How the NBA schedule rattled the Nuggets ... and their opponents

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Kyle Korver needs answers because something just doesn't add up. So after the final buzzer sounds at Quicken Loans Arena, the Cleveland Cavaliers guard seeks out the opposing head coach.

"Man, you guys are supposed to be tired tonight," Korver tells Denver's Mike Malone.

The Nuggets had played in Memphis the night before, Korver notes, then left immediately after and traveled overnight -- losing an hour as they crossed time zones -- to Cleveland. The very next night, in what would be the Nuggets' third game in five days, they faced a Cavaliers squad that had been off the previous day and had been home for a while, as this would mark their fourth game of a five-game homestand.

"You guys are supposed to be tired," Korver again tells Malone.

Malone laughs. He is very tired, having not settled into bed until about 3:30 a.m. earlier that morning. But it's no secret that during the helter-skelter NBA calendar, every team knows exactly when it's battling far more than its opponent, just as every opponent knows exactly when it has a significant edge, as the Cavaliers believed they had entering this March 3 evening. That's also why this particular game qualified as one of our 54 schedule alert games for 2017-18 -- games in which, according to our formula, one team faces a steep competitive disadvantage due to the schedule.

Yet, somehow, the Nuggets pulled off a 126-117 win at Quicken Loans Arena. And the next morning, still in the fog from a string of late nights and lost sleep, Malone credited his players not just for beating the Cavaliers but for fighting through heavy fatigue.

"Sometimes, mentally, you have to find ways to fight through it and it's not easy," Malone said, "because some days you wake up, you literally wake up and you go, 'What city am I in? Who are we playing tonight? And what happened last night?'"

That's life for any team abiding by the NBA's schedule, although Malone's squad faced more than its fair share of fatigue in 2017-18. This season, the Nuggets played a league-high six schedule alert games. For context, the Nuggets played three schedule alert games in January alone. Meanwhile, the Pelicans, Knicks, 76ers and Cavaliers did not play in one all season.

The Nuggets lost their first four schedule alert games before winning their final two. In those six games combined, their point differential was minus-22 in the first half and minus-one in the second. In their four schedule alert losses, the average margin of defeat was 11.25 points, ranging from 2-32 points. In one such loss, on Jan. 13 against the Spurs, the Nuggets trailed by 38 -- and shot a season-low 34.9 percent.

Denver also had a season-high 26 turnovers in their schedule alert game against the Kings on Jan. 6 -- its second-most turnovers in a game in four seasons. Nuggets forward Nikola Jokic struggled mightily in two of those games, scoring just eight points against the Kings on Jan. 6 and nine points on March 3 against the Cavaliers.

"I don't want to lead the league in schedule alert games," Malone said.

In an effort to maximize rest, Malone said they tweaked their own schedule -- scaling back practice times, shootaround times or opting for a morning walk-through at a hotel.

"You want to give them as much time the next morning to get as much rest as possible," he said.

After moving around their own schedule and dealing with a treacherous January slate, which included four stretches of three games in four nights, the Nuggets saw improved shooting percentages. In fact, after losing to Phoenix on Jan. 19, the team held only three practices over the next few weeks, during which they posted a 6-2 record and saw their offensive rating climb to a league-best 113.9 points per 100 possessions.

"Everybody's been playing fresh and playing fast," Nuggets guard Gary Harris said then, according to The Daily Camera newspaper, which first reported the surge. "Maybe we might have caught onto something right there."

Entering the 2017-18 season, in the wake of growing criticism from several star players and health experts, the NBA altered its regular-season slate, eliminating stretches of four games in five days for the first time in league history, reducing five-games-in-seven-days sets and trimming 57 total back-to-backs, among other adjustments while beginning the regular season one week earlier.

But, in an 82-games-in-176-days approach, there is only so much that any team can do to stay fresh.

"The demands of the schedule are insane," Malone said, but he prefaced that remark by noting that when the NBA releases its regular-season schedule in August, every NBA head coach can spot something to grumble about.

