It's official: the Pelicans have moved ahead of the Oklahoma City Thunder and currently reside in the 8th position in the Western Conference.
Since the Pelicans own the tiebreaker, the lead is theoretically greater than just .5 games; however, before anyone gets too excited, there are a couple of things that need to be mentioned.
First, the Thunder have an easier rest of the season schedule. 11 of the Thunder's remaining 18 games are at home; 8 of their remaining 18 opponents have W/L records under .500. Conversely, the Pelicans have 8 home games versus 9 away games left, and they will play just 6 teams with losing records.
Second, Kevin Durant is nearing a return.
Kevin Durant was re-evaluated today and will return to play in a week to two weeks, Scott Brooks says.— Royce Young (@royceyoung) March 11, 2015
Why is this important? Because despite all the Westbrook-for-MVP talk of late, his performances haven't been helping the Thunder in the win column.
The Thunder with Russell Westbrook but without Kevin Durant haven't been so great this season: pic.twitter.com/3nJbsWS193— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) March 12, 2015
If Durant comes back in a week, he'll miss only 3 more games; 2 full weeks from today and that jumps up to 7 games. Considering Oklahoma City are 19-9 when both Durant and Westbrook play, his exact return could make the difference in the playoff race.
The Cuban Factor
For either team that ends up behind the other in the standings, there may exist an alternate scenario the playoffs become reality. In the past two months, the Dallas Mavericks have been quite mediocre. Since January 7th, they have gone .500 (15-15).
Even newcomer Amare Stoudemire senses the discord and has ripped the team for it.
Amar'e Stoudemire rips his new team: "I came here to win ... This is something we can't accept." http://t.co/OyEd8qZXgD— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) March 11, 2015
Tim Cato over at Mavs Moneyball touched on their decline yesterday. Here's a relevant excerpt:
What is Jan. 7? It's the day the Mavericks' schedule got hard. The real pendulum was Dec. 18, of course, when the Rajon Rondo trade occurred. You can run the same data starting on Dec. 18 instead of Jan. 7 and get slightly better, but similar, results. The Mavericks did record a six-game winning streak from Dec. 26 to Jan. 5, but the competition was nonexistent: the Lakers, the Thunder without Durant, the listlessWizards, the Celtics in Rondo's emotional homecoming, the Cavaliers without LeBron, and the Nets in overtime.
This season will be remembered for that mid December trade, which has turned into an abject failure. You can admit that while still supporting the logic behind the move, but the dismal results provide objective truth.
According to Playoffstatus.com, the Mavericks have the third hardest remaining schedule. 11 of their final 16 games are against the top 10 teams in the Western Conference plus they have a couple of games against the Pacers and Jazz (two of the hottest teams in the NBA). Thus, it's quite conceivable they close out their final 16 games with a sub-.500 record, and it would perhaps open the door for either the Pelicans or the Thunder if they both were to play very well for the rest of the season.
If the Pelicans take care of business over the final 17 games, what the Thunder, Mavericks or any other team does will be irrelevant. Starting today, New Orleans controls their own destiny, even if injuries try to continue to keep one hand tied behind the team's back.