clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Kram Session: What the NBA Schedule Tells Us About Who’s Real and Who’s Not

Plus, we calculate the Pistons’ odds of recording the longest losing streak in NBA history, sound the alarm for the most imbalanced contenders, and celebrate four unsung contributors from around the league

AP Images/Ringer illustration

Each Wednesday of the NBA season, we’re analyzing a grab bag of topics from around the league. This week, we’re examining the impact of strength of schedule on the early-season standings; sounding the alarm for one-way contenders like the Los Angeles Lakers, Cleveland Cavaliers, and Dallas Mavericks; contextualizing the Detroit Pistons’ losing streak; and more. This is the Kram Session.

Under Review: What the Schedule Tells Us About Who’s Real and Who’s Not

The in-season tournament has climaxed, the Vegas celebrations have concluded, and the rhythms of the NBA season have returned to normal. We’re a quarter of the way through the season, which means it’s time to review how teams’ different strengths of schedule are influencing the early standings.

For each team of note here, we’ll include four schedule rankings through Monday’s games. 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 (Basketball Reference again uses point differential, while Tankathon measures by record). All rankings are ordered from hardest to easiest, so a no. 1 ranking means the most difficult schedule and a no. 30 the easiest.

Boston Celtics

Record: 17-5
Past SOS: 3rd by point differential, 1st by record
Future SOS: 27th by point differential, 30th by record

The Celtics have the East’s best record, even though they’ve faced one of the league’s hardest schedules. That context places them in contrast with the Timberwolves, who lead the West in part because of a 26th-ranked strength of schedule thus far, per Basketball Reference.

And with relatively smoother sailing ahead, the Celtics should remain atop the Eastern standings for months to come. Other than a fluky overtime defeat in Charlotte, Boston’s losses have come against the teams ranked first (Philadelphia), fourth (Minnesota), fifth (Orlando), and eighth (Indiana) in point differential.

The Celtics’ talent gives them such a high night-to-night floor that they should crush bad teams. They mostly have, as in a 19-point win over the Wizards, a 27-point rout of the Bulls, and a 51-point blowout of the Pacers with Tyrese Haliburton out. And they have a lot more bad teams left on their slate.

Philadelphia 76ers

Record: 15-7
Past SOS: 9th by point differential, 12th by record
Future SOS: 29th by point differential, 29th by record

The 76ers’ solid start is impressive not just because they had to deal with the James Harden trade and an early-season rotation change, but also because they haven’t fattened up on a cupcake schedule in the process of racking up early wins. Philadelphia has already faced Boston three times, and look at its list of Western Conference opponents to date: the Timberwolves, Thunder, Lakers, Suns, and Pelicans, with only the Trail Blazers to break up the gauntlet.

Philadelphia also benefits from a hidden advantage. The way the NBA sets up its schedule, every team plays two games against teams from the other conference, four games against teams in their own division, and either three or four games against teams from the other divisions in their conference. And Philadelphia lucked out with four against the Wizards, Hornets, and Pistons (the bad teams in the Southeast and Central divisions) but only three against the Magic, Bucks, and Pacers (most of the good teams in those divisions).

The 76ers are currently in fourth place in the East, but their remaining slate suggests that as long as Joel Embiid stays healthy, the team should finish with a top-three seed—and maybe even make a run at the top spot. Then they’d likely avoid having to face the Celtics before the conference finals, if only Philly can advance that far for the first time since 2001.

Golden State Warriors

Record: 10-13
Past SOS: 2nd by point differential, 2nd by record
Future SOS: 30th by point differential, 28th by record

The Warriors’ dynasty days might be over, as the team’s in 11th place, outside even the play-in section of the standings. Klay Thompson has regressed. Andrew Wiggins looks lost. Chris Paul is hurt. Draymond Green can’t rein in his temper.

But don’t count out the Warriors just yet; their schedule won’t stay this fearsome forever. Golden State has played only three games against below-.500 teams—it’s 3-0 in those contests—while the average team has played eight such games. If the Warriors had played five more games against bad teams, then they might be something like 13-10 right now instead of 10-13, and then would everyone be so concerned about their chances of missing the playoffs?

