After stubbornly avoiding a rebuild a year ago, holding white-knuckled to All-Star Jimmy Butler like a toddler with their lifelong comfort blanky, the Chicago Bulls finally actually did get “younger and more athletic” this past summer, if a year late, and the team now looks toward life after the playoffs. It’s a place they appear destined to reside for the foreseeable future as they attempt to rebuild the roster from the ground up, and while things are off to a slow start, the first years of rebuilds never are easy. This particular rebuild is going to be really ugly, though. Fans already are irate with team’s front office, and a dismal year in the league won’t do much to turn those frowns upside down.
It’s going to be a long season, but onward and upward, as they say. The Bulls literally have no other direction to go.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
There isn’t much good to say about the upcoming season for the Chicago Bulls. From the looks of it, their best bet may be to set their sights on the highest possible chance they can secure at winning the draft lottery.
After shipping off star shooting guard Jimmy Butler, and with talks of Dwyane Wade eventually being bought out, the shift to the future has now become the present for a Bulls team that just a few months ago had a 2-0 series lead on the Boston Celtics in the first round of the playoffs.
With all eyes on the return of Zach LaVine and the growth of Lauri Markkanen, the Bulls are thinking long term as they enter this season. With the production results that are likely to follow, it’s probably best if fans do the same as well.
5th place — Central Division
— Dennis Chambers
The Chicago Bulls traded Jimmy Butler and the 16th overall pick in this year’s draft for Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine and the seventh overall pick Thursday night, which was used on Lauri Markkanen. Chicago better hope that Dunn’s rookie season was an aberration, that LaVine makes a full recovery from his ACL tear and that Markkanen can build off of his impressing offseason. The Bulls have finally moved away from their failed strategy of retooling on the fly and seem prepared for an actual rebuild, which is a step in the right direction. But now they need to figure out what to do with Dwyane Wade, who clearly wants to play elsewhere.
5th Place — Central Division
— Jesse Blancarte
The Bulls are the latest reminder that, in the NBA, life comes at you fast. Jimmy Butler, Rajon Rondo and Taj Gibson all find themselves elsewhere, while Dwyane Wade doesn’t seem too far behind. Nikola Mirotic, one of the few bright spots for the franchise, enters mid-September without a new contract and the playoffs seem about as far away from Chicago as sunny South Beach in Miami.
The good news for the Bulls is that they are in possession of all of their first round picks and only currently have one pick debited, which is their 2019 second rounder. In terms of their payroll, the Bulls are one of the few teams that will enter the 2017-18 season with substantial cap room and only currently have $31 million and $8 million in commitments for the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons, respectively. Between now and then, the franchise will have to make a number of decisions on some of their young players, but let’s make no mistake about it; this team is in full rebuild mode.
I would go as far as to say that the Bulls may be the Eastern Conference team to experience the most dramatic drop off in win total—last season’s 41-41 campaign is a pipe dream. The best the Bulls can hope for over the next year or two is to lure one or two impact free agents, hitting a home run in the draft and that someone from the current crop—perhaps Kris Dunn, Lauri Markkanen, Zach LaVine or Bobby Portis—can fulfill their potential.
In the Central, it’ll certainly be them pulling up the rear, with the Pacers somewhere near. I favor the Pacers, though, mainly because they have at least four or five pieces that we know will be productive. I’m not sure what Chicago has at this point.
5th Place — Central Division
— Moke Hamilton
This is not going to be fun. Jimmy Butler was traded away for guys who can’t play, either because they are injured or because they just flat-out are not good at basketball, and the team’s only remaining “big name” is Dwyane Wade, a veteran who absolutely does not want to be there. Rookie Lauri Markannen had a promising summer, and Zach LaVine should be a 20+ point-per-game scorer when he finally makes his return from ACL surgery, but outside of that there just isn’t a whole lot to get excited about in Chicago this year. No team looks likely to lose more games than the Bulls.
5th Place — Central Division
— Joel Brigham
The Bulls were only .500 last season, but they could be in for one of the most precipitous year-to-year drops of any team in the league nonetheless. Moving on from Jimmy Butler and clearly emphasizing a rebuild has left this group enormously thin on proven NBA talent, especially with Dwyane Wade expected to be bought out and off the roster in short order. Guys like Zach LaVine, Robin Lopez, Kris Dunn and even newly drafted Lauri Markkanen will be asked to play big roles, and the team will not be expected to do a whole lot of winning. This year is all about seeing which of the young guys fit best and who will be a major part of the core moving forward.
