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How fatigue shaped the season, and what it means for the playoffs

ESPN

"Unfortunately, we'll never really see what these guys can really do, because they're tired all of the time -- because of the schedule." -- Gary Vitti, former Lakers head athletic trainer

Gary Vitti uttered those words to ESPN late in the 2015-16 season, after retiring from his full-time post as the NBA's longest-tenured head athletic trainer, a position he held for 32 seasons. And that idea embodies the spirit of our our schedule alert project, which we launched the following season. Those in the NBA have long known -- perhaps as long as Vitti spent in his role -- that teams lose games because of fatigue, leading to the "schedule losses" axiom.

Our project aims to target those games using a formula that takes into account only factors related to the schedule, meaning no consideration for team/player quality. And in our first season, even after the NBA reduced the number of back-to-backs and four-in-five sets, we correctly predicted 69 percent (29 of 42) overall, including 76.5 percent (13 of 17) of red-alert games, i.e. games in which one team has an especially steep disadvantage because of the schedule.

The NBA again tweaked its schedule this season, trimming more back-to-backs, eliminating four-in-fives and starting the season earlier, among other changes. But with the Bucks' 102-86 win over the Magic on Monday, the second season of schedule alert is complete, and we correctly picked 77.8 percent (42 of 54) overall, including seven of nine of red-alert games.

For context, that success rate for schedule alert games in 2017-18 is far more successful than our formula predicted we'd be, as we applied that formula to 10 seasons' worth of games -- from 2007-08 through 2016-17 -- and the results showed that teams facing schedule alert situations lose 63 percent of the time.

The night before playing in a schedule alert game in Salt Lake City, Kings coach Dave Joerger said, "We're just trying to survive. Five games in seven nights. Five different cities, three different time zones." His squad then lost to a Jazz team that was off the night before.

Then-Bulls forward Nikola Mirotic voiced displeasure with the schedule after his team suffered a 39-point loss in a schedule alert game in January in Indiana. "I know we were talking about we were going to start earlier this season, have less back-to-backs," Mirotic said, according to the Chicago Tribune. "But I feel like so far the schedule is even worse than last year, to be honest. It's not an excuse. But it's true that it's been hard, a lot of back-to-backs and long weeks."

As we followed these games closely all season, certain trends emerged. So here, thanks to the tireless research efforts from ESPN Stats & Information, are some figures that help show the ways in which fatigue can take a toll on performance, as well as standout moments from the season and what this all could mean for the 2017-18 playoffs.

  • Of the 42 schedule alert losses, 11 were by 21 or more points and 17 were by at least 15 points.

  • Tired teams were 2-28 when behind/tied after the first quarter, 1-32 when behind/tied at halftime and 1-35 when behind/tied after the third quarter. In fact, in schedule alert games, teams were 3-36 when behind by double digits at any point in the game. So If a tired team falls behind in these games, they won't often just lose -- they often get run right out of the gym.

  • Only twice did a team on red-alert reach the 100-point mark. By comparison, as of Tuesday, the league scoring average this season was 106.3 PPG.

  • There were 10 teams on schedule alert that were ahead at halftime and still lost -- and eight of those teams were outscored by double digits in the second half. So even if a tired team is up at halftime, things often fell apart for them from then on -- and badly.

  • Teams with the most schedule alert losses: Nuggets (2-4) and Bulls (0-4).

  • Teams that lost all of their schedule alert games: Hawks (0-3), Celtics (0-1), Nets (0-2), Hornets (0-2), Bulls (0-4), Pistons (0-1), Pacers (0-2), Lakers (0-2), Grizzlies (0-2), Bucks (0-2), Suns (0-3), Kings (0-2), Raptors (0-1), Wizards (0-2), Magic (0-2).

  • Teams that benefited by beating two or more teams on schedule alert: Pistons (6-0), Jazz (5-0), Nuggets (5-0), Cavaliers (4-1), Heat (3-0), Warriors (2-0), Raptors (2-1), Spurs (2-1).


