The year 2020 is unique in the wrong way, with the NBA playoffs taking place in August instead of the usual mid-April to June. The games will be played at a neutral court in Orlando with no fans. From one viewpoint, that adds another layer of excitement to the game since top-seeded teams could no longer rely on their home court to give them an advantage. But does it really matter to have home court advantage in the NBA Playoffs?
The straight answer is yes, it definitely matters. There’s a reason why home teams win almost 70% of the time in the NBA playoffs. Let’s dig more in-depth about the home court advantage in the NBA playoffs.
Why is Home Court Advantage in the NBA So Important?
Numbers do not paint the whole picture, but they don’t lie either. That’s why delving into the statistics is the most solid tangible proof of why home court advantage in the NBA playoffs is important. Before going into the win-loss record of home teams in the NBA playoffs, let’s take a look at the home teams’ record in the regular season.
During 1998-2008, regular season home teams won 7,021 games and lost 4,569 for a 60.6% winning percentage. In the 2018-19 NBA season alone, the home teams’ winning rate increased– with the building owners winning 1,230 games and the visitors winning 501. For those who have done the math, yes, that’s a 71% winning percentage!
That year, the Milwaukee Bucks was the best team in the NBA record-wise winning 33 of their 41 home games and 27 on the road. The Denver Nuggets that year won 34 home games but only 20 as the away team.
So, does that trend carry on to the NBA playoffs? Absolutely! During 1998-2008, the home teams had a winning percentage of 64.9% (513 wins, 278 losses). In the first round, home teams won at a whopping 81.3% rate and about 80% in the second round. It’s quite interesting to note that the winning percentage for home teams dropped to 50% in the conference finals but climbed back up to 80% during the NBA Finals.
In the 2019 NBA playoffs, the Eastern Conference Finals only had one win for the road team. That happened in Game 6, where the visiting Raptors finished Milwaukee to go to the NBA Finals for the first time. Out West, because the Warriors swept the Blazers, the home team’s winning rate is at 50% (2 wins, 2 losses). In the 2019 NBA Finals, the home team won five times and only lost once. That happened in Game 1, where the Raptors defeated the Warriors 118-109.
Needless to say, while home court advantage in the NBA Finals is not everything, it does mean a lot.
How is the Home Court Advantage Determined?
For the most part, the seeding rule in the NBA is cut-and-dry with a few exceptions. Here is how the home court advantage is determined:
Under normal circumstances, the top eight teams of each conference advance to the playoffs. The top four teams in the East and West have a home court advantage over their opponents. The team with the higher seed is going to have the home court advantage in the succeeding rounds. The No. 1 team in the regular season gets the home court advantage all throughout.
Before 2015-16, there was a rule in the NBA that awards division champions as an automatic higher seed. Since then, commissioner Adam Silver got rid of that rule and made the regular season record as the sole determinant of playoff seedings.
Now, what if two teams from the same conference have similar regular season records? Or what if the two teams in the NBA Finals do have identical records? That’s not a problem at all since the NBA already has a tiebreaker rule in place.
The first tiebreaker is the season series. That means, whoever has a better head-to-head record gets the home court advantage. The next tiebreaker is if one of these teams wins the division.
For example, let’s say the Lakers and the Spurs have the same record. However, the Spurs have won the Midwest Division while the Lakers are not the Pacific Division leaders. In such a scenario, the higher seed goes to the Spurs.
If the tied teams are within the same division, the next tiebreaker is determined by whoever has a better winning percentage in the said division. The next determinant in case there is still a tie is the higher winning percentage when it comes to conference opponents. After that, there are still three tiebreakers, but since it rarely gets to that point, we’re going to leave it at the third tiebreaker.
How is Home Court Advantage Calculated? What Do the Stats Say?
Since we had already laid out the stats a while ago, let’s take another approach to the case. Dashiell Nusbaum of Medium created a database that calculates every NBA team’s home court advantage from the 2008-09 season until 2018-19. To calculate, just subtract the winning rate at home to the winning percentage on the road.
For example, the Nuggets have a winning rate of 75.62% at home; they have a 46.52% winning rate as a visitor from 2008-09 to the 2018-19 seasons. Hence, 75.62% – 46.52%, Denver’s home court advantage is 29.10%.
Do Basketball Teams Win More at Home Court?
From Nusbaum’s data and the numbers we laid out at the outset, it proves unequivocally that basketball teams win more at their home court. After all, being at home is a hundred times better than being on the road. Every single NBA team has a favorable home winning rate from 2008-2019.
Of course, there will be outliers here and there, but they are exceptions and not the norm. For instance, in the 2019-20 NBA season, six Western Conference teams have a better record on the road than at home. These are the Los Angeles Lakers, OKC Thunder, Dallas Mavericks, New Orleans Pelicans, Phoenix Suns, and the Minnesota Timberwolves. In the East, only the Charlotte Hornets has a better road record than at home.
So, the question that arises after getting a good feel of the numbers is this: What factors contribute to home court advantage?
This is not an exact science, but there could be several significant factors according to the eye test. Home attendance is probably the most significant factor of them all.
When you’re playing at home, you play in front of thousands of adoring fans. You sleep on your own bed, and the familiarity game is in your favor. There is a reason why home fans are often referred to as the “sixth man.” These madmen exert a lot of influence in the game.
Here are other factors that could contribute to home court advantage:
- Referee bias. We are not saying that NBA games are rigged, but there is evidence that shows referees subconsciously favor home teams because of the crowd reaction. It’s not that much actually, but in a close game, a good or bad call here and there is enough to influence the outcome.
- Every arena is different. Every arena plays in a 90-foot court, shoots at a 10-foot rim, and so forth, but the layout of every arena is different. Denver’s altitude is different, for instance. If you’re not used to playing in such an environment, you do so to the detriment of your team.
- Psychological significance. One of the reasons why home court advantage exists is because the players themselves believe so. The analogy is pretty straightforward: Which environment would you prefer playing, a place where 80% of the people root for you or a place where 80% want to see you fail badly? I guess we don’t have to answer what. Even before the game starts, home teams already have an advantage if you look at the situation this way.
Wrapping Things Up: Home Court Advantage in the NBA Playoffs
Some may deny the existence of the home court advantage, but the numbers do not back up that claim. Even back in 1950, home teams have won 74% of the time, and in the past years, that rate stayed at the low to high 60s. That is clear evidence that home court advantage in the regular season as well as in the playoffs does exist. And if it exists, it matters.
Now, what could be the factors why home court advantage exists? For one, familiarity is critical. There is no better feeling than sleeping in your own bed and practicing at your own basketball court.
Second, a study proved that home teams were awarded the more beneficial calls by the referees. That’s because they could subconsciously be affected by the crowd.
Third, it’s the psychological advantage that home teams have because four out of every five guys are rooting for you.
With that being said, home court advantage may be a little tricky to evaluate, especially in the playoffs. We all know the better teams record-wise secure the better seedings, which means these top tier teams are playing more at home than on the road in the playoffs. But then again, that should not depreciate the importance of the home court advantage in the NBA playoffs.
We have written a comprehensive article on how do the NBA playoffs work here.
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