Pelicans players greet each other during a timeout at Smoothie King Center

Did You Know That… New Orleans was trying to tie two unusual NBA ‘records’ that reflect in-season resilience?

by Jim Eichenhofer
@Jim_Eichenhofer

Last fall, NBA analysts may not have universally picked New Orleans to reach the 2020 Western Conference playoffs, but most agreed that the Pelicans would improve upon their disappointing 33-49 record from 2018-19. However, after starting this season 7-23 – including a franchise-longest 13-game losing streak – even the most optimistic Crescent City basketball fan figured the Smoothie King Center was OK to start booking other events for late April.

Beyond the obvious, there was also substantial evidence from the past to support the notion that things were hopeless. In the 70-plus year history of the NBA, no team has ever had a longer losing streak longer than 13 games and still qualified for the playoffs. Oddly though, three clubs in league annals have lost exactly 13 in a row and managed to crack the postseason field (none since 2002). Furthermore, a 7-23 start represents the worst-ever record that an eventual playoff team has sported through the first 30 games of a regular season. Here are the entire lists in both categories:

Teams reaching playoffs in NBA history despite a 13-game losing streak (via Elias Sports Bureau):

-Toronto 2001-02, finished 42-20 as No. 7 seed in East, lost 3-2 in first round to Detroit, dropping deciding Game 5 by 85-82 margin

-Phoenix 1996-97, finished 40-42 as No. 7 seed in West, lost 3-2 in first round to Seattle, dropping deciding Game 5 by 116-92 margin

-Chicago 1976-77, finished 44-38 as No. 6 seed in West, lost 2-1 in first round to Portland, dropping deciding Game 3 by 106-98 margin

Teams reaching playoffs in NBA history despite starting season 7-23 (via Elias Sports Bureau)

-Cleveland 1984-85, finished 36-46 as No. 8 seed in East, lost 3-1 in first round to Boston

-Baltimore 1952-53, finished 16-54 as No. 4 seed in East, lost 2-0 in first round to New York (eight teams made playoffs in 10-team league)

In other words, if New Orleans (28-36) manages to earn a ’20 postseason berth, it would become the first team to successfully overcome the adversity of experiencing both negatives within the same season. In their final 18 regular season contests, the Pelicans were scheduled to play eighth-place Memphis (32-33) twice more, along with two matchups vs. Sacramento (28-36) and three against San Antonio (27-36), at least partly putting their fate in their own hands.

One interesting coincidence about one of the three teams in NBA history that shook off a 13-game losing streak and still made the playoffs? Current Pelicans Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations David Griffin happens to be very familiar with the ’96-97 Phoenix team. That same year, Griffin was promoted into the Suns’ basketball operations group, working for its video department.

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