As the chart shows, New Orleans has the easiest schedule, Miami has the hardest, and everybody else is somewhere in between.
Now, more importantly, what does it all mean? Here are some takeaways from a glance at the schedule:
Does New Orleans’ schedule knock out four other teams?
I’m not sure they’ve completely processed this yet, but the Pelicans’ schedule (18 points) is a huge problem for four other teams that were hoping to get to a play-in series with Memphis. They now have a monumental task ahead of them. The issue isn’t staying within four games of Memphis and forcing a play-in, it’s staying ahead of New Orleans while doing so.
The rival West hopefuls (Phoenix, Portland, Sacramento and San Antonio) aren’t catching the Grizzlies, not with four games to make up in an eight-game season. And especially not with Memphis’s most difficult opponents on paper, Milwaukee, likely resting players in its final game before the playoffs.
As a result, the lone reasonable pathway to a play-in for these four teams is by finishing ahead of New Orleans, which presents two big problems. First, the Pelicans – they’re good as long as Zion Williamson stays ambulatory.
The second issue, presented today, is that the schedule makes it significantly harder to stay ahead of them. New Orleans plays only one Fab Five team (the Clippers) and one Elite Eight team (Utah); the rest of the schedule is against the muddling sub-.500 bunch, including a freebie against the Wizards. The Pels also get the Spurs, Magic, Grizzlies and Kings twice.
Those two Sacramento games mean the Kings (21 points) are likely the one squad with a realistic chance to keep the Pelicans out of a play-in. If they win both of these games they will own the tie-break over New Orleans and have two games in hand, and given that the Kings have three other soft games on the schedule (Spurs, Nets and Magic), it stands to reason they could hold New Orleans off. But if they don’t sweep the two against New Orleans, they lose the tie-break and are at a major schedule disadvantage across the other seven games, meaning it’s likely curtains.
The reconstituted Blazers (add Zach Collins and Jusuf Nurkic, subtract Trevor Ariza) are at least as good as the other West hopefuls on paper. In practice, it will be really hard for Portland with this 24-point bear of a schedule: Six of its eight games come against top-caliber playoff opposition. They just need to tie the Kings and Pelicans over these eight games, thanks to a one-percentage-point advantage in winning percentage. Alas, even treading water will be tough given the schedule differential.
Can Philly get to 4?
Let’s put it this way: Miami has some work to do. As noted above, the Heat (26 points) face the league’s most difficult schedule based on my rating system, with games against each of the East’s top three teams and only one lightweight (Phoenix) in their eight games. Every other team plays at least two such squads except the DOA Suns.
Miami has a two-game edge over Indiana and Philadelphia, and the Heat have also clinched the tie-break against both. Nonetheless, this seemingly safe lead could fade fast. The Heat play the Pacers twice, for starters, and Indiana’s slate in the other six games is pretty light (21 points) – including Orlando, Phoenix and Washington. The good news for Miami is that it already owns the tie-break with Indiana, but even so, the Heat need to get a split in these two games or they’re staring at a No. 6 seed and a first-round date with mighty Boston.
As for Philadelphia, the Sixers’ slate is nothing short of a gift – an East-leading 19-point cakewalk. Make a list of the five worst teams in the bubble and four of them are on Philly’s schedule (Washington, Phoenix, San Antonio and Orlando). If they win those and defeat Portland and Indiana, they’ll have the conference record tie-break on the Pacers and have a great shot to land the fourth seed in the East.
Does Denver have a shot at catching the Clippers? What about Utah?
The Nuggets are only one game behind the Clippers for the second seed in the West, but good luck moving up with that 25-point schedule. Denver will own the tie-break if it beats the Clippers head-to-head, but even that may just be a temporary reprieve. While the Nuggets are battling against the Lakers, Raptors, Jazz, Thunder and Heat, the Clippers will be heavily favored in match-up versus New Orleans, Brooklyn, Portland and Phoenix.
Is it possible? Sure. Is it likely? Not really. The Nuggets would absolutely have to win the head-to-head match-up, and even then it’s considerably less than 50-50 they could match the Clippers’ record in the other seven games. And that, of course, all assumes the coronavirus-stricken Nikola Jokic comes back at full strength.
In fact, the Nuggets might want to look out below. They sit 1.5 games ahead of Utah for third currently, but if the Jazz (21.5 points) win their head-to-head meeting in Orlando they have a great chance to pass the Nuggets in the other seven games. Utah’s slate includes two games against the Spurs among the winnable fodder. At worst, this should help the Jazz preserve their one-game advantage over at least one of Houston or Oklahoma City, pushing Utah into the West 4-5 series in the first round for the 27th consecutive season.*
(* – all numbers approximate)
Can Boston catch Toronto for the number 2 seed in the East?
Boston has a three-game deficit in the East, but the Celtics own the tie-break with the Raptors and will play them once in Orlando. If they win that game and cut the lead to two, Toronto (25 points) might struggle to keep their edge. Boston’s Charmin-soft 20-point slate will see it heavily favored in five other games (Washington, Portland, Memphis, Brooklyn, and Orlando), while Toronto must face the Lakers, Bucks, Nuggets, Heat and Sixers. The Celtics would probably need to go 7-1 or 8-0 and hope the Raptors muddle to 4-4 or similar, but it’s still on the table.
Obviously, the second seed isn’t as valuable without homecourt advantage at stake in the conference semifinals, but there is still a major advantage here – the second seed gets to face the East’s seventh seed in the first round. That team (currently Brooklyn) is eight-and-a-half games behind Philadelphia in the standings and on a different planet in terms of available talent.