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NBA PM: Utah Jazz 2017-18 Season Preview

Can the depth of the Jazz keep them in contention in a very tough Western Conference? We take a look.

Basketball Insiders

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It’s not often that a mid-tier playoff team loses its top two nightly scorers in free agency and still retains a puncher’s chance at the playoffs, especially not in the West, but the Utah Jazz could be one such team. Gordon Hayward and George Hill both went elsewhere this summer, but with arguably the game’s top defender in Rudy Gobert still in town and a smart offseason following those departures, Utah should still be squarely in the playoff picture out West.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

Utah’s worst nightmare became a reality this summer when franchise player Gordon Hayward opted to join his old college coach Brad Stevens in Boston.

Along with losing Hayward, George Hill also opted to move on from the Jazz, leaving a core that had surprised many in the NBA last season and looked poised to rattle the cages of the Western Conference’s powerhouses this year a shell of what it once was.

However, despite the losses, Utah did manage to make a deal for Ricky Rubio to assume their point guard duties. Donovan Mitchell also showed an impressive skillset in Summer League play, suggesting maybe that he could become a cornerstone in the next Jazz core.

Unfortunately, the loss of Hayward and Hill, coupled with the heightened intensity of the West may be too much for the Jazz to overcome and could leave them on the outside looking in of the playoff picture this season.

5th place — Northwest Division

— Dennis Chambers

It’s hard to imagine the Utah Jazz getting better in the wake of losing George Hill and Gordon Hayward, but they still managed to come away from this offseason looking like a team that plans on being a pain in the rear end to every other team in the toughest division in basketball. Ricky Rubio has joined the crew, for example, and rookie Donovan Mitchell looked in Summer League like one of the steals of the lottery. There still is everything to love about Rudy Gobert, but the real question for Utah’s potential success this season is how much better Rodney Hood can be in an expanded role. Like it or not, he’s sort of the new Gordon Hayward, and those are big shoes to fill.

5th place — Northwest Division

— Joel Brigham

The Utah Jazz lost Gordon Hayward and George Hill from last season’s squad. To be sure, these are two big losses for Utah. However, the team added Ricky Rubio and have a few candidates to step in and fill the void left by Hayward. The team is still surprisingly deep but injuries have plagued Utah in recent seasons. With some better luck with health and some internal improvement from players like Rodney Hood and Dante Exum, Utah could still be a dangerous team in the Western Conference. Defense will be the foundation of this team’s success, especially with the additions of Rubio and Thabo Sefolosha. However, we can’t pretend like the loss of Hill and Hayward in particular isn’t a big deal. How Utah responds to these departures will say a lot about the character and resiliency of this young, talented squad.

4th place — Northwest Division

— Jesse Blancarte

Even after managing the loss of their two highest nightly scorers last season reasonably well, the 2017 offseason counts as a gut punch for the Jazz. Both Gordon Hayward and George Hill chose elsewhere to play their ball moving forward, gutting a core that some predicted was capable of making a conference finals appearance. The Jazz did well in their stead, trading for Ricky Rubio and making some smart signings in Jonas Jerebko, Thabo Sefolosha and Ekpe Udoh – they should once again be one of the deepest teams in the NBA. Rookie Donovan Mitchell impressed at summer league and could be ready to contribute right away off the bench, and guys like Dante Exum and Alec Burks are eager to prove their worth in vital seasons.

4th place — Northwest Division

— Ben Dowsett

I don’t think I have much of a choice but to pick the Jazz to finish as one of the two lower seeds out in the Northwest. The Thunder and the Timberwolves have each improved immensely this offseason, while I simply think that the Blazers are more talented than their .500 record last season suggests, especially with the addition of Jusuf Nurkic.

I will say this: I grossly underestimated these guys last season and didn’t expect them to escape the first round against the Clippers. I was wrong then and could certainly be wrong now, but I simply don’t think they’ll be as good. In the end, whether the Jazz can replicate last season’s success will depend in large part on whether rookie Donovan Mitchell (who lit up the summer league) and Rodney Hood are as good as everything thinks they are. Hood will be carrying a lot of weight, but if Rudy Gobert, Derrick Favors, Ricky Rubio and Thabo Sefolosha can each stay healthy, I’m pretty sure these guys still make the playoffs.

