DeMarre Carroll, Markieff Morris

Extra Pass: Suns and Hawks facing opposite playoff fortunes

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Sunday, the Phoenix Suns fought back from 22-point deficit, raising their record to 41-29.

On the same day, the Atlanta Hawks blew a 14-point fourth-quarter lead, dropping their record to 31-37.

As you surely know already, the Hawks are on pace to make the playoffs, and the Suns are not. Thanks to the disparity between the Eastern Conference and Western Conference and a format that sends precisely eight teams per conference to the postseason, Atlanta is sitting pretty (three games ahead of the ninth-place Knicks) while Phoenix is not (half a game behind the eighth-place Mavericks).

The Suns and Hawks play tonight, a chance for Phoenix to get some karmic revenge for at least 48 minutes. But in terms of getting justice for their playoff fate, the Suns have no choice to accept their possibly postseason-less destiny while the Hawks can keep losing and probably keep their playoff spot.

The Suns should be used to it, at least – especially if the Hawks are the team benefitting. This season looks to be another chapter in already twisted postseason history, or lack thereof, between these two franchises.

By record, we can easily identify the best team to miss the playoffs (the 1972 Phoenix Suns went 49-33) and worst team to make the playoffs (the 1953 Baltimore Bullets went 16-54).

But as the number of NBA teams and number of playoff teams fluctuates, using percentiles for win percentages during each season in NBA history and a linear best fit, we can estimate how good the worst playoff team should be each season. Under current conditions – 30 NBA teams, 16 playoff teams and an 82-game season – the postseason threshold is expected to be 38.9 wins, a mark Phoenix passed last week.

Here’s how the expected win percentage for the worst playoff team has evolved over the years:

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Sometimes, people get worked up over a team with a losing record making the playoffs, but it’s really quite logical. In a 30-team league, the median falls between 15 and 16. Because 16 teams make the playoffs, it’s expected one below-median team makes the postseason.

Similarly, it’s misguided to blindly call many of playoff teams with the worst records the least-deserving of a postseason berth. Between 1948 and 1968, the NBA allowed between 67 percent and 80 percent of its teams into the playoffs each year (compared to 53 percent now). You can see how that led to some teams with poor records qualifying.

With that in mind, we want see which teams fell furthest above and below that expected line in a given year – specifically, in this case, the worst playoff team (red) and best non-playoff team (green).

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The 2014 Suns are narrowly ahead of the pace of the 2008 Golden Warriors, who went 48-34 and missed the playoffs. Only the 1957 New York Knicks, who went 36-36 in a season six of eight teams made the playoffs, fell further above the expected line and still missed the playoffs.

The Hawks aren’t quite as historically fortunate, but they’re still on pace to rank as the 19th-worst playoff team in NBA history after adjusting for the expected record of the worst playoff team each season. (If you’re wondering, those 1953 Bullets remain No. 1, even in a year eight of 10 teams made the postseason).

Together, the Suns and Hawks are on pace to make 2014 the year with the fifth-largest record disparity between a playoff team and its better counterpart in the other conference. Here’s the complete top 10 of the teams that have snagged playoff berths over better teams:

1. 1972: Atlanta Hawks (36-46) over Phoenix Suns (49-33)

2. 1953: Baltimore Bullets (16-54) over Milwaukee Hawks (27-44)

3. 1971: Atlanta Hawks (36-46) over Phoenix Suns (48-34)

4. 2008: Atlanta Hawks (37-45) over Golden State Warriors (48-34)

5. 2014: Atlanta Hawks (31-37) over Phoenix Suns (41-29)

6. 1968: Chicago Bulls (29-53) over Cincinnati Royals (39-43)

7. 2009: Detroit Pistons (39-43) over Phoenix Suns (46-36)

7. 1988: San Antonio Spurs (31-51) over Indiana Pacers (38-44)

9. 2011: Indiana Pacers (37-45) over Houston Rockets (43-39)

9. 2004: Boston Celtics (36-46) over Utah Jazz (42-40)

9. 1997: Los Angeles Clippers (36-46) over Cleveland Cavaliers (42-40)

9. 1979: New Jersey Nets (37-45) over San Diego Clippers (43-39)

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If this holds, not only would it be both the Hawks’ and Suns’ fourth appearance on this list, not only would the Hawks be the playoff team all four times and the Suns not all four times, it would be the third time the Hawks are the weak playoff team making it ahead of the aggrieved Suns.

The Suns might beat the Hawks tonight. They probably should.

But it won’t erase decades of bad fortune for the Suns and good fortune for the Hawks – a trend that is apparently continuing.

Larry Bird: Kevin McHale won’t coach Pacers

Larry Bird
AP Photo/Michael Conroy
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1. Kevin McHale withdrew from the Kings’ coaching search.

2. The Pacers fired Frank Vogel.

Will McHale reunite with former Celtics teammate Larry Bird in Indiana?