Perhaps it's the number of back-to-back sets, as the Grizzlies, Jazz and Kings led the league with 16 each. Perhaps it's the number of five-in-seven stretches, as the Spurs and Timberwolves each had a league-high three of those. Perhaps it's mileage, as the Trail Blazers, Timberwolves and Lakers were the only teams that topped 50,000 miles this season, while the Pacers were at the bottom with 35,520 miles.

The Nuggets went on a four-game road trip in October, a six-game trip in December and a seven-game trip in March. Meanwhile, the longest road trip for the Timberwolves and Thunder, who play in the same division as Denver? Three games.

Denver was also one of only two teams to take a seven-game trip, the other being the Knicks, and the only team to take two trips of at least six games this season.

"To me, that is mind-blowing," Malone says. "Again, the NBA can't keep everybody happy, and I'm sure a lot of different things go into it, but when you have as many tough games as we've had and schedule alert games ..."

The NBA schedule is a "huge math problem," as Evan Wasch, a senior vice president of basketball strategy and analytics for the NBA, described it during the 2016 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston.

"Because what we're trying to do is schedule 1,230 games in 29 buildings across a roughly 170-day season," Wasch said then. (The season is now 176 days.)

He noted then that if you run the numbers, there are more ways to create an NBA schedule than there are atoms in the universe. "It's not even close," Wasch said.

But as slighted as Malone and the Nuggets might feel about their schedule, other teams would point out how Denver has a geographical advantage that often pays off.

"Some days you wake up, you literally wake up and you go, 'What city am I in? Who are we playing tonight? And what happened last night?'" Nuggets head coach Mike Malone

In fact, NBA head coaches will say that traveling to Denver to play on the second night of a back-to-back set is the most feared travel scenario in the league, because of the higher elevation in Denver, the weather and the distance from the airport to downtown.

"By far," Clippers coach Doc Rivers told ESPN in 2016. "It's not even close.

And you lose an hour. People forget that. Denver, you lose an hour, so you're getting in four in the morning, you're exhausted, the air is thin, the airport takes forever and if they play well, they're going to win."

Rivers added, "I always have a trigger on Denver games. At some point [during the games, I'm thinking], 'F--- it -- pull them.' Whenever you go there, you start the game out and by the third quarter, you make a determination -- 'You know what? Pull them, if you're not winning.' And you would never do that in any other game.'"

In summing up the scenario of closing out a back-to-back in Denver, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich told ESPN in 2016, "That one is a b----. It's tough."

Entering this season, the Nuggets have a 102-36 record in such games since 2007-08 -- and that 73.9 win percentage ranks second in the league over that span behind the Spurs, who have won 82.4 percent.

In fact, in February during a TNT broadcast, NBA Hall of Fame center Shaquille O'Neal revealed that he used to "foul shave" during games in Denver -- i.e. he'd intentionally pick up quick fouls to avoid having to fight through playing in the city's thin air.

"The whole game," O'Neal said, according to the Denver Post. "Because I used to be so tired I couldn't breathe. Here are three quick fouls. (Former Lakers head coach) Phil's (Jackson) like, 'I know what you're doing.' I'm like, 'Yeah, I'm foul shaving. I'm not putting up with all this.'"

Perhaps it's a psychological edge more than anything?

"I don't even know if it's psychological," Popovich said. "It's a fact. You can count the hours. Especially if you play a TV game, like a ridiculous 8 o'clock game on the West Coast -- by the time it finishes, what if you have an overtime? And then you lose an hour going to Denver and then you take that drive from the airport all the way [to downtown], then are you going to shootaround the next day? You take the day off. You don't do it."

Indeed, it's not unusual to see teams having a rest day or two in Denver before facing the Nuggets.

"But here's the funny thing," Malone continued. "Last season, the NBA is trying to avoid that situation. They gave us four of those games. Where we had to travel from L.A., San Francisco or Golden State, or Sacramento rather, to come home and play the second night of a back-to-back at home."

That's just another example of how, in the NBA schedule, what goes around comes around.

Another such example: The Nuggets played in an NBA-high six schedule alert games this season, but they also played fatigued teams who were on schedule alert five times -- and the Nuggets won all of those games.

"It's not just about going out there physically," Malone said. "It's 'OK, can I fight through this fatigue?' And I think most teams that go into three games in five nights or back-to-backs, it's mentally where they come up short, because it's hard."