Home sweet home. Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images.
Last night, the Houston Rockets traveled to Denver to meet the reigning NBA champion Nuggets.
With nearly a quarter of the season done, the Rockets still hadn’t won a game on the road. The Nuggets still hadn’t lost a game at home.
Gee, I wonder who won?
The Nuggets won, of course, 134-124. It was the Rockets leakiest defensive effort of the season. The Rockets now stand at an even-steven 8-8 on the season. They are futile road flops, 0-7 away from Houston, but nearly perfect homebodies, 8-1 at Toyota Center.
But why? This isn’t like baseball, where every stadium has its quirky nooks and crannies, different lengths of grass, different acreage of foul territory, distances to the foul poles, grass or artificial turf, and heights of outfield fences.
NBA basketball courts are all the same. They’re 94-feet long and 50-feet wide. The goals are all the same. The rim is orange, the diameter is 18 inches and it’s 10-feet high. The backboard is 72 inches wide. The net is made of white cord and is between 15-18 inches long.
Oh sure, in the old days, there would be dead spots on some NBA courts and some rims were tighter than others. The Boston Celtics were occasionally accused of cutting off the hot water in the visiting locker room. Today’s NBA is strictly by the book. There’s no difference in the court from Miami to Portland.
And yet the home team usually wins. From top to bottom, teams have a better winning percentage at home than on the road. Last year, league wide, including the horrendous Houston Rockets and Detroit Pistons, home teams enjoyed a 56.7-percent winning percentage.
If every court is identical … why is that?
On some levels, it doesn’t make sense. If anything, it should be the other way around. NBA players have it pretty cushy on the road. Teams stay in 5-star hotels. They’re not bothered by the neighbor’s barking dog or friends asking for tickets or Southside Place police stopping them for speeding in a school zone on Bellaire Boulevard.
When NBA teams travel, they meet at a separate terminal for celebrities and athletes at the airport. They do not go through TSA security like us mere mortals. The average NBA player makes nearly $10 million a year, but they still get $156 meal money per day on the road. Each arena supplies a sumptuous buffet worthy of a Hollywood plastic surgeon’s wedding in the visitors’ locker room.
Yet it holds, lose on the road, win at home. Look at the Rockets’ season so far. At home, they’ve beaten the champion Nuggets … twice already. The Rockets have dealt the Nuggets two of their six losses this season. The Rockets also have beaten the 12-6 Sacramento Kings twice. They’ve toppled the L.A. Lakers and New Orleans Pelicans, both of whom have a winning record.
Then they hit the road and lose to the hapless San Antonio Spurs. Also the struggling L.A. Clippers and Golden State Warriors.
There are theories why the home team wins and the road team loses. Some make sense, like the road team has to deal with jet lag, changing time zones and different altitudes that sometimes leave them gasping. Meanwhile, home team players sleep in their own beds, enjoy home cooked meals and hang out with families and friends.
Other theories are trickier and more difficult to prove. Yes, the home crowd makes a difference, but not because fans are waving their arms while an opposing player is shooting free throws. Players are used to being heckled. They’ve heard it all and most can shut out the noise. But the sound of 16,000 fans screaming their heads off may result in subconscious referee bias. According to nerds who study this sort of thing, year after year, home teams shoot more free throws than visiting teams. There may be something to refs giving the edge on close calls to the home team.
Even with all the facts and theories, it’s still a stumper why teams play better and win more games at home than on the road. I once posed that very question to Jeff Van Gundy, who has coached basketball on every level for nearly four decades. He’s seen it all.
His answer: “I have no idea. I’ve always wondered about that myself.”