A Different Look at the Remaining Schedule, Part 7

Published: April 8, 2018

Punchline: The Pelicans are in a good position to make the Playoffs. They control their own destiny, have one game worth of cushion to keep control. They are guaranteed top-6 if they win out.

Note: Updated Monday with some omitted info, details after Jazz win.

The New Orleans Pelicans have 2 games left to play, one of them against teams they are in meaningful competition with for seeding: hosting the Spurs (last game of the season). The other game is in LA against the Clippers (was possibly meaningful until they cemented themselves into tenth) The Pelicans Magic Number is 1, so they control their own destiny through to the end.

Between tonight, Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, there are just 11 games that may affect the now-interesting-7. After the Jazz play tonight, all teams will have just 2 games left to play.

Here are some things to keep in mind before we get into the details:

  • The Pelicans can make the Playoffs without winning another game
  • The Pelicans are top-8, that is, in the Playoffs, with 1 win
  • The Pelicans are top-6, and likely top-5, with 2 wins
  • The 3-seed is off the table

The Situation

In the West, 3 teams are mathematical locks for the Playoffs (Rockets, Warriors, Trail Blazers). The Rockets and Warriors are fixed into their seeds, in fact, with the Trail Blazers still trying to lock in the 3-seed. 5 teams have been eliminated (Suns, Jazz, I hate the Mavericks, Grizzlies, Lakers) and are shut out of the top-10 over and above that. The remaining 7 teams are all jockeying for 5 Playoff positions, 6 seeds. The records range from 45 wins to 48 wins with 2 games left for each team to play, except the Jazz, who play the Lakers tonight, leaving each team 2 to play from Monday through Wednesday. Each team besides Portland has either 45 or 46 wins. It’s incredibly tight.

There are 11 total remaining games for the teams of interest, but 4 of these are between teams of interest. That’s 4 of 10 after tonight’s games with 3 on the last night of the season. This is a tangled web. Here are the 11 games:

  • Sunday
    • Jazz @ Lakers (Jazz won)
  • Monday
    • Pelicans @ Clippers
    • Thunder @ Heat
    • Grizzlies @ Timberwolves
    • Kings @ Spurs
    • Trail Blazers @ Nuggets
  • Tuesday
    • Warriors @ Jazz
  • Wednesday
    • Spurs @ Pelicans
    • Nuggets @ Timberwolves
    • Grizzlies @ Thunder
    • Jazz @ Trail Blazers

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: 48-32, 2 games remaining. The Trail Blazers have clinched a Playoff appearance and are steadily securing favorable seeding. Remaining games: @ Nuggets, Jazz. That Jazz game could be for the tie-breaker if it matters and if they lose to the Nuggets, otherwise the Trail Blazers will have the two-way tie-breaker going in. They own the two-way tie-breaker over the Pelicans and will pass the Pelicans’ maximum possible wins with just one pickup in the last two or one Pelicans loss.
  • Jazz: 46-33, 3 games remaining. The Jazz finally hit their winning streak and lead the tight 4-8 group. They have the two-way over the Pelicans. Remaining games: @ Lakers (tonight), Warriors, @ Trail Blazers. (Jazz won)
  • Spurs: 46-34, 2 games remaining. Still no Kawhi, and it looks like he might not return at all. They were playing well, then dropped 2 in Los Angeles. This two-way tie-breaker will be decided on the last day of the season, but the teams can only tie if the Pelicans (and the Spurs) have made the Playoffs. Remaining games: Kings, @ Pelicans.
  • Thunder: 46-34, 2 games remaining. The Thunder have slipped, and while they own some key tie-breakers, the Pelicans have the two-way locked up. Remaining games: @ Heat, Grizzlies. They alone have no games against other teams jockeying for Playoff seeding in the West.
  • Pelicans: 46-34, 2 games remaining. Their tie-breaker situation is not good for their current position. Remaining games: @ Clippers, Spurs.
  • Timberwolves: 45-35, 2 games remaining. The Timberwolves continue to slip-and-steady. They are in a good position in terms of tie-breakers if they can hold on, including over the Pelicans, but they need to hold on. Remaining games: Grizzlies, Nuggets
  • Nuggets: 45-35, 2 games remaining. The Nuggets cling to life and are thankful they still have a game against the Timberwolves. They own the two-way tie-breaker over the Pelicans. Remaining games: Trail Blazers, @ Timberwolves.

Magic Number Calculation

After the conclusion of the games on the 7th (and 8th), the Pelicans’ magic number is 1, driven by the Nuggets and Timberwolves together.

Identify teams: The live teams with the worst records are the Nuggets, Timberwolves with 35 losses each. Since no teams they play are within 1 loss of them, no other teams need to be considered.

Highest possible records: The Nuggets and Timberwolves can get to 47 wins. 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 yes. Here’s why. The Pelicans just need to pass one team, not a particular team. The Nuggets and Timberwolves play each others, so at least one maxes out at 46 wins, not 47. So, 47 wins are needed to clear 1 team (we just don’t know which ones). The Pelicans lose all tie-breakers to these teams and miss the playoffs at 46 in the worst case. Since the Pelicans have 46 wins, the Magic Number is 1 with 2 games left to play, and the Pelicans control their own destiny.

Counting Cases

Because there are 11 games of interest yet to play, there are 2048 ways the schedule can play out. Of the 2048 ways this schedule can play out, the Pelicans end up with 46 wins in 512 of them (25%), so they get to 47 wins or higher in 1536 cases, or 75%.

We’ll break this down by the win total. More on this in the 46 win discussion here.

(Now 1024 cases, but the percentages are unaffected).

