These guys won’t admit it, but they could use a break.
(Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty Images)
The funny thing about history is that it always comes down to the bottom line. When one looks back at a basketball season, they head right for the win-loss column and make a judgment about a team’s total body of work.
There’s a sort of inherent assumption that everyone was on equal footing along the way and that every team endured the same trials and tribulations; at least the same schedule. And that’s why history isn’t always accurate.
Take a look at the Suns this year. If you just look at the standings, you’ll see that they’re tied for the third-best record in the Western Conference and one of the early surprises of the NBA season.
But you don’t realize how surprising they really are into you take their schedule into consideration. Thus far, they’ve played more road games (15) than any team in the league and they’ve already played five sets of back-to-game games.
Is that normal? Well, let’s test that against a team that’s geographically close to them and in the same division. Let’s take the division and conference-leading Lakers as our test team.
The Suns are currently 15-7 with an 8-7 record on the road and a perfect record at home (7-0), whereas the Lakers are 17-3 with a 14-2 record at home. The Lakers have played only four games outside of STAPLES Center this season.
That’s right. Four games.
On top of that, they’ve only played three sets of back-to-backs. They squared off with the Rockets after they faced the Thunder and the Nets after the Warriors.
They also were blown out by Denver a night after beating the Suns. But that’s it.
Now compare that to the Suns, who faced the Magic after the Heat, the Lakers after the Hornets and the Cavs after the Knicks – which, incidentally – was also the finale of a four-game road trip.
In addition to that four-game road trip, Phoenix had a five-game road trip that concluded and saw the Suns head home for a game against the Hornets. After defeating New Orleans, the Suns promptly flew out after the game so they could go play the Lakers in L.A. the next night.
When asked if he had ever seen a schedule like this in five-year NBA career, Suns center Channing Frye replied definitively, “Nope.”
“It was either you were out on the road for two weeks for a long road trip or you were back for a week or two a home,” Frye said. “But never road (game), road, road, home; then road, road, road, road, road, home.”
Back-to-back games are seen as the most challenging aspect of an NBA schedule. But what is giving the Suns difficulty is who they’re facing on the second half of those back-to-backs.
To a man, every player in the NBA would prefer to play the tougher of the two teams on the first night of a back-to-back. But the Suns haven’t been so fortunate.
Just this season it has been the Lakers (twice), Orlando, Cleveland and Philadelphia. Their next back-to-back will be against the Nuggets. Not only were all of those teams I just mentioned in the playoffs last season, but four of the five were the top four teams in the league.
So does it seem like a coincidence that the Lakers are getting an easier game on the second half of back-to-backs? Let’s see.
The teams that the Suns play on back-to-backs this season totaled an 815-661 record. If those teams were to represent one NBA team, it would hold a .552 winning percentage.
The teams that the Lakers play accumulated a 605-871 record. That comes out to .410 winning percentage.
A .552 team in last season’s playoff race would most closely resemble last season’s Hawks, who finished with a 47-35 record and a fourth seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. A .410 team would represent somewhere between a Michael Redd-less and Brandon Jennings-less Bucks team that missed the playoffs and a Knicks team that went 32-50.
Who would you rather play?
The reason back-to-backs are tough is because a team will expend a great deal of energy on that first night. It’s even more difficult for the Suns because they rely much more on pushing the tempo and being in better condition than opposing teams.
To put it plainly, they expend more energy than most teams to win.
The key to back-to-backs, according to Gentry, is to play them all either at home or on the road. Splitting them up is when they get tricky.
“You’re almost better off playing two away games on the road then you are playing at home and then getting on a plane and then flying out that night,” Gentry said.
When examining the Lakers’ schedule, you’ll see that they have 18 back-to-backs, just like everyone else in the league. But a closer look shows that 12 of those back-to-backs are games in which they are on the road.
The Suns only have seven sets of back-to-backs where that is the case. Six times the Suns play at home before flying out right after the game for a game the next night on the road.
In all fairness, the Lakers do that five times as well. But here’s the clincher.
Four other times the Suns play on the road on the first night before flying back to Phoenix to host an opposing team the next night. The Lakers do that only once.
Another disadvantage the Suns face are those late 8:30 p.m. starts. The Suns have 10 of those this season.
Guess how many the Lakers have. That’s right, 0.
Now that late start may not seem like a big deal, but over the course of the season, those late nights add up. And before a trip, that extra time can be the difference between a late night, and a really late night.
For example, take this Friday. After the Suns host the Magic at 8:30 p.m., they’ll fly out for their game in Denver the next night.
Gentry, who is the last person to complain, finally admitted this much.
“Anytime you go to Denver from anywhere it’s going to be a long trip,” he said. “It’s a long drive from the airport. It’s an 8:30 game, so we’re looking at getting into Denver at 3-3:30 in the morning.
“Obviously, playing at home and then getting on a plane for a game the next night is a tough situation. But everybody does it, and like I said, we’re not making excuses, but it’s just factual. We just have to deal with it.”
But at least relief at home is coming in the near future. As one member of the press pointed out to Gentry, six of the Suns’ next eight games are at home.
“And six easy games it is, if I can recall,” Gentry joked. “There’s Orlando, and I think there’s Boston, uh, San Antonio, Cleveland and some other small team… Oh yeah, the Lakers. It should be an easy little home stand.”
So relax Suns fans. Not only are the Suns already a surprise but they’ve become one despite already playing through the most brutal part of their schedule.
Easier days will surely follow. They just won’t be until 2010.