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What the Schedule Can Tell Us About Who’s Real in the NBA

The standings aren’t giving you the full picture. Here are the teams being helped, or hurt, by their strength of schedule so far.

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Beyond binary comparisons of the East versus West, we typically don’t focus on strength of schedule. Over a full season, there’s little reason to do so: All 15 Western teams will face all 15 Eastern teams twice, and while intraconference schedules vary slightly based on divisions, the differences are so small that they become meaningless across 82 games. Last season, all 30 teams’ opponents combined for a winning percentage between 49.3 percent and 50.8 percent.

But with the 2018-19 campaign just about one-third over, some schedules have yet to reach equilibrium, and some teams’ notable starts are obscured—or created—by such anomalies. Here are five teams with early schedules worth a closer look, and what those slates mean for the teams’ fortunes when the calendar flips to 2019. (We’ll use two different strength-of-schedule metrics: ESPN’s, which uses the cumulative winning percentage of a given team’s opponents so far; and Basketball-Reference’s, which uses cumulative point differential.)

Oklahoma City Thunder

Record: 17-9

Strength of schedule: 30th toughest (ESPN), 30th toughest (Basketball-Reference)

The Thunder’s torrid start to the season has garnered rightful notice. OKC has the best defensive rating in the NBA, and though rosterwide shooting problems continue, coach Billy Donovan has found lineups that work and a star in Paul George to fill Kevin Durant’s vacancy on the wing. The only reason for pause is that the Thunder have steamrolled the easiest schedule for any team.

Just look, for instance, at the Thunder’s romp through the interconference portion of their slate. OKC is 9-2 against the East, but outside of one home game against the Celtics (a loss), its opponents have been Charlotte twice, Cleveland twice, Washington, New York, Atlanta, Detroit, Brooklyn, and Chicago (also a loss). Not on that list? A second road contest against the Celtics or any game against the top four teams in the East: Toronto, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, and Indiana.

Overall, the Thunder are 11-1 against teams with losing records and just 6-8 against teams .500 or above. One positive is that they’ve pasted most of those sub-.500 opponents, which is an important marker for a good team, but sooner or later, they must translate that performance to higher-quality matchups to remain abreast of the morass in the Western standings. According to Tankathon, the Thunder project for the hardest remaining schedule of any team.

Miami Heat

Record: 11-16

SOS: 29th (ESPN), 28th (B-R)

At least the Thunder are winning games against feeble opponents. The Heat aren’t even doing that much, despite an opening schedule almost as easy as Oklahoma City’s. Perhaps the most incisive summary of Miami’s lackadaisical season thus far is that the Heat have lost to the Hawks twice.

That Miami has struggled to make headway despite its ostensibly easy start portends a dark path over the rest of the season. The Heat should have been banking wins against this set of opponents, but they instead perch uncomfortably in the East’s no. 9 spot through Wednesday’s games.

It won’t be easy to climb much higher, either. Given the West’s dominance (once again), it’s no surprise that teams in the better conference project for more difficult schedules over the rest of the season. According to Tankathon, 12 of the 13 toughest remaining schedules belong to Western Conference teams. But Miami doesn’t receive a reprieve. The Heat project for the second-hardest remaining schedule of any Eastern team, behind only the Knicks (enjoy the tanking, Garden faithful), while potential opponents for the bottom playoff seeds like Charlotte, Washington, and Orlando see much rosier forecasts.

FiveThirtyEight gives Miami less than a 1-in-3 chance of reaching the playoffs—in the same neighborhood as Brooklyn’s and Orlando’s odds—and pegs the Heat’s final record at 34-48, which would represent the worst mark of Erik Spoelstra’s 11-year coaching career. His previous low (37-45) was understandable, as it came the season after Miami lost LeBron James back to Cleveland. This season’s Heat have had five offseasons to craft a new winning identity in a post-LeBron world, but they retain one of the quietly bleakest roster situations in the league. The Heat are capped out this season and the next, without so much as a top-30 player to show for it, and they can’t even beat the Hawks.

