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Do NBA role players really play better at home?

Let’s put an old basketball adage to the test.

Philadelphia 76ers v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Philadelphia 76ers’ forward Georges Niang is a 40.8 percent three-point shooter.

On the surface, this number suggests a knockdown shooter, one capable of shredding nylon on a nightly basis. But look closer, and his percentages come with an interesting little wrinkle.

In the 23 home games Niang has participated in this season, the seven-year veteran is converting on 46.1 pecent of his 5.6 attempts. That would be the fourth-highest percentage in the NBA if that mark was his hit rate for the entire season.

However, in the 18 games he’s played basketball away from Wells Fargo Center, Niang shoots a pedestrian 34 percent (once again, on roughly 5.6 attempts per game) – 1.7 percentage points lower than the league average for this season.

This disparity adds credence to the old adage that role players (like Niang) play better at home than on the road. But is this trend merely anecdotal, or is there hard evidence that it is actually a common occurrence?

Before we attempt to answer this question, we need to answer a few sub-questions to paint the canvas for our analysis.

Why does this even matter?

In his “Four Factors of Basketball Success,” Dean Oliver pinpointed shooting as the most important swing factor of the variables he identified, estimating that it was responsible for determining the outcome of 40 percent of a game.

So, the outcome of a single game could be decided simply by one team having a hot/cold shooting performance. This is especially important when you think of do-or-die scenarios, like a Game 7 in the playoffs.

For instance, last season’s second-round melee between the Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks culminated in a 109-81 blowout favoring the home team (the Celtics).

Look under the hood, and while a myriad of factors contributed to this lopsided outcome, chief among them was the stark contrast in outside shooting. The Celtics hit 40 percent of their 55 three-point attempts. Meanwhile, the Bucks only emerged successful on 12.1 percent of their 33 threes.

As we alluded, Boston was the home team in this example, so one could argue that we have another Niang situation taking place here. If this is true, if both these incidents are evidence of an overarching trend (that role players play better at home), it would provide the home team with an even greater boost in these high-leverage games.

Why three-point shooting?

With the rise of heliocentrism (the idea of allocating a large portion of scoring/playmaking duties to one or two players), teams want their role players to be individuals who can capitalize on the advantages the stars they surround create.

A typical “advantage creation” sequence plays out something like this: a heliocentric star drives down the lane, beats his man, forces the defense to collapse in on them, and kicks it out to an open role player for a three-pointer.

This makes shooting one of role players’ primary functions, and three-point percentage the simplest variable to measure when seeking to answer a question of this nature.

Of course, when prioritizing simplicity, one loses nuance (remember, everything comes with a tradeoff). To remedy this, future examinations could include other common actions executed by role players to paint a more holistic picture.

So, do role players actually play better at home?

For the sake of this exercise, we define “role players” as individuals who average between 10 and 23 minutes per game and have appeared in at least 10 games this season. Also, to account for role players who don’t shoot threes (the Andre Drummonds of the world), we filtered out all guys who haven’t attempted at least 50 three-pointers this year (giving us a total sample size of 74 players).

Lastly, all data for this study was pulled on January 12th, 2023, so there may be some minor changes in individual percentages when you read this today.

Now, without further ado, here are our results:

2022-23 Role Players
2022-23 Role Players
Daniel Bratulić

Chart Created by Daniel Bratulić

Makes perfect sense right? No? Well good, that’s because it shouldn’t.

If our original theory were correct, we would see a smorgasbord of faces located on the bottom right of the chart. But instead, most players are stationed near the trend line, indicating no significant difference between their shooting performance while playing at home versus on the road.

Okay, but this is just this season’s numbers. No sports study is complete without multi-season data. With this in mind, here is what the home/road splits look like for role players in 2021-22.

2021-22 Role Player
2021-22 Role Players
Daniel Bratulić

Chart Created by Daniel Bratulić

A couple of changes to note: 1) instead of making the threshold 50 three-point attempts for the season, we increased our filter to 100 attempts (because last season is fully completed while this year is not), and 2) similar to one, we increased the minimum requirement for games played from 10 to 30 (making our sample size 65 players).

(User note: while the data is drawn from the 2021-22 season, the photos of these players have them in their jerseys from last season. For instance, Gary Payton II is in a Portland Trail Blazers uniform even though he played for the Golden State Warriors last year.)

Still, even with these tweaks, the main point remains – there is no real correlation between a role player’s three-point shooting and whether they are playing at home or on the road.

To add one more layer of context, we also examined these splits on a team-wide level. This time, our only filters were for players who average between 10 and 23 minutes per game and have appeared in at least 10 games this season.

2022-23 Team Role Players Shooting
2022-23 Team Role Players Shooting
Daniel Bratulić

Chart Created by Daniel Bratulić

And once again, a cluttered conglomeration of images near the trend line, furthering the notion that there is not a significant difference in how role players shoot at home or on the road.

(Sidebar: the stark difference in how the Dallas Mavericks shoot at home versus on the road can be attributed to most of their “role player” shooters playing over 23 minutes per game and therefore not counting toward the sample. As a general rule of thumb, the smaller the sample, the greater the likelihood for error.)

While not providing a definitive answer – as we said, more studies on more variables would be necessary to do that – this article does serve as a solid argument against the age-old maxim that role players play better at home.

From a sports fan’s perspective, this is a massive win because not knowing how well a role player is going to perform based on the venue increases the unpredictability of the game we love so dearly. So, while we may have potentially debunked one sports cliche, we have simultaneously added fuel to another one.

One that reads: “that’s why you play the game.”

All the visuals for this article were created by software engineer/data scientist Daniel Bratulić (@daniel_bratulic on Twitter). The statistics in this story are updated entering Monday’s games.