17 of 21 ain't all it's cracked up to be

We've been hearing about it since the moment the NBA released this season's schedule.

"The Lakers play 17 of their first 21 games at home"
"Talk about an easy start to the season for the Lakers"
"I will be SHOCKED if the Lakers don't start the season 20-1"
"The Lakers have started strong, but they have a cream-puff schedule early on"
"More NBA favoritism of the Lakers, setting them up to look great with that early schedule." **
 
** [ I don't like to call out other blogs/authors much, but Denver Stiffs ran a post about how the Lakers schedule was a clear sign of favoritism from the NBA.  It's premise was laughable.  It basically stated that a big reason why the Lakers schedule is such an advantage is because it would instill the team with confidence at the start of the season.  Really?  Confidence?  You think the defending champion, led by the most confident/arrogant player in the game(depending on which side of the line you are on), led by a coach with 10 championships, is going to gain or lose confidence based on the results of the first 1/4 of the season?  That's a joke right?  The Lakers could go 10-11 over the first 21 and still think they were the best team in the league.  I can think of 5 reasons more valid than "instilling confidence" to a championship team, and I don't even believe the argument. ]

Back to the real issue.  If you ask any but the most educated non-Laker fan what they know about the team, the top three answers will look something like this.
  1. The Lakers are really, really good.
  2. The Lakers have Kobe Bryant, so I hate them
  3. The Lakers have a really easy schedule to start the season.
I've seen the schedule used as a disclaimer so many times that I'm fed up with it.  Nobody thinks the Lakers aren't as good as they've played, but everywhere you turn, it's more of the same.  "They've looked good, but only because of the schedule.  They'll have to prove it on the road, too."  There's some truth to that statement.  The Lakers will have to prove it on the road.  But if anybody wants to pay attention to the numbers, the Lakers schedule has been far from easy.  Heavy on the home tilts?  Absolutely.  But not easy.  And if last year was any indication, the quality of the opponent matters a whole hell of a lot more than the location of the game, to the Lakers.

Last season, the Lakers were 36-5 at home and 29-12 on the road.  That's an 87.8% winning percentage for home games and 70.7% winning percentage on the road.  It's a significant difference, one that shouldn't be ignored.  If those percentages held true for the Lakers to start this season, with their home heavy schedule, the Lakers would have 18 wins after 21 games.  If those percentages were applied to a more standard breakdown, say 11 home games and 10 road games, the Lakers would have either 16 or 17 wins.  So, if last year's performance is to be used as a standard (a fair assumption, I think), this ridiculous scheduling is only good for increasing the Lakers record by a game or two.  It's not an insignificant advantage, but it's also not nearly as big an advantage as it's been made out to be.

Look, I get it.  To certain NBA teams, home court is a huge deal.  If Utah or Portland had the same home/away ratio to start the season, it might make the difference between 16-5 and 11-10.  If Denver or Cleveland had it, it could be the difference between 19-2 and 14-7.  For some teams, playing at home is a huge advantage.  The crowd gives them energy, their players (especially young ones) play with more confidence.  It's good to play at home.

 
But the Lakers aren't one of those teams.  They perform better at home, but it's not the difference between a championship team and a lottery team.  It's the difference between a championship team and a top tier team, which isn't much of a difference at all.  If you double the Lakers road wins last season, you still have a 58 win season, good for 4th in the league, right behind Orlando.
 
A much more telling indicator of wins and losses than Home vs. Away is the quality of your opponent.  Last season, the Lakers went 30-1 against teams in the lower 3rd of the league, and 35-16 against teams in the upper 2/3 (courtesy of 82games.com).  Now that is a big difference.  That's a 96.8% winning percentage against the true dregs of the league, and a 68.6% win pct against everyone else. 
 
The Lakers have started this season with a pretty tough schedule, in terms of opponent quality.  Of teams with 5 losses or less, only the Hawks have a tougher Strengh of Schedule than L.A.  Only the Hawks (6) have played less teams from the bottom 1/3 than L.A (7).  Dallas also has 7 "patsy games" and the rest of the "elite" teams have 8.  Phoenix has 11, which goes a long way towards explaining their early season success. 
 
Now, one game against a patsy might not sound like a huge difference, and it's not.  But if the actual Strength of Schedule factor is taken into account, the difference becomes even more dramatic.  Of the elite teams, Atlanta has far and away the toughest SOS at this point with a .534 opponent's win pct, but the Lakers are 2nd with .493.  Dallas is close to LA at .486, and everyone else has had a significantly lower SOS than LA.  Most egregious is Phoenix at .44 and Denver at .403 (who's getting that favoritism now?).
 
And the only reason the Lakers SOS isn't even tougher is because they've gone through a batch of really bad teams in the past few games.  Going back to the games against "patsies" argument, The Lakers have had 4 of those "patsies" in the last 5 games, so you can only imagine how "easy" their schedule had been before that stretch.   When Pau Gasol was out, the Lakers were at or near the top of the league in SOS.  Those early season struggles were more than just Pau being out or the Lakers not playing well.  They were also going up against pretty good teams (albeit mostly at home) almost every single night.
 
So the next time you hear someone talk about the Lakers early season schedule being soft, go ahead and set the record straight.  Yes, the Lakers have played a ton of home games at this point.  Yes, I think we can all agree that the schedule should be more balanced.  But playing at home is not a super significant advantage to this Laker squad, and the quality of the opponent they have been playing at home as been pretty top notch until this last week.  If you think the Lakers will taper off once "their schedule gets harder" by playing more road games, you might want to reconsider.
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