The Race For 8th

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Published: January 24, 2017

Like many Pelicans’ fans my frustration almost reached a tipping point after the all around embarrassing performance against the Brooklyn Nets. But in true Pelicans’ fashion they turned around and beat the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers, and did so without Anthony Davis. Now fans are left even more confused as to where the team stands than before. I am here to tell you that not much has changed. The Pels just took a strange path to the expected outcome of 1 win and 1 loss over the 2 games.

The Pels have been up and down, but that doesn’t mean they are any more out of the Playoff hunt than before. Despite projections having the team with next to no chance of sneaking into the last spot, the team has been just as good, if not better than their competition on the court and in the win column since their horrible start. Here is a breakdown for those following the close, yet pathetic race for the “success” of a postseason berth:

[table id=107 /]

The Pelicans have the 3rd best record and the 2nd best Netrtg of the group, which is slightly encouraging given the circumstances. They also have something no other team in the race has had consistently through the season: a defense. The Nuggets have the 2nd worst defense in the league this season (and as you’ll see in a second it has only gotten worse). The Blazers have the 27th, the Kings the 26th, the Suns the 24th, the Wolves the 23rd, and the Mavs the 20th. The Nuggets, Blazers, and Timberwolves are the only 3 that have had an offense capable of making up for the defensive deficiencies. Unfortunately for the Pels, they are the only one without a reliable offense, ranking just 26th on the season, so their defense hasn’t been able to erase their lack of scoring.

But as the season goes on things change, more for some than others. The return of Jrue Holiday has only fueled a Pelicans’ push the get back into the postseason. Here is a breakdown since his return to the court on November 18th:

[table id=108 /]

I’ve taken the Suns out of the picture. I don’t believe they will be able to make a push (sorry any Phoenix fans reading). From 11/18 the Pelicans have the best record of the group and are the only team with a top 15 Net, another encouraging sign. All of the Nuggets, Blazers, Timberwolves, and Kings’ defenses have gotten worse since the start of the season, but across the board offenses have started to take off, particularly the Nuggets. This trend will only continue, as Jokic has claimed the starting Center spot for them. Coincidentally, Jokic was reinserted into Denver’s starting lineup the exact same date as Tyreke Evans’ return for the Pelicans. Here is the breakdown from then (December 15th):

[table id=109 /]

The Nuggets have become a top 3 offense and a bottom 3 defense, which is very scary. Having something that is considered “elite” can go a along way, and doesn’t bode well for the Pelicans’ chances of overtaking them. The Timberwolves are figuring things out and fast. If that team can play above average defense with the talent they have, I have no doubt they can and will make a strong push. Their 105.4 Drtg in this most recent stretch is right behind the Pels in league rankings, and the gap is getting smaller since the new year. Both the Kings, with the loss of Rudy Gay, and the Trail Blazers, who can’t figure out how to stop opponents or how to recapture their offensive potency, seem likely candidates to drop out completely. Neither particularly scares me. The sleeper team that not many have talked about is the Dallas Mavericks. The veteran heavy team is finally getting healthy, and don’t look now, but has a +3.6 net in the new year. You can be sure Rick Carlisle and Dirk will not be counted out, especially when the competition is inexperienced, and well, bad. No team in the race is particularly “good,” and the Mavs have only missed the playoffs once since 2000-2001.

The Pelicans have remained consistent on the defensive end throughout the season, a huge feat considering how terrible the team was last year. They have also managed to incrementally improve on the offensive end, although not as much as many would have hoped. Part of this is on the lack of talent, but part is also on the struggles of Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans.

Evans remains on a minute-restriction as he works his way back from injury. He has had his moments but has struggled as the scorer/creator the Pels so desperately need. Before Monday night’s victory over the Cavaliers, Holiday was shooting career lows from the field. Those averages has jumped up a tick after Monday’s upset, by far Holiday’s best game of the season. He put up 33 points, 10 assists, 6 rebounds, 2 blocks, and 3 steals. If Jrue can recapture some of his offensive groove, this team should have enough to do more than stay within spitting distance of the 8th seed.

The Pelicans are just 1 game out right now. On this date during their playoff season 2 years ago the team was even further out than that. With a record of 22-21 their chances of making the playoffs did not look good against the Phoenix Suns (26-19) and the Oklahoma City Thunder (22-21). This season is far from over, and the Pels have a much bigger margin for error than in 2014-15, considering every team in the race can’t pull it together either. The team is not going to pull the plug while they sit so close to post season play. Many have expressed that the 8th seed is “fools’ gold,” and means nothing going forward, but I couldn’t disagree more. To build identity and consistency, there has to be something to build around, successes to build off.

The last thing I want to talk about that could drastically change the outcome of this race is the trade deadline. Whether the Pels can or will make a move remains dubious. The Kings, Mavericks, and Blazers all seem unlikely to make a major change that could turn their luck around. Meanwhile the Timberwolves have long been rumored to be seeking a taker for Ricky Rubio (replacing a starter is HUGE). The Nuggets have the most tradable assets but also the least incentive to make a major move. This is gearing up to be a very interesting stretch to end the season, and while it might not be a huge accomplishment to be the worst team in the playoffs, it will mean a lot to the players, the coaches, and the organization. Either way, there is more to watch for in the second half of this season than last season, and that is a win for me.

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