December schedule breakdown: Toronto Raptors can move up in the East with easy month ahead

The Boston Celtics won 16 straight games and have the best record in the league. The Detroit Pistons have road wins over the Celtics and Golden State Warriors. And the Cleveland Cavaliers enter December on a 10-game winning streak.

The Toronto Raptors, sitting in fourth place in the Eastern Conference at 13-7, have flown a little bit under the radar. But as we turn the calendar, the Raptors are the only East team that ranks in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. And given their December schedule, the Raptors should remain in the top 10 on both ends of the floor for a while.

Though they’ll be on the road for much of the month, the Raptors have the league’s easiest December schedule, with only three of their games (two at home) against teams (Indiana and Philadelphia) that currently have winning records. The other 11 games are against the 13 teams that are currently below .500. Through November, Toronto is the league’s only undefeated team (they’re 5-0) against that group.

The Raps head west for a four-game trip, but the four opponents on that trip – the Grizzlies, Kings, Clippers and Suns – have a cumulative record of 29-55. Through Thursday, there are five teams that rank in the bottom 10 on both ends of the floor, and the Raptors play six games against four of those five teams, facing the Suns and Kings twice.

The toughest December game for the Raptors’ defense will be its first one. They host the Pacers’ No. 6 offense on Friday, Dec. 1. After that, their remaining December games are against offenses that currently rank 18th or worse, or are the 10th-ranked Clippers without Blake Griffin. After the Indiana game, the Raptors won’t face a team that currently has a top-10 offense until Jan. 11, when they host the Cavs. They actually have the easiest December schedule in regard to both opposing offenses and opposing defenses.

The Raptors will have three back-to-backs in December, and the second game of each of those will be against an opponent that didn’t play the day before. But they will also have three games in which they have a rest advantage, where their opponent is playing the second game of a back-to-back and the Raptors are not.

With Toronto, we always have to wait and see what happens in the playoffs. But these Raptors are playing a little different – they’ve had the league’s biggest increase in assist percentage and its second biggest increase in the percentage of its shots that have come from 3-point range – and there’s nothing wrong with playing well in the regular season. This month is when Toronto can do the work that secures a higher playoff position and, maybe, home-court advantage through more than one round.

Eastern Conference schedule breakdown for December

More Eastern Conference notes…

  • The Hawks are one of two teams that hasn’t played a game with a rest advantage, and will be the last team do so. Their first rest-advantage game comes Dec. 9, when they host the Magic, who will have played at home the night before.
  • The Celtics have played 30 times on Christmas, but this year’s game against Washington will be only their second Christmas Day game at home. The only other one was in 1964.
  • The Nets play two games in Mexico City next week (both counting as home games for Brooklyn), facing the Thunder on Thursday and the Heat on Saturday.
  • The Hornets have played the league’s second toughest schedule thus far, but will play five of their first six December games against teams that are currently below .500. They’re currently 1-9 on the road, but after visiting Miami on Friday, will play 10 of their next 13 at home. Still, there’s a stretch (from Dec. 16-29) where they play seven straight games against teams that currently have winning records. Their real schedule relief comes in January.
  • The Cavs‘ 10-game winning streak should continue through the first week of the month, with their first three December games against teams – Memphis, Chicago and Sacramento – with a cumulative record of 16-45. Cleveland visits the Warriors on Christmas, but the Cavs’ December schedule is the second easiest in the league. They have two back-to-backs, but also four games with a rest advantage. And their defense should be OK, with only three of their 14 games against teams that currently rank in the top 10 offensively and seven against the bottom 10.
  • The Pistons are the team the Raptors are most likely to leapfrog this month. Detroit has some quality wins on its resume already (they’re 6-4 against the other 15 teams that currently have winning records), but will play 11 of its 15 December games against that group. That includes both of the Pistons’ meetings with the Spurs. They begin the month with an important road back-to-back, visiting Washington on Friday and Philadelphia on Saturday.
  • The Pacers have the league’s most home-heavy December schedule, with 10 of their 15 games at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, where they’re 6-4. From Dec. 4 – Jan. 13, they have just five, single-game road trips, all within the Eastern Conference.
  • The Heat are one of two teams (Denver is the other) that doesn’t play a December game with a rest advantage. They have two games against teams (the Clippers and Pelicans) playing the second game of a back-to-back, but they’ll be doing the same both of those nights. The Heat play both Golden State and San Antonio in the next six days, but nine of their final 12 December games (beginning with their game in Mexico City) are against teams that currently have losing records.
  • The Bucks just wrapped up a four-game trip and don’t have a multi-game road trip again until Dec. 29, with nine of their next 13 games at home.
  • The Knicks have had a home-heavy schedule thus far, with 14 of their 21 games at Madison Square Garden. They won’t play a game in the Mountain or Pacific time zones until Jan. 19, but will need to solve their road woes (they’re 1-6 away from MSG) after Christmas. They’ve had one multi-game road trip thus far (two games last week) and will have only more single-game trips (including a game in Brooklyn) through Christmas, but have their first three-game trip from Dec. 27-30.
  • The Sixers have had the league’s toughest schedule thus far and really don’t get much relief until February and March. They start this month with the completion of a stretch where they’re playing nine of 10 games at home, but then play nine of their final 12 December games on the road.
  • The Wizards have a strange trip that has them playing in Brooklyn after four games out West, and then the second game of a back-to-back at home after the Brooklyn game. But they also have a league-high nine December games against teams that currently rank in the bottom 10 defensively. That includes two games against the 26th-ranked Nets and both of their games against the 22nd-ranked Clippers.

