Despite not being projected as a top western conference team, the Los Angeles Lakers will garner much attention next season. Want proof? The Lakers are set to make a combined 35 national television appearances next season with only four teams having more appearances. The team is coming off a 26-56 season in which they were nearly the worst team in the league. However, with a few key roster changes, next year looks to be a key building year as the franchise continues to develop and position itself for future success.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
Magic Johnson promised to restore the Los Angeles Lakers to their glory days when he was hired as the team’s president of basketball operations.
So far, the Hall of Famer has been slapped with tampering charges from the NBA in reference to the Lakers contact with Paul George, and has drafted a point guard with a father who seems hell-bent on dominating the news headlines.
However, Magic has positioned the Lakers to return to the good ol’ days following another lackluster season. Despite the talent of Lonzo Ball, a 19-year-old point guard will still more than likely struggle to win his team games. What he will do, though, is showcase his talent and playmaking ability for free agents when Los Angeles enters next summer with deep pockets. (Paul George already seems interested, how about you, LeBron?)
With Ball handling the rock, Brandon Ingram entering year two, and new management across the board, brighter days are ahead for the Hollywood franchise. They just need to get past next season’s below-average results.
4th place — Pacific Division
– Dennis Chambers
Amazingly, it seems that the Lakers and their fortunes have changed overnight. Lonzo Ball is entering the league with some heavy expectations, while Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka have combined to give the front office an aura of respectability that has been missing for quite some time.
For the Lakers, though, the coming season is likely to be a long one. Aside from Ball, the acquisitions of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Brook Lopez should help the team improve upon the 26 wins they clocked last season, but at the end of the day, the playoffs are an at-best and perhaps unrealistic goal.
Still, things appear to be headed in the right direction, so for Lakers fans, this coming season may be the last in the cellar—especially if the team is able to actually secure the services of LeBron James next summer.
I think the Suns are probably a notch below at this point, and the Kings have a respectable cast of characters, as well. The only two teams in the division that I can say are better off are the Clippers and Warriors, so a division-finish as high as third for the Lakers wouldn’t surprise me, especially with Luke Walton at the helm.
3rd Place — Pacific Division
— Moke Hamilton
With rumors already swirling loudly about their potential 2018 summer free agency pursuits, there are a few factors up for debate in Los Angeles this year. Do young guys like Jordan Clarkson and Julius Randle remain building blocks for the future, or are they considered as pieces to help move salary and open up space for big names next summer? Does newly-acquired Brook Lopez play a legitimate on-court role, or was he mostly salary fodder to move on from Timo Mozgov’s contract? Just about the only thing we know for sure for this team on the court this season: Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma are going to get a lot of chances to show their potential and learn on the fly. How many wins the Lakers reach may ultimately depend on the larger direction management takes, but until starrier names sign on the dotted line next summer, these kids are the future. The Lakers should compete with the Suns for the bottom seed in the Pacific.
4th place — Pacific Division
– Ben Dowsett
To say anything less than, “The Los Angeles Lakers will win the 2017 NBA championship” is to draw the ire of Lakers fans worldwide, but here we go anyway: The Los Angeles Lakers will not win the 2017 NBA championship. In fact, they won’t even make the playoffs next spring. Lonzo Ball has been a lot of “fun” so far, but the core of this organization is still incredibly young, all of which is a good reminder that this season is, more than anything, a test run for the imminent arrival of max free agents next summer, as Magic attempts to turn Hollywood into a desirable free agency destination once again. There is plenty to love about this team as constructed, but the kids are still young and it probably will be quite a circus this season. With potentially bigger talent joining this group down the road, however, this circus could just be getting started.
4th Place – Pacific Division
– Joel Brigham
The Los Angeles Lakers had an interesting offseason. Magic Johnson and Rob Pelina traded D’Angelo Russell and Timofey Mozgov in exchange for Brook Lopez and the rights to the 27th pick in the 2017 NBA Draft (Kyle Kuzma). Trading Russell was the price of the last front office regime signing Mozgov to a deal that was considered an albatross from the moment it was agreed to. However, Russell was a divisive figure in the Lakers’ locker room and now the team can build around their new talented point guard of the future — Lonzo Ball. Ball has prodigious passing and playmaking talent and will likely make a positive impact early on in the season. This is a developmental season for the Lakers, so making the playoffs should not be the priority. Players like Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle and Larry Nance Jr. neeed to take another positive step forward in their respective development as the Lakers will be looking to attract the biggest free agents next offseason.
