PORTLAND, Ore. -- When NBA commissioner Adam Silver opens up official discussions about tweaking the league's playoff format, he need look no further than the Suns for his go-to case study.
For the second consecutive year, Phoenix is in danger of missing the postseason in the brutal Western Conference despite posting a significantly better record than the Eastern Conference's bubble teams. Glancing around their locker room Thursday night, after a double-digit road loss to the Blazers, the only feeling that came to mind was sympathy. Promising second-year center Alex Len was on crutches after suffering an ankle injury, and the Suns' thin frontline had struggled without him down the stretch. Markieff Morris, one of the league's most underrated players, dressed slowly and spoke solemnly about how "every game counts, every quarter counts," while reciting Phoenix's position in the standings relative to New Orleans.
The pressure of the postseason derby seems to be weighing heavily on everything, particularly because the Suns' third straight loss dropped them into a tie in the loss column with the Pelicans for the final playoff spot. Before the game, coach Jeff Hornacek lamented his team's "bad breaks" in recent close losses. On Wednesday, the playoff chase was a hot topic on 98.7 FM in Phoenix, with GM Ryan McDonough assuring fans that he felt his team had a "good chance" and that "it looks like it will come right down to the wire again."
Reality check: The Suns are burdened by this day-to-day weight even though it's the first week of February and they have more than 30 games remaining on their schedule. It doesn't need to be like this and, it seems, Silver is ready to embrace a better way.
Speaking on a CSN Bay Area broadcast earlier this week, the commissioner discussed a possible tweak to the playoff format that would put the six division winners and the next 10 best teams in the postseason, rather than simply the top eight teams from each conference.
"Ultimately, we want to see your best teams in the playoffs," Silver said. "There is an unbalance and a certain unfairness. ... I think that's the kind of proposal we need to look at. ... It's something I'm going to look at closely with the competition committee. I do think it's an area where we need to make a change."
Phoenix perfectly embodies Silver's talk of unbalance and unfairness. Last season, the Suns missed the playoffs despite ranking No. 11 in point differential and overall victories (48). This season, the Suns are clinging to the West's final postseason spot despite possessing the league's No. 14 best point differential and 14th best record. The imbalance is self-evident.
It's far more difficult to assess the full ramifications of the unfairness. Let's imagine an alternate world in which the top 16 teams made the postseason. Here's how the bubble would look...
13. Milwaukee: 27-22
14. Phoenix: 28-23
15. New Orleans: 26-23
16. Oklahoma City: 25-24
17. Charlotte: 22-27
18. Miami: 21-28
A deep dive into this alternate universe brings a totally new perception at every turn.
That Len ankle injury? It's still a bummer because the 2013 lottery pick was starting to show some real signs of growth, but it's not a panic-inducer because Phoenix has plenty of breathing room above Charlotte. In the alternate reality, Len can take as long as he needs to get back on the court and Hornacek can feel fairly comfortable knowing that Brandan Wright and Miles Plumlee will be able to stave off a total collapse.
Those agonizing words from Morris that represent the persistent microscope Phoenix will deal for the next 10 weeks? Breathe a bit easier, Markieff, your margin for error is no longer razor thin. In the alternate reality, Morris can simply focus on the night's effort, how he missed a dunk or how Phoenix can't expect to win on the road against a playoff team if it comes out sloppy.
All those heartbreaking buzzer-beaters that could very well wind up dropping Phoenix from the playoffs to the lottery? They would be reduced to an annoyance rather than a possible fulcrum point. When Hornacek is quizzed about his team's late-game struggles now, he answers knowing that the perception of his team's performance in close games is skewed thanks to game-winners by Blake Griffin, Khris Middleton, James Harden and Jeff Green. And, more importantly, that those four losses could easily bite his team come mid-April. In the alternate reality, Hornacek can brush off those shots as a fact of life over an 82-game season. Meanwhile, media observers would be able to focus on the Suns' solid overall late-game play, as they have posted a +12.8 net rating in clutch situations (last five minutes with a point spread of five points or less), which is sixth-best in the league.
