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New Orleans Pelicans reloaded and ready to assist vaulting Southwest Division back to usual level of prominence

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Despite tons of roster turnovers, the league’s toughest division is on precipice of reclaiming its title

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Dallas Mavericks
Jrue Holiday attempts to stay in front of Luka Doncic in a Dallas-based contest between the Pelicans and Mavericks on Dec. 26, 2018.
Andrew Dieb-USA TODAY Sports

Pokémon video games have evolved a lot since they first hit North American stores in September of 1998, but the freedom to catch any and, if the slogan has any say, all of the titular creatures has remained intact. The third of three second-generation of games was 2001’s Pokémon Crystal, which features an iteration of the Johto region that I have explored more thoroughly than my own home town. After nearly two decades, I like to think I’ve experienced enough trail-and-error to know which of the myriad companions make the most tactical sense for progressing through the game’s gauntlet of Gym Leaders. Yet, even with a well-trained Quilava, a rock-solid Geodude, and a Bellsprout giving out major Tina Belcher vibes by my side, I still struggle to surpass what has long felt like one of the series’, and potentially the world’s, most formidable obstacles:

Goldenrod City’s Gym Leader Whitney, and her Miltank.

Miltank is a Normal-type Pokémon, which isn’t particularly exciting, but between its large pool of Health Points (HP) and use of the Rollout ability, which gains strength after each consecutive use, this cow makes life difficult for even the sMOOthest of Pokémon operators. Five additional Gym Leaders and an Elite Four await trainers once they leave Goldenrod City with Plain Badge in hand, but taking down Miltank may be the toughest challenge of all.

The Pelicans will be traveling 49,822 miles this season according to Positive Residual, a mark set to be surpassed by just seven teams, but no flights will depart for the fictional Johto region. (Which, for all intents and purposes, is only accessible by rides on the Magnet Train or the S.S. Aqua anyway.) An examination of the recently-released schedule may not reveal a stop at Whitney’s gym, but each 82-game iteration since 2004-05 has included a Miltank-esque challenge in the form of 16 games against the rest of the Southwest Division.

The Anthony Davis-era in New Orleans coincided with the second wind of the Gregg Popovich-led San Antonio Spurs dynasty, the peak of the Memphis Grizzlies’ Grit and Grind era, the ascent of the Houston Rockets to the top of the standings, and the last vestiges of the Dallas Mavericks 2011 championship team, whose struggles in recent years are buoyed by three straight seasons in the playoffs from 2014-2016. Success for the Pelicans in the last seven years has been scarce in no small part because the teams they have played most often have consistently been among the league’s most competitive. Jrue Holiday and company may be on the precipice of a new era of New Orleans basketball, but no matter the volume of roster turnover for any of the five teams, there seems to be no escape from the inevitable gauntlet that is the Southwest.

Anecdotal evidence alone can make a fairly compelling case for the Southwest as the league’s most competitive division, but advocates for other divisions could likely use some just as effectively. There are only so many ways to spin raw data, though, and the numbers that matter give credence to claims that the eastern-most Western Conference division may also be the best. Here is a line graph measuring the annual average win totals for every division accompanied by the seven-year average win totals, which can be found in the legend:

When the regular season ended in 2013, no division had averaged more wins than the Southwest (45.4), a mark anchored by 58 wins from the eventual conference champion Spurs and 56 more from the fifth-seeded Grizzles. Despite already topping the league, the division’s average wins increased to 49.8 in 2014, which is second-best in the entire data set only to the Southwest’s 2015 average from the following year, 52.2. Fifty-two point two wins! Not only was that a whopping 9.4 more than the next closest division (the Central, at 42.8), it tops the mark that any single team in the Southeast has had since LeBron James left Miami.

The Pelicans capped off that regular season with an unforgettable victory over the Spurs, which not only clinched the franchise’s first playoff berth since the departure of Chris Paul, but ensured that every team in the Southwest would be extending their season for at least four more games. Only the 2006 Central had previously sent all five teams to the postseason in the current league alignment, and no division has done it since.

It took the entire Northwest winning at least 46 games by the end of the 2018 regular season to dethrone the Southwest, which averaged a fourth-best 41.2 wins. Though last season marked a jump back into the top three (thanks in large part to a sharp decline in the Central), the average dropped to 40, a seven-year low. With Memphis, Dallas and New Orleans all already hoping to take the next steps in their rebuilds, that 40-win average could very well remain the low point for years to come.

Raw win totals only tell a part of the story though, especially in the Eastern Conference, where the bar for playoff participation is a bit lower. With that said, here are the number of playoff teams each division has contributed in the same seven-year time frame:

Last season was the only one of the group in which the Southwest did not have at least three teams finish in the top eight, but the success of the Rockets and Spurs was enough to ensure still that their division would be the only one in the league to send multiple teams to the playoffs in each of the past seven years. However, that level of sustained success does not mean the circumstances of the teams achieving it have stagnated; in fact, the reality is quite the contrary.

The Rockets have topped the division in three of the last five years, including the previous two, but James Harden’s primary supporting cast has morphed from Trevor Ariza and Dwight Howard to Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson and Clint Capela to Chris Paul, Austin Rivers and Capela to, now, Russell Westbrook, Gordon and Capela. Gregg Popovich’s Spurs have been as consistently competitive as any franchise in the history of sports, but they’ve transitioned in recent years from legitimate title threat to potential playoff contender, and this season could threaten their streak of 22 consecutive years in the postseason. Both the Mavericks and the Grizzlies have begun rebuilds in hopes of regaining their status as perennial Western Conference threats, and their respective duos of Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis, and Jaren Jackson Jr. and Ja Morant may very well be the keys to doing that and more. And that leaves the Pelicans, whose trading of Davis in June was the clearest indication of sea change of all and signals a selected path of a quick reboot — not some long rebuild. The talent surrounding Jrue Holiday is incredibly interesting, ranging from four rookies that took Las Vegas by storm to established veterans respected highly around the league. Zion Williamson, Derrick Favors and JJ Redick are all expected to impact winning in New Orleans immediately.

Houston is gearing up for yet another attempt to dethrone the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference, but none of their four neighbors figure to be shoo-ins for the 2020 playoffs. Can San Antonio squeeze all they can out of their star-bereft roster? Will Memphis’ collection of veterans complement their young core well enough to outpace expectations? Do Dallas and New Orleans have what it takes supplant the likes of the Trail Blazers and the Thunder in the standings?

In a vacuum, one could argue quite reasonably that the answer to each of these questions is no, but given the history of the Southwest Division, no one should be surprised if they all turn up yes.