The Zombie awards

That's right -- the Zombies are awards we bestow to a slew of unlucky players, teams and coaches who had the misfortune of being on the wrong side of the NBA schedule and, thus, sleep-walked through their game while looking like nightmarish members of the undead.

On to the winners (or losers, depending on how you look at it):

Worst night of the year: March 10

The Grizzlies and Wizards were both on schedule alert and lost by -- seriously -- a combined 61 points.

The Wizards were playing their third game in five days and the second of a back-to-back set. They played in New Orleans the night before, then headed out immediately after for Miami, losing an hour along the way. "There's no excuses for being tired," Wizards guard Jodie Meeks said -- even though the scoreboard told a different story: 129-102, Miami.

The Grizzlies were playing in a red-alert game, as it marked their fifth game in eight days, third game in four days and the second of a back-to-back set. They hosted the Jazz the day before, then flew out immediately after for Dallas, where they faced a Mavericks squad that entered the game with an enormous three-day rest advantage. The Mavericks rolled 114-80, clocking their largest margin of victory this season.

Most egregious travel snafu: Chicago Bulls

This was a tough one, but the Bulls get it for their airplane mishap while flying to Cleveland for a Dec. 21 matchup. As Bulls.com reporter Sam Smith eloquently wrote, "It was an NBA milestone of sorts, as the regular team plane was replaced by one much smaller, NBA players, it was believed, for the first time in more than two decades traveling in what approximated coach class. And then with the plane too small for the stairs in Cleveland, so the players after almost an hour wait on the plane had to exit climbing down a makeshift luggage conveyor braced up against the plane. This was a case of the baggage waiting for the passengers. It didn't seem like an ideal harbinger."

The Bulls hosted the Magic the night before, then headed out immediately after -- losing an hour along the way -- to face a Cavaliers squad that had a one-day rest advantage. Give it to the Bulls, though, for keeping it close, losing 115-112.

Most night/day shooting performance: Giannis Antetokounmpo

The 23-year-old Greek Freak is almost unstoppable -- unless he's playing with serious fatigue.

Antetokounmpo scored 14 or fewer points in two schedule alert games this season and averaged just 12.5 points in those outings, compared to 25.7 PPG in his non-schedule alert contests. That minus-13.2 drop in scoring average between schedule alert and non-schedule alert games is the worst among any player to play in at least two schedule alert games.

Just look back to Nov. 1, when Milwaukee played a schedule alert game in Charlotte. The Bucks hosted the Thunder the night before, then flew out after the game -- losing an hour along the way -- for Charlotte, where they would close out a back-to-back set and play their third game in four days the next night.

Entering this game, Antetokounmpo was leading the NBA in scoring at 33.7 PPG, but then he was held to just 14 points and scored only five points in the final three quarters. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel also noted that Antetokounmpo missed layups and air-balled a floater.

"I can shoot over guys easily," he said, according to the Journal Sentinel, "but there were no legs tonight."

Most lopsided beatdown: Chicago Bulls

The Bulls gets the Zombie for a whopping 39-point loss to the Pacers on Jan. 7. For the Bulls, it marked their fifth game in seven days, third game in four days and the second of a back-to-back set. They played in Dallas the night before, then headed out -- losing an hour along the way -- for Indianapolis, not arriving at their downtown hotel until 3 a.m. on the same day that they would be playing a Pacers squad that had been resting for two days.

Add it all up, and that's why this game triggered our third-highest MahScore of the season: 9.5.

The Bulls trailed by as many as 41 points during this bloodbath.

Biggest upset: Dallas Mavericks

The Mavs pulled off a red-alert upset of the Charlotte Hornets on Jan. 10 even though they faced the worst fatigue-related obstacles of any team this season, according to our formula, registering as our highest MahScore (10).

