Entering the weekend before Christmas, the Toronto Raptors sit 1.5 games ahead of the Milwaukee Bucks for first place in the Eastern Conference.
They are however tied in the loss column which makes that lead ever so slightly misleading.
Just because the Raptors are in first, that doesn't necessarily mean they have the inside track for home court.
Handicapping the race for home court
With nearly 50 games left in the regular season, there's obviously a ton of hoops still to play. And yet, it's never to early to start paying attention to teams jockeying for playoff seeding, especially in a top-loaded Eastern Conference where home court could mean the difference between playing in the NBA Finals and starting summer vacation in May.
Inpredictable.com offers up daily updated odds seeding. It takes into account not only the overall strength of teams, but also strength of schedule and tiebreakers. It paints a much more accurate picture moving forward than simply looking at the standings. Just because a team sits in a certain spot now does not mean it will end up there.
For example, let's say Team A and Team B have identical records. Team A has won a bunch of close games against the easiest schedule in the league and has one of the hardest remaining schedules. Conversely, Team B has been blowing teams out and doing it against one of the league's hardest schedules. It also has a far easier schedule the rest of the way.
We'd all probably agree that not only is Team B better, but also more likely to finish with a better record. That's the simplified version and logic behind the seeding projections.
So what does that mean for the Eastern Conference race for the one seed?
Despite sitting in second place, the Bucks are actually the favourites to finish in the top spot.
Why are the Bucks favoured over the Raptors?
At this stage in the season, a few percentage points doesn't mean much as one loss on any given night is enough to swing the odds.
More important than the actual percentages is the reasoning and logic behind them. It provides insight into overall play to date and the road ahead for each team.
As it stands now, the Bucks hold the head-to-head tiebreaker by virtue of winning the first two games. If you consider each of the two remaining games a toss up, the Raptors have just a 25% chance of evening the season series. That alone is worth swinging the odds in Milwaukee's favour without even considering any other factors.
It's also why the two meetings left on the slate - January 5 in Milwaukee and January 31 in Toronto - are massively important.
Then there's the scoring margin which is far more indicative of a team's overall strength and much more accurate when predicting future performance. The Bucks are outscoring teams by 8.8 points per game while the Raptors have an average scoring margin of +7.4, good for second in the NBA.
Toronto's record is exactly what you'd expect from a team with that point differential while the Bucks should actually have one more win as their play thus far equates to a 22-8 record, slighty better than the 21-9 mark they carry through 30 games.
When looking at strength of schedule - both for games already played and moving forward - there's not much of a difference.
According to TeamRankings.com, the Raptors have played the 7th-hardest schedule so far and have the 8th-easiest remaining schedule. The Bucks meanwhile have played the 11th-hardest schedule and have the 9th-easiest remaining slate. That's essentially a wash and why the head-to-head tiebreaker and predictive value of scoring margin is more important in the race for home court.
Looking beyond simply the top two, the future schedules are also why it's unlikely one of the other top teams in the East makes a serious run for the top spot. Toronto and Milwaukee each have an easier remaining slate than the primary contenders.
How much does home court matter?
Home court matters for some teams more than others. For proven championship teams - the Warriors, any team with LeBron James, the Tim Duncan Spurs teams - winning pressure-packed games on the road is not big deal. For everyone else, home court matters.
Last year's Boston Celtics serve as a perfect reminder of that very fact. They went 10-1 at home and just 1-7 on the road. In the 1st round against the Bucks, the home team won every game. Ditto for the first six games of the Conference Finals until Game 7 when LeBron James and the battle-tested Cavaliers pulled out a win on the road in Boston.
So we know that it matters. But just how much?
In NBA history, home teams are 104-28 overall in Game 7. Looking just at the Conference Finals, home teams are 17-8 in Game 7. Of course, two of those eight losses came last year when both Cleveland and Golden State - two teams with serious postseason experience - managed to win on the road for a spot in the NBA Finals, something that has never previously happened twice in the same postseason.
Of course, you might point to that overall record and argue that it's misleading due to all of the instances of vastly superior teams winning at home against teams lucky to force a Game 7. You might be tempted to ay they won because they were better, not necessarily because they were at home.
OK. So what happens when you keep it to just 1 seeds squaring off with 2 seeds?
In that scenario, the home team has won 13 of the 17 meetings which is essentially no different than the overall winning percentage for home teams in a Game 7.
In terms of actually reaching the Finals, 1 seeds have gotten there nearly twice as often as 2 seeds since the NBA expanded to a 16-team playoff format in 1983-84. Over that span, 38 of the 70 teams to finish with the 1 seed in either conference has reached the NBA Finals while just 20 of the 2 seeds and seven of the 3 seeds have gotten there.
So while it's true that there's lots of time left in the regular season, where you finish matters especially for teams dreaming big. In a competitive conference with a small margin for error, every game counts.