4th place — Northwest Division

— Moke Hamilton

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Rodney Hood

The argument could be made for Rudy Gobert here after a thoroughly excellent and underrated offensive year last year, but as the Stifle Tower takes the cake in our next section easily, we’ll leave him for a moment. Hood, on the other hand, badly needs the kind of breakout year Gobert had last year. He’s shown the skills to be a primary NBA scorer since he entered the league as a rookie, but his issues have always been about consistency – both in his play and his health.

Now he needs to put it together for a full season, and he needs to do so without a guy like Gordon Hayward often next to him on the wing. Hood has proven capable as a pick-and-roll ball-handler and as a spot-up shooter, so he should work well in lineups with Ricky Rubio. How he fares this year could go a long way to defining Utah’s season.

Top Defensive Player: Rudy Gobert

Not much needs to be said here. Coming off a second-place finish in Defensive Player of the Year voting and consistently ranking near the top of the league in every reliable defensive metric, Gobert is one of the league’s most complete and terrifying defenders. He’s the best rim protector in the league, and has worked hard the last couple years at adding enough mobility to his game to survive in the movement-heavy modern game. He could be in for an even bigger year defensively after Utah’s summer additions, particularly Ricky Rubio – one of the first elite-level point guard defenders Gobert will have had the chance to play with.

Top Playmaker: Ricky Rubio

Speaking of Rubio, the Jazz will look to him to fill the void filled by Hill – and when it comes to a playmaking role, to add to it. Rubio actually averaged double Hill’s per-minute assist total last year, and while some of this speaks to their respective roles, Utah will be hoping he can bring the kind of primary playmaking they’ve been without for quite a while. His pick-and-roll prowess should improve the quality of looks for bigs like Gobert, a tantalizing thought given that Gobert already led the entire league in True Shooting percentage last year. Rubio should also open up Utah’s running game a bit in transition.

Top Clutch Player: Joe Johnson

Despite the presence of Hayward and Hill on the roster, Iso Joe was far and away Utah’s most reliable clutch option last season – and one of the most consistent in the entire league. He posted an outrageous 53-62-100 shooting line in the final five minutes of games with the score within five points, per NBA.com. For those unfamiliar with shooting lines, that means 53 percent from the field, 62 percent from three, and 100 percent from the free-throw line.

Johnson was one of Utah’s only guys capable of creating his own look consistently, a role that will only grow with Hayward no longer in the picture. His presence in crunch time lineups means at least one other well-known name is likely on the bench, but how can coach Quin Snyder leave him off the court in these moments after last year?

The Unheralded Player: Derrick Favors

Lost in a successful year and a crazy offseason was Favors, who as recently as 18 months ago was considered by many to be Utah’s best player on a team that still featured Hayward and Gobert. Favors just couldn’t get healthy last year, with a series of maladies keeping him either off the court or well below 100 percent. He’s spent the offseason working his tail off, though, plus honing a three-point shot that should keep him on the floor if spacing gets cramped with guys like Rubio and Gobert on the floor. He’s in a vital contract year, one where he has to prove he’s both healthy and skilled enough to continue making a big impact. If he’s good physically, don’t be shocked to see his name in the Most Improved conversation come midseason.

Best New Addition: Thabo Sefolosha

We could give this one to Rubio, Jonas Jerebko or even first round draft pick Donovan Mitchell, but Sefolosha gets the nod. He’s a versatile, talented wing defender who will fit right into Snyder’s schemes and provide a big upgrade at the point of attack defensively. Sefolosha has become a capable mid-30s three-point shooter, a fact that makes him a good candidate for small-ball lineups where he, Johnson or Joe Ingles plays the power forward position (these could be some of Utah’s best lineups, as they were last year). He’ll be a primary cog in some of Utah’s most versatile lineups.

– Ben Dowsett

WHO WE LIKE

1. Joe Ingles

Ingles didn’t show up for any of our sections above, but there’s a good reason for that: His best talent is likely his versatility. Jingles did a bit of everything last year: He was one of the league’s top spot-up three-point specialists (he shot 46 percent on catch-and-shoot looks, per SportVU data – in the league’s top 10); he ran pick-and-roll sets patiently and efficiently; he was perhaps Utah’s top perimeter defender, a trump card Snyder loved to use in unorthodox situations, including against point guards; he led the team in steals on the year. After signing a deserved extension in the offseason, Ingles will be counted on to continue all this while also providing his unique brand of leadership in a locker room that needs it.

