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.)

Fat Lever

Born: August 18, 1960
Position: Point Guard
Professional Career:
Portland Trail Blazers (NBA): 1982-’84
Denver Nuggets (NBA): 1984-’90
Dallas Mavericks (NBA): 1990-’94

Fat Lever

Lever’s low profile has been largely of his own doing. On the court his moves are efficient and, thanks to his stamina, relentless rather than spectacular. And he shows all the apparent passion of a CPA at a Chapter 11 hearing. “Some guys show their feelings, some guys don’t,” he says. “I may not, but they’re jumping around inside.”

– Via Fat is Lean and Tough

Lafayette “Fat” Lever was indeed “relentless rather than spectacular.” But in a peculiar twist, that relentlessness became spectacular. Think of him as the stream of water that unerringly flows forth through the years, centuries and millennia and eventually turns into the mighty Mississippi or carves out the Grand Canyon.

This 6’3″ point guard was like that mighty stream. He just wore you down in every stat, every facet and every way.

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Tommy Heinsohn

Born: August 26, 1934
Position: Power Forward
Professional Career:
Boston Celtics (NBA): 1956-’65

Tom Heinsohn SI

Tom Heinsohn’s influence in today’s NBA has boiled down to how many Tommy Points he hands out on a given night to the Boston Celtics. Or how many vitriolic rants he aims toward incompetent referees.

Back in the day, though, Heinsohn still dished out points, but they were the ones that actually counted on the court. As the Boston Celtics’ official gunner, he shot so much and so often that he was nicknamed “Tommy Gun” and “Ack-Ack.” You know, “Ack-Ack” as in the sound a tommy guns made in those old black-and-white gangster movies.

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Marques Johnson

Born: February 8, 1956
Position: Small Forward
Professional Career:
Milwaukee Bucks (NBA): 1977-84
Los Angeles Clippers (NBA): 1984-86
Golden State Warriors (NBA): 1989

The Lowdown: Quick and mobile, Marques Johnson was a handful for opposing forwards. Fewer small forwards crashed the offensive board as well as Marques. His mid-range jumper was just about automatic. And when trapped or pinned down, he had a way of whipping the ball out of trouble and to open teammates. His perennial 20-point, 7-rebound, 4-assist average spoke to his all-around skill. A terrible injury in 1986 cut his career short, but for nine seasons he plied his way as one of the league’s foremost forwards.

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Neil Johnston

Born: February 4, 1929
Died: September 28, 1978
Position: Center
Professional Career:
Philadelphia Warriors (NBA): 1951-59


“I doubt if Johnston will ever receive the recognition that Mikan got because Neil didn’t come into the league with the fanfare and blowing of trumpets that accompanied Mikan.” And the fact that Chamberlain came immediately after him, in the same city, also didn’t help.

Via Eddie Gottlieb and Alex Sachare from the 100 Greatest Basketball Players of All Time

If ever a player picked a bad time to dominate the NBA, it was Neil Johnston. He rose to prominence as George Mikan’s Minneapolis Lakers dynasty came to a close. He faded as Bill Russell began constructing a new one in Boston. Dynasties get the glory, interregnums, however, get a shoulder shrug.

His place in the mid-1950s, even if falsely reduced to merely a placeholder, was still pretty remarkable.

For three straight seasons, Johnston led the NBA in points per game with his ability to nail sweeping hook shots with either hand. So dependable was his hook shot that he also led the NBA in field goal percentage three times, although not consecutively. He was the finest, most dependable offensive weapon in the mid-1950s NBA with the exception perhaps of his Philadelphia Warriors teammate, Paul Arizin.

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Dan Issel

Born: October 25, 1948
Position: Center, Power Forward
Professional Career:
Kentucky Colonels (ABA): 1970-1975
Denver Nuggets (ABA/NBA): 1975-1985

Pat Williams, general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers, says of Issel, “He’s not a pro-type center, not defensive-minded, not an intimidator, and you can’t win a title with him. But when his career is over, he’ll be an immortal.”

Via “King of the Rocky Mountains” by Douglas Looney

The complaints of so-called dainty “big men” that prance around the perimeter are nothing new, basketball fans. Elvin Hayes and Bob McAdoo took their fair share of heat in the 1970s for not being “tough enough” and so did Dan Issel despite the evident utility of such big men then and now.

And by the way, Pat Williams, Dan Issel’s Kentucky Colonels did win the ABA title in 1975.

Ten years later on May 22, 1985, a great career came to end in Los Angeles. In the final game of that year’s Western Conference Finals, the Laker fans in attendance gave a rousing standing ovation as Dan Issel trotted off the court for the last time. Moments earlier Issel, a 6’9″ center, had nailed a three-pointer. It was one of just two field goals he made that night exhibiting the decline his body and skills had taken over 16 years of pro ball.

Of course, Dan Issel never played a single year, game, or minute for the Lakers. Still, the fans of Los Angeles and basketball worldwide had to give it up for a player such as Dan Issel.

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Bob Feerick

Born: January 2, 1920
Died: June 8, 1976
Position: Forward
Professional Career:
Oshkosh All-Stars (NBL): 1945-1946
Washington Capitols (BAA): 1946-1949
Washington Capitols (NBA): 1949-50

Bob Feerick didn’t enjoy a lengthy pro career, but – as with so many things of the mid-20th century – you can blame that on World War II. Like so many men of military age, Feerick was in the armed forces. Luckily for Feerick, he wasn’t sent to fight, and possibly die, on the beaches of Normandy or the sands of Saipan.

Instead he was sent to the domestic naval station at Norfolk where he encountered the fiery oddball, Red Auerbach. Feerick, who’d been a standout college player at Santa Clara, was an ace of the so-called Norfolk Naval Training Station Quintet. The team barnstormed on the weekends to make some extra cash, but the relationship formed between assistant coach Auerbach and Feerick would pay dividends in the coming years.

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