NBA Playoff Travel: A Pro Hoops History Investigation

Train (Jim Hammer via Flickr)

The editorial staff of Pro Hoops History has advocated for reforming the NBA’s conference and division system based on intractable problems like the Eastern Conference being generally terrible for over 15 years. Also, the imbalance warps the allocation of draft picks to more talented Western Conference teams (that miss the playoffs) over worse Eastern Conference teams (that make the playoffs).

One argument that has been offered up opposing an “un-conferenced” NBA is that travel come playoff time would be hellish.

The retort I offer up is that – as far as travel is concerned – the Western Conference actually suffers under the current playoff system and the East benefits. Americans are notoriously bad at geography and the NBA is a reflection – perhaps catalyst? – of that notoriety.

This is after all, the same league that had a Los Angeles vs. Baltimore Western Division Finals in 1965. And the same league that had a Boston vs. Houston playoff series in the East in 1980, while also staging a Los Angeles vs. Milwaukee playoff series in the West that same season.

In terms of pure geographic space (and accepting the Mississippi River as the East-West demarcation line) the Western “half” of the United States is about twice the size of the Eastern “half”. Traveling from New Orleans or Memphis to Washington, DC, is less onerous than traveling to Oakland for the Pelicans or Grizzlies.

Applying this notion to the potential 2015 playoffs – as of the standings on March 3, 2015 – the Western teams are really going to feel the grind of travel compared to the East. By the way, the distances below are based on road travel, not “as the crow flies”. Team charter planes clearly travel as the crow does, but Google Maps isn’t easy at producing that distance. So there will be some discrepancy in the true numbers of the situation, but the veracity of the situation is aptly revealed with the following numbers.

Home Away Distance (mi.)
1 vs. 8 Golden State Oklahoma City 1616
2 vs. 7 Memphis San Antonio 727
3 vs. 6 Portland Dallas 2028
4 vs. 5 Houston LA Clippers 1548


Home Away Distance (mi.)
1 vs. 8 Atlanta Charlotte 247
2 vs. 7 Chicago Miami 1379
3 vs. 6 Toronto Milwaukee 609
4 vs. 5 Cleveland Washington 372


So for the Western Conference, the shortest trip right now (Memphis to San Antonio) is still higher than the average trip for the East. Conversely, the average trip for the West is twice the distance of the average East trip and  the average West trip is longer than the longest East trip. So, the relatively crummy East teams get a less rigorous travel schedule while the Western juggernauts face more wear and tear thanks to longer trips.

Now, moving to a conference-less playoff format would not only expunge mediocre Charlotte and Miami in favor of New Orleans and Phoenix, but it would also make travel more equitable for all involved. Here are the numbers for such a playoff formatting:

Home Away Distance
1 vs. 16 Atlanta Phoenix 1847
2 vs. 15 Golden State Milwaukee 2170
3 vs. 14 Memphis New Orleans 395
4 vs. 13 Portland Oklahoma City 1909
5 vs. 12 Houston Washington 1416
6 vs. 11 LA Clippers San Antonio 1354
7 vs. 10 Dallas Cleveland 1182
8 vs. 9 Chicago Toronto 521


Lookie there, the average distance traveled actually falls below the average for the current West scheme. Of course there will be luck involved in the ultimate seeding as to who you face and how far you travel. And it is going to suck when, say, Portland squares off with Philadelphia in a 1st Round match up, but the East’s safety net of easy travel being shredded is a systemic bonus in my eyes. After all, Philly has access to SEVEN other NBA teams within 600 miles, while lonely Portland has none.

So, if there’s going to be a chance at long, uncomfortable travel, everyone deserves an equal shot at bearing the pain.

(Like any investigation this is to spur commentary and provoke thought. Have at it with the logic and examples.)

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