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