By JAVIER DOSAMANTES
We’re in the midst of the second quarter of the NBA season. The trade deadline and the All-Star break came and went, yet everything remains the same around the league. Kinda.
The top 10 teams are who we expected them to be, with the surprising addition of the Sacramento Kings and New York Knicks into the mix. The Brooklyn Nets are about to drop out of that group, and a suddenly feisty LA Clippers team will replace them.
Out of that top 10, the top five of each conference make up the top teams in net rating — and those teams are the contenders to win the championship.
However, the Phoenix Suns are about to surge in the net rating rankings. They were the surprise team who made a trade that reinvented their roster and changed the trajectory of the season: the Suns traded for Kevin Durant.
Of course, this means that the Durant and Kyrie Irving experiment was a historical failure. And Durant’s arrival in Phoenix is the only basketball transaction since December that matters.
No, the trades the Lakers made don’t matter in the near or distant future. Nor does all the collective wishful thinking about “when the Warriors get healthy.”
Durant instantly made the Suns the favorites to come out of the West. He, along with Devin Booker, will be a nightmare to defend as we saw Wednesday night against the Charlotte Hornets.
They are two of the most efficient high-volume shooters in the NBA, and are hyper-efficient in the midrange shot — the best weapon against playoff defense and clutch situations in the halfcourt.
Most importantly, Chris Paul just became the third, maybe fourth most important player on their roster. That’s scary. And relief for all Phoenix fans who wanted to go on a “darkness retreat” à la Aaron Rodgers to mentally prepare for the possibility of another Paul postseason injury crushing their basketball dreams.
Injuries can still derail the Suns’ championship dreams. Durant and Booker aren’t the most durable players, but the rest of the West contenders face the same health uncertainty.
The first-place Denver Nuggets, led by two-time MVP Nikola Jokić, need elite guard and wing play for his style to succeed in the playoffs. Unluckily, their best wing and guard have been banged up and injury prone.
Ja Morant is one of the best NBA players, but is an acrobatic drive into the lane away from injury (see: last year’s playoffs). And his second and third-best teammates, Desmond Bane and Jaren Jackson Jr., also have a tendency to get hurt. Not to mention that the Memphis Grizzlies haven’t been the same team defensively since Steven Adams got hurt.
Kawhi Leonard is one of the best basketball players of all time in the postseason and the Clippers’ best player in franchise history. But he hasn’t been or stayed healthy since he led the Toronto Raptors to a championship in 2019 with a leg injury.
Health will be the determining factor for who comes out of the West more than talent or matchups. If we want to be a glass-half-full type of crowd and ignore injury concerns — the Suns should be in the finals.
Let’s ✈ over to the Eastern Conference.