Ask any champion: winning the title is hard, but defending it is almost impossible.
But it appears that the Miami Heat's upcoming regular season might not be as difficult as the rest of the league.
When the NBA schedule was released last month, we went through the annual ritual of analyzing the national TV schedule and who would get to play on the holidays, but with free agency unsettled and the Dwight Howard circus unresolved, the hierarchy of the league wasn't clear. For that reason, it wasn't obvious which teams were gift-wrapped a cupcake schedule, or which teams were unintentionally punished with a backbreaking gauntlet.
That's all changed now. Dwight Howard has been traded to the Lakers and all of the big-name free agents have found their homes (Leandro Barbosa isn't a big-name free agent anymore, outside of Brazil. Eu sinto, Leandro). Now that the dust has settled, we get to chew on the good stuff.
So, who has the easiest schedule in the NBA?
Yep, the defending champion Miami Heat -- at least according to one measure.
Ed Kupfer, a statistician for the Houston Rockets (and a "Rocket scientist" as he cleverly refers to himself in his Twitter bio), ran some numbers on Tuesday night and discovered that the Heat have the easiest schedule next season if you use ESPN's projected records that were published earlier this week. Kupfer, who generates fun charts like these all the time, tweeted his findings and you can see the Heat's place among the rest of the league. Here's what he found:
The average opponent win percentage of the Heat's schedule turns out to be .481, the lowest in the league.
It's rigged! Conspiracy! The outrage!
Hold on. Take off your tin foil hat. Let's think about this for a second.
Why it makes sense
It should be noted that Kupfer never insinuated any wrongdoing by the league here and the league probably already knows the Heat's standing. But here's we shouldn't be too shocked at this finding:
1. The Heat will probably be very good next season.
2. The Heat will definitely not play themselves.
3. The Eastern Conference will probably not be very good next season.
4. The Eastern Conference will definitely make up most of the Heat's schedule.
If you look closely at Kupfer's graph, you'll notice a couple things. One, there's a lot of red on the upper-half and a lot of black on the lower-half. He color-coded this nifty chart for a reason: the Western Conference teams (in red) are almost all facing a tough schedule while the Eastern Conference teams (in black) are almost all getting an easier slate.
Easiest 2012-13 NBA schedules
Using ESPN’s win projections, a ranking of each team’s strength of schedule (opponent win percentage).
That's what happens when Dwight Howard switches conferences and Derrick Rose gets hurt. The East's powerhouses in Orlando and Chicago aren't looking like powerhouses of old anymore. And by rule, the Heat have to play more East teams than West teams. It just so happens that two perennial MVP candidates just left the scene in the East (dependent on Rose's recovery, of course).
The advantage of being good
The other thing to keep in mind, which is pretty obvious but important nonetheless: Every team has to play the Heat except for the Heat. This will inevitably make the Heat's opponent schedule look a little easier compared to the rest of the league. Same goes for the Lakers and the Thunder, who both find themselves under the .500 line. On the flipside, the Charlotte Bobcats won't have the benefit of playing themselves, which explains a bit why they're the only Eastern conference team significantly above the .500 threshold.
When you take all this into account, it makes sense that the Heat would find themselves with the "easiest" schedule in the league. You'll notice that all the projected good teams in the East are clumped together with the Heat and all the projected bad teams in the West are facing a rough road ahead. That's the brutal one-two punch of a loaded conference: not only is it harder to make the playoffs, it's also harder on your schedule.
The rest of the equation
There's also another element here, one that's more subtle than just looking at the strength of schedule. We also have to take into account the days rest on the schedule. Rest days aren't equally distributed across the league and some teams have more back-to-backs than others. That's just how the cookie crumbles. (One upshot of a non-lockout season: no back-to-back-to-backs!). Teams perform
So how does Miami look when you consider rest days?
On the surface, it doesn't look like the NBA hammered them there either.
According to this essential NBAstuffer.com analysis, the Heat only have 16 back-to-backs next season, which is the third-fewest in the league, tied with the Lakers and Mavericks. If you think the league is stacking the cards in the Heat's favor, remember that the Lakers and the Thunder (only 15 back-to-backs) are right there with them. A bunch of teams, including the Celtics, have 22 back-to-backs on their plate. To be sure, this is admittedly a quick glance at the rest issue, so feel free to look deeper in the data.
It's also worth remembering that the strength of schedule is based on projections. Remember last season when the Blazers were supposed to be really good and the Jazz were supposed to be really bad? Yeah, predicting the future ain't easy.
All in all, the Heat appear to have the "easiest" schedule next season because that's naturally what happens when a really good team plays in a depleted conference. If you want to blame someone for Miami's slate, don't blame the NBA's schedule-maker. Blame Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak for stealing arguably the East's second-best player. And no, that's not Antawn Jamison.