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The Anatomy of a Western Conference Playoff Team

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We know the Pelicans need to win close to 50 games, but how do they get there?

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

As the first couple weeks of games has come to a conclusion, many Pelicans fans are dreaming of playoff basketball next spring. There is nothing as exciting as the atmosphere created by an NBA playoff basketball series. The problem is the Western Conference is a grind. In 2013-14, nine teams won 48 or more games! So do the Pelicans really have to win more than 48 games to make the playoffs? If so, how can they get there? I will explain how the Pelicans can make the Western Conference playoffs a reality.

Overall Records – A High Level View

There is a very real possibility that a team can win less than 49 games and still make the playoffs in the Western Conference. First of all, the Eastern Conference does not look like the pushover that it was last season. Don’t get me wrong, there are still some really bad teams out East, but the 2013-14 season only produced four NBA quality teams from that conference. This led to the West inflating their win totals by beating up on the East. This season, I expect the East to win more games versus the West than last year.

Secondly, the West has somehow gotten deeper. Sure, the Lakers are awful, but teams such as the Kings and Jazz are showing much improved play so far and are far from the easy out they have been in the last few years.

Lastly, the Thunder (who had the second best record in the west last season) have lost perennial all-stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook for a significant length of time. No team can expect to not skip a beat and they will have to play at an extremely high level to reach the proverbial 49 win plateau.

There was a 13 game differential between the Spurs (#1 seed) and the Mavericks (#8 seed) last season. In all likelihood, for the Pelicans to make the playoffs, they will do so as a six to eight seed. Last season, a playoff appearance would have required anywhere from 49-51 wins. Even though I believe the wins required to make the Western Conference playoffs will not be as high as what was required last season, I am going to use last season’s win total because I want to be conservative in my approach.

Beating Up on the East

As previously discussed, the East was bad last year. I mean, really bad. A 38-44 Atlanta Hawks team was good enough to qualify for the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Each Western Conference team played 30 of their 82 games against the east last season. So did the Western Conference playoff teams take advantage of their inferior peers from the East?

In short, yes. No Western Conference playoff team from last season won less than 20 of their 30 games against the East. The Spurs went a sparkling 24-6 against the East, while the Warriors, Grizzlies and Mavericks (the sixth, seventh and eighth seeds) won 20, 21 and 20 games versus the East.

The first ingredient necessary for a Pelicans 49 win season is to take care of their Eastern Conference opponents. Twenty wins would be a realistic goal to shoot for, with anything over twenty wins being lagniappe.

Surviving the West

The Western Conference is a different proposition when it comes to winning percentages, for the bottom seeds at least. The Spurs for instance, went 38-14 (.730) versus the West which was a slight drop off from their .800 winning percentage against the East.

The Warriors, the Grizzlies and the Mavs won 31, 29 and 29 games against their western counterparts. As you can see, all of the winning percentages for the playoff teams dipped against the Western Conference teams because of the stiffer competition.

The Pelicans need to set a goal of 29 wins versus the west to secure a 49 win season. A few breaks may go their way depending on if, for instance, Westbrook and Durant are back with the team for both of their December 2014 tilts.

So far, the Pelicans are 1-2 versus the west, but luckily the Lakers await on Wednesday.

Taking Care of Business

The major difference between playoff teams from the West and the non-playoff teams were how they performed against teams that were under .500. All of the playoff teams, except the Rockets, won at least 75% of their games versus sub .500 teams.

In my analysis, I wanted to find out what the biggest difference was between the T’Wolves (10th seed in the west) and the playoff teams since there was a nine game win difference between them and the eight seed.

The T’Wolves went 23-12 versus sub .500 teams which accounted for seven less wins than the seventh and eighth seeds.

The problem is nobody can predict which teams will finish the season under .500. Can it still be expected the Kings will have a losing record? Nevertheless, there will be enough teams that finish with more losses than wins for the Pelicans to prey upon. Thus, let’s shoot for 30 wins versus sub .500 teams in the 2014-15 season.

Beating the Best

Because of their divisional counterparts, the Pelicans may face more teams that will finish the season over .500 than most other teams, but for practical purposes, that is neither here nor there.

Last season, the Spurs went 29-16 (.644) against teams that finished the season with a record over .500. However, seeds 5-8 all finished with losing records versus teams that finished the season with a record over .500.

Portland, winners of 54 games, had a 21-22 record versus winning teams last season. The Warriors were 19-25 (.432) versus winning teams and the Mavericks were only 19-24 (.442).

It appears making the playoffs does not necessarily depend on beating the best teams a majority of the time. The Pelicans can lose more games than they win versus the better teams in the league and still win the 49 games that were required to make the playoffs last season.

Advanced Stats

The Offensive Rating for all teams that made the western conference playoffs last season ranged from 112.1 (Clippers) to 106.3 (Grizzlies). No team finished the season lower than the Grizzlies (15th) in ORtg and were successful in making the playoffs in the West.

The Defensive Rating for teams making the playoffs in the Western Conference ranged from 102.4 (Spurs) to 108.7 (Mavs). The Mavs were 22nd in DRtg and still won 49 games last season.

It is early, but the Pelicans currently have an ORtg of 104.1 (17th) and a 101.9 (7th) DRtg. I can see both of these improving. For example, it is not inconceivable the shooting efficiency improves and the defense develops better continuity as the players become more familiar with each other and the system.

The Quagmire that was the Timberwolves

As stated, I analyzed the Timberwolves season from a year ago because they finished nine games out of the playoffs and the ninth seed, the Suns, finished one game out of the playoffs. What were the reasons for the Timberwolves failures?

  • For one, the T’Wolves finished with a 16-14 record versus the Eastern Conference, which already placed them four games off the mark posted by the eighth seed Mavs.
  • The T’Wolves also finished with a 24-28 record versus the west. That is not a horrible record, but they did give up five games in that spot to the Mavs.
  • The T’Wolves record versus sub .500 teams (23-12) has been discussed, but their record versus the teams that finished over .500 was 17-30. Just two games under the mark posted by the Mavs.
  • The real confusing part about the T’Wolves season is the fact that they had an Offensive Rating of 108.9 (9th) and a Defensive Rating of 106.2 (12th). This illustrates the fine line between a playoff team and a non-playoff team.

The Magical 2007-08 Hornets Season

Every fan of the franchise remembers the season where the New Orleans Hornets won 56 games and secured the number two seed in the West.

  • Versus the East, which was a more respectable conference that season, the Hornets won 22 of their 30 games played.
  • The Hornets posted a 34-18 record versus the West. Both of those records would be in line with the Clippers season from last year.
  • Where the Hornets were really efficient was against teams that were inferior to them. The Hornets posted a 32-4 (.888) record versus teams that finished under .500 for the 2007-08 season. The lesson here is to beat the teams you are supposed to knock off and the season has a very good chance of success.
  • That Hornets team, that won 56 games, was barely above .500 against teams that finished the 2007-08 season with a greater than .500 record. Their record in those games was 24-22, which is in line with how the top four teams in the West performed last season.

Conclusion

The anatomy of a Western Conference playoff team is made up of a few simple parts: 1) beat the teams from the Eastern Conference, 2) take care of business against the weaker teams in the league, and 3) survive the games versus the best teams in the league (ala the Spurs game).

If the Pelicans can do those few things, they will more than likely win 49 or 50 games. The question won’t be, will they make the playoffs, but how high of a seed they will attain.