A Different Look at the Remaining Schedule, Part 5

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Published: March 31, 2018

Punchline: Sunday is a pivotal point in the Pelicans’ Playoff path. It can be made clear, but getting top-6 is murky, and top-4 is getting tougher in part due to losing important tie-breakers, including multi-team tie-breakers. It can also be made into a demolition derby, or more of one than it already is.

The New Orleans Pelicans have 6 games left to play, with 4 of them against teams they are in meaningful competition with for seeding: Clippers (higher Playoff stakes if they hang around), Spurs (last game of the season), and Thunder tomorrow. The Grizzlies, Suns, and possibly-resting Warriors round out the 6 games, in that order, between the Thunder and Clippers games. The Pelicans Magic Number is 5, so they control their own destiny with 6 games left to play.

Easter Sunday features all of the interesting-8 teams in the West playing, including 2 game between two of those teams (Pelicans-Thunder, Jazz-Timberwolves). Going into that, we know the following will be true coming out:

  • The Pelicans will have 5 games remaining
  • Their Magic Number will be between 3 and 5, so the Pelicans will control their own destiny
  • The Pelicans will end up between tied for 4th (possibly losing that particular tie-breaker that day) and 8th

The rest is up in the air. The NBA is off Monday. We’ll assess the situation again on the other side. The Pelicans could be sitting pretty with 3 possible-layup games with a Magic Number of 3 or hanging on to control by the skin of their teeth and just a 1 game lead over the Clippers (who play the Pelicans and can win the 2-way tie-breaker) and Nuggets (who own the 2-way tie-breaker) and a completely undetermined 3-way tie-breaker at this point.

The Situation

In the West, 2 teams are mathematical locks for the Playoffs (Rockets, Warriors) and into their seeds, in fact. 5 teams have been eliminated (Suns, Jazz, I hate the Mavericks, Grizzlies, Lakers) and are shut out of the top-10 beyond that. The remaining 8 teams are all jockeying for 6 Playoff positions. The records range from 41 wins to 47 wins with either 5 or 6 games left to play for each team.

There are 46 total remaining games for the teams of interest, but 12 of these are between teams of interest, leaving 34 total games to be played that matter and over 35% of them being between teams competing for position with each other. So, of the 46 times the teams see the court, only 34 wins (and 34 losses) are being assigned.

Coming out of Sunday, where all of the interesting-8 play, including two games between two of them (Pelicans-Thunder, Jazz-Timberwolves), there will be 38 games left to play for the 8 teams, 10 of them being common games, so just 28 wins and 28 losses distributed. That’s still over 35% of the remaining games, which is still a demolition derby. The top-8 will remain the same as a whole, and, thus, so will the 2 teams on the outs (Clippers and Nuggets) by the pigeonhole principle, but the details can all change. All teams will have 4 or 5 games to play going into Tuesday (no games Monday).

The Metric

You can revisit the logic behind all this work in prior posts, but it involves

  • “Magic Numbers”
  • Tie-Breakers
  • Common Games

For reference:

The Real Standings

  • Trail Blazers: 47-29, 6 games remaining. The Trail Blazers can clinch a Playoff appearance and make serious headway to locking up top-4 or the 3rd seed itself mathematically, possibly creating another resting team later this week. Upcoming common games: Jazz, Nuggets, Spurs.
  • Spurs: 44-32, 6 games remaining. The Spurs currently hold the lead of the 5-teams-within-1-game in the 4-8 spots in the West. Still no Kawhi, and it looks like he might not return at all. This two-way tie-breaker will be decided on the last day of the season. Upcoming common games: Clippers, Pelicans, Trail Blazers.
  • Timberwolves: 44-33, 5 games remaining. The Timberwolves have stabilized, and they are in a good position in terms of tie-breakers if they can hold on, including over the Pelicans. Upcoming common games: Jazz (Sunday), Denver (twice).
  • Thunder: 44-33, 5 games remaining. The Thunder have slipped a little, but are in the thick of it. They own some key tie-breakers, but the Pelicans have the two-way locked up. Upcoming common games: Pelicans (Sunday). They will be alone in the interesting-8 in having completed their series with each team in the interesting-8.
  • Jazz: 43-33, 6 games remaining. The Jazz sit tight 4-8 group having dropped a couple seemingly easier games. They have the two-way over the Pelicans. Upcoming common games: Clippers, Timberwolves, Trail Blazers.
  • Pelicans: 43-33, 6 games remaining. The Pelicans made it through their tough schedule, but they haven’t done themselves favors since. Their tie-breaker situation is not good for their current position. Upcoming common games: Thunder (Sunday), Clippers, Spurs.
  • Clippers: 41-35, 6 games remaining. The Clippers have hung around and play some games that can help them. Upcoming common games: Jazz, Nuggets, Pelicans, Spurs. Save Our Sonics.
  • Nuggets: 41-35, 6 games remaining. The Nuggets have missed their best chances to avoid this position, but they still have a chance. Upcoming common games: Clippers, Timberwolves (twice), Trail Blazers.

We’ll have some updates standings, figures, tie-breakers and more before things heat up again Tuesday.

If you want that report to be a good one, you want the Pelicans to win (duh) and, along with the Thunder, the Clippers and Nuggets to lose. Everything else is more tangled and less important, you want Spurs and Trail Blazers to lose, then between the Timberwolves and Jazz, you want the Jazz to win, actually, as that leads to a more difficult road less often, but the earlier games could influence that.

Example Magic Number Calculation

After the conclusion of the games on the 30th (and 31st), the Pelicans’ magic number is 5, driven by the Clippers, Jazz, Nuggets, and Timberwolves together.

Identify teams: The live teams with the worst records are the Clippers and Nuggets, with 35 losses each. Since the Timberwolves have 33 losses and have 2 games with the Nuggets, we have to consider them. The 33-loss Jazz play the Clippers and the Timberwolves, so we have to consider them, but the scope increase stops there.

Highest possible records: The Clippers and Nuggets can get to 47 wins, but not at the same time, Jazz and Timberwolves 49. Clearly 48 wins will send the Pelicans to the Playoffs. The question is if 47 (or fewer) will once common games and tie-breakers are considered. The answer is no. Here’s one of many cases. If the Clippers win out, it keeps the Nuggets below the 47 win mark. The Nuggets can pull the Timberwolves down to 47 with 2 wins there. The Timberwolves can beat the Jazz, and with the Clippers over the Jazz, the Jazz top out at 47 wins. The Pelicans come out last in the 4-way tie-breaker and miss the Playoffs. So, 48 wins are needed, the Magic Number is 5 with 6 games left to play, and the Pelicans control their own destiny.

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