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By The Numbers: New Orleans Pelicans may not be contenders, but postseason well within reach

But they will have to fight off a few other Western Conference hopefuls to get there

NBA: Playoffs-New Orleans Pelicans at Golden State Warriors
Jrue Holiday slices and dices through the Splash Brothers feeble defenses during a playoff matchup from May 1, 2018
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The first two parts of our By The Numbers series included overviews of the Pelicans’ overall WAR production and the defensive contributions to those totals, all with the help of FiveThirtyEight’s CARMELO system. This, our third and final part, wraps up the series by examining CARMELO’s Pelicans lineup projections, measuring them against the rest of the Western Conference, and ultimately predicting how their season will play out. As always, I will be happy to answer any questions about the data in the comments or on Twitter.

Measuring, or at least attempting to measure the value that an NBA player brings to their team can be and often is a worthwhile exercise, but the race for the best WAR in sports isn’t one that will compel millions of fans around the world. They don’t all keep up with the everyday happenings of the league for essentially a full calendar year to see Bill Russell greet the league’s most analytically sound team beneath a shower of confetti at season’s end (though sometimes that’s what they see anyway). The real showstopper is the battle for the coveted Larry O’ B, awarded to one team per year at the closest thing to an end the unceasing NBA calendar can boast: The Finals.

Fortunately for the fate of this exercise, FiveThirtyEight’s CARMELO system knows this too. In addition to individual player projections, complete predictions for the coming season are available in the form of championship odds and regular season records for all 30 teams. Whether these provide a confidence boost or a chip on the shoulder depends on where the viewer’s loyalty’s lie, but their utility as a baseline for any NBA fan is unimpeachable.

It is important to note that these predictions are just that: predictions. They are assessments of the most likely outcomes, not guarantees of what is to come, and FiveThirtyEight founder and editor-in-chief Nate Silver clarified just this in the wake of the 2016 presidential election. CARMELO grants the Philadelphia 76ers the best championship odds at 27 percent, which is not the same as stating that the Sixers are going to win. In fact, it still believes there is a 73 percent chance they won’t win it all! All of the records and percentages to come are meant to be a reference point upon which expectations can be based.

A common criticism of advanced data systems such as CARMELO is that “anything can happen despite what the numbers say,” and the accompanying misconception is that they don’t account for those unlikely results. Au contraire! Nothing is for certain. CARMELO believes there is a 95 percent chance that one of their top eight teams will win the NBA Finals in 2020, which means if the season were to be played 100 times, the title would be won by one of the other 22 teams five times. I say all of this with the hope of addressing some valid concerns that readers have expressed throughout the series. Anything can happen over the course of an 82-game season, but CARMELO is merely attempting to calibrate our expectations.

That’s enough data defense. Let’s talk Pelicans.

New Orleans is on the heels of winning the draft lottery and selecting the first overall pick for themselves, which is, in the grand scheme of things, a great thing for the franchise’s long-term prospects. Unfortunately, the history of lottery-winning teams in the season immediately after their stroke of luck has not been great.

Thirty teams have kept their number one selection for at least one season, and the average record from those 30 seasons is 31-51 (the records of the 1999 Clippers and the 2012 Cleveland Cavaliers strike-shortened seasons were adjusted to 82 games). Three of the four teams between 2005-06 and 2008-09 qualified for the postseason (2006 Bucks, 2007 Raptors and 2009 Bulls), but none were able to advance out of the first round. Just two other teams in the two decades prior managed the feat, and both happened to be iterations of the San Antonio Spurs. The 1998 Spurs were the only team of this bunch to win a playoff series and whose 56 regular season wins was the highest total by 9 (the 2007 Raptors won 47), but the 1988 team was swept in round one after inexplicably advancing with a 31-51.

The Pelicans’ postseason prospects are even brighter than the 20 percent success rate of the 30 teams above may suggest. Their collection of talent simultaneously has a productive history and plenty of room to grow. For that reason, CARMELO projects them (as of July 30) to finish 12 games better than the average of the lottery-winning teams at 43-39...

2019-20 Western Conference Record Projections (according to CARMELO)

Team Projected Record Playoff Chances
Team Projected Record Playoff Chances
Houston Rockets 58-24 98%
Denver Nuggets 51-31 88%
Los Angeles Lakers 50-32 86%
Golden State Warriors 50-32 84%
Utah Jazz 50-32 84%
Los Angeles Clippers 48-34 73%
Dallas Mavericks 45-37 63%
New Orleans Pelicans 43-39 51%
Minnesota Timberwolves 42-40 46%
Oklahoma City Thunder 41-41 39%
Portland Trail Blazers 40-42 31%
San Antonio Spurs 37-45 21%
Phoenix Suns 36-46 14%
Memphis Grizzlies 35-47 14%
Sacramento Kings 33-49 8%
Data provided by FiveThirtyEight

...and as more likely to make the playoffs than not! At 51 percent, the Pelicans’ playoff chances are the eighth-best in the Western Conference, barely beating out a Timberwolves team that had a slight edge over them when the predictions were initially released. If they were to slot into the top eight, they’d be the first qualifying team to do so since those 2009 Bulls.

Houston’s 58 projected wins easily outpace Denver’s 51, but the Lakers, Warriors and Jazz are each just a single victory out of the top two with matching projections of 50-32. The Clippers are not far behind with 48 wins, but they do round out what appears to be the top tier (or tiers, depending on what you think of the Rockets) of the conference.

The final two playoff spots appear to be the most vulnerable. Among the four other teams projected to win at least 40 games in addition to the Pelicans are the Mavericks, who hope to ride sophomore Luka Doncic and a fully healthy Kristaps Porzingis to their first postseason since 2016 and happen to be neighbors to New Orleans in the Southwest Division. The four games these teams are set to play could prove to be the difference when all is said and done, and could spawn one of the next decade’s best rivalries.

CARMELO combines their WAR forecasts with estimates of how many minutes each player will play to develop an overall CARMELO rating meant to convey just how good a team is. These ratings are derivatives of the Elo ratings that were first implemented by the United States Chess Federation to evaluate chess ability (Arpad Elo, the creator, was a master-level chessmaster), with the number rising in victory and falling in defeat. In addition to basketball, these ratings have since permeated many other competitions in certain ways, but most notably in online multiplayer video games.

In any case, here is what the Pelicans rotation and resulting CARMELO rating (the “ELO” ending to the name now a bit more relevant) ultimately figure to be to get to that 43-39 (as of July 30; note that no CARMELO data yet exists for Nicolo Melli):

Data provided by FiveThirtyEight

Fluctuations in performance naturally play a part in maintaining the trademark fluidity of the Elo ratings, but injuries often have the most sizable impact. CARMELO alters their rotations based on injuries, but also maintain a setting that estimates the roster’s effectiveness when or if it is ever gets fully healthy. Here are the current ratings of each team (as of July 30) compared to their full-strength counterparts:

Current CARMELO Ratings vs. Full-Strength CARMELO Ratings

Team July 30 CARMELO Full-Strength CARMELO Full-Strength Minus July 30
Team July 30 CARMELO Full-Strength CARMELO Full-Strength Minus July 30
Houston Rockets 1712 (1st) 1712 (1st) +0.0
Golden State Warriors 1634 (3rd) 1657 (2nd) +23.0
Los Angeles Lakers 1641 (2nd) 1647 (3rd) +6.0
Los Angeles Clippers 1529 (10th) 1629 (4th) +100.0
Denver Nuggets 1627 (4th) 1627 (5th) +0.0
Utah Jazz 1606 (5th) 1615 (6th) +9.0
Dallas Mavericks 1591 (6th) 1595 (7th) +4.0
Portland Trail Blazers 1519 (11th) 1580 (8th) +61.0
New Orleans Pelicans 1570 (7th) 1570 (9th) +0.0
Minnesota Timberwolves 1558 (8th) 1558 (10th) +0.0
Oklahoma City Thunder 1543 (9th) 1543 (11th) +0.0
San Antonio Spurs 1512 (12th) 1512 (12th) +0.0
Memphis Grizzlies 1495 (13th) 1495 (13th) +0.0
Phoenix Suns 1493 (14th) 1493 (14th) +0.0
Sacramento Kings 1473 (15th) 1473 (15th) +0.0
Data provided by FiveThirtyEight

Teams like the Clippers, Warriors and Trail Blazers are currently nursing injuries to key players (Paul George, Klay Thompson and Jusuf Nurkic) that will provide sizable boosts to their teams upon their healthy returns.

To merely make the playoffs is one thing, and a very valuable thing at that, but taking home the title after four consecutive series victories is another thing entirely. The halting of the pace and the crunch of the defense are just two of the many characteristics of NBA basketball in the playoffs, which more often than not plays like a different version of the sports that fans just enjoyed for the previous six months and change. To account for this, CARMELO produces ratings unique to postseason play. Here are the full-strength CARMELO ratings for each Western Conference team in the regular season compared with their postseason counterparts:

Full-Strength CARMELO Ratings for Regular Season vs. Postseason

Team Regular Season CARMELO Postseason CARMELO Postseason Minus Regular Season
Team Regular Season CARMELO Postseason CARMELO Postseason Minus Regular Season
Houston Rockets 1712 (1st) 1763 (1st) +51.0
Los Angeles Lakers 1647 (3rd) 1732 (2nd) +85.0
Golden State Warriors 1657 (2nd) 1721 (3rd) +64.0
Los Angeles Clippers 1629 (4th) 1695 (4th) +66.0
Denver Nuggets 1627 (5th) 1665 (5th) +38.0
Utah Jazz 1615 (6th) 1642 (6th) +27.0
New Orleans Pelicans 1570 (9th) 1621 (7th) +51.0
Dallas Mavericks 1595 (7th) 1608 (8th) +13.0
Portland Trail Blazers 1580 (8th) 1593 (9th) +13.0
Minnesota Timberwolves 1558 (10th) 1568 (10th) +10.0
Oklahoma City Thunder 1543 (11th) 1568 (11th) +25.0
Phoenix Suns 1493 (14th) 1525 (12th) +32.0
Memphis Grizzlies 1495 (13th) 1513 (13th) +18.0
San Antonio Spurs 1512 (12th) 1511 (14th) -1.0
Sacramento Kings 1473 (15th) 1478 (15th) +5.0
Data provided by FiveThirtyEight

That the Nuggets and Jazz fall to fifth and sixth after ranking second and tied for third respectively in terms of best record is no mistake. In addition to distinguishing between a current roster and its injuries and the fully healthy version of it, CARMELO also estimates how minutes distribution will differ between the regular season and the postseason. In a playoff environment, the best players on a team tend to play more minutes than they did throughout the 82 games, which rewards teams with top-tier players. The Lakers, for example, are predicted to play LeBron James and Anthony Davis for 34 minutes per game in the regular season, but for 39 and 38 minutes respectively in the postseason.

These two immensely valuable players are getting nine extra minutes of action that had, in the regular season, been given to the likes of JaVale McGee and Jared Dudley. The production gap of those two pairs is much more than, say, the Jazz giving 8 of Emmanuel Mudiay and Georges Niang’s minutes to Donovan Mitchell and Bojan Bogdanovic. Mudiay and Niang aren’t necessarily much better that McGee and Dudley, but Mitchell and Bogdanovic will likely do less with that added time than James and Davis would.

With all of this in mind, the line between the true title contenders of the West and the rest of the pack is apparently drawn right below the Jazz and above the Pelicans, but both teams are a far cry from the best bets to win it all (as of July 30):

2019-20 Western Conference Championship Chances (via CARMELO)

Team Championship Chances
Team Championship Chances
Houston Rockets 25%
Los Angeles Lakers 13%
Golden State Warriors 10%
Los Angeles Clippers 5%
Denver Nuggets 3%
Utah Jazz 2%
New Orleans Pelicans <1%
Dallas Mavericks <1%
Portland Trail Blazers <1%
Oklahoma City Thunder <1%
Minnesota Timberwolves <1%
Phoenix Suns <1%
Memphis Grizzlies <1%
San Antonio Spurs <1%
Sacramento Kings <1%
Data provided by FiveThirtyEight

Houston, Los Angeles and Golden State are joined by the Eastern Conference’s Sixers and Bucks as the five teams with title chances above 10 percent. They represent roughly 17 percent of the NBA’s population, but wield 74 percent of the chances at a title. That may seem like a lot, and it is, but for a league that has long been characterized by its elite teams, that no team is given a better than 27 percent chance (Philadelphia) is indicative of a wide-open race to the top.

The fifth-largest rise in CARMELO rating from regular season to postseason isn’t enough to bump the Pelicans’ title odds above one percent. They do, however, have the best shot among other conference teams with a less-than-one percent chance as well as the seventh-best chances in the entire West, if those feats are any consolation. If somehow, some way, New Orleans finds themselves hosting a victory parade next summer, you can say that FiveThirtyEight had given them a chance, albeit a minuscule one.

Though the official start of the 2019-20 season is still months away, most teams, including the Pelicans, have likely finalized their rosters. A lot can happen in 1230 regular season games and 13 playoff series, and I’m going to go out on a limb and say a lot will happen. It’s impossible to know exactly what, but Pelicans fans should at the very least expect an exciting and competitive season to launch what could be their most compelling era of NBA basketball yet.