Strength of Schedule: Your Cover's Blown

I need to keep reminding myself: it’s still early. (See: Crunch isn’t even dressed yet.) I’m looking at the Wolves’ roster, it’s battered and fragile state of existence, and I’m looking at the just finished 4-game road trip… Oklahoma, New Orleans, San Antonio, and Dallas. I’m looking at the playoff picture. I’m thinking there are a number of factors against the Wolves that can’t possibly get worse. I’m thinking there are those that must inevitably get better. Call it the law of averages. Call it glass half-full reasoning.

A peek at the standings reveals the Wolves in 10th place, 3 games behind Portland for the 8th spot, 3 games under .500 after being without their head coach (hope his family’s alright), and that brutal 0-4 road trip.

       WESTERN

W

L

PCT

­­GB

1

Oklahoma City

30

8

.789

-

2

LA Clippers

29

9

.763

1

3

San Antonio

29

11

.725

2

4

Memphis

24

12

.667

5

5

Golden State

23

13

.639

6

6

Denver

23

16

.590

7 ½

7

Houston

21

17

.553

9

8

Portland

20

17

.541

9 ½

Utah

21

19

.525

10

Minnesota

16

19

.457

12 ½

LA Lakers

16

21

.432

13 ½

Dallas

16

23

.410

14 ½

Sacramento

14

24

.368

16

Phoenix

13

27

.325

18

New Orleans

11

26

.297

18 ½

Not yet halfway through the season, and the Wolves have already dealt with more than a season’s worth of injuries. Their roster’s options have been cut to the bone and exposed major flaws; big enough, it would seem, for both the front office to focus on their solutions and for us to focus on them in another column.

Some of these problems could be solved internally. Ricky Rubio’s road trip was rife with struggle, but healthy, measurable steps were made — his first two series of back-to-backs were met without issue, if not team success, and he seems ripe for a raise in the cap on his minutes. The next goal could be his insertion to the starting lineup, where his defensive presence will surely benefit the team’s capacity for success and his offensive chemistry with Derrick Williams could be another salvo for the Wolves’ misfiring starting 5. But we’ll slow down, and just leave it at peripheral benefits including a lighter load on rookie wall-climber, Alexey Shved’s playmaking, and maybe some spot-up opportunities instead of all those off-balance pull-up jumpers.

(Other possible benefits include: not having to watch Ridnour get toasted on defense as often, Cunningham getting back to his more optimum portion of PF minutes, etc.)

But beyond the Wolves roster, the balancing act that is the league’s imbalanced schedule has yet to play its heavier hand and the teams in the jumbled mess of 7-9 in the West will surely be dealt a dose of the injurious treachery that has thus far befallen the Wolves.

Strength of Schedule

RK TEAM

W

L

PCT

SOS

1 New Orleans

11

26

.297

.532

2 San Antonio

29

11

.725

.522

3 Memphis

24

12

.667

.519

4 Denver

23

16

.590

.518

5 LA Clippers

29

9

.763

.513

Sacramento

14

24

.368

.513

7 Houston

21

17

.553

.512

8 LA Lakers

16

21

.432

.511

9 Minnesota

16

19

.457

.507

10 Utah

21

19

.525

.506

11 Phoenix

13

27

.325

.505

13 Golden State

23

13

.639

.502

16 Dallas

16

23

.410

.498

18 Portland

20

17

.541

.496

20 Oklahoma City

30

8

.789

.494

First off, I’ll admit the idea of a schedule being easier on one side than the other is a misnomer because the NBA weighs its inter-conference opponents, so naturally the West is going to dominate any strength of schedule list at any point during a season — however, by that same schedule’s weight, you can see who is artificially inflating their record by virtue of playing scrubs from the East. Add to that any fated injuries, and you have a more level playing field. Thus envisages the Wolves playoffs opportunity.

The suspects…

Since starting point guard Mo Williams went down with thumb surgery, the Jazz have gone 6-2. Most recently — and impressively — dispatching the Miami Heat after a pleasant run of leastern conference opponents and the lowly Phoenix Suns. Their injury woes are already upon them — you can’t lean on Jamaal Tinsley forever — the schedule only needs time to set in and force their frontcourt hand of whether to move on from the older guard (Millsap and Jefferson) towards their stable of young draft picks in need more seasoning (Favors, Hayward, and Kanter). The Jazz current 9th spot will fade with their backcourt.

