Handicapping the Suns’ playoff chances

Posted by on February 17th, 10:59 am

I’m hereby retiring the following words for the rest of the NBA regular season:

  1. Surprising
  2. Unexpected
  3. Miraculous

We’ve spent 51 games talking about how blown away we are by the Phoenix Suns this season. At this point, the Suns are actually just a good team. We can cut out the superfluous adjectives. With 31 games until the playoffs, it’s time to stop looking back and start looking forward.

51 games is a good sample size from which we can infer a few things about the Suns. First, they are more good than lucky. Second, they can play with any team in the NBA. Third, they are legitimate playoff contenders. This third inference is the impetus for today’s column.

Barring a major collapse by one of the Top 5 teams in the West, or an otherworldly stretch run by the Timberwolves, Hornets, or Nuggets, Phoenix is locked in a four-team race for the final three playoff spots. Their opponents – Dallas, Golden State, and Memphis – currently have 32, 31, and 29 wins respectively. Phoenix’s 30 wins are more than most people thought they have all year, but in order to make the playoffs, the Suns cannot idly marvel at what they’ve achieved so far. Their race for the postseason will come down to a few key factors: remaining schedule, recent form, health, and history. Let’s examine each of these one at a time before making a prediction about how Phoenix will fair.

Remaining Schedule

Remaining Schedule

The Suns have more games to left play (31) than any of their fellow racers. While having to play more games in the same time frame is definitely a disadvantage, Phoenix is currently ahead in the loss column on each of these teams giving them a bit of a cushion. The main takeaway from this table is that the Suns’ remaining schedule is closer to the toughest than the easiest of these four teams. Dallas has the toughest in terms of opponent record, but the Mavericks will play more than half of their remaining games at home where they have won at a 70% clip. Golden State has the easiest road to hoe with their cumulative remaining opponents having lost more games than they’ve won. Golden State will also benefit from 12 games against the Eastern Conference. The Grizzlies have a road heavy schedule which would seem to be hurt their chances of breaking into the playoff picture, but Memphis has been much better on the road (.625 win %) than they have at home (.500 win %) this season. Plus Memphis has the benefit of 13 games still to play against the East.

The most daunting part of the Suns’ remaining schedule is the finish. Phoenix plays 14 of their final 21 games on the road. April is especially tough. In their final eight contests, Phoenix has six road games and six games against playoff contenders. Their only two less-than-daunting matchups, against New Orleans and Sacramento, are both on the road. The Suns will be lucky to get four wins out of this stretch, meaning they’ll need to build a big lead over these other three contenders heading into the final two weeks of the year. The good news is, that may be doable. The Suns will play 8 of their next 10 games at home where they have a 65% win rate this season. And from March 12 to March 30, only one of the Suns’ eleven opponents is currently over .500. That stretch contains seven road games, including five against the East. So whether or not the Suns make the playoffs will come down to their ability to take care of business in winnable road games, something Phoenix has struggled with at points this year.

Recent Form

Other than the Thunder and Heat, no team in the NBA is hotter than the Memphis Grizzlies. Since Marc Gasol returned, the Grizz have returned to their former selves, and look poised to overtake one of the other three teams in this battle. They are 16-6 since January 1st. The Suns on the other hand have been down a superstar since January, and have only managed an 11-10 record in 2014. The Warriors have also struggled like Phoenix, posting an 11-9 record since New Year’s. Dallas has been nearly as hot as Memphis lately, posting a 14-9 mark this calendar year. The Mavericks won six-of-seven heading into the All-Star break, suggesting they are rounding into form for a playoff push.

Phoenix may not be the hottest team right now, but form is nothing without our next factor.

Health

The biggest advantage Phoenix has right now is health. Goran Dragic has taken all the bumps and bruises a man could stand, yet he has continued to be a highly productive leader. Alex Len has finally gotten himself right and is contributing more and more. Other than Eric Bledsoe and Dragic earlier in the year, the Suns haven’t had their regular rotation players miss games with injury. That could be a sign that they’ll remain healthy down the stretch, or it could mean their injury luck is bound for regression. There’s no way to know. Whatever the case, the Suns have youth and health on their side right now.

