Coaches, sports psychologists, executives — anyone invested in seeing athletes perform better — would tell you: Basketball is basketball.
It’s the same game anywhere you play it.
The court’s the same. The basketball is the same. Free throws are still 15-foot shots. Three-pointers are still 23 feet and 9 inches, except in the corners. Switching, hedging, fronting, trapping, posting, rolling, cutting, screening — they’re always part of a night’s work in the NBA.
It’s the same game in Miami as it is in Portland. It’s the same on a purple-and-gold Staples Center court as it is on a red-and-black Staples Center court.
At least, that’s how it’s supposed to be.
For four NBA teams — one more than the others — it’s not.
One game in the standings is equivalent to two games relative to the .500 mark. A team that’s four games under .500 is one game behind a team that’s two under .500, and one game ahead of a team that’s six under .500.
In the 2016 NBA, four teams are saddled by a particular affliction: Their home-road splits are so severe that they’re at least eight games worse on the road than at home. In other words, they’re at least 16 games worse in relationship to the .500 mark.
For the Utah Jazz, the differential — entering Wednesday, March 2 — is 8.5 games in the standings, or 17 games relative to .5o0. For the New Orleans Pelicans, the differential is nine games in the standings, 18 when measured by the break-even point. For Charlotte: 9.5 games, or 19 based on the .500 mark.
Yet, there’s an undisputed poster child for weakness away from home. The Milwaukee Bucks are 12 games worse on the road than they are in the comforts of the Bradley Center, 24 games when measured against the .500 standard. That’s bad enough. What’s worse is that the difference in losses is especially pronounced. The Bucks have lost 10 times at home to date this season. They’ve lost 25 times on the road.
Basketball just isn’t basketball for the Bucks. It’s a different sport depending on the location of a given game. That’s just one of several central reasons why Milwaukee has been such a disappointment this season.
Let’s be clear: Structurally flawed teams will lose on the road, and on a broader level, their weaknesses will be exploited. The Bucks — like the Jazz, Pelicans and Hornets — have endured their share of injuries. They do not possess complete rosters. They’re all very young — 32-year-old Steve Novak (Bucks) is the only player on any of those four rosters who is older than 31. These four organizations are going through growing pains on many levels.
Yet, even with all of that having been said, the ability of these teams to do well at home is the true source of the puzzles they represent.
New Orleans is a modest 16-13 at home, so to a slight extent, the Pelicans aren’t quite as central to this specific point, but the Jazz, Hornets and Bucks are at least seven over .500 at home, with a minimum of 27 games played. They’re all roughly two-thirds of the way through their 41-game home slates, which means that with a relatively small number of remaining dates, they should all finish with winning records in their own buildings. They’d have to crater over the next month to finish with losing home records.
Young teams do struggle on the road. That’s not a mystery. What’s more revealing is that when the Bucks, Jazz and Hornets play in their own cities, they generally solve problems. On the road, they just as consistently fail. That’s the divergence at the heart of this story.
If Milwaukee, Utah and Charlotte could merely play close to break-even on the road — say, three or four games under .500 — what would it mean for them in the standings?
The Bucks — if 15-18 in their 33 road games instead of 8-25 — would be 32-28. They’d be no worse than sixth in the East, possibly better if any of those wins came against teams currently in the top five.
The Jazz — if 12-16 in their 28 road games instead of 9-19 — would be 31-28, in the seventh spot. Currently, they’re ninth, and they’re on the short end of most relevant tiebreakers in the West.
The Hornets — if 13-17 in 30 road games instead of 11-19 — would be 33-26, tied in the loss column with Miami for fourth in the East.
Basketball is basketball. If only the Bucks, Jazz and Hornets could make it so. They’d all own a lot more leverage in the present moment.