Schedules Influencing Stat Rankings?

by Jeff Fogle 1. March 2011 01:13

I was hopping around some of the numerous stat pages here at Monday evening...while watching my Texas Longhorns prove once again they were "Champions of Valentine's" with another late season fade...and something I hadn't noticed before jumped out...

I had sorted on defensive efficiency (points allowed per 100 possessions) on this page, and wasn't surprised to see the usual suspects leading the league...

Defensive Efficiency (thru Sunday's games)
1...Chicago 97.4
2...Boston 97.5
3...Orlando 99.0
4...Miami 99.6
5...Milwaukee 100.1
6...San Antonio 100.8
7...New Orleans 100.9
8...LA Lakers 102.2
9...Memphis 102.4
10...Philadelphia 102.5

That list gives you the top contenders in the East (the first four), the two Western dynasty teams (no introduction needed), and the two recent super-surgers in each conference (Memphis and Philadelphia).

Then, it struck me that it basically presented them in that order. East, then West.

San Antonio has the #1 defensive efficiency in the West this year? I would have been 100% certain that wasn't the case before looking. Their defense supposedly took a big step backward this season. They've allegedly sacrificed defense more scoring. Their new guys aren't ideally suited to Coach Gregg Popovich's defensive schematics. We've all heard the reasons. San Antonio is supposed to be dominating this year in spite of its defense rather than because of it.

But, there it is in numbers and ellipses. San Antonio has the best defense in the West!

I thought it interesting that the Eastern powers clustered like that. It's been fairly obvious over the past several weeks that there are several really bad teams in the East. Cleveland was a joke for quite a long time. Toronto has been Cleveland the past month. Washington often plays down at that same level. New Jersey has struggled badly. Detroit either did or didn't have a mutiny. That's A LOT of bad teams!

I looked up the strength of schedule numbers from Jeff Sagarin over at USA Today.

There are 30 teams in the league. Check out these schedule difficulty ranks through Sunday's action...


There are your top five seeds in the East this year barring a miracle or two. And, there are your top four teams in defensive efficiency in slightly altered order. Chicago looks to have truly earned "best in the East" defensively because they had the most difficult schedule of the group through Sunday (though it might change by the time you link to that page since they played Washington Monday night).

Maybe the Spurs and Lakers are even better than their overall rankings suggest. The Eastern teams get a lot of games against horrible offenses. Let's keep moving down the strength of schedule listing...

25...LA Lakers
24...San Antonio

So much for that theory. The Lakers and Spurs haven't had it as easy as the Eastern powers. But, they've had it more easy than the other Western contenders. I won't run through everyone. Next on the list are four more teams from the East. Phoenix has played the third easiest schedule in the West, Dallas fourth.

It doesn't look like any conclusions you'd draw from the defensive efficiency ratings would be too warped. But, it's worth remembering that many of the Eastern powers have a chance to inflate their stats a bit vs. soft schedules. I've read a lot of web stories and forum commentary on the Heat. I don't think I recall anyone pointing out they've played the easiest schedule in the league so far.

And, if you're a fan of the West, the Spurs and Lakers have had it easier than everyone else to this point in a way that might matter down the road.

Let's look for combinations of defense and schedule strength...

Best defenses vs. schedules ranking in the top half of difficulty:
Milwaukee 100.1 vs. 8th rated schedule
New Orleans 100.9 vs. 12th rated schedule
Memphis 102.4 vs. 13th rated schedule
Oklahoma City 104.9 vs. 4th rated schedule

OKC is about to get better too if Kendrick Perkins can get healthy.

Milwaukee is off the radar this year, but "Fear the Deer" still works if you're an opposing offense. Then we have three Western teams who will make the playoff brackets more defense-orientated than it might have seemed at first.

At the very least, as you ponder various issues from this point forward, remember that the Eastern powers are enjoying easier schedules than everyone else is playing.

Transition Points

*Denver may have to be added to the list of elite defenses soon. The new-look Nuggets (there's an adjective you can use for several teams) held Atlanta to 90 points and less than a point per possession Monday in a 10-point victory. That came after a good showing in an overtime loss at Portland, and a stifling 89-75 victory over shorthanded Boston.

There's a group of guys here who apparently weren't very pleased with all the commentary suggesting the Nuggets were a one-man team when Carmelo Anthony was around. Rick Reilly of ESPN referred to the remaining Nuggets as "a locker room of nobodies" in this article.

Among the nobodies are longtime stalwart Kenyon Martin, 8-year veteran Nene, sharpshooter J.R. Smith, and promising young point guard Ty Lawson. Here's Denver's roster page at ESPN that shows the many millions that a so-called "small market" team is paying them this year (16.5 million and 11.3 million to Martin and Nene for example).

Reilly also compared newcomers Danilo Galinari, Raymond Felton, Wilson Chandler, and Timofey Mozgov to "the four best mountain climbers in Nebraska." Galinari scored 30 points at Portland before getting hurt late in the game. He missed Monday's game with a bruised toe. You can see here in the boxscore that a balanced attack made his absence a moot point.

Head coach George Karl has to enjoy having that many players with chips on their shoulders.

*At some point I'm going to make a crack about Nenad Krstic being the new Hank Finkel. Might as well get it over with!

Boston beat Utah Monday 107-102. Newcomer Jeff Green was a quiet 2-6 from the field in only 19 minutes. Skeptics of the trade with Oklahoma City are going to have a field day of Green doesn't contribute more than that.

New Celtics through two games:
Krstic: 20 points, 11 rebounds in 51 minutes (+13 in +/-)
Green: 12 points, 0 assists, 3 rebounds in 37 minutes (-9 in +/-)

Finkel averaged 5.1 ppg and 3.9 rpg in his Krstic's off to an early lead in the battle of role playing 7-footers in the Celtics' pantheon.