The performances of individual players are cause for grave concern regardless, as Steph Curry’s supporting cast doesn’t look up to the task. But Golden State will have the time and opportunity to turn its record around.

Phoenix Suns

Record: 13-10
Past SOS: 30th by point differential, 30th by record
Future SOS: 7th by point differential, 3rd by record

Much has been made of the Suns’ resilience as they’ve stayed afloat despite missing Kevin Durant, Devin Booker, and Bradley Beal for varying swaths of time thus far. But for as wonderfully as Durant and Booker have played, a third factor has aided that effort: The Suns have played the league’s easiest schedule by far, with a league-high 13 games against below-.500 teams.

In that context, Phoenix looks perfectly average through the first quarter of the season. An average team with the Suns’ schedule “should” have a plus-2.15 point differential, according to Basketball Reference’s numbers, and Phoenix was at plus-2.14 entering Tuesday’s game against the Warriors.

Does that mean Phoenix projects as merely average going forward? No, because of all the injuries and missed games influencing that stat. One would expect the Suns to improve as their stars share the court more often. But keep a nervous eye out for the Suns’ spot in the Western standings, especially if Booker or Durant suffers another injury. They end the season with an absolutely brutal last 10 games, against the Nuggets, Thunder, Pelicans, Cavaliers, Timberwolves, Pelicans, Clippers twice, Kings, and Timberwolves again. And that comes soon after a stretch in which they face the Thunder, Nuggets, Celtics twice, Bucks, and 76ers in close proximity.

In other words, the Suns need to start moving up the standings soon. If they’re still in play-in position by the start of March, they’ll find it difficult to pass any teams ahead of them down the stretch.

Memphis Grizzlies

Record: 6-16
Past SOS: 27th by point differential, 29th by record
Future SOS: 2nd by point differential, 4th by record

The good news for Memphis is that Ja Morant is on the verge of returning from his 25-game suspension. The bad news is that the Grizzlies’ schedule is about to get a lot tougher, which should balance out some of their projected improvement with their best player back.

Without Morant, the Grizzlies weren’t able to take advantage of opportunities against the dregs of their schedule. They’ve already played all three of their games against the Jazz, plus two against the Trail Blazers and one each against the Wizards, Spurs, and Pistons, but they went only 4-4 in those contests. (That’s better than their 2-12 record in other games, at least.) Currently six games back of the last Western play-in spot, the Grizzlies will need a major Morant-aided surge to make up all the ground they’ve lost without their star guard. But the schedule won’t cooperate to help that process.

Detroit Pistons

Record: 2-21
Past SOS: 17th by point differential, 21st by record
Future SOS: 4th by point differential, 1st by record

The worst team in the league has one of the hardest remaining schedules—and the hardest in the East by either measure—in large part because the Pistons don’t get to play themselves. This prospect is just too depressing to ponder. Let’s move on.

Zacht of the Week: 20 losses

Just kidding, we’re not moving on! Sorry, Pistons fans, because with a loss against the Pacers on Monday, your team just became the ninth team in NBA history with a 20-game losing streak in a single season. Detroit is within striking distance of the longest ever: 28 losses in a row, which the Process 76ers achieved across multiple seasons, from March until November in 2015. The longest losing streak in a single season is 26, from both the 2010-11 Cavaliers, in their first post-LeBron season, and the 2013-14 Sixers.

The Pistons entered this season as a potential dark horse and Eastern play-in contender, with Cade Cunningham returning from injury, Monty Williams newly hired as the highest-paid coach in the league, and a roster that was theoretically deep in talent. Instead, Cunningham has struggled with the burden of being a no. 1 option, Williams has yanked around his young players’ minutes with no apparent rhyme or reason, and the Pistons look like a team at the start of a rebuild, not multiple seasons into one.

The only upside is that Detroit isn’t quite as terrible as its 2-21 record says. The team’s point differential suggests it should be more like 5-18, which is still awful but not “20 losses in a row” awful.

