NBA Season Restart 2019-20

How Orlando's neutral site will impact teams, referees and games

Will a lack of home-court advantage lead to more upsets in the playoffs?

After a virus-driven layoff that has had the NBA and millions of its fans sheltering at home for months, it’s ironic that — in the league’s planned July 30 restart in Orlando — none of the involved players, coaches or teams will be home at all.

The “bubble” strategy that the league will deploy to salvage what it can of the 2019-20 season and playoffs will play out entirely at the Walt Disney World Resort complex in central Florida. Twenty-two teams will play a total of 88 “seeding games,” with the top 16 ultimately advancing to the traditional playoff format to crown the next NBA champion.

All games will be played in one of several arenas on the Disney campus. None will offer any sort of home-court advantage. None will force a team to play in front of a hostile road crowd, either.

In fact, there will be no crowds at all. “Fans” will only arrive when family and friends are admitted into the “bubble” after the first round, by which time only eight teams will remain.

Thus, what has been a cornerstone of the pro sports championship will be conspicuously absent. Packed and partisan arenas, boisterous spectators, goofy mascots, rousing music, unofficial replay judges? Gone. Every bit of it.

‘You’ll all be on equal footing’

Home atmosphere, comfort zones, ingrained routines, game-ops cleverness will all be missing, too. That’s just too bad for the Milwaukee Bucks and the Los Angeles Lakers, the teams who led the Eastern and Western Conference, respectively, before the season hiatus.

Too bad, too, for the Philadelphia 76ers, who drew most of their mojo this season from their Wells Fargo Center home court (29-2) while sputtering elsewhere (10-24). Too bad even for the team that actually calls Orlando home.

“We’re going to be 30 minutes away from home,” said Magic general manager John Hammond, “but we might as well be in Los Angeles.”

Once the Magic enter the bubble, like the other 21 teams, there will be no coming out until they’ve either been eliminated or soaked with champagne (in what looms as the loneliest Larry O’Brien trophy presentation ever).

“This is going to be the neutral-site effect that everybody’s wondered about,” said Detroit coach Dwane Casey, whose Pistons won’t be participating in the restart. “Now you’ll all be on equal footing.”

That’s one way to spin it: nothing getting in the way of talent, Xs & Os and a certain endurance.

“It’s going to take a lot of mental toughness to stay focused,” Casey said. “Different environment, uncharted territory as far as your routine and your rhythm. It should be summertime but here you’re playing basketball.”

Stripping away so much from what typically defines the NBA might reveal something positive, Turner Sports analyst Stan Van Gundy said.

“It will be, in some ways, just pure basketball,” said Van Gundy, who coached 12 seasons in the NBA. “There’s not going to be the emotion or adrenaline of a crowd to get people going. It will come down to each guy’s competitiveness.”

Pure basketball or sterile basketball? As with so much of the logistics, that’s TBD as teams spend tons more time together than on even the most grueling, traditional NBA road trip. Opponents will be unnaturally nearby throughout, scattered across three Disney hotels for the duration of the operation.

No airport buses, no TSA checkpoints, no charter flights delivering them across time zones in the wee hours after games. No entertainment outside the “bubble,” according to the guidelines. No hugging of one’s kids, no cruising around in cars made possible by NBA salaries.

This will be a combination of “The Truman Show” and “Groundhog Day,” basketball heavy interspersed with golf, ping-pong (singles only), card games and lots of Zoom.

Nobody’s idea of a home away from home, off the court or on.

Some home court history

Before we plunge fully into the challenge of playing without home-court advantage this summer, it’s worth addressing the chicken-or-egg aspect of this. As in:

Does home court really help teams win? Or do the best teams invariably end up with home-court advantage in the process of winning, whether they need it or not?

It is possible we’ve had it backwards, and teams good enough to win championships in the first place earned the home court by asserting that goodness — and talent, depth, coaching and experience — along the way. Maybe a high percentage of them would have won anyway, even if it meant grinding through round after round when they only had three home games rather than four.

“I think it’s both,” Stan Van Gundy said. “In a seven-game series, usually it’s the best team that’s going to win. If you took Milwaukee against Brooklyn and turned around the home court, it would give Brooklyn a better chance. But I’d still take Milwaukee. They’re the better team.

“But as you start getting to the true contenders and everybody’s good, it changes. You might get a Lakers-Milwaukee series where the difference is minimal. Now the home court matters.”

In NFL point spreads, being at home is worth three points. It’s not as formal in the NBA, but in Van Gundy’s view, it is very much is real.