“I would not do that to Kevin, have him to work for me,”Bird said at a press conference today. “That’s just not fair. I respect the man too much, and we’ve been through too many battles together to bring him in here and be my coach. I would love for him to be my coach, but it ain’t going to happen, because our relationship.”

It would have been compelling to watch Bird and McHale work together, but I’m not convinced McHale is the best coach available – though that’s not the only concern.

After all, Bird just ousted someone who might be a better coach than any replacement.

Frank Vogel out as Pacers coach

Larry Bird, Frank Vogel
AP Photo/Michael Conroy
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After leaving Frank Vogel hanging for a few days – something he explicitly said he hoped to avoid – Pacers president Larry Bird finally ousted the coach.

“It’s time for a new voice around here,” Bird said at a press conference today. “Sometimes my job really sucks, and this is one of the toughest things I’ve done.”

Bird clarified that Vogel wasn’t fired, that his contract had expired and wasn’t being renewed.

Will there be a search now to replace Vogel? Kevin McHale has already been mentioned as a candidate, and he’d make sense. He played on Bird’s Celtics and learned an up-tempo system with the Rockets.

Vogel is now free to interview with the Rockets, and I think he’d be a home-run hire. Vogel’s defensive skills are badly needed in Houston, and perhaps the the Rockets’ institutional knowledge could fine-tune his offense.

Report: Rockets talking to Jeff Hornacek, Sam Cassell, Stephen Silas, Chris Finch

Phoenix Suns coach Jeff Hornacek directs his players in the second half of an NBA exhibition basketball game against the Houston Rockets Monday, Oct. 13, 2014, in Houston. The Rockets won 95-92. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)
AP Photo/Pat Sullivan
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There are the big names: Jeff Van Gundy, David Blatt, Mike D’Antoni and Frank Vogel.

There’s the catchy name: Kenny Smith.

And there’s the eliminated name: J.B. Bickerstaff.

Expect many more names in the Rockets’ coaching search.

Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports:

Houston owner Les Alexander and general manager Daryl Morey met with Bickerstaff on Monday, as well as Los Angeles Clippers assistant coach Sam Cassell and Houston assistant Chris Finch, league sources said.

Conversations with potential candidates are expected to include several prominent college coaches, sources said.

Among the NBA candidates with whom the Rockets are working to set up interviews are former Phoenix Suns coach Jeff Hornacek and Charlotte Hornets assistant Stephen Silas, league sources said. There could be 10-15 – perhaps even more – candidates interviewed in the process, league sources said.

Hornacek coached the Suns and looked pretty good doing so until this season, when he feuded with Markieff Morris, used too many strange lineups and saw the team quit on him. If he can explain this year’s troubles, he’d be a solid hire. But the Rockets have the best job available, so they can probably aim a little higher.

Cassell, like Smith, played for the Rockets. An intelligent player, Cassell has successfully transitioned to coaching, though I’m not sure he’s ready for a top job. He mentored John Wall with the Wizards before joining the Clippers. From afar, it’s just tough to judge his contributions to a loaded coaching staff in Los Angeles.

Stephen Silas broke into NBA coaching on his dad’s staffs with the Hornets (turned Pelicans) and Cavaliers. Paul Silas even let Stephen serve as head coach for games during the 2011-12 season. Between and after stints with his dad, Stephen has impressed at other stops around the league. Maybe someone who learned offense from Don Nelson and defense from Steve Clifford and gets along well with players would make a good head coach. The biggest question is how his rapport with players would translate to the head chair, but that’s a concern for any assistant.

Finch coached in Europe for more than a decade until the Rockets tabbed him to coach their D-League team. After a successful stint there, he moved to the bench in Houston. He’d be more of a daring hire at this point, but he could perhaps unite the Rockets’ front office and coaching staff better than anyone.

Reports: Kevin McHale withdraws from Kings coaching search, could join Pacers

Kevin McHale
AP Photo/Brandon Dill
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Chris Mannix of Yahoo Sports wrote a few weeks ago about the Kings coaching search:

Kevin McHale is steadily gaining internal support, league sources told The Vertical. If Cousins truly is the future, the Kings have to hire a coach he will buy into, and McHale, a respected voice and one of the game’s all-time great post players, certainly seems like a good fit.

They won’t get him, of course

McHale indeed emerged as a candidate, and though it took him a little longer than other prominent former head coaches, McHale also came to the conclusion Mannix foresaw,

Marc Stein of ESPN:

This is part of the reason Sacramento talking to everybody. The Kings don’t know whom they can get.

An owner who has changed course too often in Vivek Ranadive, a general manager with too little experience in Vlade Divac, a top player who repeatedly feuds with coaches in DeMarcus Cousins – who’d want this job? Probably not someone who could get one of the NBA’s other 29 head-coaching gigs, and that might apply to McHale.

Mitch Lawrence of Sporting News:

Frank Vogel is still twisting in the wind, but it seems unlikely the Pacers keep him.

There’d definitely be something intriguing about former Celtics teammates Larry Bird and Kevin McHale teaming up in Indiana. McHale’s experience with the Rockets could help him install an up-tempo offense, too.