But the Pistons have a tricky upcoming schedule on the path between here and a potential record-setting 29th loss in a row. Detroit’s next two games are a home-and-away double against the 76ers; then they play the Bucks in Milwaukee and the Hawks in Atlanta, for two more likely losses. Using a simple model that accounts for point differential and home-court advantage, the Pistons have a 57 percent chance to lose all four of these games and reach 24 consecutive defeats.

The Pistons’ saving grace might be in potential loss no. 25: a home date against the Jazz, who are almost as bad by point differential as the Pistons. Because that game is in Detroit, the Pistons are actually slightly favored to win. And they need to, because they don’t have even a 40 percent chance to win any other individual game until January 10, when they could be trying to avoid a 35th straight loss against the Spurs.

The losing streak almost certainly won’t last that long. But Detroit does have a 17 percent chance to tie the record and a 12 percent chance to break it.

Pistons Losing Streak Odds

Potential Loss # Opponent Odds of Streak Still Going
Potential Loss # Opponent Odds of Streak Still Going
21 76ers 88%
22 @ 76ers 82%
23 @ Bucks 71%
24 @ Hawks 57%
25 Jazz 27%
26 @ Nets 23%
27 Nets 19%
28 @ Celtics 17%
29 Raptors 12%
30 @ Rockets 10%
31 @ Jazz 6%
32 @ Warriors 5%
33 @ Nuggets 5%
34 Kings 3%
35 Spurs 1%

(The Spurs, losers of 17 games in a row, are less likely to set the record because they have more potentially winnable games between now and loss no. 29, including a home contest against the Jazz and a road doubleheader against the Trail Blazers. The same model that gives Detroit a 12 percent chance to break the record gives San Antonio a 4 percent chance.)

It’s also worth examining what a losing streak of this magnitude says about the Pistons’ long-term ambitions. The franchise expected to be more competitive this season and to start building momentum toward the future, but that outlook might need to change.

For all of the eight previous teams to lose 20-plus games in a row in a single season, it took multiple seasons afterward until they were able to post a winning record. And the earliest that any of the awful eight won a playoff series was four years later.

Teams With 20-Game Losing Streaks in a Single Season

Team Season Loss Streak Years Until .500 Years Until Series Win
Team Season Loss Streak Years Until .500 Years Until Series Win
Cavaliers 2010-11 26 4 4
76ers 2013-14 26 4 4
Grizzlies 1995-96 23 8 15
Nuggets 1997-98 23 6 11
Bobcats 2011-12 23 2 11 and counting
76ers 1972-73 20 3 4
Mavericks 1993-94 20 7 7
Rockets 2020-21 20 2 and counting 2 and counting
Pistons 2023-24 20 and counting ??? ???

A Graph Is Worth a Thousand Words

LeBron James will celebrate his 39th birthday later this month. And the first in-season tournament MVP is enjoying career highs in both 2-point percentage and 3-point percentage.

At the same age, for whatever it’s worth, Michael Jordan was shooting 45 percent on 2-pointers and 29 percent on 3-pointers in his final season with the Wizards. That’s 45 percent on 2s; LeBron is at 41 percent on 3s.

Take That for Data: It’s Time for the One-Way Contenders to Worry

Every NBA team has now played at least 20 games, which is an important marker because by the 20-game mark, important team statistics like offensive and defensive ratings have stabilized. As small samples and shooting variance start to smooth out, a more accurate picture of each team’s strengths and weaknesses emerges—which makes this a good time to examine which contenders still have lots of work to do on one side of the ball.

Offense doesn’t win championships by itself. Defense doesn’t win championships by itself, either. Teams need balance—or at least competence on both ends—to win titles in the NBA. The last team to win the championship after ranking 20th or worse on either end of the floor was the 2000-01 Lakers, the ultimate “flip the switch” team, who were 22nd on defense in the regular season. Expand to all Finals teams, not just the victors, and the group gets only a bit bigger. In the past two decades, only the 2022-23 Heat (25th on offense), 2017-18 Cavaliers (29th on defense), and 2016-17 Cavaliers (21st on defense) have reached the Finals while ranking 20th or worse on either end.

