The Harvard Doctor Who Coaches Athletes on Sleep Has a Big Proposal for the NBA—and it Makes Total Sense

'Now that the league has taken this critical first step, there is a straightforward way to eliminate back-to-back games altogether.'

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An Open Letter to Mr. Adam Silver, Commissioner of the National Basketball Association

November 1, 2017

Dear Commissioner Silver,

We want to applaud your many efforts to improve both the league and the game of basketball. Specifically, we want to commend the league for recognizing that back-to-back games that require teams to travel overnight between cities cause sleep deprivation that compromises player performance and increases risk of injury in such games. The league decision to add one week to the season calendar has reduced the interval between these back-to-back games from every 10 days to every 11.8 days (excluding the All-Star break), and eliminated the occurrences of four games in five nights altogether. That will provide a welcome relief, especially for teams that have been resting star players and starters in these high-risk games (so called Do Not Play-Rest days).

Now that the league has taken this critical first step, there is a straightforward way to eliminate back-to-back games altogether. We respectfully propose that the NBA and its owners consider having all teams that play each other four times (a total of 10 team matchups) within a season play two 2-game series in each city. This change would have many potential benefits beyond eliminating back-to-back games. Fans enjoy the hype built in the local news media around a matchup that can be evaluated for more than one night. The losing team from the first game plays with a chip on its shoulder. Both teams have a chance to become familiar with the opposing players’ playing styles and moves, which can lead to surprising reversals in the second game of the mini-series for those teams that are most adept at adapting. Moreover, fans would not put off buying tickets, since they would know that each rival would only be in town once per season. The format of playing several games in a mini-series against some opponents has been used successfully by other professional leagues; it allows the MLB to cram 162 games into a 6-month season. Our proposed NBA schedule reform would eliminate more than 10 trips per team per season (300 trips across the Association), significantly reducing travel time, travel costs, fatigue and burnout over the course of the season, while also significantly reducing the NBA’s carbon footprint. This should also reduce the need for DNP-Rest days for star players, without requiring the league to resort to unpopular and difficult-to-enforce penalties.

We recognize that there are obstacles to implementing any change. Notably, maintaining traditions is important in the deeply-rooted NBA culture. It is worth noting that NBA teams already play mini-series against opponents in the playoffs. For those concerned that an interdivisional opposing team will only be visiting for one trip per season, note that this would not change the number of home games or road games that a team plays against each opponent or over the course of the season. Notably, teams from the opposing conference already only make one trip to each city per season. The only difference under the proposed NBA schedule reform would be to eliminate entirely the need to stay up overnight while traveling between cities in back-to-back games.

To make sure that NBA fans would embrace these 2-game series and ensure that teams would not suffer at the box office, we suggest that in the 2018-2019 season, the league initiate a trial in which each team has a pair of 2-game series with one other team in its division, such that there are 15 mini-series across the league next season. If the trial were successful, then it could be fully implemented the following season.

Thank you very much for your consideration of this suggestion, and best of luck with the 2017-2018 season!


Charles and Mark Czeisler

Charles A. Czeisler, Ph.D., M.D. is the director of sleep medicine at Brigham Health and Harvard Medical School, who has consulted with NBA teams on managing their schedule.

Mark É. Czeisler is a junior studying neurobiology at Harvard College and a longtime die-hard NBA fan.

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