There has been debate early this year about how meaningful a team's record is when weighed against an easy schedule and the general weakness of the Eastern Conference. With a large number of teams either intentionally or unintentionally tanking this year, there are lots of opportunities to pad your record with victories over bad teams. My goal is to ignore the games against the worst teams in the league and instead measure how well the best teams in the league are performing against high quality opponents.
For this post I have taken a straightforward approach: (1) only look at great teams; (2) only look at their record when playing other great teams.
I have defined "great team" as a top seven team in the league, by record, as of this writing. This list includes Pacers (20-3), Blazers (20-4), Spurs (19-4), Thunder (18-4), Heat (17-6), Rockets (16-8), and Clippers (16-9). There is a relatively steep drop-off in quality after the Clippers, and the top seven included all the normal contenders, so it seemed like an appropriate starting point for this analysis.
Record When Playing Against a Top 7 Team
This is obviously a small sample size, so we can't make too many conclusions yet. But three general trends stand out:
1) The Blazers (4-1) have been pretty good at beating the Top 7.
The Blazers only loss was to the Rockets, and the four victories have come against the Spurs, Thunder, Pacers and the Rockets.
Of note, Portland has yet to play a Top 7 team on the road.
2) The Spurs (0-4) have been pretty bad at beating the Top 7.
The Spurs have lost to the Thunder, Pacers, Blazers and Rockets.
3) The Heat (1-1) haven't played many games against the Top 7.
The two Top 7 teams that Miami has played so far were the Pacers (loss) and the Clippers (win).
Home vs Away
When breaking out the top 7 teams record into home and away, it is evident that there is an inherent home court advantage, as expected. Home teams have a combined record of 11-5, while away teams are the opposite at 5-11. Notably, the Blazers have not played any away games against a top 7 team.
Games Remaining vs Top 7 Teams
As expected, the Pacers (9) and Heat (12), both from the Eastern Conference, have the fewest remaining games left this season against the Top 7. The Clippers also have 12 remaining games, while the rest of the Top 7 have 14 to 15 games remaining.
This is an illustration of the Western Conference having more dominant teams than the Eastern Conference, and thus having to play higher quality opponents more often.
A Criticism of this Process
While drawing the line at seven teams makes intuitive sense, it is also somewhat arbitrary. For the Blazers in particular, this is important because the team with the Eighth best record in the league as of this writing is Phoenix. As we know, Phoenix has been the Blazer's kryptonite this year, and if I had included Phoenix in the analysis the Blazers would have looked worse. However, even though the Suns seem to play well against the Blazers, at this point I would not consider them a great team or a legitimate title contender, so I feel comfortable leaving them off this list for now.
While it is premature to make any definitive statements, it is interesting to see the early results of great teams playing other great teams. The Blazers are trending in a positive direction, having the best record (4-1) against the Top 7 teams in the league. This suggests that Portland may be a legitimate threat, as they are doing very well when compared directly to their contending peers.
Looking forward, the Blazers have shown they can beat great teams at home this year. The next test is if they can beat great teams on the road. Their first road game against a Top 7 team is on December 31st, when they play the Thunder in Oklahoma City.
What do you think of the records the Top 7 teams have accumulated against each other? Do you think it is indicative of future success for a team, or are the best teams able to flip a switch making regular season records less important? Are there any other teams that you think will become legitimate contenders later in the season that are not currently in the Top 7?
Remaining Blazer games against Top 7 teams (5 home, 9 away)
Dec 26, vs Clippers
Dec 28, vs Heat
Dec 31, @ Thunder
Jan 17, @ Spurs
Jan 20, @ Rockets
Jan 21, @ Thunder
Feb 7, @ Pacers
Feb 11, vs Thunder
Feb 12, @ Clippers
Feb 19, vs Spurs
Mar 9, @ Rockets
Mar 12, @ Spurs
Mar 24, @ Heat
Apr 16, vs Clippers
Update note: Added the home vs away splits for better clarity.