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New Orleans Pelicans have clear path to 2019 playoffs but it involves traversing road less traveled

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How does history regard playoff hopefuls with a very poor road record? Not good, but there exists optimism for a turnaround.

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at New Orleans Pelicans
Nikola Mirotic (center) and Elfrid Payton (right) will have to help Anthony Davis (center) flip the Pelicans fortunes in the clutch.
Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Play along for a minute and guess the following two teams.

Team A has been a force to be reckoned with so far this season. Their league-leading 116.9 points per 100 possessions on offense has propelled them to a healthy winning percentage over 70%. That figure is anchored by a 58.4 true shooting percentage, but even when the shots aren’t falling, Team A is elite at securing second chances, pulling down 32.2 percent of offensive rebound opportunities, the best rate in the league. For all intents and purposes, Team A is an offensive juggernaut that no team will want to face come playoff time.

Team B could not have imagined how poorly the first half of their season would play out. Their net rating per 100 possessions of -1.0, the eleventh best mark, could be much worse, yet their winning percentage is bottom-eight in the league. On defense they rank slightly lower as their 111.4 mark is tied for eighteenth. In other words, not even their 7th-ranked offense is enough to buoy their playoff hopes. At this point, a trip to the lottery seems inevitable for Team B.

If you have not yet been able to deduce which teams I am speaking of, you would do well to remember that this is a Pelicans-centric site.

Team A: This season’s Pelicans at home.

Team B: This season’s Pelicans on the road.

Despite a solid 15-6 home record, the Pelicans’ 6-17 mark on the road has put their postseason prospects in a precarious position. In an attempt to find precedent for a playoff team with such drastic splits, I looked through the end-of-regular-season standings in the Western Conference from 2010-11 through 2017-18.

The Data

Of the 64 teams that have qualified for the Western Conference Playoffs this decade, 25 managed to do so with a road winning percentage below 50, which comes out to 39.1 percent of the sample. If you reduce the sample to the 32 bottom-four seeds, 21 have registered similar marks away from home, good for 65.6 percent. Barring a miraculous run through the rest of the road schedule, the Pelicans will be testing their fate against these numbers, which are not horrible but are certainly far from ideal.

NFL: NFC Divisional Playoff-Philadelphia Eagles at New Orleans Saints Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

However, “below .500” is not descriptive enough to account for just how putrid the Pelicans’ road performance has been. The winning percentage for a 6-17 record sits at 26.1, a number that, even on its best day, with a great night’s sleep and a Saints trip to the NFC Championship Game in tow, barely reaches half of 50 percent.

That is bad news.

The cumulative winning percentage of those 21 bottom four seeds that lost more than half of their road games is 41.9 percent. The single worst team in that group is the Utah Jazz from the strike-shortened 2011-12 season, who won just 11 of their 33 road games. Among the teams that played the standard 41 road games, no team fared worse than last season’s Spurs, whose 14-27 road record (34.1 winning percentage) was counterbalanced by a 33-8 mark at home (80.5 winning percentage) that was good for third best in all of basketball. An additional six teams finished with a road winning percentage below 40 (39.0) because of 16-25 records: the 2016-17 and 2015-16 Portland Trail Blazers, the 2015-16 and 2010-11 Memphis Grizzlies, the 2012-13 Los Angeles Lakers and the 2012-13 Houston Rockets.

The teams that were able to sneak in would all have been dead in the water if not for their above average or, in some cases (like those 2017-18 Spurs), elite home records. The Pelicans are 15-6 in the Smoothie King Center, which boils down to a solid 71.4 winning percentage. Based on what we know about seasons past, what has to happen for New Orleans to make consecutive playoff appearances for the first time since 2008-09?

The Goal

If extended through a full season, 15-6 gets to 29-12 and 6-17 gets to 11-30. That means at this rate, the Pelicans would finish the season with a 40-42 record and would almost certainly miss the playoffs. There are obviously three ways the team can reduce the likelihood of this fate: improving their play at home (without falling off on the road), improving their play on the road (without falling off at home) and by improving their play everywhere (hard-hitting analysis here at The Bird Writes, I know).

Identifying a need for improvement inherently brings to the forefront the question of just how much improvement will be necessary. In the seven 82-game seasons this decade, the eighth-seeded teams have averaged roughly 45 wins, a reasonable place to set the bar for this team if it wants to make the playoffs.

Overall improvement is far from a pipe dream for two primary reasons: the team’s recent recovery from a well-documented onslaught of injuries (lock this tweet in a safe and protect it forever) and their woeful performance in the clutch (defined as games where neither team was ahead by more than five points in the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime).

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Los Angeles Clippers Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

The impact of these factors has probably overlapped a bit. If not for key injuries to Elfrid Payton (31 games missed) and Nikola Mirotic (16 games missed), performance in clutch situations could have improved or games may not have reached clutch status at all. But for as much as injuries could be scapegoated, the Pelicans’ Expected Pythagorean Record, which is based on their overall point differential, injuries and all, is 25-19, a whopping four games better than their current 21-23 mark. The Pelicans have been victimized by their own lack of execution down the stretch both at home and on the road, but with Payton and Mirotic both expected to be on the floor in those clutch situations (though expectations do not always come to fruition), those struggles are hopefully nearing their end.

It is hard to ask for the Pelicans to perform better than they have at home. They play like a 58-win team in front of their home crowd, and that includes the fact that four of those losses were ultimately decided by six points or fewer. With that said, at least maintaining the home record pace of 29-12 they are currently on is imperative.

That brings us back to the road. Six wins out of the first 23 is extremely tough. Based on our data from this decade, 16-25 should be the bar the team sets for themselves. That would require an 10-8 finish to the season, or in other words, a winning percentage of 55.6. Conveniently, New Orleans will be visiting 10 teams from here on out who are not currently projected to make the playoffs. If they can beat all of those teams, they would be all set. If they drop one or two, as they have already done on more occasions this season than they would like to admit, an equal amount of playoff-level-opponent upsets would be necessary. Hitting these benchmarks is a lot easier said than done, but given how poorly things have gone for this Pelicans team so far, it is not as hard as it may have seemed.

They can only hope that the injury bug will leave them alone and that their three-point percentage in the clutch can improve from 17.8 (!). If both of those things fail to occur, finishing with 29 wins at home and 16 on the road will be almost implausible. One silver lining? The Jazz are currently slotted into the eighth seed with a 24-21 record, which projects to 44 wins. That number is subject to major fluctuation thanks to the uncertain status of their star player, but it is the number right now nonetheless, and it gives New Orleans a sliver more room for error than history usually allows.

Outperforming these baselines is always a possibility, especially with a player like Anthony Davis on hand, but a baseline path to the playoffs is right there for the Pelicans. Now, they just need to take it.