Schedule notebook: First 20 games often revealing

Blazers, Jazz, Pacers face toughest challenges in first six weeks of season

For evidence that all 82 games matter, you only have to ask the Denver Nuggets, who saw their playoff dreams dashed in overtime of Game 82 in Minnesota last season.

But how a team does in its first 20 games could determine how the rest of its season plays out. There are few teams going into the 2018-19 schedule with no intention of being competitive. But at some point, a handful of teams will realize that they are not making the playoffs and that the long-term future is more of a priority than winning games in February and March.

The point at which a bad team should realize that it is a bad team is earlier than it might admit. History tells us that a team needs to have a certain number of wins through 20 games to have realistic hopes of making the playoffs.

In the Eastern Conference over the last 15 seasons, a 9-11 team through 20 games has been much more likely to reach the playoffs than an 8-12 team. In the West, the threshold has been higher. Over the last 15 seasons, an 11-9 team has been much more likely to make the Western Conference playoffs than one that started 10-10.

Wins through 20 games, last 15 full seasons

On the morning of Nov. 28 last season, the Wolves (12-8) were one win ahead of the Nuggets (11-8) in the standings, and Denver would lose Game No. 20 that night. And when Minnesota won that overtime game on April 11, it finished one win ahead of Denver.

The Oklahoma City Thunder overcame an 8-12 start in the West last season, but over the last 15 seasons, only four of the 79 teams that won fewer than seven of their first 20 games went on to make the playoffs. All four were in the East.

History tells us that those first 20 games will tell us a lot, even though early schedules can be unbalanced.

Tough start for Blazers

The Portland Trail Blazers will be on the wrong side of early imbalance this year, with the league’s toughest first 20 games in regard to cumulative opponent win percentage from last season. The Blazers will play 15 of their first 20 games against teams that had winning records in 2017-18, and three of the other five are against the team — *the Lakers — that added LeBron James this summer.

* Because of the adjustments that the Lakers will be going through, you could certainly make the argument that playing them three times in their first 14 games is a good thing. The final Blazers-Lakers meeting will take place in L.A. on the second-to-last night of the season.

The Blazers’ first 20 games include a six-game, 11-day homestand, but also trips of four and six games. The 20-game stretch includes three games where the Blazers will be at a *rest disadvantage and only one where they’ll have a rest advantage (against New Orleans on Nov. 1).

* A rest advantage or disadvantage is when one team is playing the second game of a back-to-back and the other didn’t play the day before. Over the last three seasons, teams with a rest advantage are 624-438 (0.588), including 496-289 (0.632) at home. Home teams without a rest advantage have had a winning percentage of 0.571.

Portland, which was the No. 3 seed last season but finished just three games ahead of the ninth-place Nuggets, lost three key members of what was the 11th-ranked bench. The Blazers will be playing in a deeper Western Conference, with the Lakers rising to the level of playoff contender. Every game counts, but it will be interesting to see how they navigate those first six weeks (as well as one of the league’s longest road trips — see below).

The same goes for the Utah Jazz, who have more road games (13) in their first 20 than any other team in the league, though Utah’s first 20 games include three against Dallas, three against Memphis, and three against Sacramento.

Easier starts in Denver, Oklahoma City

On the other end of the spectrum in the West are the Denver Nuggets and Oklahoma City Thunder, who will have two of the conference’s easiest starts to the season.

The Nuggets will play 10 of their first 15 games at home and their first 19 includes five of the easiest home games — against Phoenix, Sacramento, Brooklyn, Atlanta and Orlando — they’ll have all season. In their first 16 games, they’ll have four with a rest advantage and only two with a disadvantage.

The Thunder will play eight of their first 11 games against teams that had winning records last season, but will also play six of their first 16 against the Suns (3), Kings (2) and Knicks (1) — three teams that figure to finish at or near the bottom of the standings again this season. They’ll also have all four of their meetings against the Hornets and Cavs in their first 20 games.

Both Denver and OKC are looking to move up in the West, and relatively easy starts to the season could help them do that.

