Marching through March

By:
Published: March 9, 2020

The New Orleans Pelicans sit at 28-36 with 18 games to play. In years past, the fan base would be eyeing the draft hard and decrying losses. This season, however, the 8th seed in the West is competitive, looking like a sub-0.500 team may make it into the Playoffs.

Let’s take a look at the Pelicans’ path to the Playoffs.

If you don’t want to read all this, here’s what you need to know:

  • The Pelicans’ tragic number is 15 versus Memphis.
  • The two games against Memphis are the two most important left in the schedule, assuming New Orleans does not have another losing streak start up.
  • If the Pelicans win both of those, the two Memphis-Portland games likely take on some importance.
  • It is not going to be easy for the Pelicans

How Did This Happen?

Fair question. Or, really, this is a couple of questions wrapped up into one.

How did the West end up this way? Well, in short: The Warriors got injured. If the Warriors were healthy, they could very well be in the mix for 8th or have it locked up. They aren’t, and they weren’t really healthy even going into the off-season. Beyond that, no one else walked through that door. The teams in the West looking to leap and still re-grouping have not been willing or able to make the move necessary to sew it up or even have a solid projection to have a winning record.

As far as the Pelicans’ season goes, they have had a couple different beats to their season. They under-performed early in part to due to injury and an abundance of caution regarding player health. Most notably, Zion’s missing the first half of the season. That under-performance carried into a massive losing streak. Since then, the Pelicans have had some good fortune, been playing better, and got Zion back. Compound that with a polarized schedule, among the most difficult early, among the easiest late. The Pelicans sit just 4 games out of 8th and are in the cat-bird seat for the tie-breaker with the current occupant there, the Grizzlies.

Who Are They Battling?

As mentioned above, the Grizzlies are the team currently in 8th. Seeds 1-7 are occupied and likely will not drop down to the 8th seed. If they did, it’s either opening up a new spot or the Grizzles got a boost, and the conversation is different than the one we are having now. Those teams are the Lakers, Sonics, Nuggets, Jazz (somehow), Thunder, Rockets, and I hate the Mavericks.

The Warriors are on the brink of mathematical elimination, and the Timberwolves are practically eliminated.

This leaves the Grizzlies, Kings, Pelicans Spurs, Suns, and Trail Blazers 8-13 and competing for 8th.

Of these, the Suns have had a rough go of it, sit the farthest back in 13th, are dealing with injuries, and do not have a favorable schedule. They have 18 games left to play, a 26-38 record, and are 6 games behind the Grizzlies. Just 2 of their remaining games are against teams competing for 8th, one each against the Pelicans and Trail Blazers. So, there is not much they can do to help themselves.

The Grizzlies sit at 32-32 with 18 left to play. They have a rough schedule, but with a 4 game lead over the Pelicans, they pose the clear threat to the Pelicans’ post-season future. Their 2 remaining games against the Pelicans (one home, one road) loom large.

The Kings, Spurs and Trail Blazers round out teams 9-12 with the the Pelicans. Common games among them further complicate the story here, but the punchline is that the Pelicans will have to contend with the best of this group, at a minimum. In the end, they have to pass the team in 8th to be the team in 8th. To be the man, you gotta beat the man.

Where’s The Line?

At this point, the story is pretty simple: the Grizzlies pace the Pelicans.

With 36 losses, the Pelicans’ maximum win potential is 46. The Grizzles sit at 32 wins. So, if they get 15 wins, no if’s, and’s, or but’s about it, it’s game over the Pelicans. This number reduces with each Pelicans loss since those reduce the max win potential. Also, each Grizzlies win reduces this number since that locks in a gain for Memphis. So, the sum of Pelicans’ losses and Grizzlies wins needs to remain below 14 for the Pelicans to have a chance, making 15 their “tragic number.”

Technically, other teams ahead of the Pelicans can fall below 8th, but this is so unlikely, I’m ignoring it for now. Besides, it’s really the last team in that eliminates you even if all do play a role. The simple cases suffice here, thankfully.

This tragic number never increases, but the number of total remaining games changes. The 18 games remaining for each team, 36 total, add some context. This shows the predicament the Pelicans are in. The tragic number being less than the Grizzlies number of remaining games shows the Pelicans’ do not control their own destiny, for example.

Note the 2 remaining games between the Grizzlies and Pelicans show up big here. If the Pelicans win, again, nothing happens. But each loss for the Pelicans to the Grizzlies knocks this number down by 2. If you spot the Grizzlies those two losses, Each team would have 16 games remaining and the tragic number would be 11. Even worse, at that point, the Pelicans likely lose the 2-way tie-breaker, so the number is effectively 10.

The scenario waiting behind that one involves the Grizzlies and the Trail Blazers. If the Trail Blazers gain just a little ground on Memphis outside of their common games, they get in on the action in part due to their pair of games left to play against the Grizzlies. Right now, the Pelicans’ tragic number against the Trail Blazers is 19. However, when looking at them with the Grizzlies together, the common games have the unfortunate effect of feeding wins to one of those two teams. These either help Memphis, or fail to help them while helping another competitor for 8th. Thus, either Memphis is a little more ahead of New Orleans than it appears, Portland is better off than it appear, or some of each.

Again, these scenarios are for clearing based on records. The tie-break scenarios are complicated, overall, but here’ are the basics. The Pelicans have the tie-breaker over Portland alone, and all others are TBD. The Memphis one will be settled in New Orleans’ favor if they win one more game in the series. If they lose both to Memphis, it will likely be taken by Memphis. This is similar to the situation with Sacramento, but there is more uncertainty. The Suns 2-way will be decided by their remaining game. The Spurs lead the series 1-0, so this one is TBD with SAS with the Pelicans having a slight edge on the next level tie-breaker. I’ve not considered most of the more complex tie-breakers yet, but there’s one that is easy to point out – New Orleans also owns the 3-team tie-breaker with Memphis and Portland. The Pelicans can do no worse than 6-2 against those teams, and Memphis can do no better than 5-2 (the Grizzlies only play 3 games the Blazers this season).

Anything Else?

Just a couple of things.

March 18th to the 24th is the stretch to watch. There is a ton going on then. You get one week to really pay attention to things, The week before that has some stuff, too.

The Pelicans have been hitting their marks, but it’s been incredibly difficult to even maintain ground. In fact, they have really lost ground overall.

This chart has the 8th seed as the zero-line. No matter who is in it, that’s the level. The teams explicitly plotted are the Grizzlies, Kings, Pelicans, Spurs, Suns, and Trail Blazers. The 7th, 14th, and 15th seeds are plotted lightly as a reference. It’s easy to see that Memphis has been the pacing team for a decent fraction of the season. The have been a team with a hard schedule while New Orleans has had an easy one, and yet no ground has been made up. In fact, it appears that overall the trend has been away from the 8th seed. This plot is by game, not by day, so the most recent play is not plotted. This has some benefits, so it’s a nice additional perspective. The picture is not much different considering all games played to this point.

All totaled, those two games against the Grizzlies may truly be pivotal, and next to those, two that Memphis plays against Portland could come into play.

That’s about as simple as it gets.

One Comment

  1. Shawn

    March 10, 2020 at 9:57 am

    Great work Doc.

    Tragic Recent Causes for Slide:
    -Grizz win over Lakers 2/29
    -Losing to AD-less Lakers
    -Pels loss to Minny

    Lost Opportunity:
    -Stealing one in Dallas

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