Analyzing the NBA season this early is all about measuring performance against context. Which players are healthy, and which are hurt? Are important players learning how to play together as teammates, and thus in need of a grace period? And what is the caliber of competition?
Over the full season, that latter variable flattens across the 30 teams: Last season, for instance, all 30 teams’ opponents combined for a winning percentage between 49.1 and 50.8 percent. A quarter of the way through a season, however, vast scheduling disparities can arise and skew perceptions of teams.
Context matters, especially when weighing how what has already happened this season might anticipate the three-quarters of the season still to come. Last season around this time, we looked at the past and future strengths of schedule for a handful of notable teams to determine which starts were real, and which were the partial result of scheduling flukes; this simple exercise helped predict Milwaukee’s league-best record, Utah’s late-season surge, Oklahoma City’s fade, and Miami’s playoff miss.
It’s now time to examine the early 2019-20 schedules. For each team of interest, we’ll list three accompanying numbers: Two detail the strength of a team’s schedule thus far (Basketball-Reference and ESPN use slightly different methods to calculate this stat, so they’re both included), while the third, from Tankathon, calculates the average winning percentage for each team’s remaining opponents. All schedule rankings are ordered from toughest to easiest, so a no. 1 ranking means the hardest schedule in the league.
Past SOS: 8th (B-R), 6th (ESPN)
Future SOS: 30th
The Jazz eat all their vegetables before moving on to dessert. For three seasons in a row, they’ve been bludgeoned by a brutal early-season schedule, meaning they have the opportunity to feast later on. In 2017-18, they started the season 19-28 before finishing on a 29-6 run; the next season, they started 20-21 before finishing with a 30-11 stretch.
Not much has gone right for the Jazz this season. Mike Conley has struggled to integrate in his first season with the team; Joe Ingles’s production has cratered; the defense has regressed mightily in Quin Snyder’s sixth season as coach.
Jazz Defense Under Quin Snyder
|2019-20 (so far)
But many of those difficulties stem in part from the challenging early slate of opponents. For instance, Utah is the only current Western Conference playoff team with a losing record against the East. But it has played only Eastern teams currently bound for the playoffs: Milwaukee (twice), Philadelphia (twice), Toronto, Indiana, and Brooklyn. When the likes of the Knicks and Hawks start coming to town, the team’s results should shift in a positive direction.
Don’t be surprised, then, if Utah finishes the season with a flurry of wins once again, allowing the Jazz to nudge upward from the bottom half of the Western playoff field. If only end-of-season momentum actually mattered in the playoffs.
Past SOS: 29th (B-R), 28th (ESPN)
Future SOS: 4th
Philadelphia isn’t struggling exactly; its 17-7 record puts the team on pace for its highest win total since 1984-85. But the 76ers nearly beat Toronto last postseason, then swapped Jimmy Butler and JJ Redick for Al Horford and Josh Richardson—so given their preseason expectations, a fourth-place standing in the East qualifies as a vague disappointment.
Even worse is that the 76ers lag in the standings despite a relatively easy schedule. The Bucks, Celtics, Heat, and Raptors are a combined 45-2 against opponents with a losing record; the 76ers, for comparison, are just 12-3.
Nor has Philadelphia been blowing out its lackluster competition. The 76ers beat the Knicks twice by a combined 11 points, the Hawks by two, and the Cavaliers by one. An ability to collect wins with a high margin of victory is a key predictor of long-term success, and the 76ers have fewer double-digit victories than all of their chief competitors for the top Eastern spot despite all the easy fodder they’ve faced.
None of this is to say that Philadelphia is bound to struggle through the spring; more wins like Saturday’s 47-point shellacking of the Cavaliers would help, and in general, the team has too much talent to scuffle all season long. But the 76ers squandered the opportunity to get ahead in the East—and now they have a much tougher remaining schedule than the Bucks (24th-toughest), Celtics (17th), Heat (27th), and Raptors (26th). Speaking of …
Past SOS: 7th (B-R), tied-4th (ESPN)
Future SOS: 26th
This entry is for anyone concerned that the Raptors aren’t a legitimate contender in the East with Kawhi Leonard gone. Despite this arduous early schedule, and despite a combined 21 missed games from Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka, the Raptors boast a top-five net rating.
