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NBA Daily: Free Agent Watch – Day 1

Free Agency has finally arrived, and after the first day, Matt illustrates why this one is already one for the books.

Matt John

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“It’s the most wonderful time of the year!
With those millions in writing,
And All-Stars combining to give hope or fear!
It’s the most wonderful time of the year!”

Seriously though, for junkies like us, the NBA offseason is basically the holidays. People always talk about how they can’t stand all the pressure, all the buildup for when we see the next twist of the offseason. But let’s be honest. We love it. Even if things don’t always turn out the way we wanted it to, we love all the thrills and anxieties that manifest themselves from free agency.

Leading up to the 6:00 EST starting line, this summer was hyped up to be as epic as it could ever be thanks to its deep class of stars on the open market. It hasn’t even been a full day yet, and it’s already lived up to the hype. Best of all, we still have lofty cliffhangers that have yet to be resolved.

About the whole “tampering” debacle

If you’ve been paying attention since the start of all of this, you would know that a fair amount of these deals that have been agreed to this summer were reportedly done before free agency officially began. It’s pretty obnoxious to see that teams are clearly talking to players before they are permitted to, and it makes seem as though the rules aren’t being enforced.

To be fair, the rules against tampering are like the drinking age. Legally you’re not supposed to take a sip of alcohol until you’re 21, but how many people who drink actually waited until they were of age to do so? Point being is that this is a rule that NBA teams bend as much as they can.

The NBA can do all it can to change this. They can make the rules stricter. They can hand out harsher punishments. Honestly, though, the league’s best move may be just to let things be the way they are. You know how they say any press is good press? Everyone tunes into the NBA offseason as much as they can, so this kind of attention is only good for the NBA. There’s no need to ruin something that is clearly profitable.

It’s a shame that tampering still happens quite often no matter what the NBA tries to do to get rid of it, but that’s what makes it fun.

Now, onto the real plot lines everybody wants to read about.

A new contender has emerged

After receiving the worst hand it could have possibly imagined not too long ago, this team has swiftly built itself into a squad that won’t be messing around with anyone this upcoming season. Before it was just a pipedream, but now, a title can definitely be in play for these guys. That’s right, the Utah Jazz have now taken the next step into title contention.

Oh wait, did you think this writer was talking about Brooklyn? We’ll get to them, but for now, let’s talk about the team who, as a result from Day 1 of Free Agency, will definitely be a contender next season.

Crap, was that a spoiler?

After suffering their second consecutive gentleman’s sweep at the hands of the Houston Rockets, Jazz executive vice president Dennis Lindsey swore to fans that some major changes were in order. Utah doesn’t exactly have the best reputation as a free agent destination and didn’t have exactly top-notch assets, so many were interested to see what major changes they could orchestrate.

Now, after the season ended only two months ago, Lindsey and the Jazz have lived up to their promise and then some. Utah has pounced on every opportunity that presented itself for the team to get better. If that sounds ludicrous to you, let’s go over the checklist for what the Jazz needed to improve themselves this offseason.

  1. Get another scorer/playmaker to take some of the heavy offensive burden off of Donovan Mitchell — Traded for Mike Conley – Check
  2. Get a floor spacer/complementary scorer who can be paired up in the frontcourt with Rudy Gobert — Signed Bojan Bogdanvoic – Check
  3. Get a back-up big who can replace Derrick Favors with his energy and rebounding — Signed Ed Davis – Check

On paper, this is the best Jazz team assembled since the Deron Williams days, and if things break their way, they could be seeing success much similar to the Malone/Stockton days. The Jazz were once an adorable little train that could. Now they’re a freight train at full throttle with no brakes to speak of.

Brooklyn has created a… new super team?

If you think this writer doesn’t approve of all the moves Brooklyn has made up to this point, you’re dead wrong. Brooklyn just hauled in Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and DeAndre Jordan. All on discounts too. In the process, they added a solid 3&D wing in Garrett Temple as well as traded D’Angelo Russell and a few others to open up roster spots for ring-chasers.

However, if you think that means it’s smooth sailing for Brooklyn from here on out, you’re dead wrong. Durant is currently recovering from an Achilles tear he suffered merely weeks ago. Missing the entire season is very much in the realm of possibility. Even if say he comes back the next season fully healthy, he’ll be 32. Without Durant, Brooklyn is a solid team, but not a contender. If he’s not the Kevin Durant we know and love when he gets back, then they definitely won’t be a contender. Giving him a near-max contract is a risk, but since it’s KD, it’s a much safer risk than most.

It doesn’t just end with him. Kyrie Irving has proven himself to be a negative in the locker room. DeAndre Jordan hasn’t played like DeAndre Jordan in two years. That can both be remedied now that they are playing in a situation they obviously prefer to be in. Something to consider – they were in good situations before they grew tired of them. For the Nets’ sake, hopefully, history doesn’t repeat itself.