“You have your guys in their comfort zones,” he said. “It’s where you play most of your games. Your routine is very comfortable. Certainly the crowd helps you at times, especially when you go on runs. Meanwhile it’s the complete reverse for the other team.

“I don’t think we’re talking a 10- or 12-point advantage. It’s probably a bucket or two. But a lot of games between really good teams get decided by a bucket or two.”

Hall of Famer Kevin McHale was a member of the 1985-86 Boston Celtics that set the NBA mark for best home record (40-1, matched by the 2015-16 San Antonio Spurs). Their confidence was sky high — they went 27-14 on the road, too — and McHale learned the value of going home, if only as a rabbit’s foot or palate cleanser.

“In a series, you always have ‘We’re going home. We can get it tied up,’” McHale said. “There’s always that thought, even if it starts with you down 0-2, you can get home where you’ve been solid all year. You always have something to tell the team, as the coach.

“But man, to tell them, ‘Yeah, we’re coming right back here tomorrow. There’s nobody in the stands, there’s nobody cheering. But sure, we’ll play better!’ You won’t have a chance to change the flow. It’s going to be odd.”

Home-court advantage gets most of its attention in the playoffs, especially in Game 7 road winners. In 72 years of The Finals, snagging the clincher on the other guys’ floor has been a massive achievement, occurring just four times. Across all seven-game NBA playoff series, it has happened only 28 times.

Since 1984, when the NBA went to its current 16-team format, teams seeded No. 1 have won 23 of the 36 championships. Teams seeded No. 2 have snagged another eight. Those seeds enjoyed home-court advantage at least for two rounds, often four.

But the regular season is home-court dominant too. Season after season, teams playing at home win close to 60% of the time. In the five seasons from 2014-15 through 2018-19, for example, their combined winning percentage was .583. Going back further and sampling it differently, looking at the five seasons (10 years apart) from 1969-70 through 2009-10, home teams won at a .616 clip.

“I’m not as big a believer in home court as ‘the fans driving you for 48 minutes to victory,’” said ABC/ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy. “I think you have to do your part as a team. Then in the last four minutes, I think they can make a difference with their passion and their intensity to drive you for a few possessions to higher heights. But you’ve got to do the work.

“It will be the same in these games — you just won’t have those last four minutes.”

Hammond felt likewise, seeing home court as a factor early in games. “Once it gets down to crunch time and it’s ‘win or lose’ circumstances,” he said, “I don’t think it matters to most guys where they play.”

Flip the whole thing and there might even be teams that miss the challenge of legit road games, with their jeering and uphill battles.

“It’s crazy,” Casey said, “but I think I like coaching on the road better. You’re more focused. You’ve got that underdog mentality, with everybody against you.”

Even if [a series] starts with you down 0-2, you can get home where you’ve been solid all year. But man, to tell them, ‘Yeah, we’re coming right back here tomorrow. There’s nobody in the stands, there’s nobody cheering. But sure, we’ll play better!’ … It’s going to be odd.”

NBA legend and former NBA coach Kevin McHale

Searching for precedents isn’t easy. The NBA had a tradition of staging some games on neutral courts and, in fact, still does when it sends teams to play internationally. But those were and are generally one-offs.

You almost must reach back to the defunct Orlando Summer League to find games played in gyms without fans. Other NBA personnel were the only folks allowed in the bleachers there.

“I go back to the old L.A. summer league or maybe the Vegas league when it started,” Hammond said. “Early on, there were just enough people in the crowd where you could hear everything that was said. I felt bad for those officials working those games.”

Losing that advantage

One of the oddest aspects of the restart will be this: What drove teams through those first 60-plus games from October into March — securing home court for as many playoff series as possible — has vanished. Jockeying for position in the eight seeding games might matter for matchups or just qualifying.

But landing one of the top four seeds as opposed to five or lower? Meh.

“I’ll be interested to see how teams use those eight games,” Jeff Van Gundy said. “Do they play to win? Do they play everybody 20-some minutes like it’s preseason, and then build their minutes up so they’re ready for the first round of the playoffs?

“To me, of the 22 teams, for 13 of them — the top seven in the West and the top six in the East — it just doesn’t matter what they do in those games.”

His brother concurred. “I’m not criticizing the plan, because there was no way around it, but the value of the regular season has been lost,” Stan Van Gundy said. “I feel badly for teams like Milwaukee or the Lakers who took care of business all season long to be able to play on their home courts, and it’s now rendered absolutely meaningless.”

One possible upside? The possibility of lower seeds prevailing in four out of seven games has never been greater, according to these experts.

“There’s a greater chance for upsets this year, not just for home court,” Stan Van Gundy said. “There also has been this big, long layoff, with nobody being in a rhythm.

