Is home court overrated in the NBA?

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By Sam Smith | 1.12.2015 | 12:17 a.m. CT

Is home court overrated in the NBA? The quick answer would be, of course not. All season long, coaches and players discuss the importance of home court advantage and when teams lose at home it’s considered an upset. But should it be anymore? The truth is more nuanced. Perhaps home court is more valuable for Game 7’s in the playoffs. But they don’t occur often, in about 20 percent of the playoff series in the last decade. And there have been many Game 7 road wins, like the Bulls’ over Brooklyn in 2013. The reality is home court is perhaps, as Spurs coach Gregg Popovich likes to say, fool’s gold, much more valuable than realistic. It’s probably also why the Spurs are the league’s most successful team the last 15 years and rarely push the hardest to assure home court for the playoffs, though they’ve been good enough to achieve it often.

Home court seems much overrated if you check the records around the NBA this season as eight teams actually have better road records than home records—Bulls, Bucks, Pistons, 76ers, Hawks, Heat, Magic, Rockets—and the Mavericks are the same on the road and at home. The Suns are barely better at home despite a road-heavy schedule and even losing teams like the Lakers are just barely poorer on the road than at home.

Take a look at recent NBA champions. Most have had just slightly better records at home than on the road. The Spurs last season were two games better at home. The 2011 Mavericks were one game better at home. The 2009 Lakers were three games better at home and the 2007 Spurs and 2008 Celtics were merely four games better at home.

The conventional wisdom among coaches always has been teams tend to play with more energy at home, driven by a supportive the home crowd, which produces more foul calls for the home team as the aggressor gets the calls, and thus an edge. That may have changed some with so many teams now pulling up to shoot threes instead of pushing the ball to the basket. There’s also a lack of super teams who are dominant like the 90’s Bulls, so it’s not as intimidating to play on the road. You could point to dominance of one conference, and thus more road wins. But more teams from the East have the better road records than teams in the Western Conference. There aren’t a lot of obvious answers. Former Bulls coach and now Knicks president Phil Jackson said those Bulls never relied on home court. And, in fact, in their first three titles, those Bulls were 8-1 on the road in the Finals. In the last three championships, the Bulls were 4-5 on the road, though they did close out the Jazz in Utah in 1998.

“The teams that have maturity and composure learn to win on the road,” Jackson told me. “It takes on bigger proportions in the playoffs. One can't count on the ability to win at home to carry off a championship run. Our blowout year (1995-96 with 72 wins), we lost a game to Charlotte on our home court (98-97). Went to North Carolina and got after them (126-92). One of the reasons I doubted the Oklahoma City Thunder when they were on a championship run was they counted on their home court advantage, but it failed them in the playoffs. They almost came back (from 13 down in Game 1 but not from 16 down in Game 2), but Miami held them off. I think the cohesiveness needed to win on the road brings out the best in bonded teams.”

If a team is good enough and deserving enough, it will win. It’s not about where, but who they are.

The Hawks and other notable surprises

How’ bout those Atlanta Hawks. They absolutely routed the Washington Wizards Sunday, and forget best in the Eastern Conference at 29-8 with 22 wins in their last 24 games. They’ve won at Houston, Dallas, Portland and the Clippers and have won their last nine straight against Western Conference teams. Although most believed they were a playoff team, it was difficult to find anyone who considered them a contender. So rank them as the surprise of the season. And with Kyle Korver on pace to become the first NBA player ever to shoot 50 percent on threes and field goals and 90 percent on free throws, he sure sounds like an All-Star. Meanwhile, who are some of the other big (positive) surprises as the NBA heads into the halfway mark in the season later this week:

Milwaukee Bucks: Basically projected to be only better than Philadelphia but with worse weather, the Bucks with a roster that doesn’t even seem as talented as the 76ers’, are fifth in the Eastern Conference ahead of the Cavaliers and above .500.

Jimmy Butler: He’s slumped with shooting of late, but even so almost had a triple double Saturday with nine points, 10 assists and eight rebounds. He still leads the Bulls in scoring at 21 per game, 13th in the NBA and has been mentioned as an MVP candidate. He wouldn’t have been top 200 on that list preseason. He should get Most Improved ahead of Draymond Green, another surprise low draft pick.

Golden State Warriors: Not to me as I projected they’d win the West regular season given a surfeit of talent. I’d pound my chest if I also didn’t have the Grizzlies missing the playoffs. The Warriors’ sizzling start has been impressive and would be more so if the Trail Blazers basically didn’t have the same record with hardly anyone noticing.

Rasual Butler: It looked like the 35-year-old who’d played with six teams in 11 seasons was out of the league after averaging fewer than five points in limited play his last three seasons with four different teams, including the Bulls, and just a training camp invite for the Wizards. This after being out of the league in 2012-13 and then playing in summer league. But he’s among the league leaders in three-point shooting for the Wizards and averaging in double figures for the first time in five years.

