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Memphis Grizzlies awarded advantage over New Orleans Pelicans and rest of Western Conference teams chasing playoff dreams

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But hey, Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball will soon appear in eight compelling games — and possibly more

Memphis Grizzlies v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

If you haven’t done so yet, put this thought in your head right now: a perfect return-to-play scenario never existed for the Pelicans. It might make the reality of their new situation a little easier to swallow.

14 of New Orleans remaining 15 regular season games were scheduled to come against teams with below .500 records, but Covid-19 eviscerated that plan quickly. With the NBA slated to keep the league’s eight worst performing teams away from Orlando, the Pelicans road to the 2020 playoffs is going to be more difficult.

All of the invited teams will play eight games, which will go towards the regular season standings and decide ultimate seedings. In the Western Conference, the eight and nine seeds will face off in a play-in tournament after the culmination of said games — provided the 9th seed is within four games of the 8th seed. The 9th seed will face single elimination while the 8th will face double.

ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and The Athletic’s Shams Charania revealed additional details yesterday about what the rest of the 2019-20 season will look like once it resumes on July 31st. However, we didn’t learn about the potential schedules for the invited 22 teams until Yahoo’s Vincent Goodwill clued us in a little later.

Based on this information, a quick glance at the original remaining schedule indicates the Pelicans should face the Kings, Jazz, Clippers, Spurs, Grizzlies, Kings, Grizzlies and Magic.

It could be worse. Five of the eight matchups come against direct competition for the eighth seed (note: all teams under .500), and only the Clippers are considered a legitimate Finals contender.

Interestingly though, if you apply the same formula to San Antonio’s remaining schedule, the Spurs should play the Pelicans twice (Nuggets, Grizzlies, Pelicans, Jazz, Jazz, Nuggets, Kings and Pelicans).

Enter Goodwill again.

Will the Pelicans close out the abbreviated eight-game schedule against the Magic or Spurs? Will it come down to some complicated algorithm or could it be a simpler computation? Dan Feldman of NBC Sports went with Orlando in his estimation due to the following logic: “So, whenever a team arrived at an opponent that already reached eight games, I just continued to that team’s next game.”

With this matter potentially solved, or really just frivolous to continue pondering, let’s talk about fairness — a thing most Memphis supporters claim does not exist with the league giving a pack of teams currently outside of the playoff standings a chance to overtake their beloved Grizz.

“I would like to see some of these fringe teams who have been just fighting, scratching, clawing, getting healthy — I’d like to see them have a chance,” Nancy Lieberman recently said on our podcast. “I’d love to see Damian Lillard, who is one of the most unbelievable human beings but one of the most incredible players in our league, alongside Zion.”

When factoring fan interest, league revenue and a fair shake, the New Orleans Pelicans always deserved a chance to keep their season hopes alive. And the same goes for the Portland Trail Blazers, Sacramento Kings, San Antonio Spurs, and to a much lesser extent, the Phoenix Suns.

Four of the five teams trail the eighth-seeded Grizzlies by four games or less in the loss column, but roughly 20% of the regular season was left to be decided and the Grizzlies faced an unfavorable closing schedule. The standings were not set in stone.

Team Record vs above .500 opponents Record vs below .500 opponents Remaining schedule vs above .500 opponents Remaining schedule vs below .500 opponents
Grizzlies 8-20 (28.6%) 24-13 (64.9%) 11 games 6 games
Trail Blazers 10-21 (32.3%) 19-16 (54.3%) 7 games 9 games
Pelicans 9-27 (25.0%) 19-9 (67.9%) 3 games 15 games
Kings 9-21 (30.0%) 19-15 (55.9%) 7 games 11 games
Spurs 11-19 (26.7%) 16-17 (48.5%) 9 games 11 games

If you calculate the remaining games to be played and accompanying winning percentages, the Pelicans and Grizzlies might have tied at 39 wins apiece.

And to wander down that path a little further, New Orleans held a 2-0 season series advantage over Memphis in the race for the tiebreaker.

Jumping back to reality though, these results do not factor enough pertinent data to be mistaken for a legitimate projection, but according to 538’s NBA Raptor Predictions, the Pelicans had 60% odds of reaching the playoffs before the season was suspended. The Grizzlies? 15%.

“The Grizzlies have the toughest last 18-19 games,” Lieberman said. “For the Pelicans, they had one of the best — I mean, you heard it from Alvin often. November, December, early January was just a witch because they were playing the best. They were playing playoff teams.”

Memphis supporters obviously hate these what-if arguments, but one thing is clear, the season wasn’t settled before the NBA suspended action. Unfortunately, it may very well now be, with this short eight-game regular season finish and play-in tournament. Per Zach Lowe and Kevin Pelton on The Lowe Post:

Zach Lowe: What percentage of your simulations does Memphis finishing these eight regular season games in the 8th slot?

Kevin Pelton: About 80% of the time.

Lowe: Okay, so that’s an enormous...so 80% of the time not only does Memphis not fall back at all, they stay in 8th which means they enter the play-in tournament with this win-two chances-to win-one advantage. I had heard through other sources that Memphis was unhappy with the entire idea of a play-in tournament. I understand that. Very few teams have blown a 3.5 games at 17 games. I do think this was a particular season in which the chances of that were much greater than usual. I think Memphis has to be happy with this because to me, unless you totally fall on your face, your worst case scenario probably is going to be you finish 8th and you have two chances to win one game.

Sounds like the odds improved greatly, Memphis. And here’s a fun kicker: the Pelicans may have to beat the Grizzlies four times in order to get into the playoffs.

Sigh.

Pelton went on to admit that he didn’t think fairness was necessarily the “guiding light” for the NBA in resuming the season. He thought it was more tied to entertainment.

It’s no secret, stars are the lifeblood of the league. They’re featured on the most highlights, are discussed daily on sports talk shows, and are known to attract the bulk of casual followers. There’s a reason why TMZ and various other media microscopes are infinitely more attune to the actions and words of LeBron James than Solomon Hill. Including Zion Williamson and Damian Lillard, along with dangling a juicy carrot to a handful of teams looking from the outside in, makes for smart planning to increase fan interest.

But let’s not overlook the financial angle. If the league is going to go through the trouble of resuming the season, they might as well get their money’s worth. Marc Stein broke this down nicely in his latest newsletter.

The N.B.A.’s justification for a field of 22, arbitrary as the number may sound, is that it includes every team that was within six games of a playoff spot when the season was halted. Asking them to each play a minimum of eight games in Orlando is sure to be questioned from a safety perspective, but don’t forget the finances involved. There were 259 regular-season games remaining when the season was suspended; it is believed that playing roughly a third of them will help many teams satisfy their contractual agreements with regional television partners.

There was a time it looked like the NBA was going to jump straight into the playoffs by bringing the 16 teams currently sitting inside the postseason bubble; however, let’s be glad they didn’t — even if New Orleans odds of sliding into the playoffs have been lowered significantly. From the very first day of training camp, this season for the Pelicans was more about evaluation and development than chasing the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy.

David Griffin and fans alike were anticipating meaningful games being played down the stretch of March and April. At least that wish remains intact, albeit a lot later in a calendar year that everyone probably wishes could be flushed down the toilet.