The return of the sign and trade

Remember when signs-and-trades were rare? Especially nowadays? Not many players agree to those kinds of deals anymore, but after Day 1 of Free Agency, the sign-and-trade has had itself a little bit of a renaissance.

And these agreements haven’t been over minor roster tweaks. These deals have actually been involved with some of the most important players that were on the market. Since the bell rang at 6, we’ve seen S&T’s involving Kevin Durant, Jimmy Butler and Kemba Walker – just to name a few.

Due to the sign and trade, the following has happened:

  • The Warriors have brought in a whole new dimension to their team with D’Angelo Russell aboard.
  • The Nets could afford to bring in all the targets they wanted and cheaper than the market value that was placed on them.
  • The Celtics now have their new star point guard to replace their previous one.
  • The HEAT have now (hopefully) found new life with their newest face of the franchise in Jimmy Butler, who was a sizable upgrade compared to what they had.
  • The Sixers (hopefully) found good value for a player in Josh Richardson, who was leaving anyway and opened space to pay for another star.
  • The Hornets didn’t lose their star player for nothing and have their point guard of the future in Terry Rozier (…hopefully).

Many thought the sign-and-trade was dead. As we can see, it’s alive and well.

Teams have gotten knocked down, but not out

Among all that was gained in Day 1, plenty was lost.

Golden State lost Kevin Durant. Philadelphia lost Jimmy Butler and JJ Redick. Boston lost Kyrie Irving and Al Horford. Milwaukee lost Malcolm Brogdon.

Even with that, teams re-tooled in order to keep their status.

  • To make up for their loss of Durant, the Warriors added D’Angelo Russell.
  • To make up for their loss of Butler and Redick, the Sixers added Horford and Josh Richardson.
  • To make up for the loss of Irving and Horford, Boston added Kemba Walker.
  • To make up for their loss of Brogdon, the Bucks brought their core guys back plus added Robin Lopez.

There are still questions with both what they lost and they gained, but some appreciation is in order that even though they probably would have preferred otherwise, they have weathered the storm.

Indiana is a better example of this. In the last day or so, the Pacers have lost Darren Collison, Thaddeus Young and Bojan Bogdanovic, all of whom combined are a major net loss for them. However, the team has added a young scorer in TJ Warren, a solid rotation player in Jeremy Lamb and the ideal complement for Victor Oladipo, Malcolm Brogdon.

Perhaps the best example of this is New Orleans. David Griffin has been as savvy as ever this offseason in the face of his new franchise losing arguably its most talented player ever. We don’t need to list off everything he acquired for Anthony Davis because you already know. In free agency, he’s made smart moves that boost the team and doesn’t drag it down financially.

The Pelicans did not have reliable spacing leading up to the free agency. To aid that, they gave Redick a fairly manageable two-year deal worth $26 million. The Pelicans also needed some frontcourt help even with the addition of Zion Williamson. Without sacrificing much, they acquired the criminally underrated Derrick Favors from Utah.

As some of the premier teams have shown us, losing some of your best players is not an easy task, but that doesn’t mean you can’t manage without them.

The Kawhi sweepstakes are heating up

Among all the hoopla that was going on during the first day of free agency, you may have noticed that not many moves have been made by Kawhi’s top suitors: The Lakers, Clippers and of course, Raptors.

The Lakers have traded everyone not named LeBron, Anthony or Kyle to make room for Kawhi. The Raptors have only had Marc Gasol opt-in to return next season. The Clippers just now re-signed Patrick Beverley, which, according to Eric Pincus, will not financially affect their pursuit of Kawhi.

The minimal number of moves demonstrates that all three are putting all of their eggs in the Kawhi basket. It’s a shame he can’t be shared. Only one of them can have him, and as the Knicks have shown from Day 1, there’s always someone who ends up being the loser of the offseason. When the Kawhi chase is over, we’ll have two more.

Not that all will be lost for the two teams who Kawhi leaves in the dust. It’s that when he does, there will be major implications for what will happen to them next season. Plan B for all of them isn’t too promising of an outlook.

There are plenty more plot lines to choose from, like what the Knicks are doing now that they’ve missed out on Durant and Irving. Or why exactly the Kings paid $65 million combined for Trevor Ariza and Dewayne Dedmon. Or how NBA Twitter will fare now that the Lopez twins are on the same team.

So many exciting moves out there are worth analyzing in less than 24 hours time.

As this writer said, it’s the most wonderful time of the year…

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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.

Chad Smith

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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.

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NBA

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?

Jack Winter

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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.

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NBA

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.

Matt John

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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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