Although there have been moments of uncertainty for the NBA as it plays its 2020-21 regular season outside last summer’s bubble, the league has successfully reached the midpoint of the schedule with this weekend’s All-Star break. Looking ahead, the teams also now know who they’ll be playing in the second half, after the league released its remaining schedule last week. That means we can look at which teams’ paths are due to be easier — or more difficult — over the rest of the season.
What makes LeBron James so great | FiveThirtyEight
To help quantify this, I used our classic Elo ratings, which measure a team’s strength at any given time based on game results. Adjusting for home-court advantage,1 I calculated the average opponent strength for each club in both the first and second halves of the season. In the following chart, teams above the trendline will face tougher opponents (on average) over the rest of the season, while teams below it will see their schedule ease up some in the second half:
Among the outliers above the line, the Orlando Magic and New York Knicks — and, to a slightly lesser extent, the San Antonio Spurs, Portland Trail Blazers and Chicago Bulls — will see their schedules get notably harder over the remainder of the regular season. After the home-court adjustment, the Magic will have gone from an average opposing Elo of 1488 (second-easiest in the league) in the first half to 1535 (hardest in the league) in the second half. Not that it’s likely to matter for them — Orlando is 13-23 with the second-worst record in the East and a 2 percent chance of making the playoffs.
However, for the Knicks, Bulls, Spurs and Blazers, it could actually make a difference in the postseason picture, since all are currently seeded in line to either make the playoffs or at least enter the play-in tournament for the final two slots in each conference. The Knicks had the NBA’s easiest first-half schedule (an average opposing Elo of 1481) and are due to face the third-toughest second-half slate (1520 average opposing Elo), behind only the Magic and Spurs.
How much does that matter? A 40-point change in opponent Elo corresponds roughly to a change in win probability of 6 percentage points for a given game — so while it’s not enough to completely tank a team’s season by itself, it is certainly a difference that can add up over the course of even a 36-game half-season.
At the other end of the spectrum, the Detroit Pistons, Utah Jazz (!!), Oklahoma City Thunder and Miami Heat will face notably easier schedules over the remainder of the regular season. To a lesser extent, that’s also true of the Denver Nuggets, Boston Celtics, Dallas Mavericks and New Orleans Pelicans.
Like Orlando, this probably is irrelevant for Detroit; the Pistons have a 2 percent playoff probability in our model, which implicitly knows about the shift in schedule strength. Similarly, the Thunder are at 3 percent despite being more competitive than many believed possible preseason. But the rest of the teams above are all in the playoff mix, and they should receive boosts from facing easier competition the rest of the way.
Unsurprisingly, there is a reasonably negative overall relationship (with a correlation of -0.56) between a team’s schedule strength in the first half and in the second half this season, meaning for the most part, the NBA did a good job of balancing front- versus back-loaded schedules. But some teams saw overcorrections. The Spurs, for instance, will face an average opponent 21 Elo points better than we would expect from the difficulty of their first-half slate. Meanwhile, the Celtics will face an opponent 20 points worse than we’d expect.
Again, those differences are on a scale that should add up only at the margins. But in a strange, shortened season like this, every little marginal difference helps — or hurts. So don’t be surprised if changes in schedule strength shape at least a few teams’ destinies over the last three dozen or so games on their calendars.
Check out our latest NBA predictions.