NBA Playoffs: What Home Court Advantage?

May 17 2014, 8:49am CDT | by

After the Los Angeles Clippers lost a very tough Game 5 of their playoff series on the road to the Oklahoma City Thunder the other night, thanks in part to some brutal, late-game officiating, you might have figured they’d be fired up enough to come back strong at home in Game 6 and tie up the series.

And in fact, with the Staples Center crowd energized, the Clippers did get off to a big early lead. Alas, the Staples Center, while it’s a great arena with lots of amenities, doesn’t really hold the noise the way the Clippers’ old home, the Los Angeles Sports Arena, did (it’s a shame the Clippers were rarely good when they played there). The Thunder fought back and wrapped up the series, taking two of three in L.A. in the process. The Clippers also got a road win in the series, making for an overall 3-3 split for the home teams.

You’ve seen it shape up this way all over the playoffs. The Washington Wizards, after dropping two straight at home to Indiana, won big at Indianapolis to stay alive in Game 5, only to drop yet another at home to lose in six games, exactly one of which was won by a home team – the Pacers in Game 2. The Wizards had the same type of series in their first round win over Chicago, splitting two at home while winning all three road games to take the series in five.

The first two rounds of the NBA playoffs are in the books, 72 games in all. Home teams have won 37 and lost 35. In only four of 12 series did home teams win more games than they lost – they went .500 or below in the other eight series. Two decades ago, through the first two rounds of the 1994 NBA playoffs, home teams went 41-17, on their way to a final mark of 55-22. Ten of the 12 series in the first two rounds resulted in winning records for home teams; by the time the Rockets beat the Knicks for the title, it was 13 of 15. And it’s not just the playoffs. In the 1993-94 regular season, home teams compiled a .612 winning percentage, with 10 of 27 teams losing 10 or fewer games in their home arenas. By 2013-14, overall home winning percentage dropped to .580, with only seven of 30 teams limited to 10 losses or less.

And it’s not as if teams aren’t trying to rev up their crowds. Kevin Garnett publicly begged Brooklyn fans to get more into it, which only helped the Nets go a pedestrian3-2 at the Barclays Center during their playoff run against Toronto and Miami. They pulled out a seven-game win over the Raptors by winning twice in Toronto, even after that club’s GM, Masai Ujiri, fired up his fans at a pregame rally with a speech that included some not-so-nice words about Brooklyn.

These days, come playoff time, fans arrive to find identical t-shirts draping each seat in the arena, as marketing departments look to help the home team with whiteouts, blackouts, red-outs and blue-outs.  No matter – the fans are just as likely to leave disappointed as happy. Marketing gimmicks can’t replace genuine energy that the old arenas brought – that’s just the tradeoff for altering the design to chase suite money.  There’s also the matter of more distractions and less undivided attention on the part of today’s fan: cheering while texting is a challenge.

Of the 16 NBA venues hosting playoff series this year, all but one – Golden State’s Oracle Arena – was built sometime after 1994 playoffs. The Warriors are heading to new digs in San Francisco soon, where food will cost more and visiting players will be intimidated less.

The decline of home court invincibility isn’t altogether a bad thing – all of that extra amenity-driven revenue is hard to pass up, and the broader TV audience probably likes that games have become less predictable. But don’t expect that home court advantage you spent the whole season chasing to mean very much anymore. The fans are happy putting on the shirt, taking the selfie, hashtagging the scene, and cheering when they get around to it.

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