Why Playing Without Fans Will Boost Lakers and Bucks' NBA Title Bid

When the novel coronavirus pandemic ground the NBA to a halt in March, LeBron James scoffed at the prospect of playing games behind closed doors.

Fans will be conspicuous by their absence when the season resumes after a four-month hiatus this week, but bookmakers believe the lack of spectators could significantly help LeBron's bid to bring the NBA title back to Los Angeles for the first time in a decade.

The Los Angeles Lakers arrived in the NBA's bubble at Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida, as the only Western Conference team to have already secured a playoff spot.

Their 49-14 is the league's second best behind only the Milwaukee Bucks', who are one of three Eastern Conference teams to have clinched a postseason berth before the season was halted in March.

The two favorites for the title before the COVID-19 outbreak threw the season in turmoil, the case for the Lakers and Bucks has grown stronger since the NBA last month unveiled plans to resume the campaign behind closed doors in Orlando.

Oddsmakers have removed home court advantage from their predictions, meaning teams that would have previously been playing at home lose an average of three points per game.

Theoretically, this should benefit the outsiders and harm the favorites. In practice, however, it removes an often crucial factor for teams hoping to pull off an upset.

"Without the usual off-court fanfare, the cream should simply rise to the top," a spokesperson for betting firm Unikrn told Newsweek.

"The odds movement suggests one of the Lakers, Bucks or the Clippers have already enhanced their chances of lifting the championship as Disney World without stepping onto the court."

The trend is reflected in the latest odds. Joint favorites at 3/1 before the NBA suspension in March, odds on the Lakers and the Bucks have shortened to 12/5 and 5/2 respectively.

In practical terms, that means their respective chances of winning the title have increased from 25 percent to 28.6 percent for Milwaukee and from 25 percent to 29.4 percent for the Lakers.

Odds on the Los Angeles Clippers, who are second in the Western Conference five games behind the Lakers, have also shortened, falling from 7/2 to 3/1—rising from 22.2 percent to 25 percent.

Conversely, odds on the Toronto Raptors, who are currently second in the Eastern Conference and have already secured a playoff spot, have lengthened from 18/1 to 22/1.

FiveThirtyEight's statistical projections agree with Vegas, giving the Lakers a 31 percent chance of winning the title, with the Clippers and the Bucks holding a 25 percent and 16 percent chance respectively.

ESPN and Basketball Reference, meanwhile, have Milwaukee's chances at 43 percent and 51 percent respectively, with no other team breaking the 20 percent threshold instead.

Over the last decade, only three times has a team other than top two seeds in each conference made the NBA Finals.

The Boston Celtics and the Cleveland Cavaliers reached the NBA Finals as the Eastern Conference's fourth seed in 2010 and 2018, while the Dallas Mavericks were the Western Conference's third seed when they made the NBA Finals in 2011.

The Mavs remain the only team outside the top-two seeds in each conference to win the NBA title since 2010.

Quantifying home court advantage is one of the oldest exercises in professional sports and a source of endless this discussion. From fans creating hostile atmospheres to unconscious referee bias, multiple factors are at a play in creating a home advantage.

Taken in a vacuum, none make a material difference but when combined over the course of a seven-game series, their impact is felt.

In 80 first-round playoff series over the last 10 years, the team with the home advantage progressed to the second round in 62 occasions—notably, last season was the first time in a decade where the top four teams in each conference all reached the second round.

However, the lack of fans means that mid-ranking teams that would have benefitted from a home advantage no longer have that luxury, while the weakest teams—who on paper should have faced the hardest road matchups—have now been given a slight upper hand in terms of facing a better opponent on neutral grounds.

"The absence of the approximate three-point advantage associated with the home court would be most problematic for the mid-ranked teams contesting the closest match ups on paper, where such a narrow margin could make the difference," Unikrn spokesperson added.

As far as the NBA is concerned, the new normal may be very similar to the old normal.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James
Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks and LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers hug following a game at Fiserv Forum on December 19, 2019 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Stacy Revere/Getty