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A Special End of the Year?

It was not quite ten days ago when Frank Vogel gave the press conference heard ’round the (Pacer) world.  It was a breath, no, probably a gust of fresh air.  Pretty much everybody around the Pacers loved it.

Except me.  Stuff like that always kinda bounces off me – much to my own regret.  Part of it is an ingrained skepticism developed by almost 20 years of financial and operational analysis.   I’ve witnessed first hand far too many overly optimistic declarations that turned out to be less  “can do” and more “canned doo-doo.” Part is little more than a defense mechanism.  Too many flashes in the pan.  Too many faux comebacks.  I’m firmly in wait-and-see mode.

The recap from that Portland game was heavily weighted with caution.  The schedule was easy, and it was way too soon to have any real sense of what was happening.

Since then, the Pacers have played five games and collected four more wins.  With the exception of Miami, none of the teams could be considered good, but there’s still enough information about this team to make a more educated guess about what is to come.

So, I grabbed the schedule, sharpened a pencil (then threw it away because I was working with a spreadsheet), and set out to see where the Pacers would finish.

And came up with not only a playoff berth, but a winning season.

Now

After winning seven of their first eight games since firing Jim O’Brien, the Pacers have clawed to within four games of .500.  They’ve also moved back into the playoffs (8th) and opened a two-game lead over 9th place Charlotte.  Here are the Eastern Conference Standings as of the morning of February 14th.

For most of the season to this point, I’ve felt it would take 39 wins to make the playoffs in the East.  It’s not a particularly scientific number.  The basis is the idea that the teams vying for that final spot (Philly, Charlotte, Milwaukee, Indy) are largely mediocre and have each spent portions of the season staggering around like a drunk on St. Patrick’s Day.  After going through this exercise, that number feels more like 37 wins.

The color code above is designed to break the conference into the teams I don’t believe the Pacers can catch (red), the teams that I don’t believe can catch the Pacers (green), and, finally, the teams that the Pacers will be competing with not only for a playoff spot, but also potentially for seeding.

The Race

The Pacers have more games overall – and more on the road – than any of their closest competitors.  The total games isn’t all that much of a factor, but the road schedule in a league where the home team wins over 60% of the time is meaningful.  From an SoSHR perspective, the Pacers have the second “toughest” schedule (.487), behind Charlotte’s .505.  However, that’s kind of misleading.  It’s inflated by the fact that the Pacers have the “toughest” home schedule – which is the rough equivalent of having to answer the “toughest” question on a third grader’s math test.

I’d previously referred to March as the “come-to-Jesus meeting” for the year – primarily based on heavy road game mix – I’m going to back away on that a bit.  The 15 road games the Pacers have over the balance of the season represent the easiest road schedule among the teams highlighted here.  Eight of them are against teams currently with losing records, and the majority of those would fall into the same class of opponent as the Nets and Bucks – both teams the Pacers recently defeated on the road.  Contrast that with Charlotte, who has 10 of their road games against teams North of .500.

All in all, these teams have comparable schedules – with the exception of Milwaukee.  Milwaukee has a very favorable schedule, and would be perfectly positioned to make a run, if they weren’t playing like hot garbage with no real signs of turning it around.

The Projection

It’s not rocket science.  In effect, I laid out the schedule and projected each remaining game for the six games.  I did it first without looking at SoSHR, then rolled that in for a sanity check.  Then – lather, rinse, repeat.  After talking myself through each team’s schedule several times, I came up with the final forecast for the rest of the season.

Where is this coming from?  This assumes an 11-4 record for the Pacers at home, with losses to Miami, Chicago, Boston, and Atlanta.  Then, I’m projecting 7-8 on the road.  It feels like a stretch for a team that is currently 8-17 on the road, but it really isn’t.  The wins are at Detroit (twice), Washington, Houston, Minnesota, Toronto, and New Jersey.  All of those are games they should expect to win individually, though it’s fair to say that winning all seven may be a bit aggressive.

Balancing the Risk

When doing a forecast or a budget, worrying about being right or wrong is something of a fool’s errand.  What you have to do is make sure that your assumptions and your math are sound.  Beyond that, it’s a question of balancing the risk – having your upsides be of comparable value to your downsides.  Looking at this Pacer forecast, because it’s so aggressive, we look at the risks first:

In my opinion, these are the “losable wins” in the forecast.  In general, every projected road win – except for maybe against Cleveland – should be considered a risk, and I’ve noted that here.  I’ve also included two home games with teams that I consider to be somewhat dangerous to the Pacers.   And now, the opportunities:

These are the “winnable losses” I’ve projected.  The flipside to the road win rule applies here – the Pacers should have a shot at any home game, and could flip any of those.  Miami tomorrow is a great matchup for Indy, while the Bulls and Hawks should be more “winnable” games, but are teams that have been horrible matchups for the Pacers in recent times.  The road games against the Knicks and Bobcats are basically assuming that they’re evenly matched.  The Magic game is the last game of the season, and it’s impossible to tell whether that game will mean anything to either participant.

That’s nine at risk vs. seven opportunities.  Pretty reasonably balanced.  If there’s a weakness in my projections, it’s more likely in either overestimating the Knicks or underestimating the Sixers and Bobcats.

Where Could It Fall Apart?

As an analyst reviewing a budget, I’ll always zero in on any perceived weakness in the plan.  Here, the danger zone is still in March.

As should have been apparent from the opening paragraphs of this piece, I still don’t entirely trust this team.   There are a lot of good things happening right now, but the Vogel-led Pacers have yet to face real, sustained difficulties.  We don’t really know how Vogel will respond, and the players themselves haven’t exactly established themselves as lion-hearted.

If this noses over, this is how it will happen.  The Pacers will hit the road at the start of March and drop all three games.  That, in-and-of itself, is understandable.  The Houston win I have is probably the riskiest one in the entire projection.  But, then, they come home and drop a tough one to a Philly team I can’t quite get a handle on.  Back on the road with the pressure mounting, and all bets are off.  What I have projected as an 8-7 stretch could turn into a 4-11 or 3-12 nightmare.

Will this happen?  No.  I really don’t think so, but this is the stretch where I’d be holding my breath.

And How It Ends Up

So, I have the Pacers going 18-12 here, which means 25-13 under Frank Vogel, and, more importantly:

That’s 42-40 and a 7th seed.  That’s the first playoff berth since 2006, and the first winning record since 2005.  In all likelihood, that’s getting the honor of being the first team to try to derail the Heatles.

Will It Happen?

I don’t know.  Using “will” when talking about a forecast is an act of arrogance bordering on silliness.  The word that carries the greatest weight in this context is “should.”  A target that “should” vs. “could” be made is the difference between the plant manager getting fired or getting another chance.  “Should” is as close to a guarantee as you’ll ever hear from me.

So…

A winning record?

A seventh seed?

A 25-13 record under Frank Vogel?

A special end of the season?

Can do?

Should do.

Where?  Conseco Fieldhouse, my friend.

Follow Up – Two things to address.  First, if you want to see the game by game projections for each team, just click on the links below:

PacersKnicksSixersBobcatsBucksPistons

Second, when I referred to the “difference between a manager being fired or being given another chance,” I was merely trying to emphasize what “should” means when I use it here.  In re-reading it, it is easy to see where someone could infer that I meant that Frank Vogel was the manager, and that this is what he’d have to do to keep (win) his job.

That it not what I mean.  It’s my sense that if they stumble down the stretch, it is infinitely more likely to be because of the players than Vogel.  I don’t know what it will or won’t take for Frank Vogel to be the coach of the Pacers next year, and I did not mean to imply that this projection was the benchmark.

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