Jrue Holiday dribbles between Clippers defenders Kawhi Leonard and Lou Williams

On paper, Pelicans may have ‘easier’ slate, but there's little margin for error

by Jim Eichenhofer

For all of the discussion Friday about how “easy” the eight-game schedule in Orlando is for New Orleans – objectively, the Pelicans’ opponents do have the lowest winning percentage among 22 teams – closer examination reveals a more daunting reality. As is the case for several Western Conference teams including Portland, Sacramento, San Antonio and Phoenix, there’s almost no margin for error, given a multi-game deficit behind eighth-place Memphis (32-33). In addition, New Orleans (28-36) will open play by facing a pair of very formidable conference foes, probably needing to win at least one of those games in order to avoid creating a bigger hole.

The Pelicans did beat Utah and the LA Clippers once apiece during the regular season, but dropped four other games against those squads. Incidentally, New Orleans only played a combined five games against the other upcoming opponents, going 3-2. One of those losses was Zion Williamson’s first game, a home loss to San Antonio, while the other was a mid-December home defeat to Orlando, which has enjoyed uncanny success against NOLA in recent years.

Let’s take a closer look at the Pelicans’ eight-game docket, which will take place over a 15-day span:

Thursday, July 30 vs. Utah, 5:30 (TNT)
New Orleans opens the NBA’s 88-game schedule by facing the Jazz for a fourth time this season. The last two meetings – both in the Smoothie King Center – were classics, featuring a controversial non-call in the first, then Brandon Ingram heroics in the second. First-time All-Star Ingram racked up a career-best 49 points in an overtime win Jan. 16.

Saturday, Aug. 1 vs. LA Clippers, 5 (ESPN)
With little wiggle room and the 9-12 standings so tight, this is a tough way for New Orleans to start play in Orlando, facing a second straight top-four West team. The Clippers thumped NOLA in Staples Center by 25 points, but the Pelicans were very competitive at home, posting a 132-127 win and falling 133-130.

Monday, Aug. 3 vs. Memphis, 5:30 (ESPN)
For a variety of reasons, on paper this could be the most important of the eight matchups for New Orleans, which leads Memphis 2-0 in the season series. Realistically, the Pelicans probably must win this game to have any notions of possibly catching the Grizzlies, who enter Orlando with a 3.5-game edge in the standings.

Thursday, Aug. 6 vs. Sacramento, 12:30 (NBA TV)
The Pelicans and Kings are in a flat-footed tie at 28-36 apiece, although New Orleans does hold a 1-0 edge in the season series. This will be the first of two more meetings against Sacramento over just a six-day span.

Friday, Aug. 7 vs. Washington, 7
The Wizards may need to perform well in their first four seeding games to still have a realistic shot at reaching the East play-in round by this point, because they enter the resumption of play trailing eighth-place Orlando by 5.5 games.

Sunday, Aug. 9 vs. San Antonio, 2 (ABC)
After ESPN televised Williamson’s memorable NBA debut vs. San Antonio, apparently the Disney family of networks wanted a second look, adding this to the Sunday afternoon slate. The Pelicans only need to win the same number of games in Orlando as the Spurs to remain ahead of them, due to a current half-game edge.

Tuesday, Aug. 11 vs. Sacramento, 8 (TNT)
Both teams hope that the game that precedes this on TNT’s airwaves – Boston vs. Memphis – will be meaningful to them in some way. This is the penultimate seeding game in Orlando for both the Pelicans and Kings.

Thursday, Aug. 13 vs. Orlando, TBD
It could be interesting to track whether this game becomes important or not for the Magic. Currently eighth in the East but only a half-game behind No. 7 Brooklyn, there is plenty of incentive for Orlando to avoid the play-in round by either overtaking the Nets for seventh, or maintaining a lead of more than four games on No. 9 Washington.

Key games not involving New Orleans:

Friday, July 31
Memphis vs. Portland, 3 (NBA TV) … There’s no easing into the schedule for the Grizzlies or Trail Blazers (29-37), who currently hold the eighth- and ninth-place slots in the West. In order to extend its season past the eight seeding games, No. 10 New Orleans must win at least as many games as Memphis, as well as win at least one more than Portland.

