In a perfect world, every NBA team would play their games against opponents of the same quality, and under the same conditions. Obviously, that fantasy has nothing to do with reality and the schedule is a major factor in team success. As discussed last week, our 2016-17 NBA schedule dashboard allows us to explore minute details of individual games. It helps us see, for example, that among the 1,230 road games league-wide, 326 (or 27 percent) comprise the second of a back-to-back. This scenario varies by team. While Golden State has an NBA-high 16 road games on a back-to-back, Phoenix only has six.
It’s one thing, however, to focus on road games; it’s perhaps quite another to focus on road trips. Although the dashboard lacks features to analyze consecutive strings of away games, we can use the underlying data to answer some basic questions.
For starters, how many road trips are there in the regular season and how long do they tend to be?
Throughout the league, there are 599 road trips. Nearly half of them consist of single games (i.e., a team plays away, then returns for a contest at home). A quarter of them are two games, and a little over 10 percent are three games. So, overall, 85 percent of road trips are between one and three games.
This season, the five longest road trips are easily discernible. If you click on the “Teams” view above, you’ll see that the Charlotte Hornets, Los Angeles Lakers, and Sacramento Kings each have seven-game road trips, while the Brooklyn Nets and San Antonio Spurs each have eight-game road trips. Let’s take a close look at each one.
The Nets’ eight-game road trip spans exactly two weeks. It starts right after eight days off during the All-Star break and includes two contests with rest advantages. However, there are two back-to-backs: a Denver-Golden State pairing and a Utah-Portland tandem. The combination of altitude and opponent quality makes for a particularly formidable slate.
The Spurs’ eight-game road trip serves as a fascinating contrast. It takes place over a 20-day period in February, with the first six contests before the All-Star break and the final two contests after the All-Star break. Indeed, these latter two games are against the Clippers and Lakers, requiring no travel between them. Furthermore, there is only one back-to-back, so the schedule is hardly grueling, all things considered.
The Hornets’ seven-game trek has some of the same features as the Spurs’ annual rodeo road trip: one game separated by the All-Star break, one back-to-back, and two games in Los Angeles. Likewise, while the Kings’ seven-game itinerary is more condensed (11 versus 17 days) and uninterrupted by league festivities, it has other mitigating factors. Most notably, in their two back-to-backs, the Kings happen to face teams that are in a similar situation, thereby avoiding disadvantages in rest days. They actually have two contests in which they are more rested than their opponents, including one against the Indiana Pacers who are themselves on a back-to-back.
This leads us to the Lakers. Their seven-game road trip occurs over an 11-day span in December and features three back-to-backs. They have no rest advantages. Their travels take them across the country. More broadly, this road trip is near the tail end of what is arguably the most challenging schedule between the start of the season and New Year’s Day.
Altogether, at least among the “top one percent” of road trips by number of games played, the Lakers seem to have the toughest itinerary. The Nets have a decent case as well based on the structure of their back-to-backs, but they have the benefit of prolonged rest from the All-Star break. The Lakers, by contrast, must endure an intense succession of Eastern Conference road games within an abbreviated timeframe — all during an already demanding phase of their season.
Of course, this analysis largely overlooks opponent quality and other crucial variables. It also presupposes that the length of a road trip has some impact on a team’s win probability above and beyond the effects of game location and rest — a hypothesis for which I have yet to see extensive research. But, if nothing else, I think it serves as a useful reminder that road trips, like individual games, are not created equal.