“A team like Dallas, that is pretty damn good anyway, let’s say they’re the seventh seed. If Rick [Carlisle, Mavericks coach] decides to really amp them up and have them really ready to go, in mid-season form and conditioning when that first playoff series opens up — against somebody who maybe has taken a slower approach — could Dallas jump them?

“The Clippers, say, won’t have the home court working for them.”

This layoff will be the equivalent of a standard offseason. The playoffs this summer will be like starting a normal first-round in November.

“You want your team really ready to go when the playoffs start,” Stan Van Gundy said. “But you have to read your team — you can’t ramp them up faster than they’re ready to go, either.

“We’ve never seen anything like this. The experience coaches have in getting teams ready to play is out the window — this is something none of them has dealt with.”

Trying to simulate home-court advantage by other means, some of which have been floated speculatively — awarding the ball at the start of each quarter to the team that would have been at home or allowing seven fouls for a team’s designated player — was met with resistance and seen as too gimmicky from the folks contacted for this story.

Referees will ‘miss’ the crowds too

Every NBA coach knows what it’s like to play an important road game. You navigate the travel hurdles, look into your players’ eyes to see if they’re ready for the challenge … and then you look at the bottom of the lineup sheet, where the game officials are listed.

“One thing that’s important when you’re on the road is the officials,” Casey said. “You’ve got to have officials who have a ‘screw you’ attitude. If you saw Joey Crawford, Steve Javie, Monty McCutchen, those guys on the road, you knew you were gonna get a fair shake. Some refs have a gene to go against a crowd.”

When it comes to filtering out home crowds, all referees are not created equal. No matter what the league’s lofty ideal is. Even McCutchen, now the NBA’s vice president of referee training and development, will tell you that. Others see it.

“I say this diplomatically,” Stan Van Gundy said, “but there is a little bit of an advantage [at home] with the referees too. Of course they’ll say there’s not. But there’s a human nature element. If we think the players are affected by the home court a little bit, is it unreasonable to think that that referees are affected by the crowd a little bit?

“Maybe they only get caught up in it for one call or two calls. Those plays can make a difference. I firmly believe we have the best referees in the world. Still…”

That suggests referees might benefit from getting home crowds off their backs. For them, the Orlando “bubble” really could offer something resembling a basketball lab, particularly in games before families and friends are admitted.

If, that is, they can handle the dramatically different acoustics of basketball-only gyms.

Jeff Van Gundy mentioned the practice of “selective hearing,” by which an official can cut an unhappy coach or player some slack on his objections because crowd noise masks what’s being said.

“I don’t know if that tool is available now for officials,” he said. “If the fan at home can hear as it comes through the microphones, you’re going to have to make some decisions that before, maybe you let go. Now you can’t.”

It will be, in some ways, just pure basketball. There’s not going to be the emotion or adrenaline of a crowd to get people going. It will come down to each guy’s competitiveness.”

Former NBA coach Stan Van Gundy

Even Javie, the longtime ref now working as a rules analyst for ABC/ESPN, agreed with that.

“I wonder if the league is going to ask the referees for a little more restraint. I don’t think so” Javie said. “If I was a boss and over the air heard someone give you a mouthful of expletives and you didn’t take care of business? It might expose some referees.”

Javie, in giving a ref’s view of games without crowds, acknowledged the difference between a hostile arena and one that’s milder or lacking fans altogether.

“Me, personally, I didn’t give a damn, even when there were 18,000 people screaming ‘Javie sucks!’” he said. “Officials who take care of business won’t be affected. This will not be like a Summer League game. These teams are coming to win.

“Usually when an official walks on the floor in the playoffs, and especially The Finals, you feel the electricity from the fans buzzing. So you might not feel that. But you can also get it off the players, too. The more important the game is, it seems like in the layup lines, the more intensity you see on the players’ faces.”

Differences from the usual product will abound. Will players talk more on defense because they’ll be able to hear each other? Will coaches dial down their volume to suit the surroundings?

No home. No road. Just an eternal neutral court. And that’s all before the first positive test for coronavirus in the thick of a playoff series.

This isn’t just a high-wire act, Stan Van Gundy said, it’s “a trapeze artist whose net has holes in it, and you just hope when he falls he hits the net and doesn’t go through one of the holes.”

“The whole thing is going to be really fascinating to watch,” he added, “because we’ve never seen anything like it. The NBA didn’t have the option to have it be the same as always. So they’re trying to do the best they can in a difficult circumstance.

“But the referees we’ve got are the best, the players are the best, the coaches are the best. The basketball is going to be very good and it’s going to get better each round as they get used to it and they have more time.”

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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