The offseason is finally done. Training camp is officially underway. The 2019-2020 NBA season is mere weeks away from starting. As usual, we’ve all been waiting a long time for this moment.
And why shouldn’t we? There are so many exciting storylines to tune into this season. The league’s new-found parity. The new LA teams. The downfall of the Warriors. The growingly restless Bucks and the Greek Freak’s extension. Those are just a few of the many plot threads that should make this a season possibly the most entertaining one we’ve seen in ages.
Lost in all the hoopla has been the story of the one team that, no matter what they lost this summer, is still technically the one that stands above the rest of the league – the reigning champions.
The story of the Toronto Raptors winning their first championship should have been revered as a team that built a winner the right way. No stars joining forces with each other. No tank jobs leading to homegrown superstars coming into their own. Just a team that built itself with enough talent and a solid identity.
Instead, the first thought that came to mind when talking about Toronto was, “Will Kawhi stick around?” Even though no one was to blame for this, it’s sad that what should have been the happiest time for the Raptors franchise was overshadowed by the uncertainty surrounding Kawhi.
Now that he’s gone, the Raptors’ chances of repeating are next to non-existent pending any unexpected trades or player improvement. That being said, with the season approaching, it’s time we give the 2018-2019 Toronto Raptors the tribute that they deserve.
The Team That Had Lost All Hope
It was almost a year-and-a-half ago that Toronto – despite enjoying the most success the franchise had ever seen – had really hit rock bottom. For the third consecutive season, LeBron and the Cavs eliminated the Raptors, and pretty easily too.
The third time, though, was where it became more dumbfounding than ever. Cleveland came in at the height of its dysfunction with LeBron, and the Raptors looked primed for a trip to The Finals. When LeBron almost single-handedly swept Toronto, it was so embarrassing that the NBA Twitter decided to give the team the nickname, “LeBronto.”
It only got worse. They already had a long-standing reputation of blowing it in the playoffs, and this particular outing only asked more questions.
Was this far as they could go? At the time, there were no easy answers for Canada’s team. This writer argued that they should have kept it all together on the basis that they be patient a little longer with the roster, but after they fired Dwane Casey, it felt as though there were changes in order.
With Boston getting its best players back, Philadelphia’s young cornerstones another year older, and Milwaukee building the right team around Giannis, Toronto seemed primed to take a back seat to them.
But on July 18, 2018, their fortunes changed.
The Return of a Titan
Did you know that when Kawhi Leonard is an active player, the NBA is 150 percent more fun to watch? It’s a scientific fact. Just ask a dentist.
All jokes aside, many forget that at this time a year ago, the doubt surrounding Kawhi wasn’t primarily whether he was going to re-sign with the Raptors. It was whether he was going to be the same player we all came to know and love.
Following his disastrous fallout with the Spurs, Leonard was labeled as damaged goods, which is why other suitors like Boston opted not to pursue him as hard as they probably should have. Lucky for Toronto, not only did they have a good package for the former Defensive Player of the Year, they also had an offer that appeased the Spurs since DeMar DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl was a win-now package.
The Raptors swung for the fences when they acquired Kawhi, and this time, they went deep.
Kawhi was every bit the same player he was back when he was putting himself into the MVP discussion when he was a Spur. In fact, if he hadn’t missed 22 games – kudos to him for pioneering the term “load management,” which may or may not still be a thing for years to come – he probably would have had a better case.
It doesn’t matter though, because even though Kawhi put up some of the best all-around stats we’ve ever seen from him, what we got from the Klaw in the playoffs was a performance for the ages.
On his playoff resume, Kawhi already has outplaying LeBron in The Finals and single-handedly outplaying the super-Warriors (until he sprained his ankle) to boast. What he did for the Raptors may have topped everything he had done previously.
Over 24 games, Kawhi put up 30.5 points, 9.1 rebounds, almost 4 assists, 1.7 steals, and 0.7 blocks on 49/38/88 splits. When you compare those numbers to some of his other outings, some of those aren’t his career-best. That stat line is, however, one of the best individual performances we’ve ever seen from a player who went on an extended run, rivaling the likes of Michael Jordan’s performance in 1991, LeBron James’ performance in 2012, Shaquille O’Neal’s performance in 2000 and many of Tim Duncan’s performances.
Kawhi may have topped them all with his consistent dominance throughout the postseason, and to top it all off, he added one the most epic buzzer-beaters we’ve ever seen.
We already knew Kawhi Leonard was a future Hall of Famer. This performance cemented his legacy as one of the best of his generation and puts him in the discussion with the greatest of all time.
The Sudden Uprise of a New Star
Kawhi Leonard proved himself to still be one of, if not, the best player in the NBA, but even the best of the best need help. He alone would not be enough. That’s where more spectators became more skeptical of the impending Raptors who intended to be more impenetrable.
Kyle Lowry had yet to show that he had what it took to be one of the leading men of a championship team. If they just had someone else who could take the role of the No. 2 and run with it, their chances would suddenly get better. Nobody knew it at the time, but we’d come to find out that they had it all along in Pascal Siakam.
Siakam had already exceeded expectations when he went from throwaway draft pick to solid role player for Toronto the previous season. Finding an average player in the late first-round is satisfactory for anyone. What Pascal has become is something that was beyond Toronto’s wildest dreams.
A man who was once a backup wing suddenly became one of the better young power forwards in the game. In just his third season and at just 25 years old, Siakam evolved into an excellent all-around wing, averaging 17 points, almost seven rebounds, and 3.1 assists per game on 55/37/78 splits while also playing enough like a pest to garner him some All-NBA Defense recognition.
