Which NBA Bubble Stars Need Home-Court Advantage the Least?

Nekias DuncanFeatured Columnist IJuly 20, 2020

Los Angeles Lakers' LeBron James (23) and Los Angeles Clippers' Kawhi Leonard (2) fight for the ball during an NBA basketball game between Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers, Wednesday, Dec. 25, 2019, in Los Angeles. The Clippers won 111-106. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)
Ringo H.W. Chiu/Associated Press

This isn’t your ordinary NBA postseason.

The season is expected to restart July 30, and it won’t be done until mid-October if things go well. Players are dealing with a four-month layoff. There’s bound to be rust and general kinks to work out.

Among the biggest changes in the restart is the actual location. Everything’s taking place near Orlando, Florida. It’s a neutral site with no fans, meaning no real home-court advantage exists this year. With that being the case, the question becomes: Who’s set up to thrive in a no-home environment?

To create the list below, I used Basketball Reference’s “Game Score” metric—an estimate of a player’s game contributions by their box score numbers. You can get the nuts-and-bolts explanation of the metric here. I chose the 10 players with the highest average Game Scores in road games over the past five postseasons (2014-15 to 2018-19), with a minimum of 10 road games played. I only included players slotted to participate in the bubble, which is why you won’t see Kevin Durant (22.0) or Stephen Curry (19.8), among others. I then grouped them as follows:

Tier 3: 14.6 to 17.5

Tier 2: 17.5 to 20.0

Tier 1: Above 20.0 

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And finally, within each tier, I ordered them by winning percentage. 

It’s an imperfect-but-simple way to get an idea of who has performed well on the road and, most importantly, whose performances have led to wins. 

 

Honorable Mentions

Khris Middleton and Damian Lillard (13.7 Game Score)

On the surface, Middleton and Lillard couldn’t be more different. One is a do-it-all wing playing off a megastar. The other is the megastar, a point guard with his hands in virtually every offensive decision.

But they are similar in that they derive the most value from their pull-up jumpers. They exploit teams that leave cracks open by stopping on a dime and drilling a shot. That forces defenses to play up on them, and that opens up driving or passing lanes for others to thrive. 

That’s been the case in Middleton’s masterpieces against the Boston Celtics in particular:

The same could be said about Lillard’s utter destruction of the Thunder last postseason, though his loudest display of flame-throwing came at home.

LaMarcus Aldridge (14.5)

The Human Metronome himself. Aldridge has long been a mismatch for opposing bigs. Typical post brutes don’t want to venture out of the paint to defend his jumpers. Smaller bigs—4s, mostly—don’t have the size to deal with Aldridge on the low block. That kind of offensive versatility is a pain to deal with when he’s on:

 

10. Paul Millsap

Road playoff averages: 18.0 points, 8.8 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.5 steals, 1.2 blocks, 51.1 percent from two, 28.6 percent from three, 81.0 percent from the line (6.2 attempts)

Average Game Score: 14.6

W-L record: 6-16 (.375)

 

Millsap is probably the most surprising inclusion on the list. Much like Aldridge, Millsap poses similar mismatch issues for frontcourts. He’s too strong (and crafty) for forwards to defend him, but his ball skills and shooting ability make him a pain for traditional centers to defend. He’s been a perfect complement to Nikola Jokic. In his younger days, he provided similar value alongside Al Horford. The best example: his 45-point, 13-rebound performance against the Celtics in 2016.

The Nuggets made a solid run last season, narrowly missing out on a Western Conference Finals berth. However, they’re still a relatively young bunch, and deadline trades took away some of the synergy they did have. Having a calming presence like Millsap should be helpful on and off the floor.

 

9. Joel Embiid 

Road playoff averages: 20.8 points, 10.5 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 0.7 steals, 2.3 blocks, 48.2 percent from two, 25.0 percent from three, 79.3 percent from the line (8.2 attempts)

Average Game Score: 15.0

W-L record: 4-6 (.400)

 

A healthy, fully-engaged Joel Embiid might just be the most dominant big in basketball. He consistently roasts single coverage on the block, shaking defenders with shimmies, getting them up in the air with his pump fake or simply putting foes underneath the basket. He’s an improving passer out of double-teams. If the jumper is falling? Good luck. That dominance carries over on the defensive end, where he almost single-handedly locks down the paint with his presence. 

An example of everything coming together was his 31-16-7 effort against the Brooklyn Nets last year, good for a 31.7 Game Score.

The story of Embiid’s career has been dictated by his availability—or lack thereof—more than anything. But when healthy, he’s a load to handle on both ends. And in a fanless environment where his trash talk could be more easily heard, there’s no telling what level we may see from Embiid.

