A Different Look at the Remaining Schedule, Part 3

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Published: March 20, 2018

Punchline: The Clippers and Nuggets are below the top-8 in the West, but it’s not enough to make me comfortable yet.

The New Orleans Pelicans have 12 games left to play, with one tonight against I hate the Mavericks. A couple of weeks ago, I looked at the schedule trying to identify the importance of games by looking at clusters of teams, continuing work from a couple weeks prior when it was clear that standard game prediction methods were going to be insufficient in such an even half-of-the-West. Since then, as always happens, some of the structure changed. With the schedule burning in the fire that is time, there is less fog, but remaining schedule quirks become ever more important.

The Situation

In the West, 2 teams are mathematical locks for the Playoffs (Rockets, Warriors), and 4 teams have been eliminated (Suns, Jazz, I hate the Mavericks, Grizzlies), and the Lakers are practically eliminated. The remaining 8 teams are all jockeying for 6 Playoff positions. The records range from 37 wins to 44 wins with between 10 and 13 games left to play for each team.

There are 92 total remaining games for the teams of interest, but 19 of these are between teams of interest (over 20%), leaving 73 total games to be played that matter. So, of the 92 times the teams see the court, only 73 wins are possible.

The Metric

For the 8 teams of interest, the “tragic number” is calculated for each pair of teams. This is detailed in earlier posts, but the idea is based on looking at the outcomes to make it harder for the team behind to pass the team ahead. Those outcomes are wins by the leading team, losses by the trailing team. Once this number for the trailing team is less than their remaining games, they do not “control their own destiny.” Once this number is 0, they can’t pass the leading team. I’m ignoring tie-breakers for the time being. Yes, the teams are tight, but they are so tight it’s not clear which tie-breakers will come into play. We’ll address this as things go forward, but it does not seem to be an issue yet for the question of if the Pelicans end up in the top-8.

The Real Standings

  • Trail Blazers: 44-26, 12 games remaining. Portland is unambiguously in the best position to end up in the 3rd seed. They can lock up a Playoff position in about a week and are practically guaranteed a spot in the post-season as of now.
  • Thunder: 43-29, 10 games remaining. In terms of making the Playoffs, they are in nearly the same situation as the Trail Blazers, but they have work to do to stay in 4th, and more to overtake the Trail Blazers, trailing them in both potential and realized wins, 56 v 53 and 44 v 43, respectively.
  • Spurs: 41-30, 11 games remaining. The Spurs currently lead the flat and interesting spot in the uncertain-8, where there are 4 teams in virtual tie, all within 1 game. There is a little gap between this group and 3-4, and a little larger one between them and 9-10. With 1 more win, they are just slightly better than the 3 teams on their heels.
  • Jazz: 40-30, 12 games remaining. The Jazz are expected to rise due to their recently play and upcoming schedule, but for now they sit here in the 5-8 group.
  • Pelicans: 40-30, 12 games remaining. The Pelicans have tough schedule coming up with 3 games in 3 days, 4 in 5 upcoming while in the middle of 6 games in 8 nights. In the 21 days between multiple-rest-days: 13 games. 9 games in, the Pelicans are 5-4, but they have, again, 4 games in 5 nights ahead.
  • Timberwolves: 40-31, 11 games remaining. They are similar to the Spurs but just behind the other teams in their group, having converted 1 more loss. The Pelicans lost the 2-way tie-breaker against them, but they are not (currently) the bar for missing the Playoffs; the Nuggets and Clippers are the ones that matter.
  • Nuggets: 38-33, 11 games remaining. The Nuggets and the Clippers don’t control their destiny and are 2 full games behind the current 8th-seed Timberwolves. Remaining games are hope for teams looking to climb, but the Nuggets only have more hope than the Thunder, whom they trail by 4 games. It’s not looking good for the Nuggets as the gap between 8 and 9 has only been widened as their hope evaporates. The Nuggets have the 2-way tie-breakers over the Pelicans.
  • Clippers: 37-32, 13 games remaining. The Clippers have the most games remaining, which is a blessing when you are out of the top-8, as this gives you the most opportunities to rise. The standings have the Clippers ahead of the Nuggets based on percentage wins, but that does not matter at the end of the season when everyone has played the same number of games. The Clippers have to convert more potential wins to real wins than the Nuggets, so they have more work to do. They can rise higher, but they have to deliver more. The Pelicans have 1 game remaining against the future-Sonics, and the 2-way tie-breaker is undecided. The Clippers lead 2-1 in head-to-head games, however. Save Our Sonics.

Overall, the Pelicans are in a good position. Health is the key (ahem). April might be easier than the rest of March, so, there could be a rollercoaster ride of sorts unless another teams has a rough patch, too. Maybe Minnesota? We’ll see.

Next time, things will be sharper, we’ll have some tie-breakers incorporated, and maybe a simpler overall situation if the Blazers and Thunder keep it up . . . or the Nuggets and Clippers . . .

Following Up

Last time, I said the Nuggets and the Pelicans had the most potential to fall among the teams in the top-8 at the time. Both teams fell, but the Nuggets fell more. The Nuggets went 3-5 over that time, the Pelicans 5-4 . . . and they fell. When the records are this close, the lay of the land drives things as much as the wins and losses . . . since the teams are close to even, it’s the luck that matters both game-related and schedule-related. Since the former is not predictable, I am examining just what is laid out, and it’s working.

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