When: Monday, March 3rd at 5:30 MST
Where: AmericanAirlines Arena, Miami, FL
Watch/Listen: FSN AZ, 98.7 FM AZ Sports Radio
Even though the Phoenix Suns have been a steaming pile of refuse over the second half of the season, and the greater part of the past eight years, they’ve at least given their hardcore fans a reason to scoreboard watch coming down the stretch.
The Suns are in a race to the bottom with seven other teams (eight if you count the late arriving New York Knicks, who might try to end the season on a 22 game losing streak) vying for the worst record in the NBA. That dubious distinction gives the team the best lottery odds of securing the #1 overall pick and the guarantee of falling no further than fourth.
Tankathon.com shows the lottery odds, where the Suns currently sit second by percentage points.
Phoenix’s defeat yesterday at the hands of the Atlanta Hawks (113-112) was another clutch loss, and the projected win totals on Basketball-Reference.com, which I have been keeping an eye on, now show the Suns finishing with a meager 23 wins... compared to 26 wins or better for all other teams.
Or maybe not.
What that predictive model doesn’t account for is the fact that other teams are blatantly tanking, while the Suns are actually trying to win.
In fact, a pretty solid argument can be made that the Hawks (who strategically rested Kent Bazemore yesterday), Chicago Bulls, Orlando Magic, Dallas Mavericks, Sacramento Kings and Memphis Grizzlies are all taking measures to lose on purpose.
Meanwhile, the Suns and Brooklyn Nets are just fundamentally terrible.
So while the Suns might be pacing for 23 wins, that might not be good enough to secure sole possession of the worst record when there are currently four teams that are 1-9 or worse in their last 10 games.
The Miami Heat are another team that has no incentive to lose, but has been struggling in spite of that fact.
On January 29th the Heat were 29-21, leading the Southeast Division and sitting in fourth place in the Eastern Conference.
Since their high water mark, Miami has gone 4-9 and plummeted to the eighth and final spot in the current playoff race.
Their recent tailspin takes on a special significance to the Suns, who have control of Miami’s first round pick as long as it doesn’t fall in the top seven spots in the draft. That pick once appeared as if it might fall in the low 20’s, but currently it would be 15th.
The 15th pick can not only net a better player than the 20th... but also allows for a lot more maneuverability in trades. Both Phoenix’s position and Miami’s position in the draft order this summer will be important pieces in the Suns future development.
Despite the Heat’s current struggles, though, Miami remains just two games in the loss column behind six other teams, so it’s not impossible that they make a late season surge and spoil things for the Suns.
Miami has actually won three of their last four games, after losing eight of nine, so there are signs of them pulling out of their swoon.
Miami’s most recent game was a 105-96 victory over the Detroit Pistons, who are now a full four games behind Miami for the last Eastern Conference playoff spot. Miami just about has that locked up.
The Heat used a balanced attack, with six players scoring in double figures, and Hassan Whiteside ripping down 19 rebounds.
Miami is led by first time All-Star Goran Dragic, who is averaging team highs of 17.4 points and 4.9 assists per game. Neither of those totals are near career highs for Dragic, however, and his selection as an All-Star this season had more to do with a) injuries, b) the overall level of talent in the Eastern Conference comparative to the West and c) a nod in terms of a career achievement award.
Miami has faced a recurring theme this season, as once again the team has been besieged by injuries. Dion Waiters is out for the rest of the season after ankle surgery and four other regulars have missed at least 10 games.
Entering tonight’s game the Heat will likely be shorthanded again, as Tyler Johnson, Wayne Ellington and Bam Adebayo are all questionable.
You may also notice that Miami has been reunited with the artist formerly known as Dwyane Wade, but don’t worry... the real Wade has left the building. Of course facing the Suns pitiful rendition of defense could make him look 25 again.
Speaking of the Suns defense, it is dead last in the NBA, giving up 112.8 points per 100 possessions. The Suns are slightly less anemic on offense, where they rank 28th... largely due to the fact they shoot only 33.5% from three point range, which is... dead last.
Despite the relative ease to peddle doom in all things Suns related, there have actually been glimpses of hope over the Suns current 4-22 stretch of play.
Devin Booker has continued to look like a future superstar. He is 10th in the league in scoring (25.1 ppg) and is one of only nine players in the league averaging at least 25 points, 4.5 assists and 4.5 rebounds per game. The other eight were All-Stars this season.
Elfrid Payton is averaging 16.4 points, 8.2 assists and 8.0 rebounds per game since his arrival. He just recorded his second triple double in nine games as a Sun in yesterday’s loss to the Hawks. Unfortunately, the Suns are just 1-8 with Payton in the lineup, revealing that the Suns woes are much deeper rooted than just point guard play.
Josh Jackson’s rookie season has officially turned the corner after a shaky start. He has now scored in double figures in 13 of the past 15 games, including a season high 29 points in the Suns most recent win against the Grizzlies. While many aspects of his game still lack polish, Jackson definitely passes the eye test as a guy who will be at least a solid NBA player.
The Suns biggest stumbling blocks for the rest of the season appear to be the lack of production from the power forward position and complete lack of any coherent scheme on defense. Neither of those seem likely to be solved any time soon.
Marquese Chriss (17 points, 5 rebounds, 4 blocks in just 18 minutes) had one of his games where he flashes brilliance against the Hawks, but just like his running mate Dragan Bender, has five to ten games that cast doubt on his future for every one glimpse of hope.
Maybe a new coach can institute a better defensive scheme for next season, because it’s unfathomable that these guys can actually be as bad as they’ve been.
After tonight’s matchup against the Heat, Phoenix finishes a four game road trip against the Oklahoma City Thunder and Charlotte Hornets. Then they host the Cleveland Cavaliers. Then visit the Utah Jazz. Then play the Golden St. Warriors (first of three remaining games against them).
You get the picture.
The Suns will only be favored to win one of their remaining 17 games.
So what are you rooting for Suns fans?
A loss tonight would be the better outcome for the lottery standings. After all, the difference between the Suns picking second rather than fifth is more important than the Heat’s pick staying at 15th.
But at least a win for the Suns does help that Miami pick keep its current value.
There are worse games the Suns can win. Like any of their remaining three against the hoi polloi of the tanking masses.
So cheer for a win or root for a loss... neither outcome is completely bad.