Pelicans Schedule Breakdown: Road-heavy start will set tone for watershed season
NEW ORLEANS — The New Orleans Pelicans released their schedule for the 2017-18 season.
This season’s schedule has been eagerly awaited since the close of last season. Anticipation and expectations were only intensified during the offseason as the Pelicans were able to re-sign guard Jrue Holiday and add veteran point guard Rajon Rondo to the mix. That along with the prospects of a full season with Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins in the front court have hopes high both at team headquarters on Airline Drive and throughout the fan base.
As a franchise, the New Orleans Pelicans may be approaching their defining moment.
When they arrived from Charlotte as the Hornets, the team was comprised of players either seeking a way out (Baron Davis) or just plain on the way out (Jamal Mashburn).
After falling to the depths of the NBA, New Orleans rebuilt around superstar point guard Chris Paul and All-Star David West, making it to Game 7 of the Western Conference Semifinals. But as then-owner George Shinn began his move away from the franchise, so did good fortune.
It didn’t return until the ping pong balls aligned just right, bringing current cornerstone Davis to the Crescent City. However, as you know, the Pels have tasted the postseason just once in A.D.’s five seasons.
After posting a combined 64 wins the last two years, the pressure is squarely on the team to have a breakout campaign. Without a playoff run Cousins, in the last year of his contract may bolt for greener pastures (both competitively and financially). Rondo is on a one-year deal, and after suiting up for four teams in the last three years, he could be playing for his career. The Pelicans also find themselves right up against the hard cap, making it difficult to reshape this roster as the season goes on.
How does the schedule play into all of this?
First and foremost the Pelicans have to get off to a good start. Under Head Coach Alvin Gentry, New Orleans opened the 2015-16 season 2-11 and stumbled out of the gate to a 2-10 mark last season. Both were essentially over by late November.
Looking at this year’s slate, eight of their first 12 games are away from the Smoothie King Center. The Pelicans have a three-game West Coast trip where they face the Los Angeles Lakers, Portland Trailblazers, and Sacramento Kings. After a three-game home stand, its back to the road to take on Dallas, Chicago, Indiana and Toronto.
Over the last two years, New Orleans has a grand total of 22 road wins. To be a contender, the Pelicans can’t go less than .500 in those games.
The home slate is no less daunting in the early part of the season. Of the Pels’ first 15 games in New Orleans, nine come against teams who made the playoffs in 2016-17, including two games against Golden State, as well as the Cleveland Cavaliers, Oklahoma City Thunder, and San Antonio Spurs. They also square off against teams like Minnesota, Philadelphia, and Denver; young teams expected to make playoff pushes of their own.
By the turn of the new year, New Orleans will have played 36 games. Of those, nearly 60 percent come against last season’s playoff teams. That’s a tremendous challenge, but also a great opportunity.
The December schedule is particularly interesting as the Pels play 15 games during the month, eight at home and seven on the road. Only four are games where New Orleans would be a definitive favorite; at home against Sacramento, Brooklyn, and New York and on the road against Orlando.
When the calendar turns to 2018, the Pelicans play six of their first eight games in January on the road and five of their last six at home. The team has a great chance to build some momentum heading into February on a high note.
January should probably be the softest part of the schedule, relatively speaking. The Pels have home games against Detroit, Memphis, Chicago, the Clippers and Sacramento; all teams New Orleans should be able to beat. On the road, they play Memphis again, as well as the Knicks, Hawks and Hornets. Not exactly a muderer’s row.
February begins with five of seven games on the road. But after a tough back to back against OKC and Minnesota, the Pelicans get the Jazz and Pacers at home. New Orleans has a great shot to go undefeated at home during the month, with the Lakers, Heat and Suns coming to the Smoothie King Center. The rest of the road schedule is winnable as well, with a three-game trip to face the 76ers, Nets, and Pistons and one-game visits to Milwaukee and San Antonio.
February’s biggest challenge will be endurance. The Pelicans play two stretches of three games in four nights prior to the All-Star break and finish with four in six.
In March, things really begin to get exciting. Beginning with a home contest against the Washington Wizards on March 9, New Orleans plays six straight against playoff teams (Washington, Utah, Charlotte, San Antonio, Houston, Boston). They close the month with road games at Houston and Cleveland with a home contest against Portland sandwiched in between. Surviving that gauntlet is a must.
The Pelicans close the regular season in April with division contests against Oklahoma City and Memphis, followed by another three-game trip out west to face Phoenix, Golden State, and the Clippers before the regular season finale at home against the Spurs. Again, supposing the team is healthy and playing to its potential, winning four out of those six seems quite doable.
By last year’s numbers, the Pelicans have one of the league’s toughest schedules, but each season is it’s own story. It’s hard to give a definitive prediction about a team we have yet to see play together.
Looking at the landscape of the Western Conference, it’s hard to put New Orleans among the top four. Golden State, Houston, San Antonio and OKC should be secure in those spots. While the Lakers, Suns, and Kings should be better, I can’t imagine any of them making the playoffs. That leaves eight teams battling for four playoff berths.
The Pelicans, at their best, have to be considered a contender for a a playoff seeding in the five through eight seed range. In two months, they’ll begin their journey. Whether it ends in the postseason or not, it should be one hell of a ride.
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Sports 1280am host/CCS reporter
David Grubb has more than a decade of experience in the sports industry. He began his career with KLAX-TV in Alexandria, La. and followed that up with a stint as an reporter and anchor with WGGB-TV in Springfield, Mass. After spending a few years away from the industry, David worked as sports information director for Southern University at New Orleans…