For the first time in the history of the league all games were played at a neutral site, without fans in attendance, without any travel. Players didn’t have to worry about getting tickets for family and friends, there were no photos circulating about the clubs players were partying at during the playoffs, there were no mascots, or dancers and debates over who had the best home-court advantage because there was no home-court advantage.
The whole situation had many wondering how results would vary and asking the question, is home-court advantage real?
Through the course of the regular season, teams battle for their playoff position, which is based on their regular-season record. A better record means a higher seeding. The benefit of earning a higher seed is home-court advantage in a playoff series.
The NBA uses a 2-2-1-1-1 format during the playoffs (though there have been other formats used through the years). The team with the higher seed plays the first two games at home, Games 3 and 4 on the road, and if necessary Game 5 at home, Game 6 on the road and Game 7 at home.
Series won by team with home-court advantage since 1984
Historically teams with home-court advantage win. From 1984 to 2019, 76% of all NBA playoff series were won by the team with home-court advantage.
On a more granular level, those “if necessary” games really give an advantage to the home team, especially in the coveted Game 7 of a series. Prior to the bubble playoffs, 78.5% of all Game 7s have been won by the home team.
But, as explained above, the team with the higher seed is the one that earns the so-called advantage, which means they are the team that won more games during the regular season and by all accounts are usually the more talented team and more likely to win against a lower seeded team.
It could be argued that teams with higher seeds win at a higher rate because they are just better than their lower-seeded opponents.
In the 2020 playoffs, when there were no home courts and when all the variables were taken away, there was a noticeable difference in the percentage of higher seeded teams winning.
In the first round, things played out pretty much as expected with seven of the eight higher seeded teams winning.
The first round of the playoffs pits the No. 1 seed against the No. 8 seed, No. 2 against the No. 7 and so on, so the talent level of the first round is often at its most disparate.
In the NBA conference semifinals, when the talent level should theoretically be leveled out a little more, teams with home-court advantage have won 79.9% of the time. In the bubble, the opposite was true.
Three of the four lower-seeded teams won the conference semifinals in Orlando, and in the conference finals there was a split. The Los Angeles Lakers, the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference, advanced to the finals, where they would eventually win, but in the Eastern Conference, the No. 5 Miami Heat ousted the No. 3 Boston Celtics to advance.
One postseason in a bubble is too small of sample size to come to any sort of real scientific conclusions, but it certainly adds to the case for home-court advantage being a real thing under normal circumstances. And, if there’s one thing that competitors want when trying to win at the highest level, it’s any advantage they can get.
“Obviously we want to be in a position where we’re one of the top two teams in the West so we can, at the end of the season, be in a great position to have home-court advantage,” Rudy Gobert said.
Of every NBA playoff game played between 1984 and 2019, the home team has won 65.2% of the time. A logical mind would look at that data and say that the more home games you have to play, the better chance you have of winning, and the numbers would agree.
That doesn’t mean that talent doesn’t matter and that road wins aren’t possible, it absolutely does, and they absolutely are. Prior to the bubble, four of the last five NBA titles were clinched on the road and there have been nine NBA titles won by teams that don’t have home-court advantage in the NBA Finals.
This season, with most NBA teams playing to empty arenas as the COVID-19 pandemic still rages, the idea of a home-court advantage has changed, but teams are still chasing the higher seeds.
“That’s why they call it an advantage,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “It may be diminished with respect to other years. But there’s a lot of things that go into it, including sleeping in your own bed, travel, all those different variables.”
The Jazz want to be known as a good team both at home and on the road. After a recent six-game homestand in which the Jazz won every game as part of an 11-game win streak, they made some headway in establishing themselves as one of the better teams in the league at their home arena.
Additionally, the Jazz are one of only a handful of teams allowing a limited number of fans into the arena, adding to the atmosphere of a home game.
The NBA regular season is more even than the postseason, with home teams winning around 57% of the time. One contributing factor to the slight advantage, which Snyder recently pointed to, is that teams often have more time to prepare when they’re at home. They’re more likely to have a morning shootaround and more time to go over a game plan. Add that to the familiarity of the arena and surroundings, and it makes for a pretty compelling case whether it’s the regular season or the playoffs.
While many of the players have their eye on a higher seed and in turn home court during the playoffs, Snyder doesn’t want to outright say that’s one of his goals for the team.
“What I’ve talked about with our group is, whatever the advantage is, we want to have consistency and that’s usually reflective of consistency throughout the regular season,” Snyder said. “I want to be playing our best basketball at the end of the year. Whatever seed that makes you, that would be my hope.”
There’s no telling what the 2020-21 playoffs are going to look like. If the coronavirus continues to surge the NBA could be headed toward another bubble situation. If there is progress in vaccinations and curbing COVID-19 cases, there could be more teams that will allow fans in arenas. If there are differing policies on fans being in arenas during the playoffs that could be seen as an unfair advantage, the NBA might have to step in to make blanket policies. Everything is on the table.
There are a lot of things that could happen and change between now and when the playoffs start. Though one thing that isn’t going to change is teams fighting for home-court advantage, no matter how large or small it really is. After all, that’s why they call it an advantage.