The NBA – and sports world alike – might be dealing with an extended hiatus right now, but it doesn’t mean the conversations and analysis have to join them.
In the midst of this unprecedented situation, one thing that remains clear is the NBA’s focus being set on finishing the 2019-20 season. Of course, Adam Silver and the league office will take every precaution and not resume play until the COVID-19 pandemic is stifled. It’s a sensitive subject to speculate about, considering there are far more important stakes on the table and thousands of lives being lost.
They are in no rush to think about a return date, though, since the playoffs could theoretically begin in July and extend through early September. As long as there is a champion crowned before the NFL season opener, if it also hasn’t been pushed back, the NBA would prioritize creating a playoff system so that 2019-20 isn’t completely scrapped.
In a best-case scenario with the NBA Playoffs taking place in the summer, it will certainly feel like a brand new season has started. The 63-plus games every team played before the shutdown will feel irrelevant.
However, we will still be aware of the title favorites. A handful of teams were taking the regular season by storm and solidifying themselves as clear contenders.
Given the nature of the country’s precautions, which include preventing large gatherings of people, it’s probably more likely the NBA returns without fans in attendance before anything else.
Another option they might consider is moving game sites to neutral locations, such as Las Vegas. If either of those become reality, we’ll truly see a first for the NBA: a playoff run without homecourt advantage being a factor.
Removing the homecourt component from high-level professional competition would feel so unusual. At first glance, it would look closer to the NCAA Tournament.
This extended break from action would give several teams quite a few health and rest advantages, since bodies are usually banged up in April. The six-month grind puts a ton of mileage on NBA players before they jump directly into the most intense battles of the year. Now, if we do see a playoff system, players that were nursing minor or major injuries before the postponement would have a greater chance of being 100 percent.
However, would this positive be overshadowed by the lack of homecourt advantage? For some teams, playing in front of their home crowd has meant everything to their success and momentum this season. Which teams are going to suffer the most from not having the traditional “superheroes versus villains” atmosphere?
Exploring some of the data from home and road performances this year, a few teams have been perfectly capable of executing away from home. For some, sheer domination – or simply competence – travels on the team plane. For others, as we’ll see below, it’s been a struggle for star players to translate their greatness to other arenas.
One of the most frustrating squads up to this point is the Philadelphia 76ers. Based on net rating, which is a team’s point differential per 100 possessions, the City of Brotherly Love stands No. 2 in home production. Compared to their road outcomes, it’s by far the highest variance in the league.
You can sort the table below by home and road net ratings, or by the absolute value of those two metrics. For instance, the Sixers perform at elite (and historical) levels at home with a plus-10.3 net rating. Away from Wells Fargo Center, though, they own a minus-5.4 net rating. That’s 24th in the league, and it stands 15.7 points per 100 possessions apart from their home value:
- Dallas sitting atop the absolute value column means they have the smallest disparity in home versus road play. While their home and road records are different (as you’ll see later), the Mavericks’ average point differential has been the same.
Philly’s wide-range of issues can’t be strictly tied to the inability to win on the road, to be sure. Injuries have cost them a significant number of games this year. Joel Embiid has missed 21 of the team’s 65 games, Josh Richardson (one of their only floor-spacers) has missed 17, and Ben Simmons has missed 11. The other members of the starting unit, Tobias Harris and Al Horford, have played at least 60 games apiece. However, one of them looks to be a complete shell of himself at nearly 34 years old. Sorry, Al.
So, they haven’t been the healthiest bunch. Missing key players during those tougher road games can equal a disastrous situation, which is how the Sixers manage to drop games in San Francisco to the skeleton Warriors, or get embarrassed in Cleveland by the dysfunctional Cavs.
With everything regarding the NBA’s return being a huge unknown at this point, one could argue this lengthy break helps the Sixers’ chances of reviving their contender status. If Simmons was fully recovered from his serious back concerns and Embiid had plenty of time off, they might be just as feared in July or August as they were last October … before the disappointments took place.
Or, if the NBA decides to go with a neutral site for postseason games, does the larger takeaway become Philly’s lack of home games? The Sixers aren’t even in homecourt position anyway, as they currently sit No. 6 in the Eastern Conference. Perhaps for Embiid, Simmons, and Horford, the best medicine for their road demons would be a no-fan environment – where it’s just talent versus talent with minimal outside factors.
Currently praying the season isn’t tossed away is Milwaukee, a wrecking ball that stormed through the first 65 games with a 53-12 record. The Bucks’ plus-14.0 net rating in home games is 3.7 points per 100 possessions greater than second-place (!) and 11.7 above league-average. Still, even with the season suspended and viewers having the opportunity to catch up, their level of disturbing ownage hasn’t fully sunk in.
