With a deeper and more competitive Eastern Conference, there is finally relative balance between the two conferences and thus in the league as a whole. As a result, every team should end the season with a roughly similar strength of schedule. But that doesn’t mean they all chart the same course to that end point. Some slates start easy and skew harder at the finish; others pose a challenge right away before easing down the stretch.
Those divergent courses invariably affect the early standings and thus the perceptions of certain teams—especially these days, when COVID-19 postponements and player absences can wreak havoc on lineups night to night. So as we do every season around this time, let’s take a look at a few teams facing notable shifts in competition and how the changes affect their chances going forward.
For each team, we’ll offer four accompanying rankings. Two explain the strength of a team’s schedule thus far (Basketball-Reference measures by point differential, while ESPN measures by record). The other two explain the strength of a team’s remaining opponents (B-Ref again uses point differential, while Tankathon measures by record). All schedule rankings are ordered from hardest to easiest, so a no. 1 ranking means the most difficult schedule in the league.
Past SOS: Second by point differential, tied for first by record
Future SOS: 30th by point differential, 30th by record
In their first three seasons after LeBron James’s second departure, the Cavaliers won just 27 percent of their games; no other team was below 34 percent during that span. Just like the first time LeBron left, the Cavs hurtled into the abyss—only this time, there’s (presumably) no reunion to save them.
But this season’s Cavaliers are doing mighty fine on their own, holding the league’s no. 3 defense and tying for no. 5 in net rating. (All offensive, defensive, and net ratings in this piece come from Cleaning the Glass, which filters out garbage time.) Blending point differential and quality of opponent, as Basketball-Reference’s simple rating system does, suggests that Cleveland boasts the best statistical résumé in the Eastern Conference.
The Cavaliers’ record is especially impressive given their schedule, as they’ve survived a gauntlet to open the season. Cleveland is 0-7, including four losses in games Evan Mobley missed, against the Nets, Bucks, Suns, Warriors, and Jazz—and 17-5 against everyone else. They only need to keep beating the teams they’ve conquered to date to reach the playoffs.
The last time the Cavaliers played in the postseason without LeBron on the roster was 1997-98, when a Shawn Kemp–Zydrunas Ilgauskas frontcourt led the way. Yet Cleveland looks to be in great shape to retain a top-six seed and avoid the play-in tournament this season, as its schedule lightens considerably during the final two-thirds of the season. The Cavs have already played four of six games against the three best teams in the West (Suns, Warriors, and Jazz) but zero out of six games against the West’s three worst teams (Rockets, Thunder, and Pelicans). At this point, it won’t be easy for prospective contenders like the Celtics or Hawks to catch Cleveland in the standings.
Los Angeles Lakers
Past SOS: 30th by point differential, 29th by record
Future SOS: First by point differential, First by record
Cleveland is a good team that looks even better when considering its schedule; LeBron’s new team, however, is struggling, and looks even worse with adjustments for quality of competition. The Lakers rank 22nd in net rating, despite playing the easiest or second-easiest early schedule in the league.
The Lakers have played better in recent weeks, but that turnaround is largely a function of LeBron’s health and a fortunate schedule: In the past month, their only wins have come against the Pistons twice, Pacers, Kings, Celtics, Thunder, and Magic—a list that includes precisely zero teams with a winning record.
Over the full season, the Lakers have already played eight games against the five teams that reside at the bottom of the standings (the Magic, Pistons, Rockets, Thunder, and Pelicans). That tally is tied for the most for any team. The Lakers should have taken advantage of all those easy games, but haven’t, with two losses to the Thunder contributing to their middling record so far.
The schedule is about to get much more difficult. The Lakers have a league-high nine games left against the Suns, Warriors, and Jazz, and the toughest remaining schedule overall. Their schedule is also backloaded with road trips, with 13 of their final 19 games coming away from the arena soon to be formerly known as the Staples Center.
The Lakers saw last season how much trouble even a LeBron-led team will have pushing far into the playoffs from a play-in position. Already teetering on the playoffs-versus-play-in boundary this season, and with an uncomfortably fitted rotation that didn’t secure the wiggle room it needed from the soft early slate, the Lakers might have to navigate the play-in route once again.
Past SOS: 29th by point differential, 28th by record
Future SOS: 19th by point differential, seventh by record
The Jazz are blowing away the rest of the league so far, or at least the rest of the league other than the Warriors and Suns. Utah ranks no. 1 in net rating, as well as no. 5 on defense and no. 1 by a mile on offense; the second-place Hawks are closer to 19th place than they are to the Jazz.
Last season’s Jazz posted one of the top 20 point differentials in league history, and this season’s number is even better. The team is a regular-season juggernaut with a polished system on both ends of the floor, complementary talent, and a rare level of familiarity in today’s league: According to Basketball-Reference, the Jazz were tied for the league lead in roster continuity in 2020-21 and rank second to Atlanta this season.
But after last season’s playoff disappointment—not the first for this group—it’s unclear how the latest roster tweaks, like playing Rudy Gay as a small-ball center when Rudy Gobert rests, will fare against good teams. It’s obvious that the Jazz are capable of blowing out the Thunder (by 21, in their season opener) and Timberwolves (by 32, last week); what about when they face opponents of their own caliber?
We don’t know yet. The Jazz have thus far played just one out of 12 scheduled games against their chief championship competitors (Phoenix, Golden State, Brooklyn, and Milwaukee)—and that one came against a Bucks team missing Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday. Utah’s remaining schedule isn’t terribly arduous on the whole, but it does have four games against the Suns, four against the Warriors, two against the Nets, and one more against the Bucks.
From January 23 through February 9, Utah plays the Warriors and Suns twice apiece, plus the Nets once. That stretch could give a much better sense of how Utah matches up in the title race—and could dictate how it approaches the trade market, with the deadline on February 10, one day after a date with Golden State.
Portland Trail Blazers
Past SOS: First by point differential, tied for first by record
Future SOS: 28th by point differential, 28th by record
Cleveland has thrived in spite of a challenging early schedule; Portland has suffered because of it, falling to a tie for 10th place in the West with a statistical profile—24th in net rating, 28th on defense—that fits a team on the precipice of missing the playoffs entirely. That’s an unusual position for the Trail Blazers, who have reached the playoffs eight seasons in a row, giving them the NBA’s longest active streak.
Yet even with the early scuffles, from Damian Lillard’s and CJ McCollum’s injuries to coach Chauncey Billups’s failed new defensive schemes, Portland would probably look a lot better had it not played so many tough games so early. Look at that graph in the Lakers section again; Portland has benefited from just two matchups against the worst teams in the league, while it’s played twice against the Warriors and three times against the Suns.
That context doesn’t mean Portland is a good team, but the situation probably isn’t so dire, either. The Trail Blazers’ schedule near the end of the season looks as light as a feather. Games 71 through 80 on their schedule are comprised of:
- Three against the Spurs
- Two against the Pelicans
- Two against the Thunder
- Two against the Rockets
- One against the Pistons
In other words, if Portland doesn’t trade Lillard and set its sights on contending sometime around 2026, it could easily rampage down the stretch and reenter the playoff field. The West is shaping up as a fight between three dynamite contenders for the top three seeds and then a mass of mediocre teams for spots 4 through 6, and then 7 through 10. With such a tight bunching, a factor like scheduling disparities could make the difference between lottery disappointment and playoff hope.