Suns right in middle of competitive West for last few playoff spots
Thanksgiving is a perfect day to reset with where the Phoenix Suns and the rest of the league sits, as there are no games.
If you, rightfully so given past precedent, have not been paying attention to the standings, there have been quite a few developments in the Western Conference.
It has turned out to be as competitive as ever, but with a catch.
The bundle of teams expected to compete for the last few playoff spots has gotten off to very slow starts, leaving an opening for surprise teams like Phoenix, Minnesota and Dallas to squeak in there over the perennial competitors like Golden State, Portland and San Antonio.
Phoenix currently sits at 8-9 on the eighth seed.
It’s safe to say the Los Angeles Lakers (15-2), Denver Nuggets (13-3), Los Angeles Clippers (14-5), Houston Rockets (12-6) and Utah Jazz (11-7) are locks to make it.
Flipping that, the Golden State Warriors (4-15) and Memphis Grizzlies (5-12) haven’t done much to prove we should consider them.
That leaves eight teams fighting for three spots. A team or two will hit a surge in the next few weeks, as will the opposite effect where we can potentially place another team at the bottom.
For now, here’s a quick look at each team outside of the Suns, using Cleaning the Glass’ numbers to give you an idea of where their quality of play sits compared to their record.
Dallas Mavericks (11-6)
Offense: 1st (116.6), Defense: 16th (109.3)
Dallas is the closest we’re gonna get to a sixth playoff lock. They are just about there already, but a weak schedule and overreliance on one player needs a little more time in the oven before the grand declarations come.
Luka Doncic is an MVP candidate, posting 30.1 points, 10.0 rebounds and 9.5 assists per game on a 62.5 TS%.
Lowering the bar to at least 27-8-8 on a TS% at 60 or above, that season has only been done three times, per Basketball-Reference. LeBron James did it in 2017-18 at the age of 33, James Harden got it the year before when he was 27 and Michael Jordan got his when he was 25 in 1988-89. Doncic is 20 years old.
At a certain point, someone playing at that level carries a team to the playoffs, no matter his situation and Kristaps Porzingis’ poor beginning as a Maverick.
As it turns out, a team where depth concerns are an issue has terrific net ratings for key bench pieces like Jalen Brunson (10.6), Delon Wright (7.1) and Justin Jackson (7.5). They are absolutely smashing teams and Seth Curry (-1.9) has the only negative net rating on the team. Rick Carlisle is one hell of a coach.
A light schedule to start the season now has nearly every game until 2020 against a potential playoff team. I count 14 of 16, taking out Golden State and OKC. Brutal. If the Mavs slightly continue their current success through December, it’s probably time to bump them out of this group.
Minnesota Timberwolves (10-8)
Offense: 18th (108.8), Defense: 12th (106.9)
The Timberwolves are a well-rounded team, with one great player, another really good one, a mediocre supporting cast and a good coach.
Karl-Anthony Towns is doing his usual damage while Andrew Wiggins has turned up his scoring (career-high 25.3 points per game) and efficiency (career-high 46.8 FG%).
A couple things to keep an eye on that point towards regression.
They are a bottom five team in points per possesion in transition and are 26th in amount of transition opportunities allowed. That’s a tough handicap to overcome, essentially consistently losing the battle in transition.
Minnesota shoots a top five number of threes and does the same great work in terms of allowing them. That’s execution, but as a team, they are shooting 33.2% from deep, which is the fourth-worst in the league. That includes a “yikes!’ number of 31.6% from the corner, dead last.
Beyond that, though, they’re solid at just about everything else, as the offense/defense numbers indicate. That credit goes to head coach Ryan Saunders.
Sacramento Kings (7-10)
Offense: 23rd (106.6), Defense 22nd (112.1)
The Kings are fifth in expected win difference, meaning they have won 1.4 more games already than they are supposed to, given the numbers they’ve put up. That, and their bottom-third rankings at the top are bad signs.
But, they’re without De’Aaron Fox for at least a few more weeks while Marvin Bagley III is nearing his return. That’s their best player and best big man, so this is much more cut and dry of a TBD we should check back in on six weeks from now.
In the meantime, Buddy Hield (20.5 PPG, 55.6 TS%), Harrison Barnes (15.9 PPG, 61.7 TS%) Bogdan Bogdanovic (15.3 PPG, 55.3 TS%) and Richaun Holmes (10.9 PPG, 67.5 TS%) are giving them enough offense to stay afloat and recover from a disastrous opening week where they lost five straight.
Portland Trail Blazers (7-12)
Offense: 8th (111.1), Defense: 20th (111.2)
This is our second-worst team in terms of warning signs. Timeliness is in their favor, as they are coming off back-to-back blowout wins.
But even with Damian Lillard’s All-NBA level and CJ McCollum’s All-Star contributions, they look a few players short.
Replacing Al-Farouq Aminu and Mo Harkless with Carmelo Anthony, Kent Bazemore, Nassir Little and Mario Hezonja is not going to work. Ditto with Hassan Whiteside for Enes Kanter as the fill-in while Jusuf Nurkic gets healthy. The missing piece is the injured Zach Collins, who is out until March. Not good!
I will say, though, that the numbers are kind.
They are 30th in expected win differential, winning 2.4 games less than they should given their total efficiency. Portland has the second-best turnover percentage, is top-10 in shooting percentages from the mid-range and three-point line and are fourth in half-court offense.
This is still trending towards a top-level offense around two terrific guards but it’s still going to come down to the iffy group around them. It’ll swing one way or the other. Bet on them being in the mix till it’s April.
Oklahoma City Thunder (6-11)
Offense: 22nd (106.6), Defense: 14th (108.5)
The Thunder are the obvious team we should group together at the bottom, both in their record and how they will likely move the expiring contract of Danilo Gallinari and probably more.
However, Chris Paul deserves a certain amount of respect, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has been outstanding as a sophomore and you know what you’re going to get from the likes of Gallinari, Dennis Schroder and Steven Adams. That’s a five that can take you places if Paul is 75% of the Point God he was while at his best in Houston.
Their depth is a huge problem, but they have approximately 14,294,978 draft picks from the Paul George and Russell Westbrook trades. If they can get hot over the next two months or even hang around just long enough in this mucked-up part of the West, a win-now trade is easy for them if they want to get to the playoffs.
That’s far more unlikely, but they are worth mentioning for now.
New Orleans Pelicans (6-12)
Offense: 10th (110.7), Defense: 25th (114.2)
Much more of a mystery box here like Sacramento with the hopeful return of Zion Williamson in mid-December, so no deep numbers on them.
If Zion comes back and is most of what we expect him to be, Brandon Ingram is averaging 25.9 points per game on a 59.4 TS% to give them the true perimeter scoring they need to support Williamson.
Jrue Holiday has been a bit disappointing given the expectation of him as a top 30 player in the league, but he’s starting to percolate a bit and this is too deep of a team to rule out so early.
San Antonio Spurs (6-13)
Offense: 12th (110.5), Defense 26th (114.4)
You could add on 20 losses to that record and I’m still picking San Antonio to make the playoffs.
They’re also really bad when either of their All-Stars is on the court. DeMar DeRozan’s net rating is -7.5 and LaMarcus Aldridge is at -7.8. They have also lost 10 of 11.
It doesn’t have to be more complex than that. Until San Antonio starts beating teams when their two best players are in, they aren’t going anywhere.