David Stern, commissioner of the NBA, fined the San Antonio Spurs $250,000 for resting four starting players, including stars Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobli and Tony Parker, in their game against the Heat in Miami on Thursday November 29. The Spurs barely lost to the defending champion Heat in the closing minutes despite the fact that they played without four of their top players. Coach Greg Popovich’s strategy may have worked, however, as the Spurs defeated the Memphis Grizzlies in overtime on Saturday night. Memphis had the league’s best record entering the game. Duncan, Ginobli, and Parker require more rest than many NBA stars because their ages are 36, 35 and 30, respectively.
Coach Popovich rested his top players because the Spurs were playing their third game in four nights and were in the midst of playing six games in nine days. Teams playing three games in four nights tend to be fatigued and win fewer of the back-to-back games at the end of these sequences of games. Most of the games played at the end of these sequences tend to be on the road, where the fatigued team is also the visiting team. I analyzed NBA schedule data from the 2010-2011 season because the 2011-2012 season was strike-shortened and had a compressed schedule. My analysis focused on away teams because of the small sample of home teams playing with such little rest in between games. I found that NBA teams are significantly less likely to win a game when they are fatigued.
- Visiting teams won 41% of NBA games when playing with at least one night’s rest (and not in the midst of three games in four nights).
- Visiting teams won less than 29% of NBA games when playing back-to-back games at the end of a sequence of three games in four nights.
Playing games without much rest puts NBA teams at a disadvantage. Rather than fining Greg Popovich for optimizing given the schedule the NBA has dictated to the Spurs, perhaps David Stern should be more concerned about scheduling equity. Seven of 30 NBA teams (Cleveland, Golden State, Los Angeles Clippers, Milwaukee, Minnesota, New York and Washington) have to play three games in four nights on four different occasions this season. Six teams (Boston, Dallas, Los Angeles Lakers, Memphis, Orlando and Utah) are scheduled to play three games in four nights at most once during the season. The Spurs are scheduled to play three games in four nights on three occasions and therefore have one of the NBA’s least advantageous schedules in terms of opportunities for resting players.
It is not clear whether the Spurs will appeal Commissioner Stern’s fine. If the Spurs appeal, the NBA Players’ Association should support their challenge. First, resting players makes sense because it maximizes a team’s chance of success in a league where fewer than half of the teams are eliminated from the playoffs over the course of an 82 game schedule. Second, resting players is likely to reduce the risk of serious injury. As representatives of the players’ welfare, the NBA Players’ Association should be challenging the Commissioner’s decision.