How Important is Home-Court in the NBA Playoffs?

Since the NBA season began in October, teams have been battling for playoff position. The top four seeds in each conference earn home court advantage in the first round. Before the league expanded the opening round to seven games, home court was a very big deal. However, in recent seasons, playing in front of friendly fans has not been as large a factor.

It is reasonable to assume teams with home court advantage are better than their opponents. For the most part, they had better records during a long and daunting regular season and earned top playoff seeds. (The 4 vs. 5 matchup in the first round can be the exception to this rule under the NBA’s current playoff format.)

That’s what makes last year so fascinating. In the first two rounds of last year’s NBA playoffs, home teams went 37-35. Only four of the 12 series had home teams win more games than they lost. Compare that to the 1994 playoffs when home teams were 41-17 in the first two rounds and the team that was “supposed” to win took care of business in 10 of 12 series.

In 2003, the NBA shifted from a best-of-five to best-of-seven first round format. Only 37 of 180 first round series have gone the distance since the seven game structure was adopted, and there are just three examples the home team winning each game in a series that goes the full seven games. That means in 177 of 180 series, the winning team took at least one road game.

According to nba.com, there have been 62 series since 2003 played between teams that were within four games of each other during the regular season standings (three games in lockout years). The team with home court advantage won only 29 of them. Thirteen of the series have gone to a seventh game, with the road team winning on eight occasions, including the last three match-ups.

Home court trends have shifted during the regular season too. Nearly 70-percent of games were won by home teams in 1976-1977; the number was a shade under 63-percent in 2002-2003; this year, only about 54-percent of games are being won at home.

Not surprisingly, the two top seeds, Golden State and Atlanta, have the best two home marks in the league. Much like the regular season, the Warriors and Hawks are better than their first round opponents and should win games, whether they are at home or not. However, when you handicap games, consider whether records are skewed by the competition. If LeBron James plays at Golden State during the NBA Finals, or Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich visit Philips Arena, are you sure you want your money on the home team instead of the established winners?

(Photo credit: Henry Camacho (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons. Photo has been cropped.)