3rd Place — Pacific Division
– Jesse Blancarte
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player – Brook Lopez
Three of the top five offensive players from last season (Lou Williams, D’Angelo Russell and Nick Young) no longer hold a spot on this year’s roster. Brook Lopez was brought in via trade when the Lakers unloaded Timofey Mozgov’s contract, which required moving Russell. Lopez has averaged over 20 points a game the last two seasons (20.5 and 20.6) and has been accustomed to being the focal point of the offense for some time with the Nets. Expect Lopez to continue flexing his muscle down low as one the league’s true centers capable of effectively scoring in the post, as well as stretching the floor with his three-point shooting. Doing so will do wonders for a Lakers offense that often lacked proper spacing in recent seasons. Although his time with the Lakers may be brief (Lopez is set to be an unrestricted free agent after this season), expect the Lakers to lean on Lopez for consistent offensive production.
Top Defensive Player – Brook Lopez
The Lakers have a lot of young talent, but they don’t necessarily have a lockdown defender on the roster. Though he isn’t known as a top defensive center, Lopez is capable of providing solid rim protection and making opponents think twice about driving into the lane. With a player of Lopez’s size and intelligence anchoring the defense, look for the Lakers to utilize small ball line-ups around him to funnel drives to Lopez, who blocked 1.6 blocks per game last season (8th in the league). However, it’s worth remembering that the Lakers are coming off a year in which they ranked 30th of 30 teams on defense. With that in mind, don’t expect a huge leap forward on this end of the court this season.
Top Playmaker – Lonzo Ball
Lonzo Ball is one of the most talked about rookie in years. With no shortage of hype, the basketball world will be watching to see if his play on the court can match the hype. Despite this and the pressure of playing for the Lakers, Ball has a chance as the starting point guard to use his pinpoint passing and excellent court vision to quickly become the Lakers’ top playmaker. How well Ball physically holds up to the rigors of his first NBA season will determine how effective he can be in this role this season. True rookies, even with ample playing time, don’t often make great contributions in their inaugural season. Expect Ball to be the exception.
Top Clutch Player – Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
The absence of Lou Williams and, to a lesser extent, D’Angelo Russell hurts in this category. With Williams, Russell and Young off the team, look for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to try and fill the shoes here. KCP is on a one-year deal and will want to make the most of his season with the Lakers, so look for him to be aggressive, especially on offense. With a good free throw percentage (83.2), three-point percentage (35.0) and improved ability to move the ball (career high 2.5 assists last season), expect the Lakers to trust KCP in high-pressure late game situations. Brandon Ingram could also step into this role potentially. However, Ingram’s shooting and ability to generate separation from his defenders consistently will need to improve for this to happen.
The Unheralded Player – Julius Randle
Entering his fourth year, forward Julius Randle continues to improve and has the opportunity to make huge strides this season. Randle is in great shape and wanted the league to take notice of his offseason workouts. Randle has already demonstrated that he is capable of doing serious damage offensively near the rim and in transition. He also shown that he has the strength to be physical with bigger, more experience players on both ends of the court. Also, as mentioned above, the improved spacing provided by Lopez and the emphasis on passing, through the addition of Ball and Coach Luke Walton’s offense, should benefit Randle greatly. Randle stands to improve as a shooter, which would open up his game even more. Time will tell how far Randle has developed in that department. Expect Randle to turn the corner this season and show that he is worth investing in as a long-term piece for this Lakers team.
Best New Addition – Lonzo Ball
While Lopez will likely make the biggest impact immediately, Ball is the key addition to the franchise. With him, the team has a foundational piece to build around and grow alongside the team’s other young players. In addition, Ball’s ability, willingness and desire to make those around him better through his passing and playmaking abilities will endear him to teammates and fans alike.
– James Blancarte
WHO WE LIKE
1. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is the perfect kind of signing for the Lakers. He is on a one-year contract, which provides the Lakers with flexibility when they have the chance to potentially sign big name players (e.g., Paul George) next offseason. KCP brings outside shooting, an emerging ability to run the pick and roll and defensive impact and consistency. Don’t be surprised if KCP puts in maximum effort this season and hits a new gear considering he is looking for the long-term contract that eluded him this offseason.
