The 2023 NBA Playoffs are nearly here, and with three regular-season games left, the Phoenix Suns are already locked in as the 4-seed in the Western Conference.
Unlike last season, they won’t have to wait for the play-in tournament to figure out who their first-round opponent will be. However, their opening matchup still has yet to be determined, and there are four teams that could realistically climb into that not-so-coveted spot at No. 5 in the West.
The question is, which potential opponent would be the most favorable for the new-look Suns, who will only get a handful of games in with a healthy Kevin Durant before the postseason? Let’s rank those four prospective teams from a talent and challenge perspective, going from Phoenix’s most favorable matchup to their least.
5th seed probabilities this morning, per basketball reference:
Clippers: 57.3% (huge win last night!)
— Sam Cooper (@scooperhoops) April 6, 2023
4. LA Clippers
Suns up 2-1 in season series
There is no “easy” first-round matchup in a Western Conference that’s been so up and down all season, but a Clippers team without Paul George would certainly feel like the “easiest” of the bunch. As of last week, George had no timetable to return from a knee injury that initially came with a 2-3 week re-evaluation period.
If he returns, the Clippers boast the one wing tandem that could go toe-to-toe with Devin Booker and KD in a seven-game series. If George misses the entire first round, however, Kawhi Leonard would have to do some serious heavy lifting in yet another playoff showdown with Durant. In that scenario, Booker tips the scales back in Phoenix’s favor, even if Leonard managed to outplay KD for the entire series.
The Clippers have dealt with their fair share of injuries and load management, but they’ve essentially been a .500 team for most of the season. Despite having a plethora of switchable wings, tons of depth on paper, and one of the NBA’s best coaches in Tyronn Lue, LA checks out as an average team in most categories.
Since the trade deadline, the Clippers rank 20th in defensive rating and 16th in Net Rating, despite being a top-10 offense during that stretch. They’re third in 3-point efficiency this season, but near the middle of the pack in attempts. They’re not the type of team that can beat up opponents on the glass or in the paint, and the Suns have the personnel to either match their wing-heavy lineups or punish them inside with Deandre Ayton.
Throw in the unpredictability of Russell Westbrook, and this potentially feisty matchup could easily flame out against Phoenix’s superior talent. Westbrook has been surprisingly helpful for this Clippers team, averaging 16.5 points, 7.7 assists and 5.3 rebounds on 47.2 percent shooting overall and 37.2 percent shooting from deep over the last eight games. But his high turnover rate, poor perimeter shooting and abhorrent defense could quickly turn him an untrustworthy part of LA’s rotation. The Suns would quickly and repetitively target him as a pigeon.
Leonard is one of the few players on this planet capable of going toe-to-toe with Durant, but outside of that, the Clippers don’t do anything well enough to avoid the No. 4 spot on our list.
3. New Orleans Pelicans
Suns tied season series 2-2
Much like last year, the Pelicans are barely above .500. Also much like last year, they’d be a much tougher first-round matchup than they appear on paper.
The obvious question is whether Zion Williamson would be available after missing the last 43 games due to injury. His hamstring is set to be re-evaluated this week, and Shams Charania reported he took part in some “low-intensity” 3-on-3 scrimmaging last week. The return of a player who looked like a perennial All-Star and led the Pelicans to first place in the West when he was healthy would obviously make the Pelicans more dangerous. But it’d also come with a few drawbacks.
For starters, how quickly could he shake off the rust and log playoff minutes? And to follow up, how would his return impact New Orleans’ recent groove? He and Brandon Ingram have only played 12 games together this season, going 7-5 in that span. Reintegrating such a significant piece at this time of year, especially when New Orleans has won eight of its last 10 games without him, would be challenging.
That’s especially true for this matchup. The Pelicans have regained their confidence to avoid missing the play-in altogether, and Brandon Ingram has been leading the charge for a while now, averaging 27.6 points, 6.4 assists and 5.4 rebounds per game on .508/.398/.873 shooting splits since the start of February. Phoenix learned firsthand what a handful Ingram could be in his first ever playoff series.
The Pelicans also have the length and physicality to make life tough on Booker and KD between Ingram, Herb Jones, Trey Murphy III and Dyson Daniels. Josh Richardson and Jose Alvarado are pesky hounds on ball-handlers like Chris Paul, even with the Point God accepting more duties as an off-ball shooter.
