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.

Report: Mikhail Prokhorov ‘warmed’ to selling controlling stake of Nets

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Mikhail Prokhorov bought 80% of the Nets in 2010. A couple years ago, he tried to sell his stake, but decided to keep it. Then, he bought 100% of the franchise and its arena. After last season, he said he was selling 49% of the team.

Now?

Josh Kosman and Brian Lewis of the New York Post:

Brooklyn Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov, while focused on selling a minority stake in the franchise, has warmed recently to the possibility of offering a controlling slice of the team, sources close to the situation said.

The change of heart comes after the initial reaction to the minority stake sale was weak — and with interest in the Houston Rockets sale heating up, one source said.

The Rockets’ sale could shake out potential Nets buyers, and Prokhorov selling a controlling stake could also help. It’d cost more money than the 49% he’s offering now, but people with the money to buy an NBA team tend to value control.

This might be a good time to sell for Prokhorov, who lost a ton of money as the team paid major luxury tax for an all-in championship pursuit that flopped spectacularly. The NBA’s popularity is rising, and the league is reaping huge revenue from its national-TV contracts.

However, he shouldn’t assume the Rockets’ sale price will predict the Nets’. Buyers might prefer a good team with James Harden and Chris Paul to a bad one short on young talent after years of mismanagement. At least Brooklyn’s payroll is now tolerably low.

The big loser here: Leslie Alexander, who’s trying to sell the Rockets. The supply of NBA teams now available might have just doubled, and unless there’s no overlap in demand for those franchises, that can only drive down Alexander’s eventual sale price.

Report: Clippers paid $3.2 million – second-most ever – for draft pick (Jawun Evans)

AP Photo/Jae C. Hong
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The Warriors set a record by paying $3.5 million for a draft pick, buying the Bulls’ No. 38 pick and using it on Jordan Bell this year.

That eclipsed the $3 million spent by each the Thunder in 2010 (to the Hawks for the No. 31 pick, Tibor Pleiss) and Nets in 2016 (to move up 13 spots for Isaiah Whitehead).

So did the Clippers’ purchase of the No. 39 pick (Jawun Evans) from the 76ers this year.

Eric Pincus of Basketball Insiders:

The Clippers also paid the Bucks $2 million for the No. 48 pick (Sindarius Thornwell).

I rated Evans a low first-rounder due to his speed and drive-and-kick game, so getting him in the second round is good value. I’m not as keen on Thornwell, who’s already 22 and built so much of his success at South Carolina on being more physical than younger opponents.

But the more swings the Clippers take on young players, the more likely they are to find long-term contributors. More power to owner Steve Ballmer for greenlighting this expenditure.

Importantly, as players acquired through the draft, Evans and Thornwell will count for the luxury tax at their actual salaries. Players signed otherwise, even if their actual salaries are lower, count at at least the two-years-experience minimum.

Under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, teams can spend $5.1 million in cash this season. That amount will increase (or decrease) in proportion with the salary cap in coming years. So, expect the previous record for draft-pick purchase price – $3 million – to fall again and again.

There’s just more leeway now for the NBA’s haves to separate themselves from the have-nots.

Jeannie Buss says she didn’t understand why Lakers signed Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov

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Last summer, the Lakers signed Luol Deng (four years, $72 million) and Timofey Mozgov (four years, $64 million) to contracts that immediately looked like liabilities.

At worst, Deng and Mozgov would help the Lakers win just enough to lose their top-three protected 2017 first-round pick – which would have triggered also sending out an unprotected 2019 first-rounder – then settle in as huge overpays. At best, Deng and Mozgov would provide a little veteran leadership while the team still loses enough to keep its pick… then settle in as huge overpays.

The Lakers got the best-case scenario, which was still pretty awful.

They had to attach D'Angelo Russell just to dump Mozgov’s deal on the Nets. Even if he no longer fit long-term with Lonzo Ball, Russell could’ve fit another asset if he weren’t necessary as a sweetener in a Mozgov trade. Deng remains on the books as impediment to adding free agents (like Paul George and LeBron James) next summer.

Who’s to blame?

Jeanie Buss was the Lakers’ president and owner. Jim Buss, another owner, ran the front office with Mitch Kupchak.

Bill Oram of The Orange County Register:

Within the walls of the Lakers headquarters, Jeanie’s grand corner office had begun to feel like a cell. She could not make sense of the strategy employed by her brother and Kupchak. They had cycled through four coaches in five seasons and under their watch the Lakers won a combined 63 games in three full seasons. Last summer, they spent $136 million of precious cap space on veterans Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov, who made little sense for the direction of the team.

“I just didn’t understand what the thought process was,” she said, “whether our philosophies were so far apart that I couldn’t recognize what they were doing, or they couldn’t explain it well.”

No. Nope, nope, nope. I don’t want to hear it.

Jeanie empowered Jim and his silly timeline, which made it inevitable he place self-preservation over the Lakers’ best long-term interests. That’s why he looked for a quick fix with Mozgov and Deng, who’s still hanging over the Lakers’ plans.

She deserves scrutiny for allowing such a toxic environment that yielded predictably bad results (even if family ties clouded her judgment).

That said, she also deserves credit for learning from her mistake. She fired Jim and Kupchak – admittedly too late, but she still did it – and hired Magic Johnson. There’s no guarantee Johnson will direct the Lakers back to prominence, but he clearly has a better working relationship with Jeanie than Jim did and, so far (in a small sample), looks more competent in the job.

Reports: Heat pessimistic about/uninterested in trading for Kyrie Irving

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Kyrie Irving, in requesting a trade from the Cavaliers, reportedly listed the Heat among his preferred destinations. Though Irving – without a no-trade clause and locked up for two more years – holds only minimal sway, teams would logically offer more for him if they believe he’d re-sign.

Will Miami trade for Irving?

Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald:

And while the possibility certainly cannot be ruled out, the Heat does not have considerable optimism about being able to strike a deal, multiple league sources said.

One Eastern Conference official who spoke to the Heat said Miami considers itself something of a long shot.

Tim Reynolds, the reputable Associated Press Heat and NBA writer, said on Steve Shapiro’s Sports Xtra on WSVN-7 that he does not believe Miami is interested in acquiring Irving.

Like the Kings, though to a far lesser extent, the Heat might not be interested because they know they stand no little of landing Irving.

Goran Dragic would almost certainly have to go to Cleveland in a deal, supplanted by Irving in Miami. Dragic would upgrade the Cavs at point guard over Derrick Rose and Jose Calderon, but at 31, Dragic would also significantly shorten Cleveland’s window.

The Heat would have to send much more. It’s just not clear what.

The Cavaliers, with Tristan Thompson, might not have much interest in centers Hassan Whiteside and Bam Adebayo. Justise Winslow‘s weak 3-point shooting makes him a tough fit with LeBron James, and Winslow’s shoulder injury last season damages his stock anywhere. Tyler Johnson and Josh Richardson are helpful contributors, but Johnson’s salary skyrockets north of $19 million each of the following two seasons, and Richardson will hit free agency (and get a raise) after this season. James Johnson, Dion Waiters and Kelly Olynyk – who all signed this summer – can’t be traded until Dec. 15. (I’m not sure which prospect is funnier, Waiters returning to Cleveland or playing with Irving in Miami.) The Heat also owe the Suns two future first-round picks – one top-seven protected in 2018 and unprotected in 2019, the other unprotected in 2021.

It’s difficult, maybe impossible, for Miami to assemble a suitable trade package given those constraints.

At least the Heat would keep open the possibility of LeBron returning if they don’t trade for Irving.