Dallas, on the other hand, is old. Other than Monta Ellis, all of the Mavs’ starters are over 30 years old. Reserves Vince Carter and Devin Harris are also no longer in their twenties. Harris missed significant time at the beginning of the year as did backup big man Brandan Wright. This push for the playoffs is going to be a dog fight, and legs only get heavier as the season goes on. Youth is not on Dirk and the gang’s side, and it may be the factor that costs them a spot in the postseason.

The Warriors have injury troubles of their own. Both David Lee and Andrew Bogut have been injured recently, and their absence has cost the team wins. The Warriors are not nearly as potent without their full complement of players, and they are only ever a Stephen Curry ankle injury away from taking a major tumble in the standings. Health is definitely a potential liability for Golden State’s playoff hopes.

The Grizzlies have gotten healthy at the right time, and it has paid dividends in the win column. Keeping both Gasol and Randolph on the court will be key for their chances. The Grizzlies’ situation also highlights another advantage for Phoenix. The Suns are the only team in this race waiting for a star to return from extended absence. The Suns have been great without Eric Bledsoe, but if he is able to return this year, there is no doubt Phoenix will be much better equipped to hold onto a playoff spot.

History

Unless one of these four teams goes completely in the tank, there will be a 43+ win team in the West that misses the playoffs altogether. This chart shows the win totals of the eighth and ninth seeds in the West going back 10 seasons (skipping the lockout year).

Win totals

In most years, anywhere between 43 and 45 wins was good enough to ensure a playoff spot. But in 2008 and 2009, 48 and 46 wins respectively weren’t good enough to get in.  And who was the 46-win team on the outs in 2009? You guessed it, the Phoenix Suns. So even if the Suns get to 45 or 46, there’s no guarantee they’ll play in the postseason.

Prediction

So how will it all shake out? In the chart below, I have predicted each of the four team’s win totals based on remaining strength of schedule as well as win % for home, away, and by conference. I’ve also included Hollinger’s Playoff Odds for comparison.

Projected Wins and Playoff Odds

As you can see, it’s going to be very close. Hollinger’s formula and mine agree that Memphis is likely to be on the outside looking in, but the Grizzlies’ Playoff Odds will only go up if they keep up their hot streak. I predict the Suns will get the sixth seed ahead of Golden State on tiebreaker and ahead of Memphis on record. I see Dallas narrowly missing the playoffs and Mark Cuban getting fined by new Commissioner Adam Silver for his ensuing tantrum. Whatever the outcome, this is going to be a great race that may well come down to the final day of the season.

Ryan Weisert

Ryan Weisert is a staff writer for ValleyoftheSuns. You can also find him at his sports and pop culture blog Spectavius.com.

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Tags: Dallas Mavericks · Golden State Warriors · Memphis Grizzlies · Phoenix Suns · Phoenix Suns Analysis · Playoffs

16 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Foreveris2long // Feb 17, 2014 at 11:24 am

    If Bledsoe returns sooner than later, I definitely agree with you Ryan. With him being on the treadmill and shooting he is physically close to being fit to play. However trusting the healing process for a player with a knee injury IMO, takes considerable additional time. Quick lateral movements especially when on defense when a player does not know where the offensive player is going is the ultimate test for recovery. He can look great on offense because he knows where his body is going but that probably is not the ultimate test for trust. Last season D. Rose looked good practicing by himself but he knew he did not trust the leg to play for the Bulls. Some fans and reporters did not understand but Rose knew he did not fully trust the leg then. Obviously the injury is different but the trust issue is always a huge factor in the healing process.

    I suspect if Bledsoe comes back it will be after March 22 which probably will hinder the Suns playoff chances during the easier part of the schedule. If he comes back by March 10, I agree the Suns make the playoffs. If it is late March if at all, I think the Suns are on the outside looking in. His agent is going to be very guarded in letting him come back this season for obvious economic reasons.

