A question was proposed recently that got me thinking: did the Los Angeles Lakers really play a more difficult schedule than the Cleveland Cavaliers? The typical answer to this question would be yes, of course, especially when you consider that 8 of the teams with the 11 best records in the NBA played in the Western Conference. As is argued in this article here, some people out there believe that the Lakers’ 65-17 record in the West is more impressive and more praiseworthy than the Cavaliers’ 66-16 record in the East. My answer to this question is much different, however, as I would counter with the fact that 6 of the 7 teams with the worst records in the NBA also resided in the Western Conference.
This post will include tons of numbers and statistics that I recently posted on my Web site. As the numbers show, against these six incredibly bad teams that totaled a record of 136-356 at the cellar of the West, along with the Washington Wizards at the bottom of the East, the Lakers were 24-1 while the Cleveland Cavaliers were 14-2. This then puts both the two teams’ already impressive staggering end of season win-loss records in a little bit more perspective. The Lakers only went 41-16 against the rest of the NBA, while the Cavaliers still were an unbelievable 52-14.
Considering that most people would argue that the Western Conference was much more difficult to play in, you would then think that the Lakers would have no problem romping through the mediocre East. This is not what happened at all in real life, as the Lakers were only 21-9 against the entire Eastern Conference. The Cleveland Cavaliers, by comparison, went 40-12 against the teams in their own conference.
So when you really look at the facts, middle-of-the-order teams in the Western Conference really were not all that good. The Dallas Mavericks, who set an NBA record with their 9th consecutive 50-win season this year, went 18-6 against these bottom seven teams (meaning they were 32-26 against the rest of the NBA). The Houston Rockets, who are 53-29 and are hoping to win their first playoff series in 12 years as a #5 seed against the Portland Trailblazers, went 20-4 against these teams (meaning they were 33-25 against the rest of the NBA). Those records do not look as daunting now when you compare them to the middle-of-the-order teams in the East.
There were really only nine competitive teams at all in the Western Conference. Six teams were absolutely miserable, enabling teams such as the Phoenix Suns, Dallas Mavericks, etc. to pad their win-loss record with easy victories every week or so. Against these eight legitimately competitive teams in the West, the Lakers had a record of 22-7 with an average differential of +6.83. Against these eight teams, the Cavaliers went 14-2, the best such record in the NBA, with an average differential of +9.44.
My point is that the Western Conference is as weak as it is strong, and in the end the Cleveland Cavaliers came out on top of the NBA with their 66 wins this season. I took a long look at the schedules for the two teams this season, and if you were to average everything out for the Lakers and Cavaliers playing every team in the NBA twice, the results are quite drastic. Since the Lakers were able to play the Clippers, Grizzlies, Timberwolves, Kings and Warriors a combined 20 times this season, their schedule was comparatively easier. Thus, going through all the math, I came up with the Lakers at 44.5-13.5 and the Cavaliers at 48-10.
The Lakers certainly had the Cavs number in the two match-ups between the teams this season, but when looking at the total math, there certainly is no doubt that on paper, the Cavaliers were the more impressive team. To highlight the differences between the West and the East, the Cavaliers went 40-7 with an average differential of +10.32 against teams with win totals between 30-49. The Lakers, on the other hand, only went 23-10 against these teams with an average differential of +5.33. The Eastern Conference was more competitive than the West this season, as from top to bottom every single team had the potential to beat any other team (for example, those pesky 15th place Wizards split the season series with the Cavs).
Many experts are already predicting that a Lakers-Cavs NBA Finals is already a foregone conclusion, and if this is the case many people will point out the Lakers two victories over the Cavaliers this season and their “tougher” schedule out in the West. What I will point out instead, is that the Lakers have had their inconsistencies this season, have not beaten the teams they should have beaten every single night, and really did not play in a much more difficult conference at all . It was easier to put up a 65-win season in the West than the East this year, and thus I think that the ability of the Cavaliers to win the East in such a convincing fashion proves a lot as we start out the long stretch of the NBA Playoffs.
For the detailed math, check out my blog: