EMPIRE OF THE SUNS
Power ranking the Phoenix Suns’ potential playoff matchups
Have you heard? The Phoenix Suns locked down the top seed for their 2022 playoff run on Thursday night, beating the Denver Nuggets behind 49 points from Devin Booker and with point guard Chris Paul back in the lineup.
There are a few checkmarks left for the 60-14 team with eight games remaining this year, including resetting a franchise single-season win total mark and getting some of their injured players back.
But the long-term goal is about chasing a title after the Suns made the NBA Finals a year ago.
Getting out of the first round will likely not be a cakewalk. If Phoenix reaches the Western Conference semifinals or finals, it will be a chore to win those series, also.
With that said, there are more favorable opponents and teams that the Suns would get more pushback from.
So as they prepare for a playoff appearance against a tightly contested Western Conference below them in the standings, here is one person’s power rankings of what matchup would be most favorable, moving on to which will be the most difficult.
We’re considering the nine teams currently in the playoff or play-in picture if the season ended Friday. And a lot of that considering involves guessing which of their injured players might return before or during the playoffs.
1. New Orleans Pelicans
Record (place), games behind Suns: 31-42 (10th), 28.5
It should be noted that the 29-44 San Antonio Spurs are just two games back from the Pelicans and Los Angeles Lakers. I would favor the Suns if Gregg Popovich’s team somehow made up that difference and stole a playoff berth in the play-in.
As for who is currently in the tournament: I would have a tinge of fear about the Pelicans because head coach Willie Green knows the Suns’ ins and outs from his time on Phoenix’s staff. New Orleans also played Phoenix relatively well this season, handing it a loss in three games.
New Orleans does match up well with the Suns. Herb Jones lowkey can give Devin Booker a few bad possessions per game, Jonas Valanciunas can negate Deandre Ayton — his three-point shooting continues to make him one of the most underrated centers in the game — and Green will know how to schematically shed Mikal Bridges off scorer C.J. McCollum just enough.
Who could be back? Zion Williamson (foot), Brandon Ingram (hamstring): Throwing Williamson into the fray could cause a whole lot of problems, but the bench and the wing group just don’t do enough to scare the Suns. Where he’s at remains anyone’s guess. Ingram is expected back within a week.
2. Los Angeles Lakers
(Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images)
Record (place), games behind Suns: 31-42 (10th), 28.5
The distance between the Pellies and the Lakers in terms of fear is minimal, as their identical records would indicate. Los Angeles gets a bit more respect for their (potential) star power.
There has been a little momentum built for Frank Vogel’s Lakers. We’re talking leaning on younger players thrown aside by other teams (Hello, Wenyen Gabriel and Stanley Johnson) and getting big games of late from Malik Monk and D.J. Augustin.
Russell Westbrook is on a streak of four straight 20-point games, all of the efficient variety. That’s great!
As they learned last year, it’s not exactly an expectation that LeBron James, who sat out their last game to rest his knees, and Anthony Davis can reappear and save the day.
Vogel is a good coach, but Alex Caruso is not walking through that door. The gang being completely healthy still means Johnson and Gabriel are part of the rotation.
Also, did you see what the Suns did to them this year? And that Davis said a thing about how the Suns would not have won a thing that they did win during last year’s playoffs if he’d been healthy?
Who could be back? Anthony Davis (foot): The team is 27th in defensive rating in both the 15 games since the All-Star break and the last five games. Davis’ return will maybe bump them into respectable land, but there’s just too much wrong with that roster.
3. Los Angeles Clippers
Record (place), games behind Suns: 36-38 (8th), 24.0
The Clippers have lost seven of nine. Like the Lakers, they aren’t even playing good defense at this rate.
The starting lineup lately has included Devin Booker, I mean Amir Coffey, if that tells you anything. Until we sniff signs that both of the Clippers’ star wings are back, they don’t have much going for them other than depth and feistiness.
Who could be back? Kawhi Leonard (ACL), Paul George (shoulder): This feels a little dangerous because Tyronn Lue is a defensive coaching wizard and a wild Paul George and Kawhi Leonard could suddenly appear. George appears closer to a return than Leonard, but whether that’s for a play-in is unknown.
4. Dallas Mavericks
Record (place), games behind Suns: 45-28 (5th), 14.5
Very weirdly, the Luka Doncic-led team has been better defensively than offensively. That seems to be a Jason Kidd thing, as does the short rotation.
