As Nick Collison wrote recently on his GQ blog, NBA teams travel in style. There may be a lot of miles logged over the course of a season, but it involves chartered luxury jets, upscale hotels and lots of pampering. So it’s hard for most of us to feel a lot of sympathy for “road weary” NBA teams when we’re subjected to the TSA cattle call, middle seats in coach and roadside motels.
But a lot of it is late-night travel to far-flung airports. And with the Thunder wrapping up their second of three three-game road trips in quick succession, the first three lengthy trips of the season, OKC is taking tours of each coast in chunks.
In a season when teams are looking for every shred of an advantage as they combat the compressed schedule, Oklahoma City is enjoying one just because of its location. OKC’s central spot on the U.S. map is a travel advantage for the team in any season, but it could be an even bigger edge as the NBA crams in 66 regular season games per squad in just 123 days.
Check out this map of NBA cities. I hope you’re already aware that OKC is situated close to the middle of the country, but the map really illustrates that the Thunder is about as centrally located as you can get for an NBA team. Memphis, east of Oklahoma City on Interstate 40, may be in the perfect NBA sweet spot in terms of potential miles flown because of the league’s concentration of teams on the East Coast, but because the Grizzlies are in the Western Conference, they make more trips in that direction.
But I don’t think total miles flown is the best way to look at how travel might affect an NBA team anyway. It’s long flights. Teams so often head straight from the arena to the airport to fly home or to their next road city and don’t get to their home or hotel until they’re closer to sunrise than sunset. I don’t care if you’re flying first class or not — a late-night flight when you’re tired, and especially a series of those late-night flights, aren’t fun or easy on the body. And they’re not really fun or easy even if they’re not late at night.
And that’s where Oklahoma City’s central location comes into play. It takes about three hours for an airliner to make a 1,500-mile trip, and that’s a pretty good line of demarcation to separate the shorter, more routine flights in the sprawling U.S. from the ones that approach trans-continental status. A three-hour domestic flight is pretty lengthy.
The Thunder only have five such flights all season — a 1,505-mile trek to Boston last month to kick off the East Coast swing, a 1,535-mile trip from Minneapolis to Los Angeles the day after an April 14 game against the Timberwolves, two 1,484-mile trips between Oklahoma City and Portland for games in March and the longest flight of the season, a 1,714-mile haul from San Antonio to Portland between games against the Spurs and Blazers. The Thunder has only 11 flights all season of at least 1,200 miles.
Notice three of the five long flights Oklahoma City faces this season involve games against the Trailblazers. Portland happens to be the team that travel generally hurts the most each year, and there’s a chance they’ll be fighting alongside OKC, Dallas and Denver — three pretty centrally located teams — for Western Conference supremacy. If the separation between playoff seeds comes down to only a couple of games, then what might only be a small disadvantage in a normal season could be huge in this compressed season.
Portland woke up Wednesday only one game out (in the loss column) of the fourth seed in the West, which would give the Blazers home-court in the first round and a potential second-round matchup with the Thunder. If they miss out on a top-four seed, or any other seed, by one game, who is to say that travel fatigue didn’t add up to one lost game by Portland?
The long flights hurt you in two ways. First, a dud, tired performance is the potential immediate consequence of a long flight. Having more of them creates more opportunities for them to happen. And second, the cumulative effects of fatigue will add up, and there’s less time to recover this year. Drip by drip, the worst travel days will take a little bit more out of the tank, just like an overtime game does.
Portland’s travel schedule has the potential to hurt in both regards. By next weekend, the Blazers match Oklahoma City’s five flights all season of roughly 1,500 miles or more when they fly home from Dallas after a back-to-back with the Hornets and Mavericks. Then there’s another 2 1/2 months of long flights remaining. The Blazers have five flights that are as long or longer than the Thunder’s longest flight of the year.
The schedule at least doesn’t force Portland to fly all the way to the East Coast in one stop — trips that far away for the Blazers begin with stops in central locations like San Antonio and Minneapolis, which are still lengthy flights but not coast-to-coast or close to it. Not so for the other West Coast contenders like the Clippers and Lakers.
The Clippers fly 2,311 miles from L.A. to Washington for a game against the Wizards, 1,814 miles from L.A. to Indianapolis for a game against the Pacers, later go 1,946 miles to Atlanta to start a season-ending road trip and home 2,469 miles from New York to finish the year (unless they fly somewhere closer to start a playoff series on the road).
The Lakers had to fly 2,342 miles to Miami to start a back-to-back last month, then home 2,214 miles from Orlando to finish it, and lost both games. That’s two flights each an hour longer than OKC’s longest of the season just for one two-day road trip. The Lakers finish their six-game Grammy Awards road trip this month by flying home 2,186 miles from Toronto. They start a March road trip by flying 1,979 miles to Detroit.
It’s a little different for the teams at the corners of the country on the East Coast. They have to travel out west, obviously, but it’s mitigated by the proximity of all the other teams in their time zone. There’s a bunch of short flights for those teams, and few for the teams three time zones to the west.
It remains true that something like the Thunder’s struggles with turnovers, defensive rotations or half-court offense is what will likely end up as the culprit if OKC doesn’t finish the season by winning the last game. And it might not be another team’s fatigue that is the deciding factor in Oklahoma City advancing in the playoffs. But as the race for playoff seeding heats up, and the season drags on, Thunder fans should be thankful that Oklahoma City is a couple of hours or less of flying time from just about everywhere.