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Why schedule so far provides hints of playoff success for Kings, Cavs

Examining how the Kings and the Cavaliers will fare in their return to the postseason.

De’Aaron Fox (left) and Domantas Sabonis provide the All-Star fuel for the Kings’ high-octane offense.

Looking at the playoff picture entering Tuesday’s games, eight of the 12 teams holding the guaranteed playoff spots (top six in each conference) were in the playoffs last season, while two others (the New York Knicks and LA Clippers) are each just one season removed from their last playoff appearance.

There are two key exceptions among the top 12: the Sacramento Kings in the West and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the East. The Kings are on track to make it back to the postseason for the first time since 2006. To put that drought into perspective, Kings star guard De’Aaron Fox was just eight years old the last time the Kings played a playoff game.

The Cavaliers are set to make their first playoff appearance since LeBron James left Cleveland for the Los Angeles Lakers following the 2018 NBA Finals. In fact, this will be Cleveland’s first playoff appearance without James since 1998.

While we have a history with teams like the Boston Celtics, Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers and Denver Nuggets — all of whom have all made the postseason for at least four straight seasons — there is a bit of mystery surrounding the Kings and Cavs and how they will fare once they reach the playoff stage.

Three key questions dog both teams:

1. Can they translate their regular season success to the postseason?

2. While each of these teams have some players with playoff experience, the majority of players on these rosters have little to no playoff experience. The Kings’ top 10 players in minutes have played a combined 113 playoff games. For the Cavs, its 82 games. How will they respond to the pressure of the playoffs?

3. What will happen when opponents are able to scheme against in a best-of-seven series vs. playing them on a random night in the regular season?

We’ll have to wait until April to answer the first two questions, but we do have some data to work with on that final question, thanks to a new wrinkle in the NBA schedule that was introduced last season and expanded this season: the series model, which comes from playing consecutive games against one team in one location.

In a wide-ranging interview with The Athletic about how the NBA creates its schedule, Evan Wasch, the NBA’s executive vice president of basketball strategy and analytics, discussed how the series model was born out of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic as a way to reduce team travel at a time when travel was both challenging and risky.

There were the obvious benefits of fewer flights, and if a back-to-back was needed, it would be in the same city. Scheduling that way would not require a team to play a game, board a flight, arrive in a new city in the middle of the night and play the next day. But Wasch also described an additional benefit that he heard from a number of teams:

“The part that was unexpected was we even heard some teams say that strategically the series were helpful because especially as we get closer to playoffs, the idea of playing a team two straight times, having to adjust after the first matchup, helps teams and players get into that playoff mindset where they’re going to be playing the team consecutive times in a series. So, teams really liked that element of it.”

So how did the Kings and Cavs perform in these series-model games, which is the closest the regular season can mimic a playoff series?

Sacramento Kings

A top-3 record clashes with playoff inexperience as GameTime weighs the Kings' odds of winning at least two rounds.

The Kings have played six of these two-game series so far this season — three at home and three on the road — and have one more series with the Portland Trail Blazers coming up March 29 and 31 in Portland. The Kings went 3-3 in the first game of these two-game series, but went a perfect 6-0 in the second game.

The second games of these series were mostly tightly contested. Outside of a 25-point win against Houston in January, each of the other five “second” games were decided by seven points or less, with two of them going to overtime. The Kings prevailed in those two games — at Minnesota on Jan. 30 and home against Dallas on Feb. 11 — to improve to 4-0 in overtime this season.

In a positive indicator for playoff success, the Kings made significant improvements from the first to the second game in these series. Sacramento’s offense averaged 121.5 points per game in the first game but jumped to 128.3 ppg in the second game.

Feb 26, 2023 – SAC @ OKC W 124 52.9 41.9 66.7 9
Feb 10, 2023 – SAC vs. DAL L 114 54.2 33.3 84.4 -8
Feb 06, 2023 – SAC @ HOU W 140 58.4 51.2 83.3 20
Jan 28, 2023 – SAC @ MIN L 110 45.1 27.3 75.0 -7
Jan 11, 2023 – SAC vs. HOU W 135 47.9 39.6 83.9 20
Dec 27, 2022 – SAC vs. DEN L 106 48.8 28.6 84.2 -7
First Game Averages 3-3 121.5 51.2 37.9 79.4 4.5
Feb 28, 2023 – SAC @ OKC W 123 52.4 35.7 73.3 6
Feb 11, 2023 – SAC vs. DAL* W 133 51.0 25.0 92.0 5
Feb 08, 2023 – SAC @ HOU W 130 50.0 33.3 93.3 2
Jan 30, 2023 – SAC @ MIN* W 118 47.5 30.0 68.2 7
Jan 13, 2023 – SAC vs. HOU W 139 54.7 50.0 86.2 25
Dec 28, 2022 – SAC vs. DEN W 127 52.8 45.2 76.0 1
Second Game Averages 6-0 128.3 51.3 37.1 82.0 7.7
*overtime game

On a player level, it was De’Aaron Fox that stood out in these situations as he averaged team highs in points (30.8 ppg) and assists (7.6 apg) while shooting 52.8%. Fellow All-Star Domantas Sabonis fared well (22.2 ppg on 64.6% shooting, 12.3 rpg and 6.3 apg), while sixth man Malik Monk contributed 18.2 ppg on 56.1% shooting and 50% on 3-pointers.

