A weak East and tough West: How strength of schedule can determine the NBA champion


(REUTERS/Adam Hunger)

When the NBA released the 2014-15 regular season schedule earlier this month, a few “must see” games immediately jumped out. But it’s time to look beyond individual games and see whose path to a title could be helped or hurt by their strength of schedule.

Most of the strength is based on the conference and division a team resides in. Teams will play other teams in the opposing conference twice – once at home and once on the road. A team will also play teams in their division four times — twice at home and twice on the road. A team will play another team within its conference three or four times, which rotates randomly over a five-year period.

A frequent barometer of strength is the opponent’s average win percentage from the prior season. Using this method, here are the top five hardest and weakest schedules for the upcoming season:

Top5EasyHardSchedNBA

The problem with this method is it ignores any changes from the prior season. For example, Cleveland won 33 games last season but have added LeBron James and Kevin Love to their squad, while the Miami Heat are long shots to win 54 games next season.

As an alternative, we could use odds to win the 2015 NBA title as a makeshift power ranking, with the thought being that Vegas has a pretty good handle on how offseason changes have impacted a team’s chances at winning. Not surprisingly, Cleveland is the current favorite at 5-to-2 odds, implying they have a 28.6 percent chance at a championship. Miami, on the other hand, is currently at 40-to-1, implying bookmakers think they have a 2.4 percent chance at the NBA title.

Using these championship probabilities gives us an average opponent strength for each team based on the 2014-15 regular season schedule. As you would expect, the West is the best, and also home to seven of the top 10 hardest schedules.

PrjSOS

The most difficult division looks to be the Northwest, which has three of five teams in the top 10 hardest schedules. The Suns, on the other hand, will play teams who average a 4.73 percent chance at an NBA title, the highest in the league, and share a division with the Kings, who rank fourth.

November should be kind to the Suns, but it gets progressively worse from there, culminating in a particularly tough January.

As if having James and Love wasn’t advantage enough for the Cavs, they also have the easiest schedule for the upcoming season. Their opponents have a 3.25 percent chance at a championship and don’t make things difficult for them until January, when they have games against Chicago, Oklahoma City, the Los Angeles Clippers, Golden State, Houston, Dallas and Portland.

PrjSOSeasy

The Spurs also have an easy time next season, coming in second in terms of average opponent strength.

Why do the two top teams in the league have the easiest schedules? They don’t have to play themselves, so their strength of schedule rank automatically starts at a lower starting point compared to the other teams in the NBA. But overall, the West still faces stiffer competition than the East, albeit only slightly more difficult.

The Central division, however, is easily the least difficult in terms of overall matchups.

Of course, everything changes once players hit the hardwood for real, but the Pacers losing Paul George to injury makes the Central Division and the Eastern Conference a two-team race between Cleveland and Chicago.

 

Neil Greenberg analyzes advanced sports statistics for the Fancy Stats blog and prefers to be called a geek rather than a nerd.
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