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What the Schedule Tells Us About Who’s Real and Who’s Not in 2022-23

Which hot starts will continue? Who’s due to fall off? Let’s look to the schedules for answers.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

As teams reach the 25-game mark, the NBA standings have started to take on firmer shape after a most cluttered start to the season. Championship contenders are separating themselves with the best records (at least in the Eastern Conference). Tank commanders are dropping to the bottom. And trade talks are heating up as players who signed as free agents over the summer become eligible to be traded after December 15.

But the early standings can still lie, whether because of injuries, luck in close games, or an imbalanced schedule—so as we do every year around this time, we’ll focus on that latter issue and analyze a handful of teams whose schedules mask or reveal some underlying truth about their outlook.

For each team, we’ll offer four accompanying rankings. Two illustrate the strength of a team’s schedule thus far (Basketball Reference measures by point differential, while ESPN measures by record). The other two illustrate 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. The strength of schedule ratings is through Tuesday’s games.

Boston Celtics

Record: 21-5
Past SOS: 12th by point differential, tied for 23rd by record
Future SOS: 30th by point differential, 30th by record

Let’s start with the easiest analysis, which is no less remarkable for its simplicity: The Celtics are the NBA’s best team, with the best net rating, and they have the easiest remaining schedule. It’s rather obvious that they’re the favorite for the East’s no. 1 seed, with a chance to challenge the title-winning 2007-08 Celtics, who went 66-16, for the franchise’s best record since the 1980s.

Miami Heat

Record: 11-14
Past SOS: Third by point differential, fourth by record
Future SOS: 27th by point differential, 26th by record

Boston’s opponent in last season’s conference finals might be the league’s biggest disappointment through the first quarter of the season; after landing the East’s no. 1 seed last season and coming one missed shot away from a trip to the NBA Finals, the Heat are now mired in a tie for 10th place in the East. The drop from their preseason expected winning percentage—as measured by Vegas odds—to their actual winning percentage is the largest so far.

Injuries are a partial culprit, with Jimmy Butler missing 10 games and Tyler Herro eight. Miami’s offense has struggled, even with nightly excellence from Bam Adebayo. Yet an underrated factor in their decline is a challenging early schedule. That’s not to say that the Heat will definitely rebound once the schedule lightens—they just lost to the Pistons by 20 points, after all. But over the next week and a half, they face the Spurs, Pacers, Thunder, Rockets, and Spurs again. Let’s wait until that stretch is over to see whether it makes sense to bury the Heat in full.

Minnesota Timberwolves

Record: 12-12
Past SOS: 30th by point differential, 29th by record
Future SOS: First by point differential, tied for first by record

While the Heat’s sluggish start is partially the product of a tough schedule, Minnesota has no such excuse. The Timberwolves rate worse on offense and defense compared with last season, even after going all in with the Rudy Gobert trade, and even though they’ve enjoyed a tissue-soft schedule with their new starting lineup.

Yet now Karl-Anthony Towns is injured for at least another month, and the schedule will get a lot trickier, too. In a crowded Western Conference, the Timberwolves are still just one game out of a guaranteed playoff spot, let alone a play-in berth, so they’re far from doomed.

But the underlying nature of the schedule distribution only reinforces the early concerns about this team and its failure to mesh thus far. For as shaky as Minnesota has looked, the reality is even worse: According to Basketball Reference’s Simple Rating System, which judges a team by its point differential and schedule, the Timberwolves have been the NBA’s 25th-best team so far. The only teams that rate worse by this metric are a quintet with eyes firmly on Victor Wembanyama (the Pistons, Rockets, Magic, Hornets, and Spurs).

Indiana Pacers

Record: 13-12
Past SOS: 29th by point differential, 30th by record
Future SOS: Second by point differential, seventh by record

One of our two metrics says the Timberwolves have played the easiest schedule; the other gives that recognition to the Pacers, who, unlike the Wolves, have at least taken some advantage. As Tyrese Haliburton takes a leap and Bennedict Mathurin makes a case for both Rookie of the Year and Sixth Man of the Year, the Pacers have outperformed their preseason expected winning percentage by the second-largest margin of any team. (Only Utah’s overperformance is slightly better.)

But the Pacers might not stay in the East’s top six for long. Just over the rest of December, they have a four-game stretch against the Nets, Heat, Warriors, and Cavaliers, then a six-game span against the Celtics, Heat, Pelicans, Hawks, Cavaliers, and Clippers.

The Pacers can beat good teams; they’ve already triumphed against the Heat and Nets (twice) this season, and they just stole a game against Golden State despite missing Haliburton and Myles Turner. Yet even with their surprisingly strong start, the Pacers are still scarcely clear of .500, and it’s difficult to imagine that record being sustained once the schedule solidifies. If a slump comes, potential trades of Turner and Buddy Hield might draw more appeal—and give prospective suitors like the Lakers and Pelicans more options as they pursue mid-season upgrades.

Chicago Bulls

Record: 10-14
Past SOS: First by point differential, first by record
Future SOS: 29th by point differential, 28th by record

Ten months ago, the Bulls were in first place in the East. Now they’re in 12th place, despite bringing back every key contributor—save the injured Lonzo Ball—and the prospect of tanking appears increasingly likely.

Yet while many obvious factors have contributed to the Bulls’ slow start—Ball’s absence, Zach LaVine’s diminished effectiveness after knee surgery, the league’s worst winning percentage in clutch situations—a brutal early schedule has also played a role. The Bulls have shown flashes against the hardest slate; they’re still the only team to have beaten the Celtics in regulation, and they did so twice. But night in, night out, that caliber of opposition has proved too much for them to handle, which is why DeMar DeRozan and friends are now shouldering their way into trade talks.

But the schedule splits suggest that condemning the Bulls would be premature. In fact, according to the Simple Rating System, the Bulls profile as a slightly above-.500 team. And while they haven’t exactly benefited from their occasional games against bad teams, with losses to the Wizards, Spurs, Magic, and Thunder and a 3-4 overall record against sub-.500 teams, they still have reasonable opportunities to turn their season around against inferior opposition.

Trading DeRozan, LaVine, Nikola Vucevic, and Alex Caruso and hoping to retain their top-four-protected pick in the 2023 draft might still prove the most logical options in the long run. But Bulls brass, like the front offices of just about every team throughout the league, should at least wait until the calendar flips to the new year before making any firm decisions about the future.