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.

Utah’s Donovan Mitchell wins throwback Dunk Contest with Vince Carter tribute

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LOS ANGELES — The 2018 Dunk Contest went retro.

And it worked.

The throwbacks started with Cleveland’s Larry Nance Jr. going quick-change to pay tribute to his father, the 1984 winner of the Dunk Contest.

Nance later had the best dunk of the night, but it wasn’t enough in the face of Utah’s Donovan Mitchell‘s strong and consistent night highlight by his throwback dunk — donning a Vince Carter Toronto dinosaur jersey and doing VC’s famed 360 dunk — which got Mitchell the 48 points he needed to hold-off Nance and win the contest. It was over.

“Growing up I was a big dunker,” Mitchell said. “I wasn’t really much of a basketball player. I just dunked and played defense, and I watched a lot of Vince’s videos. I’ve been seeing what he’s been doing all year at his age, which is incredible.

“So I figured, you know, at my size if I was able to get it, it would be a great dunk and a way to finish it, you know. And actually, funny story is I haven’t made that dunk in like half a year. I tried it in practice the past two days and tried it this morning, didn’t make it. Tried it last night, didn’t make it… But to be able to make it was why I was so excited.”

Earlier in the night, Mitchell had done another tribute worn a Darrell Griffith jersey — Utah’s Dr. Dunkenstien, who went to Louisville like Mitchell — for an off-the-side-of-the-backboard jumping over Kevin Hart dunk.

“You know, just knowing your history, I think, is the biggest thing,” Mitchell said of the throwbacks. “Just understanding where this game originated, I guess the OGs of the game, I guess you would call it. But just understanding. Even if it’s just dunking. Whether it’s dunking in the NBA in general, Darrell Griffith, we went to the same school in college. I know Darrell very well. Both got drafted by the Jazz, and he was an incredible player. To be able to pay homage to him meant a lot to me.”

For my money, Nance had the dunk of the night, his first in the Finals, a double off-the-backboard throwdown that you had to see on replay to get (it wasn’t as evident in the building what he had done until it was re-shown on the big screen).

It was a fun contest all night long.

Mitchell (the leader in the Rookie of the Year race) started it off brilliantly — he brought out a second backboard, and did a self-alley-oop off one to the other.

Larry Nance Jr. did his tribute to his father with his first dunk, and on his second one came from behind the backboard, going around the world, and threw it down hard. That got him into the Finals.

Oladipo missed all three of his dunks in the first round, which almost doomed his night. He, however, did a dunk wearing the Black Panther mask for his second dunk, which impressed.

Mitchell said he wanted to beat Dennis Smith Jr. because the Mavericks’ point guard had beaten him in dunk contests for years. Smith had one monster dunk, when he went between the legs and threw it down hard and got the full 50. It just wasn’t enough to get Smith to the Finals.

Nance started off the final round by bringing out his father again to throw an alley-oop to a windmill. Mitchell responded with a self-alley-oop to a windmill that was flat-out wicked. That got Mitchell a 50-46 lead after one round of the Finals.

Then Mitchell went to Vince Carter and “it was over.”

Larry Nance Jr. throws alley-oop to himself, throws alley-oop to himself (video)

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LOS ANGELES — Cavaliers forward Larry Nance Jr. immediately motioned for the replay to be shown of this dunk. It was necessary to properly appreciate it.

Best dunk of the night.

Donovan Mitchell won the dunk contest, though.

Larry Nance Jr. plays tribute to father — rock-the-cradle dunk in Suns uniform

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LOS ANGELES — Back in 1984, high-flying Larry Nance Sr. won the first NBA All-Star Dunk Contest with this set of dunks — most famously a rock-the-cradle move.

Larry Nance Jr. came into the 2018 Dunk Contest and went nostalgic — all the way back to the Suns’ throwback uniform and the same dunk.

That and a good second dunk got him into the Dunk Contest finals. In that round, Nance Sr. threw an alley-oop to his son for the windmill.

Donovan Mitchell throws alley-oop to himself – off second backboard (video)

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LOS ANGELES – Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell set a high standard with the first slam of the 2018 dunk contest.

Very creative. Very well-executed.

Looks like all that preparation paid off.