Fred VanVleet wears a Fitbit on his wrist – the popular piece of wearable technology that normal people use to count their daily steps, their calorie output and monitor their workouts.
The Toronto Raptors point guard doesn’t need to track his steps or pay much attention to his calories. He doesn’t need to diet and his job is to work out.
So what gives?
“I gotta track my sleep,” he says.
Rest is the NBA’s newest performance-enhancing drug, and it’s entirely legal.
VanVleet is merely trying to find and keep an edge, and the past two weeks or so have been an ideal scenario for the him and his teammates. Not only are they in the midst of 12 days with only three games, they have been at home the entire time, temporarily free from the NBA grind of flying from city to city between games and not getting to the next hotel until three or four in the morning.
It’s nearly an unprecedented stretch of calm in an NBA season that typically jolts teams from one time zone to another the way a cat toys with a mouse.
Not surprisingly the Raptors are already 2-0 on their extended homestand, but the nuances of the NBA schedule say they have the easiest game yet when they host the Phoenix Suns Tuesday night at Air Canada Centre.
It’s a bit early in the season for a must-win game, but the Suns represent the Raptors’ first “lose and you should all quit” game — no offence to Phoenix.
And it’s not just because the Suns have already fired their head coach, replacing him with former Raptors head coach Jay Triano, and are ranked 30th in the NBA defensively, although that’s part of it.
More significantly the Suns will be travelling to Toronto late Monday night/early Tuesday morning from Philadelphia after having played the 76ers for the first half of a back-to-back.
Their stop in Toronto will be the sixth and final game on a 10-day road trip and their third game in four nights.
If they track their sleep – and most NBA teams do – the story would be straight forward: they haven’t had enough.
Toronto? The Raptors’ issue lately has been figuring out what to do with all their free time.
Raptors head coach Dwane Casey has a team that is largely healthy, save for Delon Wright (shoulder, which is improving) and Lucas Nogueira (calf strain) and well rested and with all the practice days an NBA team could conceivably use.
The challenge for Casey has been to resist the urge to run them into the wood in practice.
“It seems like, ‘Oh, you should just go out and practise,’ but it’s harder because you’ve got to make sure you manage the rest, manage your legs, manage the energy the guys expend,” Casey said after a workout at the BioSteel Centre on Monday. “You can’t treat it like a training camp (and try to) get away with the gift the schedule is giving you.”
The NBA schedule has been a under considerable scrutiny in recent years as the league office has tried to find a way to balance the demands of travel and playing games an average of a game every two and a half days for six months inevitably place on its athletes.
In recent years teams have resorted to resting their stars on nights when the schedule is such that their level of fatigue could increase the risk of injury.
San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich was the first, famously resting Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Danny Green for a nationally televised road game against the then-rival Miami Heat in 2012, sparking a massive uproar and earning a $250,000 fine. Last season, in consecutive weeks, the Golden State Warriors rested Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala — with Kevin Durant already injured — against the Spurs, and then the Cleveland Cavaliers sat LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love for a game against the Los Angeles Clippers.
The league has listened and adjusted for this season by shortening training camp and starting the season 10 days earlier than in the past. The result is the league reduced the number of back-to-back sets from an average of 16.3 per team to 14.4 and eliminated stretches of 18 games in 30 days and four games in five nights.
As well, the number of stretches of five games in seven nights is down by more than half of last year’s total of 90.
On the flip side the league installed a system of fines and disciplinary measures to use against teams that rest players for showcase national broadcasts and has encouraged teams that do feel the need to rest their players due to fatigue rather than injury to do so at home, rather than on the road.
So far so good, although the issue doesn’t typically rear its head until later in the season as fatigue and nagging injuries accumulate.
But there are still plenty of landmines, and the Suns are stepping into one in Toronto Tuesday night.
“It feels like we’ve had a few like that recently, against Minnesota when we got in late, and Detroit where we got in late and they were at home waiting for us,” said Triano Monday as the Suns were preparing to play Philadelphia — the Suns lost both games.
“That’s the NBA, you can’t really do anything about it.”
How likely is a Raptors win, given the Suns’ surmised fatigue level?
According to a tracking study initiated by ESPN The Magazine last year, the Suns game is one of the most predictable losses (for the Suns) on the entire NBA calendar for the month of December, and that’s without factoring in the relative records of the two teams or their current injury chart.
The study came up with a measure they call Mah Score – named after NBA sleep consultant and performance scientist Cheri Mah – who looked at the NBA schedule and ranked games based on eight different fatigue factors. Games like Tuesday’s Raptors-Suns showdown where one team is at the end of a long stretch of travel and a compressed competitive schedule and the other has been at home, catching up on its rest are considered to have a highly predictable outcome, again, regardless of the relative quality of the teams involved. Games with a ‘Mah Score’ of 7.5-9.5 are losses (for the tired team) 78 per cent of the time, based on historical data.
The Suns-Raptors game has a Mah Score of 8.5. Add in that the Raptors have the best home record in the NBA (8-1), a perfect 5-0 against teams below .500 and the Suns are 4-7 and 10-14 overall, and there is little wonder bookmakers have the point spread at 13.5 in the Raptors’ favour.
Casey knows it too.
“You watch that, you see that,” he said when asked how closely he pays attention to opponents’ schedules. “You understand the schedule, how many games [they’ve] played in a number of days.
“But again, you’ve got to take care of who we are … we’ve got to come in with a sense of urgency that our backs are against the wall.”
It’s the only approach Casey can take – any implication that his team can mail it in is a dereliction of duty and counter to the coach’s code.
But as VanVleet’s Fitbit would likely show; the Raptors are rested in a way that the Suns can only imagine at this stage of their travels.
And the evidence suggests that’s a mountain that will be too high for Phoenix to climb.