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The Pelicans’ Road to the Western Conference Playoff Goes Through…The East?

Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The Pelicans enter Thanksgiving week with an 8-8 record sustained after two straight losses, the most recent a blowout in Denver where the defense gave up nearly 150 points on 63% shooting and 51% from three. So it’s understandable that most Pelicans fans are feeling a little down, as if they’re walking under a raincloud that follows them like those 50s cartoons. And they come to this website this Monday morning, looking for a little bit of sun to shine through their negative outlook, or at least an umbrella of rationalization to keep them dry.

Well, sorry, I only have this big bucket of ice water here.

It’s hard to be overly optimistic about the Pelicans right now, even in light of my last article where I felt good about going 5-5 through ten games. So what has changed in the last six games? Not too much: the Pelicans are still putting in inconsistent performances from everyone except for the Big Birds. But the main reason for skepticism is the long stretch of upcoming Western Conference games starting with tonight’s game against the Oklahoma City Thunder. And so far it appears that the Pelicans have a Western Conference problem.

In the sixteen games they have played, the Pelicans have faced nine Western Conference teams and seven Eastern Conference teams. The imbalance between conferences has been discussed so much that it doesn’t need repeating, and I don’t need to reach a word limit so I won’t go over it again here. The Pelicans have beaten four of their nine opponents in the West, and those four teams happen to be in the bottom five teams in the conference, with a combined record of 18-46. The five Western teams they’ve lost to have a combined record of 47-30. So to boil this down as much as possible, the Pelicans have feasted on the bad teams and have struggled against the good teams. This is a bad sign because the combined record of the ten opponents the Pels face in this stretch is 86-73.

We will learn a lot about the team during this brutal portion of the schedule, but as of right now the Pelicans have proven themselves to be a middle of the road Western team. So is there is a silver lining amongst all of this bad metaphorical weather? If there is, it can be found out East.

I was talking about this with a smart basketball person I know, and he said one of the biggest priorities for the Pelicans should be winning against Eastern Conference opponents. At first I sort of dismissed it. “Oh, really? It’s a priority to win games? Tell me more, sir!”

But as I thought about it, and as I analyzed the team so far, I realized how much this made sense. As I stated above, the Pelicans have been beating the bottom-feeders and losing to the contenders. If that trend holds out throughout the season, the team will need to have a winning record against the East in order to put itself in position to make the playoffs. Last year, the 5th and 6th seeds in the West, Utah and Oklahoma City, went 20-10 and 18-12 against the East respectively. Right now the Pelicans are 4-3 against the East, and all four of those wins are against losing teams.

I know, I know, I keep focusing on records and numbers are really boring. I apologize, but it’s important. Because if the Pelicans want this year to be the year they break through, they have three options: they start to win against the top teams in the West, or they take care of their business in the East. These next ten games will let us know which option is more viable. And if the Pelicans wish to develop an identity beyond “middle of the road team,” this is the perfect place to start.

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Jon Nathan Raby, from New Orleans, is the creator of The Footbawl Blog, a satirical and irreverent take on the NFL. His work has also been seen in The Postgame and the Yahoo Sports Contributor Network.

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