Why are playoff projections so high on the Pelicans?

The Pelicans are in pole position in the playoff race out West despite being 2 games back of Memphis with 23 to play. Why?

If you have been tracking the heated race for the 8th seed in the Western Conference, you might have noticed something weird.  Projection models such as FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR based predictions are bullish about the Pelicans’ chances of securing that final spot.  As of early February 29, New Orleans is given a 74% chance of making the playoffs by FiveThirtyEight.  This is despite the fact that the Memphis Grizzlies are the team currently in 8th place in the standings, two game up on the the Pelicans with only 23 games left to play.  FiveThirtyEight gives the Grizzlies only a 4% chance of making the playoffs.  What is going on here?  Why are we so confident that New Orleans will jump Memphis, and hold off at least three other plausible challengers for that last playoff spot?

We should also note that while FiveThirtyEight’s model is higher on the Pelicans than many, New Orleans is still seen as in the pole position in the playoff race by others.  ESPN’s NBA BPI Playoff Odds odds gives the Pelicans a 41% chance of making the playoffs, higher than anyone else outside the top seven and much better than the Grizzlies’ 7.6% chance.  Basketball Reference gives New Orleans a 45% chance to make the playoffs and gives Memphis only a 13.6% chance.

This discrepancy between the odds and the current standings is tied to the fact that New Orleans has a much easier closing schedule than Memphis.  While I have noted that strength of schedule is not really something to worry about over the full 82 game regular season, it can certainly be a difference maker over a shorter stretch of games.  To measure the effects of strength of schedule precisely, I built a model which predicts each game based on three things: the strength of each team playing (as measured by point differential), who is at home, and whether or not either team is on a back-to-back (playing their second game in two days).  Based on this model, we can compute how an average team, one with a +0.0 point differential, would be expected to play if they were forced to play against each team’s remaining schedule.

The results of this analysis (as of the morning of February 29th) are in the table stored here.  The column “Winning Percentage (Based Only on SOS)” tells us the winning percentage that an average squad would be expected to have against each team’s remaining schedule. So a higher winning percentage implies an easier remaining schedule (and vice versa).

Here are the top five easiest remaining schedules:

Screen Shot 2020-02-29 at 3.36.36 PM

And here are the bottom five toughest remaining schedules:

Screen Shot 2020-02-29 at 3.39.23 PM

 

As we can see, the Pelicans have the second easiest remaining schedule while the Grizzlies are stuck with the hardest remaining slate in the entire association.  But it’s not just this fact alone that is rosy for New Orleans and ominous for Memphis.  Take a look at “Wins (Based Only on SOS)” for both teams.  What we see here is that an average team would be expected to win 2.4 more games against the Pelicans’ remaining schedule than they would against the Grizzlies’.  That 2.4 number is striking because it is greater than the 2 games that currently separate the 2 teams in the standings!  In a vacuum, without knowing anything about the current strengths of the Pelicans and the Grizzlies on the basketball court, we would probably prefer the Pelicans’ position in the playoff race.

But, and this is the second part of what makes New Orleans’s position strong, we are not in a vacuum.  The Pelicans are playing their best basketball of the season, lead by the play of rookie sensation Zion Williamson who recently made his debut after coming back from an injury.  Since January 22nd, when Zion Williamson played his first NBA game, the Pelicans have posted the 6th best point differential in the NBA at +5.7.  In contrast, over that same period of time, the Grizzlies have been underwater with a -3.1 point differential.  Moreover the Grizzlies have been without promising big man Jaren Jackson Jr. for the past week, and he will only be re-evaluated in a week according to an update 6 days ago.

Thus, while the Pelicans and Grizzlies have similar point differentials over the entire season so far, FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR model currently ranks the Pelicans as the 8th strongest team in the NBA and the Grizzlies as the 10th weakest.

It should be noted that this is not just a two-horse race for the final playoff spot out West.  Three rival squads, the Trail Blazers, the Kings, and the Spurs, are breathing down the Pelicans’ neck; each is within a game of New Orleans in the standings.  Plus, each of these three teams have easy remaining schedules as well.  They all rank in the top six for easiest remaining slates.  So, while they all appear less talented than New Orleans on paper right now, a plausible case could be made for each of them as well.

Lastly, my own personal playoff model sees this race as highly competitive.  The Pelicans are seen as the most likely 8th seed chaser to make the playoffs, but not a favorite against the field.  Here are my playoff odds for all the teams with at least an outside shot at the 8th seed (as of the morning of February 29th).

Pelicans: 37% playoff chance

Grizzlies: 19%

Trail Blazers: 16%

Spurs: 15%

Kings: 11%

Suns: 3%

I should caveat this with the important fact that my model is using the Pelicans’ current -0.9 season point differential to project forward.  If you instead consider them a stronger +2.0 team going forward (as an estimate), their playoff odds shoot up to 63% in my forecast.  Regardless of the math, we are hopefully in store for an exciting one and half month sprint for the last playoff seed out West!

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