Early challenges for Indy

Among teams that finished in the top 10 of the Eastern Conference last season, the Indiana Pacers have the toughest October-November schedule. Interestingly, the Pacers’ first 20 games include half of their 16 games against the eight West teams that made the playoffs last season. And those eight include all six of their meetings against the Rockets, Spurs and Jazz.

The highlight of the Pacers’ early schedule is a three-game homestand from Nov. 3-7, with visits from the Celtics, Rockets and Sixers. The first game is the second of a road-home back-to-back for Indy, but the Boston and Philly meetings could give us an early clue as to whether the Pacers should be counted among the East’s elite.

Sixers, Heat start off easy

Among Eastern Conference teams of consequence, the Miami Heat and Philadelphia 76ers have the easiest starts. Both will play a league-high 12 of their first 20 games against teams that had losing records last season

The Heat have an easier first 20 games in that 11 of them are at home and only three of their first nine road games are against teams that made the playoffs last season. In total, eight of the Heat’s first 20 games are against the nine teams that finished with fewer than 30 wins.

The Sixers will play seven of their first 20 games against that group, but their five back-to-backs in the first 20 are tied (with Brooklyn, Sacramento and Toronto) for the league high. Overall, the Sixers have the league’s easiest (full) schedule in regard to opponent winning percentage last season, and they won’t play in the Mountain or Pacific time zones until Game 36, when they visit Utah on Dec. 27.

The Wizards have a tougher first 20 games in regard to opponent strength, but have six rest-advantage games (all at home) in that first 20 and won’t play with a rest disadvantage until Game 32 on Dec. 19 in Houston. The Magic have four straight rest-advantage games (the longest such streak for any team this season) from Oct. 27 – Nov. 4.

Continued progress

The 2018-19 schedule comes with another reduction in back-to-backs. This season, teams will average only 13.3 back-to-backs, down from 14.4 last season and 19.3 just four years ago. Teams will have no fewer than 12 and no more than 15 back-to-backs. In 2014-15, the range was 16-22.

Back-to-backs and rest advantage games, last 5 seasons

And along with a reduction in back-to-backs comes a reduction in rest-advantage games. This year, in only 300 of the 1,230 games will one of the teams be on the second night of a back-to-back while the other is rested. That’s less than 25 percent of all games for the first time in at least the last 22 years.

But there remains a bigger variance in the number of rest-advantage (and rest-disadvantage) games than there is in the number of back-to-backs. The Bulls and Knicks have only seven rest-advantage games, while the Clippers have 15. The good news for the Bulls is that they also have the fewest rest-disadvantage games (six), less than half as many as the Kings, who have a league-high 14.

If you subtract rest-disadvantage games from rest-advantage games to get an overall “advantage factor” for each team’s 82 games, the Clippers (15 rest advantage games, 10 rest-disadvantage games) have the easiest schedule, followed by the Sixers (13, 9). Meanwhile, the Hornets (8, 13) and Knicks (7, 11) have the toughest.

The Wolves‘ schedule is rather even in regard to rest-advantage and rest-disadvantage games (10 vs. nine), but they’ll have just three back-to-backs in their first 35 games. And the opponents in the second game of the three back-to-backs are the Mavs, Clippers and Bulls.

