A Different Look at the Remaining Schedule, Part 1

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Published: February 5, 2018

The New Orleans Pelicans have 30 regular season games games remaining, sitting at 28-24. Teams in the West have between 26 and 31 games remaining, depending on the team. The number of games remaining and the varying details of each team’s schedule this far out, not to mention changing circumstances due to trades, injuries, interconnectedness of schedules, etc. make it difficult to meaningfully address one of the primary questions around this season for the Pelicans: What are their chances to make the Playoffs?

Rather than take a traditional game-by-game analysis which relies on fine details that are simply too difficult (for me, at least) to answer, I’ll take a step back and do an analysis that depends on less detail but that still has a chance of saying something meaningful and perhaps enlightening. As time marches on, I’ll revisit this, adjusting as appropriate.

If you don’t want to read any more or if you want to be enticed to read on, the punchline is: the Clippers are public enemy number 1, followed by the Jazz (for now), and the Lakers are likely a fading threat but need to be dealt with.

Approach

The approach here is not to predict a record for the Pelicans and other teams. Rather, the idea is to simply determine which games have what degree of importance as it relates to the Pelicans making the Playoffs. This is ignoring details about seeding, tie-breakers, which team within a cluster has a better record, etc., and, most importantly, how likely each game is to be won. Playoffs participation is based on rank order, with tie-breakers. These depend on records, but sometimes it’s easier to work with the rank data when it is more stable than the base data. For instance, the same teams have been 1-4 in the West, the 5-8 group in the West has been just been churning in place, etc. for a while. The details have changed, but basic groups have proven stable enough and the rules are actually proximally dependent on rank. Currents records and number of games remaining, along with rank, do affect definition of the clusters, but records are not considered after that point. You don’t track every tree, but you need to look at some trees at least once to see the forest.

By breaking teams into groups, or clusters, then treating all items in the cluster as functionally equivalent, and finally sorting out the importance for each group as it relates to the Pelicans’ Playoffs chances, a reasonable look at which games are more important than others should arise. After all, ranks and these groups will be based on relative position, so that’s the focus rather than the actual specific wins and losses. While a fiction, it is a useful fiction that helps simplify things, allowing a more detailed discussion of the most important things rather than chaos, noise, distraction, the irrelevant, or the unintelligible.

Certainly there is some cost with this approach. The most glaring issues arise at boundary cases, particularly when the boundaries are not sharp. This will also break down to some extent as the number of games decreases. These are addressed by revisiting the analysis periodically, not forgetting that this is just a tool and it can certainly be adapted, and finally by doing a more appropriate and detailed analysis once it is feasible to do so.

Groups

Let’s define the groups then talk about their importance.

  • Pelicans: Clearly any game with the Pelicans is important to the Pelicans making the Playoffs. Some may be more important than others, though. Whatever group the Pelicans would be in otherwise, we remove them from it and treat them as a group of one. Their record is 28-24.
  • East: This is just what it seems.
  • Top of the West: I defined this group as teams that can win less than 1/3 of their remaining games and still reach 0.500. This group consists of GSW (41-12), HOU (38-13), SAS (34-21), MIN (34-22).
  • Hopefuls In: I defined this group as teams needing to win at least 1/3 of their remaining games, but do not need to win more than 2/3 of them, and still reach 0.500. Additionally, these teams are in the top-8 in the West at the time of this analysis. This group consists of OKC (30-24), POR (29-24), DEN (28-25). Currently, NOP would be here, but we treat them on their own. This fact matters going forward, greatly simplifying things.
  • Hopefuls Out: I defined this group as teams needing to win at least 1/3 of their remaining games, but do not need to win more than 2/3 of them, and still reach 0.500. Additionally, these teams are not in the top-8 in the West at the time of this analysis. This group consists of LAC (26-25), UTA (24-28), LAL (21-31).
  • Bottom of the West: I defined this group as teams that need to win at least 2/3 of their remaining games to reach 0.500. This group consists of MEM (18-34), PHX (18-36), DAL (17-36), SAC (16-36).

I used 0.500 as the rough threshold for making the Playoffs, when just erred on the side of “more fear for the Pelicans” in boundary cases. It’s not perfect, but small changes to the choice don’t significantly change the answer, so I stuck with simple..

The Lakers may end up taking care of themselves, and the Clippers are pretty close the Hopefuls In group. The Clippers and LAkers are 6-4 in their last 10, despite their issues, and the Jazz are 7-3. So, do not take their record to mean more than it does. These are just a few reasons to revisit this during All-Star Break.

Importance

Here is my summary of importance, or stakes, of games among the clusters. The order of importance is the standard “rainbow” order.

Here’s the justification.

