NBA arenas host intimate affairs, where 20,000 fans sit right on top of the action and often break into running conversations with players on the floor. Internal fortitude, grit, and team chemistry are laid bare for the world to see. A hostile road environment can reduce any world-class athlete into mush and create a blooper reel of missed shots, turnovers, and defensive lapses. On the other side of the coin, an unknown role player may very well find himself rising to the occasion as the unlikely hero at home in front of his own supportive and familiar crowd.
By definition, the best home-court advantages in the NBA are the result of entertaining teams taking the floor in front of their own knowledgeable, rowdy fanbases. For 2016–17, these seven teams will emerge as legitimate championship contenders, behind their respective raucous home crowds. In the postseason, a Game 7 at home can make all the difference between hoisting the O’Brien trophy and going fishing.
7. Boston Celtics, TD Boston Garden
For this season, the TD Garden will edge out both Madison Square Garden and the United Center, as a shrine to the game of basketball out of the Eastern Conference. Last year, the Celtics went 48-34, before the Atlanta Hawks bounced them out of the first round of the playoffs. In response, Boston signed Al Horford to a four-year, $113 million deal this offseason. Horford, as a skilled big man, fits in perfectly within Brad Stevens’ system. At the same time, Horford blows up a Hawks squad that sent four players to the 2015 All-Star Game.
Expect these Boston Celtics to strongly challenge LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers atop the Eastern Conference. For several years running, the new Boston Garden was the ultimate House of Horrors for a young James. In 2010, the Big Three Celtics (Garnett, Pierce, and Allen) ran James off the Boston floor in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals. James, after this humiliating defeat, casually tossed away his Cavaliers jersey in the tunnel, before announcing his decision to take his game to South Beach. This epic story, of course, has now come full circle, with King James owning three rings to his credit after finally bringing one title back home to Cleveland.
For 2015–16, the Celtics went 28-13 at home, which propelled them to the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference. Lead guard Isaiah Thomas broke out and made his first All-Star Game appearance, after putting up 22 points and six assists per game last year. Going forward, basketball junkies can expect a young core featuring Thomas, Horford, Avery Bradley, and Marcus Smart to restore the Boston parquet floor back to glory. As a reminder, 17 championship banners hang from the rafters at Boston Garden.
6. Toronto Raptors, Air Canada Centre
The Raptors organization literally manages to pack all of Canada into downtown Toronto’s Air Canada Centre. As a matter of national pride, the Raptors have stood tall as the last professional basketball team in Canada, ever since the Grizzlies defected from Vancouver to Memphis in 2001. Last year, Dwyane Wade drew the ire of the entire country, when he casually blew off the “O Canada” anthem to continue going through his workout, warming up, and shooting around, before a Game 3 playoff game in Miami. When the series returned to Canada, the Toronto faithful went berserk, and let Wade have it, right before the Raptors blew the doors off the Heat in Games 5 and 7.
Raucous Toronto crowds have been treated to an exciting brand of basketball for several years running. In the late ’90s, Vince Carter teamed up with his cousin Tracy McGrady to popularize the sport north of the border. In 2001, VC and his high-wire act took the Raptors all the way through the Eastern Conference Semifinals, before losing to Allen Iverson and the Philadelphia 76ers, in seven games. Now, the Raptors can roll out a lineup featuring the likes of DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, and Terrence Ross to entertain fans with their scrappy, athletic play. This core group went 32-9 at home last season.
This year, DeMar DeRozan has taken his game to the next level. He leads the league in scoring at 34 points per game through six games. DeRozan and these Raptors seem set upon another postseason collision course with LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers. By then, expect Drake and 19,800 other fans at Air Canada Centre to go full “white out” inside of the arena, while legions of fans mill about outside through Maple Leaf Square, aka, Jurassic Park. With this crowd, the term “We The North” will be the ultimate Call to Arms.