2. Lakers Management
President of Basketball Operations Magic Johnson and General Manager Rob Pelinka deserve credit. Their front office has managed a team with a promising core and supplemented that with expiring contracts and loads of cap space. The signings of Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng were disastrous, but they happened under the last regime and unloading Mozgov’s salary should pay off somewhat quickly, despite the loss of Russell. After making some savvy moves, the pair is positioned to make some serious acquisitions next offseason, which could catapult the Lakers back into contention for the first time in years. If the team strikes out, look for Lakers management to continue investing in and bolstering the young core of talent while maintaining long term cap flexibility.
3. Brook Lopez
As explained above, Lopez should quickly become an anchor for this team on both ends of the court. He may not be a perfect fit in the small-ball era of the NBA, but Lopez is still a very productive player. His ability to knock down three-pointers is a nice bonus that should pay off in a significant way – especially if Coach Walton can find creative ways to utilize it within the team’s offense.
4. Luke Walton
Remember the remarkable streak of success that Coach Walton experienced when manning the helm for the Golden State Warriors during their record breaking season in 2015-16? It certainly feels like a long time ago. Despite the fact that the Lakers went 26-56 last season, Walton immediately brought a new sense of cohesion to the Lakers. Walton is a player’s coach and quickly worked to establish a bond and sense of trust between himself and his players. The team is young and played inconsistently last season, but the positive change in culture was apparent. Coach Walton also continues to implement a modern offense, which has helped bring the Lakers into the modern era of NBA basketball. If the Lakers win more games than they are projected to this season, Walton’s coaching will likely be a big reason why.
– James Blancarte
SALARY CAP 101
The Lakers have been clear that their primary goal is to open two maximum-salary slots in the summer of 2018. While they’re not quite there yet, moving off the contract of Jordan Clarkson via trade, letting Julius Randle walk as an unrestricted free agent and stretching the final two years of Luol Deng’s contract would put the Lakers at roughly $70 million in space next year (with a $102 million cap projection). Trading Deng could help the Lakers keep one of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Brook Lopez, Clarkson or Randle, while still maintaining room for two max players.
Meanwhile, the Lakers are expected to use their $4.3 million Room Exception before the season on forward Shabazz Muhammad. Once completed, Los Angeles will have 15 players under guaranteed contract, which doesn’t bode well for camp invites Vander Blue, Briante Weber, Stephen Zimmerman and V.J. Beachem. The Lakers do not have a first-round pick next June. Per the Stepien Rule, the Lakers cannot trade their 2019 first until after the 2018 NBA Draft.
– Eric Pincus
Youth, financial flexibility and perspective. The Lakers have one of the best cores of young talent in the NBA. Developing these foundational players is what matters most for this team, especially considering how much financial flexibility the team will likely have next offseason. The Lakers understand that they aren’t going to win a championship this season and could even miss the playoffs again. However, if their core players all show great improvement and signs of being future stars, the team could make a serious pitch to big time free agents next summer. Keeping this perspective in mind will help the team overcome the crushing weight of expectations in L.A. and will help to keep their collective eye on what matters most moving forward.
– James Blancarte
Defense. The Lakers ranked dead last in defense last season. Despite adding Lopez, the team will continue to rely on a number of young, developing players, which doesn’t bode well on this end of the court. Expect the team defense to move up a few spots with Lopez manning the middle, but not by much.
– James Blancarte
THE BURNING QUESTION
Should Lakers fans have realistic hope that the team can be competitive enough to make the playoffs?
In short, they should not. Despite all of the positives mentioned above, the Lakers youthful core is too inexperienced to be truly competitive. The western conference is as strong as ever and the Lakers simply don’t have the veteran talent, depth or experience to be a serious playoff contender next season.
– James Blancarte
NBA Daily: The Stretch Run – Central Division
In the next edition of our The Stretch Run series, Basketball Insiders takes a closer look at the Central Division bubble teams as things get back on track following the All-Star break.
The so-called second half of the season is kicking back into gear, but the forthcoming agendas for teams in the Central Division are all very different. Some organizations have their eye on the draft lottery, some on making the playoffs and one or two have set their sights on the NBA Finals. Each team has less than 28 games remaining, which means every one of them will be extremely important.