In other words, making the Finals with a bad offense or defense seems to require either a miracle run from a no. 8 seed or a team with LeBron James in an otherwise uncompetitive conference.

That precedent should set off alarms for a few teams with lofty playoff aspirations this season. The two with inferior offenses are the Lakers and Cavaliers. Despite the best shooting season of LeBron’s career—again, in his age-39 campaign!—the Lakers rank only 22nd in offensive rating, in large part because of a paucity of shooting. L.A. is 28th in 3-pointers per game and 25th in 3-point percentage. More playing time for the likes of Gabe Vincent and Rui Hachimura, who have been injured, will help at the margins, but they’re not game-changing offensive players, either. Even after the in-season tournament demonstrated the Lakers’ winning formula, they might need to trade for a scoring boost between now and February.

Cleveland’s offense ranks an even worse 25th, despite strong seasons from Donovan Mitchell and free agent acquisition Max Strus, the latter of whom helped fill the Cavaliers’ glaring hole at small forward. The Jarrett Allen–Evan Mobley pairing is dynamite defensively but looks increasingly nonviable on the offensive end, as Mobley’s failure to develop a jump shot—he’s just 2-for-10 on 3-pointers all season—means the Cavaliers can’t comfortably fit all their best players on the court together. Cleveland is scoring just 109.3 points per 100 possessions—which ranks in the 18th percentile leaguewide, per Cleaning the Glass—when the two bigs share the court.

Keep an eye on Minnesota’s offense, as well. The Timberwolves are tied for the NBA’s best record and have the top-rated defense, but they have slipped to just 19th in offensive rating. The middle of the pack is so tightly bunched that the Wolves are just one good game away from 15th, but they also don’t have much margin for error before falling to 20th or worse. Minnesota’s scoring only 110.6 points per 100 possessions, in the 24th percentile, per CtG, with Anthony Edwards on the bench.

On the other end of the floor, the Kings (20th), Mavericks (22nd), Bucks (23rd), and Pacers (28th) all have winning records but worryingly flimsy defenses. I went over Milwaukee’s defensive problems in-depth a couple of weeks ago, so I’ll point you to this article and note that the problems haven’t improved at all since then. Malik Beasley still isn’t a defensive stopper, no matter how much rookie coach Adrian Griffin wants him to be.

Otherwise, the issues for the Kings and Pacers are no surprise, given the two teams’ personnel and style of play. The two warp-speed teams, which are tied together by the Tyrese Haliburton–Domantas Sabonis trade, could probably combine rosters and still not have enough strong defenders to form a playoff-caliber defense. They’re both really fun, but they’re not ready to make serious playoff runs unless they can make meaningful upgrades (Pascal Siakam? OG Anunoby?) at the deadline.

The Mavericks also fit that all-offense, no-defense archetype. (So do the Hawks, but they’re 9-13 and no longer qualify as plausible contenders.) The Luka Doncic–Kyrie Irving backcourt sets a rickety defensive foundation, and Dallas doesn’t have the wings or bigs to compensate. Don’t let a hot streak fool you: While Dallas ranks fifth in defensive rating over its past five games, that’s more likely the result of a soft schedule—which included games against the Grizzlies, Jazz, Trail Blazers, and Grizzlies again in that stretch—than any legitimate underlying improvements from a flawed roster.

The Mavericks are playing well enough to keep Luka happy but not well enough to reasonably guard potential playoff opponents like the Nuggets or Suns. Forget the Finals; with this defense, Dallas will be hard-pressed to even repeat the conference finals trip it took in 2021-22.

Fast Breaks

For last week’s Fast Breaks section, I chose to highlight one unsung contributor to each of the four in-season tournament semifinalists. But there are 26 other teams worth watching too, so let’s spend today examining four other under-the-radar players who have caught my eye recently—and why you should pay attention to them too.