46 Win Scenarios

The Pelicans can make the playoffs losing out, but it’s no guarantee. To completely clear a team, either the Nuggets or Timberwolves have to lose out. Since they play each other once, one team is guaranteed to lose one. So, the other team just need to lose other game. They play each other the last night of the season, Wednesday, so we’ll know which team that is if this even matters. On paper, this happens half the time, but it really boils down to the opponents in the other games. The Timberwolves have the Grizzlies while the Nuggets have the Trail Blazers. If one loses Monday, root for the second loss Wednesday. If they both lose Monday, the Pelicans have clinched. If the both win, we start getting into tie-breakers, by necessity. Tie-breakers affect the seeding if they make the Playoffs, too, but that’s another question.

  • In a two-way tie, it’s against the Nuggets or Timberwolves, and they lose out, missing the Playoffs.
  • In a three-way tie, the possibilities are Jazz-Nuggets, Jazz-Timberwolves, Nuggets-Thunder, Nuggets-Timberwolves, Thunder-Timberwolves. They come out last in all of them except Thunder-Nuggets, Thunder-Timberwolves, where they come out second and make the Playoffs.
  • In a four-way tie, it’s Jazz-Nuggets-Thunder, Jazz-Nuggets-Timberwolves, Jazz-Thunder-Timberwolves, Nuggets-Thunder-Timberwolves. The only scenario the Pelicans make the Playoffs is Nuggets-Thunder-Timberwolves.
  • In a five-way tie, it’s with Jazz-Nuggets-Thunder-Timberwolves, and the Pelicans lose out, miss the Playoffs.

Basically, the Pelicans can top the Thunder unless the Jazz are involved. As it turns out, the Jazz-Thunder three-way is not possible when the Pelicans have 46 wins and one of Denver and Minnesota have not lost out.

Back to the counting, of the 512 46 win cases, the Nuggets end up with 45 wins in 128 of them, Timberwolves with 45 wins in 128 of them, so that’s another 256 cases where the Pelicans make the Playoffs, bringing the total to 1792, or 7/8, 87.5% of the cases.

Adding in the 56 winning tie-breakers cases, we have 1848 winning cases of the 2048 possibilities, which is just over 90%.

This is not to say that the Pelicans chances to make the Playoffs are about 90%, as this is simply counting outcomes. This effectively treats all outcomes as equally weighted, where each game is effectively a coin-flip. This is not true, as noted above, but it’s also not a radical departure from reality overall. Nevertheless, the fact that there are many paths to the Playoffs is indisputable.

Interestingly, there’s actually a very slight advantage for making the Playoffs to the Jazz winning today. If the Jazz get to 47 wins, that interferes with any aspirations for higher Pelicans seeding, but it keeps them from spoiling tie-breakers at 46 wins. They play no other teams they are competing with the make the Playoffs and the Pelicans win no tie-breakers with the Jazz involved. However, the Jazz can spoil an otherwise favorable tie-breaker if they sit at 46 wins. This is a rare case, and the advantages for higher seeding, if the Pelicans make the Playoffs are more clear, but it is a point to note.

So, strictly speaking, the Jazz winning helps the Pelicans make the Playoffs.

(Jazz win now makes it in 928 of 1024 cases, an improvement to about 90.6% from 90.2%)


If there is no team with 45 wins, the Pelicans have the 8-seed if they make the Playoffs. Basically, the are competing for 8th and 9th at that point, and need the Thunder involved to sink them into 9th.

If there is a team with 45 wins, the situation is similar, but one seed up. They have the 8th seed unless they are in a tie and that tie involves the Thunder, and the Pelicans have the 7-seed.

47 Win Scenarios


In the 47 win cases, there are a number of factors, so I’ll work the details after the run of games on Monday. However, we can note a few things.

  • If no other team has 47 wins, they have the 5-seed.
  • In a two-way tie, they can get anywhere from the 8-seed to the 5-seed.
  • There are numerous three-way and four-way scenarious, all landing the Pelicans between the 5-seed and the 8-seed. We’ll detail the ones that matter in the final update.
  • In the Jazz-Nuggets-Spurs-Thunder five-way, the Pelicans get the 6-seed if they beat the Spurs, 8-seed if they lose. If it’s Jazz-Spurs-Thunder-Timberwolves, it’s 7-seed or 8-seed depending on that Spurs game.

48 Win Scenarios

If the Pelicans win out, they get to 48 wins and clear the Nuggets, Spurs (they play each other), and Timberwolves. So, the Pelicans can be no worse than 6th, avoiding the Warriors and the Rockets in the first round of the Playoffs.

  • If the Pelicans are the lone team with 48 wins, they are the 4-seed.
  • In a two-way tie with the Trail Blazers, the Pelicans get the 5-seed if the Jazz win out, get the 4 seed if the Jazz only beat the Trail Blazers. This requires the Trail Blazers to lose out, along with other ties involving the Trail Blazers, by the way.
  • In a three-way tie with the Jazz and Thunder, the Pelicans come out last, getting the 6-seed.
  • In a three-way tie with the Jazz and Trail Blazers, the Pelicans lose out, get the 5-seed.
  • In a three-way tie with the Thunder and Trail Blazers, the Pelicans finish second, getting either the 4-seed or 5-seed depending on if the Jazz win out or just beat the Trail Blazers.
  • The only possible four-way tie involves the Jazz, Thunder, and Trail Blazers. The Pelicans come out third, get the 5-seed.

That all shakes out as the Pelicans being shut out of the 3-seed. They end up with the 6-seed only if they tie with the Jazz and Thunder. Otherwise, it’s the 4-seed or 5-seed depending on the details.


I’ll try to have the final list for the next post, but you can find some throughout. The main thing to keep in mind is that the Pelicans lose all their two-ways except to the Thunder, with Spurs determined by the outcome of their final meeting.

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