Altitude Gives Nuggets Rarefied NBA Home-Court Advantage

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When the Los Angeles Lakers played the Denver Nuggets in the first two games of their first-round series, they were constantly reminded of the disadvantage they faced by being on the road. “Mile High City” was written across the Nuggets’ Game 1 jerseys, and their Game 2 uniforms boasted “5280”—the number of feet above sea level—in big font.

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“Oh my God, that team needs to be moved,” one NBA player told The Athletic in an anonymous league-wide survey. “The altitude is crazy. I don’t like it at all. Every time I play there, I’m dog-tired.”

There’s less oxygen at higher altitudes, affecting stamina for those not acclimated, and the Lakers felt it in this series, particularly in the second halves. Los Angeles lost all three road games despite leading each one at halftime.

Their difficulty playing in Ball Arena is not unique. The Nuggets were 10-1 at home in the 2023 playoffs on the way to their first title in franchise history.

In fact, Denver’s net rating, or point differential per 100 possessions, has been 8.6 points better at home than on the road since the 1999-00 season. It’s the strongest home-court advantage in the NBA during that time span, with the average NBA team having gotten a boost of just 6.0 points. The Nuggets have had the fourth best net rating in home games (+5.3) since 2000 despite having the 16th best net rating on the road (-3.3).

A team performing approximately 2.6 points per game better than league-average during its home games will see a net rating increase relative to competition of about 1.3 points over the course of a season. Generally, each point of net rating leads to about two additional regular season wins. Even over 82 games, that’s a significant bump: The top three Western Conference teams in 2023-24 were separated by just one win in the standings.

Several data points suggest that altitude is the driving factor of the Nuggets’ unusually large home-court edge. The team with the second-best advantage by a sizable margin is the Utah Jazz, whose arena sits at roughly 4,300 feet above sea level, making it the only other team that plays at an elevation of more than 1,200 feet.

The other evidence is that Denver’s dominance in Colorado extends to other sports. The difference between the Colorado Rockies’ run differential in the Centennial State versus elsewhere is more than twice any other MLB club’s home/away disparity this century. Using goal differential over that same time span, the Colorado Avalanche rank sixth among NHL franchises. Analyzing NFL teams since 1970 to get a larger sample size, the Denver Broncos’ performance improvement at home is tied for the second-largest.

Travel could play a factor, too. Denver is one of just three NBA teams in the Mountain Time Zone. On the flip side, the league’s bottom four teams in home-court advantage—New York, Brooklyn, Boston and Philadelphia—all play in the densely packed Northeast region.

Nuggets and Avalanche owner Stan Kroenke has only recently capitalized off this singular advantage provided to his teams, winning the 2022 Stanley Cup and the 2023 NBA Finals after neither team won a championship in the previous 20 seasons.

Attendance increases have followed, potentially making those teams’ home-court advantages even stronger now than before. Both the Avalanche and Nuggets played in front of sold-out arenas all season. In 2014-15, the Avalanche ranked 23rd in the NHL and the Nuggets were the NBA’s least-attended team.

One irony: The Nuggets’ and Avalanche’s rise to the top of their respective leagues in both performance and home attendance has come during a time when many Denver fans can’t watch their team’s home games from, well, home. Disputes between Altitude Sports (which is owned by Kroenke) and providers Comcast and Dish Network have left viewers without DirecTV, Spectrum TV or Fubo in a local sports blackout for the past five years.

With regular deep playoff runs in the Nikola Jokic era, Nuggets fans at least get to watch their team on national television throughout the spring.

Interestingly, however, the Jokic teams have not adapted their playing style to their environment the way that past Nuggets squads have. Denver has been in the bottom half of the NBA in pace in each of the past six seasons, with a patient offensive system defined by deliberate player and ball movement in the half-court.

Compare that to the 1980s Nuggets, which were the NBA’s fastest-paced team for nine straight seasons under head coach Doug Moe. Similarly, Denver’s pace ranked in the top six in the league every year from 2004 to 2015, until head coach Michael Malone took over and Jokic entered the lineup the following season.

Still, players around the league have vocalized that the altitude is still a huge factor.

“They’re the defending champions, so they’re going to be tough regardless of the altitude," Oklahoma City guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander said, "but the altitude doesn’t help for sure."

More NBA Data Nuggets:

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