Over the last 40 years, five teams have ranked last in defensive efficiency in consecutive seasons. The Los Angeles Lakers of the last two seasons were the latest.

And then the Lakers ranked fourth defensively through their first 18 games this season, allowing 10.3 fewer points per 100 possessions than they did last season. Nothing that happened in the first month of the season was more surprising.

But in their last three games, the Lakers have allowed 113 points per 100 possessions, dropping them from fourth to eighth in defensive efficiency for the season. They still rank as the league’s most improved defensive team from last season, but some slippage is showing … and more slippage may be coming.

Nine of the Lakers’ 14 December games will be against teams that currently rank in the top 10 in offensive efficiency (no other team plays more than seven December games against that group). That includes two games against the No. 1 ranked Warriors and three against the No. 2 ranked Rockets. Only two of the Lakers’ December games – Dec. 23 vs. Portland and Dec. 27 vs. Memphis – are against bottom-10 offensive teams.

The Lakers have the league’s toughest December schedule, with eight of their 14 games (including seven of the first nine) on the road and 11 of the 14 against teams that currently have winning records. Their January schedule is much easier, but it may be tough for the Lakers to recover from what happens over the next 31 days.

Western Conference schedule breakdown for December

More Western Conference notes…

  • The Nuggets have the league’s most road-heavy December schedule, with 10 of their 15 games on the road. That includes a six-game, 10-day trip that starts Monday in Dallas and concludes with a tough back-to-back in Detroit and Boston. The Nuggets are one of only two teams (Miami is the other) that doesn’t play a December game with a rest advantage.
  • The Warriors begin December with the last five games of their longest road trip of the season (six games). But they end the month with their longest homestand (seven games), which includes their Christmas game against Cleveland. The Cavs game is one of only five games this month where they’re playing a team that currently has a winning record.
  • The Rockets’ offense ranked No. 1 in November, but played just two games against teams that currently rank in the top 10 defensively last month. In December, Houston will play a league-high nine games against top-10 defenses, beginning the month with three road games against the Lakers (eighth), Jazz (seventh) and Blazers (second). After that, they have their longest homestand (seven games) of the season.
  • The Grizzlies will play six of their 16 back-to-backs in December. They will also play seven of their 19 games against opponents on the second night of a back-to-back this month.
  • The Timberwolves are 3-6 against the Eastern Conference, but will play 12 of their first 13 December games within the West. They also play seven of their first eight December games against teams under .500, though that stretch begins with Friday’s game in Oklahoma City, where the Thunder are 6-3.
  • The Pelicans‘ next 10 games may be their most important stretch of the season. Nine of the 10 are against teams that are currently .500 or better, with six of those nine within the Western Conference. Three of their first four December games are against Utah, Portland and Denver, the three teams with whom the Pels currently share the bottom four spots in the West playoff picture.
  • The Thunder enter December in ninth place, a game in the loss column behind the Jazz, whom they will play three times this month. OKC plays only five true road games in December, with 11 games at home and their Mexico City game against Brooklyn on Dec. 7. They will finish the year with seven of their last eight games at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
  • The Blazers are one of two teams (Atlanta is the other) that has yet to play a game with a rest advantage. But they’ll begin the month with two such games, hosting the Pelicans on Saturday and the Wizards on Tuesday. Both teams will have played in Utah the night before. The Blazers’ 13 December games are the fewest in the league.
  • The Spurs are playing six games (with two back-to-backs) in the first nine days of December. This is the first time since 2012 that they’re not playing on Christmas.
  • Playing without Rudy Gobert for at least their first five games (according to his original timetable), the Jazz play the league’s second toughest December schedule. Nine of their 15 December games are on the road, 11 are against teams currently over .500, and five (including Friday’s game against New Orleans) are the second game of a back-to-back. One of those five is their first home game (vs. San Antonio) after a six-game trip that concludes with games at Boston, Cleveland, Houston and Oklahoma City.

John Schuhmann is a staff writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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