What about those playoff questions for McDonough? Rather than crossing his fingers and hoping, Phoenix's impressive young executive would be in full pitch mode, selling his fans on the franchise's first playoff trip since 2009-10, on the upward trajectory of his post-Steve Nash rebuilding plan, and on a future that could be even brighter. In the alternate reality, McDonough would be entering the trade deadline with an eye towards filling in possible rotation holes instead of deciding whether it's worth cashing in some of his assets to chase a final playoff spot and a first-round date with the almighty Warriors.
These differences extend to the ownership level as well. Suns owner Robert Sarver currently hangs in limbo, trying to decide whether to add talent and salary (in hopes of bumping up his team's short-term fortunes) or to maintain maximum flexibility (in hopes of landing a star talent in the offseason). In the alternate reality, Sarver wouldn't be stuck in the middle. His smart hires of McDonough and Hornacek and his offseason investments in Eric Bledsoe and Isaiah Thomas would be paying off with playoff gate revenues and added excitement around his team. He would be able to pitch his organization as an upstart postseason spoiler this year with the chance to be even more in 2016.
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The implications go on and on. Could a key free agent like Goran Dragic be swayed to stay in town by a taste of the playoffs? Would Phoenix be a more attractive destination to free agents if it could point to a postseason spot as evidence of its improving direction and long-term goals? Will Phoenix eventually abandon its unique and entertaining style -- hyper-paced and aggressive with three standout point guards -- because it couldn't quite get over the playoff hump in the West?
Creating a level playing field should be a top priority for any commissioner -- especially one like Silver who seems committed to logic and process. In the Suns, he has all the evidence he needs that the league is failing on this very basic count.
The general perception of Phoenix -- reinforced by the current system -- is that it's good but just not good enough. That's wrong: compared to its 29 counterparts, the team is good... full stop.
The general perception of Phoenix -- reinforced by the current system -- is that it's guard-heavy approach can't work. That's misleading, as it's being primarily judged against the West's deep and balanced field.
The general perception of Phoenix -- reinforced by the current system -- is that it's stuck in the middle and need a superstar addition. That's unfortunate, as the NBA should be doing everything in its power to encourage the type of natural franchise growth that McDonough has undertaken through smart trades and shrewd roster moves.
The general perception of Phoenix -- reinforced by the current system -- is that it's a less preferable postseason option when compared to New Orleans and Oklahoma City, because those teams have A-list superstars in Anthony Davis and the Kevin Durant/Russell Westbrook duo. That's a shame, because there's no telling what type of exhilaration the Suns might cook up if the Dragic/Bledsoe/Thomas triumvirate and the Morris twins were unleashed on an unsuspecting foe in the postseason. This just shouldn't be an either/or.
• MORE NBA: Suns acquire Wright to keep up in West arms race
Thursday produced some dark hours for the Suns, with their turnover-filled play, the loss of Len and the double-digit defeat. But, even on their worst day, the Suns look far more deserving of a shot at the Larry O'Brien Trophy than the Hornets or the Heat. The worst part is that this playoff bubble purgatory could go on for years if the system remains unchanged; the Suns could easily find themselves in a similar circumstance, facing similarly false perceptions, next year. Perhaps "sympathy" isn't quite strong enough here. Maybe "pity" is in order.
To be clear, Silver's task isn't just to explain to the other 29 owners how badly the Suns are getting shortchanged here. Rather, it's to convincingly sell the benefits of a system that rewards smart management, sound coaching, and up-and-coming talents instead of propping up weaker organizations solely on the flimsy basis of geography. Phoenix, for all the reasons laid out above, just so happens to be the ideal case study. Silver must convince the league's owners that any system capable of repeatedly generating pity for a talented, exciting, unique, winning, well-run, and well-coached team is a broken one indeed.