De’Aaron Fox 30.8 4.2 7.6 1.6 0.2 52.8% 31.8% 89.2%
Domantas Sabonis 22.2 12.3 6.3 1.0 1.0 64.6% 28.6% 74.4%
Malik Monk 18.2 2.4 2.8 1.2 0.2 56.1% 50.0% 88.2%
Harrison Barnes 16.8 4.2 1.5 1.2 0.2 43.1% 46.2% 84.4%
Terence Davis 12.4 3.2 1.6 1.4 0.0 46.9% 34.6% 100.0%
Kevin Huerter 10.2 3.8 4.2 1.0 0.2 40.4% 28.6% 83.3%

Two of these series came against Houston, the worst team in the West this season. But the other two-game series came against teams currently in the playoff or Play-In Tournament picture: Denver (1st), Dallas (7th), Minnesota (8th) and Oklahoma City (9th).

Cleveland Cavaliers

How far can Cleveland go in the 2023 playoffs with Donovan Mitchell in tow?

Cleveland had only two of these traditional two-game model series and both came in the past two weeks: at Miami (March 8 and 10) and at Charlotte (March 12 and 14). The Cavs went 2-0 in the opening game of those series and 1-1 in the second game.

Cleveland has two more of these traditional two-game model series left, beginning Tuesday in Brooklyn (7:30 p.m. ET, NBA TV) with the second game set for Thursday. The Cavs also have a two-game set against the Magic in Orlando (April 4 and 6).

However, Cleveland had a few other series that stood out when reviewing their schedule. There was a home-and-home set against the Chicago Bulls that the Cavs swept, winning at Chicago on Dec. 31 and in Cleveland on Jan. 2.

Cleveland also had three instances of playing the same team twice in the same week, with only one game sandwiched between, including both of their series against the Celtics.

The Cavaliers played the Celtics in Boston on Oct. 28, then hosted the Knicks on Oct. 30 before hosting the Celtics on Nov. 2. The Cavs won both all three of those games, with both wins vs. Boston coming in overtime.

Early January brought a similar such series with the Phoenix Suns: a home game against the Suns on Jan. 4, a road game against the Nuggets on Jan. 6, and a road game against the Suns on Jan. 8. That time, the Cavs swept the series with Phoenix, but lost the middle game to Denver.

Just weeks ago, the Cavs visited the Celtics on March 1, hosted Detroit on March 4 and then hosted the Celtics on March 6. Cleveland went 2-1 once again, but only one of those wins came against Boston (in overtime in the second such contest).

Mar 12, 2023 – CLE @ CHA W 114 47.1 25.9 73.5 6
Mar 08, 2023 – CLE @ MIA W 104 48.8 32.1 89.5 4
Mar 01, 2023 – CLE @ BOS L 113 48.9 31.3 61.9 -4
Jan 04, 2023 – CLE vs. PHX W 90 39.0 30.6 82.6 2
Dec 31, 2022 – CLE @ CHI W 103 45.9 34.2 63.2 1
Oct 28, 2022 – CLE @ BOS* W 132 51.7 45.7 76.5 9
First Game Averages 5-1 109.3 47.0 33.7 74.7 3
*overtime game
Mar 14, 2023 – CLE @ CHA W 120 51.1 46.7 84.2 16
Mar 10, 2023 – CLE @ MIA L 115 46.5 41.9 81 -4
Mar 06, 2023 – CLE vs. BOS^* W 118 44.8 35.3 80 4
Jan 08, 2023 – CLE @ PHX^ W 112 57.7 37.9 64.7 14
Jan 02, 2023 – CLE vs. CHI* W 145 52.2 34.8 73.3 11
Nov 02, 2022 – CLE vs. BOS^* W 114 42 28.2 79.2 1
Second Game Averages 5-1 120.7 48.7 37.1 76.8 7
^one game between, home/away split
*overtime game

If we include these series where the Cavs saw the same opponent twice in five days or less, then they also have six series worth of data for us to examine. The Cavs went 5-1 in both the first game and the second game of each of these series.

Like the Kings, the Cavs had multiple games go to overtime in the second game of these series. Cleveland won all three overtime games — two against Boston and one against Chicago — and are an NBA-best 7-0 in overtime games this season (with three of those wins coming vs. Boston).

In another parallel with the Kings, the Cavs were led in scoring by their All-Star guard. Donovan Mitchell averaged 40 ppg, 5.6 rpg and 5.4 apg while appearing in five of the six “second” games. Former All-Star guard Darius Garland (21.8 ppg, 9.5 apg) also played well while appearing in four of the six games.

Donovan Mitchell 40.0 5.6 5.4 0.6 1.0 50.4% 42.1% 84.4%
Darius Garland 21.8 3.8 9.5 1.8 0.0 42.9% 40.7% 76.2%
Evan Mobley 18.4 8.4 2.6 0.2 1.2 66.7% 25.0% 73.7%
Caris LeVert 13.8 4.5 4.8 1.8 0.8 41.2% 41.2% 76.5%
Jarrett Allen 11.6 10.6 2.8 0.4 1.8 65.8% 0.0% 66.7%

When faced with the task of beating the same team in consecutive games, the Kings were 6-0 while the Cavs went 2-1. When we add the three Cavs series where they face the team twice in five days or less, Cleveland’s mark improves to 5-1 on the back end of these series.