Much has been made about the Pelicans being eliminated from the playoff hunt already. This is done, naturally, due to a lack of star power and proven mettle on the Pelican side compared to their peers in the Western Conference. It is also an effect of being the third youngest team in the conference; only the Utah Jazz and Minnesota Timberwolves are younger. Of course, if Dell Demps had taken the preferred path, the team would be young, but bad. Instead, they are young and mediocre. This, is a problem? I don't know how to battle with such logic, when it is devoid of logic.
I agree that the stars (figuratively and literally) point to the same eight teams getting into the playoffs. Both the Spurs and Thunder are more than likely going to get healthy and go one some absurd tear. San Antonio has a habit of doing just that on their rodeo road trip. The Thunder have two of the best players on the planet in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Of course those eight teams are going to do well, they have every reason to expect it.
What that doesn't mean, is that the Pelicans cannot do well on their own. New Orleans cannot do much about what Oklahoma City or San Antonio does outside of the game between each other. Of course, this is a great time to point out that the Pelicans are 4-1 against the Thunder and Spurs with only an Asik fluke tip to blame for a loss in overtime. The young, immature Pelicans have already beat both teams on their home court.
Instead, I want to dive into the road ahead. What does the past schedule tell us about the future, etc.
Struggles Against the Top Echelon
As you can see, the Pelicans have yet to get a win against the top eight teams in net rating according to Nylon Calculus. While New Orleans was blown out in three contests (@GSW, @LAC, home versus POR) they have been relatively competitive in all other matchups. This group comprises just 14 of the remaining 49 games. The Pelicans can pull out an upset or two. Unfortunately the Pels will not have a rest advantage in any of these 14 games. There will be no schedule wins.
The Muddy Middle
In case you're wondering, the Pelicans slot between Cleveland and Milwaukee. Here is where Anthony Davis and company need to continue to make hay. 9-6 does not sound like an impressive record until you dig into where the games have been played. Nine of those games were on the road. That imbalance will flip by the end of the season, with the Pelicans playing 20 home games and 19 road games against these fringe playoff teams.
Dominating the Bottom
Don't think the Pelicans take care of business against bad teams? They have yet to lose a game against the seven worst teams in the league. Unfortunately, due to being in a competitive conference, New Orleans faces the dregs of the NBA just 19 times. To compare, they face the top seven teams 22 times. Given geographic and football rivalry, let's compare that split (22 top, 19 bottom) to the Atlanta Hawks.
The Hawks will face the seven worst teams in the league 21 times. The top seven (not including themselves, so add in Chicago) just 17 times. Don't think Dell Demps and company would gladly switch out two games against Golden State (NOLA plays four times, ATL twice) for two more games against Philadelphia (the reverse)?
Again, the Pelicans can't make OKC, San Antonio, or Phoenix lose games outside of the ones they play in. New Orleans is 5-1 in such games. Let's assume that the Pelicans simply maintain their current home and road performance against each echelon of the NBA. Where does that leave them?
- 0-24 against the top echelon
- 25-14 against the middle
- 19-0 against the bottom
That puts them at 44-38 (a ten game improvement over 2013-14), finishing the season over the next 49 games 27-22. That's probably not going to be good enough. They'll have to do better. The most obvious candidate is to pull out a couple upsets against the elite in the league.
Last season New Orleans defeated Memphis in three out of four games. Unfortunately January 9th is the only game the Pelicans don't face the Grizzlies on a SEGABABA. Of their remaining ten games against the top eight teams three are on the front side of a back-to-back. Six are on the back side. An absolutely brutal home against Golden State then fly out to the Grindhouse awaits the Pelicans if they stay in the playoff race until April 7th and 8th.
If the Pelicans cannot steal a win or two against the elite they will have to improve in the middle. Can they avoid losses like the blow out in Denver? Can the Pelicans finish games like their heartbreaking losses to San Antonio and Golden State in overtime? All these tiny bounces will be what determines if the Pels make the playoffs.
The Western Conference is ridiculous. The Pelicans probably won't make the playoffs because young teams lose games they win with experience. That does not mean the team has no potential, remember they are the third youngest team in the conference. Anthony Davis is just 21 years old and no one knows what his ceiling even resembles yet. Jrue Holiday appears to be an accelerated track version of Michael Conley. The Pelicans remain ahead of schedule compared to other Western Conference rebuilds.
It is not the end of the world if New Orleans hands over the 14th pick to the Houston Rockets. Omer Asik is better than whoever will be picked right now. He'll be better than that player next year, and the year after that as well. Probabilities tell us this clearly. The Pelicans could have paid rent twice by taking their paycheck to the casino. Instead they paid their rent, eliminating the possibility they could not at all. That's the very definition of a low risk play. Don't let the promise of a blank slate (draft picks, cap space) tell you any different.