With a win in Cleveland yesterday, the Warriors “improved” to 6-18 on the road against an impressive 17-5 home record, which adds up to a .500 team. That got me wondering if the Warriors’ extreme splits were relatively. In theory, it is not exactly shocking to see a team play much better at home. It has long been noted that NBA teams play better at home. So far, only six teams are above .500 on the road and the Warriors have a pretty big split there are plenty of team that are in the same ballpark (Dallas is 17-7 at home and 8-15 on the road).
I thought we could dig a little deeper and see how having six road winners compares to historical trends. I went back to 1979-80 to see how many over .500 road teams there were each season (HT to BREF):
1983-84: 2 (just Boston and the Lakers)
1986-87: 2 (Lakers and Hawks, even Boston was below .500 at 20-21)
1987-88: 2 (just Boston and the Lakers)
1988-89: 2 (just Detroit and the Lakers)
Let’s pause for a second here to reflect on the 1980s. Consistent road wins meant you were an inner circle title team. There were some dominant home teams who were not great on the road. A prominent example was Denver, which was probably helped by the altitude adjustment. In 1988-89, Denver was 35-6 at home but only 9-32 on the road. That same year, Utah had slightly less extreme splits but similar (34-7 at home, 17-24 on the road). Both teams lost in the first round of the playoffs. Lest you think it was only mountain teams that had such splits, Sacramento and Indiana were .500ish teams at home but won single digit road games.
We can see the number of good road teams consistently a bit higher in the 1990s. I’m sure there are a few factors at play but it had to help that teams no longer were flying commercial like they had done for years prior. The Pistons were the first team to buy their own private plane in the late 1980s. The practice was derided as a waste by some. In this 1989 Orlando Sentinel article, Magic execs were not thrilled with the idea: “Suffice it to say that the Magic won’t be buying an airliner. Said one [Orlando] team official: ‘The Pistons figure that having the jet costs them an extra $500,000 or $700,000 a year.’”
But it gradually dawned on teams that the Pistons might have an edge on the road that other teams didn’t. In a 1991 article for the Deseret News, Brad Rock documented this phenomenon: “Increasingly, teams are saying goodbye to crowded airports and hello to flexible flight schedules, cooked-to-order meals, real silverware and sparkling mineral water. There is a growing trend in the NBA for teams to travel by charter flight. The theory is that less time in airports translates into more rest time in the hotels, which translates into more wins.”
Rock quoted Jeff Malone for his preference for commercial travel: “You end up going to bed sometimes four, five in the morning. Some guys can handle it better than that, but I don’t like it.” But Rock noted that: “Malone concedes, though, that private planes are an advantage when a team must play back-to-back road games.” So, yeah why not have a private plane at all times?
After initially trending upwards, the number of road winners appears to have plateaued in the 2000s.
In the 2010s, good teams have gotten a bit stronger on the road. The record for the most over .500 road teams was first set in 2009-10 at 11 and then broken in 2013-14 with 14. Disparity in conference talent had to have a hand in this, as the seven best road teams in 2013-14 were from the West and they feasted on the non-Miami/LeBron teams in the East. Still, overall, we can see good road teams expected to win more than in the past.
Road teams kept strong in 2019-20 and 2020-21 tied the 14-team record. Of course 2020-21 was an anomalous year due to the lack of fans in the stands for much of the season. Still, the ten-year trend line clearly is moving towards better road performance for good teams.
So, how do we explain the drop in 2022-23 to the lowest number since 2006-07? Obviously it’s early and two teams (Memphis and Milwaukee) are at .500 that could easily be over that mark by season’s end. Even so, this will likely be a down year for good road teams, the question only is by how much. It’s had to know if this is the result of random chance or some other factor to which we are not privy. The easiest tangible non-random explanation is parity (the inverse of the 2013-14 situation). There are a large number of playoff viable teams, which takes away some of the gimmie wins that might’ve been available in the past (only four teams are awful at home). This may change if a few borderline teams may pivot to tanking.
Turning back to the Warriors….they have title level talent but is there is any precedent for a team winning in the playoffs with such extreme home-road splits? Well, past history isn’t great for the Warriors. In 2020-21, the Warriors were 25-11 at home and 14-22 on the road and that team lost in the play-in tourney. The title team from 2021-22 was 22-19 on the road and prior GS teams were even better (except that terrible, injury ridden 2019-20 squad).
There are not a ton of other recent teams with extreme home-road splits but here are a few that may be instructive:
-The 2019-20 76ers were 31-4 at home and 12-26 on the road while Miami was 29-7 at home and 15-22 on the road that season. Since the playoffs were played at a neutral location, we did not get to see how that all would’ve played out under normal conditions. In the Bubble playoffs, Philly was trounced 4-0 by Boston in the first round while Miami made a surprising run to the Finals.
-The early post-dynasty Spurs also had big splits. They were 33-8 at home in 2017-18 and 14-27 on the road and were only slightly less split in 2018-19. The 2017-18 Spurs were beaten 4-1 by the Warriors (winning a home game after going down 3-0). In 2018-19, the Spurs actually stole a home game from the second-seeded Nuggets and went up 2-1 but dropped Game 4 at home. The Nuggets ended up winning a tough Game 7.
-The 2016-17 Pacers were 29-12 at home but only 13-28 on the road. They were swept by the Cavs.
-The 2012-13 Lakers (29-12 home, 16-25 road), Rocket s, (29-12 home, 16-25 road), and Jazz (30-11 home, 13-28 road) also had extreme splits. The Lakers were swept by the Spurs, though the Lakers were missing Kobe Bryant (who tore his Achilles after playing insane minutes). Houston lost 4-2 to OKC even though they did win a road game.
-The most recent team I could find with extreme splits that actually won a playoff series was the 2007-08 Jazz (37-4 home, 17-24 road). They won a tough 4-5 series against the Tracy McGrady Rockets. Houston had home court but Utah won the first two games in Houston before dropping Game 3 in Utah but winning the series in six games. The Lakers beat Utah 4-2 in the second round in a series where the home team won the first five games before the Lakers won in Utah to close it out.
So, the overall playoff results are not favorable to good home/bad road teams that profile like Golden State. It is true that Golden State is a little different from these teams, given the presence of Steph Curry and the team’s title pedigree. At some point, however, GS will have to get a little better on the road (which is possible as they’ve looked tough lately) or precedent says they are not a long haul playoff team.