How Much Does Road Performance Matter In The NBA?
On the 17th of November the Lakers set out on a 5-game trip out East and returned to Los Angeles with more questions than answers.
They won just 2 of their 5 bouts, one narrowly against the 4-16 Pistons and one in OT against the 9-14 Pacers taking their road record on the season to just 3-5- good enough to rank 19th in the entire NBA.
Whether the Lakers struggles in the early part of the season are real or overhyped is another matter entirely, but a broader question to emerge pertains to road performances in the modern NBA and how much attention we should be investing in them.
And it turns out there’s as much noise within NBA road results as there is within any NBA metric with the road increasingly functioning as a perfect theatre to gain insights into a team’s championship credentials.
Let’s take a look at what winning on the road means in the NBA and then check in on who’s thriving or crying through the first six weeks of the new season.
So what’s been happening?
Since Michael Jordan won his 6th and final ring with the Chicago Bulls in 1998 we’ve crowned 23 NBA champs beginning with the San Antonio Spurs in 1999 through to our most recently minted winners, the Milwaukee Bucks.
What’s interesting is that if we use this 23-championship sample as a guide, while bringing along the other 23 losing finalists, we can spot a compelling theme regarding a team’s road form during that season.
Indeed each and every one of our recent 23 NBA champions have sported winning records on the road ranging from the likes of the Warriors who went 31-10 when they saluted in 2017 through to the Miami Heat who registered a passable 21-20 record away from home in 2006.
Of the 46 teams good enough to contest an NBA championship over the last 23 years, there’s been just 7 who haven’t been able top crack .500 on the road. In addition, 4 of those 7 upstarts occurred between 1999 and 2003, suggesting that the correlation between elite away from and a deep playoff run is perhaps becoming more entrenched.
Since a 22-year old LeBron James took a decidedly ordinary Cleveland team to the 2007 finals (and were subsequently swept by the Spurs), just 2 teams have qualified for the NBA finals with a losing record and that was James’ Cavaliers ten years later and Miami amidst a heavily-interrupted Covid season in 2020.
Something that’s defined our 9 most recent NBA champions hasn’t just been good form on the road, but instead through dominance outside the comforts of home. In fact, 7 of those 9 champion teams were at least 11 games over .500 during their crowning season.
What about right now?
Last season there were few more arresting stories in the NBA than the Phoenix Suns who defied 10-straight seasons without playoff basketball to smash their way into the NBA finals for the first time in 28 years.
We mention the Suns because what they did on the road last season was jaw-dropping, posting an NBA-best 24-12 figure and winning an astonishing 7 of their first 9 playoff road games prior to booking their finals appointment with Milwaukee.
And this season Phoenix have again stolen the headlines with the Suns currently on a 16-game winning streak that’s has been supported by an NBA-best 9-1 record outside of Arizona. The Suns recently knocked off the championship favourite Brooklyn Nets away from home leading from the start to finish and with Devin Booker pouring in a 3rd-straight 30+-point performance.
Speaking of championship favouritism it’s been the Nets and Warriors (along with Phoenix) who’ve been the NBA’s best on the road this season, with that trio combining for an outrageous 24-4 record outside of their respective home courts.
At the other end of the spectrum we have a collection of teams who’ll need to seriously improve should they want to make any impact this campaign.
The Portland Trailblazers have enjoyed 8-straight seasons of playoff basketball but sport a horrendous 1-10 record outside of Oregon. Denver, Portland's division foe and pre-season championship fancy have also struggled mightily going just 3-6 outside of the Pepsi Centre this season.
We mentioned the Lakers and their 3-5 road record earlier but the Clippers, their fierce LA rival, have also struggled outside the city of angles losing 4 of their 6 contests as the road team. Over in the East the Atlanta Hawks made the Eastern Conference finals last season but are failing to achieve lift-off this time around, in large part due to an ugly 3-8 road record. Interestingly, the Cleveland Cavaliers over the previous 3 seasons went an NBA-worst 28-83 on the road but have jumped out to an encouraging 6-4 outside of Ohio, most recently knocking off Luka Doncic and the Mavs by 18 points in Dallas.
It’s of course still extremely early, and in a season which hasn’t even reached the quarter-pole it’s best to caution against over-reaction.
With that said if we’ve learnt anything in recent decades it's that road performance clearly goes along way toward a deep NBA playoff run, and it’s something we’ll be paying close attention to throughout the season.
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