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NBA Fact or Fiction: Suns chances in a settling West and a disaster brewing in Chicago

Ben Rohrbach
·11 min read
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Each week during the 2020-21 NBA season, we will take a deeper dive into three of the league’s biggest storylines in an attempt to determine whether the trends are based more in fact or fiction moving forward.

[Last week: Hall of Famer LaMarcus Aldridge, Rookie of the Year LaMelo Ball and Luke Walton's future]

The Phoenix Suns can win the West

The Suns submitted their second-worst offensive outing of the season in a loss to the Boston Celtics on Thursday, five days after their worst. They bookended a brutal stretch of four games in six nights that included an overtime win over the Milwaukee Bucks and a last-minute win over the Philadelphia 76ers.

On the second night of a back-to-back, the Suns shot 6 for 35 from 3-point range against the Celtics. Devin Booker fouled out in 26 minutes. DeAndre Ayton was a non-factor. And here's the thing: They kept coming. Down 14 with five minutes left, a Chris Paul 3-pointer ignited a mini 5-0 run that gave them life. Jayson Tatum answered with five straight points of his own, but Phoenix fought back to a single-digit deficit with 1:29 remaining that did not feel insurmountable, if only because the Suns were playing as if it was not over.

The Suns battle. Their rotation is rich with players who make sense around Paul and Booker, and all six of their lineups that have played more than 100 possessions are in the black as a result. Ayton has developed into the anchor of the league's fifth-best defense. There may be no better role-playing 3-and-D wing than Mikal Bridges, a rangy defender who has thrived in an offense that consistently generates quality looks.

It is a smart, young team perfectly suited for Paul's stewardship. The veteran point guard has gotten much of the credit for the Suns' transformation from lottery mainstay to potential No. 1 seed in the West. And rightfully so. He gave them a much-needed edge both in spirit and execution. But credit Monty Williams, who had Phoenix playing similarly inspired ball in the bubble and should be a lock for Coach of the Year.

Chris Paul and Monty Williams are the architects of a Suns renaissance. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Chris Paul and Monty Williams are the architects of a Suns renaissance. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

The Suns may be absent significant playoff experience beyond Paul and fellow newcomer Jae Crowder, but those eight must-win victories in Orlando at the end of last season were a decent primer, even if they ended short of a play-in berth. Booker met that moment each and every night, an encouraging sign he will perform to his potential in his first taste of the playoffs. No one should want to face Phoenix in a seven-game series.

Yet, given the choice, the Los Angeles Lakers and L.A. Clippers would surely pick facing Phoenix over one another. The top-seeded Utah Jazz should consider themselves a more evolved and experienced version of the Suns. Damian Lillard's Portland Trail Blazers and Luka Doncic's Dallas Mavericks will not fear Phoenix in a first-round meeting. It took a season-ending injury to Jamal Murray to push the fourth-seeded Denver Nuggets' title odds below a Suns team that owns the league's best record (34-9) since the end of January.

There really is no precedent for a lottery team transforming into a championship contender overnight with the addition of a late-prime All-Star as its only significant offseason roster upgrade. The NBA's history is rife with champions who took their playoff lumps for years before breaking through. More recent years have seen teams transform by way of superstar partnerships. What Paul has done for Phoenix is truly special.

And what the Suns have done around Paul is equally admirable. A bird's-eye view of the gauntlet they will face in the West — currently the Mavs, Clippers and either the Lakers or Jazz successively — makes it feel implausible that a team reliant on so much inexperience could survive. Paul has experienced greater playoff disappointments with veteran rosters. Taken individually, though, the path for Phoenix gets a little clearer.

If we have learned anything about these Suns, it is that they will believe they can beat any of those aforementioned teams, and that counts in this unconventional season. Questions will follow the health of Lakers stars LeBron James and Anthony Davis into the playoffs. The Clippers proved fragile in last year's conference semifinals. The Jazz are not exactly proven postseason performers. And the Suns have been better than the Mavericks and Blazers all season, even if they may not have the best player in either series.

The Suns can absolutely win the West. They can also lose in the first round. It sure is a weird season.

Determination: Fact

The Western Conference field is essentially set

The 13th-place Cleveland Cavaliers are almost as close to the play-in tournament in the East as the 11th-place New Orleans Pelicans are out West, and the Cavs have never been considered a threat. That is how dire the circumstances are for Zion Williamson's chances of playing his first NBA game with real stakes.

A four-game losing streak accentuated the underlying issues that have plagued the Pelicans. Coach Stan Van Gundy suggested their late-game execution was inferior to a high school team, and Eric Bledsoe conceded he "wasn't paying attention" in the final seconds of regulation in an eventual overtime loss to the New York Knicks. They are a young team that does not appear to be on the same page as their 61-year-old coach, who was out of the league the last two seasons and has not won a playoff game in nearly a decade.

New Orleans' performance over the past month has all but removed a play-in spot as a possibility, just as the Sacramento Kings played their way out of play-in contention in April. Both teams are playing like they want a new coach. The Pelicans trail the 10th-place Golden State Warriors by three games with 13 left.