*Strong schedule Tuesday night, highlighted by New York/Orlando, Dallas/Philadelphia, and San Antonio/Memphis. Back late in the evening with some notes...

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3/1/2011 3:10:39 PM #


I imagine most of the attention tonight will be on the Knicks-Magic game, which ought to be good TV if nothing else.  

In the West, the Mavs and Spurs take on tough road challenges in Philly and Memphis.  There's a good chance the six-game lead San Antonio now has will change after tonight, one way or the other.  The Lakers and Hornets are also on the road but should have layup games against the TWolves and Raptors.  

Warriors-Pacers will impact the playoff seeding, or at least fans' hopes.  I think the most pressingly important game of all, though, is the Rockets in Portland matchup.  Houston needs to claw three spots and three games up to make the playoffs this year.  Portland's on a nice little run but is still perilously close to .500 and an even point differential.  

The Rockets have two 'chances' to be eliminated from playoff contention in this month.  They play against the Suns, Spurs, and then Suns again in order starting on the fifth.  They probably need two out of those three or the Suns will be between them and the eight seed (to say nothing of Utah and current holder Memphis).

Then soon after Houston plays Boston, Utah, Golden State and at Miami.  Lose two of those four, as they're expected to, and the rest of the season is probably academic.  

Greyberger United States

3/1/2011 4:18:32 PM #


Jeff, it's quite easy to adjust efficiencies for strength of schedule, and even for rest days.  Current results:

Team  OffE  DefE  Margin
MIA  3.87  -3.83  7.70
BOS  -0.09  -6.94  6.86
SAS  3.39  -3.36  6.76
LAL  5.37  -1.21  6.58
CHI  -1.06  -7.17  6.10
ORL  1.76  -4.13  5.89
DAL  1.61  -2.18  3.78
DEN  5.14  2.00  3.14
NOH  -1.63  -3.95  2.31
PHI  -0.03  -2.25  2.22
MEM  -0.90  -3.04  2.14
OKC  3.74  1.92  1.82
POR  0.95  0.00  0.96
ATL  -0.04  -0.96  0.92
HOU  3.39  2.53  0.86
NYK  2.37  1.63  0.74
PHO  2.97  3.14  -0.17
UTA  1.59  2.12  -0.54
IND  -1.58  -1.00  -0.59
MIL  -6.73  -5.18  -1.56
CHA  -3.09  -0.21  -2.87
GSW  1.52  4.74  -3.22
LAC  -0.91  2.32  -3.23
DET  0.05  4.41  -4.35
SAC  -4.92  1.10  -6.02
MIN  -2.38  3.90  -6.27
TOR  -0.67  5.62  -6.29
NJN  -3.95  2.42  -6.37
WAS  -4.15  2.96  -7.11
CLE  -5.59  4.59  -10.18

DSMok1 United States

3/1/2011 5:22:41 PM #

Jeff Fogle

Thanks for your thoughts GB. Houston will have to play their way into the race before I get too excited about their hopes. They've played too many home game battles (16-13) for me to see them as a playoff caliber team at this point. Looks like they have a schedule that will allow them to make a statement one way or the other very soon.

Thanks DM for posting your current results. Your definition of "easy" may be different than that of a layperson (lol).

Looks like your rankings for best defenses would be:
5...New Orleans (best in West)
7...San Antonio
11...LA Lakers

What would you consider to be the "margin of error" in those rankings? Plus or minus a spot, 2 spots? More than that? Thanks in advance if you get a chance to answer...

Jeff Fogle United States

3/2/2011 3:24:03 AM #


If you realize, the teams with the best record are usually the teams with the easiest schedules. This is not because strength of schedule is an important stat in the nba, but because THESE TEAMS ALL BENEFIT BY NOT HAVING TO PLAY THEMSELVES!!! Since these teams have good records, getting to play Cleveland instead significantly effects their opponents W/L percentage (i.e. strength of schedule). Think of how much playing an 0-16 team in football skews the statistics. Strength of schedule is not also not necessarily the best indicator of how hard a team's schedule actually is. Long road trips, back-to-back games, morning games, etc. all effect how hard a schedule is but fail to show up in the statistic. For example, the Chicago Bulls are tied with the Milwaukee Bucks for most back-to-back games this season; yet both of these teams are in the bottom third of strength of schedule. The bottom line is, all states are flawed, we don't need to be needlessly nitpicking the top teams in the league.

alex United States

3/2/2011 1:30:32 PM #

Jeff Fogle

Good win for Houston over Portland GB.

Alex. Agree with much of your post. I was emphasizing that the Eastern powers had it easier than the Western powers in terms of schedule strength this year. Don't think that changes if you pencil in three additional "games" for a team against itself at this stage of the season (four once 82 are in the books...I know some folks who pencil in four "zero" performances and call it an 86 game schedule for margin average purposes to neutralize strength of opposition issues).

I agree completely that number of back-to-backs and other challenges should be used to evaluate strengths of schedule (how healthy the opponent was, how tired the opponent was, I'm sure we could come up with a bunch together). And, obviously, if you're trying to pin down best defenses, it's better to look at the quality of offenses faced rather than overall team quality (which is why DSMok's ratings are so valuable).

Sorry I didn't make that more clear. Eastern teams get to play more games against bad opposition. That's true whether or not you account for the "teams don't play themselves" issue. Though, if Golden State keeps losing like they have been, the West will have one more really bad team down the stretch...

Jeff Fogle United States

5/26/2011 12:11:59 AM #


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