5. Oklahoma City Thunder, Chesapeake Energy Arena
Like Green Bay, Oklahoma City is a small market with a rabid fan base that seems much greater than the sum of its parts. For added motivation, the Thunder faithful appear hell-bent upon proving that Clay Bennett and his ownership group made the right move, in buying out the Seattle Supersonics, only to suddenly move the franchise to Oklahoma. This crowd is especially rowdy against its I-35 and Texas Triangle rivals, as an extension of the Red River Shootout, where Texans often look down upon their Oklahoma neighbors as uncouth yokels.
The Thunder descended upon Oklahoma with an embarrassment of riches and immediately emerged as a perennial contender, at a time when Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden all sat on the same roster. In 2012, OKC made it to the NBA Finals, with The Beard coming off the bench as the sixth man. That offseason, the Thunder flipped James Harden to Houston for cap space and draft picks. In retrospect, this trade proves to be one of the more lopsided deals in the history of sports, with the lone exemption remaining the rugged play of Steven Adams. Still, any team built around a Kevin Durant/Russell Westbrook nucleus would be one of the more talented NBA groups. For years, analysts openly wondered whether or not these lead dogs could win together at the highest levels.
Last year, the Thunder appeared to have the Mighty 73-9 Warriors right where they wanted them, and were up 3-1 after dominating two games at home by a combined 52 points. Even in Game 6, the Thunder were up by seven points at home late in the fourth quarter before Klay Thompson caught fire and decidedly swung the momentum of the series. To add insult to injury, Durant signed on with GSW right after this shocking collapse, in one of the more notable ring chasing moves in the history of sports. Certainly, the Thunder faithful have circled the wagons and wait for February 11, 2017 when KD first returns back to Oklahoma. Expect the spurned home crowd to Kevin Durant with boos, jeers, and trash talk, while Westbrook unleashes his best.
4. Cleveland Cavaliers, Quicken Loans Arena
Cleveland, despite two generations of perpetual losing, has always been recognized as one of the better sports cities in America. Last June, James and the Cavaliers rewarded Cleveland for its loyalty, finally bringing a championship back to the city after a long 52-year drought. In doing so, The Block and The Shot ultimately replaced The Drive and The Fumble in Northeast Ohio sports lore. Four months later, in October, the Indians competed against the apparently cursed Chicago Cubs for a World Series title. This took place right across the street from Quicken Loans arena, at the same time the Cavaliers hoisted their very own championship banner.
Last year, Cleveland went 33-8 through the 2015–16 regular season, en route to the No. 1 seed and home-court advantage through the Eastern Conference playoffs. The Cavs did not lose one game at home through the postseason, until a 108-97 loss at home in Game 4 of the 2016 NBA Finals, which put them down 1-3 in the series. From there, King James rallied the troops to a critical Game 6 win at home, with the series on the line. LeBron, for his part, put up a monster 41-point, 11-assist, and eight-rebound stat-line in front of the Cleveland faithful, before being sent off to Oakland. The Cavaliers, of course, eventually returned home as heroes, with the O’Brien trophy in tow.
This year, the Cavaliers and Warriors appear destined to meet in the Finals yet again to break the tie in what would be a championship series trilogy. The Cavs already raced out to a 6-1 start, with LeBron emerging as the primary facilitator on the team, to save his legs for another deep postseason run. Expect Cleveland to rip through the Eastern Conference and lock down home-court advantage through the playoffs. With time, home crowds may very well witness the “Mistake by the Lake” transform into Titletown. For now, the imposing James mural has replaced the Unsited Center Air Jordan statue as the most celebrated fixture in basketball.
3. Portland Trail Blazers, Moda Center
Seattle and Portland fans are notorious for their rabid if not outright arrogant and delusional support of their sports franchises. The attention mongering is likely overcompensation for the fact that the Pacific Northwest is located thousands of miles away from major media markets. In Seattle, fans will proudly hoist the 12th Man fan above Qwest Field before finding time to berate Oklahoma City fans for stealing their beloved Sonics. This 2008 move left Portland as the only place for basketball junkies to get their fix for roughly 1,000 miles in either direction. (the closest NBA city, Oakland, is 700 miles away).