Pistons for three

In baseball, it’s the Mendoza Line, below which batters plummet to the worst. In the NBA, it’s the 76ers Line, below which is a lack of competitiveness. The Knicks are there now, but they are a summer away from beginning a rebuilding. The Bulls’ Monday opponent is the Orlando Magic, just barely above the 76ers Line, though now a few years into rebuilding, which is not a good thing. So Magic coach Jacque Vaughn is being asked by local media about his job security, which also is never a good thing. "I really don't read it," Vaughn told Orlando media of fans lobbying for his departure. "I'm not on social media. What I do know is since I accepted this job everything I've done has been for this organization and it'll continue to be that way." The Magic is 56-148 in Vaughn’s third season, approaching Tim Floyd level futility. Players told the Orlando Sentinel it was their fault, another worrisome sign for a coach’s job security. There have been no comments from management … The easy answer for the Pistons winning eight of nine is the Josh Smith addition by subtraction. It’s part, but more the style of play. Coach Stan Van Gundy when he was in Orlando used a three-point shooting game around Dwight Howard to get to the 2009 Finals. It was the same idea in the summer adding a shooter like Jodie Meeks, who recently returned from injury, around Andre Drummond. Smith was a mid range player, and Van Gundy subscribes to the metrics of threes, free throws and layups teams like Phoenix and Houston practice. Of course, if you shoot so many threes it’s tough to get free throws and most of those teams pull up to shoot instead of going to the basket. The Pistons are averaging about 30 threes a game since mid-December with 43 in a loss to Atlanta Friday and well on the way to destroying the team record for threes.

NBA news & notes

Don’t accuse the Knicks, Celtics or Timberwolves, or probably soon the Nets, of tanking. It’s not tanking when you go into the season trying to compete, as all those teams did, and then either had injuries or realize you can’t or overestimated your talent. So you begin to position yourself for next time. That goes on every season in every sport. Only the 76ers have been tanking by entering the season with the intention of purposefully losing. You can’t ask players to do that as they protect their careers. Now with the 76ers actually ahead of Minnesota and the Knicks, it will be interesting to see which D-league players the 76ers sign to replace their starters … Jameer Nelson is supposedly the next to go as he is little used in Boston. Also, watch for the Thunder’s Reggie Jackson, who either was or was not part of the Dion Waiters deal and now is at the bottom of the rotation and apparently expressing his displeasure. The Thunder likely were not going to pay him anyway, so a split probably was inevitable ... Danny Ainge was trying to build him up, but Jeff Green had been mostly awful and disinterested the last several weeks and it became obvious there wasn’t much interest as now Green waits to go in trade to Memphis with the Celtics likely getting little in return. With Courtney Lee to Memphis last season, Ainge could be in line for at least a nice title bracelet if the Grizzlies win the title this season ... Green was the first of the Memphis Big Threes broken up followed by James Harden. Now Reggie Jackson?

Lionel Hollins’ candor is always refreshing. To media after the Nets loss to the 76ers last week: “You act like we are one of the better teams in the East. Or in the league. We’re not. We are right down there with them; we just have a few more wins.” ... Jose Calderon is the kind of backup point guard with a good shot (41 percent career on threes) who could help a contender ... Interesting comparison with 2008 when the Cavs coming off the Finals and with high expectations were faltering and made major in season deals for perimeter defense, shooting and rim protection. They got Delonte West, Wally Szczerbiak and Ben Wallace. They were out in the second round of the playoffs. Is that who Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith and Timofey Mozgov will be? Or the difference for LeBron this time? ... Trading two first round picks for Mozgov does sound like a lot. The Cavs have now traded away four first-round picks since July: To Boston (along with Tyler Zeller and Sergey Karasev) to make cap room for LeBron, to Minnesota in the Kevin Love trade and two for Mozgov. Tough to accept LeBron James’ view that this Cavs team and season involves a long process ... James on sitting out a few weeks: “I finally just listened to my body.” ... With 25 and 10 in a blowout loss to the Kings Sunday, Kevin Love was back in his melieu ... He’s back? Former Bull Ben Gordon is back in the United Center Monday with the Orlando Magic. Gordon, averaging 7.2 points on 39 percent three point shooting in about 15 minutes off the bench, told the Orlando Sentinel: "My game is back. My game is sharp. I'm being efficient and doing what I wanted to accomplish. They brought me in to bring a spark off the bench, and I've tried to keep my end of the deal. I had to re-establish myself. I put it a lot of work, put in the time, and it's paid off." ... The Nuggets don’t much go anywhere, but they make a lot of good deals. There’s the two picks for Mozgov, who was often being outplayed, anyway, by rookie Jusuf Nurkic, who has become something of a wild card taunting opponents and lately DeMarcus Cousins. Cleveland should have paired him with J.R. Smith ... With the Heat fighting to get back to .500, ESPN has at least cut down on the video bomb shots and dance routine shots from the Heat locker room.