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By the time you drive the 30 or 40 minutes that it takes to go from Denver’s lone major airport to one of the downtown hotels near Pepsi Center where NBA teams stay prior to their games against the Nuggets, it feels like you could very well be in another state.
Denver International Airport is located around 30 miles outside of downtown Denver, making it one of the most distant airports in the league from a team’s NBA arena and city’s main metropolitan area. Because of its remote location and the city’s 5,280-foot elevation — the highest in the league — the NBA for the first time eliminated certain back-to-backs that end in Denver from the regular-season schedule that was released last week.
“One of the things, as we go around and talk to the teams and leaning things and hearing from coaches and GM’s, one thing that kept coming back to us was teams flying from specifically Portland into Denver,” said NBA Sr. Vice President Broadcast Schedule Management for the NBA Tom Carelli while discussing the process behind putting together the regular-season schedule on Howard Beck’s The Full 48 Podcast. The distance is great. You lose an hour in the time change and you fly into elevation. And the last part, that we’re all aware of, is the Denver airport is pretty far away from the city of Denver.
“So you factor all those things in and you’re going to elevation and that became something that we really focused on. And these are the things that we learned from talking to our teams and having these conversations so we eliminated that. That’s one thing again, focusing on player rest and focusing on the game, that enables us to get rid of something that was a real problem.”
Sr. Vice President and Head of Basketball Strategy and Analytics of the NBA Evan Wasch, the second league official primarily in charge of the NBA’s 82-game slate, went into further detail about the unique circumstances around back-to-backs that end in Denver and how the league eliminated the Portland to Denver and Los Angeles to Denver back-to-backs from its schedule entirely this year.
Historically, the Nuggets have been one of the top teams in the league when playing at home. In 2012-13, Denver went a league-best 38-3 at Pepsi Center. Opposing players and coaches routinely cite the elevation in Denver and distance from the airport to their hotel as factors that play into their matchup against the Nuggets.
“We actually went through every potential back-to-back combination,” said Wasch. “So every pairing of city A to city B and looked at the distance from the arena to the airport in the first city, the flight time, and then the distance from the airport to the city center or wherever the typical team hotels are on the backend to understand not just what is the travel miles, because historically that’s how this was always looked at, you know, this is a back-to-back that’s 500 miles, but how many hours of travel is it and are you losing or gaining a time zone?
“And what we did is we took every one of those city pairs and color-coded them green, yellow, and red based on how comfortable we were and our teams were going on those back-to-backs. And so the way the system looks at it now is it looks at green back-to-backs as things that are generally okay. While we try to avoid back-to-backs, in general, they’re fine. Yellows, we try to minimize those, and reds it won’t allow. So we’ve now coded in things like Portland to Denver and L.A. to Denver, which historically were allowed in our schedule, we’ve now coded those as these red back-to-backs and so they won’t show up in any schedules that we look at.”
The NBA has placed a priority on player rest and health when constructing its schedule over the past few seasons. The shortening of the preseason over the last couple of years has allowed the league to decrease the average number of back-to-backs for teams from 19.3 in 2015 to 14.4 in 2018 and 13.3 this upcoming season.
According to the league, eliminating the Portland and L.A. to Denver back-to-backs is another step in championing player rest and putting the best possible product on the floor.