Checking the Strength of Schedule Coming Down the Home Stretch
Official NBA Standings as of 5 pm on March 3rd.
That’s how the Eastern Conference playoff picture looks entering tonight’s game vs. the Chicago Bulls in Bankers Life Fieldhouse. With the 9th place Philadelphia 76ers standing 6 full games behind Milwaukee – and fading – it seems like these are the eight Eastern Conference teams that will be playing more than their allotted 82 games this year.
However, most of the seedings and matchups are far from set. Other than Miami – who has been steadily increasing their stranglehold on the #1 seed – each team in the East could move up or down by at least two positions in the standings over the final quarter of the season. For a team like the Pacers, seeding and home court advantage is crucial to their goal of a deep playoff run. Looking at the schedule tells you that the Pacers are dead in the middle of perhaps their biggest opportunity of the season to lock up their regular season goals.
A tool that I regularly use is Strength of Schedule, adjusted for Home & Road (SoSHR). (A more detailed explanation can be found here.) The Pacers have been blessed this season with the second “easiest” SoSHR (.482, only Miami’s .480 is lower for the full season). Much of this is a function of playing in the Eastern Conference, where 12 of the 15 “easiest” SoSHRs reside – including the 10 easiest.
Regardless, you have to take every advantage you can get in the NBA, and I’m sure the Pacers don’t want to look this gift horse in the mouth. Especially, if you take a look at what the teams around them are facing at present.
It’s worth focusing on the Chicago Bulls for two reasons. First, they’re tonight’s opponent. Second, they are the Pacers’ primary (only, really) rival for the Central Division title. While a division title is of only marginal value, it is a worthwhile first goal for the Pacers.
“It’s the first (goal) of many,” said Pacer coach Frank Vogel prior to tonight’s game. “That’s our first thing – to try to get the Central Division. By doing that, that achieves our second goal of getting the highest seed possible.”
And February and March provide a great chance for Indiana to separate from the Bulls. The Pacers played 10 of 12 at home in February, and their March schedule – based on SoSHR is almost as kind. Meanwhile, Chicago played the second “toughest” schedule in February. March doesn’t get much easier for the Bulls, with their slate being rated as 6th toughest under SoSHR.
The Pacers took great advantage of a favorable February schedule by going 9-3 during the month, moving to 10-3 with a win in Toronto on March 1st. On January 31st, Indy was 1-1/2 games behind the Chicago Bulls at 27-19. Since then, they’ve gained 4-1/2 games on the Bulls, who managed only six wins in their 14 contests. But Chicago wasn’t the only team the Pacers picked up games against.
In fact, the only Eastern Conference playoff team that the Pacers didn’t gain ground on was the blistering hot Miami Heat. Miami lost in the Fieldhouse to open the month of February – then promptly rattled off 14 straight wins.
The schedule is comparable based on SoSHR, but one thing in Indy’s disfavor is the home vs. road mix. They’re not likely ever to see a mix as favorable as February again, March is pretty much evenly split. Of the 15 games remaining this month, eight are on the road.
However, it remains pretty balanced for most of the month, mostly consisting of two at home, then two on the road, before they finish the month on their final Western Conference swing. The road has been far more troublesome to this year’s teams than last, but it has been more disappointing than actually bad. Though the Pacers have a losing record (13-16), that’s true for most NBA teams. Only 10 teams have won half or more of their games away from home, and Indy has the 11th best road record in the league.
To repeat the success in February, the Pacers will have to beat the teams that – at this stage of the season – they should beat. A home schedule featuring the Bulls, Celtics, Timberwolves, Lakers, Magic, Bucks, and Hawks needs to generate 5 or 6 wins. Further, they can’t blow opportunities on the road in Orlando, Philly, Cleveland, and maybe Dallas and Phoenix.
Ten wins between now and April Fool’s day could go a long way towards solidifying the Pacers’ playoff position.
By the same token, a .500 or worse month in March could leave way too many questions for Indy’s comfort as they enter a tough April. The Pacers could make things much easier on themselves, if they didn’t enter games at home vs. Brooklyn, and at New York and Boston in the last week of the season needing to get wins.