The ninth-place San Antonio Spurs have the second-most difficult schedule remaining, but New Orleans hardly has a cakewalk. Eleven of the Pelicans' final 13 games are against teams ahead of them in the standings, and they are 12-20 against opponents with a .500 record or better. A loss to San Antonio on Saturday would break New Orleans' season, and a win still leaves the Pelicans with a sizable uphill battle.

For all intents and purposes, we know who will still be standing at regular season's end. A battle between the Mavericks and Blazers for the sixth seed — and the right to avoid the play-in tournament — could come down to the final week of the regular season, as may the stunning race between the Jazz and Suns for the Western Conference's top seed. But the playoff field is beginning to sort itself out.

In the next week, the Nuggets and Lakers should settle into the 4-5 matchup. It would take a collapse from the Warriors, Spurs or Memphis Grizzlies for those three teams not to meet either Dallas or Portland in the play-in tournament with first-round series against the Jazz, Suns or Clippers on the line. We're almost there.

Determination: Fact

The Bulls have dropped from 10th to 11th place since acquiring Nikola Vucevic. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
The Bulls have dropped from 10th to 11th place since acquiring Nikola Vucevic. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

The Nikola Vucevic trade is a disaster

When the Chicago Bulls pulled the trigger on a surprise trade for All-Star center Nikola Vucevic at the deadline, they were praised as the rare middling team to operate as a buyer rather than seller. Where others might have considered losing the more prudent option to hasten a rebuild, they thought it more valiant to chase a playoff spot after three straight lottery campaigns, even if it were to come by way of a low seed.

Nobody likes tanking. The pursuit of wins should be applauded. Only, what we like and applaud is not always the best longterm plan. This is the NBA's inherent conundrum, and the Bulls have fallen victim to the danger of enjoying the moment. They are the grasshopper in Aesop's fable. That the Orlando Magic are the ant in this instance is quite the twist, considering they have long been content as first-round fodder.

The Bulls were in 10th place with a 19-24 record when they swapped Wendell Carter Jr., Otto Porter and top-four protected first-round draft picks in 2021 and 2023 for Vucevic at the trade deadline. They clung to the last play-in spot, almost as far from a guaranteed playoff spot as they were from the 14th-place Magic.

The absolute best-case scenario for Chicago — climbing to a fourth or fifth seed, winning a playoff round and losing to a heavy favorite in the Eastern Conference semifinals — always seemed like a long shot. Vucevic would have had to fit seamlessly into the fabric of a team that was already hanging by a thread.

Instead, the Bulls are bound for a far more predictable outcome. Lineups featuring LaVine and Vucevic — a pair of defensively challenged borderline All-Stars best known as go-to scoring options on underwhelming teams — experienced their share of growing pains. Those units were being outscored by 12.9 points per 100 possessions when LaVine entered the league's COVID-19 health and safety protocols, as many of his peers have over the course of the season. Their thread was pulled, and suddenly the Bulls lost their shirt.

Chicago is 3-2 without LaVine, and the fact that the Bulls even have to face questions about whether they are better off without him is a testament to how far they are from playoff relevancy, much less contention.

They are now tied for 11th with a 25-34 record, a loss out of the final play-in spot with 13 to play and no timetable for LaVine's return. They are as far from the No. 8 seed as they are from the 13th-place Cleveland Cavaliers. At best, they will have to win back-to-back win-or-go-home games for the right to lose to the Philadelphia 76ers or Brooklyn Nets in the first round. That is Year 1 of what may be a two-year experiment.

LaVine can enter free agency in 2022, eight years into a career that has yet to see a single playoff game. Absent a significant second-year leap from rookie Patrick Williams or considerable roster upgrades over the summer, the Bulls will face losing LaVine to the promise of greater potential for playoff success elsewhere.

Then what? A 32-year-old Vucevic and 21-year-old Williams could be tasked with ensuring Chicago's top-four protected 2023 first-round pick does not convey to Orlando. The tank was only delayed by two years. In that time, there is a decent chance Carter develops into an evolutional Al Horford-type before turning 25. 

Not a month has passed in Chicago since the instant gratification of acquiring the best player dealt at the deadline to the harsh reality that losing was the best option all along. The Magic finally learned that lesson, and they are currently looking at two top-eight picks — their own and Chicago's — in this year's deep draft and possibly the same in 2023, when a lowered age limit could create a much-anticipated double draft.

If the ultimate goal is to contend for a championship, it is far better to have Orlando's four throws at the dartboard over the next three years than the known commodity in Chicago, where LaVine and Vucevic will most likely compete for a middling 2022 playoff seed in their lone full season under contract together. Trades like the Bulls made for Vucevic tend to work out that way in the long run, just not so clearly so soon.

What if Chicago traded LaVine to Orlando and not the other way around? Would the Magic have dealt Jonathan Isaac, Terrence Ross' expiring contract and two top-four protected picks to remain a middling team? They finally felt it time to leave that vicious NBA cycle, and it feels like the Bulls are just entering it.

Determination: Fact

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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach

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