Just not much about this squad terrifies after Doncic. With the Suns, there are lots of mismatches to consider in favor of Phoenix.
A matchup would make for a big Deandre Ayton series, and as much as I like Jalen Brunson and Spencer Dinwiddie, I don’t see how the Mavs have enough as a team to both contain the Suns’ wing rotation and bother Booker, with *Stephen A. voice* ALL DUE RESPECT TO REGGIE BUL-LOCK.
5. Minnesota Timberwolves
Record (place), games behind Suns: 42-32 (7th), 18.0
If you have been living under a rock, the Timberwolves have been playing top-three basketball in the entire league since the All-Star break.
Their starting-five is as good as any, with plenty of switchable size and physicality. Patrick Beverley may be annoying but indeed can change the tone of games.
Jarred Vanderbilt and Anthony Edwards don’t get enough credit for their defense on the wings. There is even a sliver of perimeter scoring juice off the bench with Jaylen Nowell and Malik Beasley.
In theory, Karl-Anthony Towns should be more trouble for Phoenix than he was in their last meeting Wednesday when he tried to incite Jae Crowder. Which was a mistake.
Still, Ayton’s big game in that one wasn’t a fluke. He’s going to have those nights against a team that deploys its center far from the hoop that often.
6. Utah Jazz
Record (place), games behind Suns: 45-28 (4th), 14.5
The Jazz are a fine top-10 team, and Quin Snyder is rightfully getting buzz about leaving for a more high-profile team in the offseason.
The roster continuity is inching closer to being stale, and the Joe Ingles injury and trade earlier in the year added to the depth issue.
Utah’s playoff experience from the past gets them a edge, but it just doesn’t have the firepower unless Donovan Mitchell goes nuclear for a prolonged series. That would seemingly bite them.
The Suns would have a fight on their hands for sure, but an injury or bad game for a Jazz player hurts them at multiples compared to Phoenix. Unless the Jazz free Nickeil Alexander-Walker, which they have not!
7. Memphis Grizzlies
Record (place), games behind Suns: 51-23 (2nd), 9.0
Ja Morant’s knee is of concern heading into the postseason. While a pro-Booker MVP push is probably sucking away his juice for that individual award, so has the Grizzlies’ record without Morant this season.
Memphis has many of the elements Phoenix does: Grit, execution, star power, depth and two-way play. The roster is full of every type of role player you can want, and coach Taylor Jenkins empowers them. He should be second in the NBA Coach of the Year voting behind Monty Williams.
NBA fans should root for a postseason meeting between the Suns and Grizzlies.
Who could be back? Ja Morant (knee): Memphis said that Morant will be re-evaluated in two weeks from Thursday.
8. Denver Nuggets
Record (place), games behind Suns: 43-31 (6th), 17.0
They might be sixth in the conference standings at present, but their roster should scare everyone in the top half of the West.
For the Suns’ purposes, there’s reason to worry. Nikola Jokic may not draw doubles against Phoenix, like he does for other teams, but the Suns could still have trouble against Will Barton, Aaron Gordon and DeMarcus Cousins. If we throw Bones Hyland, Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. in there, the potential firepower is unmatched.
Even without Murray or Porter Jr. at present, just know that Facundo Campazzo is currently not sniffing rotation minutes.
This is not the Suns-in-four series from a year ago — right now or with Denver returning some injured starters.
Who could be back? Jamal Murray (ACL), Michael Porter Jr. (back): Murray could be on standby at some point in the playoffs, and Porter Jr. might be closer than him to returning.
9. Golden State Warriors
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Record (place), games behind Suns: 48-25 (3rd), 11.5
Nope. You don’t want the Warriors.
I mean, the Suns will relish the opportunity — they want to beat the best to say they’re the best.
But no, just no.
We spent half of this exercise trying to judge how many of these contenders could look if we snapped some of their currently injured best players in place. This is the last team you want to bet against in that regard.
Golden State has been careful to rest Draymond Green and Klay Thompson, and Stephen Curry should be back by the start of the postseason. Meanwhile, Steve Kerr has empowered role players like Gary Payton II, and rookies Moses Moody and Jonathan Kuminga.
Jordan Poole and Andrew Wiggins might face the harshest reset once the starters are back, but otherwise the team is good enough to use a round or two to find a rhythm at full health.
Who could be back? Stephen Curry (foot sprain): Curry will be re-evaluated when the calendar flips to April, giving him a chance to potentially return before the playoffs.