The Mavericks were playing their fifth game in eight days, their third game in four days and the second of a back-to-back set that required overnight travel over a time zone. The night before, they beat the Magic in Dallas, then they headed out immediately after -- losing an hour along the way -- for Charlotte, where they arrived at 3 a.m. local time to face a Hornets squad entering the game with a four-day rest advantage.

Four days!

But the Mavericks got a huge game from Yogi Ferrell, who made a career-high seven 3-pointers.

Shortest fuse: Wolves-Jazz on March 2

This was one of our nine red-alert games, as the Timberwolves were facing some serious fatigue-related obstacles.

As we've noted before, sleep loss can affect the parts of the brain that control emotional reaction and judgement, such as one's ability to lose their temper if, say, they don't like an officiating decision. How does that play out in NBA games? Technicals and ejections.

And this game featured both in spades! Two Timberwolves players were ejected: forward Karl-Anthony Towns late in the first half for arguing with officials and guard Jeff Teague late in the game for hip-checking Jazz guard Ricky Rubio. Jazz forward Jae Crowder was also ejected after jawing with Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau, who also received a technical.

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Towns, Teague tossed in Timberwolves' loss in Utah

Karl Anthony picks up his first career ejection and Jeff Teaque is kicked out after running over Ricky Rubio, as the Timberwolves fall to the Jazz 116-108.

So, in total, that's three ejections and five technical fouls.

But you can't blame the Timberwolves for being on edge. They lost in Portland the night before during a nationally televised contest, which no doubt ended later than most games. Then they flew out immediately after -- losing an hour along the way -- for Salt Lake City, where they closed out a back-to-back set the next night against a Jazz squad that had a massive three-day rest advantage.

Most drunken basketball: Denver Nuggets

The Nuggets turned it over a season-high 26 times in their Jan. 6 loss to the Kings in Sacramento.

"I passed the ball to [Nikola Jokic] when he wasn't even looking," Nuggets guard Jamal Murray said, according to the Denver Post. "I put that on myself. I've got to be able to get guys to the right spot and make sure we're executing properly, especially on the road."

Staying awake for 17-19 hours leaves one with an impaired reaction time that is equivalent to being legally intoxicated -- so don't be so hard on yourself, Jamal. Your squad was playing its third game in four days and the second of a back-to-back set. The Nuggets played the Jazz in Salt Lake City the night before, the headed out immediately after -- gaining an hour along the way -- for Sacramento to face a Kings squad that entered this game with a huge three-day rest advantage and was on the 11th day of a 13-game homestand.

The Kings turned those 26 turnovers into 40 points, helping them win even though they were without then-leading scorer Zach Randolph (oral surgery), George Hill (personal reasons) and Frank Mason III (heel contusion).


What's next?

The NBA has tweaked the schedule in each of the past two seasons in the spirit of creating more rest days, and time will tell if that happens again in 2018-19.

"There's nothing magical about 82 games," NBA commissioner Adam Silver told USA Today in September. "It's been in place for 50 years, but for the long-term planning of the league, as we learn more about the human body and the wear and tear of travel and the competitive landscape ... invariably we'll look at the regular season."

Even with the aggressive schedule changes that happened before this season aimed at improving player health, the total NBA games lost to injury or illness passed 5,000 for the the first time since prior to the 2005-06 season. "It's frightening," Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry told ESPN of the recent onslaught of injuries.

When asked about that statistic before a March 3 game against the Spurs, Clippers head coach Doc Rivers was also asked about the schedule and potentially reducing the number of games.

"That's not going to happen,' Rivers said. "Guys have been playing 82 games for a long time. So I don't think we should overdue this. It could be a freaky year with injuries, or we could be doing something wrong. I trust we'll figure it out, eventually."


Playoff implications

Fatigue doesn't reset in the postseason, so let's look ahead to how accumulated mileage might affect teams over the next two months.

LeBron going all 82

The Cavs' icon has never played in all 82 games during a regular season -- until now. Yes, in this, his 15th NBA season, with more than 53,000 total NBA minutes on the odometer, the 33-year-old James declared in February, "I want to play every game." As long as he suits up on Wednesday, he'll achieve just that.