Sacramento Kings

Record: 15-12

SOS: Eighth (ESPN), 10th (B-R)

The Kings’ early-season schedule rated among the hardest in the league until the middle of last week, but their cakewalk period since then—in which they beat Phoenix, Cleveland, and Chicago—pushed them closer to the middle of the pack. Still, Sacramento boasts the most pleasantly surprising record of any team; at the moment, the Kings are holding onto eighth place in the West, ahead of a host of more acclaimed competitors.

Sacramento’s schedule so far suggests its fast start is for real. With two wins in two tries against OKC and a one-point loss to Golden State, the Kings have displayed an ability to keep up with the top teams in the West. They’ve also notched wins against Memphis, Utah, Minnesota, and San Antonio—their likely competition at the bottom of the playoff picture.

Sacramento faces an absolute terror of a schedule over the next three weeks, with 12 consecutive games against non-Phoenix Western teams, but if Dave Joerger’s group can survive that stretch within striking distance of the 8-seed, it can solidify itself as a playoff dark horse. The team’s closing schedule from the start of March onward is one of the easiest in the West.

Utah Jazz

Record: 14-15

SOS: First (ESPN), First (B-R)

As of Thursday, every other Western Conference team is projected to face opponents with a combined winning record over .500 the rest of the season; among the 16 hardest remaining schedules, West teams hold 14 spots. Utah is the one exception—the Jazz face a cumulative opponent winning percentage of 48.1 the rest of the way, just the 26th toughest in the NBA.

Utah could use the break after facing the NBA’s hardest schedule through two months. The Jazz have struggled this season to gain traction on both an individual and team level: Donovan Mitchell has suffered a sophomore slump, Rudy Gobert is allowing points at the rim, and the overall result is a 12th-place rank in the West, after consecutive fifth-place finishes.

Yet the Jazz have played just six games against teams with losing records; only the Suns, who can’t play themselves, count fewer. Utah has played 10 games against nonconference teams so far, and though there have been some easier games— against Brooklyn, Charlotte, and Miami (twice)—there’s also been plenty of misery: The Jazz have played Boston (twice), Indiana (twice), Toronto, and Philadelphia. They’ve also played a higher percentage of their games on the road than any other team, amplifying the challenge in an already challenging slate.

Utah has enjoyed strong closing stretches in recent seasons, most notably a 29-6 run to end last regular season. In Quin Snyder’s four seasons before this one, Utah ranked 19th in wins in the first half of the season and sixth in wins in the second half, with by far the biggest differential between the two periods. In 2018-19, look for that pattern to continue: The schedule setup alone makes the Jazz a prime candidate for another late-season push.

Milwaukee Bucks

Record: 18-9

SOS: T-Fifth (ESPN), Ninth (B-R)

Here’s the team everyone should fear. The Bucks boast the NBA’s best net rating and Pythagorean record, which estimates a team’s “expected” record based on point differential and is more predictive of future performance than straight win-loss record—and Milwaukee hasn’t yet started picking on the Eastern cellar-dwellers. The Bucks have faced just eight sub-.500 opponents; for comparison, Toronto, Philly, and Boston are at 13 and Indiana a whopping 16. Meanwhile, no team currently with a winning record has faced as many opponents with .500 or better records than Milwaukee’s 19.

Unlike some of the bubble teams discussed above, the Bucks are already a playoff guarantee. The question becomes whether coach Mike Budenholzer, in his first season in Milwaukee, can keep his team among the elite. Milwaukee’s net rating sits at plus-8.6 so far, and the team has the easiest schedule of any remaining team, per Tankathon, as well as the star power and 3-point marksmen to blow out inferior opponents. The Bucks have already collected 11 wins of 15-plus points, tops in the NBA and one more than the Warriors, and plenty more are sure to come.

Could their net rating reach plus-10 by the end of the season? According to Basketball-Reference data, which extends back to the 1983-84 season, the only Eastern teams to reach a double-digit net rating are three Jordan Bulls teams, the 2007-08 Ubuntu Celtics, and the 66-win 2008-09 Cavaliers. Giannis might be coming for LeBron in more ways than expected.

All numbers are current through Wednesday.