Player fatigue is not unique to the NBA. Athletes across all professional sports get tired. They get injured. They disengage. Something can happen in every sport, in every league, that impacts a player's ability to perform while leaving you, the bettor, on the hook for an undetermined result. But the NBA has a special relationship with fatigue—both for the better and worse.
Why Is Fatigue A Larger Problem In The NBA?
Everything here comes back to the NBA's pace of play.
Teams are given a 24-second shot clock with which to construct their scoring opportunities. This maximizes the number of possessions every squad will play through over the course of a 48-minute game. Even the slowest, most methodical offenses are running through 90-plus possessions each game.
This, mind you, does not begin to account for the energy that gets expended on the defensive end. Unlike football, basketball players need to play both sides of the ball. Serving dual roles while running up and down the court can get exhausting.
Playing basketball is arguably just as, if not more, physically taxing than soccer. Both sports entail getting up and down the court or pitch, but soccer players tend to have more down time during live action. There is no shot clock that dictates how long they can maintain control of possession on one side of the field. This is not meant to detract from the difficulty of soccer. Players need to be in peak conditioning.
Hockey players face similar problems by having to go from one end of the rink to the other, but they, too, are granted longer reprieves. Managers only deploy their players for a few minutes at a time. Line changes are frequent.
Baseball doesn't even begin to compare. Most players must operate on both offense and defense, but there isn't a ton of movement involved. There are breaks in-between pitches and prior to the start of every half-inning. And when players are in the game, there's a lot of standing around if the ball doesn't get hit to them or they aren't running the bases.
Football players are further inoculated against fatigue for similar reasons. Games last 60 minutes in regulation—15 minutes per quarter—but most of that is spent walking back to the line of scrimmage and waiting for the extended 40-second play clock to expire. Mesh this with the fact that players do not have take the field for both offense and defense, and they're given plenty of rest NBA players are not.
Granted, football is far more of a contact sport, but the point still stands: NBA players are seldom resting when they are in the game. Basketball is constant motion, save for those occasional moments when you're waiting on a free throw. It's no wonder even players in the best possible shape get tuckered out. Basketball, more so than other sports, is exhausting by design.
How Player Fatigue Impacts NBA Betting
Just to be absolutely clear: Nothing about the above explainer is meant to diminish the difficulty of other sports. All of them can be tiring under the right circumstances. The NBA truly starts to diverge from the pack, though, when looking at its monitoring of fatigue, the effects it has on player and team performance, and how it reacts to these issues.
Studies have been done about the importance of sleep in the NBA. Research papers and articles have been written about how poorly teams and players tend to fare on the second night of a back-to-back, or when they're playing through the final leg of four games in five nights. The league is overtly aware of the role fatigue plays in its product.
Other sports are too, for that matter. But the NBA is more proactive than most when it comes to protecting its players. You will see coaches dole out last-minute rest nights. You will also see them pull players earlier than normal during blowouts in order to safeguard them against injury or even just to avoid wasted efforts that won't translate to a win.
This self-awareness is ultimately good for the sport. It can ruffle the feathers of fans who want to see their favorite player on the floor every night, but the big picture matters. After all, from a purely entertainment perspective, what's more important: LeBron James playing in a random mid-January road game, or him being as healthy as possible once the playoffs tip off? It's that latter, a hundred times over, and it isn't even kind of close.
Still, while the progressive logic of most NBA teams is easy to understand, that sympathy to fatigue doesn't help the bettor.
Many rest nights are announced long after a game's initial lines have released. The Golden State Warriors could open up as nine-point favorites over the Sacramento Kings, only for their head coach to announce 60 minutes prior to tip-off that neither Stephen Curry nor Kevin Durant will play.
This is all well and good for bettors who wait until the last minute and have time to invest in the adjusted spread, which will tilt further back toward the Kings' favor. But what happens to gamblers who have long since submitted their tickets? Well, they're subject to that original nine-point spread. If they initially bet on the Kings, well, they're fine. If they invested in the Warriors' spread or their moneyline, then they may get burned.
Of course, rest nights are only part of the problem. The absence of them is an issue as well.
Keeping with that same Warriors-Kings hypothetical, let us presume Curry and Durant both end up playing. This guarantees nothing if Golden State is finishing out the latter part of a back-to-back or wrapping up a stretch of four games in five nights or even just concluding a weeks-long road trip. Good players won't always just perform well or up to their usual standard because they are on the court. Many will suffer from fatigue-driven slumps. So even though they're playing, they're not actually helping their team. They could be a non-factor. They could even end up being a detriment. Their effort will wax and wane as their squad fails to cover or loses altogether.
Planning Around NBA Player Fatigue
It is impossible to predict instances of these fatigue-related etdowns. You can try, but overall, there is too much unpredictability involved.
Rest nights for key players often are not announced until the last minute, within one hour prior to the start of the game. Assuming rest nights for certain players at the outset of your betting doesn't do anything either. There's no guarantee you are correct. The same holds true when trying to account for player slumps. What happens if you bet on the Kings simply because the Warriors are wrapping up a long road trip with the second night of a back-to-back, and yet both Curry and Durant ball out anyway?
The safest form of prevention is complete avoidance. Be wary of betting on any games that include a team closing out a long road trip, working on the second night of a back-to-back or playing through the tail end of four games in five nights. This is meant to apply to both sides. Don't just assume the Kings will cover or beat the Warriors because the latter is entering under one of the three aforementioned scenarios. That plays into the uncertainty you are trying to eschew.
Also get in the habit of avoiding late-season wagers on teams that have nothing to play for. If the Warriors have wrapped up first place in the Western Conference with three weeks to go in the season, there is very little value in playing their spreads or moneylines at all. They don't have an incentive to chase wins at full bore. You will see crummy efforts and rest nights for stars that result in blown-up bets—should-be covers and victories that turn into complete misses.
Bad teams can fall under this umbrella as well. Squads that tumble outside the playoff picture early on will often engage in late-season tanking, a method where they deliberately don't field their best players so that they can lose as many games as possible and maximize their draft lottery odds.
As another general rule, do not touch NBA games that come within two or three days of the February All-Star break with a 10-foot pole. Many teams and players have inched past the 50-game plateau by that point. They're ready for the rest and relaxation that the All-Star sabbatical promises them. And this begs for checked-out performances in which entire teams have entered vacation mode a few hours or few days too early.
Think of it in your own workaday terms. The Friday just before you take a long, well-deserved vacation is always extremely difficult to get through. You are distracted. You are yearning for your vacation to start. You are not at your best. It works the same way in the NBA. Some people tend to think that professional athletes are never not at the top of their game because most of them enjoy fame and fortune, but they are human and prone to error just like the rest of us.
Lessoned Learned About NBA Fatigue
- Fatigue is not a myth in the NBA; it is very real and more common than in some other sports
- There is no strategy for betting around fatigue; predicting rest nights and slumps is too difficult and imprecise
- The best form of prevention is complete avoidance of risky circumstances such the tail-end of back-to-backs, the close to a stretch of four games in five nights and the final leg of a weeks-long road trip
- Be on high alert whenever betting on games that include teams who have nothing to play for toward the end of the season
- Never place too much equity in a team's final game before the All-Star break; player fatigue is real and their performances are unpredictable during this particular portion of the schedule