1. Coby White, Chicago Bulls

Just two months ago, White seemed a questionable choice as the Bulls’ starting point guard—almost a begrudging backup plan with Lonzo Ball out for another year. White won a training camp position battle with Jevon Carter and Ayo Dosunmu but struggled along with the rest of his team during Chicago’s poor start.

Yet White has made a major leap in the past month amid a Zach LaVine injury, swirling trade rumors, and calls to “blow it up!” Over his past 11 games, White averaged 22 points per game and made 52 percent of his 3s, including at least three triples in every game from that stretch. Over the whole season, he ranks fifth in total made 3s, which he’s hitting at a 43 percent clip.

Asked about White’s development before the Bulls’ game Tuesday, coach Billy Donovan said he was most impressed by White’s mentality and ability to balance scoring and playmaking in his first season as a full-time NBA point guard. “There was a lot of, ‘Is he really a point guard? Can he play the point? Do I feel comfortable with him there at the point?’” Donovan said. “He’s figured out knowing when he can be aggressive and attack and keep himself engaged and also be a point guard and run the team.”

2. Malik Monk, Sacramento Kings

Like White, Monk has increased his playmaking while boosting his 3-point percentage to a career-high 43 percent. The Kings’ sixth man ranks third on the team in scoring, at a career-best 15 points per game; he’s also been their clear third-best player this season, behind only All-Stars De’Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis.

The no. 11 pick is still just 25 years old, so perhaps it isn’t a surprise to see meaningful improvements in his third NBA stop. Monk was a solid player last season—his first in Sacramento—but burst onto the scene in the playoffs with an excellent showing in the Kings’ seven-game loss to the Warriors. That performance might have been a small-sample fluke, but Monk has maintained his gains this season—both as a movement shooter and as a creator for others. Monk has increased his assists average three seasons in a row, ever since he left Charlotte for better fortunes out West.

3. Ivica Zubac, Los Angeles Clippers

Just about everyone on the Clippers gets more attention than their starting center. James Harden and Russell Westbrook are the new, controversial stars. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are the old, less controversial stars. Terance Mann has been in a thousand trade rumors. P.J. Tucker is dissatisfied with his role.

And then there’s Zubac, still chugging along as a perfectly viable NBA center. Originally acquired in an intercity heist—the Lakers sent him to the Clippers for 17 games of Mike Muscala in a year they didn’t even make the playoffs—Zubac isn’t the sort of offensive hub or stretch big that is so popular in the modern NBA. He averages only one assist per game and has made one 3-pointer in his career.

Yet Zubac scores efficiently, sets strong screens, and makes the Clippers defense much better whenever he’s on the court: L.A. allows fewer points, free throws, and shots at the rim with Zubac than without him. He even helped hold Nikola Jokic to a 9-for-32 shooting night in a rare Clippers win over Denver last week.

The Clippers will go only as far as their stars can take them. But at some point this postseason, in a matchup against Jokic or Anthony Davis or Sabonis or Rudy Gobert, the Clippers will need Zubac to hold serve against a better-known, higher-paid opposing big. He might just be up for the task.

4. Isaiah Joe, Oklahoma City Thunder

I’ll use this opportunity to refer you to The Ringer’s awards for the first quarter of the NBA season; my colleagues and I explained whom we’d vote for, right now, across a host of individual honors. You should read all of our choices.

For Sixth Man of the Quarter, Michael Pina and I both picked Joe—but he’s evidently a super-long shot, according to FanDuel odds, so I decided to sing his praises here, as well. Just last year, the 76ers waived Joe, and they must regret that transaction mightily now. Their loss is the Thunder’s gain: The reserve guard is ably defending the perimeter, shooting 44 percent from distance on high volume, and opening up acres of space for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and the rest of Oklahoma City’s young standouts.

The Thunder’s net rating is 23.7 points higher with Joe on the court, according to CtG. That’s the third-best on/off differential among players with at least 250 minutes—behind only Jokic and Nuggets teammate Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and one spot ahead of LeBron.

Stats through Monday’s games.