As part of Basketball Insiders’ latest running series called The Stretch Run, we’re taking a look at every division and analyzing their standing — both in the postseason position or rebuilding efforts.
The Central Division is a mixed bag of teams on various tier levels, naturally. The Milwaukee Bucks find themselves alone at the top, owning the best record in the league — as of publishing — with a 46-8 record. Clearly not a bubble team, Milwaukee’s focus has been on fine-tuning their roster and figuring out their playoff rotation. They recently added another piece in Marvin Williams after his buyout with the Charlotte Hornets.
Behind the Bucks sit the Indiana Pacers with a 32-23 record at the All-Star break. Indiana beat Milwaukee in their final game before the stoppage to end a five-game losing streak. One of the reasons for their recent struggles is likely due to incorporating Victor Oladipo back into the rotation. While the chemistry will take time to build, the talented backcourt Oladipo and Malcolm Brogdon should be one of the best in the league eventually. Their twin towers of Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner should keep the Pacers squarely in the playoff picture.
At the opposite end of the spectrum sit the Cleveland Cavaliers. They are 14-40 on the season and have had very few bright spots. Collin Sexton picked up where he left off last season, but he hasn’t been able to elevate his teammates. The Cavaliers decided not to move Kevin Love before the trade deadline, before then acquiring Andre Drummond from a division rival to create a log jam of big men. After taking Sexton and Darius Garland in the draft lottery the past two years, Cleveland will likely have another top pick to use this summer.
The odd five-year contract that Cleveland gave former Michigan head coach John Beilein this past summer has not worked out well. After reports earlier this season that the players had already tuned him out, it appears as though his days in the league have come to an end. Beilein and the organization finalized a contract settlement that’ll stop proceedings just a half-season into the deal.
Again, and swiftly, the franchise has fallen on hard times since LeBron James’ second departure.
The remaining two teams in the Central are right on the bubble and have some work to do. All hope is not lost, but they will need a few breaks to go their way over these final weeks.
With those three out of the way, it’s time to dive deep into the divisional troublemakers.
The Chicago Bulls have had a disappointing season, but they also have dealt with a myriad of injuries. Now that the All-Star festivities have concluded, the city will see if their team can get back into the postseason with a little bit of luck. The Bulls are 19-36 on the season with 27 games remaining. Looking ahead, the numbers are fairly even as 14 of those games will be against teams .500 or better. Additionally, Chicago will also have 14 of those 27 games on their home floor.
Chicago has lost six straight games and is currently tenth in the Eastern Conference standings. worse, they must find a way to leapfrog the Orlando Magic and Washington Wizards. Both teams have a similar strength of schedule over the course of their remaining games. If the Bulls want to get back into the playoffs, they will have to finish tight games. Chicago has a winning percentage of 41.7 in close games this season, which ranks 22nd in the league.
Individually, Zach LaVine has been having an outstanding season. His 25.3 points and 4.8 rebounds per game are career highs — and his late-game execution has been remarkable, considering the defenses knowing exactly where the ball is going. His ability to penetrate, finish, or just pull up has kept Chicago afloat this season. Injuries to virtually every other player on the roster have had this team trying to dig their way out of a hole since early in the year.
Oddly enough, the offense has been the biggest issue in Chicago this season. The Bulls are 26th in offensive rating and rank 25th in the league in scoring. Their defense has actually been much better than most people realize as they rank inside the top half of the league in opponent scoring and defensive rating. Both Thaddeus Young and Kris Dunn have been catalysts on that end of the floor for Jim Boylen’s squad. If they crumble over this final stretch, it could be the end for the outspoken coach.
The Detroit Pistons have a little more work to do and they only have 25 games in which to do it. Detroit currently sits 12th in the conference with a 19-38 record. The most difficult obstacle in this challenge for the Pistons will be jumping over four teams to get there. Of their 25 remaining games, only 11 of them will be played at home in Little Caesars Arena.
A playoff appearance last season increased expectations for the Pistons this year, even with Blake Griffin’s injury in that first-round series. The thought was that he would be ready to go at the start of this season, but that didn’t happen. Unfortunately, he only made it 18 games before he had to have another round of surgery. Quickly, the season outlook changed for Dwane Casey’s team.
