A refresher on Suns’ competition for West’s final bubble playoff spot
The Phoenix Suns aren’t even being included in the discussions on the Western Conference’s last playoff spot in the bubble. They are 2.5 games out of the ninth spot, and with only eight games to get there against the stiffest competition of the season, that’s a tough ask.
Currently, three teams are tied behind the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies and 3.5 games back, which just squeezes into the four games back or less requirement to force a play-in tournament.
It’s been a while since we’ve seen these teams, so here’s a reminder of where they stood prior to the season being suspended. We’ll also include a “how much did the bubble burst” intro for each team to update you on who on the roster is injured or opted out, as all these teams are dealing with some version of that at the moment.
8. Memphis Grizzlies (32-33)
How much did the bubble burst: Quite a bit. Justise Winslow is out for the rest of the season due to a hip injury suffered in an Orlando practice. They appear to be good everywhere else outside of a day-to-day knee injury for Tyus Jones, but as we’ll get to, they needed Winslow.
As we talked about for months in regards to the Suns, at least one team in this mess was going to inevitably take advantage of this eighth and final spot being up for grabs. It was a matter of one team making a run and sticking the landing, and that was Memphis.
After starting the season 13-22, the Grizzlies went on an 11-2 run in January to get their record to .500, and unlike everyone else we’ll get to, they were able to hold that positioning.
It’s a huge credit to first-year head coach Taylor Jenkins. Not a lot of coaches would be able to succeed with a role-player heavy team whose star player is a rookie point guard, but he’s achieved that.
Ja Morant has been sensational. He’s averaging 17.6 points, 3.5 rebounds and 6.9 assists per game. Those three per game by a first-year player ever? Oscar Robertson, Magic Johnson, Damon Stoudamire, Allen Iverson, Steve Francis, Damian Lillard, Trae Young and Morant.
Most improbably, though, Morant is a high-volume young guard that is efficient, more efficient than any of those guys were as rookies besides Magic.
In the last 20 years, there have been 47 rookie guards to record a usage percentage at 20% or above. In only 19 of those has the rookie reached a true shooting percentage of 52%, and in only four has the guard reached 56%: Kyrie Irving, Stephen Curry, Eric Gordon and Morant.
Morant is going to be awesome. Is he awesome right now, though? Capable of leading the playoff charge for a team that needs him to in this type of format? It remains to be seen, and is one of the best storylines for the league’s return.
With Winslow out, the mystery of if the team’s trade deadline helped or hurt them continues, but the loss of Winslow will be felt because of who he was supposed to replace.
They sent out Jae Crowder, Solomon Hill and Andre Iguodala to wind up with Winslow, Gorgui Dieng and Jordan Bell.
Iguodala didn’t play for Memphis but the other two sure did. Crowder was second on the team in minutes per game (29.4), and between him and Hill (18.8), that’s over 48 minutes a night to now fill.
Former Sun Josh Jackson has earned minutes in the meantime, and while he has been fine, he can’t possibly fill the night-in, night-out contribution of Crowder, who was one of Memphis’ three or four most important players. That means more Kyle Anderson, which, meh.
Memphis is dangerous because of Morant and their bench mob, which slays teams. It turns out that De’Anthony Melton is a more than half-decent backup point guard. The Grizzlies outscore teams by 6.2 points per 100 possessions when Melton is in, the best mark on the team, and right behind him are the likes of Jackson (!) and rookie Brandon Clarke (!!).
Even with that unit’s strong play, this not the best team of the bubble bunch. The starters simply aren’t good enough.
As much as I can tout Crowder’s value, his net rating of -4.1 supports Memphis’ key lineups getting beat by other teams’ best guys. Jonas Valanciunas eviscerates a bad team every two or three nights, but he’s not great against the best teams, and that’s who they’re playing in Orlando. Dillon Brooks and Jaren Jackson Jr. are nice players, but can they really be a second banana? Can Morant be the first?
Again, it goes back to Jenkins. In this race, he’s been competing against teams with established All-Star-level players: Lillard, Devin Booker, DeMar DeRozan, Jrue Holiday, etc., and yet, Memphis is in it.
In spite of that, with these funky few weeks coming up, Memphis’ undeniable scrap and togetherness as a team feels like a decent bet with the lead they have, especially when we’ve seen the teams below them time after time squander opportunities to catch them in this race.
T-9. New Orleans Pelicans (28-36)
How much did the bubble burst: Barely. Zion Williamson left for a bit but it looks like he’s fully healthy and got back in time.
If Zion’s good to go, this is the team making it out.
After Williamson’s two-game trial back from meniscus surgery in mid-January when he barely cracked 20 minutes, the Pelicans were 11-6 with him in and outscored teams by 9.6 points per 100 possessions when Zion was on the court.
But here’s the key differentiator for y’all.
That date we focus on for that 9.6 number is Jan. 25. Jrue Holiday’s net rating before that date was -4.4. Since Williamson arrived, it’s 11.2. In fact, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, JJ Redick and Derrick Favors join those two with a net rating over 5.0.
Williamson is taking so much off his teammates as the head honcho. They were smashing teams with the key guys out there, posting the league’s fifth-best net rating over that six weeks-ish of time.
Zion is that good. For goodness sake, after watching him at 100% with Duke, I’d guess he was 60-80% during this season and he still is averaging 23.6 points per game. We’ve only seen two rookies in the last 25 years (Blake Griffin, Allen Iverson) hit at least 22 a night.
