How Scheduling Can Tell NBA’s Subtlest Lies

You often hear about the “lies” that statistics tell, but they ain’t got nothin’ on the lies scheduling tells.

Everything from hot streaks to disappointing starts, to hitting the right team at the wrong time or the wrong team at the wrong time can influence outcomes of games.

Those things get aggregated, and often, that aggregation becomes a false narrative—or even an outright lie.

You then believe things that aren’t true because you see things that are true and draw false conclusions from them.

Strength of Schedule

One way you see this is in the overall strength of schedule. For example, Utah Jazz opponents have won an average of 54.1 percent of their games, making theirs the hardest schedule in the league. By contrast, the Oklahoma City Thunder have the easiest at 47.7 percent.

Since we tend to think of teams more in terms of “wins” than “winning” percentage, this is what the teams’ opponents’ schedules look like translated into equivalent 82-game win totals.

That’s an average of over five more wins per opponent for the Jazz than the Thunder. Obviously, that’s going to have an impact on the bottom line. Often, though, these things tend to balance out a little over time as the teams with tougher schedules hit the easier parts of their schedules and those who have had a soft road suddenly find the rocks in theirs.

Here is a look at remaining schedule:

The Thunder have the toughest remaining schedule and the Jazz have the second easiest. Interestingly, the Raptors have the easiest but are in the middle for games played. (That’s because they play in the easier Eastern Conference.)

Just as people are asking, “What’s wrong with the Jazz?” right now, they’ll be talking about how they “got things together” later on in the season as the schedule gets easier. And the same people are probably not far from talking about how the Thunder are faltering after a “hot start.”

In both cases, it’s not just about the teams. It’s about the teams they’re playing.

Time of Schedule

Dec 13, 2018; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) celebrates with guard Chris Paul (3) after scoring a basket during the fourth quarter against the Los Angeles Lakers at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

While some people will talk about the “strength” of schedule, there is seldom discussion regarding time of schedule. As teams go through ups and downs, ebbs and flows, you can catch an opponent at a good or bad time or be caught at a good time or bad time.

As the season goes on, these little windows get forgotten.

For example, it’s predictable that the Lakers are going to stagger a bit in the games that LeBron James misses, dropping a few they’d otherwise win. We may remember that in the present, but come March we might not consider that.

If that seems crazy, then consider that even when reigning MVP James Harden missed a handful of games and then took a few more to get back into rhythm, people were wondering what was “wrong” with the Rockets and looked at such things as the losses of Trevor Ariza and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute.

Often, especially early in the season, this is due to confirmation bias where people are prone to looking at what substantiates their earlier predictions. They then miss the obvious, such as the fact the reigning MVP might actually make a difference to a team.

The adjustments of new team members and the volatility of the lineup apart from Harden—and instability, even with an MVP—can certainly be detrimental to team success. But now the Rockets are finding their footing, having won eight of their last nine with seven of those wins coming against opponents with winning records.

And just as teams can go through bad stretches that can disguise them as looking worse than they really are, they can go through favorable times, as well.

That can include schedule benefits, such as playing teams on the wrong end of back-to-backs or just getting lucky and catching a series of games where the opponents’ star is out of commission—sort of like the “other side” of the Lakers missing LeBron.

For example, the Dallas Mavericks reeled off an 11-3 run while going 5-14 in their other games this season. They beat good teams, too, including the Thunder, Warriors, Celtics, Rockets (twice), Clippers and Trail Blazers. That’s seven wins against quality opponents, so it seems impressive, right?

But the Warriors were without Stephen Curry. The Thunder were missing Russell Westbrook. The Celtics were on a back-to-back with both games on the road. The Rockets were without Chris Paul during the first game. Also, the Warriors, Celtics, Trail Blazers, Clippers and second Rockets game were all played in Dallas. The Mavs only played five road games over the entire 14-game stretch and spent more than one night on the road just once. That means a lot of sleeping in one’s own bed and being well rested.

When they played six of their next seven games on the road, they lost all of them.

The Mavericks did not get “hot” and then “cold.” They went from playing a favorable stretch to an unfavorable stretch.

These are hardly the only examples, but it does provide the sorts of things you can look for when it comes to scheduling lies. Usually, if there is a team suddenly getting hot or cold, it’s not just arbitrary. Something happened beneath the surface, and it just takes a little digging to find what it is.

You’ll usually find the answer in the scheduling.