Drummond had a fantastic start to the season without Griffin and was put up his typically-monstrous numbers. With their outlook changing, Detroit traded the big man to Cleveland for all of John Henson, Brandon Knight and a second-round draft pick. Stranger, Derrick Rose has been Detroit’s best player by a wide margin. The resurgent point guard leads the team in points and assists — and, further, did not want to be traded. Reggie Jackson returned to the lineup just before the break but just accepted a buyout so that he could join the Los Angeles Clippers.
Christian Wood has played very well and rookie Sekou Doumbouya emerged as a pleasant surprise for the Pistons, thankfully, so it’s not all doom and gloom. Bruce Brown continues to be one of the best young guards that no one talks about. Should Luke Kennard return to health and continue his progression, a return to the playoffs might be possible with a strong finish. Change must come swiftly, however, as Detroit has lost 10 of its last 12 games.
The real question here is if the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference is indeed worth pursuing. Should Chicago or Detroit earn the spot, a first-round exit is almost a certainty. The Bucks are arguably the best team in the league with the likely back-to-back MVP leading them. Obviously these division rivals know Milwaukee well and simply do not have an answer for them. Injuries can always play a factor in how these things turn out, but the owners would prefer to have the playoff revenue.
The other side of this would be getting into the lottery to improve their first-round draft pick. Normally this is weighed heavily by the organizations, but with the rules designed to prevent teams from tanking, that’ll be difficult to do so.
Making the playoffs is still something that most players would like to do, needless to say. Coaches definitely would prefer that route, of course, as their jobs are dependent on it. Looking at the two Central Division teams in the hunt though, both appear to be headed back to the lottery once again.
Kristaps Porzingis Is Quietly Rounding Into Form
After disappointing early this season, Kristaps Porzingis is rounding into form with the Mavericks. How much does Luka Doncic’s absence factor into his improved recent play?
The Dallas Mavericks are far ahead of schedule.
Just a single season removed from their worst finish since 1998-99, the Mavericks are already back in playoff position, poised for another decade of success despite the departure of Dirk Nowitzki. The chief means behind their rapid rebuild requires no explanation. Luka Doncic will almost surely finish top-five in MVP voting this season and has a convincing case as the league’s best 20-year-old of all-time. At this rate, it’s even only a matter of time until Doncic supplants Dirk Nowitzki as Dallas’ greatest player in franchise history.
But Doncic’s ankle-breaking step-back triples, dazzling finishes and ingenious all-court playmaking won’t lift the Mavericks to legitimate contention alone. The front office has done typically well rounding out the roster with solid, versatile contributors who fit snugly next to Doncic, while Rick Carlisle’s consistent ability to get the most from his bench assures Dallas of competence on which most teams can’t rely without their superstar. The Mavericks couldn’t have planned to rise up the Western Conference hierarchy quite so rapidly, but already possess the rough outlines of a team ready to compete for a title.
Smoothing those edges into surefire championship contention will be no easy task. Tim Hardaway Jr.’s evolution into a valuable role player could complicate Dallas’ plans to make a splash in free agency this summer. The team projects to have more cap space in 2021, but Mark Cuban understands the fickle unknown of free agency better than any owner in basketball after years of missing out on marquee, high-priced targets.
Luckily for the Mavericks, they aren’t necessarily looking to free agency or the trade market to find Doncic a worthy co-star. Swinging for the fences last year by bringing in Kristaps Porzingis afforded the luxury of building around a potentially elite tandem from the ground up.
It’s no secret that Porzingis’ acclimation to the Mavericks, not to mention the court after spending a year-and-a-half off it while recovering from a torn ACL, is ongoing. Dallas’ plus-5.9 net rating with that pair on the floor is solid, far better than the team’s season-low mark after trudging into the All-Star break by losing four of its last six games. Still, there’s no getting around the fact that the Mavericks have fared far better with just one of Porzingis or Doncic on the floor despite their seemingly symbiotic offensive fit.
Dallas outscores opponents by 10 points per 100 possessions when Doncic plays without Porzingis, a feather in his MVP cap. The Mavericks’ plus-8.9 net rating when Porzingis plays without Doncic is almost equally strong, but the former hasn’t received near the praise bestowed on the latter for propping up similar lineups.
