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What the Schedule Has to Say About the Biggest Battles of the NBA’s Stretch Run

Time is running out on the 2019-20 season. Here’s how the league calendar could impact the major playoff races and one team chasing history.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Early in the season, we have to look backward to find out which records are real. The schedule offers hints as to whether a team’s start is legitimate or warped by its caliber of competition. This season, for instance, we could see that Toronto’s hot start came against a tough slate of opponents—a positive sign for the Raptors’ legitimacy—while Utah’s slow start could be attributed to its arduous early-season slate.

After the All-Star break, though, it makes more sense to look forward and focus on the opponents a team still has to play. As the chase for playoff spots and seeds speeds up, the difference between some rivals’ remaining schedules is vast—and thus has the potential to influence who wins these standings battles.

So as the post–All-Star period commences, let’s look at four races with notable scheduling wrinkles, with average strength of schedule numbers from Tankathon. We’ll start in the West, where the no. 1 and 2 draft picks from last summer are poised to compete for the conference’s final playoff berth.

Memphis Grizzlies vs. New Orleans Pelicans

What’s at stake

Eighth seed in the West

The matchup

Grizzlies: 28-26 (eighth in West), hardest remaining schedule (.554 opponents’ winning percentage)

Pelicans: 23-32 (11th), easiest remaining schedule (.449)

On the surface, Memphis has the clear edge for the West’s no. 8 seed. The Grizzlies have been scorching for months now, with a 22-10 record since Ja Morant returned from injury on December 9, and a four-game lead with fewer than 30 to play is a formidable advantage.

In 11th place—behind not only Memphis but Portland and San Antonio as well—is New Orleans. The Pelicans are 5.5 games behind the Grizz, but Zion Williamson, like the tyrannosaurus in Jurassic Park, is stampeding ever closer.

The Pelicans are only 6-5 since Zion’s debut, but with much better underlying numbers that portend better results going forward. Their plus-4.7 net rating in that span is third best in the West, and their wins include a 28-point romp against the Grizzlies. And with Zion on the floor, the Pelicans are plus-12.8 points per 100 possessions, a mark that would lead the league.

The Zion accelerant alone might not be enough to make up 5.5 games in the short stretch remaining—but the schedule provides an additional boost. Memphis has the league’s most difficult remaining schedule; New Orleans has the easiest. For context, the average Memphis opponent the rest of the way would win 45 games over the course of a full season. The average New Orleans opponent would win only 37.

The Pelicans’ schedule grows especially easy the closer they get to the finish line. Among their last 15 games, 12 come against teams with losing records. The remaining three come against the 76ers at home, and against the Grizzlies twice. Should they take care of business against Memphis, the Pelicans will be in striking distance.

Other scheduling factors could help New Orleans make up more ground. For instance, the Grizzlies have four more road than home games left to play, tied for the largest remaining difference in the league. And Memphis also plays more back-to-backs than New Orleans (five to four), which might not faze the youngest roster in the league as much as it might a more veteran team, but could tilt the advantage ever so slightly toward the Pelicans.

New Orleans isn’t the only team trying to catch the Grizzlies. Portland could have a say here too—the Trail Blazers are four games back of Memphis, but with the sixth-easiest remaining schedule. Given all these external challenges, even a team with the Grizzlies’ cushion is in some trouble: Both Basketball-Reference and FiveThirtyEight’s projection systems think the Grizzlies are more likely to miss the playoffs than to qualify.

Memphis has spent the bulk of this season as the most entertaining story; Morant and friends have matured into contention far earlier than expected. But in the last few weeks, the myth of Zion has distracted from the Grizzlies’ narrative dominance. Now he might interfere with their playoff hopes, too.

Orlando Magic vs. Washington Wizards

What’s at stake

Eighth seed in the East

The matchup

Magic: 24-31 (eighth in East), third-easiest remaining schedule (.464)

Wizards: 20-33 (ninth), 27th-easiest remaining schedule (.531)

The East’s battle for the no. 8 seed is an inverse of the West’s. Here, the pack leader has the easy schedule, while the team trying to chase it down has the harder remaining slate. The Wizards have crept within three games of Orlando after a dismal swoon for the Magic—after upsetting the Lakers on the road, Orlando proceeded to lose 10 of 12 games.

But the Magic’s most difficult stretch—a losing binge that included games against the Clippers twice, Heat twice, Celtics twice, and Bucks—is now in the past, and the horizon looks brighter. They’ve already rebounded somewhat, winning games before the break against the Hawks and Pistons, and their remaining schedule looks manageable.