Last year, the Portland Trail Blazers went 28-13 at home in Rip City. For the sake of comparison, the 2015–16 Blazers went 16-25 on the road, for the worst away record of any playoff team. In effect, the home crowd carried the surprising Trail Blazers into the postseason, immediately after losing the likes of LeMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, Robin Lopez, and Aaron Afflalo to free agency and apparently gutting the roster. These moves, however, did clear the way for Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum to emerge as the best backcourt in basketball this side of Golden State. So far, these two are combining for 56 points, 11 rebounds, and 8 assists for 2016.
Portland fans have remained fiercely loyal to a star-crossed franchise that last won a championship in 1977. After winning it all, Bill Walton hobbled off the floor as a shell of his former self, right before team executives drafted Sam Bowie, one pick before Michael Jordan. From there, the humiliating Jail Blazers era ultimately gave way to the demise of both Brandon Roy and Greg Oden, who spent much more time on the trainer’s table than they ever did on a professional basketball floor. Fans in Rip City are still desperate for anything to cheer for at the Rose Garden.
2. San Antonio Spurs, AT&T Center
Last year, the San Antonio Spurs went 67-15, yet were very much overshadowed by the eventual champion Cleveland Cavaliers and the Oklahoma City Thunder and Golden State Warriors Out West. These Spurs, for their part, even went 40-1 at the AT&T Center, which tied the home record mark set by the Boston Celtics in 1986. Without a title, however, sports analysts may treat this recent Spurs performance as little more than a footnote in the history books.
In typical Tim Duncan fashion, the Big Fundamental quietly posted a letter to the Spurs website to walk away from the game with 26,496 total points, 15,091 rebounds, 3,020 blocks, and five titles for his career as the greatest power forward of all time. From there, it was a matter of destiny for the Spurs to pick up Pau Gasol in free agency. San Antonio is now set to open up another wing of their long-running dynasty, with Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge now out front, as the lead dogs on the team.
Certainly, the Spurs faithful is chomping at the bit to finally get a crack at the Golden State Warriors in the postseason. The Spurs do have the personnel to chase GSW shooters around the perimeter, rebound the basketball, and throw their weight around in the paint. For these two juggernauts, home-court advantage might make all the difference in deciding the outcome of a tightly contested, seven-game series.
1. Golden State Warriors, Oracle Arena
For several years running, the Golden State Warriors and their fun, freewheeling style, have performed as the perfect complement to the laid-back culture of their Northern California home. In 2007, the upstart Warriors rode a raucous home crowd to upset the 67-15 Mavericks, as an eighth seed, in six games. Two years later, in 2009, the GSW drafted Stephen Curry out of tiny Davidson College. At that time, Curry and his weak ankles looked as if he would be more comfortable heading an IT Department out in Silicon Valley, instead of running plays anywhere near an NBA floor.
With time, of course, Steph Curry and his crafty style have endeared himself to Dubs Nation. In taking MVP honors, Curry has proven the merits of brains and skills over brawn, which has always been the driving force behind the Bay Area technology sector. Last year, the Warriors went 39-2 at home, with Oracle Arena looming large as the most electric venue in professional basketball. At any moment, Steph Curry could hit his man with a hesitation crossover, pull up behind the arc, and drain a trey right down the bottom of the net. From there, the high-octane Warriors can kick things into another gear, with the likes of Curry, Draymond Green, and Klay Thompson getting hot and running the opposition off the floor.
As an added bonus, the Warriors went out and signed Kevin Durant to a two-year, $54 million contract this offseason, after coming off a 73-9 regular season and back-to-back trips to the Finals. The Warriors now must adjust to the bulls-eye of being painted as the latest version of the Evil Empire, instead of being lauded and hailed as a quirky, fun-loving group out on the West Coast. Against this backdrop, expect a us-against-the-world mentality out of these 2016-17 Warriors at Oracle. GSW is still the hottest ticket in sports.