No, the New Orleans Pelicans Aren't Making the NBA Finals

The Pelicans have surged out to a dominant 3-0 lead in their first-round series with the Trail Blazers. But what do the numbers say about their chances moving forward?

The New Orleans Pelicans are one of the hottest stories in the first round of this year's NBA Playoffs.

As the 6-seed, they came into their matchup against the 3-seeded Portland Trail Blazers as 47.21% underdogs, but proceeded to steal both Games 1 and 2 on Portland’s home floor before building a commanding 3-0 series lead by blowing out the Blazers in Game 3 back in New Orleans last night.

Suddenly, the lower-seeded Pelicans have a 94.37% chance of advancing to Round Two, with the odds-on scenario being that they close it out in Game 4 at home on Saturday:

Outcome (3) Portland Trail Blazers (6) New Orleans Pelicans
Win in 4 - 60.51%
Win in 5 - 15.87%
Win in 6 - 14.51%
Win in 7 5.63% 3.48%
Win series 5.63% 94.37%

The odds are in their favor, but history is also on the Pelicans' side.

Historically, teams that get out to a 3-0 series lead in a best-of-seven series are 127-0, including a perfect 18-0 for the lower-seeded teams to have pulled off the feat (according to What’s more, of those 18 underdogs to go up 3-0, 13 of them (72.2%) closed out the series in Game 4.

This is the same Pelicans team that everyone counted out back in January when DeMarcus Cousins went down for the year with a torn Achilles, so it’s hard not to fall in love with their scrappy underdog story. But we’re here to advise against that.

Our models suggest that it’s pretty much a given that they’ll win this series, but don’t be too bullish on your bets going forward. Those same algorithms see their chances of winning each subsequent series plummeting from here on out:

Playoff Round Odds of Winning
First Round 94.37%
Conference Semis 26.99%
Conference Finals 7.13%
NBA Finals 2.37%

Even a 26.99% probability in the Conference Semis accounts for the 3.94% chance that the San Antonio Spurs have of coming back from being down 0-3 to the Golden State Warriors in the matchup that will determine New Orleans’ potential second-round opponent. If the mighty Warriors take care of business and confirm a matchup with the Pelicans in the next round (as the historical precedent of teams up 3-0 suggests they will), then the Pelicans will see their odds slip even further.

If you think about this very likely second-round matchup, it’s not hard to look at the dominance of Anthony Davis, the inspired performances of Jrue Holiday, Nikola Mirotic, and Rajon Rondo, the absence of Stephen Curry, and to draw parallels between this Pelicans team and another underdog that shocked the world once upon a time:

But this is not pre-title Warriors versus prime-Dirk Mavericks. These Warriors are an all-time great team, even if they’ve been playing possum a bit this season. As for the Pelicans, they are certainly fun and exciting, but they lack the depth and experience to contend with this Warriors dynasty.

Vegas is still playing conservative on the Pelicans. Of the 16 playoff teams, Vegas gives the Pels just the ninth-best odds of winning it all, at +5500 (an implied 1.8% chance). It might be tempting to buy in there based on the Pelicans’ recent dominance, but with a road that goes through upsetting the Trail Blazers, and potentially the Warriors, Houston Rockets, and whoever comes out of the Eastern Conference, even a less than 2% chance seems a bit high.

For now, enjoy the Anthony Davis show and a fun underdog story -- just don’t expect the fun to last much longer.