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Are the Suns being undervalued? What history tells us about Phoenix’s playoff chances

The Suns have the No. 2 seed in the West, but are they truly NBA title contenders?

Devin Booker #1 celebrates the game winning shot with Deandre Ayton #22 and Chris Paul #3 of the Phoenix Suns against the Dallas Mavericks in the fourth quarter at American Airlines Center on February 01, 2021 in Dallas, Texas. 
Devin Booker celebrates the game winning shot with Deandre Ayton and Chris Paul of the Phoenix Suns against the Dallas Mavericks in the fourth quarter at American Airlines Center on February 01, 2021 in Dallas, Texas
Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The Phoenix Suns have been the surprise story of the NBA season. After a decade without postseason play, Phoenix stormed into the playoffs behind the ageless Chris Paul and emerging stars Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton. The Suns have the second-best record in the West and rank in the top 10 in offensive and defensive efficiency this season, but they are clearly considered outside the top tier of contenders.

Let’s get one thing straight: the Suns are not a fluke. Paul continues to be a stellar presence at point guard and narrowly missed out on a 50-40-90 campaign. Booker is a bona fide scorer at 25.6 points per game and Ayton has dominated opponents in the paint. Role players like Jae Crowder, Mikal Bridges and Dario Saric have fit nicely alongside Phoenix’s stars. All these elements have combined beautifully under head coach Monty Williams to give the Suns the second-best field goal percentage in the league and fourth-best point differential.

Phoenix is +700 to win the West and +1800 to lift the Larry O’Brien trophy, according to DraftKings Sportsbook. For comparison, the Jazz are +350 and +700 in those respective categories despite only being one game better than Phoenix. So how should bettors react to these odds, especially for a team making the playoffs after a 10-season drought? Here’s a look at six teams from recent history to give more insight into Phoenix’s chances.

2011-12 Los Angeles Clippers

Let’s highlight Paul’s former team making the playoffs after a five-year absence in 2011-12. Prior to this success, the Clippers had made just one postseason appearance in 14 seasons. Paul led Los Angeles to 40 wins in a lockout-shortened year and a No. 5 seed. The Clippers won Game 7 in their first-round series vs. the Grizzlies before being swept by the Spurs. In the regular season, the Clippers were fourth in offensive efficiency and 18th in defensive efficiency.

2012-13 Golden State Warriors

Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Mark Jackson helped end a five-year postseason drought for the Warriors, who had made one playoff appearance in 18 seasons prior to the 2012-13 campaign. The Splash Brothers took out the Nuggets 4-2 in the first round of the playoffs before falling to the Spurs in six games. The Warriors ranked 12th in offensive and defensive efficiency that year en route to a No. 6 seed.

2017-18 Philadelphia 76ers

“The Process” made a playoff appearance after five seasons, ending one of most blatant acts of tanking in NBA history. The 76ers were a No. 3 seed with the third-best defensive rating that season paired with the 13th ranked offense. Philadelphia won its first round series 4-1 before losing to the Celtics in five games in the second round.

2017-18 Minnesota Timberwolves

Probably the best comparison to Phoenix in terms of roster composition, the Wolves ended a 13-year postseason drought behind Jimmy Butler, Karl-Anthony Towns and Tom Thibodeau. Minnesota ranked fourth in offensive rating, but injuries and a 25th-ranked defense left them with the No. 8 seed in the playoffs. The Wolves were bounced in five games.

2018-19 Denver Nuggets

After barely missing the playoffs in 2016 and 2017, the Nuggets exploded to the No. 2 seed in 2018-19 to end a five-year postseason absence for the franchise. Denver featured a predominantly young core similar to Phoenix and also is the only team on the list to rank in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive rating. After winning Game 7 against the Spurs in the first round, the Nuggets got bounced by the Portland Trail Blazers in Game 7 in the second round.

So what do all these teams have to do with the 2020-21 Suns?

For starters, they all came into the postseason with a trajectory similar to Phoenix. Unless a superstar changes teams in the NBA, franchises usually take 3-4 seasons to build a playoff contender. The Suns have gone through several iterations of rebuilding, but the most recent project finally found success. All of the above teams went through at least a five-year rebuilding period to crack the postseason.

Another similarity is roster construction. Paul and Butler arrived to their respective teams above in trades, but the rest of the roster for each franchise largely came through the draft. The Clippers had Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. The Warriors drafted Curry, Thompson, Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green. Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid headlined Philadelphia’s playoff team while No. 1 picks Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns broke out for Minnesota. The Nuggets saw Nikola Jokic blossom into an All-Star while Jamal Murray and Gary Harris became strong starters. While Paul has continued to produce with the Suns, Phoenix is relying heavily on homegrown talent like Booker, Ayton and Bridges.

As bettors look at NBA postseason odds, the Suns appear to be undervalued. While they don’t have the star power of the Lakers and Clippers, they have a balanced unit entering the playoffs relatively healthy. Phoenix’s biggest challenge will likely be its first round opponent. The Suns will see either LeBron James, a player who has made nine Finals in the last 10 seasons, or Stephen Curry, a three-time NBA champion. Those matchups could make some bettors look away.

However, every team outside the 2017-18 Timberwolves won their first round playoff series after breaking a long postseason drought. While the Lakers and Warriors wouldn’t be average No. 7 seeds, the Suns do offer significant challenges to both. If Phoenix continues on the same historical trajectory and wins its first round series against the Lakers, it will take out one of the heavy betting favorites right off the bat.

Bettors will still have hesitancy, especially picking against a player of James’ or Curry’s caliber in the postseason. But if you trust historical trends and Phoenix’s body of work in the regular season, the Suns offer significant value in the first round and on futures.