We've just about gotten to the halfway point of the 2014-15 regular season and by and large, as tends to happen in the NBA, there haven't been too many surprises in the standings in a big picture sense. Sure, teams like the Warriors and Hawks are a few games better than we've expected and other squads like the Thunder, Spurs and Cavs are a few games worse, mostly due to injuries, but for the most part the 10-team clump of death in the West is intact. In the East, five of the six most talented teams are in the playoff bracket as of today, with only the Charlotte Hornets, my preseason projection for the sixth seed, far off the pack, thanks to their staggering misfire in signing Lance Stephenson.
The standings tell us one story about how the season is shaping up, and things like scoring differential and net ratings tell us another, and they're all perfectly valid. What those numbers don't necessarily tell us, however, is how the contending teams are performing through their schedules they've played. Who has performed better than expected and who's been worse, and how we can we use that to project how these teams will finish going forward?
To my mind any team worth its salt should always win its home games, without exception. Obviously injuries will happen, but those tend to balance out in the long run. In the NBA home teams are generally favored because they're more rested than their opponents and they'll get more of the 50/50 calls from the refs. So anytime you lose at home, it's an automatic upset to me, or a "minus," on the ledger. Also, any road loss to a team that isn't one of the "top 16" mentioned above gets you a demerit, or a "minus." A road win against one of the "top 16" gets a "plus" and a road loss doesn't count as good or bad, it's just expected.
First, let's look at win percentage for those quality road opponents. As you might have guessed, the Warriors lead the pack, with a .700 mark in such games (7-3). The Thunder are on the other end of the spectrum, at .125 (1-7), meaning that they've only had one good win as I see it the whole season.
Now let's look at how many such games are left for these teams. Obviously the Western teams will have to play more overall, in the 22-24 range, while their Eastern counterparts only have to play 19-21 of them. Still, the Cavaliers in the East and particularly the Pelicans in the West have a huge advantage going forward, with only nine such games left on the schedule. The Hornets are also in decent shape to mount a playoff push, should Al Jefferson ever get healthy, with only ten tough roadies left, while teams like the Mavs, Suns and Spurs are in decent shape with just 11 left in the West. Meanwhile, the Clippers, Blazers and Rockets all have 15 tough roadies left, so don't be surprised if they slip in the standings.
Conversely, here are the winning percentages in the "other" games, the ones the contenders are supposed to win, meaning all home games and the road games against mediocre teams. The Warriors have been ridiculously efficient so far at wiping out the patsies, with a 24-2 record. The Hawks have also been really good, at 25-4. The Thunder already have 12 such losses, however, and the Hornets have gone a miserable 13-17 (.433). Portland, Memphis and Houston have all won at least 77 percent of such games, though we'll see that's not necessarily a great thing in and of itself.
Here's how many "easy" games each team has left on the schedule. You'll note that Portland, Houston and the Clippers all have just 28 such games left. The Pelicans have 35, while the Cavs have 34.
Finally, here's the plus/minus for these teams. Again, you get a "plus" for a quality road win and a "minus" for every loss that isn't against a quality opponent on the road. Naturally the Warriors lead everyone at plus-5 and then come the Hawks at plus-2, while the Hornets are a miserable minus-15 and the Thunder are next worst at minus-11.
The interesting stuff comes in the middle. For example, the Bulls are the prohibitive favorites in the East, but they've actually been one of the most disappointing squads in that conference, a minus-6 overall, and their injury issues haven't been as prohibitive as Toronto's or Washington's, really. So many weak performances at home and on the road and the fact that they still have 11 tough roadies left (more than anyone else in the East) makes it difficult to project anything higher than a four seed for them and thus a very tough road to the Finals.
In the West, meanwhile, teams like the Rockets and Blazers appear to be off to great starts, but in terms of the quality of their schedules they really haven't performed any better than the Spurs or even the Pelicans. Don't be surprised if San Antonio makes a big climb in the standings to third or fourth position when it's all said and done, while New Orleans sneaks into the eighth spot, possibly at the expense of the Rockets, Blazers or Clippers.
Also, don't be surprised if the Thunder wind up missing out after all. Not only are they in a precarious spot in the standings, but they've shown no indication, even with everyone back, that they can win tough games on the road. No wonder their GM is trying so hard to acquire Brook Lopez.
It seems too easy to project a Warriors-Hawks Finals, and there'll probably be an upset or two along the way, but right now if I had to guess, I'd predict that either Atlanta, Washington and Toronto will make it out of the East and that the Warriors, Grizzlies or Mavericks will make it out of the West. They're the squads that have been the most consistent in terms of taking care of business against the teams they're supposed to beat while also showing that they have the toughness to prevail in tough road games.