Looking Up to the Bottom

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Published: January 2, 2020

The New Orleans Pelicans enter 2020 at 11-23. This is not good. Still, with more than half the season left to play, the Playoffs are not beyond discussion because of the way the bottom half of the West currently sits. Last season, the Clippers held the 8th seed in the West with 48 wins, while the 9th place Kings had 39 wins. Not close. Before that, the Nuggets were in 9th with 46 wins after losing a de facto play-in in overtime by just 4 points against the Timberwolves who took the 8th spot at 47 wins. Prior seasons had teams with near 41 win records battling for 8th, and this very well could be the case this season.

Going into January 2, 2020, the Standings in the West are:

Team

Lakers (1)

Nuggets

Clippers

Rockets

I hate the Mavericks

Jazz

Thunder

Spurs (8)

Trail Blazers

Grizzlies

Suns

Timberwolves

Kings

Pelicans

Warriors (15)

Wins

27

23

24

23

21

21

18

14

14

13

13

12

12

11

9

Losses

7

10

11

11

12

12

15

18

21

21

21

21

22

23

26

There are a few ways to look at this. Let’s go through some unhelpful ones:

  • 14th!
  • 3 wins back!
  • 4 games back!
  • Buh buh buh he said!
  • Fire Monty!

Some of that stuff is relevant, but not alone, as there is far more to it than counting wins. Flat out, the Pelicans have a chance to fight for 8th, but the road will be difficult. I will boil down the article to this:

  • The Pelicans need to go at least 9-6 in January to have a reasonable chance at the Playoffs

Let’s take a look at the fight.

Playoff Battle Participants

With every team in the West having between 47 and 50 games left to play, the season is wide open on paper. My assumption to make the problem tractable are as follows:

  • Every team will win between 40% and 60% of its games from here on
    • Justification: This is reasonable, consistent with winning between 32 and 50 games. The escapes we are worried about would be low-win teams performing well or high-win teams performing poorly. A theoretical analysis based on the binomial distribution reinforces this rate as reasonable. This will be readdressed later should the wins mount accordingly.

Using this as screen, we see the Pelicans can reasonably get to 40 wins. This excludes the top six teams in the West, giving a glimmer of hope, as a team must finish below eight teams to miss the Playoffs.

So, yes, I’m saying there’s a chance.

Playoff Battle Terrain

Now, that we have settled on the fact that the Pelicans have a reasonable, not probable, path to the Playoffs, let’s look at the ground and positions and other factors.

First, let’s check on overall and recent performance.

  • The Thunder and Spurs, who have the best records among the nine at 18-15 and 14-18, are also the only ones with winning records in the last 10 games, 7 and 6 wins respectively.
  • The teams with 5 wins in the last 10 are the Grizzlies and the Pelicans. Memphis is 2 games ahead of the Pelicans as of now.
  • The other five teams have losing records over the last 10.

Next, let’s have a look at personnel missing time earlier in the season who are now or will soon be performing. Also, we need to consider the reverse case of those that were performing but will miss time going forward. Players who will miss all of most of the season are immaterial here.

  • The Grizzlies, the Spurs, the Suns, and the Thunder are not missing a regular player from this season at this time.
  • The Trail Blazers have lost a regular player in Hood from this season, but their performance has not been greatly affected. Collins was lost too early to consider his loss to give a major change in the predictive value of Portland’s performance to this point.
  • The Timberwolves have dealt with regular players missing time this season.
  • The Kings have dealth with regular players missing time this season and have a new issue with Dedmon’s public trade demand.
  • The Warriors continue to deal with regular players missing time, plus any attempt to get below the tax line may cost them some talent this season.
  • The Pelicans expect Zion to start play in January.
  • The Suns recently had Ayton return to action after serving a 25-game suspension.

Playoff Battle Analysis

The above gives a preliminary breakdown of the situation.

