You would think that professional sports teams in major leagues like the NBA wouldn’t mind traveling at all. After all, when they are away from home they travel on very comfortable charter planes, at great food, stay in nice hotels, and have little to focus on but getting ready for their games and playing them. The reality, though, is that teams in all sports, including professional basketball, just don’t play as well in other cities as they do at home.
The difference between home and away is, in a lot of ways, more pronounced in the NBA than in other sports. Statistics back this up – since the 2000-01 NBA season the teams playing on their home hardwood have won 61 percent of games played in the NBA. Though teams at home won more in every major league, that winning percentage was significantly higher than any other league over the period – even the NFL where being a road team seems like a curse.
If NBA teams aren’t the same team on the home court that they are away then this creates an obvious handicapping challenge for us. Here’s a collection of thoughts about recognizing and dealing with road trips in the NBA:
Back-to-back games – NBA teams typically do not enjoy playing games on consecutive nights. The game takes a lot out of players and that can’t easily be built up and restore in just one day. It only makes sense that the impact of these back-to-back games would be even bigger when on the road. When basketball teams play back-to-back games at the home arena all they have to do at the end of a game is go home to their own bed and rest before returning to their familiar stadium and their comfortable routine. On the road, though, they not only have to find time to rest, but also to travel between the city they just played in and the one they are playing in next. Not only is the impact of games more significant for road teams than those on the road, but NBA teams play about twice as many back-to-back games on the road as they do at home in a season because of the quirks of scheduling and the desire to minimize the lengths of road trips. This would suggest that paying extra time looking at the back half of back-to-back road games in the NBA would be a worthwhile endeavor for handicappers.
Geography – We hear a lot about how much easier travel is for teams in the east than teams in the west. Cities are closer together on the east coast, so east coast teams have to take fewer long trips during the season than west coast teams do. While that is true, and it can be a significant factor for west coast teams taking long east coast trips the effect isn’t as pronounced as you might expect it to be, and it would be easy to give this factor too much consideration in your handicapping. The best road team in the NBA last year was Dallas – a team in the West. The teams in the Western Conference actually have a better combined winning percentage than those from the East – .408 compared to .384. Of course, the teams in the West also have a better overall winning percentage than those in the East – .517 to .483. If teams in both leagues were to play 100 road games and 100 road games we would expect teams in the East to win 10 fewer road games than they win at home. Teams in the West would be expected to lose just under 11 fewer. In other words, if you are treating geography as an overriding factor in how you view teams on the road then you are making a mistake that can affect your potential to be a winning NBA bettor.
Length of trip – The simple logic would seem to be that teams would get weaker as road trips progress – that long road trips would make NBA teams weary, and that those effects would amplify as the number of plane flights, group meals, and different hotel rooms accumulated. Several different studies have indicated, though, that this isn’t actually the case. In fact, the biggest drop off in performance by NBA teams is actually between their first road game and their second. Over two years one study found that professional basketball teams were expected to score just one point fewer per game in the second game than in the first, and that the difference between the second game and subsequent games was not particularly significant. That’s not to say that some teams don’t struggle with long road trips. It just means that if you are assuming that teams that have been traveling for a while are automatically more vulnerable than they were early in the trip then you are making a mistake that could affect your winning percentage and bankroll as a sports bettor.