And the big one with Williamson back is that their defensive rating over those 18 games was 108.6, seventh-best in the league. They were a train wreck on that end at times this season, as we saw in a few losses they had to the Suns, but tightening up that end before the shutdown was a huge deal.
If Williamson comes back truly healthy and closer to 90% than 70%, there’s no other favorite.
We haven’t even talked about two All-Stars yet, Holiday and Ingram, with the latter in particular really coming into his own as a Pelican.
Ball, Redick and Favors round out a really freaking good six-player group. The biggest deterrent for them is finding the guys beyond that, as the net ratings for Josh Hart (-4.2) and E’Twuan Moore (-5.3) in the Zion era create cause for concern.
Only just a bit, though. The starting five of Holiday, Ball, Ingram, Williamson and Favors has a 26.3 net rating in 230 minutes.
Again, they were obliterating teams with him. Take it to the bank.
T-9. Sacramento Kings (28-36)
How much did the bubble burst: A fair amount. Marvin Bagley III is out due to a foot sprain from an Orlando practice. Harrison Barnes is en route after being one of a handful on the Kings to get coronavirus.
It turns out that it’s a problem when you don’t have an All-Star and there’s no discernible gap between your second- and sixth-best player.
The Kings got off to a horrific 0-5 start and it looked like their season was over when De’Aaron Fox went on to miss a month.
Even after Fox’s return in mid-December, Sacramento lost eight games in a row when he came back and another six straight in mid-January.
So, how are they in this?
Since that latter losing streak, the Kings went 13-7 over their last 20 games of the season.
The efficient scoring prowess from the guard trio emerged in those six weeks, with Fox (22.2 points per game, 56.4 TS%), Buddy Hield (19.4 points per game, 64.3 TS%) and Bogdan Bogdanovic (14.5 points per game, 58.9 TS%) leading the charge. And the role players on the perimeter in Barnes (44.6 3P%), Nemanja Bjelica (40.4 3P%) and Kent Bazemore (38.2 3P%) were all hitting shots.
Those six coming into form while Richaun Holmes was hurt couldn’t have been better timing. On a two-year, $10 million contract, Holmes played so well for the Kings as arguably their best player that the team had no choice but to bench Dewayne Dedmon, who they had just paid a three-year, $40 million deal.
Dedmon was traded, opening the door for Holmes and also the return of Bagley, until he got hurt again. That makes Holmes one of the more important players out of all these teams.
The Kings are absolutely in this if the guards and Holmes play the way they did earlier in 2020.
T-9. Portland Trail Blazers (29-37)
How much did the bubble burst: The one wing player they could not afford to lose isn’t there. Trevor Ariza opted out and Rodney Hood (Achilles) is still recovering.
This is the wildcard.
I was annoyingly pessimistic about the Trail Blazers throughout the year, as they never put it together and clearly had no answers on the bench to help fill the void of the injured Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins early in the year.
Now those two are back, and the hope is that with them in, the team won’t have to rely anymore on Carmelo Anthony, Mario Hezonja, Nassir Little, Anfernee Simons, Gary Trent Jr. and Hassan Whiteside to significantly contribute.
Last season, Nurkic’s 10.5 net rating was tops on the team and was 11th in the league among guys over 25 minutes a night. Factoring out Milwaukee’s whole starting lineup and Danny Green in Toronto, it was the best of any other supplementary piece.
The question is if that’s enough to turn around their season form, which was frustrating due to one of the worst defenses in the league, checking in at 27th in defensive rating.
The depth still sucks. The loss of Ariza is big, which means the only proven experienced players outside the big four of Nurkic, Collins, Lillard and CJ McCollum are Anthony and Whiteside. Yikes.
But they have Lillard, the best player on any of these teams.
Lillard is averaging a career-high 28.9 points per game on a career-high 61.9 TS% as well. He’s shooting an absolutely ridiculous 39.4% on 9.9 three-point attempts per game, which it’s absurdity goes beyond the volume when you think about how many he takes off the dribble and from way, way beyond the line.
Over such a small stretch of games, Lillard being the alpha amongst all these teams might matter more than anything else I hit on here.
12. San Antonio Spurs (27-36) (0.5 GB)
How much did the bubble burst: Significantly. LaMarcus Aldridge had surgery on his right shoulder and is out. So is Trey Lyles (appendectomy), who started 53 games.
Aldridge being out abbreviates the required run-through and makes this a simpler exercise of how they played without him.
The top two lineups without Aldridge in minutes played of Patty Mills, Derrick White, Lonnie Walker IV (!), Rudy Gay and Jakob Poeltl (130 minutes, 10.2 net rating) and Mills, White, Marco Bellinelli, Gay and Poeltl (108 minutes, 4.8 net rating) both look great.
It’s kinda interesting that they look great, but it’s more interesting that DeMar DeRozan isn’t in either. Aldridge and DeRozan mostly played together, and as a duo, they had a -2.7 net rating.
That has been the trend in San Antonio since both arrived, unfortunately, which speaks to their inability to gel and also the consistency the Spurs continue to get out of role players.
Maybe if they were in a different spot in the standings they could hold ground, but this doesn’t seem like the type of situation where they make it up. But that would be ruling out the Spurs and I will never do that.
The likes of Dejounte Murray, Bryn Forbes, Belinelli, DeRozan, Mills, White and Walker add up to some exciting perimeter possibilities and Gregg Popovich figuring out the right three-guard lineups could cause problems.