If NBA role players perform better at home, what does that say about the bubble?

Ben Rohrbach
·5 min read

There is an NBA adage about role players playing better at home, and statistical evidence supports this widely accepted principle. In fact, everyone plays better at home, but the discrepancy is more pronounced for replacement-level players. That has not been great news for the three title favorites to start the playoffs.

Every advantage that comes with playing at home — feeding off the crowd, added rest in the confines of your own abode, familiarity with sight lines in the arena, inherent officiating bias — is lost in the bubble. The sum of those parts should result in a slimmer margin of error among favorites and more random outcomes, and that could explain the losses the Milwaukee Bucks, Los Angeles Lakers and L.A. Clippers have suffered.

The sample size in Orlando is too small to draw any significant conclusions, but it stands to reason that the randomness of quality performances from average to below-average players at a neutral site gives underdogs a greater chance. Dallas Mavericks reserve Trey Burke scored two points on five shots in 20 minutes of a Game 1 loss to the Clippers, and then scored 16 on 11 shots in 18 minutes of a Game 2 win.

There is no way to know if Burke has benefited from not playing on the road in the playoffs, but there is evidence to suggest he would have been less likely to enjoy the Game 2 he did if it were played in Staples Center. His career splits are closer to negligible, but in his role in Dallas this season, Burke averaged 18.2 points per 36 minutes on 50/50/78 shooting splits at home and 14 points on 43/33/67 splits on the road.

Logic suggests that shooters are most susceptible to drastic differences in home/road splits because of the distinction in feel both physically in a familiar arena and mentally under the pressure of a roaring crowd. Might that help explain why the Bucks — shooting above average at home this season (37.2 percent) and below average on the road (34 percent) — finished 18th in 3-point percentage among the 22 teams in the bubble through eight seeding games? They were 14-for-42 in their Game 1 loss to the Orlando Magic.

As Lakers superstar LeBron James said two years ago during a playoff run that saw his supporting cast fluctuate wildly from location to location, via Lakers.com’s Kevin Ding, “I always believe the role players play much better at home than they do on the road. They feed off the crowd. They feed off the familiarity with not only being home but being on their home floor, having their own locker, and things of that nature.”

Danny Green is playing his role for a third different title contender. (Harry How/Getty Images)
Danny Green is playing his role for a third different title contender. (Harry How/Getty Images)

Lakers wing Danny Green — the ultimate role player for championship teams in Toronto and San Antonio — said to ESPN this past May. “The difference-makers in the playoffs are really not [the superstars]; it’s the guys that step up as the X-factors,” he said. “There’s two or three role players on each team that can change a series.” Green listed himself, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Kyle Kuzma as keys for the Lakers.

Those three shot a combined 9-for-35 from the field (3-for-18 from 3-point range) in Tuesday’s Game 1 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers, a so-called home contest for the Lakers. Oddly enough, Green, Caldwell-Pope and Kuzma were all better shooters on the road prior to the hiatus. There may be a reason for that.

Brian Levenson, somewhat of a home-court advantage expert who works with NBA players as a mental-performance coach and wrote a psychology master’s thesis on the subject, told Bleacher Report’s Howard Beck that one veteran said, “On the road, I’m more aggressive. I’ve got the green light. I don’t worry about my family or my friends, or people asking for tickets, or my contract and living up to my contract.”

That would seem to fly in the face of statistical evidence that suggests everyone plays better at home, but it does reinforce the notion that different atmospheres yield different results, for better or worse. It is all neutralized in the bubble, where mitigating factors fade and the focus becomes who plays better that night. And if we are to believe superstars are more likely to be consistent on a nightly basis in Orlando, then games will come down to which role players perform better, and that is far less predictable at a neutral site.

Eric Bledsoe may be the best role player in the NBA, an almost-All-Star as the third option on the NBA’s best regular-season team, a Bucks contingent anchored by their 28-3 record in front of 18,000 screaming home fans. His field-goal and 3-point percentages rose three and seven percentage points at home, respectively, and the disparity was wider in last year’s playoffs, when he shot 14.3 percent from deep on the road. Do we credit that history for his 1-for-5 effort from 3-point range in Tuesday’s loss to the Magic?

Likewise, do Magic guard Terrence Ross’ 18 points on 7-for-13 shooting confirm his history as a superior player on the road? His home shooting splits of 39/31/87 rose to 43/40/82 away from the Amway Center.

Even time may not tell. We all hope this is the NBA’s lone bubble season, and the entirety of the playoffs may not generate a large enough sample size to analyze in a meaningful way, but the early returns suggest the difference between the haves and have-nots may be more reliant than ever on who has it that night.

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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach

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