Although Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Bucks suffer one of the largest declines in home-road point differential across the league, that’s to be expected. They still remain superb on the road, posting a plus-7.7 net rating. For perspective, using Cleaning The Glass’s expected wins formula, a net rating of 7.7 would typically yield a 60-win team. It’s probably okay if a team only performs at that level on the road if they’re also mirroring the 2015-16 Warriors at home.
Digging deeper and going back through the last 20 years, Milwaukee had the fifth-best road net rating since 2000. It trailed only the 2007 Spurs, 2011 Bulls, 2008 Celtics, and 2016 Spurs:
*Gold denotes NBA Finals appearance*
Current playoff teams also worth highlighting are the Heat and Nuggets.
Right before the season was halted, Miami was scorching the Earth with the most impressive halfcourt offense since the All-Star break (thanks, Duncan Robinson). Erik Spoelstra had them clicking at the right time, at least on one side of the ball. But it’s no secret how bland and inconsistent they’ve looked on the road all season.
Noted in the absolute value table and in this bar graph below, Miami is behind only the Sixers when it comes to losing their special powers in opposing arenas. Their winning percentage at home is a wicked .844, but it plunges to .424 on the road. It’s still not in Philly’s territory, but it’s nearly double the severity of Washington (third):
- For the graph above, the Lakers and Clippers’ wins are split by “Staples Center” or “Away.”
- How to interpret this: If your team has a positive number, they have a better winning percentage at home than on the road.
- If the number is negative (seven of these teams), they win more often on the road than they do at home.
- The Toronto Raptors just win at the same rate regardless of location. Must be a thing champions do.
Denver is an intriguing road team because of how many close battles Nikola Jokic and company seem to squeak out. They are above .500 on the road, 18-14. Out of those 32 road games, 21 of them have come down to the wire – score within five points with five or fewer minutes left. Denver is 14-7 in those situations in enemy territory. It’s right behind the Thunder (15-6) and Lakers (13-3) in clutch road success.
As the Lakers sit back in L.A. resting up, they can sleep the easiest at night. LeBron James and Anthony Davis haven’t needed their home crowd to survive during this strange season. They have the third-highest road net rating. Outside of Staples Center, the Lakers are winning at a remarkable 68.3-win pace. When is the last time you can remember a LeBron-led team overachieving during the regular season? He had become notorious for coasting. In a year most would give him a pass for it because he has so much heavy mileage, he set out to silence the noise.
Another useful tool to evaluate performance in different settings is effective field goal percentage (eFG%). As a reminder, effective field goal percentage accounts for three-pointers being worth more than twos, and it’s a weighted formula to give a better reflection of efficiency.
Once again, Miami and Philly are the standouts. The Heat currently have the highest eFG% in home games (57.1%):
With eight home games left on Miami’s schedule, it’s actually a figure that rivals the Warriors during the KD era. Golden State had back-to-back seasons with a 58.4% and 57.7% effective field goal percentage in Oracle Arena.
Luckily for the Heat, they are still above league-average offensively on the road. The Sixers can’t say the same – they fall from fourth to 24th in eFG% when they travel. To see the more alarming part, look at their defensive eFG%, included on the far right. Their biggest strength has taken a huge hit on the road, as they drop 4.7 percentage points in opponent shooting.
Utah’s boost in overall shooting this year is a pleasant surprise. The addition of Bojan Bogdanovic was a home run from the start, and he’s absolutely lived up to offensive expectations. Shooting north of 41% on 7.3 attempts per game puts him in historical conversations, and he’s not the only Jazz member lighting it up. Joe Ingles (39.7%) rediscovered his touch, Royce O’Neale (38.9%) is a great wide-open option, and Mike Conley (37.6%) was quietly coming around after a terrible start. Their spark plug off the bench, Jordan Clarkson, is actually taking the most threes per 36 minutes on the team (8.1) and making them count.
In the last three seasons, the Jazz have climbed from ninth, to fifth, and now first in eFG% on the road. With their new healthy balance of scoring regardless of location, all they were waiting on was the defensive chemistry to improve. Sitting fourth in the West, they would be my sleeper squad to upset one of the L.A. powerhouses in the second round.
There are so many dynamics and storylines we’re missing out on right now. For once in five years, the playoffs were going to include unpredictable chaos.
If things resume in non-traditional settings, it might still be that way. An NBA Playoff format without homecourt advantage and passionate fans would be the weirdest sight to see. If there’s one thing we know, some teams would definitely be more prepared than others.