What the schedule tells us about who’s real and who’s not in 2022-23

What the schedule tells us about who’s real and who’s not in 2022-23

As teams reach the 25-game mark, the NBA standings have begun to take firmer shape after a very messy start to the season. Championship contenders are coming away with the best records (at least in the Eastern Conference). Tank commanders fall to the bottom. And trade talks heat up as players who signed as free agents over the summer become eligible to be traded after Dec. 15.

But top rankings can still lie, whether through injuries, luck in tight games or an unbalanced schedule, just like we do. every year around this timewe’ll focus on the latter topic and look at a handful of teams whose schedules either mask or reveal some underlying truth about their outlook.

For each team, we will offer four accompanying classifications. Two illustrate a team’s strength of 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 calendar rankings are ordered from hardest to easiest, so no. 1 ranking means the most difficult schedule. The strength of the schedule standings is through Tuesday games.

Boston Celtics

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

Let’s start with the easiest analysis, which is still remarkable for its simplicity: the Celtics are the best team in the NBA, with the best net rating, and have the easiest remaining schedule. It is rather obvious that they are the favorites of the East. 1 seed, with a chance to challenge the 2007-08 title-winning Celtics, who went 66-16, for the franchise’s best record since the 1980s.

Miami Heat

Registration: 11-14
Past SOS: Third by point differential, fourth by record
Future SOS: 27th in point differential, 26th in 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 no. The No. 1 seed last season and one shot away from a trip to the NBA Finals, the Heat are now tied for 10th in the East. His preseason slump expected winning percentage, as measured by Vegas odds-to theirs real The winning percentage is the highest so far.

Injuries are a partial culprit, with Jimmy Butler missing 10 games and Tyler Herro eight. Miami’s offense has struggled, even with Bam Adebayo’s overnight excellence. However, an underrated factor in their decline is a difficult starting schedule. That’s not to say the Heat will definitely bounce back once the schedule lightens; after all, they just lost to the Pistons by 20 points. But over the next week and a half, they face the Spurs, Pacers, Thunder, Rockets and Spurs again. We’ll wait until this stretch is over to see if it makes sense to bury the Heat entirely.

The Minnesota Timberwolves

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

While the Heat’s slow start is partly a product of a tough schedule, Minnesota has no such excuse. The Timberwolves are rated worse on offense and defense compared to last season, even after that entering everything with the Rudy Gobert trade, and even though they’ve enjoyed a smooth schedule with their new starting lineup.

However, Karl-Anthony Towns is now injured for at least another month, and the schedule will also become much more complicated. In a crowded Western Conference, the Timberwolves are still one game away from a guaranteed playoff spot, let alone a playoff berth, so they’re far from doomed.

But the underlying nature of the schedule spread only reinforces early concerns about this team and its failure thus far. As awkward 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 25th best team in the NBA thus far. The only teams that score worse by this metric are a quintet with their eyes set on Victor Wembanyama (the Pistons, Rockets, Magic, Hornets and Spurs).

Indiana Pacers

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

One of our two metrics says the Timberwolves have played the easier schedule; the other acknowledges the Pacers, who, unlike the Wolves, have at least taken advantage. Like Tyrese Haliburton makes a jump and Benedict Mathurin makes a case For both Rookie of the Year and Sixth Man of the Year, the Pacers have exceeded their projected preseason winning percentage by the second-largest margin of any team. (Only Utah’s excess performance is slightly better.)

But the Pacers may not stay in the top six in the East for long. Little through the rest of December, they have a four-game stretch against the Nets, Heat, Warriors and Cavaliers, then a six-game stretch against the Celtics, Heat, Pelicans, Hawks, Cavaliers and Clippers.

The Pacers tin beating good teams; they’ve already won against the Heat and Nets (twice) this season, and just stole a game against Golden State despite losing Haliburton and Myles Turner. Still, even with their surprisingly strong start, the Pacers still fall short of .500, and it’s hard to imagine that record sticking around once the schedule solidifies. If a slump comes, potential trades for Turner and Buddy Hield could be more enticing and give potential suitors like the Lakers and Pelicans more options as they look for midseason upgrades.

Chicago Bulls

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

Ten months ago, the Bulls were in first place in the East. They now rank 12th, despite getting back every key contributor except the injured Lonzo Ball, and the possibility of tanking. seems increasingly likely.

While many obvious factors have contributed to the Bulls’ slow start (Ball’s absence, Zach LaVine’s declining effectiveness after knee surgery, the league’s worst winning percentage in situations clutch), a brutal early schedule has also played a role. The Bulls have shown flashes against the toughest board; they remain the only team to beat the Celtics in regulation, and they did it twice. But night after night, that caliber of opposition has proven to be too much for them, which is why DeMar DeRozan and his friends are now struggling in 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 over .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 things around their season against inferior opposition.

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

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