Just ten games remain for the New Orleans Pelicans in the 2016-17 season. The playoffs are a distant hope but could become slightly more reasonable (which is not to say actually reasonable) with a victory tonight over the Denver Nuggets.
More pressing is the need to catch not only the Nuggets but pass the Dallas Mavericks and Portland Trail Blazers along the way. Portland plays their second-to-last back-to-back tonight as well, against the Los Angeles Lakers. Since the All-Star break, the Lakers are 2-12 under the reign of Magic Johnson. Maintaining their lottery pick, which would convey to the Philadelphia 76ers if it falls outside the top three, is clearly the priority for Los Angeles at this point.
Therein lies the rub for the Pels diminutive playoff hopes. It is not just finishing five games better than the Nuggets and securing a tiebreaker in three head-to-head match ups; New Orleans must also chase down a hot Portland team (11-5 since the All-Star Break) with a relatively easy schedule to boot.
Race for 8th - Schedule Breakdown
There are a couple details to work out here. Portland and Denver have not decided their tiebreaker yet, but all signs point to Portland owning it. They are already ahead 2-1 in the head-to-head (final game on Tuesday in Portland) and are substantially ahead in divisional record. In order for the Nuggets to win the tiebreaker, they must win all their remaining divisional games and Portland must lose all of theirs. If the teams are tied at the end, almost assuredly Portland will own the tiebreaker and make the playoffs.
New Orleans has a chance to secure the tiebreaker against both Portland and Denver. It requires going 3-0 against Denver and winning the final game of the season, in the Rose Garden, over the Blazers. The Pelicans last won in Portland on November 26, 2010. It was the 15th game Monty Williams served as the head coach and the then-Hornets were 12-3.
I haven’t mentioned the Dallas Mavericks yet for good reason. They have by far the most difficult schedule and nearly as far to climb as the Pelicans so they’re just as unlikely of finding passage into the playoffs.
None of this is to say the remaining ten games cannot be fun. DeMarcus Cousins has certainly injected new life into a typical game and the Houston contest on Friday, while a loss, was thoroughly enjoyable until the wheels came off in the final minutes. The question of retaining Alvin Gentry and/or Dell Demps will be influenced by the team’s performance over the next three weeks. Valuable information on how to best fit Anthony Davis and Boogie Cousins together, and the pieces not yet here but necessary, will also be discovered to some degree.
At this point the team has won too many games to reasonably tank. Even if they are mathematically eliminated, do not expect this franchise to commit to seeking losses (and potentially valuable ping pong balls). FYI, the only draft prospect to focus on today for the Pelicans is Sindarius Thornwell of South Carolina (Sunday at 1:20 PM on CBS), who is slotted in the mid-to-late second round.
If we started the season over with Boogie, I’d expect the Pelicans to make the playoffs. If the season started when Jrue Holiday returned they’d be the favorites. But, that 0-8 start (the second 0-8 start in a row under Gentry) now feels more like a noose, at least for the Pelicans playoff chances. Maybe next October and November they can avoid stepping on all the rakes available.