 

8. Jimmy Butler

Road playoff averages: 19.1 points, 5.3 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 1.6 steals, 0.7 blocks, 48.9 percent from two, 34.5 percent from three, 86.2 percent from the line (5.2 attempts)

Average Game Score: 15.5

W-L record: 8-10 (.444)

 

As cliche as the “give it all you got” or “play to the final buzzer” mantras are, does anyone embody that quite like Butler?

After not really having a role in his first playoff action in Chicago, Butler put together three straight playoff runs averaging at least 40 minutes per game. Not only did he earn that role thanks to his in-your-jersey defense across three positions, but he also relished that kind of responsibility. As he’s grown as a shot-creator, Butler has gotten more comfortable taking the game into his own hands.

Amid the “whose team is this” undercurrent in Philadelphia last season, Butler arose as the team’s most consistent closer. Though he’s intentionally served as a table-setter in Miami thus far (career-high 6.1 assists), you can expect him to take the reins in high-leverage situations. Butler has not, is not, and likely never will be afraid of big moments. That served him well in road battles earlier in his career and should continue to help moving forward.

 

7. Paul George 

Road playoff averages: 28 points, 6.6 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.3 blocks, 52.6 percent from two, 40.2 percent from three, 88.8 percent from the line (7.4 attempts)

Average Game Score: 19.4

W-L record: 1-11 (.083)

 

Playoff P may have the most volatile playoff resume on the list. He actually comes in sixth in terms of average Game Score. His 39-8-8 performance against the Raptors in 2016 is tied for the 10th-best game of the past five postseasons (36.6 Game Score).

George has had some fantastic individual performances across his career in Indiana and Oklahoma City. He’s also had some absolute duds. His five-point stinker against the Utah Jazz in 2018 stands out, even though that game is mostly remembered for Russell Westbrook taking 43 shots in the series-clinching loss.

In a vacuum, George’s ability to shoot over the outstretched—and usually overmatched—arms of defenders make him a unique threat on and off the ball. He’s a pull-up artist out of the pick-and-roll, though he’s also able to leverage his length and explosiveness into tough finishes at the basket. He’s the clear No. 2 alongside Kawhi Leonard in Los Angeles, but it shouldn’t surprise anyone if he has a capital-G game on a night Leonard doesn’t have it going.

 

6. Russell Westbrook 

Road playoff averages: 27.3 points, 7.9 rebounds, 10.2 assists, 2.3 steals, 0.3 blocks, 41.7 percent from two, 29.9 percent from three, 79.5 percent from the line (8.4 attempts)

Average Game Score: 19.8

W-L record: 5-13 (.278)

 

Speaking of volatile playoff resumes, Westbrook certainly fits the billing. At his best, he’s been a high-flying, dish-tossing, board-grabbing, pass-picking demon that teams just have to tip their cap to. Take, for example, his opening salvo in the 2016 Western Conference Finals— 27 points, 12 assists, six rebounds and seven steals:

But then, there’s the aforementioned 46-on-43 performance against the Jazz. Or his Game 2 against the Blazers last year in which he finished with 14-9-11 but did so on awful efficiency (5-of-20 from the field, six turnovers). 

Like George, Westbrook should benefit from playing next to a dominant wing scorer (James Harden). That, combined with the extra spacing provided from the Rockets’ center-less lineups, should create a pathway for Westbrook to thrive.

 

5. James Harden 

Road playoff averages: 27.3 points, 5.3 rebounds, 7.3 assists, 2.1 steals, 0.4 blocks, 50.3 percent from two, 32.3 percent from three, 90.7 percent from the line (8.8 attempts)

Average Game Score: 20.0

W-L record: 9-19 (.321)

 

The gripes about Harden’s iso-heavy playstyle have been consistently loud for half a decade. Off-ball movement dies as he goes into his rhythmic dance. Any reach from a defender is an opportunity to get his arm hooked. But when he’s rolling, hitting the type of shots that defenses want to allow, what can you do?

Harden thrives on tough shots. He’s weaponized the step-back three like no other player in league history. But those tough shots have also led to some embarrassing cold streaks in crucial moments. It’s partly why the win-loss record has him so far down here despite the fact that he has the third-highest average Game Score.

 

4. Giannis Antetokounmpo

Road playoff averages: 23.4 points, 10.8 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 1.5 steals, 1.9 blocks, 54.3 percent from two, 23.7 percent from three, 68.2 percent from the line (9.1 attempts)

Average Game Score: 19.7 

W-L record: 6-11 (.353)

 

The eventual two-time MVP has already flashed some chops of being a crowd silencer. His 39-and-16 performance against Boston registered the sixth-highest road win Game Score since 2015 (36.1). It was a dominant effort from the start but especially picked up for the finish. Seventeen of his 39 points came in the fourth quarter:

The thing to watch with Giannis will be his free-throw shooting. He’s historically been a better free-throw shooter at home. In his last three road losses, all against Toronto in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals, he combined for a comically bad 48.1 percent clip from the line. A neutral site, with no fans, may help that percentage creep up. 