However, covering for CJ McCollum and/or Zion on defense would prove more difficult than ever with Phoenix upgrading last year’s Mikal Bridges to Kevin-Freaking-Durant. New Orleans might try to hide someone on Josh Okogie, but Zion coming off an injury would be the largest pigeon of this series.
Unlike last year, the Pelicans are actually a worse offensive rebounding and second-chance points team compared to Phoenix, taking away one of their biggest potential advantages in this matchup. Without Zion, the Pels’ defense tightens up, but they may not have the star power to keep pace.
There’s no doubt the Pelicans have been playing great basketball lately and would be extra motivated after last year’s playoff demise, but the new-look Suns would still have the upper hand if NOLA somehow surged to the No. 5 spot.
2. Los Angeles Lakers
Suns up 2-1 in season series
When healthy and engaged, LeBron James and Anthony Davis represent one of the NBA’s most unstoppable duos — especially with the way AD has been playing lately. Since the start of March, the Brow has put up 28.3 points, 12.0 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game on 58.9 percent shooting, all while anchoring a defense that’s led the league in defensive rating since the trade deadline.
Los Angeles made some savvy moves to fix an ailing roster, and they’ve looked like a legitimate basketball team ever since. However, that resurgence on the defensive end has come with King James only playing in nine games; prior to the deadline, the Lakers were the NBA’s 20th-ranked defense (with LeBron playing in most of those games).
At age 38, it’s fair to wonder if LeBron would display the same defensive, erm, “intensity” he’s shown all season. Even going back to that first-round playoff meeting in 2021, he’s been prone to taking breaks on that end. Good luck hiding him on Okogie with that dude’s relentless movement, cutting and crashing on the offensive glass.
Is James still capable of hitting the same gear he goes to when he wants to look like the world’s best player on both ends of the floor? Perhaps his first playoff matchup with KD since 2017 would jumpstart the proverbial engine. It would have to, since Jarred Vanderbilt can only guard one of Booker or KD, and Vando’s not a shooting threat on the other end.
Much like the Suns, the new-look Lakers haven’t had much time together. Unlike the Suns, they don’t have the playoff experience to compensate for it, outside of their two superstars. They’re a bottom-five 3-point shooting team on the season, and even after adding Malik Beasley and D’Angelo Russell at the trade deadline, they’ve still been a bottom-10 team in that category ever since.
Throw in the precarious health of both LeBron and AD, and you’ve got a recipe for a series that looks closer on paper than it actually is.
The one potential mitigating factor? An unfavorable whistle. The Lakers have taken 458 more free throws than their opponents this season, the NBA’s largest differential. For reference, the next-closest team is the Sacramento Kings, at +189. The Suns, meanwhile, have been out-shot by 317 free-throw attempts this season, the league’s second-worst differential. We’ve already seen what happens when the Lakers draw an absurdly higher number of free throws than Phoenix.
1. Golden State Warriors
Suns won season series 3-1
The reigning champs look mighty vulnerable these days. They’ve been a subpar defense all season, their atrocious 9-30 road record is the fourth-worst mark in the entire NBA, and they’re the only team in the NBA with a worse free-throw differential than Phoenix.
The Suns dominated this regular-season series without Durant, winning their three games by an average of 17.3 points. As for the game they lost? Klay Thompson went off for 38 points, the Suns didn’t have KD, Mikal Bridges or Cam Johnson, and Phoenix still found a way to make it a close game in the fourth quarter. For a number of reasons, this Warriors squad looks more beatable than ever.
However, if there were a reason for the Dubs to suddenly turn it on and regain their proper form, it’d have to come with the motivation of facing Durant again, right? There’s simply too much playoff experience here to be ignored, and if any team could suddenly flip the switch and shock the world by stealing a game on the road, it’d be these Warriors.
Stephen Curry is a human heat check who can instantly swing a playoff series on his own. The same goes for Thompson, even though he’s been more inconsistent these days. Draymond Green remains a world-class defender, and the Warriors know Durant’s tendencies as well as anyone. The return of Andrew Wiggins — who was in the midst of a career year — adds more length, defense and scoring on the perimeter, even if the Dubs are 19-18 with him on the court this season.
All signs point to the Suns having the edge over the Warriors, especially with Durant and home-court advantage of their side. But the fuel of facing KD in the playoffs for the first time might be the very thing to wake this sleeping giant. Phoenix will have to beat some great teams to achieve their goal of winning the franchise’s first ever Larry O’Brien trophy, but catching the defending champs in the first round would be the toughest start to that journey.