    Good article by the way Ryan.

  • 2 SOUTHPHILLY // Feb 17, 2014 at 1:07 pm

    ALL PLAYOFFS HOPES ARE SUBJECT TO TRADES IN THE NEXT FEW DAYS, NOT BLEDSOE. WE CANNOT MAKE OR ADVANCE IN THE PLAYOFFS WITH FRYE AND MARKIEF PLAYING AS MUCH AS THEY ARE AND NO GO TO GUY THAT CAN LOW POST OR CREATE HIS OWN SHOT IN THE FOURTH QUARTER.ALSO, NO TEAM CAN WIN CRUCIAL GAMES WHEN TUCKER IS RELIED OFFENSIVELY.

  • 3 Morning Sunshine: Phoenix Suns News (February 17) - Sun-N-Gun - A Phoenix Suns Fan Site - News, Blogs, Opinion and More // Feb 17, 2014 at 1:20 pm

    […] Read full story here: (http://valleyofthesuns.com/2014/02/17/handicapping-the-suns-playoff-chances/#ixzz2tbvUH4Ct) […]

  • 4 Foreveris2long // Feb 17, 2014 at 1:37 pm

    Southphilly I respectfully disagree. The Suns have already proven they are a better team with a healthy Bledsoe and Dragic. If Bledsoe is healthy and returns in early march I think they are good enough to make the playoffs without any additional acquisitions.

  • 5 EBJM // Feb 17, 2014 at 2:23 pm

    The combination of Markieff and Channing puts up All-Star numbers at the PF slot:

    25 points/11 boards/3 dimes/1.5 blks/1.5 stls.

    I know I dump on Frye a lot but there isn’t a player available that is taking them to the upper tier this season. I also hope Bledsoe doesn’t come back this season because it would be in his/Suns best interest to wait until training camp.

    Suns have historically lived and died by the jump-shot so play with who brought you this far and let it fly.

    Keep and use all three of your picks and hope you find the sleeper in this draft. I’ve said this before but I wouldn’t mind this draft’s equivalent of the Bull’s Gibson, Snell or Butler. All three selected with late 1st rd picks.

  • 6 DZ // Feb 17, 2014 at 2:25 pm

    Whenever Bledsoe comes back, I think the best thing that the Suns could do is limit his minutes early on and have him lead the second unit instead of trying to rush him back into the starting lineup. He and Barbosa coming off the bench together should give other team’s second units fits even if Bledsoe is only 80%. I’m not saying that they should keep him there, just work him back into the rotation slowly.

    Without further injuries, I think the Suns will at least hang on to a 7th or 8th seed playoff berth. When Bledsoe returns may turn that 7th/8th seed into a 5th/6th seed and should definitely impact whether the Suns are one-and-done in the playoffs or actually have a shot at moving on to the second round. And if the Suns do make a trade before the deadline, they shouldn’t trade away anything more than Okafor’s contract and MAYBE Indiana’s pick.

  • 7 Ellensburgbballfan // Feb 17, 2014 at 2:33 pm

    The Suns may have the best training staff in basketball, but they also have been very lucky, as only Bledsoe has really been out for a extended period

    there luck is going to have to hold if they want to make the playoffs.

    But i am a fan that always looks at the big picture, and really the Suns making the playoffs might turn out to be not a good thing for the future

    You got alot of players that are going to want money at the end of this season or next, and im not sure its worth it to splurge money on some of our suns players to bring them back

    because if you do that, your spending money to keep a team together thats at best a marginal playoff team

    in the next 2 years, nearly every player is going to need a new contract except Dragic, Len, Goodwin and Plumlee

    The Morris twins need qualifying offers to make them restricted free agents

  • 8 DZ // Feb 17, 2014 at 3:19 pm

    Bledsoe is really the only player that they Suns have to worry about bringing back next year. I think that Gerald Green knows that he has found a great spot for him in Phoenix and will be happy to sign a contract similar to the one he is on now when his contract runs out in 15. Frye will sign for less or move on in 15. Tucker’s qualifying offer is so low that it’s hardly worth mentioning. And although I love the guy, I doubt that any other team is going to make a serious effort to steal him away for Phoenix. If the Suns keep their draft picks this year, Christmas, Kravtsov and Barbosa will probably be gone and maybe Smith as well. The Morris twins are both under contract through 15 and won’t require qualifying offers until after that.