  • As mentioned above, and should be obvious, at this point in the season, any game involving the Pelicans is more important than games that are not. Much later this can change, of course, with other games achieving equal importance. Since I can’t tell which those are now, I’ll just look later and see what happens to pop out. I’m not getting into trying to guess what that might be now. So, Pelicans games, and only Pelicans games, get the highest levels of importance.
  • Among all Pelicans game, the ones that have additional importance for making the Playoffs, at this point, are against the Hopefuls Out group. Let’s walk through way. There is no effect of any East games on the Pelicans’ Playoffs chances other than to affect the Pelicans’ record. The same is true for the Top of the West and the Bottom of the West. Those teams’ fates, for the purposes of this analysis are a fait accompli. The may be in, or out, by a mile or an inch, but their participation in the Playoffs seems unchangeable at the moment. Hopefuls In is a group that most people focus on, but this is more of a seeding or “insurance” question. However, those teams winning or losing do not affect whether the Pelicans make or miss the Playoffs directly because they are all currently in the Playoffs. Their movement will not directly take a spot from the Pelicans. The Hopefuls Out teams, when they win, do, however, have a chance to push a Playoffs team out of the Playoffs, changing clusters, taking the Pelicans’ place. Likewise, dealing these teams losses makes it harder for this to happen. So, the most important games are against Hopefuls Out while the rest are all at the next level down.
  • Among non-Pelicans games, those with the least importance are any of those where both teams are from the groups that can not affect the Pelicans’ Playoffs chances by the outcome of that game. These are the East, Top of the West, and Bottom of the West.
  • As mention above, the Hopefuls Out games are almost all the most important among the non-Pelicans games. Anytime a team in this group takes a loss, the better it is for the Pelicans, at least until they are firmly in the Bottom of the West, which will be re-visited later. The exception to this is when the group plays itself. One team goes up, one team goes down, but the net help to the Pelicans depends on records we can’t know at this point (which is why we are clustering anyway), so we just knock it down a peg at this point. While possible for such a game to catapult a team into Playoff positioning, it’s not a problem unless the Pelicans are losing more than winning. Again, this will be revisited, but those games assume an in-between importance.
  • All the remaining non-Pelicans games involve Hopefuls In, but not Hopefuls Out. Those games just rearrange teams already in the Playoffs, maybe help swap an In team with an Out team or at least gives the Pelicans help within their cluster at the expense of some harm from outside it . These games are not irrelevant, so they are assigned the same importance of as Hopefuls Out playing Hopefuls Out.

Keep in mind, this not addressing at all if a team is rising or falling or if the Pelicans or any other team is likely to win any particular game. This is simply a look at the effects of wins and losses in general as it relates to the Pelicans making the Playoffs or not, ignoring other details such as seeding.

Schedule Details

Here is the above graphic augmented with the number of games remaining for the Pelicans in each category. When I revisit this, I’ll have more updates for the other boxes, likely during All-Star Break and a couple more times.

I’ll list the games out below, but there are some key observations to be made.

  • The typical focus is on Hopefuls In. While this is not the least important set of games, they are not as important as Hopefuls Out games. As there are just 2 games against Hopefuls In and 6 against Hopefuls Out, this awareness is important. Of those 6 of 30 remaining games, 2 of them are before the All-Star Break: v. Jazz (tonight) and v. Lakers (14th, last game before the break). Knocking the Lakers out of the Hopefuls Out group can be accomplished, which would be good, because that is one more team that can help the Pelicans against the Hopefuls Out group.
  • 6 games against the Bottom of the West are an opportunity to try to build up wins.
  • 6 games against the Top of the West does not help, but there could be some hidden advantages in late-season games if, say, the Warriors are resting players at home.
  • The Pelicans need 13 wins to get to 41-41 on the season, a rough threshold for the Playoffs, so it appears. So, 13 wins in 30 games should be viewed as baaarely acceptable at this point. I’d not feel comfortable with it today, Playoffs-wise, but they’d have a fair shot. Going 1 of 6 against Top of the West, 1 of 2 against Hopefuls In, 3 of 6 against Hopefuls Out, and 4 of 6 against the Bottom of the West, and 4 of 10 against the East gets the 13 wins. So, it’s very reasonable to meet or exceed this win total for a 0.500-type team with this kind of schedule and splitting their most important games. Taking care of business against Hopefuls Out may even lessen the burden.

While I don’t have the counts for the whole table, there is enough information here that the importance of a game on any night can be quickly understood. In general, you can root how you like, including for Hopeful In teams to lose. I’m not trying to dictate rooting interests. I’m just saying that, overall, what is both best and most generally effective is to root for the entire NBA to stomp on the Clippers, Jazz, and Lakers since they are the teams most capable of taking a Playoffs spot from the Pelicans. The faster they sink, the most quickly participation in the post-season becomes clear. Root for any team close to the Pelicans to lose may help, and wins for practically irrelevant teams are just that, but the focus should always been on the teams just outside the Playoffs first and foremost. The losses are more “efficient” help for the Pelicans when absorbed by teams with a bigger hole to climb out of, at least until the hole is deep enough . . . then they are of no help.

Here is a breakdown of the 30 remaining games, with * representing a game prior to All-Star Break, @ representing a game at the opponent, and v representing a game at the Smoothie King Center:

  • Top of the West (6)
    • Warriors (@)
    • Rockets (v,@)
    • Spurs (@,@,v)
  • Hopefuls In (2)
    • Thunder (v)
    • Trail Blazers (v)
  • Hopefuls Out (6)
    • Clippers (@,@)
    • Jazz (v*,v)
    • Lakers (v*,v)
  • Bottom of the West (6)
    • Grizzlies (v)
    • Kings (@)
    • Suns (v,@)
    • I Hate the Mavericks (@,v)
  • East (10)
    • Pacers (v*)
    • Sixers (@*)
    • Nets (@*)
    • Pistons (@*)
    • Heat (v)
    • Bucks (@)
    • Wizards (v)
    • Hornets (v)
    • Celtics (v)
    • Cavaliers (@)

More during the All-Star Break, but wins tonight and next Wednesday are worth just a little bit more. So are losses, though.

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