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NBA PM: The Most Overrated Player In The NBA?

We asked three of our Basketball Insiders to weigh in on a common question. This week we asked: “Who’s The Most Overrated Player In The NBA?”

Basketball Insiders

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In what is a weekly Thursday feature, we ask three of our Basketball Insiders to weigh in on a common question. This week we asked: “Who’s The Most Overrated Player In The NBA?”

Andre Drummond

Andre Drummond puts up some monster numbers. He really does. In 2015-2016 he put up career highs in points and rebounds, dropping in 16.2 points per game and hauling in 14.8 rebounds per game, and in some of the most simplistic fantasy basketball leagues, that makes him a must-start guy every time he’s on the court.

Big numbers can be deceiving, however. Drummond is nowhere near as dominant as those statistics suggest, and in at least one important aspect of his game, he is literally the worst NBA player in the history of the game.

That area, obviously, is free-throws. In the same season that Drummond averaged those aforementioned career highs in points and boards, he also made a career-low 35.5 percent of his free-throws. His career 38.1 percent clip from the charity stripe is literally the worst in history. Shaquille O’Neal’s career free throw percentage, for comparison’s sake, is twelve points higher, and people still make jokes about how bad Shaq was at that particular skill.

The thing about Shaq, though, is he was dominant everywhere else. Drummond flat-out is not, which means Stan Van Gundy can’t count on him being on the court late in close games. O’Neal could at least hit one-of-two. Drummond is constantly at risk at missing both of them, and the rest of his skills don’t make up the difference.

He never has averaged 2.0 blocks per game, for example, despite his size and athleticism, and the most advanced defensive numbers don’t do him any favors. He was in the bottom third of the league when guarding the pick-and-roll and finished last season in the 36.9 percentile as a defender in the post. He’s too strong and too springy to get muscled around the way he does.

Offensively he has been so bad that Van Gundy had to change his entire offense just to accommodate having Drummond on the floor. Van Gundy has in the past run his offense through a big man, with lots of perimeter shooters waiting to reap the benefits of defenses collapsing on the big man. Drummond commands no such attention, firing up lazy jump hooks that miss the mark entirely too often. That means the perimeter guys aren’t eating, either. Particularly as the league moves away from “The Traditional Center,” Drummond looks more and more out of place.

It is easy to see Drummond as the sort of high-lottery pick/athletic freak that should be on the cusp of All-Stardom every year, but it never quite happens in large part because he really doesn’t will the Pistons toward any more wins from year to year. Some of the numbers are great, while others are historically bad, but whatever the statistics say, Drummond is overrated and that probably isn’t changing any time soon.

– Joel Brigham

Blake Griffin

If you missed it, Blake Griffin will be the NBA’s fifth-highest paid player in 2017-18 at $29.5 million and, for a franchise that lost Chris Paul over the summer, the recapture of their franchise forward was well worth a pretty penny. But the Los Angeles Clippers’ plan for success in the ultra-elite Western Conference seems to be running on borrowed time these days, just narrowly avoiding a complete rebuild in free agency last month. With Griffin now set as the team’s leader and first option, there’s some incredible pressure on him heading into training camp next month.

Since Griffin was selected with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 NBA Draft, the Clippers have reached the playoffs’ second round on just three occasions – 2012, 2014 and 2015 – and all of those appearances resulted in eliminations. For his worth, Griffin is a five-time All-Star and his statistics pass the eye test for an NBA-level superstar as well. He’s averaged 20 or more points per game in all but one year of his seven-season career (2012-13) and just tallied an all-time best mark of 12.1 rebounds over 38 minutes last season. Still, after all this time, his improved play hasn’t helped the Clippers join the conference’s elite contenders and it won’t get any easier this fall.

Despite his frequent inclusion on highlight reels, Griffin is still a somewhat limited player and one has to wonder how he’ll hold up for an 82-game season without Paul’s effortless playmaking abilities. While Griffin has certainly evolved past his dunk-only preferences – he dunked just 68 times in 2016-17 compared to his rookie season total of 214 – a look at his field goal percentage by distance still illustrates somebody that has struggled to expand his range.

Last year, 53.9 percent of Griffin’s shots came between 0-10 feet, a pretty typical range for an athletic power forward, and he knocked those attempts down at a 53.7 percent clip. In terms of finding your bread and butter and excelling at it, Griffin dominates the paint on most nights. Past that range, however, and it gets a bit dicier. From 10-16 feet, Griffin’s percentage fell to 32.2 percent, his lowest mark from there since 2011-12. A dip in percentage would be excusable if he was shooting it from that distance more, but Griffin actually attempted a shot from 10-16 feet just 6.1 percent of the time – the last instance in which he took that shot less was, once again, 2011-12.