Homestands and trips

Some notes on travel…

  • The Suns have the league’s longest homestand, seven games from Dec. 28 – Jan. 8.
  • The Hawks also have seven straight home games, but they’re split by the All-Star break, with the last two games coming after the break. After playing 32 of their first 53 games on the road (a stretch which includes one of the league’s seven-game road trips), the Hawks will play 20 of their final 29 at the remodeled Philips Arena.
  • The two other teams with seven game trips are the Blazers (their first seven games after the All-Star break) and Nets (March 13-28).
  • The Spurs play eight straight road games, but they’re split (as usual) by the All-Star break, five before and three after.
  • As noted above, the Sixers don’t play in the Mountain or Pacific time zones until Dec. 27. The Cavs will remain the longest in the Atlantic or Central time zones, with their first game out West — a visit to LeBron James and the third game of a six-game trip — on Jan. 13. The Bulls and Pistons will also wait until January before out West. They’ll each play their first game in the Mountain or Pacific time zones on Jan. 9, with Chicago beginning a five-game trip in Portland and Detroit beginning a four-game trip against the Lakers. (A reminder: Only eight of the 30 teams play in the Mountain or Pacific time zones.)
  • It’s not just that the Pistons won’t travel West until January. They’ll actually play their first 14 games within the Eastern Conference. The Hornets, meanwhile, will play 16 of their first 17 games within the conference.
  • James will get a feel for his new conference early. The Lakers and Jazz will be the last Western Conference teams to play against the East. L.A. will play its first nine games against the West before hosting the Raptors on Nov. 4. Utah will also play its first nine games against the West before hosting Toronto on Nov. 5.
  • The Pelicans have a crazy, 12-game stretch where they alternate home and road games between Jan. 21 and Feb. 12.
  • The Warriors are the only team making the Texas Triangle trip – three straight road games against the three Texas teams – this season. It’s a three-game trip from Nov. 15-18, with the Dallas and San Antonio games being a back-to-back. (No team has gone 3-0 on such a trio of game since the 2007-08 Celtics did it.) The Kings will visit all three Texas teams as part of a five-game trip in March, but they’ll have a game in New Orleans in between visits to Dallas and Houston.
  • The Mavs are the only team that doesn’t have a homestand of at least four games. They have four three-game homestands and will play 12 of 18 at American Airlines Center from Nov. 2 – Dec. 12.
  • Four teams — the Mavs, Grizzlies, Thunder and Raptors — have no road trips longer than four games, though Dallas plays nine of 11 on the road from Dec. 18 – Jan. 5, Oklahoma City plays 12 of 17 on the road from Dec. 3 – Jan. 4, and Toronto will make all three of its four-game trips in the first nine weeks of the season.

Key stretches

Some notes on the toughest and easiest stretches of schedule…

  • The Suns have the league’s toughest five-game stretch (taking opponents’ 2017-18 pace-adjusted point differential, rest, and location into account). That’s an eight-day stretch from March 9-16, when they visit Portland and Golden State, come home for a game against Utah, and then visit Houston and New Orleans.
  • Among teams expected to compete for Western Conference playoff spots, the Pelicans have the toughest 5-6-game stretch, from Oct. 27 – Nov. 5, with a home game against Utah, followed by a five game trip through Denver, Golden State, Portland, San Antonio and Oklahoma City.
  • Among the expected top three teams in the East (Boston, Philadelphia and Toronto), the Celtics have the toughest five-game stretch. On Feb. 26, they’ll finish a three-game trip in Toronto. They’ll then host the Blazers, Wizards and Rockets before starting a four-game trip at Golden State on March 5.
  • The Warriors should have DeMarcus Cousins back for their toughest five-game stretch of schedule, which runs from March 13-21. It’s a four-game trip through Houston, Oklahoma City, San Antonio and Minnesota, followed by a home game against Indiana.
  • The Rockets don’t have a five-game stretch nearly as tough as that one (again — taking opponents’ 2017-18 pace-adjusted point differential, rest, and location into account). But they do have a six-game stretch (from March 3-13) that begins with visits to Boston and Toronto, includes a home game against the Sixers, and concludes with their final game against the champs (in Houston).
  • The league’s easiest five-game stretch (taking opponents’ 2017-18 pace-adjusted point differential, rest, and location into account) belongs to the Cavs, though it’s split by the All-Star break. They’ll go into the break with home games against New York and Brooklyn, and then come out of the break with home games against Phoenix, Memphis and Portland.
  • The league’s easiest five-game stretch that isn’t split by the break belongs to the Bucks. It’s the first five games — vs. Memphis, Chicago, Denver, Portland and Phoenix — of a six-game homestand that concludes with a game against the Spurs and goes from Nov. 14-24.

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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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