West vs. East: Schedule Disparity

Take a look at the difference in records between the non-playoff teams in the East and in the West as the current standings show:

Milwaukee (15-24); Cleveland (14-23); Toronto (13-26); Detroit (13-26); New Jersey (13-27); Washington (9-29); Charlotte (5-32)

Houston (21-19); Utah (19-19); Portland (19-20); Phoenix (17-21); Golden State (15-21); Sacramento (13-26); New Orleans (9-30)

The fact is, the West have won 31 more games than the East, showing a legit disparity in how good the respective teams are. Not one team mentioned has a winning record against its own conference, suggesting that the bulk of the difference in wins has come against the opposing conference. Utah, for example, is 8-3 against the East, while Milwaukee is 4-9 against the West. Houston is 8-4, while Detroit is 4-8.

Due to the compressed 66-game season, Western and Eastern teams play squads within their own conference at a higher percentage (.727) than in a regular 82-game season* (.634), and that should reflect how we look at things like defensive efficiency.
*The Lakers play only 18 of their 66 games against Eastern teams, and have only two left, both at home (Boston, 3/11, and New Jersey, 4.3).

When calculating strength of schedule and defensive efficiency*, you have to take L.A.’s far more difficult schedule, than, for example, New York’s. The two teams are currently tied for 9th in efficiency on defense according to ESPN’s metrics, but L.A. has played the NBA’s 10th toughest schedule (it was 4th before back-to-back games at Detroit and Washington), while the Knicks have had the league’s easiest.
*Defined as the number of points a team allows per 100 possessions.

The strength of schedule metrics reveal that Atlanta, Milwaukee and New Jersey are the only three Eastern teams that rank in the top 15. Even that should shift as those teams play out more of their Eastern-heavy schedules in the final two regular season months.

Perhaps a better way to measure the defensive efficiency (or really any metric) in this particular season is where teams rank within their own conferences. Doing it that way, the Lakers (98.1) move from 10th in the NBA to 3rd in the West, behind only Dallas (96.3, 4th overall) and Memphis (97.8, 8th).

In a more traditional stat, field goal percentage defense, the Lakers rank second in the NBA at 41.8 percent, just behind Philadelphia’s 41.4 percent. Dallas (41.9 percent, 3rd) and Oklahoma City (42.5 percent, 7th) are the only other Western teams in the top 11.

But if the Clippers (12th) and Trail Blazers (17th) played the basement dwellers of the East three or four times instead of once, would they be the ones in the top 10?

The only way this conference disparity can really affect teams in terms of playoff seeding, however, is that squads like the Lakers play the Heat, Celtics and Knicks — as opposed to Charlotte, Detroit and Washington — twice as part of the national TV schedule, upping strength of schedule points. But the West still competes with the West in the playoffs, so you won’t likely find many coaches worrying about strength of schedule affecting things like defensive efficiency statistics.

That’s what the media is for.