Seeing a fall in both mid-range attempts and percentage is perfectly fine as long as Griffin continues to develop from three-point distances, right? Griffin posted a 33.6 percent mark from three-point range in 2016-17, his second-highest tally from deep in his career – a notch only beaten out by his much smaller 10-for-25 (40 percent) sample size from 2014-15. Even then, his 38-for-113 total falls far short of many of the elite big man shooters in the league, like Serge Ibaka’s 124-for-317 (39.1 percent), Kevin Love’s 145-for-389 (37.3 percent) or Ryan Anderson’s 204-for-506, (40.3 percent) ranges.

Ultimately, Griffin is a well-oiled superstar, one that’s probably well worth the fifth highest contract league-wide. However, considering Griffin’s current skill-set in comparison to many of the elite advances his position has made recently, he may come up just a little short. With the NBA’s best floor general now residing in Houston, we’ll have to wait and see how that influences Griffin’s ability to find quality, open looks at whatever distance he so chooses. Overrated may not be the best word to describe Griffin these days, but in an ever-evolving league, he’s fallen behind his positional peers, forever attempting to permanently extend his range.

– Benny Nadeau

Isaiah Thomas

Isaiah Thomas had one of the more remarkable playoff performances in recent memory after his sister Chyna Thomas tragically died in a single car accident on the eve of Boston’s first round series with Chicago. Thomas honored his sister by playing through his grief, dropping 33 points on 18 shots in the opener, but the top-seeded Celtics looked vulnerable. The Bulls won the first two games on Boston’s floor behind inspired play from Jimmy Butler and Rajon Rondo, but Boston stormed back to sweep the next four games. Thomas’ team-high 33 points in Game 4 helped the Celtics seize back home court advantage and provided the turning point in the series.

In the second round against the Wizards, Thomas was even more spectacular. With Washington pushing Boston to overtime in Game 2 in a series in which home court advantage proved decisive, Thomas scored an unforgettable 53 points on what would have been Chyna’s 23rd birthday to give the Celtics a 2-0 advantage. Thomas’ season would end in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals as he was unable to continue playing through a hip injury that had been aggravated in March. Thomas played through grief and played through injury, but in the end, he couldn’t help his team get past the Cleveland Cavaliers. Then came the offseason, and with it more chaos.

Thomas famously announced last summer that the Celtics better “bring out the Brinks truck” when he becomes a free agent in 2018, indicating that he expects to receive a max contract. Thomas reiterated that desire early this month, telling the Boston Herald he was “very confident” that he would receive the max next summer and “I deserve it.” How the Celtics might have handled his free agency will never be known because, on July 24, ESPN’s Brian Windhorst reported that Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving had requested a trade. On Wednesday, the Cavs and Celtics agreed on the final form of a trade that will send Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, Brooklyn’s unprotected 2018 first round pick and a belatedly-added 2020 second rounder for Irving.

So how can a player with a credible case to receive a max contract make a list of the NBA’s most overrated players, especially after heroically leading his team to the conference finals? Start with this: Of 468 players rated in Defensive Real Plus-Minus last season, Thomas rated 467th. Only Doug McDermott rated as a worse defensive player than Thomas. The Celtics would have been faced with the same decision the Atlanta Hawks faced in 1994 with Dominique Wilkins set to enter free agency. Do you give superstar money to a player who only shows up on one side of the ball?

During the regular season, the Celtics allowed a team-worst (minimum 200 minutes) 108.6 points per 100 possessions with Thomas on court. With Thomas on the bench, the Celtics allowed a team-best 99.7 points per 100 possessions. In other words, Boston was nearly nine points better per 100 possessions when Thomas was out of the game, easily a team-high.

Thomas is one of the most spectacular and explosive offensive players in basketball, as he proved with his unbelievable performance in the playoffs. But it remains to be seen if his numbers will look as good on a Cavaliers team where he won’t be able to dominate the ball. LeBron James and Kevin Love will demand touches and Thomas will split time at point guard with Derrick Rose.

Thomas had the perfect opportunity to shine with a cast of complementary players in Boston. Thomas’ 1473 shot attempts during the regular season were 672 more than Al Horford, who was second in attempts for the Celtics. Unfortunately, the person who overrated Isaiah Thomas the most was Isaiah Thomas. After a season that will be delayed by Thomas’ ongoing recovery from the hip injury and an eventual role that won’t be nearly as ball-dominant as it was in Boston, Thomas will likely need to reevaluate his own earning potential when next summer’s free agency arrives.

– Buddy Grizzard

Every Thursday we’ll ask three of our guys to chime in on a common subject. If there is something you would like to see us address, drop it to us on Twitter at @BBallInsiders using the hashtag #ConversationThursday.

More Twitter: Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @MikeAScotto, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @joelbrigham, @TommyBeer, @MokeHamilton, @jblancartenba, @Ben_Dowsett, @CodyTaylorNBA, @SpinDavies, @BuddyGrizzard, @JamesB_NBA, @DennisChambers, and @Ben__Nadeau .

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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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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 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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