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Preview: Suns close out first half of season against tormentor LA Clippers

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Will the Suns snap their skid against LA?

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Phoenix Suns Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports

What: Los Angeles Clippers (21-16) vs. Phoenix Suns (9-30)

When: Friday, 7:00 PM AZ Time

Where: Talking Stick Resort Arena, Phoenix

Watch: Fox Sports Arizona

Listen: 98.7 FM


The Phoenix Suns close out the first half of their regular season schedule (there’s no point qualifying the ‘regular’ since that’s the only type of season they play anymore) with their third tilt against the West’s sixth-ranked Clippers.

That’s seven of their first 41 games against the Thunder and Clippers, two of the West’s best teams. They’ve also played San Antonio three times already, which means they’ve played 25% of their games against only 10% of the league’s teams.

The 9-30 start for the Suns is their franchise-worst start in the Suns’ 51 year history.

2nd toughest schedule

The Suns schedule still ranks as the second most difficult this season of all NBA teams, and no that is not because all those teams got to play the Suns. Guess which teams have had the toughest and 3rd toughest? Utah and Portland.

It’s a product of being a bad team in the Western Conference. You have to get all the way to 12th on the Strength of Schedule ranking before hitting an East team, and the East houses four of the league’s five worst teams (11 or fewer wins).

14 Playoff Contenders in the West... and then the Suns

For sure, the Suns are an aberration in the West. They’re the only remaining “dud” team in West, with all 14 other teams vying for playoff positioning.

There’s as much distance between the Suns win total (9) and next-worst West team (17) as there is between that team and the West’s best (25).

So if the Suns start winning more frequently in the second half as the schedule inevitably clears up a bit with more games against the East’s lower seeds, you don’t have to worry about the Suns losing much lottery positioning.

Progress

So of course we have to talk about the season within the season again, and ignore their record if we want to be the Bright Side.

Over the past three years, the Suns have been the very worst team in the NBA. The Suns offense has consistently been among the worst (28th-30th) as has their defense (28th-30th). This year is no exception. Overall the Suns are still 28th and 27th, respectively.

But has there been progress?

Since December 15th, when the current rotation got into place with the subtraction of Trevor Ariza and the additions of Kelly Oubre Jr., Devin Booker and T.J. Warren (latter two returned from injury), the Suns have the league’s 13th best offense and a 4-6 record overall.

That’s better than any Suns offense since the days of the hydra, way back in 2014. And this while playing some of the league’s best defenses. As long as Booker and Warren can stay healthy, there’s no reason that kind of success can’t last.

The defense is still struggling, though. In that same span, they still rank just 27th in the league, with an overall net rating of -2.7 points per 100 possessions (roughly, per game) that puts the Suns 20th in net rating among all NBA teams since mid-December.

Progress.

0-2 vs. the Clippers

The Suns lost twice to the Clippers this season and it hasn’t been pretty.

On November 28, Booker and Warren were healthy in that game, but the Clips blasted the Suns anyway. They posted a 40-25 third quarter where Danilo Gallinari and Tobias Harris heated up from behind the arc and the Suns had no answers.

The prior game was on opening weekend, which we all remember was the beginning of the end of the Suns hopes for a good season.

At least this time the Suns aren’t playing the Clippers on the back end of a back-to-back!

Clippers by the numbers

Offense: 6th, Defense: 22nd, Pace: 8th

They’re an inside team, taking the most free throws of any team in the NBA and the fewest threes (ugh for the Suns who put everyone on the line and only defend the three well)

Since December 15 (to compare to Suns recent trends), the Clippers are 3rd on offense and 23rd on defense. So, still better than the Suns in each area, even on recent trending.

Tobias Harris (21) and Danilo Gallinari (19.6) are their best scorers and all-around players, while Lou Williams (18.5) is once again a Sixth Man candidate. Montrezl Harrell (15.7) is having the best season of his career with a hyper-active playing style.

The Clippers share the ball well, with seven different players averaging 2 or more assists per game, and beat teams with their shooting (3rd in 3P%, 7th in overall FG% and best overall in free throws per game).

Prediction

Sorry, Suns fans. I don’t see Phoenix winning this one.

However, the Suns have tallied some big home wins this year, including a pair over Dallas, plus wins over Minnesota, San Antonio and Memphis — all teams in the West playoff picture. So it’s not inconceivable of them to pull this one out.

I just don’t think it’s predictable.