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Road offers unique opportunity to bond, prepare at training camp

A formidable challenge during the season, road tripping presents unique opportunities for NBA teams to bond and prepare at training camp.

Rui Hachimura and his Wizards teammates took a preseason trip from Washington, D.C. to Saitama for the 2022 NBA Japan Games.

Ask most NBA coaches, executives and even players to name their least favorite place to be each season and they’ll collectively agree: “The road.” Thousands of hours and millions of dollars have been spent over the years to learn that teams win more at home, sleep best in their own beds, eat better with home cooking and on and on.

Yet here we are in the year 2022, with highly paid and tuned athletes gathered for another grinding NBA season, starting with a series of daily, often exhausting practices, and what do some teams choose to do? Hit the road for training camp.

Philadelphia traveled down the coast to Charleston, South Carolina, setting up at The Citadel. Houston went east to Lake Charles, Louisiana, and the campus of McNeese State, after spending last fall’s camp in Galveston. The LA Clippers went Summer League-ish again, hitting UNLV’s expansive Mendenhall Center. Denver headed to San Diego, and Portland to Santa Barbara.

The Toronto Raptors are the Magellans of the bunch, crossing three time zones and spanning more than 2,700 miles to broaden their brand in Victoria, B.C. And Miami booked the most exotic destination, a quick flight to Nassau, Bahamas. No coincidence that the Heat operation is run by a man, Pat Riley, whose Lakers teams routinely held their camps in Honolulu.

Four teams – Atlanta, Golden State, Milwaukee and Washington – started early with short camps to participate in preseason games internationally. The Warriors and Wizards traveled to Saitama, on the outskirts of Tokyo, and the Hawks and Bucks are meeting in Abu Dhabi.

The Wizards’ trip was a nod to forward Rui Hachimura, whose Japanese mother was born in Toyama, Japan.

“One thing I’m worried about is that we only have basically four full days,” Hachimura said before the team departed. “If you go to Japan, you need at least a week and a half to see different stuff.”

The Wizards’ bodies and minds might need more time, too, to deal with the jet lag and altered routines accompanying the trip. That’s one reason many teams prefer to stay home for camp. Build habits, maintain easy access to training facilities, allow new players to get acquainted with their fresh locales – the list goes on.

But sequestering still has its fans. There remains a solid NBA tradition of teams heading off to shun distractions and focus on what lies ahead, using camp like a getaway business conference. Occasionally even like a boot camp.

Last year, for instance, Oklahoma City didn’t leave the area code but went retro with camp at their former facility north of the city, a corrugated steel building that previously housed a skating rink. Thunder coach Mark Daigneault and GM Sam Presti wanted their players to learn the franchise’s roots, even if they only stretch back to 2008.

“This is a place,” Daigneault said a year ago, “where we really try to tap into our principles as an organization and really like to understand what the teams before us were built on.”

Utah went for the bonding in 2021, too. Inspired in part by what former coach Quin Snyder felt were some positive elements from the Orlando bubble experience in 2020, and nudged a bit by some construction at their usual practice site in Salt Lake City, the Jazz spent several camp days in Las Vegas.

Sixers coach Doc Rivers loved the Clippers’ camps in Vegas when he worked there, and now he has the players’ attention at McAlister Field House at The Citadel. If jobs are going to be all-consuming for the next nine months anyway, why wait, right? Given Philadelphia’s championship ambitions, it’s not too early to lock in.

Many NBA teams no longer can justify the expense of setting up a week of training camp on some distant campus. They’re the ones with state-of-the-art, multi-million dollar practice facilities in or near their home arenas. No equipment, therapy option or even luxury has been spared at places such as Orlando’s new $70 million AdventHealth Training showplace, just a block from the Amway Center.

The Nuggets are not one of those teams. As they got started this week, coach Michael Malone explained again why Colorado’s NBA entry was down in San Diego. “The first reason is space,” Malone said. “When we have a practice facility that can have two courts, we’ll be staying [in Denver] and training at altitude.”

(The Magic’s practice crib actually has a chamber for that now, enabling players to improve their cardio stamina in thinner air.)

The Raptors are most like NBA teams of yore, taking their act on the road. It’s something they’ve done for years, most recently in Victoria since first prepping there for the 2017-18 season. They are, after all, Canada’s team, and traipsing across the country with preseason games in Edmonton and Montreal enables the Raptors to grab new fans.

Masai Ujiri, Toronto’s top basketball exec, noted that COVID-related restrictions reined in the Raptors’ whereabouts after 2019. “Now we get back to normal,” Ujiri said at the opening of camp, “a tradition that we have had here for many years here. It’s important for our team and our fans to see us in different places.”

Miami opted to go shooting drills by daytime, umbrella drinks by night at the Baha Mar’s Grand Ballroom to circle the banana boats and create camaraderie. Portland was reaching for something similar when coach Chauncey Billups booked them into a spot used previously by teams such as the Kings, Grizzlies, Clippers and Lakers.

“I’ve always thought the best way to connect for a team is on the road,” said Billups, whose team is recoiling from its first playoff absence since 2013. “If we had camp [in Portland], we’d have a good practice but then everybody goes home. You lose the rest of that day as an opportunity to really connect.”

All-Star point guard Damian Lillard, trying to bounce back himself after abdominal surgery in January, said: “We’ve got each other. Being here, it’s almost like a retreat. We play basketball, we go through practices, we go eat together and we’re spending time together kind of in a bubble.”

The scenery doesn’t hurt, either, with Portland headquartered at the Ritz-Carlton Bacara on the Pacific Ocean.

“Everybody’s obviously really happy waking up looking at that water every day,” Billups said. “So the mood is good.”

Best to enjoy it while they can. The Blazers play in Minneapolis on Jan. 4.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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