Toronto has seen its young talent shrink when the playoffs come around. Such was not the case with Siakam. While his three-pointer became a little less consistent, Pascal kept his production up, averaging 19 points, 7.1 rebounds, and 2.8 assists on 47/28/76 splits. Kawhi may have had an all-time playoff performance, but even those can be wasted – just ask LeBron in 2015. Pascal delivered for Toronto when they needed him to.
He became the Pippen to Kawhi’s Michael Jordan. Perhaps now we’ll find out what Pippen would have been like without Jordan now that Siakam is Toronto’s alpha dog.
The Breakthrough of a Diminished Star
At the front of Toronto’s failures leading up to 2019 was Kyle Lowry. He wasn’t solely responsible for the team’s past issues, but Lowry would routinely share the gist of the blame for the Raptors coming up short time and time again.
The addition of Kawhi Leonard put more pressure on Lowry to be the second-in-command, which was tough to ask from a guy who was going to be 33 when the playoffs came. Luckily, both Kawhi’s presence along with the uprise of Siakam minimized Lowry’s duties.
If you look at his stats from last season, you’ll see that both Lowry’s scoring and shooting numbers took a noticeable turn for the worse. However, because there wasn’t nearly as much of a demand for Kyle to score the ball, Lowry had his best season as a distributor, averaging 8.7 assists per game, which easily topped his previous career-high of 7.4 in 2014.
The Raptors’ offense was plus-10.4 when he was on the court, and he also was in the top-10 in charges drawn during the regular season. He may not have put up his usual All-Star numbers, but he still made an All-Star-like impact, which probably factored into how he made his fifth consecutive All-Star team.
Lowry again did not have the best outing in the playoffs, averaging 15 points on 44/36/80 splits while also averaging 6.6 assists and almost five rebounds per game. But again, the Raptors didn’t ask him to be their go-to scorer. They asked him to keep playing his game, and he did just that. He distributed the ball while also playing tough defense, even leading the playoffs by far in charges drawn.
By having a lesser role, Kyle thrived more for the Raptors by doing all the little things. His story proves more or less that a guy who can really be at his best when he’s in his wheelhouse. For Kyle Lowry, less was more for him.
The Offensive Re-Serge-Ence
This was also a nice little twist for the Raptors. Serge Ibaka was seen as a player on a rapid decline coming into the season. So much went right for Toronto that we overlooked that Ibaka had one of his best seasons in recent memory.
With the exception of his three-point shooting, which Toronto didn’t go to as much this past season, Ibaka put up some of his best offensive numbers since 2014. He put up 15 points per game while shooting 53 percent overall from the field and also corralling 8.1 rebounds per game. Those are numbers that rival the career-highs that the man put up with the Thunder. The only difference is that, in Toronto, he puts up those stats in six less minutes per game.
Serge’s defensive impact is probably never going to be what it once was when he played in Oklahoma City, but it’s not like Toronto was expecting him to do that.
When the Raptors added some more grit in the front at the trade deadline, Serge wasn’t nearly as impactful, but his efficiency for the season remained. Ibaka’s numbers weren’t something that Toronto necessarily asked for, but the fact that they got that kind of contribution from Serge when everyone though his best days were done is something that deserves more attention.
The Last Piece of The Puzzle
On February 7, the Raptors weren’t in dire need of making any drastic changes. They ranked in the top-10 in both offensive rating (112.3 – seventh overall) and defensive rating (107.4 – eighth overall), and had an excellent record of 39-16. Yet, it felt like something was missing.
As good as they were, the Raptors knew that facing the likes of Joel Embiid and/or Nikola Vucevic – two of the better centers in the game – was a likelihood if they wanted to go the distance in the postseason. Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas wasn’t the worst center rotation in the world, but that pairing could have used an upgrade.
The Raptors knew with Kawhi expiring and LeBron out of their life, this was a rare opportunity as ever to win it all, so they had to seize it at every avenue. At the trade deadline, they added the finishing touch to their roster by trading Valanciunas, Delon Wright and CJ Miles for Marc Gasol.
Toronto didn’t want Gasol to be the two-way superstar he was in Memphis. All they wanted him to do was fill in the remaining gaps. Those gaps included spacing the floor, making the right pass and defending the post. The Spaniard’s numbers fell down the tubes, which at first glance would make trading for him look like a failure. If you watch Gasol when he was on the floor, you knew he gave them so much more flavor than they had before.
There were other stories worth mentioning, like Nick Nurse being up to the task of coaching a title team as a rookie head man in charge, or Fred VanVleet fall and subsequent uprise, or Danny Green’s steady influence or Norman Powell’s return to the rotation. Those guys definitely played a part in Toronto’s first title, but the previously five mentioned storylines were worth expanding on more. Feel free to disagree.
As inspiring as this team’s story was, one could argue that the stars aligned for the Raptors. They were lucky that San Antonio happened to be selling off Kawhi at the exact time Toronto had enough to trade for him. They were lucky that Memphis happened to be blowing it up at the exact time Toronto needed an upgrade in the frontcourt. They were lucky that Golden State, upon entering its fifth consecutive NBA Finals appearance, were fatigued to the tenth degree when they faced off.
And who knows if they would have gotten as far as they did if Pascal Siakam had remained as just a rotation player?
Luck is part of the equation for every championship team. You’re lucky if certain offseason twists go your way. You’re lucky if your team stays healthy throughout the whole season. You’re lucky if you get the favorable matchup in the playoffs.
More than anything else, the 2018-2019 Toronto Raptors rise to the top felt organic. They were a team that made the right moves. They took the necessary risks. They even parted with players they grew attached to in the name of reaching their final destination, and it all paid off.
This season, there won’t be nearly as high expectations what with Kawhi now a Clipper and all, but ask anyone – whether it be a fan or an employee of the team or anyone – who is involved with the Raptors how they felt about the Leonard trade knowing what they know now, and they’ll say the same thing.
Totally worth it.
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.
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