  • The East is immaterial since the Pelicans are not competing with them for a Playoff spot.
  • The current top six teams in the West are likely going to the Playoffs one way or another, so their overall records likely will not affect the Pelicans going to the Playoffs or not.
  • The Thunder and Spurs are the key competitors for the Pelicans, being healthy, with meaningfully better records than the Pelicans, and consistent performance with no indicators of drop-off.
  • The next threat level consists of the Grizzlies, Suns, and Trail Blazers.
  • The weakest threats are the Kings, Timberwolves, and Warriors.
  • I just want to type it: Threat Level Midnight

The Pelicans January consists of the following opponents:

  • @ Lakers, @ Kings, v Jazz, v Bulls, @ Knicks, @ Celtics, @ Pistons, v Jazz, v Clippers, @ Grizzlies, v Spurs, v Nuggets, v Celtics, @ Cavaliers, v Grizzlies.

If the Pelicans can manage to go 9-6 among those 15 games, they will enter February at 20-29. A 0.408 win rate on the season to that point would result, which would slot them as 10th in the West based on current standings. This would be a 0.600 win rate for the month, which is far better than the Pelicans have managed this season even if exclude all 13 games in the losing streak (11-10) in other games, or just over 0.500). As a bonus, there are chances to strike a blow against the Spurs, strike twice against the Grizzles, and to give the Kings a shove towards the cliff. 9-6 and fringe benefits are on the table, but that take is by no means a cake walk.

We’ll have to review how the other teams in the West fare over the month, of course. Injuries and other drama can strike, plus the trade deadline will start to loom. Things could look very different 15 games from now. This could be better or worse or just different.

Some relevant schedule data to ponder:

  • The Thunder and the Spurs play each other 3 more times. These matches are guaranteed to assign exactly 3 wins and 3 losses to these teams in some combination. There are 4 net outcomes. The more the Thunder win, the less chance the Pelicans have to compete for the 7th seed. The more the Spurs win, the harder it is to get to the 8th seed at all.
  • The Thunder 12 more games against the teams currently 9-15, and only have 1 more game against the Pelicans. The Thunder won the prior 3 against the Pelicans and own the head-to-head tie-breaker. The last game is the Pelicans last before All-Star Weekend, and it’s in New Orleans.
  • The Spurs have 16 games remaining against teams 9-15, including all 4 against the Pelicans. The first is in January, and the last 3 are in the final weeks of the season, including the last game.
  • The Pelicans have 13 games remaining against teams 9-15. These games are their best chance to eliminate competition for a top in the top-8.
  • There are 42 games remaining among teams 9-15 not involving the Pelicans. These games will largely serve to just rearrange competition, not really advance the Pelicans’ position, at least until more is known. They do no real harm in aggregate, but they do no help, either, and the Pelicans need help.
  • The Pelicans, Thunder, Trail Blazers, and Grizzles have had tougher schedules to this point. The Pelicans will face easier opponents over all going forward. The Thunder, Trail Blazers, and Grizzlies have a mid-strength schedules remaining.
  • The Kings, Suns, Warriors, and Timberwolves have had mid-strength schedules to this point. Their remaining schedules are tough.
  • The Spurs have had one of the easier schedules to this point and their schedule will get much harder. Their early January looks quite tough, in fact.

There is some help looking at the schedule, but the Pelicans likely need more than this.

Even if they come out at 9-6, they will likely need to surpass 17-16 in the remaining games to make the Playoffs (37-45 overall), and like more like 20-13 (40-42). Even with a favorable late schedule, that’s a sustained 0.600 win rate, which is about a 50 win team. Consider this, then reflect on how much those fringe benefits matter and the real difference between 9-6 and 8-7.

Plus they need the Spurs and Thunder to move out the way. Plus they need other teams ahead of them to fail to match the Pelicans’ win rate.

The Pelicans’ post-season potential is worth watching, and it’s certainly worth rooting for, but the objects in the Spurs’ and Thunder’s mirror are actually farther away than they appear.

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