The easy answer is yeah, sure it does. Quality of competition always matters. In the NBA, though, the differences in schedules from team to team are relatively minor. In fact, if the two conferences were equal in strength — and some people think that may be the case this season — then I’d go so far as to call strength of schedule a virtual nonfactor in the NBA.
Here are the rankings, based on the aggregate winning percentages from last season for the opponents on each team’s 2008-09 schedule, listed in order of toughest- to easiest-schedule:
Los Angeles Clippers
Oklahoma City Thunder
New York Knicks
Golden State Warriors
Portland Trail Blazers
New Orleans Hornets
Los Angeles Lakers
San Antonio Spurs
New Jersey Nets
My first observation is that if each team won at the exact percentage of its strength of schedule, the worst team, Memphis, would win 39 games. The best team, Detroit, would win 43. That’s the full range of your quality-of-competition adjustment.
Beyond that, a couple of things are apparent. When you look at the teams grouped at the top and the bottom, it becomes apparent that the worst teams suffer from not getting to play themselves. Conversely, the top teams don’t play themselves, either, and that weakens their schedule strength a tad. The other thing to note is that the bottom of the list is cluttered with teams from the East. The top of the list is heavy on teams from the West.
The West has been treating the East like a cat toy for several years now, so this isn’t exactly front page news. More importantly, it seems as if, by and large, that schedule is a minor factor when it comes to teams positioning themselves within their respective conferences.
While it all comes out sort of even in the end, strength of schedule can nevertheless be an important factor when it comes to evaluating teams as the season goes along. Some teams will play more home games early on; some teams will play weaker opponents. It’s something I’m planning to pay a little closer attention to this season and I’ll be sure to share any observations along the way.