The Wizards aren’t so lucky. Most unfortunately, they still play the Bucks three times—and the last time they faced off, the Bucks scored 151 points without Giannis Antetokounmpo. Washington also has to manage six remaining back-to-backs, tied for the most in the NBA, while the Magic need to navigate only two, tied for the fewest.

En route to something like 37 wins per the projection systems, Orlando is far from an inspiring playoff squad. But the competition is even worse, and the schedule favors the Magic to hold onto their spot. Chicago (10th place in the East), Charlotte (11th place), and Detroit (12th place) all join Washington among the teams with the 10 hardest remaining schedules.

Miami Heat vs. Philadelphia 76ers

What’s at stake

Home-court advantage in the East’s first round

The matchup

Heat: 35-19 (fourth in East), fifth-easiest remaining schedule (.466)

76ers: 34-21 (fifth), second-easiest remaining schedule (.455)

Moving up the standings from the battle for the no. 8 seeds, the most interesting comparison concerns the Heat and 76ers. These two mercurial Eastern squads can threaten the Bucks when they’re clicking, or they can lose against the Knicks and Hawks when they’re not.

At the moment, Miami and Philadelphia seem somewhat entrenched in the standings. Basketball-Reference gives Miami a 79 percent chance to finish as either the no. 4 or 5 seed, and Philadelphia an 81 percent chance for the same. There’s a chance either team catches Boston at no. 3 or falls behind Indiana at no. 6, but it’s unlikely.

And if Miami and Philadelphia meet in the first round, home-court advantage could prove crucial given each team’s disparate splits this season. The 76ers have the best home record in the NBA, at 25-2. The Heat are third (22-3). On the road, though, both teams have a losing record; Miami checks in at 13th place, with Philadelphia back in a tie for 22nd.

Now, a caveat: Home vs. road splits aren’t a useful predictive measure, historically speaking. In other words, Philadelphia probably isn’t a “true talent” 25-2 team at home, but nor is Philadelphia a true-talent losing team on the road.

But given the wide gaps in performance for both teams depending on location, it’s a fair bet that they’d be more comfortable with Games 1 and 2, and a potential Game 7, at home. Because both clubs enjoy generous schedules the rest of the way, the victor in this mini-battle will be the team that takes care of business against teams it should beat. Contextually, the Heat have some advantage, both because they’re already ahead of the 76ers by 1.5 games, and because they play four more home than road games the rest of the way, tied for the best such differential in the league.

Milwaukee Bucks vs. History

What’s at stake

Becoming the third team in history to win 70 games

The team

Bucks: 46-8 (first in NBA), 26th-easiest remaining schedule (.526)

Only two teams in NBA history have won 70 games; the Bucks’ current winning percentage puts them on pace for 69.9 victories. Moreover, Milwaukee is a sliver of a point away from the best regular-season differential ever.

Best Per-Game Point Differentials in NBA History

Team Record Differential
Team Record Differential
1972 Lakers 69-13 12.28
1971 Bucks 66-16 12.26
1996 Bulls 72-10 12.24
2020 Bucks (so far) 46-8 12.11
2017 Warriors 67-15 11.63
1972 Bucks 63-19 11.16
1997 Bulls 39-13 10.80
2016 Warriors 73-9 10.76

But if the Bucks want to set any records, they’re going to have to earn them down the stretch. The Bucks need to go 24-4 in their final 28 games, and Milwaukee still plays:

  • Three games against the Raptors (two on the road)
  • Two games each against the Celtics, Heat, and 76ers
  • One road game each against the Lakers, Nuggets, and Mavericks, plus one home game each against the Rockets, Pacers, and Thunder

Milwaukee thus sees 15 remaining games against high-caliber competition. To win 70, even if the Bucks sweep their remaining games against worse opponents, would require an 11-4 mark in these contests.

That’s a tough ask, especially if coach Mike Budenholzer doesn’t want to reveal any strategic secrets against potential playoff competition. An 11-4 record against the 10 elite teams on the upcoming schedule would equate to a 60-win pace if the Bucks were to only play those teams over a full season.

The Bucks can pull off that sort of stretch, of course—they have the presumptive MVP, and they’re 12-7 against teams with winning records this season, the best mark in the East. (They’re 34-1 against sub-.500 opponents, also best in the East.) But there’s a reason 70-win seasons are so rare. The Bucks are on pace, but the schedule might keep them just short of history.