5th place — Central Division
— Ben Dowsett
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Zach LaVine
Coming off an ACL injury, there still is no definitive return date for the prize jewel of the Jimmy Butler trade, but once LaVine does start suiting up for the Bulls, there won’t be any doubt who the team’s best offensive player is. Before his injury last year, LaVine was having a career season, averaging almost 19 points per game and shooting .387 from deep, and as good as Minnesota is going to be with Butler this year, they will miss LaVine’s ability to space an offense. Conversely, Fred Hoiberg hasn’t had consistent three-point shooters to play with yet in his tenure as Bulls coach, which admittedly has tarnished his “legacy” in Chicago thus far. Adding LaVine and rookie Lauri Markannen should help with that, however dismal the season may be for the team as a whole.
Top Defensive Player: Robin Lopez
Easily much too old and much too good to remain on this team too deep into the season, Lopez will serve as the Bulls’ stalwart in the paint for however much time he spends in Chicago between October and February’s trade deadline. Defensively, he does everything a traditional five is supposed to do—swatting away shots, punishing driving guards, anchoring the defensive rotations in the paint—and it shows in the advanced stats. Chicago gave up 2.3 fewer points per 100 possessions with Lopez on the floor last season. He’s not quick enough to lock down the pick-and-roll, especially when the roller is a nimbler big man, but he still is far and away the best defender the Bulls have. For now.
Top Playmaker: Kris Dunn
The Chicago Bulls don’t really have any playmakers this season. Dwyane Wade would have to be considered the closest thing to that, but he seems likely to be bought out closer to sooner than later, while the point guard corps is as dismal as any team’s in the league. The best hope for a point guard to break out at this point is Dunn, a player who did average over six assists per game as a junior at Providence a couple of years ago. He only averaged 2.1 assists per game as a reserve in Minnesota last season, so asking for a big bump may not be fair, but if he isn’t the one forcing defenses to collapse and finding open shooters, who is?
Top Clutch Player: Dwyane Wade
Someday this will be LaVine, but in the interim it’s hard to bet against the ball going into Wade’s hands when the clock is ticking down. He has hit 15 game winners over the course of his career, and even with his athleticism waning, you can’t teach chilly veins in the clutch. As long as he’s a Bull, he’s taking the last shot.
The Unheralded Player: Paul Zipser
As a former second-round pick, nobody really expected much out of Zipser, but he showed in his rookie season in Chicago that’s he much more valuable than just about anybody expected. His 5.5 points per game average in the regular season doesn’t look like much, until compared to his 7.3 points per game in the playoffs. In fact, when Chicago upset the Boston Celtics for a second straight game in the 2017 NBA Playoffs, Zipser even had a game where he poured in 16 points. He quietly started 18 games last year and should start even more this season, using his scoring ability and deep shot to carve out one of the more understated roles on the team. Goodness knows the Bulls sure could use a sophomore leap from him.
Best New Addition: Zach LaVine
If the Jimmy Butler trade is going to look at all defensible in retrospect, LaVine is going to have to find himself back on the All-Star track he appeared to be on before his injury last year. He’s a Vince Carter-level athlete who should be the Bulls best overall player before the season wraps, unquestionably, in mid-April. Being the Bulls best overall player and being good in the context of the entire league are two entirely different things, however. Chicago needs LaVine to be the latter.
— Joel Brigham
WHO WE LIKE
1. Lauri Markannen
What Markannen has done in EuroBasket this season has gotten sports fans in Chicago about 60 percent as excited as they are for rookie Chicago Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, which really is saying something when we’re talking about 60 percent of infinite enthusiasm. Markannen, whose draft-day photographs are maybe the happiest draft-day photographs in the history of photographs, averaged 22.6 points and 6.2 rebounds in EuroBasket’s group phase, donning #23 in his Finnish team jersey and puttin’ a hurtin’ on defenders from all over the world. He looked great, frankly, somewhat justifying Chicago having picked him ahead of inevitable Rookie of the Year Dennis Smith, Jr. this past June. But we have yet to see how all those skills transfer to the NBA. They didn’t look great at Summer League, but he’ll have plenty of time to adjust. At the very least, it’s heartwarming to see anyone as excited as Markannen is to play for the Chicago Bulls.
