NBA
May 26, 2021

No Fans, No Problem? Here's How NBA Players Are Performing Without Crowds

The 2020 NBA season was suspended suddenly on March 11 as Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19 just moments before their scheduled game against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

As uncertainty and lockdowns swept the country, many were unsure if the NBA season would resume at all. The NBA chose to restart the season shut off from the outside world in a “bubble environment” at Disney’s Wide World of Sports in Orlando, FL. Teams were allowed to bring in minimal personnel, players were forced to leave families behind at home and all those entering the bubble were asked to quarantine before leaving their hotel rooms.

A whittled-down league of the top 22 teams played eight “seeding” games to finish their regular season and determine playoff positioning before beginning the playoffs in the bubble. 

Despite the absence of fans, teams still found ways to increase scoring, and some players outperformed their regular season statistics by significant margins. We pulled player statistics from NBA.com to compare regular season play in the bubble to games played before the bubble and assessed which players thrived without fans and which struggled. Read on to see our study comparing player performance statistics during an unprecedented season. 

Performing Without Fans

To analyze the top performers in the bubble, we looked at their average points per game, free throw percentage, three-point percentage and rebounds across the eight games played in the Orlando bubble. We included every player who played a minimum of 30 games during the regular season and ranked each player by their average performance in the bubble. 

James Harden led the league in points per game overall for the 2020 season, but the crown for best bubble performance in points per game went to Damian Lillard at 37.6. His average performance in the bubble was an impressive 8.7 points higher than his regular-season play, an increase of 30%. 

Duncan Robinson, who helped the Miami Heat get to the NBA Finals, was among five players with a minimum of two free-throw attempts per game, who didn’t miss a single one in the bubble. Jonathan Isaac and Alex Len led the way in the bubble three-point percentage rankings, both doubling their regular season figures, with Len improving his statistics by a staggering 41.7%.

Giannis “Greek Freak” Antetokounmpo dominated the boards in the bubble, pulling down 12.2 rebounds per game. Interestingly enough, Jonas Valancuinas was among the few players — and the only among the top bubble performers — to average more rebounds in the bubble than the regular season.

The fanless NBA bubble environment seemed to promote better team basketball for Ja Morant and the Grizzlies. Morant went on quite a hot streak in the bubble, putting up nearly 9.9 assists per game, up from 6.9 during the pre-bubble season.

LeBron James was much less generous with the ball during his time in Orlando. His regular-season average of 10.6 per game dropped down to 6.9. Defensively, Thomas Bryant stood out more than usual in the bubble, doubling his rebounds and leading the league in blocks per game at 2.0. Another notable performance, although not a positive stat, came from Hassan Whiteside who saw his impressive 3.1 blocks per game fall to 1.5.

No team wants to catch the turnover bug during big games, but the Houston Rockets struggled taking care of the ball in the bubble. Russell Westbrook and James Harden led the bubble season in turnovers with 5 and 4.8 per game, respectively. In a moment of redemption for Harden, he finished second in the league behind Jimmy Butler for steals per game.

General Overview of NBA Play With and Without Fans

Despite the challenges faced by the NBA due to rising cases of COVID-19 and season uncertainty, leaguewide scoring saw an uptick during the bubble portion of the season. The league’s scoring average rose from 222.9 points per game to 231.3, which can be attributed to steady increases in multiple categories. These improvements included a 7.8% increase in 3-pointers made and a 6.2% increase in attempts, to a 13.9% increase in free throws made and an overall 10.9% increase in attempts. Some of those points may have also resulted from a 2.9% increase in turnovers. 

While rebound performance stayed relatively consistent in the bubble, compared to pre-bubble games, the NBA saw a more inclusive offensive play, leading to a 1.8% increase in assists. Teams also took better care of the ball in the bubble, allowing fewer steals than in their pre-bubble play. 

The statistic affected most negatively by the bubble environment was blocked shots. The season average of 9.9 blocks per game fell 11.1% to 8.8, a much bigger margin than rebounds, assists, or steals, which all saw less than a 2% change. 

Regardless of the time spent in the bubble, the pandemic had a generally negative effect on various aspects of the game, which can be seen in the average number of points scored and three-pointer performance in the 2020-21 season compared to 2019-20.

The league has so far seen an improvement in scoring this season, with a small uptick in assists, which suggests we may witness an even more dynamic offensive performance this year than the last with the stress of the pandemic nearly behind us. 

