The New Orleans Pelicans can't do anything to quell media chatter regarding the future of Anthony Davis. All the Pelicans can do is make it as hard as possible for Davis to leave New Orleans.
Part of that, of course, is showing Davis that the Pelicans can compete with the best teams in the Western Conference. And while they did a pretty good job of that last spring, reaching the conference semifinals for the first time in 10 years, things have been tougher this season.
The Pelicans have seen the league's fourth-biggest increase in offensive efficiency, scoring 3.9 more points per 100 possessions than they did last season. But they've also seen the fourth-biggest increase in defensive efficiency, allowing 4.5 more points per 100 possessions than they did last season.
The Pelicans still have a positive point differential (+0.9 per game, ninth in the Western Conference). But they've struggled in close games, going 7-14 (only Cleveland has been worse) in games that were within five points in the last five minutes. They've also struggled on the road, where they're 4-15, having lost five straight away from the Smoothie King Center.
Entering 2019 in 14th place, there couldn't be a greater sense of urgency for the Pelicans to turn things around right now. But if they're going to do that, they'll have to do it on the road, because they have the most road-heavy January schedule in the Western Conference, with nine of their 14 January games on the road.
The Pelicans open the month with five straight games against teams that are at or below .500. They'll play in Brooklyn on Wednesday and in Cleveland on Saturday before returning home to play the Grizzlies and Cavs.
But then they head out on a five-game trip in which they'll visit five teams ahead of them in the West standings. And after hosting the Pistons on Jan. 23, they'll finish the month with four games against teams -- Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Houston and Denver -- that have a cumulative winning percentage of .611.
The Pelicans aren't the only Western Conference team that has struggled on the road. But they're the team that will have to confront their road struggles most often in the next 31 days. And all the games against teams ahead of them in the standings are both a challenge and an opportunity.
Rest advantage / Rest disadvantage: Games in which one team (at a disadvantage) played the day before and the other (at an advantage) did not. This season, teams are 84-50 (.627) with a rest advantage, 61-25 (.709) at home and 23-25 (.479) on the road.
Here's a breakdown of every Western Conference team's January schedule...
Some more Western Conference notes:
- The Nuggets have the West's easiest schedule in regard to cumulative opponent winning percentage, with two games against the Suns and one each against the three worst teams in the East (New York, Chicago and Cleveland). Their ninth-ranked offense also has the league's easiest schedule in regard to opposing defenses, with only three games against teams that currently rank in the top 10 in defensive efficiency and eight games against teams in the bottom 10. But the Nuggets do have a five-games-in-seven-days stretch from Jan. 7-13, when they'll go from Houston to Miami to Denver to Phoenix and then back to Denver.
- The Warriors are one of two teams (the Knicks are the other) with only 13 games this month. But they will be tested with seven games against the top 12 teams in the league, with a five-game trip that includes games against the Clippers, Lakers, Celtics and Pacers.
- The streaking Rockets begin the year with two tough road games, visiting the Warriors on Thursday and the Blazers on Saturday. But they'll then play nine of their next 12 games at home, where they've won nine straight (and 13 of their last 14).
- The Clippers have a five-games-in-seven-days stretch from Jan. 22-28, playing the last three games of a four-game trip in Dallas, Miami and Chicago before returning home for a back-to-back against the Kings and Hawks.
- The Lakers are one of three teams (the Cavs and Knicks are the others) that don't have a January game against an opponent that's playing the second game of a back-to-back.
- The Grizzlies' defense has slipped a little in the last few weeks, having allowed 110 points per 100 possessions or more in seven of their last 12 games. And it will be tested big time in January, with a league-high 10 games against teams that currently rank in top 10 in offensive efficiency. That includes two games each against the fourth-ranked Pelicans and fifth-ranked Spurs. No other team has more than seven January games against top-10 offenses.
- The Timberwolves will play the league's toughest January schedule in regard to opposing defenses. Seven of their 14 games (including a home-and-home set against the Jazz late in the month) are against teams that enter the month in the top 10 in defensive efficiency and only three (two against the Suns) are against teams in the bottom 10.
- The Thunder are the only team in the league that doesn't have a rest-disadvantage game this month. They have one back-to-back, but the second game (at home on Jan. 22) will also be the second game of a back-to-back for their opponent (Portland).
- The Blazers have the West's second easiest schedule, with home games against each of the bottom four teams in the East. But they also have four important games against the ninth-place Kings and 11th-place Jazz.
- The Kings have a league-high five rest-advantage games in January. They begin the year with seven of their first eight games at home, but then head out on a six-game trip (their longest of the season).
- The Spurs' cumulative opponent winning percentage for their January slate is over .500 (seventh-toughest in the West), but mostly because they play two games (a home-and-home set) against the Thunder. The Spurs will play 10 of their 15 January games (including two early games against the struggling Grizzlies) against teams that are currently at or below .500.
- The Suns' last three games of December were against the three best teams in the Western Conference (Oklahoma City, Denver and Golden State). And now, they have the league's toughest January schedule in regard to opponent winning percentage, the punishment for being the only bad team in their conference. The worst team that they'll face this month is the 17-20 Timberwolves.
