Alert the conspiracy theorists: Besides conference, the other factor that plays a large role in determining a team's strength of schedule is how good the team is. Last season, the hardest schedules in terms of opposition were played by the West's three worst teams: the Los Angeles Lakers (+0.92 points per game harder than average), Utah Jazz (+0.86) and Sacramento Kings (+0.78). Meanwhile, the three easiest schedules belonged to teams near the top of the East standings: the Washington Wizards (-0.75), Indiana Pacers (-0.73) and Toronto Raptors (-0.65).
Before you start complaining again about the NBA favoring the league's best teams, understand that this is a function of an obvious problem: Teams can't play themselves. So the worst teams in the conference play a higher percentage of their games against the best teams, and vice versa.
This factor isn't always more important than which conference opponents play three teams instead of four -- witness the East's No. 2 seed, the Miami Heat, playing the conference's fifth-hardest schedule last season. But within a conference, about 70 percent of the variation in a team's strength of schedule is determined by its own record.
The one thing Bird should have been checking for on his schedule was back-to-back games, and more generally the kind of rest the team would get. Based on recent research by Jeremias Engelmann on the APBRmetrics forum, teams are about 1.5 points per game worse in the second game of a back-to-back, and lose an additional point when playing for the fourth time in five nights. That, more than opponents, is where the league can have an effect on a team's schedule.
And there can be big differences among teams in terms of back-to-backs. Last season, the Denver Nuggets played just 14 back-to-backs as compared to 22 for the Atlanta Hawks and Milwaukee Bucks. While that meant more long breaks for the Hawks and Bucks, Engelmann found that teams actually perform marginally worse with multiple days off than on one day's rest, so things don't even out.
Still, over the course of an 82-game schedule, this effect is relatively small. The difference between the league's easiest schedule in terms of rest (the Golden State Warriors, who played 15 back-to-backs) and the hardest (Bird's Indiana Pacers, with 20 back-to-backs and three times with four games in five nights) averaged 0.22 points per game -- less than a quarter the schedule difference attributable to conference imbalance.
As much fun as it is to check out the newly-released NBA schedule and highlight important matchups for the 2014-15 season, ultimately the schedule doesn't make a lot of difference to teams' bottom-line results. Those won't be determined until the season starts in late October.