Tonight’s game in Dallas puts the Phoenix Suns’ last 12 months in seriously harsh perspective. A little less than a year ago, the Suns were a .500 team trying to make an unexpected playoff run after a disappointing start to the season. Ultimately that push came up short, but there was still some pride to be had for the Suns.
The Mavericks likewise started out this season as a shell of their former selves. Nowitzki was hurt and Rick Carlisle seemed to be all out of his trademark magic. But then the team grew beards, rallied, and made it all the way back to respectability.
Barring miraculous losing streaks by both the Jazz and Lakers, the Mavericks will not make the playoffs, which ostensibly puts them in the same boat as the Suns – lottery bound and rebuilding after a disappointing season. But no one in their right mind would consider the Mavs and Suns in the same place right now. Is Dallas ahead of Phoenix or behind in terms of the franchise’s current state and its potential to win moving forward?
The case for the Mavs being ahead of the Suns centers on Dirk. Like Steve Nash, Dirk is winding down his career. At this point, Dirk leaving Dallas before he retires seems far less likely than Nash departing Phoenix did last season. Dirk is not the player he once was, but when the Mavs were making the race for the eighth seed interesting, Dirk was playing very well. If he can stay healthy and put in some work this offseason, there’s every reason to think Dirk can be very productive next year in which case the Mavs would have one more superstar/go-to player than the Suns. Definite advantage Mavericks.
The second factor the Mavs have going for them is ownership. Mark Cuban, now that he has recovered from his post-post-Championship hangover, has always spent money in the pursuit of wins. Between his wallet and Rick Carlisle’s reputation, Dallas is a very attractive destination to free agents. The Suns have neither a big name coach nor owner, so the Mavs are definitely ahead here.
The last point of comparison which swings Dallas’ way is the roster. The Suns have been rebuilding for three years since their 2010 run to the Western Conference finals. The Mavericks have been retooling for two following their title run in 2011. Have the Suns made more progress with their extra year? Gun to your head, which roster would you rather have? That may not be a fair question given how the Suns are playing right now, but nonetheless, the answer is not completely clear cut. The Suns have moved on from their superstar and have a younger rotation with potential to grow, but the Mavericks’ veterans are much better at winning basketball games. If both rosters and coaching staffs stayed exactly the same for next year, the Mavs would win more games nine times out of ten.
The case for the Suns being ahead of the Mavericks is most supported by two things. The first is the upcoming draft. The second is Father Time.
Unless the basketball gods choose to curse Phoenix with highly unfortunate ping pong balls, the Suns should have a top-4 pick in the draft. While this might not be the best draft class overall, the upper lottery is deep with scoring wings like Ben McLemore, Victor Oladipo, and Otto Porter. The Suns should be able to fill that need and begin developing a solid player at a key position. The Mavs will likely be hanging out in the Suns’ old haunt, pick No. 13. The Suns could also end up with pick #14 if the Jazz can get it done in a home-and-home against Minnesota and the Lakers falter in one or two of their remaining games. The Suns haven’t picked this high in the draft since Steve Nash came to town. This draft is a huge opportunity to jump start the franchise by adding young, talented pieces. The Mavs won’t sniff a top-5 pick so long as Dirk continues to play and Cuban keeps being Cuban. The Suns are way ahead in this area.
The other support for the Suns being ahead is Father Time. A day will come when Dirk will no longer suit up for Dallas. No matter how much maneuvering the Mavs’ front office does between now and then, that first year without Dirk is probably going to be a lottery year. So with that in mind, the Suns, who have bottomed out completely in the wake of Steve Nash’s departure, are way ahead because they bit the bullet on a painful decline earlier than the Mavs. I’m not saying Dallas should move on from Dirk now. That would be crazy. He still has something left in the tank, and he won them a title. But from the perspective of eventualities, Phoenix is definitely ahead simply because they’ve moved on to the next era.
So while tonight’s game has no stakes other than the Mavericks getting back to .500 and the Suns holding on to their bad record/high draft pick, this is a matchup of two teams on the road to resurrection. Are both teams headed in the same direction? Which team is closer to title contention? I would give the slight edge to the Suns because I’m a compulsive optimist, but truthfully, only the basketball gods know for sure.
- As losses go, last night’s was brutal. “Goaltending at the buzzer” isn’t something I’ve seen decide a basketball game since Loren Woods was suiting up for the Arizona Wildcats. But that loss seems like par for the course this year. That gut punch loss didn’t hurt nearly as much as it should have because apathy and malaise have set in. The Suns have lost the ability to win games. This goes beyond roster talent and coaching. There is something deeper going awry with this team right now. I’m not sure time away during the playoffs and offseason will be enough to repair what seem to be large fractures among the players and coaches. The Suns need a big time culture change or next season may not be any better than this one.
- The Lakers hold a half game lead over the Jazz for the eighth and final playoff spot. The Lakers play the second night of a back-to-back tonight in Portland whom they have beaten two out of three this year. After that the Lakers have Golden State (2-1), San Antonio (0-2), and Houston (1-2) all at home. All three of those teams will be pushing for playoff positioning. The Jazz are off until Friday when they’ll do a home-and-home with Minnesota (2-0). They end the season on the road at Memphis (1-2). The Jazz own the tiebreaker with LA, so the Lakers would have to finish one game better to take the eighth seed. John Hollinger’s playoff odds currently give the Lakers a 55.5% chance to make the playoffs and the Jazz a 43.1% chance.