In the NBA, especially as the regular season draws to a close, there is a lot of talk about home court advantage. This is the supposed bump teams get from playing games on their home floor, in front of their own fans without having to travel and face the rigors of playing “on the road”.
Is home court advantage real in the NBA? Home court advantage in the NBA is most definitely real. Evidence suggests home court advantage gives teams a 4-5 point bump. The main advantages come from Fans, Home Comfort (no traveling/hotels etc), familiarity with the facility. The same home court advantage holds true for both the regular season and NBA Playoffs.
While we can definitively say that over the course of NBA history home court will give a team an advantage, it is by no means a guaranteed win. Below we look at the difference between regular season and playoffs, general trends and what the NBA 2020 Playoff Bubble in Orlando can tell us about the nature of home court advantage.
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NBA Regular Season Home Court advantage
While the NBA Regular season is in itself simply a battle to secure home court advantage for the NBA Playoffs, it carries within it an indicator of whether that home court advantage is even worth fighting for. NBA Playoffs are played over a best of 7 game format. The higher seeded team, playing four of them at home and the lower seeded team hosting the other 3. Currently all rounds of the playoffs are in a 2-2-1-1-1 format.
Home Court Winning Percentage – NBA Regular Season
The graph above shows the trend of home court advantage in the regular season over the modern NBA era. You can see the final 2 entries are the 2020 NBA season that was cut short and culminated in the final 8 games for most franchises being played on a neutral court and the following 2021 season that saw the majority of games played behind closed doors, we’ll come onto that later.
What the graph visually depicts for us is the gradual erosion of home court advantage, from as high as 68% in the 1980’s to frequently below 60% and falling.
The gradual erosion of home court advantage in the NBA can be put down to many things.
- Improved Road Conditions
- Many hotels in NBA cities now cater for traveling NBA teams with things like oversized beds.
- More money means more luxury, players no longer have to cram into twin bed motel rooms the night before a game.
- Improved stadium facilities. Gone are the days of freezing cold road dressing rooms in the NBA.
- Better Planning
- The NBA produces its fixtures with a much bigger eye on limiting the negative impact traveling will have on teams.
- Logistics are a focus for teams, ensuring players arrive at tip-off as rested and focused as possible.
- Flights are no longer economy class or worse. Almost always NBA teams will travel on a chartered private plane.
- Court Conditions
- The modern NBA ensures that the surface, markings and hoop system are nearly identical across the league. This wasn’t always the case in the early days of the modern NBA.
- Scheduled Losses and Load Management
- NBA teams are a lot more analytical now and will often plan rest days for players where it is needed. This can have a big impact on wins and losses across the season. Some superstars focus on playing on road games vs home games. Lebron might only play in Boston once a year, so he’ll want to be available. He has 41 games to play in front of his home crowd in LA.
NBA Playoffs Home Court advantage
The NBA Playoffs is a much smaller sample size than the regular season, so there still exists a fair bit of noise when looking at the data.
Home Court Winning Percentage – NBA Playoffs
The graph above depicts the same data set as the regular season one we looked at earlier, although this time playoff games only. The trend of erosion is still there, however not quite as pronounced. Partly this is due to the smaller sample size (there are far less games each year in the playoffs than regular season) and partly due to the inherent nature of the “better” team playing more games at home in the NBA Playoffs.
Many of the reasons for home court advantage existing in the Playoffs are the same as those for the regular season. This is the same with the decline as road conditions, travel, logistics and strategy get better, so two will the home court advantage fade. However, the big power of home court advantage in all sports has and will always be playing in front of your own fans. The power of support is unbeaten. This was proven during the Pandemic enforced changes that saw neutral venues and empty arenas.
The NBA Pandemic Seasons – Home Court Advantage
The Coronavirus pandemic that altered the course of both the 2019-20 season (Lakers Champs) and the following 2020-21 season (Bucks Champs) is a brilliant case study in what really fuels home court advantage.
The 2019-20 season saw the regular season home court winning percentage drop to an all time low of 55%. This was then immediately eclipsed the following season dropping to just 54% as players toiled away in empty arenas.
The Playoffs in contrast serves as proof that fans presence is the ultimate factor in home court advantage. The 2020 NBA Playoffs were played entirely on neutral courts, the home court advantage (which was essentially just some coloured branding for the designated home team) plunged below 50% for the first time in NBA history. Conversely to the regular season, the following Playoffs saw this percentage bounce back, with home teams winning 50% of games as players got used to having fans back in the arena in time for the regular season run in and NBA Playoffs.
These numbers normalized alot more in the 2021-22 (GSW Champs) season, the first with all matches played without significant restrictions. The Regular Season recovered to a 55% Home Team win percentage and the NBA Playoffs to a 60% Home team win percentage.
Is Home Court Advantage Real in the NBA?
As we have shown above, the NBA has always and will probably always hold an advantage for the home team. While the trend is that this advantage is diminishing, it also shows as being more pronounced in the all important post-season.
What’s the driver of Home Court Advantage in the NBA? All evidence suggests it’s you, the fans.