There’s an old adage that once you’re 20 games into the season, you can see who teams are. After an overtime loss to the Golden State Warriors on Sunday, the New Orleans Pelicans are 11-12, having played inspired ball in their first game without Anthony Davis. The team has had an interesting couple of weeks, adjusting to life without Eric Gordon, and releasing two players (Darius Miller and Patric Young) for backup point guard Gal Mekel and Dante Cunningham.
As the Pelicans currently stand, the team is percentage points behind the Phoenix Suns for the eighth and final playoff spot. Of course, that is deceiving, with the Oklahoma City Thunder a half game behind both teams, and having just gotten back Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. The real issue is the gap between these eighth seed hopefuls, and the seventh seeded Dallas Mavericks, which stands at five games already. Short of a catastrophic injury befalling one of the teams in the top-7, it is hard to see any of these three playoff hopefuls catching any of the other teams. So the real question is which of the Thunder/Suns/Pelicans triumvirate makes the leap into better play to take a hold of the playoff seed. Last year, the Thunder were the second seed in the West, and the Phoenix Suns won 48 games. Neither of those teams are .500 teams. So for the Pelicans to make the playoffs, they have to go on a run soon.
There are some things in their favor for this. The Pelicans have played the 6th toughest schedule to date as of 12/15/14, as per predictionmachine.com (The Thunder and Suns have played the 19th and 21st toughest schedules, respectively.). Also, Anthony Davis is playing otherworldly 24.3 points, 10.2 rebounds, 2.7 blocks and a machine-breaking 33.09 PER, as per ESPN.
The team does have to change some things if they want to make a playoff push. The team has been great at home (7-3) but will need to improve on the road, where they are dismal (4-9). The Pelicans have also regressed both in rebounding (43.3 per game, good for 13th in the league), and defense (102.3 points allowed per game, 23rd.) That is a huge regression from the start of the season. That last stat is extremely problematic, for the Pelicans slow pace actually hides the ineffectiveness of the defense so far. They are 25th in defensive rate this season as per basketball-reference.com, and 20th in pace. The Pelicans shouldn’t be playing so slow, not when Anthony Davis is a monster who gets better with more possessions, and can beat every big man down the floor. Not when guys like Luke Babbitt and Gordon are playing, and easy to attack on the defensive side of the ball, and the team allows their opponents to get into any action they want. This is a team of ballhandlers and sprinters, it makes sense to get the ball and run down the court into open space. That has not been Monty’s style, but it will be interesting to see if he tries to play to an untapped strength of this team.
The team’s next two weeks are pivotal (though in the West, every game is pivotal.) After a home game against the Utah Jazz, the Pelicans will play three tough games in a row against Western Conference playoff teams as they go to Houston, then home against Portland, before going to Oklahoma City. They also play home games against San Antonio and Phoenix the following week. The Pelicans need to win a fair amount of these games to start putting them on the plus side of .500, in order to make a dent in the playoff race.
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