    My biggest concern in the next two years is whether Dragic decides to opt out of the final year of his present contract and become a FA at the end of the 14-15 season. That’s very likely but I also think the he will be reasonable in his demands for a new contract IF the Suns continue to progress and get better. But I do think that he will at least ask for a contract equal to whatever Bledsoe gets.

  • 9 Dave:f32 // Feb 17, 2014 at 4:18 pm

    Would it be a surprise if the Surprise Team of The Year didnt make the playoffs?

    Would it be a disappointment or not considering everyone wasnt expecting much out of this bunch this year?

    Barring a trade for a much-needed low post scoring and rebounding PF, i just dont see them finishing the season out as strongly as they started it. I see a bunch of variables that work against them making the playoff push. The most obvious being if Bledsoe were to come back, his reacclimation to the team while dealing with the pangs that come with injury.

    I hope that the recent string of losses arent an indicator of how this team finishes out the rest of the season. Go Suns!

  • 10 Danc133 // Feb 17, 2014 at 5:20 pm

    It’s “row” not road to hoe. The saying comes from people being hired to hoe rows of corn. Just a minor clarification.

  • 11 GoSuns // Feb 17, 2014 at 5:21 pm

    @ellens I slightly disagree about our training staff being “lucky”, that is part of their job injury prevention, yes there are freak accidents but their proactive approach to training is why year after year we haven’t seem to be hit hard by the injury bug

  • 12 ellensburgbballfan // Feb 17, 2014 at 8:13 pm

    Well i doubt Bledsoe is going to get anything less than a max deal

    that would require that no team offer him a deal and the Suns get something done on say the 1st day of free agency

    if Dragic gets the same deal we are looking at 2 guards on close to max deals in a best case scenario

    your gonna need more than dragic and bledsoe and some role players to win in this league

    hopefully Len will be the 3rd star

    and if he isnt i hope we get whoever it is in this next draft

  • 13 john // Feb 18, 2014 at 8:11 am

    @Ellensburg

    Dragic isn’t on anything near a max deal. He’s on a very reasonable contract for both sides ($7.5M/yr).

    I am cautiously optimistic it won’t require a max deal to retain Bledsoe. He’s not worth it, and I don’t even think it’s close. The ONLY thing that will get Bledsoe a max deal in RFA from any other team is desperation. I don’t think there’s a single talent evaluator in the world who looks at Bledsoe honestly and thinks he’s worth twice as much as the Goran Dragices and Kyle Lowrys of the world. If there is, I’d like to know so I can take that guy’s job.

  • 14 Go Phx // Feb 18, 2014 at 2:00 pm

    Agreed with DZ. John, the deal will be at least near max, if not max. Lastly, Suns will be in this year’s playoffs. Book it.

  • 15 john // Feb 19, 2014 at 7:03 am

    If I had to put money on it, I’d agree with you. I think the Lakers might offer the max just to screw the Suns.

  • 16 Eric Bledsoe’s return brings hope // Mar 11, 2014 at 2:00 am

    […] When I handicapped the playoff race at the All-Star break, I identified 14 games over .500 as the Suns’ target for making the postseason. That would put them at 48-34 for the year. Even in the exceedingly tough West, the Suns would be near locks to make the playoffs with 48 wins. If the Suns can go 8-3 the rest of this month that will put their record at 44-30, meaning they’d only need to go 4-4 in their brutal close to the season in April. 8-3 is a tall order for the Suns in their next 11, but it’s doable. Phoenix gotten that hot for stretches this year. If I were a betting man, I’d say they have one more winning streak left in the tank. […]

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