Instant Schedule Analysis

Photo Credit: David Alvarez

The Miami HEAT’s 2010-11 schedule has been released, which means we now know what path the team will have to take to accomplish their lofty goals. ABC’s Jeff Van Gundy is already on board, going as far to say that the refurbished team will not only break the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls’ record of 72 wins in a single season, but that the HEAT also have a shot at topping the 71-72 Los Angeles Lakers’ 33-game winning streak.

In essence, Van Gundy and many others have Miami gunning for the single greatest season in league history.

But it's one thing to break out the anointing oil based solely on the incredible talent that one team has assembled, another to assess those possibilities within the parameters set by movement of the 29 other teams, and by the schedule.

Strength of schedule isn’t nearly as important in the NBA as it is in the NFL, where you don’t play nearly half the teams in the league once much less twice. Sometimes, as was the case in the earlier half of this decade, the superiority of one conference will skew the win totals of another. But in large part schedule differences come down to road trips, back-to-backs, timing and little quirks, a Saturday afternoon game after a late start on a Thursday, for example.

On road trips, the HEAT are fortunate. Not only did they manage to escape the dreaded six-game road trip, but only have one five-gamer and just three others of three or more games. No matter if you have young starters or a veteran bench, everyone benefits from a balanced home-away schedule.

It would be asking too much to have the same fortune with back-to-backs, where Miami came out just barely on the high side with 18. Back-to-backs tend to mount up when you’re playing a lot of Wednesday, Thursday and Friday national games, so it makes sense that the HEAT have a number of loaded late-week schedules – along with the expected weekend day games that increase after the All-Star Break.

Timing, on the other hand, is impossible to predict. If you fall in with the line of thinking that this team will need some time to gel, then early season games against, Utah, Orlando and Boston (twice), look difficult. If you think the division will be wrapped up by late March and Erik Spoelstra will start resting some players, then a relatively average stretch to finish the season could become tougher. And if you factor in the probability of normal wear-and-tear over the course of the year, any game could wind up looking very different than it did on paper in August.

For what we know now, though, the truest test will come at the beginning of March, when the HEAT embark on a 16-day stretch of 10 games, nine of which are against 09-10 playoff teams featuring the likes of Orlando, Los Angeles, Chicago and Oklahoma City. Fortunately there’s a six-game home stand stuck in the middle of the March gauntlet that makes those two weeks tolerable.

What makes analysis of this season’s schedule difficult is in determining the strength of the league itself. The league had 12 50-win teams last year, while a number of lottery teams look poised to make a playoff push, and others will just be plain better. In short, while the top tier contenders are few – give or take a couple shakers and movers – the NBA’s middle class could be very strong. The more solid teams there are, the more day-to-day threats there are to any record-breaking runs.

All things considered, including the giant target on this team’s back, a 59-win projection may be slightly on the conservative side. But the mental unknown is too great to shift too far on either end of the win-loss scale.

The question that must be asked is: does this team want to make history? And if they do, is this the year to do it? They have a unique opportunity over the next few years, and the 10-11 schedule certainly isn’t blocking their way, but to set the sort of records people are mentioning, the HEAT will need an almost unprecedented level of focus.

That ’96 Bulls team – while taking advantage of a specific era and league configuration, as the HEAT could do – was led by the single most determined force the sport has seen, one given an extra dose of nitro after a foray into baseball had given the doubters a soapbox. That ’72 Lakers squad was dominant in a concentrated 17-team league.

Will this team that we have yet to see play a game want, or even need, to top those teams? That, nobody can predict.