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On Back-to-Backs in the WNBA

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Kevin Pelton, storm.wnba.com | June 20, 2005
While chatting with David Locke and I before Wednesday's game against the Seattle Storm, Minnesota Lynx Coach Suzie McConnell Serio made an interesting observation. Discussing the Storm's improbable win at Detroit a week before, McConnell Serio asserted that WNBA teams rarely lose both games of a back-to-back set. Not good teams, as Locke wondered, but all of them.

Immediately, Locke and I knew a statement like that was right in my wheelhouse. I decided to use the project as an excuse to dig a little deeper on the topic of back-to-backs in the WNBA. In the NBA, studies have shown that teams don't really perform any worse in the second game when you account for the fact that back-to-backs are much more common on the road than at home. But there's a big difference between an NBA back-to-back - where the team flies out after the game on a private charter and then sleeps in the next morning in the new city - and a WNBA one, which involves commercial travel on the day of the game.

Having made a grand total of one NBA back-to-back myself, I can't say I can really imagine going through the WNBA version, and that's speaking as someone whose most strenuous activity during the game is walking to the press room. So let's take a look at some numbers.

My first look at back-to-backs was through Storm history. Since the Storm predates McConnell Serio's arrival in the WNBA by three years, I was looking more at general back-to-back performances than specifically getting swept (which, as you might expect, the Storm did its fair share of during the first two seasons).

There are four types of back-to-back sets: away-away (the most common), home-away, away-home (East teams tend to play more of these than West teams, because of their proximity on the seaboard) and home-home (very rare). The following chart breaks down the Storm's performance in each of these in game one and game two:

Situation Game 1 Game 2
Away-Away 7-7 (.500) 5-9 (.357)
Home-Away 3-5 (.375) 2-6 (.333)
Away-Home 0-5 (.000) 3-2 (.600)
Home-Home 2-1 (.667) 0-3 (.000)

Overall, the Storm is 22-38 in back-to-backs - 8-11 at home and 14-27 on t he road. Those numbers aren't really out of line with the Storm's overall performance, given that more back-to-backs were played in the first couple of seasons of the Storm's existence.

My next step was to take a look at back-to-backs league-wide in 2005 thus far. Only a quarter of the way through the season, this obviously isn't a large sample - just 12 thus far. Only one time of those 12, however, has a team been swept, that team being the 1-8 Charlotte Sting on opening weekend.

In fact, teams have been particularly good in back-to-back sets. Here's the overall performance:

Situation Game 1 Game 2
Away-Away 1-3 (.250) 4-0 (1.000)
Home-Away 5-1 (.800) 3-3 (.500)
Away-Home 1-1 (.500) 1-1 (.500)

The road-road back-to-back is considered the toughest in pro basketball, but it hasn't bothered WNBA teams thus far - they're 4-0 this season.

Of course, we're talking about four games here, and pretty much anything can happen over four games. For a more substantial look at the issue, I went back to last season and looked at all 56 back-to-backs played in the WNBA. The breakdown:

Situation Game 1 Game 2
Away-Away 3-18 (.143) 5-16 (.238)
Home-Away 12-7 (.632) 11-8 (.579)
Away-Home 7-7 (.500) 12-2 (.857)
Home-Home 1-1 (.500) 1-1 (.500)

As well as teams have handled the away-away back-to-back in 2005 (they're a combined 5-3 over both games), they were equally putrid in 2004, going 8-34. But what should be evident from the chart is that teams were not really bothered whatsoever by fatigue from the first night. Let's make that a little more clear by comparing performance in game one and game two:

Situation Game 1 Game 2
Home 13-8 (.619) 13-3 (.813)
Away 10-25 (.286) 16-24 (.400)
Total 23-33 (.411) 29-27 (.518)

If the more difficult travel in the WNBA has any effect on back-to-back games, it's not clear from the statistics (at least for 2004). But what of our original question? Another way to break up the data is by whether or not the team won in the first game. (I've also maintained the home-road since it is, of course, easier to win at home.)

Situation Win Game 1 Lose Game 1
Home 7-1 (.875) 6-2 (.750)
Away 7-8 (.467) 9-16 (.360)
Total 14-9 (.609) 15-18 (.455)

Overall, teams were much better in the second game if they won the first game. That's not surprising; teams that win any game are likely to be better than teams that lose. Still, the magnitude of the difference is pretty large. As well, there were 18 times when a team was swept in a back-to-back set last season out of 56 total - nearly one in three. It appears such a result is not really that uncommon.

Postscript: After this column was written but before it was posted, the Minnesota Lynx played their second back-to-back of the season, at Sacramento and Los Angeles. They were swept. I should have noted McConnell Serio forgot to knock on wood.