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The Bubble may transform the way the NBA handles travel and scheduling

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Could the lack of travel and resulting improved play be enough to make the league reformat the regular season?

San Antonio Spurs v Utah Jazz Photo by Ryan Stetz/NBAE via Getty Images

The NBA has spent the last several years juggling ways to improve the quality of play and way of life for its players, thanks in no small part to Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich starting the trend of “resting” his aging stars. The move initially drew the ire of league (or at least David Stern), but current commissioner Adam Silver — while not a fan of the practice himself — has been more attentive to players’ needs and receptive of new ideas to actually fix it.

Steps like spreading out the regular season to lower the number of SEGABABAs and mostly eliminating FOGAFINIs have been taken, but more extreme options such as lowering the number of regular season games or eliminating conferences have never gotten past the discussion table due to possible financial and contractual implications. However, the Bubble has presented new ideas on how the NBA could approach future seasons.

In a report released by ESPN’s Baxter Holmes and Zach Lowe on a conference call between several NBA GMs and Silver, it was noted how much crisper play has been and how much better players feel in the Bubble environment despite the condensed schedule, and that’s largely due to the lack of travel (among other things). Players arrive at the arena, play the game, go back to their hotel room, and go to bed. No trip to the airport, not plane ride, no trip to another hotel or drive back home — just staying in one place.

“Our guys feel better,” one Western Conference GM told ESPN. “We don’t know if it’s anecdotal, but we’ve got these games and we don’t have to jump on planes [afterward].”

“This is the advantage that we have not had,” said one Western Conference athletic training staffer in the bubble. “We’re always tired ... Our guys have been rested. They’ve been fresh. We’ve been able to get them recovered again and again.”

According to ESPN stats, NBA teams currently travel an average of 43,534 miles per season: nearly 7% more than NHL teams (40,768 miles), 36% more than MLB teams (31,993) and 441% more than NFL teams (8,049). The Pacific coast teams usually feel the brunt of it. Damian Lillard, whose Portland Trail Blazers team always falls among the top two in terms of miles traveled, has noticed the change as well.

“We’re seeing the benefit. I think this is consistent across the other teams is you can get treatment right after a game. The time that you would normally be spending in a visiting arena getting showered, getting changed, getting on the bus to the plane and then the altitude affecting swelling — and all that’s eliminated.”

As a result, talks as to how NBA travel time can be lowered when the regular season format returns is back in the forefront of many minds, and ideas such as longer homestands and even baseball-style homestands have been suggested. An example of the latter scenario would be the Spurs traveling to Minneapolis and getting both away games against the Timberwolves out of the way in one trip. For those doing the math, that’s theoretically a little over 2200 flying miles — or 4% of the league average travel time — saved in one trip.

Of course, while such a concept would have its benefits, there are road blocks to making such drastic changes. Not only would playing the same team in the same place multiple games in a row be a tough sell to fans (especially attending ones), it also presents its own scheduling challenges, such as how to work around arena dates for non-basketball events (which may or may not be an issue in the foreseeable future due to COVID-19).

Still, any way to cut down travel would be a benefit to the league and product on the court. One Western Conference GM pointed to the possibility of competitive balance even being improved.

“We’re never gonna solve competitive balance when it comes to free agency,” the GM said. “We’re not going to solve competitive balance when it comes to players forcing their way to certain markets by trade. But maybe there’s a way to find ways to make things more competitively balanced — just in terms of rest and recovery, and travel.”

Another point made (and it sure sounds like it either came from or was said with the Spurs in mind) was what less travel, more rest, and improved health could mean for the careers of players as a whole:

“If you have any franchise player, and if we can find new, more efficient ways to travel that are less punitive to our players, if you’re going to [give that player] another year with a franchise — what is that worth to you?” a Western Conference GM later asked, paraphrasing what was said on the call. “What’s that worth to the league as a whole, a star-driven league?”

As the Spurs can attest, it’s worth a lot — at least if you have franchise players who are dedicated to staying. Regardless, it’s too early at this point to tell if the noticeable difference in play inside the Bubble will truly be enough to finally trigger the NBA to move away from its current tried-and-true scheduling format, but they might at least be more open to it than ever before.