2. Bobby Portis
We’ve seen flashes of what Portis can be. Game 1 of the Bulls’ playoff series against Boston last season saw Portis knock down everything in the Garden on his way to 19 points. He can potentially be a double-double guy, even though he tends to either score in double figures or rebound in double figures without doing both on the same night. To say this is a make-or-break year for him would be stating the obvious, but he’s going to get bigger minutes this year. It’s time for him to do something with them.
3. Cristiano Felicio
After getting paid $32 million this past offseason, Felicio had better be ready to make a leap of his own this year. He has averaged just 4.3 points and 4.3 rebounds per game over the course of his first two seasons, but now he is being paid like someone who can do more. He does shoot 57.3 percent from the field and has the ability and strength to improve upon those numbers, especially if Lopez ultimately is traded and Felicio becomes the team’s new full-time center and defensive cornerstone. Not everybody loved the contract, but whatever he’s getting paid, he’s in for a much bigger role this season.
4. The 2018 First-Round Draft Pick
We don’t know who this young man will be, but the dire struggles of the forthcoming season will be swallowed like a bitter pill, with this pick serving as the sweet applesauce into which that pill has been hidden for consumption. For now, Bulls fans still sleep well at night only because visions of Marvin Bagley and Michael Porter, Jr. dance in their heads like sugar plums. All this suffering will be for naught if the result isn’t a franchise-altering draft selection. Thankfully, there are four or five of those coming in the summer of 2018, and the Bulls will end up with one of them.
— Joel Brigham
SALARY CAP 101
The Bulls are in an interesting position in that they’re over the NBA’s $99.1 million salary cap but only have $78.4 million in actual contracts on their books. Restricted free agent Nikola Mirotic takes up $11 million. Chicago also has a trade exception worth $11.5 million for Jimmy Butler, which they partially used to acquire Quincy Pondexter from the New Orleans Pelicans. The Bulls can still get under the cap if they choose, although they cannot rescind their offer to Mirotic without his permission.
Next summer, the Bulls could near $50 million in cap room – although a multi-year deal with Mirotic could subtract from that figure. Chicago can also offer Zach LaVine an extension before the start of the current season. The team also needs to decide on 2018-19 options for Kris Dunn, Cameron Payne, Denzel Washington, Jerian Grant and Bobby Portis, with an October 31 deadline.
— Eric Pincus
Chicago has been an elite defensive team for years at this point. Even two years after Tom Thibodeau left town, Chicago still was among the best in the league last season in team defense despite everything (at least until Taj Gibson was traded), but this is an entirely new team. Chicago’s new lottery pick, Markannen, is as bad defensively as he is gifted offensively, and outside of Dunn, Felicio and Lopez, there just aren’t a lot of players who a.) like playing defense and/or b.) are any good at it. In other words, the team’s greatest strength in years past probably will not be again, which is to say the Bulls probably aren’t going to have a whole lot of strengths this year. They likely no longer are in the league’s basement in terms of three-point shooting, and they seem to put more butts in seats than another team in the league year after year, but outside of that, the only thing that will be strong after this season is the team’s draft pick.
The other side of the coin is quite a bit larger. Point guard is, far and away, the team’s biggest weakness, with Jerian Grant already having proven he’s no more than a reserve NBA guard and Cameron Payne showing his bust inevitability within two practices of having been acquired by Chicago last winter. There are big questions about Dunn, too, and while he’s the team’s only real hope at that position, even he has more than his fair share of shortcomings, especially on the offensive end. This team is incredibly young and devoid of the talent to compete with so many quality NBA teams every night, especially in their division.
THE BURNING QUESTION
Will Chicago Set Dwyane Wade Free?
The Bulls are tanking to land a big fish in the draft next season. Unfortunately, Wade is caught up in this swirling hurricane of awfulness and wants to find his way to a new team as badly as just about any player in the league this side of Carmelo Anthony. Chicago owes him almost $24 million this year, and since nobody is trading $24 million worth of assets to bring in D-Wade on a rental, that means the only way Wade gets his freedom is via buyout. Just about anybody would suffer through just about any job for six months if it paid $24 million, but Wade still has eyes on more playoff-focused teams. Rumblings exist suggesting Chicago will let him go, but why would they pay him all that cash to go play for someone else?
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.