HOW IMPORTANT IS NBA HOME COURT ADVANTAGE?
Yesterday we examined the relative insignificance of home ice advantage in the National Hockey League regular seasons and playoffs. Today, we’ll look at the opposite extreme. In the title of this article we asked ‘how important is NBA home court advantage’. The answer is ‘very important’.
Basketball has always had the most decisive home court advantage but compared to the other major North American sports its difficult to understand why this is the case. As far as NBA basketball is concerned there’s more similarity with NHL hockey than any other sport in terms of travel and the physical and mental demand on the players. Hockey is a more physical game while there is more running involved with basketball as well as fewer players on a team. There is no comparison whatsoever when it comes to home advantage—it’s insignificant in the NHL and huge in the NBA.
SO WHY DO NBA TEAMS PLAY SO MUCH BETTER AT HOME?
There are theories that teams play better at home because the sightlines are more familiar. That makes sense to some degree, but we’re now in an era of ‘cookie cutter’ arenas so it’s hard to think that there’s that much difference from one arena to another. A few decades ago there were clearly home court advantages—the Boston Garden supposedly had ‘soft spots’ in the parquet floor that Celtics’ players knew and took advantage of. That’s no longer the case with so much uniformity from one venue to the next. The only home court advantages that make immediate sense belong to the Utah Jazz and Denver Nuggets who play at high altitude. Yet neither team had an especially good home record. An improving Jazz team had a decent home record while a bad Nuggets team had a losing home record.
In the NHL we found that non-playoff teams actually had a lower differential between home and away wins than playoff teams. In the NBA, what’s interesting is that even the top teams in the league perform poorly on the road, relatively speaking. This season only two teams had fewer than 17 road losses—the record setting Golden State Warriors and the San Antonio Spurs. The two top teams in the Eastern Conference—Cleveland and Toronto—each lost 17 road games. 5 of the 8 Eastern Conference playoff teams and 4 of the 8 Western Conference playoff teams were under .500 away from home.
NBA playoff teams won on average 8.37 more games at home than on the road. That’s over twice the NHL differential. There was less of a differential for non-playoff teams but only because they were worse at home and on the road than their more successful counterparts. Only one team in the NBA had a better road record than home record—the Minnesota Timberwolves went 14-27 at home and 15-26 on the road.
The stark contrast between NHL home/road performance and NBA performance is even more evident in the playoffs. In the first round of the NHL playoffs there was actually a home ice disadvantage—home teams won 21 games, road teams won 28 games. Only one NHL series had more home team victories than road team victories. Four series had more road wins, 3 series were 3-3 splits. In would make sense that home ice advantage would be more meaningful in the playoffs but that’s not the case.
In the first round of the 2016 NBA playoffs there were a total of 44 games played. The home team won 30 of these games, the road team 14. And in diametric opposition to the NHL only one series had more road team wins than home team wins—the Dallas/Oklahoma City saw the road team win three games to just two for the home team. Two series were a 2-2 split and the other six series were solidly in favor of the home team.
In a future article we’ll dig a little deeper with our research and look at straight up and against the spread performance of home and road teams. One thing is clear, however—in the NHL you can handicap the game without thought as to which team is playing at home. In the NBA, the home court and the advantage thereon is a crucial consideration for any successful basketball bettor.