James' proclamation defies logic in the era of DNP-rest. But with injuries to key teammates, and the shipping of Kyrie Irving to Boston, James has had to carry the Cavs like never before -- and, indeed, leads the league in minutes per game (37.2) for the first time since 2006-07, when he was 22 years old.

Every season, James continues to make a mockery of Father Time. Still, "no one is superhuman," said Steve Magness, an elite performance coach and exercise physiologist. "Fatigue is real and, once you hit it, it's hard to dig yourself out of that hole." So could James' historic regular-season push cost him in his quest for champagne in June?

A rested Harden is a happy Harden

Remember when Rockets star James Harden scored just 10 points on 2-11 shooting in 37 minutes in a Game 6 loss to the Spurs in the Western Conference semifinals last year? As one Rockets executive explained to ESPN after that game, Harden "just ran out of gas."

Indeed. Harden had finished third in minutes played in the regular season leading up to that flameout, after finishing first in each of the two seasons prior. But this season, Harden has missed nine games, and ranks 29th in total minutes played -- a huge drop from previous seasons. "It's probably the foremost thing on our mind," Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni told the Houston Chronicle in March, in regards to the notion of resting Harden leading up to the playoffs.

Hey, Thibs! Um, rest is good

Tom Thibodeau's reputation for running his players ragged is well-deserved. He has been tireless in his pursuit of tiring-out players. His starters led the league in minutes per game (34.9), with Andrew Wiggins ranking second in total minutes this season and Karl-Anthony Towns ranking sixth.

Here's the issue now: When Towns is tired, he doesn't play well. He was held to 13 points or fewer in three of the Wolves' schedule alert games that he played in this season. The Timberwolves also flew the second-most miles of any team this season, at 52,401, and were one of only two teams in the league to have three different five-games-in-seven-days stretches. "In the NBA, there's an excuse every night, whether it's travel, injuries, back-to-backs," Thibodeau said before a schedule alert win in November, according to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. "Or you can make good. When the ball goes up, you have to be ready to go."

Good thing Portland's known for coffee

Speaking of mileage, the Trail Blazers flew an NBA-high 54,004 miles this season, which is the equivalent of flying from Chicago to Cleveland every single day for 176 consecutive days.

Even worse? For every hour that someone gains while traveling across time zones from East to West, it can take that individual a full day to fully recover, according to Timothy Royer, a clinical neuropsychologist and president/owner of Michigan-based Neuropeak Pro, which specializes in athletic performance and recovery. And for every hour that someone loses while traveling across time zones from West to East, that same person can need about a day and a half to recover.

But if a team is playing a game every two days, it's nearly impossible to ever catch up. By comparison, the Raptors had a much easier flight path, as they clocked the second-fewest miles of any team this season (36,457).

The most important letter when it comes to sleep: Zzz's

"Sleep consistency -- going to bed and getting out of bed the same time every day -- is the most important thing," said Dr. Charles Czeisler, director of sleep medicine at Brigham Health and Harvard Medical School, who has consulted with NBA teams on managing their schedule. Czeisler said the NBA "really needs to eliminate the back-to-backs."

And when it comes to those treacherous back-to-back sets? The Jazz tied with two other teams for the most (16) this season and tied for second in the most games played in a different time zone from the previous game (41). That's a lot of lost sleep and circadian rhythms that were thrown off -- and also the accumulation of sleep debt, which operates like any other debt: the more one builds, the longer it takes to pay it off.

And it's not as if the playoffs allow for much time to catch up. "Most of the time, we tend to, as athletes, fans, coaches, we see [the regular season and playoffs] as two seasons -- 'Oh, it's like we're starting over,'" Magness said. "The reality is, your body doesn't start over. You're carrying all of the physical wear and tear. You're carrying increased emotional wear and tear."

Research contributions by Amanda Hajjar from ESPN Stats & Information.