The first thing I look for when the schedule comes out is the number of back-to-backs Boston plays. The second end of a back-to-back is among the toughest games to win; several studies have shown that teams on the second night of a back-to-back have a winning percentage of about .430. That’s not good.
Some good news: Boston has 19 back-to-backs next season, one more than last year and a number that places them in the bottom third of the league in back-to-backs. (The Bulls and Bucks have the most, with 23 each, and 14 teams have at least 21 back-to-backs, according to Basketball Prospectus. The Lakers have the fewest—just 15).
Good news, right? An older team can use a few breaks from the schedule makers.
But dig one level deeper, and the news isn’t quite as good.
Of Boston’s 19 back-to-backs, just four come against teams that will also be on the second end of their own back-to-back. It would stand to reason that some (or most) of the built-in disadvantage of playing for the second straight night disappears if you’re facing a team that also played the night before.
In 2009, I was curious to see how often a team on the second end of a back-to-back ended up facing a team in the same situation. I found that for the ’09 season (and that season only) a team on the second end of a back-to-back had about a 50 percent chance of facing a team that had also played the night before. There was a huge level of variability, though, with some teams facing more well-rested teams than others. The 2009 Cavs and Heat had particularly bad luck, as just six of their 19 back-to-backs involved a second-night opponent that had also played the night before.
The 2011 C’s will have even worse luck in this regard, as their opponent in 15 of their 19 second-night back-to-back games will have been idle the night before.
I don’t know yet how far from average this split is, and whether the 50/50 split I found among Eastern Conference teams in 2009 has been typical since then. If anyone can find a site that breaks the schedule down like this—or if anyone knows how to do it in a quicker fashion than manually cross-checking each team’s schedule against those of their opponents—please let me know.
This isn’t insignificant stuff. For instance: The C’s face the Hawks three times, and all three come on the second end of a back-to-back for the Celtics. And in all three instances, the Hawks won’t have played the night before. In other words: don’t be surprised if Atlanta sweeps Boston again.