Any competitive advantage in an NBA season is important whether it is home cooking or the comfort and familiarity of your own locker room.
For this study, we subtracted the difference from the team winning percentage on the road from their winning percentage at home. This illustrates, in part, the impact of playing in their own city has had on franchises around the league. We looked at all games played since the Basketball Association of America merged with the NBA in 1946-47.
Note that all numbers included below for teams are based on their records when playing in their current cities. That means that Golden State Warriors accounts for San Francisco both now and in the 1960s (not Oakland) while the Nets are in Brooklyn (not New Jersey), the Grizzlies are in Memphis (not Vancouver), the Jazz are in Salt Lake City (not New Orleans), etc.
Overall, this research helps show how much better a team has historically played depending on the location of the game.
Perhaps the most obvious takeaway is that the two NBA cities with the highest elevations (Denver and Utah) both rank in the Top 3. In fact, the Nuggets have won nearly twice as many games when they have played at home compared to their road appearances.
Back in 2013, Neil Payne contextualized the geographical advantages for these games (via ESPN):
“One explanation for this phenomenon is that Denver and Salt Lake City are, at 5,883 feet and 4,227 feet, respectively, the two highest-altitude cities in the entire NBA by far. (Ranking third in elevation is Phoenix at a paltry 1,132 feet.) Certainly, this is a major factor – the relatively thin air at such high elevations causes the players’ bodies to have less oxygen available for circulation to their muscles, resulting in quicker fatigue. Denver and Utah players seem to acclimate to this, offering them a presumed advantage.”
The aforementioned advantage is so distinct that in 2015, the league made an effort to schedule the Nuggets as the first stop on a trip from the east or put a day of rest in between games for teams coming from the west.
Another interesting takeaway is that cities that are known for a more vibrant nightlife (Miami, Los Angeles and New York) all fall fairly low on this list. It is common to hear “Los Angeles nightlife is undefeated” or the “South Beach Flu” after the Heat or the Lakers win a game at home. But the win-loss totals indicate that visiting teams may not be as impacted as many thought.
For further proof, Sports Insights NBA expert Carl Sack told The Action Network’s Matt Moore in 2018 that his data also indicated a regression to the mean rather than anything particularly noteworthy about party cities.
One final note is that the teams that have played the fewest total games at home (Oklahoma City Thunder, Brooklyn Nets and Golden State Warriors) fared the worst for these rankings.
These three teams rank in the Bottom 4 for home games based on sheer volume and newness in their home arenas. Whether it’s based on earning loyalty from the fans or something deeper, it was particularly interesting to see some kind of correlation even if there is no causation.
HoopsHype’s Alberto de Roa contributed research to this report
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