The Los Angeles Clippers play the Indiana Pacers on Sunday in their next home game (and their last home game for a while as they leave for an extended road trip after the Indy game). The Pacers have a league-best 14-1 record at present, and are leading the league in defensive efficiency by a WIDE margin. The Clippers are 11-5, and until recently were among the two or three worst defenses ranked by efficiency (i.e. the number of points allowed per 100 possessions). Big wins over Chicago and New York have improved the Clippers' defensive rating considerably.
As it happens, Chicago and New York are the two worst offensive teams the Clippers have faced this season. Which got me thinking about the effect of schedule on efficiency numbers.
The Pacers' first 15 opponents have included eight teams currently ranked in the bottom eight in offensive efficiency in the NBA as of today. The Clippers' first 16 opponents have included two teams in the bottom eight offensively.
On the other end of the spectrum, among their first 15 games, the Pacers have seen exactly two teams in the top 12 in offensive efficiency (zero in the top three), while the Clippers have faced eight top 12 offenses among their 16 foes (and three in the top three).
Which makes for a very nice, very symmetrical juxtaposition of the two teams' early season schedules. The Pacers have played the majority of their games (53.3%) against the worst offenses, and a very small percentage (13.3%) against the best offenses -- none against the best of the best. The Clippers have played half of their games (50%) against the best offenses, and a very small percentage (12.5%) against the worst offenses.
I'm not suggesting for a moment that the Clippers defense is anywhere close to Indiana's defense. That is clearly not the case. I am however saying that schedule matters. Before December 2012, we had looked at the Clippers schedule and determined that they could really do some damage; we didn't know they'd go undefeated, but it was obvious to anyone paying attention that they should make some real progress. If you took December only numbers from last season, the Clippers would have ranked first in offensive efficiency, and first in defensive efficiency in the entire NBA.
Eventually the schedule evens out; last season it caught up with the Clippers in an unfavorable way. This season hopefully the opposite will be true.