While the Suns got younger and less experienced once again this summer, the majority of the Western Conference made significant strides forward as competitors.
It will be increasingly tough for Phoenix to challenge the best teams in the conference night to night, and especially in the playoff chase. While fans may not quite have to keep up with the movement in the reverse standings -- that is, lottery positioning -- it will be a steep climb toward even the ninth or tenth seeds, let alone that golden No. 8 spot.
Let’s take a look.
Last year’s playoff teams aren’t going anywhere
While the Thunder, Pelicans, Spurs and Nuggets (who were just one win from a playoff spot) made improvements to the rosters they put on the court to finish the 2017-18 season, a case could be made that several other squads in the playoff picture merely maintained or got worse. Regression is certainly possible for Houston, Golden State, Portland Utah and Minnesota. These talented teams are counting on internal development to make them better.
Without Carmelo Anthony, the 48-win Thunder will be able to field a more consistent rotation that meshes with the skills of Russell Westbrook and Paul George. The same argument of improved consistency can be made for San Antonio, a team which will slot DeMar DeRozan onto the wing after 72 Kawhi Leonard-less toss-ups last year. Nearby, the Nuggets and Pelicans can count on better health to propel them to better chemistry and (they’re hoping) more winning.
We just don’t know what will happen to Houston after losing two starting-caliber players in Trevor Ariza (of course now a Sun) and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute (to the Clippers) on the wing, a sizable chunk of their identity on defense gone with them, but they’re a lock to be better than Phoenix next season.
In the West, there is always some fluctuation in the playoff picture, but these eight teams will surely push for the postseason once again.
New contenders building in conjunction with the Suns
The new looming characters in the playoff picture are the Los Angeles Lakers, who appear destined to blow their 35-win 2018 season out of the water after adding LeBron James. While many statistical models have the Lakers barely on the cusp of the playoffs, it’s impossible to count them out, considering their flexibility to make moves in-season and the fact they roster the only man to have played in the last eight NBA Finals’.
The Suns will also have to face improved competitors in Memphis and Dallas, both of whom were boosted by high draft picks and cap flexibility. The Mavericks will add Luka Doncic and De’Andre Jordan to a squad that already featured a solid mix of veteran talent and young building blocks, while the Grizzlies hope to get a healthy season out of Mike Conley in addition to finding space for Kyle Anderson and Jaren Jackson Jr.
Don’t forget that the Kings have nowhere to go but up and rival the Suns in terms of quantity of young prospects after drafting Marvin Bagley III second overall, while the Clippers made a conscious decision this summer not to be bad, adding solid stopgap veterans like Avery Bradley and Marcin Gortat.
There is no night off in the West, and with so many young teams taking steps forward, that may be true this season more than ever. There will be fewer tankers, even come springtime.
Progress will come for the Suns this year, but don’t be surprised if that is difficult to measure in the standings. It’s going to be a brutal battle finding wins in the West this year.