Cutting the Pelicans’ Tether

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Published: January 10, 2020

The New Orleans Pelicans sit at 14th in the West at 13-25 with their next three games are all on the road. The midpoint of the season and the likely debut of Zion provide a good time to take stock. We will be inundated with these these takes soon, but I wanted to take an advance look. The outcomes of 3 games matter far less than those of the next 41 games, but they provide an interesting glimpse into some important issues to keep in mind.

Approaching Halfway

Games 39, 40, and 41 for them are @ Knicks (tonight, 1/10), @ Celtics (1/11), and @ Pistons (1/13). Three game road trip over four days to close out the first half of the season. They will reach the midway point of the season at between 16-25 and 13-28.

Where might this place them at the halfway point? Let’s dig in and see if we find more than that which we seek:

  • No lower than 14th
    • The Warriors can leave Monday no better than 11-30
  • No higher than 10th
    • The Grizzlies can leave Monday no worse than 16-24
    • Teams 1-8 will leave Monday better than 16-24
  • If the Pelicans win out it is possible to:
    • Tie at 10th
      • Pelicans win out and Trail Blazers and Timberwolves and Kings all lose out, and Suns do not win out
      • Any of those fail, 10th is not attainable
    • Tie at 11th
      • Pelicans win out, one of those other teams does a little better than noted above
    • Be in 12th or 13th, maybe tied
      • Many scenarios
    • Be in 14th
      • Suns with both and Kings, Timberwolves, and Trail Blazers win at least one
  • If the Pelicans go 2-1, they will
    • Tie at 13th with the Suns if the Suns lose both
    • Be in 14th
  • If the Pelicans go 1-2 or 0-3
    • They are 14th

Note, I’m not going off of winning percentage. I’m treating 16-25 and 15-24 as a virtual tie since the 15-24 games going 1-1 puts them in a tie. This is also the way to handle things using a “half-games behind” metric. A 16-25 team and a 15-24 team are both a half game “better off” than a 15-25 team, but in different ways. Similarly both are “worse of” than a 16-24 team by half a team. Clearly, 16-24 and 15-25 differ by a full game, and there we are. I’m also ignoring season-end tie-breakers.

Why go through all this? Why not just watch the games play out? Who cares? Much ado about nothing!

One reason is to illustrate the importance of wins in detail and in context. The other is to highlight why just looking at the gap to 8th in terms of “the win column” or even games behind is not enough. The other teams in between are all stiff-arming the Pelicans.

The Pelicans are not competing with the team with the 8th seed today. They are competing with the best team 8th-13th. It’s hard to tell who that will be, but it does not really matter. It only matters if the best of that bunch finishes higher than the Pelicans (assuming the Pelicans do not pass the Thunder and the Warriors do not pass the Pelicans).

Cutting the Tether

In order to make the Playoffs, the Pelicans need to win, but any reasonable amount of winning may not be enough. The above offers insight as to why. What the Pelicans do besides just win?

  • Win Key Games
    • The Pelicans have 4 games left against the Spurs and the Grizzles. Going at least 3-1 in those games is going to help close the gap on two of their top competitors since those wins count twice in a “half-games behind” sense. They count once against the other teams, but the taking extra shots at the teams in the catbird seat for the 8th seed is a blessing. The down side is that losing too many of those games against either team is a death sentence for the Playoff hopes in all likelihood.
  • Win an unreasonable number of games
    • Sometimes you go on a win streak. Sometimes it’s because you get lucky, sometimes it’s because you get better. Either way, banking wins at greater than a 0.600 win rate, regardless of the opponent, will help.
    • They can try to get better. Bringing Zion in will be a net positive on the win totals for the Pelicans, says conventional wisdom. They have two key games in January, so hopefully any short-term hiccoughs will not be double-weighted. They can also seek trades or other roster changes. Of course, other teams in this group may be trying to get better, or just get lucky, too.
  • Misfortune for others
    • The teams they are battling may suffer turmoil or injury or a run of bad luck. Their losses help almost as much as Pelicans wins. We know the Pelicans can suffer misfortune, and they have, which is why we know how devastating a run of bad luck can be to a season.

Past Performance

Finally, let’s look back at the season to see just how important the above points are. We’ll look at three key dates and show games behind or games ahead of the Pelicans.

  • 11/21, Just before the losing streak, 15 games in
    • 7th: Timberwolves, 2
    • 8th: Suns, 1.5
    • 9th: Kings, 1
    • 10th: Pelicans
    • 11th- 12th: Grizzlies, Thunder, 0.5
    • 13th: Spurs, 1
    • 14th: Trail Blazers, 1.5
    • 15th: Warriors, 3.5
  • 12/17, The tail of the losing streak, 28 games in
    • 7th: Thunder, 8
    • 8th: Kings, 7.5
    • 9th-10th: Suns, Trail Blazers, 6.5
    • 11th: Timberwolves, 5.5
    • 12th: Spurs, 5
    • 13th: Grizzlies, 4.5
    • 14th: Pelicans
    • 15th: Warriors, 1
  • 1/10, today, 38 games in
    • 7th: Thunder, 9
    • 8th: Spurs, 4
    • 9th: Grizzlies, 3
    • 10th-11th: Timberwolves, Trail Blazers, 2.5
    • 12th: Kings, 2
    • 13th: Suns, 1.5
    • 14th: Pelicans
    • 15th: Warriors, 4.5

At the first milestone, we see some basic grouping, as 7-15 kept the same membership, but this is not the best time to judge standings. There have barely been enough games to really allow signal to overcome noise and avoid forced-ties from pigeonholing.

At the second milestone, things look dire, but the Pelicans have made up ground in the games-behind department overall at the third milestone. One problem is that most of the teams 8-15 see at most 1 Playoff spot as reasonable . . . and most of them hovered about the same or moved closer to it in the last few weeks. Another is that the Spurs and Thunder really held their ground against the Pelicans.

Looking at some of the churn, one can see that there is hope. If all this happened in just under half this season, then, on paper, it can be undone and more in what remains. Games will be played, moves will be made, and luck will rear its head. The Pelicans need help to make the Playoffs, but there is a path to help themselves, especially with what appears to be an easier schedule than their opponents in the back-41. We’ll see if others’ schedules get easier. Whatever happens, chance favors the prepared, and the Pelicans have to prepare themselves.

For the Pelicans to have a shot at a shot:

  • Finish January at least 9-6
    • 2-2 already
    • At least 7-4 in remaining games
      • Ideally, 3-0 against teams Grizzlies, Spurs
      • At least 4-4 in other games
  • No long-term injuries

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