 

3. Chris Paul

Road playoff averages: 21.5 points, 5.1 rebounds, 7.0 assists, 2.3 steals, 0.3 blocks, 55.2 percent from two, 30.0 percent from three, 87.9 percent from the line (4.3 attempts)

Average Game Score: 17.9

W-L record: 9-12 (.429)

 

Paul lands at third, which is fitting because he’s one of four players on this list—six overall if you include Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry—to have at least 10 road games with a Game Score of at least 20 during this span. 

Paul’s ability to control a game is nearly unrivaled in NBA history. He’s a human computer, able to download opposing setups and attack cracks on a whim. His pull-up equity, combined with his preternatural court vision, makes him nearly impossible to deal with in the pick-and-roll. Look back to his 34-6-10 masterpiece (31.4 Game Score) against the Jazz in 2017 for an example:

At 35, Paul isn’t able to carry as heavy of a burden as he used to. The three-headed attack in Oklahoma City, featuring rising star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dennis Schroder, has allowed him to pick his spots more freely. Having the burden shared through three quarters is what has allowed Paul to thrive in the fourth. His 42.2 points per 100 clutch possessions rank 10th in the NBA (min. 20 games).

 

2. Kawhi Leonard 

Road playoff averages: 26.7 points, 8.2 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.7 blocks, 49.4 percent from two, 42.9 percent from three, 87.0 percent from the line (8.0 attempts)

Average Game Score: 21.2

W-L record: 14-12 (.538)

Honestly, Kawhi’s 2019 playoff run should speak for itself. He was essentially ‘98 Jordan with a modern twist. Despite playing on one good leg, Leonard averaged north of 30 points last postseason. He was especially proficient on the road, averaging 30.5 points while shooting 52.1 percent from two, 40.0 percent from three and 90.2 percent from the line.

Leonard put together nine road games with a Game Score of 20 or above in last year’s postseason alone, highlighted by his Game 4 performance against the Warriors in the Finals.

Leonard has turned himself into a complete package. He’s a strong finisher, having converted 72.0 percent of his shots at the rim over the past four postseasons. He’s a prolific intermediate scorer, getting busy on post-ups or sprinkling in pull-up jumpers out of pick-and-rolls. The passing has come along nicely over the past two seasons, making him one of the most unguardable figures in the sport. You can’t defend him with single coverage, nor can you afford to cheat off without Leonard burning you with the pass.

That, in conjunction with his defense, makes him a cheat code. There’s arguably no other player in the league right now that can carry the offensive load he does while also locking down an opponent’s No. 1 option. 

 

1. LeBron James 

Road playoff averages: 30.6 points, 10.4 rebounds, 8.5 assists, 1.5 steals, 1.2 blocks, 54.1 percent from two, 32.7 percent from three, 72.5 percent from the line (7.9 attempts)

Average Game Score: 24.8

W-L record: 25-17 (.595)

 

While the last sentence in the Leonard section is true, there remains no other player who can dictate all facets of a game quite like LeBron can.

LeBron sees all from the top of the floor, able to sling darts to either corner if enemies cheat toward the paint. Trying to defend him one-on-one is futile; he can get where he wants whenever he wants. Once he’s in the paint, the defense is mostly resigned to choosing between putting him on the line or giving up a catch-and-shoot three. 

That level of control, coming from someone his size, is darn-near impossible to deal with. His IQ extends to the other end of the floor, where he’s able to call out sets as they occur, make plays in the passing lanes and take on tough assignments when his number is called.

Since the 2015 playoffs, LeBron has put together 30 road games with a Game Score of 20 or more. That’s seven more than Stephen Curry, 10 more than Kevin Durant and 14 more than anyone that appears on this list (16 for Leonard and Harden). He has two games with a Game Score above 40.

The first came against the Toronto Raptors in 2018. His Game 2 performance generated a 41.6 Game Score. His line: 43 points on 28 shots, 14 assists, eight rebounds, one steal and one turnover. What he did to that group probably shouldn’t have been allowed on FCC airwaves.

The second instance came later that postseason. His 51-point virtuosic effort in Game 1 of the 2018 Finals generated a 41.3, though it’s now remembered for JR Smith’s unforgivable lapse in judgment.

In short, LeBron remains the choice if you need a guy to come through away from home.