Illusions Created by Unbalanced Schedules
ILLUSIONS ALWAYS CREATED BY UNBALANCED SCHEDULES
The NBA has a busy 11-game holiday schedule on tap for Monday, which makes this an ideal time to talk about a very important issue in pro basketball. Normally in this spot we'd talk about "Big Monday" on ESPN. But, as we've mentioned often this year... ESPN's preseason guesses that teams like UCONN, Villanova, and Texas would be super-important all year rather than disappointingly irrelevant has created a less than stellar twinbill. We're not going to devote one day per week to saying all the same Big East and Big 12 teams are still disappointing!
What we are going to do, hopefully, is open your eyes to some important dynamics in play in pro basketball. These dynamics have been influencing play all season... and have largely gone unnoticed by the ignorant mainstream media. Worse, this has been MOST noticeable lately, when the media has gone off the deep end without realizing what was going on.
We're going to talk about schedule strength... and we're going to jump right into the worst schedules because that's where the big news has been. You regulars know that we generally use Jeff Sagarin's computer ratings at USA today when discussing strength of schedule in any sport. You saw how valuable that was during the NFL playoffs when the only playoff team to get battle tested by a tough schedule went on to win the Super Bowl (congrats again NY Giants!). It was also important repeatedly through the bowls.
(Note that all the data presented today goes through the games of Saturday Night because of publication deadlines)
NBA'S EASIEST SCHEDULES
Yes, one of the key elements of "Linsanity" was the fact that New York was facing a very easy schedule. We don't want to suggest it was all luck or anything. Lin was playing very well...but he was doing that against what was mostly a pathetic schedule. The best team the Knicks faced in the initial surge was the LA Lakers. That came at home...in a night after overtime spot for the Lakers...who haven't been good on the road this year anyway.
If New York played in the West, the whole storyline probably would have unfolded differently. And, let's remember that Lin was with Western Conference teams Golden State and Houston before settling with the Knicks. He's a great story to be sure. Let's see if he's still a great story after he faces a more representative schedule over a two-month grind.
The other big issue here is with Philadelphia. There were MULTIPLE articles in the mainstream world suggesting Philadelphia had become championship caliber. This was largely coming from statheads who marveled at the Sixers big margins of victory this year. As you've seen repeatedly in the past, statheads are often FOOLED by that because they don't bet in Vegas! Squares bet big favorites because of past blowouts...sharps adjust for strength of schedule...and typically end up fading the team with the misleading math.
As we speak, Philadelphia has played the third easiest schedule in the NBA. And, that's after having it really toughen up over the past few days with the likes of San Antonio, Dallas, Orlando, and the LA Clippers (all losses that exposed the mythology).
It's very likely that all five teams in this group are being significantly overrated at the moment...at least in terms of what you can expect when they face quality opposition. Yes, they'll beat up on patsies like Charlotte, Washington, New Jersey, and Toronto. Be careful backing these teams against anyone who knows what they're doing.
ADDITIONAL EASY SCHEDULES
Miami just annihilated three Eastern playoff contenders over a three-day gauntlet...so we're not going to suggest they're a pretender. They haven't played a killer schedule, but they're still a killer team based on results vs. quality. We're interested to see how they fair against the best of the West over the rest of the season.
We want to know that Portland is the first Western team to show up on our list. They're the ONLY team amongst the 10 easiest schedules...which probably suggests they're being overrated by pundits this year. They have played well the past few days...but, before that, they were posting some results that had people scratching their heads. Those results are less confusing now that strength of schedule is in the mix.
We want to focus on the extremes today... so let's just list the "middle 10" because those schedules are relatively balanced right in the middle of the bell curve. Moving along the scale of easiness, you've got Cleveland, Indiana, Minnesota, Washington, Utah, Golden State, Milwaukee, Denver, Charlotte, LA Lakers
NBA'S TOUGHEST SCHEDULES
2... New Orleans
3... San Antonio
5... LA Clippers
9... Oklahoma City
10... New Jersey
Though we have sympathy for what Sacramento and New Orleans are having to go through as the only patsies in the West, we're not under any illusions that they decent teams. Maybe they'd win a round robin with the Eastern patsies because they're more battle tested. What's most interesting to us here is the playoff caliber teams who are posting good records despite playing killer schedules.
SAN ANTONIO really jumps off the list because they've been red hot of late despite playing a tough schedule. It's too bad Manu Ginobili was hurt again Saturday against the LA Clippers. At full strength, the Spurs just might be the best team in the West. Nothing against Oklahoma City, who also shows up on this list. But...OKC wasn't missing somebody the caliber of Ginobili for most of the season, AND their schedule wasn't as tough as the Spurs' was.
MEMPHIS shocked the world last year in the playoffs, and may be in position to do the same again this season if they can reach the brackets in the very competitive Western Conference. If they got to play in the East...which makes more sense geographically anyway...they might have been grabbing all the headlines Philadelphia was enjoying early on.
The LA CLIPPERS have to be taken seriously because they have a nice mix of young energy and playoff savvy (in the form of Chris Paul). They're probably playing better than you realized given that fifth rated schedule. They were on the verge of jumping into the #2 spot in the West but lost a heartbreaker to the Spurs Saturday.
DALLAS has been coming on strong of late...and they continue to be a force in the West despite playing a top six schedule. Dallas and San Antonio are often playing chess when everyone else is playing checkers in terms of brains and strategy. That's getting hidden some this year because both have played tough schedules. The Mavericks are fully capable of repeating in the West given the way they're pacing themselves.There are 11 games on the Monday card, and it's going to be a busy week leading into the All-Star Break. We hope today's discussion will help you pick more winners, and avoid more losers. If you'd like some help finding the winner's circle in pro and college basketball, sign up with JIM HURLEY'S NETWORK®. You can do that here at the website with your credit card. Or, call us in the office at 1-800-323-4453.
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Don't forget that Monday is a HOLIDAY! Take care of business early just in case Atlanta-Chicago from the afternoon slate shows up in the mix. We're going to have a special NBA report touching on an important theme in honor of the 11-game holiday schedule. That will get you ready to handicap that ESPN day game, plus Boston-Dallas and Portland-LA Lakers on TNT in prime time.
Back with you Tuesday to talk college basketball. A few national powers will be on the floor, namely Kentucky, Ohio State, North Carolina and Missouri. We're nearing the clubhouse turn in the college regular season. That makes it a great time to link up with JIM HURLEY'S NETWORK®!
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