When the NBA resumes its 2019-20 season in Orlando, with a target tip-off date of July 31, the New Orleans Pelicans will sit three games back in the loss column of the Memphis Grizzlies, who are currently the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference. But it’s not the Grizzlies, first and foremost, the Pelicans are chasing. If they catch Memphis, great, and they’ll definitely have their chance to do that (as we’ll discuss below), but really they just need to jump Portland into the No. 9 seed while remaining within four games of Memphis.
If they do that, they’ll get their shot.
If you’re not yet familiar with the way the 16 playoff spots will be determined, it’s pretty simple: Each of the 22 teams in Orlando will play eight “seeding” games that will constitute the conclusion of the regular season and lock in the Nos. 1-7 seeds in each conference. If at that point, the No. 9 seed is within four games of the No. 8 seed, those two teams will settle the final spot via a play-in series that would require the lower seed to beat the higher seed twice.
So again, New Orleans just needs to jump Portland, the current No. 9 seed, while remaining ahead of Sacramento, San Antonio, and Phoenix and within four games of Memphis, and they’ll get that shot at a playoff berth. The unfortunate thing is: The Pelicans should already be ahead of the Blazers.
As stated above, the Pelicans are three games back in the loss column of Memphis while the Blazers are four back, and New Orleans swept Portland this season 3-0. In a normal 82-game schedule, the Pelicans would control their own destiny vs. the Blazers, and under normal rules, they would also own the tiebreaker because of the head-to-head advantage.
But the NBA decided to make winning percentage, not head-to-head record, the first tiebreaker, and since Portland has played two more games than New Orleans to this point, its winning percentage is decimal points higher despite having one more loss. The Pelicans will not get to play Portland as one of their eight seeding games, either, and will also miss out on the opportunity to play the Hawks (twice), Knicks and Hornets — cupcake dates that existed on their pre-suspension schedule.
Indeed, the Pelicans played one of the toughest schedules in the league over the first half of the season, meaning they were set to reap the benefits of one of the easiest closing stretches. Now the bottom eight teams in the league are done, and instead, the Pels will likely play the Kings, Jazz, Clippers, Spurs, Grizzlies, Kings, Grizzlies, and Magic to finish their schedule.
You’ll notice two games against both the Kings and Grizzlies. That’s good news. It means the Pelicans largely control their own destiny against one of the teams chasing them (Sacramento), and they can also close the gap on Memphis to one game before they need a last bit of help. Jumping into the No. 8 seed prior to a play-in series is within the Pelicans’ grasp, which would mean they’d only have to win one game in the play-in series rather than two.
Either way, if the Pelicans do find a way into the postseason, they would almost certainly find themselves matched up with the top-seeded Lakers in the first round. The headlines would write themselves for that one, and surely the storylines would be fun after Anthony Davis forced his way out of New Orleans and LeBron James, shall we say, strenuously nudged Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart out of Los Angeles.
But could the Pelicans actually threaten the Lakers?
The smart money would say no, and indeed the Lakers would be a landslide favorite. But these are weird conditions. No fans. No home-court advantage. LeBron James has reportedly been staying on his teammates’ case to make sure they come back in shape and mentally focused on the opportunity in front of them, but by the time these games tip-off players won’t have played a real NBA game for almost five months. The bottom line is everyone is going to come back in varying degrees of condition and rhythm.
That could work against the Pelicans just as easily. Perhaps Lonzo Ball won’t just be able to pick up where he left off before the suspension when he was shooting better than he has at any point in his career. The Pelicans would have to be nearly perfect to actually beat the Lakers four out of seven times. But at least say this: With a lot more variables in play, the chances of catching the Lakers on a couple down nights and suddenly turning a 1-8 series into a barnburner are better than they would be under normal conditions.
Plus, the Pelicans would not be a normal No. 8 seed. This is a roster that easily has the talent and certainly the depth of a top-four seed. They were decimated by injuries and, as previously mentioned, played one of the toughest schedules in the league over the first half. Plus, Zion Williamson didn’t suit up until Jan. 22. Nothing the Pelicans did before that date is any indication of what kind of threat they might pose in the playoffs.
In Williamson’s 19 games, the Pelicans were only 10-9, and that included two losses to the Lakers. But anyone who watched those games did not leave disappointed. The Pelicans were right there in both affairs — down two heading into the fourth quarter on Feb. 25, and up two heading into the fourth quarter on March 1. The Lakers wound up winning both those games by a comfortable margin on paper, the latter without Davis in the lineup, but nobody’s saying the Lakers aren’t the far better team.
LeBron was brilliant in both those games, going for 40 points on Feb. 25 before posting a 34-point, 13-assist, 12-rebounds triple-double in the final matchup. But Zion hung right there with him, scoring 35 and 29, respectively. It’s not often that an 8-seed has a player that can, at least for stretches, rival the dominance of a LeBron James, but Zion is unlike any rookie the modern game has seen from a physicality standpoint, and he’s already polished beyond his years in terms of knowing how to leverage his size and strength. He is a problem, flat out.
And the Pelicans could be, too. Consider that among five-man units that have played at least 200 minutes together, the Pelicans’ healthy starting lineup when we return of Ball, Ingram, Jrue Holiday, Derrick Favors, and Zion has the best net rating in the league at plus-26.3. There’s some noise in that number, but if you’ve watched these guys when they’re clicking for the short time they’ve had Zion, it’s a number that passes the eye test. Throw in the weird conditions, and yeah, the Pelicans might be able to give the Lakers a scare.
But they have to get there first.
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