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NBA bubble fact or fiction

by Joshua Doering

The NBA bubble at Disney World was one big science experiment, providing a drastically different environment than a typical postseason. That data from the bubble can then be taken and compared to previous years to see what kind of impact it actually had. 

Were higher-seeded teams really at a disadvantage? Did teams do a better job staying alive? Were there more breathtaking individual performances than usual? 

110 Sports identified five narratives surrounding the NBA bubble and set out to determine if they were fact or fiction.

1. Removing thousands of screaming fans generally allowed players to perform better

Verdict: Fiction

Of the 16 teams who made the playoffs, only the Los Angeles Lakers, Los Angeles Clippers and Utah Jazz shot a higher field goal percentage than they did during the regular season. Nine teams saw their field goal percentage drop at least 1.5%, headlined by the Philadelphia 76ers’ 7.2% decrease. Half the teams in the playoffs posted a positive net rating while 47% of teams did so in the regular season. However, a lower proportion of teams had offensive ratings (points scored per 100 possessions) above 110. The same is true of the number of teams with a defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) below 110. Interestingly, 31% of playoff participants shot at least 37% from three while just 23% did so in the regular season. Still, there is little to suggest teams performed better in the bubble, though the improved defense that always comes with the postseason certainly played a role as well.

2. Teams who were supposed to have home court advantage were hurt by playing in a bubble

Verdict: Fact

Over the previous five postseasons, teams with home court advantage lost an average of 27.6 games. That includes instances where the Cleveland Cavaliers (2015, 2017, 2018) and Golden State Warriors (2018) were not the No. 1 seed in their conference but still reached the NBA Finals. This year, higher-seeded teams lost 34 times, tied with 2018 for the most in the last six seasons. Notice the Cavaliers and Warriors both did not earn a No. 1 seed that year. We will never know if the Los Angeles Clippers blow a 3-1 lead or the Miami Heat make the Finals in normal circumstances, but it is not purely a coincidence those things happened in the bubble.

3. The neutral court led to more competitive series throughout the playoffs

Verdict: False

The previous five seasons were again used as a point of reference to put the results of the bubble in perspective. There were four Game 7s this season and 16 in the last five years combined. Seven series went past a Game 5, the same number as in 2017 and 2019. Between 2015 and 2017, an average of eight series required at least six games. In terms of series length there was nothing unusual about this postseason.

4. Teams were more effective in fighting off elimination in the bubble

Verdict: False

The 2020 playoffs will be remembered in part for the Denver Nuggets coming back from two 3-1 deficits, but nobody else was particularly effective keeping their seasons alive. Teams facing elimination before Game 7 collected a total of 10 victories, just as they did in 2015 and 2016. Denver accounted for six of those. If that number seems low, remember that Orlando, Indiana, Philadelphia, Brooklyn, Portland and Dallas all exited the bubble without a single win with their seasons on the line. The only thing out of the ordinary in terms of avoiding elimination was what the Nuggets did individually.

5. The bubble provided more standout performances than a typical postseason

Verdict: More true than false

There are a variety of ways to determine whether an individual performance was truly exceptional, so it was necessary to create a set of criteria. A standout performance was defined as a game with 40+ points and/or a triple-double.. Players scored 40 or more points an average of 12.2 times and recorded 9.2 triple-doubles per postseason. The bubble saw 13 40-point outings and 12 triple-doubles, which is why the verdict is more true than false. Declaring the statement entirely true seems too extreme but it is true that there were more standout performances than normal based on the established metrics. 

Photo by Mark Ordonez / Flickr

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