Toronto’s early results are encouraging enough without considering its caliber of opponent, and that factor only amplifies the strength of its résumé. The defense in particular stands out—Giannis Antetokounmpo is the only superstar who’s performed to his ability against the Raptors, while others have turned in their worst games of the season. This chart shows how every member of last season’s All-NBA team has played against the defending champs. (Game score is an all-encompassing stat that places a single score on a player’s game, on the same scale as points—so 30 is great, 20 is good, etc.).
Raptors Defense Against 2018-19 All-NBA Players
|14 for 20
|7 for 11
|5 for 15
|8 for 22
|4 for 7
|7 for 27
|2 for 11
|2 for 12
|Joel Embiid (second game)
|3 for 7
|Joel Embiid (first game)
|0 for 11
The Raptors have top-level talent with Pascal Siakam and Lowry, depth from a medley of underappreciated reserves, and the kind of remaining schedule to maintain their current level of play—or even improve upon it. They have a real chance to finish the regular season with better statistics than they did with Leonard in 2018-19.
Past SOS: 30th (B-R), 30th (ESPN)
Future SOS: 2nd
The good news is that Indiana is squarely in playoff position and, on the surface, looking like a threat to the East’s upper crust even before Victor Oladipo returns from injury. Malcolm Brogdon has excelled in an expanded role after leaving Milwaukee, Domantas Sabonis is stuffing the stat sheet, and the team’s standing has stabilized after a first week full of uncomfortable losses.
The bad news is that much of that stabilization is a result of weak competition, as both past strength-of-schedule statistics peg Indiana’s as worst in the league. And in the rare opportunities to prove themselves against higher-caliber opponents, the Pacers have largely failed, as they’ve defeated only two teams with a winning record: the 13-10 Nets (twice) and the 13-10 Jazz, who are both barely above .500.
Oladipo should return in the new year, which will help, but it’s difficult to overstate just how brutal Indiana’s upcoming schedule is. In the rest of December alone, the Pacers play the Clippers, Celtics, Lakers, Bucks, Raptors, Heat, and 76ers. Only the Bulls have a more difficult set of opponents the rest of the way. Indiana’s going to need every one of the 15 wins it’s already banked if it wants to remain competitive for a top-four Eastern seed.
Golden State Warriors
Past SOS: 20th (B-R), 27th (ESPN)
Future SOS: 3rd
Finally, we reach a team without any playoff hopes, but with a notable schedule regardless. The Warriors have enjoyed a relatively friendly slate thus far, but with Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, D’Angelo Russell, and Kevon Looney all missing plenty of time with injuries, the team hasn’t been able to take advantage.
An easier early schedule means that the schedule to come is more difficult, which is another reason not to rush Curry back from injury or force Green and Russell to play through aches and pains. We talked a couple of weeks ago here about how Golden State might challenge for the worst single-season turnaround in league history, and the remaining slate makes that ignominious pace look like a real possibility. It doesn’t help that the Warriors can’t play themselves.
The glass-half-full view is that the Warriors’ combination of atrocious start and challenging finish should benefit the team come draft time. Basketball-Reference’s projection model gives the Warriors a 41.5 percent chance to finish with the league’s worst record and an 83.8 percent chance to finish in the bottom three, which means they’d get the joint-best lottery odds for the no. 1 pick. It’s a fitting lens through which to analyze the Warriors’ standing. Tankathon, after all, built its strength-of-remaining-schedule model to see which teams have the best shot to boost their draft odds down the stretch. “A high strength of schedule is good for tanking,” a line at the top of the site’s page reads. Here, finally, the Warriors learn some pleasant news.
All team records through Sunday’s games; strength of schedule metrics through Saturday.