Even a multi-faceted big like Porzingis just can’t affect the game the way a maestro alpha dog like Doncic does. His abject struggles to punish smaller defenders on switches early in the season was a popular early-season talking point among national media — plus Carlisle’s December acknowledgment that Porzingis can better help his team by spacing the floor fueled that narrative further. Dallas didn’t sign Porzingis to a five-year, max-level extension before he ever donned a Mavericks uniform for him to shoot 34.5 percent on post-ups and 23.1 percent in isolation, per NBA.com/stats.
The Mavericks will always be best served with the ball in Doncic’s hands, but that hardly means they don’t need Porzingis to be much, much better than he’s been for the majority of this season when possessions devolve into one-on-one play. The good news? Recent evidence suggests Porzingis still has the goods to exist as that trump card, at least on a part-time basis.
With Doncic sidelined by a sprained right ankle for seven straight games early this month, Porzingis forcefully reminded the basketball world why optimists once considered him a potential MVP candidate in his own right. He dropped 38 points and 12 rebounds on the Houston Rockets, 38 and 12 on the Indiana Pacers and then 32 and 12 on the Memphis Grizzlies in successive appearances. After being limited against the Washington Wizards by a broken nose, he returned three days later to score 28 points on 17 field goal attempts against the Utah Jazz.
A five-game sample size is small, obviously, but the scope of Porzingis’ labors and the perception of his play in 2019-20 overall make his dominance without Doncic noteworthy regardless. He averaged 27.2 points and 10.2 rebounds over that brief stretch, shooting 50 percent from the field and 40.9 percent from deep on nearly nine three-point attempts per game.
But even without Doncic setting him up, Porzingis did most of his damage with help. Whether he was popping off screens or attacking overzealous close-outs off the dribble, he was still far more of a play finisher than starter — an indication of his limits as a true offensive fulcrum.
Where Porzingis’ play diverged from this season’s norm was his sudden propensity for drawing fouls. He took at least 10 free throws in just two games prior to Doncic going down, but surpassed that total versus Indiana, Memphis and Washington before attempting nine freebies against Utah. Porzingis lived at the line when Doncic returned to the lineup against the Sacramento Kings, too, connecting on 10-for-12 free throws during a 27-point outing.
Porzingis’ free throw rate now stands at .293, a hair off his mark during his breakout final season with the New York Knicks. Is that uptick and his recent scoring binge proof that Porzingis is merely getting more comfortable on the court two years removed from surgery? Or, rather, that the Latvian and Doncic still have work to do before reaching their ceiling as a duo?
The answer, obviously, lies somewhere in between. Porzingis’ rising production is what matters most — and should have the rest of the league extra wary of Dallas going forward – in both short and long-term futures.
NBA Daily: The Stretch Run – Pacific Division
Matt John starts off Basketball Insiders’ The Stretch Run by taking a look at the Pacific Division franchises on the playoff bubble.
Well, well, well . . . we’re now entering the home stretch here, people. With the All-Star break nearing its end, the regular season stakes will intensify exponentially. The losses count for far more now than they did a month ago. The playoff seedings are starting to settle a bit and we’re starting to see a playoff bubble in our midst.
With that in mind, Basketball Insiders would like to introduce a new series titled The Stretch Run. In these pieces, we’ll be looking at the teams from each division to evaluate their ever-growing bubble and the chances of reaching the postseason. Keep in mind, of course, that this analysis is based on the standings as of now. Needless to say, a whole bunch can change in the 25-and-change games that are left.
Today we’re diving into the Pacific Division — or, otherwise known as the top-heavy division.
There are other top-heavy divisions in the NBA at the moment — just look at the Central — but the Pacific Division is the much polarizing of them all. The best teams in the division currently sport two of the top three records in the Western Conference. The other three? Unfortunately, they hold three of the four worst records in the Western Conference.
So let’s just get this out of the way: Neither Los Angeles-based team is on the bubble. Barring a major meltdown — which is not likely when you have the likes of LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis and Paul George on your squad — both the Lakers and the Clippers are most definitely making the playoffs.
There’s not much cause for concern since both are expected to make deep postseason runs — although you never know with injuries. At this point, however, the franchises may too deep to worry about breaking down, but it’s still worth mentioning. According to Tankathon as of Feb. 18, the Lakers and Clippers have two of the league’s 10 easiest schedules from here on out, so all that has gone well should end well.
