The New Orleans Pelicans have a lot going for them right now. They have a budding superstar in Anthony Davis (yes, he’s out with a hand injury, but his talent is well-established), Ryan Anderson is shooting the ball better than ever and after two seasons near the bottom of Western Conference, they are playing competitive ball once again, with their record hovering around .500. There’s just one problem: they play in the wrong conference.
If the Pelicans were an Eastern Conference team, there would be no doubt as to whether they could make the playoffs. They currently have a better record than the New York Knicks, Brooklyn Nets, Chiacgo Bulls, Detroit Pistons, Cleveland Cavaliers, Toronto Raptors, and Washington Wizards — all Eastern Conference teams who have been disappointing out of the gate this year. If the playoffs started today — and the Pelicans were in the East — they’d be the No. 3 seed. Instead, they play in the over-crowded West, where a playoff spot will likely require at least 45 wins, probably more. Do the Pelicans have enough talent on their roster to reach the postseason in the far-superior conference? It’s not impossible, but it will be extremely difficult.
The Western Conference was already going to be highly competitive this year, but that became even more true after the Portland Trail Blazers and Phoenix Suns exploded out of the gate, playing way better than anyone would have thought. The Blazers were supposed to battle for one of the last few playoff spots and the Suns were supposed to enter the Andrew Wiggins sweepstakes. Instead, the Blazers are one of the best teams in conference, and the Suns appear to have a legitimate shot at securing a playoff berth. Other than the dreadful Utah Jazz, there’s really no one in the West who can be taken lightly. Even the lowly Sacramento Kings might be a little scary if the Rudy Gay-DeMarcus Cousins combo proves to be effective.
So, how do the Pelicans make it out of the pack, and sneak into the top-8? A lot of it is going to depend on the ‘Brow. Before his injury, Davis was having a phenomenal season, looking every bit like the stud he was expected to be when he went No. 1 overall in 2012 draft. His player efficiency rating is 28.3, second in the league behind LeBron James, and he was averaging a league-leading 3.6 blocks per game. Based on what he’s done so far this season, there’s reason to believe that Anthony Davis is one of the best players in the league. But right now, he’s sitting on the sidelines in a suit, as the Pelicans try to hold down the fort without him.
if the Pelicans can avoid falling out of the race while Davis is out, they have a puncher’s chance at a playoff spot. Luckily, that battle became much easier this week when Tyreke Evans, who was supposed to be out of the lineup for up to two weeks, managed to return without missing a single game. if Ryan Anderson’s shots keep falling, and Evans doesn’t fall back into the slump that marked the beginning of his season, the Pelicans should be in good shape when Davis comes back.
If the Pelicans are still at or around .500 when Davis returns, they have an outside shot at a playoff berth, but it still won’t be easy. The Memphis Grizzlies will be getting Marc Gasol back around the same time, and they’ll also be fighting for one of the last few spots. The Grizzlies are a more experienced team, better at grinding out close games. But they lack a player with the raw talent of Davis. If the Pelicans vault past the Grizzlies and every other team fighting for a spot, it will be because the brilliance of Davis gives them an advantage none of the Western also-rans has. This doesn’t mean they’re guaranteed to make a playoff spot — the sheer number of quality teams makes that very uncertain – but with Davis, they have a stronger weapon than any of their competitors, and they can’t be taken lightly.