We looked at the schedule in pretty detailed fashion when it was released last week, but one thing I didn’t focus on was the actual team by team matchups. Every October before the season starts, I’ll go through the Raptors’ schedule, game by game, and predict the result based on the matchup that night, whether the Raps or their opponent is on a back-to-back, just got back from a long road trip, etc, until I come up with a specific win/loss prediction for the coming season.
It’s still too early for me to jump into that post, but one thing I did already look at is how the 82 games break down for the Raptors in terms of the number of games against each opponent.
We know Toronto will play its four divisional foes four times each (two times at the ACC and two times away) and we know that each team plays two games, split between both cities, against each of the 15 Western Conference teams. But non-divisional, intra-conference matchups can consist of three-game or four-game season series, and which of the teams one draws for an extra game here and there can make a difference in whether a playoff bubble team squeaks in or not.
With the exception of getting four games against the Bucks, who I project as a Tier 3 Eastern Conference team (I discussed my three-tier system for the East this season here), you’ll notice that the Raptors got the short end of the stick this season.
The Cavs and Pistons will be improved, but no one would put them in the class of the Bulls or Pacers yet, and in the Central Division, the Raptors will have to play Chicago and Indiana four times each while only getting a total of six games combined against Cleveland and Detroit.
In the Southeast Division, things are even more bleak. Charlotte and Orlando may very well be the two weakest teams in the East (with the 76ers, Celtics and Bucks also in the discussion), but the Raptors only play the Bobcats and Magic three times each while having to play four games against each of the Heat, Hawks and Wizards. And in case you needed a reminder, the Raptors haven’t beaten Miami in the Big Three Era, the Hawks replaced Josh Smith with Paul Millsap and Elton Brand, and the Wizards were surprisingly competent last season once John Wall returned to the lineup.
It may not sound like much in the grand scheme of things, but a fourth game against Miami, Chicago and Indiana, not to mention the fact that the Raptors will play four games against Brooklyn and New York, instead of an extra game against Charlotte, Orlando or Detroit, could be the difference in what should be a tight race between 6th to 10th in the East.
If we assume, based on the three-tier theory in the East this season, that the Raptors, Cavs, Pistons, Hawks and Wizards will battle for the final three playoff spots, then it makes sense to determine how many games each of those teams will play against each tier.
As a refresher, here’s how I see the three distinctly separate tiers:
Tier 1: Miami, Chicago, Indiana, Brooklyn, New York
Tier 2: Atlanta, Cleveland, Toronto, Detroit, Washington
Tier 3: Boston, Milwaukee, Orlando, Charlotte, Philadelphia
And here’s a breakdown of how the five Tier 2 teams’ intra-conference schedules break down.
Wizards: 16 games vs. Tier 1, 16 games vs. Tier 2, 20 games vs. Tier 3
Cavaliers: 19 games vs. Tier 1, 14 games vs. Tier 2, 19 games vs. Tier 3
Hawks: 19 games vs. Tier 1, 15 games vs. Tier 2, 18 games vs. Tier 3
Pistons: 19 games vs. Tier 1, 15 games vs. Tier 2, 18 games vs. Tier 3
Raptors: 20 games vs. Tier 1, 14 games vs. Tier 2, 18 games vs. Tier 3
You’ll notice that things are actually pretty equal, with the notable exceptions being that Washington plays noticeably fewer games against Tier 1 and is the only team that gets 20 games vs. Tier 3, while the Raptors are the only team that has to play all five Tier 1 team four times each.
So again, we’re talking about a one or two game difference here and there, but when you consider that eighth and ninth place in the Eastern Conference have been separated by an average of just 2.3 games over the last 10 years (ESPN’s forecast has 6th to 9th place separated by two games) and that the last team to miss the playoffs by just one game in the East was the Raptors (in 2010), this miniscule difference in the schedule is at least worth considering as you try to project where this Raptors team will finish in a tightening conference.