Friday, December 05, 2008

Does travel have an effect on performance?

Henry Abbott of the excellent TrueHoop posted a link to a very interesting Los Angeles Times piece by Mike Bresnahan yesterday, in which Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson said he didn't think his team could top his record-setting 72-10 campaign with the 1996 Bulls. The reason Jackson cited wasn't the absence of Michael Jordan, or in fact anything on the court. Instead, he suggested that the Lakers' West Coast location and the increased travel required because of this would prevent them from breaking the record.

This isn't the first time a West Coast coach or GM has discussed the impact of travel on their team, but it's the first time I've heard it in the NBA. In Vancouver sports, this is a common theme, and others are picking up on it: Gregg Easterbrook of the always-excellent Tuesday Morning Quarterback has been tracking the miserable failures of West Coast NFL teams on the East Coast this season (they're currently 1-16 in games played in Eastern Time and 1-17 if you include the game played in London). Moreover, the theme took on new life this year thanks to The Globe and Mail's Matthew Sekeres, who wrote in November that new Vancouver Canucks general manager Mike Gillis was bringing in military sleep experts and biorhythm monitors in an attempt to improve his team's road play. I mentioned this to Abbott, and he was nice enough to quote me and send a link here.

Anyway, I figured it would be useful to take a quantitative look at the subject and its impact on the NBA. I'm not the most brilliant with stats, so I figured the easiest way to do this would be to look at the five remaining teams in the Pacific Time Zone (thanks to the demise of the SuperSonics) and their records at home, on the road in their time zone and on the road out of the time zone. I did this just by going through the schedule by team on This is done in the following spreadsheet:

What can we draw from this? Well, it's a very small sample size so far, but it does seem to suggest that there may be an effect. Of the five teams studied, three of them (Golden State, Sacramento and the Lakers) are demonstrably worse on the road when they're playing outside of their time zone. As a whole, the West Coast teams are 15-23 (.394) on the road out of their time zone thus far. I'd theorize that there may be a similar effect for East Coast teams playing out of their time zone. If anyone has an easy way to pull these kind of records without manually looking through all the games or a way to get this information from other leagues, send me an e-mail at andrew_bucholtz [at]; I'd love to try to expand this study.


  1. Ricardo3:52 PM

    There was actually a recent study with significant results. I can't find the original paper but this article ( cites it and this one ( also talks about it.

  2. Couldn't find the paper itself, but the results are summarized nicely on page 85 of this PDF.

    They define "circadian advantage" as how many hours "closer" to the current time zone you are, compared to your opponent. Teams with a one- or two-hour circadian advantage won 52% of the time, but if it was three hours, they won 61% of the time (a significant result).

    A three-hour advantage is pretty rare, though (you must have played on the other coast the day before, or something equivalent to that). The study found that, it only happened 16 times per 2430 games, a full season for all 30 teams. In 80% of the games, there was no circadian advantage for either team.

    Who knows whether the same effect applies to the NBA. I imagine it would, perhaps even more because basketball is more aerobically demanding.