- The Jazz begin the month with a four-game trip through the East, after which they will have played 25 (61 percent) of their 41 games on the road. But then they'll be home for eight of their next nine, with only a one-game trip to face the Clippers in between two four-game homestands.
Surprise Pacers face some East tests
The Indiana Pacers were last year's surprise team, finishing fifth in the Eastern Conference after trading franchise player Paul George, with Victor Oladipo winning the Kia Most Improved Player award.
The Pacers qualify as one of the league's most surprising teams this year too. Through December, they have the league's second-best pace-adjusted point differential, having outscored their opponents by 6.4 points per 100 possessions. They've been the league's most improved defensive team, having allowed 5.0 fewer points per 100 possessions than they did last season.
At the start of the season, we thought we had three elite teams -- Boston, Philadelphia and Toronto -- in the Eastern Conference. The Milwaukee Bucks quickly put themselves in that conversation by winning their first seven games, and they remain the only team that ranks in the top five in both offensive and defensive efficiency. Now, we have to include the Pacers, who currently sit in third place at 25-12, just a game and a half behind the first-place Bucks.
No team has been better at taking care of business. The Pacers have played the league's easiest schedule through Monday and they're a league-best 19-2 against the 14 teams that enter 2019 with losing records.
Things don't get much more difficult in January. In regard to cumulative opponent winning percentage, the Pacers have the league's fourth-easiest January schedule. They also have four rest-advantage games (compared to two rest-disadvantage games).
But the Pacers do have four games against the other good teams in the East. They begin 2019 with a five-game road trip that includes stops in Toronto on Sunday and Boston next Wednesday. Then they have a five-game homestand that includes visits from the Sixers (Jan. 17) and Raptors (Jan. 23). The Raptors are one of two East teams (the Hornets are the other) that the Pacers have yet to beat, but they'll have a rest-advantage in both of those January meetings with Toronto.
For another measuring-stick game, the Pacers will get a visit from the champs on Jan. 28.
Some more Eastern Conference notes:
- The Celtics have the league's most home-heavy January schedule, playing 11 of their 15 games at TD Garden, and their four road games are all against teams -- Miami, Orlando, Brooklyn and Atlanta -- that go into the month with losing records. In fact, their three January games against teams that currently have winning records are the fewest in the league. The Celtics will begin January with a four-game homestand (that includes a visit from the third-place Pacers) and they'll end it with a five-game homestand (that includes a visit from the Warriors. Their biggest game of the month could be a visit from the Toronto Raptors on Jan. 16.
- The Nets enter January having played a league-high nine back-to-backs. They'll play two more this month (every team has between one and three in January), and both include games against the Bulls and Celtics. They'll visit Chicago and Boston on Jan. 6 and 7, and they'll be back at TD Garden on the 28th before hosting the Bulls on the 29th. Three of their four games against the Celtics are this month, with a home game on Jan. 14.
- The Hornets go into 2019 shorthanded, with starters Jeremy Lamb (hamstring strain) and Cody Zeller (broken hand) both suffering injuries in their win over Orlando on Monday. And their January schedule will offer them no relief. Not only do they have a league-high 10 road games this month, but nine of their 14 January games are against teams that currently have winning records. After hosting the Mavs on Wednesday, they will embark on a six-game trip through the Western Conference (having played the league's most home-heavy schedule to date).
- As the Pistons fight for one of the last three playoff spots in the East, they hope to maintain their (modest) success against the West. They'll play 11 of their 16 January games against the opposite conference, with seven straight against the West after they host the Bucks on Tuesday. Detroit is currently one of five East teams with a winning record (they're 4-3) against the West.
- The Heat's schedule is going to get really tough in February, but they have the league's easiest January schedule in regard to cumulative opponent winning percentage, with eight of their 14 games against teams that currently have losing records. That includes seven games against the bottom five teams in the East (two each against the Cavs and Bulls.
- The Bucks currently lead the league in offensive efficiency and rank third on defense. They could actually make a push toward ranking No. 1 on both ends of the floor early in the month, playing seven of their first 10 January games against teams that rank in the bottom 10 on offense.
- The Sixers will start and end January on the West coast. Their first two games of the month are the end of a five-game trip, and their last three games of the month are the start of a four-game trip. In all, they'll play 10 of their 15 January games against the Western Conference. But after they visit the Clippers on Tuesday, they'll play seven straight games against teams that currently have losing records.
- The Knicks and Wizards will play in London on Thursday, Jan. 17, a meeting that counts as a home game for Washington.
- The Raptors have the toughest January schedule among the top 10 teams in the East. It includes five games against the other four East teams with winning records. They have a tough back-to-back this weekend, visiting Milwaukee on Saturday and hosting the Pacers on Sunday. They'll also play in Boston on Jan. 16, visit Indiana on Jan. 23 (the second game of another back-to-back), and host the Bucks on Jan. 31.
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