By: Scott Brock-Wilson
It seems as though there is one spot up for grabs in the Western Conference. Who will get it? Scott is here to tell you.
Looking ahead to the Western Conference next year, it seems as though seven teams are all but locks for the playoffs: Warriors, Spurs, Rockets, Clippers, Thunder, Grizzlies and Pelicans. That is, if all of the aforementioned teams are able to stay reasonably healthy. That leaves one remaining spot left in the Western Conference playoffs. Now, every other team in the West is obviously hoping for that last playoff spot, and the beauty of the offseason is that many of them believe they can get it. But, it seems that the Jazz and Suns are above the likes of the Mavericks and Kings and rest and are the leaders to grab the last playoff spot.
Many would have said that the Jazz were likely to make the playoffs a week ago, but the Jazz will definitely suffer the consequences of Exum’s torn ACL. Now, does this take them out of playoff contention all together? No, of course not. The Jazz are still a very talented, young and improving team. Last year, the Jazz were best defensive team after the all-star break with a 94.8 DefRtg. This was with Gobert, who finished 5th in Defensive MVP voting (3.63 DBPM) after only starting less than half of the games this year (37), anchoring their defense, but without Alec Burks in the lineup.
However, after losing Exum for the year, the Jazz will likely throw out a starting lineup of Burke , Burks (coming back from injury), Hayward, Favors and the Stifle Tower (Gobert). They will also have Lyles, Millsap, Hood contributing off the bench. Even with Burke being leader and a star at the University of Michigan, I have to admit, so far his NBA career has been far from advertised. After an average first year, Burke failed to show much improvement his sophomore year. His PER stayed exactly the same at 12.6, his assist to turnover ratio got worse, and he had his second straight year of a negative DBPM rating. The drop from Exum to Burke is significant, especially on the defensive end, where Exum excelled as a rookie with a 99 DefRtg, compared to Burke’s 104.5 DefRtg. This year, Burke will be given his chance to prove that he was worth the 9th overall pick.
Last year the Jazz had the sixth best record in the NBA following the all-star break, but the Western Conference got even better this year. The Jazz definitely have the potential to claw their way into the playoffs relying on their defense, especially without their young star point guard.
Not many people are talking about Phoenix competing for the last spot in the playoffs; however, the Suns are a very interesting team this year. They will definitely compete with the Jazz for that final playoff spot. The Suns finished 9th in the West last year with a 39-43 record. However, they did struggle after the all-star break, after trading away both Dragic and Thomas. That is to be expected when you have that much turnover in such a small time frame though. Added onto the roster changes, the best player the Suns received, Brandon Knight, was only able to play in 11 games for them due to an ankle injury. The Suns, with the offseason to recover, have now improved their roster and are revamped to make another run at the playoffs.
This offseason, they added Tyson Chandler, a savvy NBA veteran that will bring much needed leadership to a locker full of most younger players, along with Devin Booker, a sharp-shooter from the University of Kentucky who can have an immediate impact. Chandler will be a key addition that allows the Suns to control Alex Len’s minutes, and makes it so Len can learn from him. They also sured up their point guard position by resigning Knight, making their likely starting lineup this year look something like this: Knight, Bledsoe, Tucker, Morris (provided he does not get traded), and Tyson Chandler. Obviously this does not include one of their better players in Alex Len, who will likely come off the bench as a sixth man.
The Suns will have a long way to go to reach the playoffs, and I admit I am higher than most on them, but led by their stellar backcourt of Knight, Bledsoe and D. Booker, they have a chance to beat out Jazz and sneak into the playoffs.
Going into this season both the Jazz and Suns will have playoff hopes. Many favor the Jazz to battle their way in, but I would not sleep on the Suns. Keep an eye on the race for the 8th seed throughout the season, as it is bound to be entertaining while it evolves and changes.