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We the Northwest: Easing the Blazers' Travel Strain

The Portland Trail Blazers, isolated in the Northwest corner of the country, face difficult travel logistics every season. How can the NBA ease the impacts of an 82-game schedule on teams like the Blazers?

The Portland Trail Blazers just finished a road trip that was brutal even by the standards of NBA travel. From Nov. 8 to Nov. 16 the Blazers flew about 5500 miles to play five games. The rigorous travel seemed to affect Portland's on-court performance; the Blazers came out flat and listless against the Charlotte Hornets and were easily defeated.

NBA teams average 700 miles of travel per game, at most, over the course of the season. The Blazers averaged 1100 miles per game across four time zones during their past week. For context, Charlotte was also finishing up a relatively tough stretch of schedule when they faced Portland, having played four of their previous five games on the road. The Hornets, however, played in only two time zones and traveled 4400 miles to play six games (average of 733 miles per game).

To make matters worse for the Blazers, the Charlotte game started at 5:00 p.m. EST, 2:00 p.m. on the west coast (right in the middle of "NBA nap time"). This was the fourth time zone the Blazers had played in that week and the game had an unusual start time - not a formula for on-court success. NBA players thrive on gameday structure and consistency; Ray Allen (link) and Grant Hill (link), among others, have credited part of their success to unvarying routine. Regularly traveling across time zones and then playing games at unusual times destroys any consistent gameday routine for players who may already be fatigued by thousands of miles of flying. It's tough to make every day feel like Groundhog Day when all of your games tip-off at different times.

The NBA also acknowledges that traveling across time zones is not ideal - classifying those trips as "long distance." To combat jet lag, the league prohibits back-to-back games on opposite coasts, and tries to avoid back-to-backs in different time zones. These scheduling measures are based on the common sense understanding that jet lag (i.e. a disrupted circadian rhythm) will negatively impact performance. The Blazers also acknowledge the time zone effect, having taken advice from a sleep specialist in past seasons in an attempt to fight the effects of travel.

Note: The scientific literature on this subject for NBA players, specifically, is not conclusive. Travel is certainly fatiguing, otherwise home court advantage would not exist. The exact nature of the effect, however, has not been definitively identified.

Unfortunately, scheduling quirks like last week are unavoidable for the Blazers. On the NBA map, Portland is a remote outpost. It is the westernmost, northernmost, and most geographically isolated city in the league. The Blazers will always be among the league leaders in total miles traveled. Additional fatigue is a fact of life for the players.

Accepting the realities of geographic isolation, the NBA could still do more to help ease the Blazers' traveling pains. In fact, the league office has implemented several policies which make Portland's schedule worse. This is ridiculous for a team that already has to travel longer distances than the rest of the league.

Here are some potential changes that could help the Blazers:

Allow back-to-backs at home

The league rarely, if ever, allows back-to-back home games. The rationale is that attendance will suffer if fans are asked to commute to games on consecutive nights. This restriction has little impact for teams who have extremely busy home arenas, like the Knicks, Bulls, Lakers, or Celtics. Those teams already have few home dates to choose from.

In contrast, the Moda Center is not in high demand and the Blazers do have a number of home dates to choose from. If the league relaxed the "no home back-to-backs" rule for the Blazers the increased flexibility could be used to eliminate the more ridiculous travel quirks. From a business perspective, Blazers fans are some of the best in the league and attendance has not been a concern for a decade; adding a couple home back-to-backs is unlikely to change that.

No more "stand alone" home games

Portland has several "stand alone" home games this season - games that are preceded and followed by road games. For example, the team flew to Denver on Nov. 9, back to Portland for a game on Nov. 11, and then left for a game on Nov. 13 in Memphis. These types of trips allow little time for the team to recover from jet lag or fatigue, robbing them of the benefits of home court advantage. In essence, a home game is transformed into a de facto extension of the road trip. This is similar to Mike Barrett's often broadcast line about the first game back home being the last game of the road trip.

For Portland, these games often involve traveling long distances across time zones (Mountain to Pacific to Central in the example above) further exacerbating the problem. To help ease the Blazers' travel the league could eliminate the stand alone home games entirely or, at the very least, mandate that they not be surrounded by games in different time zones. This would serve to preserve Portland's advantage in the Moda Center for more games and help offset the effect of the extra miles the team flies every season.

Verify that the new scheduling isn't hurting teams in remote locations

The NBA made an effort this season to limit "long distance" back-to-backs and eliminate "4-in-5" stretches. For the most part, the league succeeded. The Blazers, however, still have 19 back-to-backs, one less than the league leaders, and are one of only five teams with multiple 4-in-5s. In past seasons the Blazers did not have an exceptional number of back-to-backs or 4-in-5s.

This season could be just an anomaly, but the league should consider whether or not its new scheduling procedure is placing remote teams at a further disadvantage. Specifically, the league's avoidance of back-to-backs made the scheduling process more difficult and further restricted available game dates. This may have made it harder to schedule games for remote teams thus leading to a situation where Portland is more likely to have 4-in-5s and back-to-backs than many other teams, placing them at an even greater competitive disadvantage in regards to scheduling. At the very least the league ought to track this trend and consider schedule adjustments if it continues next season.

Realign the "Northwest" Division

This one has been suggested many times. Everyone knows the Northwest Division is insane. That being said, the quantification of the insanity is staggering and has not been published elsewhere. Consider:

  • Portland and Boston are the two NBA cities most distant from Oklahoma City. The Thunder play home games in the central time zone, two time zones away from the Blazers but only one time zone away from the Celtics. The NBA could choose any other team at random to put in a division with the Thunder and it would immediately make more geographic sense than Portland. Literally any of the other 28 teams. At random.
  • Portland is the only team that does not share a time zone with a division opponent and the Northwest Division is the only division spread across three time zones.
  • The average distance between Northwest Division cities is greater than any other division. Specifically, there are five non-Northwest Division teams that are closer to Portland than Minnesota or Oklahoma City.

NBA divisions are not sacred cows, akin to the NFL's NFC North, and can be realigned at any time. Teams have shifted across divisions and conferences throughout the history of the league. Miami, Charlotte, Chicago, Houston, San Antonio, and Milwaukee all used to play in the opposite conference, and several NBA divisions did not even exist until 2004. There is no justifiable reason for the league to keep the Northwest Division as currently constructed. It places an unfair travel burden on several teams, including Portland who already has the greatest travel burden in the NBA.

Final thoughts

The Blazers will always have a difficult travel schedule. Fewer teams play on the West coast, and Portland is far away from other NBA cities. That being said, the league's current scheduling methodology and arrangements of divisions is less than ideal for the Blazers, placing them at an even greater disadvantage. There are reasonable and implementable solutions that could help ease those problems, and prevent poor performances like the ones fans saw this week in Charlotte.

Some may argue that the league has no responsibility to lessen the Blazers' travel burden, suggesting that longer flights are a "cost of doing business." But in recent years the NBA's front office has placed greater scrutiny on local quirks. In addition to re-designing the schedule they are also trying to weaken Denver and Utah's altitude-related home court advantage. If the league is willing to recognize unfair advantages for some teams it should be willing to consider unfair disadvantages affecting others.

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