will play eight back-to-back sets at home, while only being on the road for six.
Removing extreme scheduling scenarios has been a priority. For 2023-24, there are no instances of four games in five nights on the schedule, marking the second consecutive year of eliminating that frequency. It’s unlikely ever to be seen again, barring an extraneous circumstance.
The root cause of the slight increase in back-to-back sets is the introduction of the In-season Tournament. The In-Season Tournament quarterfinals, semifinals and fill-in games will take place from Dec. 4-10. There will be no back-to-backs that week. There will also be no back-to-back during the second nights of gameplay during the In-Season Tournament Group Stage, which will occur throughout November on designated tournament nights — Tuesdays and Fridays.
All teams still play 82 games, except those in the tournament championship. Those two teams will play 83 games.
Back-to-Back Production: Team Statistic Analysis
Back-to-back sets are tough on teams defensively. In the second half of back-to-back sets in 2022-23, teams allowed 117.2 points per 100 possessions — a noticeable jump from 114.8 points per 100 possessions with one day of rest.
Last season, Boston took care of business in back-to-back sets. Leading the NBA with a plus-7.7 net point differential per 100 possessions, the Celtics had a sizable edge over second-place Milwaukee. The Bucks finished with a plus-4.8 differential, Philadelphia trailed at plus-3.4 and New York at plus-3.2.
The Celtics and Bucks led all teams with 10-3 records in back-to-back play, while San Antonio (2-12) and Orlando (1-12) struggled mightily in back-to-back contests.
For Milwaukee, San Antonio and Orlando, back-to-back performance aligned with the average team age. Milwaukee was a veteran-filled squad, representing the oldest roster in the league with an average age of 29.5. On the other hand, the Spurs and Magic, respectively, were the third and fourth youngest teams in the league last season. They combined for an average age of 23.7.
The Lakers posted the biggest statistical overperformance in back-to-back sets last season. Los Angeles ranked 23rd in the NBA with a minus-4.8 net differential in back-to-backs but earned a 6-6 record. Notably, LeBron James played in half of the team’s back-to-back games, but Anthony Davis played in just two. The inactivity of Los Angeles’ stars skew the data. This is supported by the example of a 26-point loss to the Suns in December in the second half of a back-to-back in which neither James nor Davis played.
The Lakers, Clippers and Warriors are among the small handful of teams that will log 15 back-to-back sets in 2023-24. Last season, the Washington Wizards led the league with 16 back-to-back sets.