Sacramento vs. San Antonio, 7 … The Kings and Spurs are in a nearly identical position in the standings, both needing to win at least one more game than New Orleans to leapfrog the Pelicans (one caveat: that changes if the Kings win both matchups vs. NOLA in Orlando, because then Sacramento would own the tiebreaking advantage).

Sunday, Aug. 2
Portland vs. Boston, 2:30 (ABC) … The first of six straight Trail Blazers games against teams that are already a playoff lock or virtually guaranteed to be there.

San Antonio vs. Memphis, 3 … Among the Spurs’ first six games, they play Sacramento, Memphis and New Orleans once apiece.

Friday, Aug. 7
Sacramento vs. Brooklyn, 4 … This game is part of a four-game stretch in which the Kings face New Orleans, Brooklyn, Houston, then New Orleans again.

Sunday, Aug. 9
Memphis vs. Toronto, 1 … The only instance in Orlando where the Grizzlies and Pelicans are scheduled to be playing simultaneously – the Pelicans face the Spurs at 2 on ABC.

Thursday, Aug. 13
Milwaukee vs. Memphis, TBD … Will the Bucks still have something to play for in this finale of seeding games? Extremely doubtful. They enter Orlando leading second-place Toronto in the East by 6.5 games.

Portland vs. Brooklyn, TBD … The Kyrie-less and KD-less Nets could factor into the West race, with two of their last four games vs. the Kings and Trail Blazers.

San Antonio vs. Utah, TBD … It will be interesting to see how the 3 through 6 West race plays out, because it’s tight enough to see the Jazz easily move up or down.

Sacramento vs. LA Lakers, TBD … The Lakers only need to win three of their first seven games to lock up the No. 1 seed before they even get to this all-California matchup.

Frequently-Asked Questions

Addressing the series of questions submitted on Twitter in relation to Friday’s schedule release:

From @FMSammy: load management will dictate the play-in (round). If good teams take it easy Pels may have the hardest schedule not easiest.
A very interesting point to consider. As noted above in the “key games not involving New Orleans” section, there’s a distinct possibility Memphis and Sacramento will face opponents in their Game 8 finales that already have No. 1 seeds sealed (Milwaukee and Lakers, respectively). It’s difficult to predict exactly how teams will handle that, given these completely unprecedented circumstances, but one thing to note: Hypothetically, if the Bucks and Lakers give top players DNPs Aug. 13, those specific players could go about a week between competing, because the conference quarterfinals for the 1-8 matchup probably won’t start until Aug. 18.

From @Los12thWard: How many games do the Pelicans need to win to make the eighth seed?
It seems reasonable to think they’ll need to go at least 5-3, maybe 6-2, in order to finish in ninth and remain eligible for the play-in round. Remember, they must stay four games or less behind Memphis in the standings. The odds of the following are extremely unlikely, but theoretically New Orleans could go 7-1 and still not be part of the play-in round, if Memphis goes 8-0 simultaneously. The Pelicans and Grizzlies face each other early, Aug. 3, a game that could factor greatly into the situation for both teams. If NOLA finishes ninth and is within four games of Memphis, the Pels still will need to beat the Grizzlies twice on the weekend of Aug. 15-16.

From @marcelo_unda: What are your expectations going into this?
Nothing specific other than that I think the every-game urgency and small margin for error will be valuable down the road for a young team. New Orleans only has five players who’ve ever been to the playoffs, so hopefully the eight seeding games (and maybe beyond) will pay off in upcoming years. If the Pelicans can pick up from where they left off, they have a chance to post a good record – they were a top-10 NBA team after Christmas.

From @NolaGhostSports: any word on if the local network (FSNO) will carry Pelicans broadcasts for each game?
My understanding is that Fox Sports New Orleans will carry a certain number of games. It has been reported that the NBA wants regional TV networks to be able to broadcast as many games as possible, but there may be some national TV exclusivity (such as the ABC game on Aug. 9). We’ll be getting those details sometime in the near future. Neither the local TV nor radio broadcasts are expected to be generated from Orlando. They’ll emanate from New Orleans studios.

From @ChaseWAtkinson: Are there multiple courts being used or one in Orlando?
There are three venues. The NBA has spaced out tip-offs so that there will be approximately 90 minutes between the completion of games and the start of the next game in the same gym.

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