As for their other Pacific Division compatriots, well, those three are obviously in different places.
Just to tie up any loose ends before diving in, the Golden State Warriors are out, too. And they’ve probably been out since the day Stephen Curry broke his hand. To recap: The Warriors have the worst record in the league; currently trail behind Memphis by 16.5 games for the No. 8 seed with 27 contests left; Curry’s not expected back until March at the earliest. Hell, when Klay Thompson will make his season debut? Or, better yet, who knows if Klay Thompson will make his season debut at all?
The postseason boat has sailed for the boys in the Bay Area. After back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back runs to the NBA Finals, the gang needed a chance to catch their breath. If Curry and Thompson both make it back before season’s end, we’ll get a brief glimpse of Golden State’s new big three plus Andrew Wiggins. That doesn’t breed excitement as much as it breeds intrigue.
Thanks to the updated lottery rules, Golden State can compete at full strength without endangering their odds. Even better, don’t forget that high pick in the upcoming 2020 NBA Draft. The perennial contenders may have had a downer season but, in the long run, this may have been the best route for them.
Therein lies the Phoenix Suns and Sacramento Kings. Any postseason hopes are dim but all hope is not lost. First off, although both combine for two of the four aforementioned worst records in the conference, take it with a major grain of salt. They are currently No. 12 and No. 13 in the conference but the Suns are behind the Portland Trail Blazers by only three games for ninth, while the Kings lag the Blazers by only half a game more.
The hard part, however, is that Phoenix and Sacramento are both well behind the Memphis Grizzlies for the No. 8 seed — 6.5 and 7 games, respectively.
Again, though, all hope is not lost for them. At least, not entirely as the Grizzlies will have the toughest schedule for the rest of the season. Out of their final 28 games, Memphis faces 16 teams over .500, while 18 of them are against tougher Western Conference foes. Getting past them is doable, but they would have to leapfrog Portland, San Antonio and New Orleans in the process.
But who is more likely to complete that feat?
If we’re comparing their strength of schedule, it’s Sacramento. The Kings have the 10th-easiest schedule from here on out. Even though they’re facing 18 Western Conference teams of their own over the last 28 games, only 13 are against those over .500.
Phoenix, by contrast, has the eighth-hardest remaining. They may have fewer games in which they face Western Conference opponents — which could work against them seeing how head-to-head record impacts conference standing — but they also play more teams over .500 than Sacramento (15).
The Suns have a half-game lead over the Kings, but the Kings have an easier path ahead opponent-wise.
Unfortunately for both, the franchise with the easiest schedule for the remainder of the season appears to be the young and frightening New Orleans Pelicans. The Pelicans are starting to look like the dangerous sleeper we all thought they’d be now that Zion Williamson has arrived.
Sadly, that could spell doom for the Suns’ and Kings’ playoff hopes,
Both teams have been decimated by player absences — and pretty much from the beginning too. Phoenix lost Deandre Ayton literally one game into the year due to a suspension. Sacramento ended up missing De’Aaron Fox for a long stretch because of an early ankle sprain.
And even though those were the most prominent injuries, they’ve dealt with several others as well. Aron Baynes hasn’t played in a month, while it may be a while longer before Richaun Holmes takes the court again. Even Marvin Bagley III has struggled to stay on the court for most of the season.
As for how they compare for how they’ve done, there’s more evidence supporting Phoenix as the better team between the two, but only slightly. Phoenix has both a better point differential — minus-1.2 to minus-2.9 — and net rating — minus-0.9 to minus-2.6 — than Sacramento does. The Suns are not in a league above the Kings in either area, but the statistical differences would show that the former has played marginally better.
In the end, Sacramento entered this season with much higher expectations following the franchise’s most productive effort since 2006. On the other hand, Phoenix came into this season with the same small-level outlook they’ve held for quite some time.
So even though the Suns have exceeded expectations and the Kings have fallen well short, the two sides find themselves virtually tied.
Given the deep holes they’ve dug themselves heading toward March, however, it seems more than likely that the Suns and Kings will be spending the playoffs from their couches.
At this point, both franchises are in a newly-found position of promise but that still does not guarantee a postseason berth. Despite the valiant efforts, Phoenix and Sacramento will have the same closing remark when the season closes out: Better luck next year.