Sep 23, 2020 - Sports

Less travel is causing the NBA to see better basketball

an illustration of a basketball hoop where the backboard is a pillow

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

In addition to keeping out the coronavirus, the NBA bubble has also delivered a stellar on-court product, with crisp, entertaining play night in and night out.

Why it matters: General managers, athletic trainers and league officials believe the lack of travel is a driving force behind the high quality of play — an observation that could lead to scheduling changes for next season and beyond.

  • "This is the advantage that we have not had," one team health official told ESPN's Baxter Holmes. "We're always tired, [but in the bubble] our guys have been rested ... We've been able to get them recovered again and again."
  • Another health official said the quality of play has some rethinking the concept of load management. Before, they thought heavy minutes were the leading cause of fatigue. Now? "It might actually just be the travel."

The intrigue: On a call last month with commissioner Adam Silver and all 30 GMs, the concept of teams traveling to cities to play two games in a short span next season was discussed, according to Holmes.

  • These baseball-like homestands could lead to better play, while reducing travel amid the pandemic and leveling the playing field for coastal teams who typically travel more than their peers.

The big picture: The NBA has made efforts to reduce travel in recent years by creating more rest days and eliminating four-in-five stretches, but its teams still travel more than other major North American sports teams.

By the numbers: During the 2018-19 season, NBA teams traveled an average of 43,534 miles, nearly 7% more than NHL teams (40,768), 36% more than MLB teams (31,993) and 441% more than NFL teams (8,049).

  • As a result, sleep deprivation is "our biggest issue without a solution," one high-ranking league source told ESPN last October. "It's the dirty little secret that everybody knows about."

The bottom line: The pandemic has hurt sports leagues financially, but it also exposed inefficiencies and forced changes that could stick around. If the NBA can make something like homestands work, who wouldn't want better-rested players?

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