How Important Is It for the Lakers to Earn Home-Court Advantage in the Playoffs?

LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 17: Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers celebrates after the Lakers defeated the Boston Celtics in Game Seven of the 2010 NBA Finals at Staples Center on June 17, 2010 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

On the eve of their holiday throwdown with the Miami Heat, the Lakers find themselves trailing three teams in the league standings. The Spurs, Celtics and Mavericks have all been hot as your sister for most of the season and as a result have put 2½ to 4 games' worth of space between them and the defending champs. Miami, furthermore, is essentially in a dead heat (sorry) with the Lakers, and the Jazz and Thunder lurk just behind. There's plenty of time, of course, for teams to surge forward or fall back. Maybe the Lakers have a 15-game winning streak of their own just around the corner. But considering their shoddy recent form and the fact that they've yet to face the most taxing parts of the schedule, it's clear that their position in the race for home-court advantage is a little tenuous.

This goes beyond the question of HCA in the Finals, should they even make it that far. The Lakers might well not have home-court advantage in the second round. Which raises the question of exactly how big a deal this all is. On this point, two schools of thought have coalesced, and their respective theses can be crudely summarized as follows:

School A: No biggie. The last two seasons, the Lakers haven't had the best record in the league but still won the title. They've proven that come playoff time, they can win without the benefit of being the league's top seed.

School B: Not so fast! The Lakers have got lucky the last two years, in that the Eastern Conference teams with better records were knocked out before the Finals. The one time the Lakers had to play a series without home-court advantage, they got pounded by Boston.

Let's see if we can't apply some data to this issue in hopes of sorting out what's really going on.

To begin with, take a look at the Lakers' winning percentages at home and on the road during the Pau Gasol era.

 

Home

Road

Difference

Regular Season

0.830

0.658

+0.172

Playoffs

0.882

0.469

+0.413

All Games

0.842

0.617

+0.225

Shocking: the Lakers are better at Staples Center than away from it. We knew that already. I was, however, a bit surprised to be reminded how much better they've been at Staples in the postseason. Since Gasol joined the team, the Lakers have dropped only four out of 34 home playoff games, whereas they've played sub-0.500 playoff ball on the road. That's a huge swing and suggests that HCA is indeed a crucial prize.

But I do think the 0.469 road playoff mark is a little misleading. If you've watched the Lakers at all closely over the past few years, you know that they tend not to bring out their A game when it's not strictly required. In more than a few recent playoff series, they've seemed to use home-court advantage as an excuse not to go all out. They've half-assed their way through many a road playoff contest, comfortable that to advance they need only take care of business back in the 213.

So I've picked out what I consider to have been "must win" road playoff games. Into this category I tossed both elimination games on the road and road games in which the Lakers had previously coughed up home-court advantage in the series and thus needed the win to get back the upper hand. There were four of these the past three seasons, and I'm sure you remember all of them.

Date

Opponent

Round

Where Series Stood at Time

Result

June 17, 2008

Celtics

Finals

Celtics led, 3-2

Lakers lose

May 8, 2009

Rockets

2nd Round

Tied, 1-1

Lakers win

May 23, 2009

Nuggets

Conf Finals

Tied, 1-1

Lakers win

June 8, 2010

Celtics

Finals

Tied, 1-1

Lakers win

Granted, four games isn't much of a sample size, but there's evidence here for the idea that when the Lakers have really needed to scrape together a road win, they've generally been able to do so.

I do find it a touch specious when people cite, without elaboration, the fact that the Lakers have had HCA in all but one series over the past few years. It's true that the Lakers have been the higher seed in all but one series, but in the majority of instances they haven't actually played more games at home than on the road. If you'll permit me just one more table, I'll show you how the Lakers' 12 most recent playoff series divide up among those in which there were more games played at Staples than on the road, those in which home and road games were equal in number, and those in which there were more road games.

 

More Home Than Away

Equal Split

More Away Than Home

No. of Series

3

8

1

Record

3-0

7-1

1-0

In other words, although the Lakers have had home-court advantage in 11 of 12 series, in practical terms they've only really used home-court advantage three times. Those were their two seven-game series (Houston in 2009 and Boston in the 2010 Finals) and their five-game Conference Finals series against the Spurs in 2008. On seven occasions the Lakers have advanced even though half the games in a series took place in a hostile gym.

Which points up a causation/correlation fallacy that I think pervades a lot of the chatter on this topic. Yes, the Lakers have had HCA in 11 of 12 recent playoff series, but that doesn't mean they've needed it. Think of it this way: let's imagine that I have to fight Manny Pacquiao, and the bout takes place in his home country of the Philipines. He'll pound me to within an inch of my life, of course, but it's not because we're in Manila at the time. Manny's going to beat my loser ass whether we're in the Philipines, Bakersfield or on the moon. Location has nothing to do with it.

The 2008 and 2009 Finals, I'd argue, are less dramatic examples of the same phenomenon. The Lakers' victory over the Magic in 2009 was pretty one-sided. Even though three of the five games were played in Orlando, the Lakers still prevailed and for the series outscored the Magic by 0.11 points per possession. It's hard to see how giving Orlando home-court advantage would've changed the outcome.

Conversely, I don't think the 2008 Finals would've turned out differently if the Lakers had been given home court. The Celts blasted the purple and gold convincingly. They were just too dominant that year.

The 2010 Finals are the counterexample, where I believe home court made a real difference. The Lakers and Celtics were almost evenly matched in that series, so that any little tilt of the playing field was critical. You all saw Game Seven, and how the Staples crowd blew up in the fourth quarter and helped fuel the comeback. It's hardly a stretch to think that things would've played out less happily had the game been in Boston.

So looping back to the question we started with: how important is it that the Lakers earn home court for the playoffs? It's tough to say exactly, and the answer isn't the same year to year. Ultimately, here's where I come out:

1.  You'd rather have home-court advantage than not have it.

2.  When there's a substantial difference in quality between competing teams (as in the 2008 and 2009 Finals), home-court advantage probably makes no difference.

3.  It's almost impossible to say whether there is, in fact, such a substantial difference in teams until after the fact.

Follow Dex on Twitter @dexterfishmore.

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