The 2017-18 Phoenix Suns schedule has arrived, bringing with it renewed hope and optimism as the franchise attempts to make its first playoff appearance in eight seasons. The past two seasons have brought extreme disappointment in the loss column, but with a legit young nucleus and organizational buy-in, there’s perhaps a small chance that Suns fans walk away from this season satisfied.
Most NBA fans at this point are willing to cede several seasons of losing if the reward is worthwhile at the end. Competitiveness is still celebrated, and this year the Suns have the talent to compete in the early part of the season. Fans really might get some excitement to start the season.
A cake walk at the start
While part of that is because the priorities have been ironed out over the course of the past 18 months in Phoenix, a much larger part is because of the shape of their schedule. The writer Jared Dubin analyzes every NBA team’s calendar each season, ranking their strength of schedule relative to the other teams in the league. By Dubin’s calculations, the Suns will face the 28th hardest slate of teams in October/November and the 16th toughest batch in December. That softball schedule will allow the Suns to play the part of a competitive team and get off to a hot start.
Only five of the Suns’ first 10 opponents in the 2017-18 season made the playoffs in 2017. They will play the Lakers and the Nets a combined five teams in their first dozen and a half games, in addition to matchups with the Magic, Kings and Knicks sprinkled in. The Suns will be sleeping easy for the first eight weeks of the new season, with only two games against the Spurs before the start of 2018 and none against Cleveland or Golden State.
The 2016-17 Suns went 5-12 in their first 17 games. This year, the team has a real shot to double that total (or better). And to make it clear within the context of the optimism expressed here: the front office is not actively trying to lose games. They’re simply making personnel decisions that make it really hard to consistently win. But fresh off of training camp, after the chemistry gained last season, the Suns will be able to start the season loudly.
The team might be closer to the playoff bubble than expected come January 1, with Western Conference teams like the Mavericks, Grizzlies and Pelicans slogging through a first-month schedule against opponents whose win percentage ranks in the top ten.
The coldest winter
The reason it’s even possible to be excited about how the Suns might start the season while still believing they’ll pick in the lottery once more is the 2018 portion of their schedule. After that smooth October/November/December run, the Suns face a top-ten slate in each of the remaining months of the season. The slobberknockery mounts in March, when the Suns face the toughest group of opponents in the whole league.
A closer look shows that the NBA saved all of the Suns’ games against championship contenders for one month: the team will play five games against top-four seeds in March, plus two more against the revitalized Oklahoma City Thunder. They begin the month with a four-game East Coast road trip and play only 6 of 14 games at home all month.
They then finish the season with two games in eight days against the Warriors. Any momentum and win/loss cushion that the Suns build over the first two months will come undone from January through April. Yet the timing for that unraveling could not come at a better time.
Following the trade deadline and All-Star Break, fans will realize that whatever success the team finds in the Fall will have been a mirage. They will be watching as Marvin Bagley, Robert Williams and Michael Porter dominate the NCAA. By now, Suns fans know what the end of the season means: start scouting, pray for progress. This season, the team really won’t have any choice but to give into that idea come February and March.
Remember the 2020 demarcation when consider this year’s schedule. This piece is not intended to demoralize anyone; rather it’s a projection of how fun the Suns might be to start the season, for the first time in several years. By the time things start to go sideways, it’ll just feel like the same song and dance we’ve gotten used to. And it will finally feel like part of the plan.