NBA teams’ strength of schedule basically evens out through a full season, but different teams take different paths to that balanced end point. Some teams stack their easy opponents early and hold on for dear life down the stretch; others struggle through an opening gauntlet before feasting on tankers and rebuilders later on.
Roughly a quarter of the way through the shortened 2020-21 season, these differences are worth remembering: We have to analyze a team’s performance in context. That’s especially true this season, when schedules have been rocked by the constant, and frightening, churn of COVID-19 postponements and player absences.
Those interruptions might obscure more trends than is typical early in the season, but generally speaking, strength of schedule is still a useful metric. The Lakers, Bucks, and Clippers are the three best teams by point differential, as expected; the Thunder, Timberwolves, and Kings are the worst. Teams that have played more of the former trio than the latter probably have an artificially low record now, and vice versa.
Here are five teams with extreme schedules worth a closer look. For each team, we’ll list two relevant data points: their strength of schedule in games played so far, from Basketball-Reference, and their strength of schedule in games remaining, based on the point differential of all their remaining opponents. (Even though the NBA has yet to release the schedule for the second half of the season, we know what all those games will be, just not their order. This analysis assumes that each team plays all 72 games as planned, which may be an ambitious ask at the moment.)
All schedule rankings are ordered from toughest to easiest, so a no. 1 ranking means the hardest schedule in the league.
Golden State Warriors
Past SOS: 1st
Future SOS: 30th
Some nights, the Warriors look like the worst team in the league. Their eight losses have come by an average of 19 points; strip out garbage time, and they rank 24th on offense and 18th on defense. Even with a healthy Draymond Green, the starting lineup had been outscored by a ghastly (and league-worst) 20.3 points per 100 possessions, before coach Steve Kerr made a change Monday.
The Warriors can blame their uneven start, at least a bit, on playing the toughest schedule in the league so far. Golden State has already faced the Bucks, Nets, Lakers, Jazz, Nuggets, Clippers twice, and Trail Blazers twice. On average, the Warriors have played the equivalent of a top-10 team every game.
The good news is that nightly challenge will relent as early as this week, with two games against Minnesota. (Golden State won the first game by 22 points Monday night.) The Warriors probably won’t make a run at a high seed in the West, but even with all their early-season struggles, they have a real chance to get off the play-in bubble: Their remaining schedule is the easiest in the league.
Keep an eye out for a nine-game stretch against Eastern Conference teams—mostly lesser ones, like the Magic and Hornets twice apiece—starting in mid-February. If the Warriors are still stuck around .500, or worse, by the time March rolls around, then there will be much more reason for concern about their playoff chances.
Past SOS: 5th
Future SOS: 29th
The Mavericks are like a less extreme version of the Warriors: similarly difficult schedule to date, similarly easy remaining schedule, similarly inconsistent results—a 51-point win against the Clippers followed by a 19-point loss to the Hornets?—so far. They’re separated by just one game in the standings.
Dallas has the added complication of a rotation wrecked by absences. Kristaps Porzingis has appeared in just six games after offseason surgery, and four of the team’s most important two-way players—Josh Richardson, Dorian Finney-Smith, Maxi Kleber, and Dwight Powell—have all played in just eight or nine games because of COVID-19 protocols.
The Mavericks’ most-used players in minutes this season are Luka Doncic and Tim Hardaway Jr.—and then journeymen Trey Burke, James Johnson, and Willie Cauley-Stein. The projected starting five hasn’t shared the floor for a single possession.
Once those players return, they’ll face a friendly slate of opponents. Dallas has already played both L.A. teams, for instance, and the next week brings two games each against the Jazz and Suns. The Mavericks could sit outside the West’s playoff picture a week from now.
Yet there’s no need to fret. The wins will come. Of the five worst teams in the West by point differential (Pelicans, Warriors, Thunder, Timberwolves, and Kings), the Mavericks haven’t played a single one.
Los Angeles Lakers
Past SOS: 15th
Future SOS: 28th
Unlike the Warriors and Mavericks, the Lakers haven’t faced an inordinately challenging schedule thus far. Sure, they’ve played the Clippers and Bucks, but they’ve also fattened up with a 9-0 record against teams under .500. They’re the league’s only undefeated team in this split.
But the Lakers’ future strength of schedule stands out because they have a whole bunch of games against bad teams remaining. It almost seems unfair that the NBA’s best team, with the best point differential, has such an easy slate left—but, well, the Lakers benefit because they’re the only team that doesn’t have to play themselves.
So for as hot a start as the Lakers have enjoyed, and for as impressive as their teamwide metrics look, they might get even better as the season continues. The Lakers should be able to coast for the rest of the regular season, and they’re still the clear favorite for the West’s top seed. The second-place Clippers, for comparison, have the 11th-hardest schedule the rest of the way.
Past SOS: 30th
Future SOS: 1st
The Magic are in free fall, with eight losses in 10 games since Markelle Fultz was lost for the season with an ACL tear. Their 6-2 start seems so long ago. And the worst might be yet to come: Orlando has the league’s hardest remaining schedule by a wide margin.
Unlike the Warriors and Mavericks, the Magic can be only discouraged to be stuck on the playoff fringe despite early advantages. For instance, Orlando’s Western Conference opponents so far are the Thunder (twice), Rockets, Mavericks, and Timberwolves—not a single one with a positive point differential. They would presume to fare much worse against the rest of the West.
The Magic’s schedule is especially back-loaded with the toughest competition. Orlando’s remaining first-half schedule is fairly easy still, according to Tankathon, whose calculations assume that any thus-far-postponed games will be made up in the first half—meaning the Magic’s unscheduled second-half games are going to be brutal. (On the other hand, teams that lock into a high playoff seed early might also be even more willing than usual to rest players late in the regular season.)
The only silver lining is that falling out of the playoff race for the first time in years could convince the Magic to pivot more toward long-term player development. As Jonathan Tjarks wrote this week about Mo Bamba, stuck on the bench in his third season: “The best thing that could happen to Bamba’s development is for the Magic to slip out of the playoff race.”
Past SOS: 28th
Future SOS: 3rd
Things are looking up for the temporarily Tampa Raptors. Since a dreadful 1-6 start, they’re 6-4, with two of the losses coming by a single point. On Sunday, they beat the Pacers without Kyle Lowry or Pascal Siakam. Chris Boucher is building an All-Star case.
But the Raptors’ glad tidings may not last for long—and remember, they’re still climbing out of their early hole, sitting in a tie for 10th place in the Eastern Conference after Monday’s loss to Indiana on the second night of a back-to-back. Despite Boucher’s rise, the frontcourt remains a work in progress with Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol gone; they already cut offseason import Alex Len, and starting center Aron Baynes has somehow recorded zero free throw attempts all season.
Toronto now has the hardest remaining schedule for any prospective Eastern contender, because the Raptors haven’t yet played the Bucks, Nets, or any top team in the West. Like Orlando, Toronto is set for a terribly tricky second-half schedule, which will include all eight of the Raptors’ games against the Lakers, Clippers, Jazz, and Nuggets. They’re still a decent bet to reach the playoffs, in part because the East looks so weak past the upper crust, in part because the Raptors’ own metrics—15th on offense and 10th on defense, per Cleaning the Glass—remain solid, if much less spectacular than they did the past two seasons.
The Raptors have sacrificed most, if not all, of their wiggle room, however, because they should have been leaping out in front early with their particular schedule layout. Now, they’ll be playing from behind in the standings just as the going gets tough.
Team records through Monday’s games. All other stats—including strength-of-schedule metrics—through Sunday’s games.