At this point of the year, the disparity in teams' schedules makes it unreasonable to use win-loss records as a clear indicator of relative strengths.
Portland's opponents, for example, have won almost 55 percent of their games; Orlando's have won less than 46 percent. To put it in clearer terms, Portland's average opponent would finish a season at 45-37, while Orlando's would post a 38-44 record. If Orlando had a .500 record at this point, it would be most accurate to peg them as a .458 team. If Portland had a .500 record, it would be equally accurate to peg them as a .548 team--a dramatically better team than Orlando, despite an identical record.
Similarly, while the Cavs are a more productive team that the Blazers, the difference in their win-loss records is partly a function of a schedule. Cleveland has played 22 games against losing teams, and 13 against winning teams. The Blazers are the near reverse, with 23 against winning teams and 12 against losing teams.
Perhaps I am preaching to the choir here, but it's good to put out the assumptions on which the ranking of teams that follows is based.
Second, home court matters. Home teams are winning almost 60 percent of their games, road teams 40 percent. Put another way, the average team is 50 percent more likely to win at home than on the road. So an assessment of NBA teams relative strengths needs to consider, for example, that the Lakers has played 21 games at home and only 14 on the road, the Spurs are only a slightly less advantageous 20-15. On the other extreme, the Rockets have been living in hotels most of the season, having played 23 games on the road and just 15 at home. With a more favorable home-road split, the Rockets record almost certainly would be better.
The third assumption these rankings make is that decisive wins mean more than narrow ones, as do decisive losses, and that point differential is a measure of a team's potency, particularly after enough games have been played to minimize the impact of one extreme game.
So these rankings start by using point differential as the first metric.
These rankings then are adjusted to factor in the 2.8 home court advantage, or disadvantage, applying it to teams that have advantageous or disadvantageous schedules. A team that has played an equal number of home and road games doesn't see its differential adjusted at this point.
A second adjustment is made for quality of opponent. If you measure teams' performances to date, you see that over the course of a year, you find that every .010 increase in winning percentage coincides with a .3 point per game point diffential, So an .800 team, on average, will outscore its opponents by 9.00 points.
On the other side, every .010 decrease in winning percentage below .510 coincides with a .25 point per game differential. (This is a way of saying that great teams are greater, vis a vis their competition, than horrible teams are horrible. Given bell shaped curves, and the fact that the NBA already draws players from the skewed elite side on one, this makes sense. A tiny number of teams, perhaps one or two a year, will distance themselves significantly, while the poorer teams will tend to be harder to distinguish, and the league generally will display the "on any given night, any team can beat any other team in the league."
These are the rankings, based on the caculations above. Hollinger fans will see a few major variances from his rankings when you look at four teams: the Magic, Blazers, and Jazz, all of whom are two places higher or lower than Hollinger, and the Suns, who are a well-earned (in my view) three places lower than Hollinger's #9 ranking for them:
If you ascribe some validity to this method, it tempts the conclusions that
1. Cleveland is in a class of its own.
2. The Magic have not cracked the top three. The gap between them and the Celtics works out to over 50 points on the season.
3. The Blazers are in a tier just behind this top four, with New Orleans and Denver. The Jazz are behind this group, which of course might be simply explained by Boozer's absence.
4. As Hollinger shows, too, the Bucks' record is skewed by a schedule that has it facing .512 teams, on average, with four more road games than home games, and a signficant number of close losses.
5. Despite attractive records, the Pistons and Mavs do not appear as strong as other winning teams, and lag well behind the top nine teams.
Naturally, a ranking like this may have some predictive value in assessing which teams might rise or fall, given that schedules will ultimately normalize, with the hard schedule teams improving their win-loss records and the easy schedule teams losing more often.
Or, of course, the whole damn thing might be flawed. I offer it because I don't think it's perfect by any means, but it does give you another way of viewing teams beyond win-loss records, which at this stage of the year are still reflective not just of a team's quality, but its opponent's quality and the site of their games.