Houston rode a wave of Harden-fueled exuberance early on, but has dealt with Lin-sistency and a lack of frontcourt depth behind Asik to find itself in the 7th seed. They have had the 7th strongest schedule so far, are 5-5 over their last 10, and have yet to be properly visited by the injury bug (sure, Lin tweaked his ankle Monday). Any injury to their main playmaker (Harden) or defensive stopper (Asik) would leave all those 3-point shooters covered and the Rockets’ defense in arrears.

8th seed Portland has benefitted from their schedule more than any Western team besides OKC. With the 12th easiest schedule so far, they actually have a negative point differential (-2), despite being 3 games above .500. The Blazers have Lillard leading the way (and the Rookie of the Year race) setting up a nice bounce-back year and plenty of open 3s for Wes Matthews and Nicolas Batum — who has so far lived up to the over-priced offer he signed with the Wolves this summer. JJ Hickson has been providing some nice minutes at center and Aldridge is averaging the 2nd most rebounds (8.6) of his career despite too many jumpers causing the worst shooting of his career (46%). I bring up each of their starting 5 because an injury to any one of them will most certainly cause them to plummet in the standings. They have the worst scoring bench in the league (it’s not even close) and that schedule is going to be full of conference opponents the rest of the way.

The Warriors have been playing David Lee 37.6 minutes a night and Stephen Curry 38, good for 13th and 9th-most in the league, respectively. Lee hasn’t missed fewer than 25 games in each of the past 2 seasons while Curry hasn’t played but 12 more than that in the last 2 seasons combined. (Possibly confusing sentence meaning: Curry’s played only 62 games in two years due to ankle issues. -ed.) With injured Andrew Bogut still out indefinitely, they’re already starting backup Festus Ezeli. A thin bench would be thinner should Carl Landry, Charles Jenkins or Jarrett Jack be forced to fill in the starting lineup. With such recent injury histories hounding the Warriors’ two biggest pillars, things have the potential to go awry by the bay.

This, of course, is not to wish anything awful like an injury be visited upon one of these teams. It is simply to point out that if they, like the Wolves, were to have their #1 scorer, rebounder, and 3-point threat (Love) lost for most of the season (or a shell of himself when he did play), or if their best perimeter scoring threat (Budinger) were missing, or even one (Roy) or two (Howard) or three (Lee) of their place-holding shooting guards were to magically (or surgically) lose their knees, or if their best perimeter defender and playmaker (and heart, and soul) were to miss the first two months of the season and limp through another (Rubio); then they would most certainly find themselves out of contention for the playoffs and in the company of Phoenix and New Orleans. The fact I can even delude myself into thinking the Wolves are still in contention at this point (1, 2… 6 major injuries!?!) is quite the feat.

As it is, Ricky Rubio has been making baby steps over the last week. Shved and Cunningham have looked fatigued. Williams is showing something. Pekovic is still Pek. AK is still standing. Ridnour and Barea could still prove useful. Rumor has it, a capable wing may or may not be on the way from Europe, of course. Ricky holds the keys to what level of success each of these factors play this season. Rubio can take some of the playmaking burden off of Shved and make some of those off-balance jumpers spot-up daggers. Rubio can deliver low-risk opportunities for Williams, thus limiting Dante’s wear and tear and increasing his effectiveness. Rubio can foster better ball-movement that can maximize the offensive potential of Pek and AK. Rubio can be a plus defender at the point, even while he takes baby steps towards a full recovery.

In the 2nd half of the season and down the stretch, defense is where Rubio will make the biggest difference. When the most crucial part of today’s NBA is the point guard’s ability to create for himself and break down a defense to create for his team — and Ridnour has beyond proven this — the ability to defend that position is crucial, and with Rubio, the Wolves will have it going forward while adding more of the missing pieces they’ve lost along the way.

The injury woe that descended like a vulture on this team will slowly take its flight of leave, the league’s schedule will take its toll on Utah, then Houston, Portland or Golden State, and should they fail to be ground into dust — should they escape the Vulture, then they’ll get the Wolves.

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