Thriving Without Fans

While the circumstances leading up to the NBA’s move to the bubble were far from ideal, some players thrived in a fan-free environment. The bubble created a spotlight for players like Michael Porter Jr., who averaged 7.5 points per game during pre-bubble play and skyrocketed to 22.0 points per game once inside the bubble, for the largest increase in points by a player league-wide.

Players also saw free-throw percentage improvements without fans in the stadium, highlighted by players like Mike Conley, who saw a 20.5 percentage point increase, and Jaxson Hayes, whose average rose 19.4 points from his pre-bubble free-throw statistic. 

When it came to rebounds, Porter Jr. continued to have an impact in the bubble. His 8.6 average per game was more than double his performance in the regular season, where he managed only 4.2 per game. Ivica Zubac burst on the scene in the bubble as well, going from a solid 7.2 rebounds per game to an impressive 10.3.

Morant was most improved in assists per game with an increase of three assists per game in the bubble, compared to pre-bubble play. He was trailed closely by Jarrett Allen with a 2.8 increase in the average number of assists per game in Orlando.

Assists can make a considerable impact on a team’s scoring efficiency, showcased by the fact that Tyler Herro and Alex Caruso, among the top 10 most improved players for assists in the bubble, both went to the NBA Finals. 

Declining Performances in the Bubble

Not all players improved their play in Orlando. Some key stars struggled in the bubble, and it showed in the numbers. Hassan Whiteside, who averaged a solid 16.3 points per game in the regular season, saw his production drop to 7.8 points per game for an 8.5 decrease per game. Players who averaged over 20 points per game, like Kemba Walker and Pascal Siakam, also saw production declines of 7.0 and 6.8 points per game, respectively. 

The basket appeared to shrink for some players beyond the arc as the deep ball became elusive for players like Joel Embiid and Brandon Clarke.

Embiid, who averaged 34.8% from three during the season, made just 9.1% of his 3s in the bubble. Clarke shot an impressive 40.4% from three pre-bubble and fell all the way to 16.7%.

Even with no crowds behind the hoop to distract them, some players still struggled at the free-throw line. Jamal Murray’s solid 89.3% regular-season percentage fell to 62.5% for a decrease of 26.8%, and Eric Bledsoe dropped from a decent 81.3% to a disappointing 57.1%.

More than a half-dozen players saw double-digit negative differences in their bubble free-throw performance.

Boards were also hard to come by for some NBA stars, as Whiteside’s production was cut by more than half, dropping from 14.3 to 6 for a difference of 8.3 per game. In a distant second place in this statistic, Nikola Jokić’s rebounds dropped from 10.2 down to 6.

As mentioned earlier, LeBron was a little stingier with the basketball in the bubble than in the regular season, but his change of style wasn’t the biggest change. Ben Simmons’ assists per game dropped from 8.2 to 4.3 for a difference of 3.9, just a bit wider than James' difference of 3.7.

The bubble environment presented many new challenges and opportunities for NBA players this year. Without the usual enthusiasm from packed crowds to rely on for a boost of energy, teams had no choice but to adapt to this new style of basketball. One thing is for sure about bubble play: Teams certainly managed to get the ball in the hoop more often. Teams facing this unprecedented circumstance still found ways to score, and some players were able to find the opportunity to shine and finish the season stronger than they’d begun it.

Methodology

We used NBA.com statistics on each player’s performance before and after players were required to play in “the bubble” to measure player performance with and without fans, as fans were prohibited from attending games in the bubble. 

By using player averages in the months of play outside the bubble, as well as their statistics within, we were able to analyze players who thrived with or without fans and what aspects of the game improved in the bubble. We also included their average performance in 2020 overall for more context. 

Limitations

Due to the fact that the number of games played outside of the bubble differs from the number within the bubble, some limitations apply. The sample size for bubble games was eight games played per team, while teams had played 63 to 67 games prior to the NBA moving players into the bubble to play out the rest of the season. 

Fair Use Statement

Interested in the findings of our performance study, or maybe you just want to post it to spark debate among fellow fans about bubble performances? Feel free to share our study with like-minded sports statisticians and fans alike, but only do so for non-commercial purposes and please link back to our study to give us proper credit for our work.

Photo: Getty Images