2. Quin Snyder

Entering his fourth season at the helm in Utah, Snyder has consistently shown an ability to get the most out of his rosters. He’ll have another challenge this year after Utah’s offseason departures, but if anyone is up to it, it’s this guy. His defenses are consistently among the most disciplined in the league, and his offensive sets make lemonade even when there are limited lemons available. It will be fascinating to see how much, if at all, his offense changes with guys like Hayward and Hill gone and Rubio now in town.

3. Donovan Mitchell

Utah’s summer sensation was Mitchell, who was selected 13th in the 2017 Draft after a draft day trade and then lit it up at summer league. Mitchell should step right into the NBA as a plus defender, with a fantastic 6-foot-10 wingspan that sneakily makes him more than capable of checking bigger wings – he completely shut down Celtics draftee Jayson Tatum in Jazz Summer League despite giving up nearly half a foot in height. He’s a strong, energetic presence sure to endear himself to the Jazz fanbase, and already has a fantastic potential future as a shooter. If he can refine some of his decision-making and shot selection as a ball-handler over the next few years, he could be a borderline star. For now, he should fit in as a great two-way option who adds some more versatility in Utah.

4. Dante Exum

It’s put up or shut up time for Exum in Utah as he enters his fourth season, and last under his rookie contract. The Aussie has had a tumultuous developmental curve since entering the league, but after finally having a full offseason to train with Jazz coaches and get his game to a new level, the Jazz are expecting big things. Exum has the profile to play both guard spots with elite defensive chops, and he showcased an improved handle and jumper at summer league. He’ll likely enter the season without a rookie extension in place, meaning how much he can make in restricted free agency may depend on what he can show this year.

5. The Depth

Despite their offseason losses, the Jazz are once again positioned to be one of the deepest teams in the league. Guys like Sefolosha, Exum, Mitchell, Jerebko, Alec Burks, and even Raul Neto all have either played quality minutes in the NBA or shown the legitimate potential to do so, and each of these names should be coming off Utah’s bench. The Jazz will hope for better injury luck than they’ve had in recent seasons, of course, but they’re reasonably well-positioned to deal with any losses (besides Gobert) should they arise.

– Ben Dowsett

SALARY CAP 101

The Jazz dropped under the NBA’s $99.1 million salary cap to sign players like Thabo Sefolosha and Jonas Jerebko, after losing Gordon Hayward in free agency to the Boston Celtics. The team used most of their Room Exception on Ekpe Udoh, leaving just $1.1 million to spend. All three signings have non-guaranteed salary for the 2018-19 season. Prior to July, Utah acquired Ricky Rubio via trade from the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Heading into the 2017-18 season, they’re at $109.7 million in payroll with 15 guaranteed contracts (along with non-guaranteed Raul Neto and Naz Long, both of whom have long odds of making the roster). Before the start of the season, both Dante Exum and Rodney Hood are eligible for extensions. Next summer, the Jazz can get to roughly $27 million in space, assuming they cut their non-guaranteed players and let both Exum and Hood walk as free agents.

— Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

Defense and depth are the two primary strengths for this team. They’re heavy favorites to finish with a top-five defense as long as Gobert is healthy, and as we noted above, they can withstand just about any other injury for at least a short period. They’re also a stronger shooting team than people might realize – in Ingles, Hood, Johnson, Burks and likely Mitchell, they’ve got five strong spot-up shooters, at least a couple of whom should be on the floor at all times. Coaching is another strength for the Jazz, with Snyder growing more comfortable in his role each year.

– Ben Dowsett

WEAKNESSES

Gobert is a star whether people prefer to call him that or not, but Hayward’s departure did rob the Jazz of their go-to offensive option. Utah is definitely weaker when it comes to high-level creation, even with the additions they made over the offseason. They’ve traditionally been a very bad team in offensive transition as well – how much that changes this year, and whether Snyder chooses to emphasize it more, could have a large effect on where they finish the year offensively.

– Ben Dowsett

THE BURNING QUESTION

Can depth, coaching and defense offset Utah’s big summer losses and keep them in the playoff picture?

The Jazz lost nearly 40 points a night from last season when Hayward and Hill bolted town. They did a lot of great things after that point, but it’s fair to question where that production will come from and whether the additions are enough to offset it. The defense should still be excellent, but it can afford zero slippage if this is going to be a playoff team. Can Rubio and Gobert plus a healthy Favors and Hood propel Utah to something close to a league-average offense to supplement it, or will they fall closer to the bottom-10 range? This is what will ultimately define their season, and could determine whether they make the playoffs in a loaded West middle. There are a ton of variables at play in Utah this season. It’ll be fascinating to see how they play out.

-Ben Dowsett

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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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