The Phoenix Suns are currently the favorites to win the Western Conference (+230) and have the second-shortest odds to win the NBA Finals (+450) at Caesars Sportsbook. Phoenix is ahead of the top-seeded Denver Nuggets (+350) to win the West and behind only the Celtics (+325) to win the NBA Championship.
The Suns currently have the fifth-best record in the West and the 12th best in the NBA, 10.5 games behind the Celtics and 9.5 behind the Nuggets. But it is clear that the confidence Vegas has in the Suns moving forward is tied directly the trade deadline deal that brought Kevin Durant to the desert..
The question is if that confidence is justified? Should the Suns be considered the team to beat in the West and championship favorites now that they have Durant in the fold? Let's explore.
According to ESPN's Basketball Power Index (BPI), the Suns still rank 13th in the NBA with a BPI of 3.9, significantly behind the Celtics (8.5) and Clippers (8.2). The Nuggets (6.1), Lakers (4.7), Grizzlies (4.6), Warriors (3.9) and Mavericks (3.9) are all also ahead of the Suns in the West.
A portion of the BPI ranking is tied to how the team has played thus far this season, but even a quick glance at that list should indicate that this isn't the primary factor, since several teams near or behind the Suns in the standings are outperforming them. This discrepancy is likely because BPI utilizes the Real Plus Minus (RPM) impact of individual players on each team.
Even though Durant is widely considered one of the best players in the NBA when healthy, his relative BPI vs. the players that Suns traded away (Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson) might surprise you.
RPM estimates how much a player's presence on the court correlates with changes in their team's scoring margin. The Brooklyn Nets scoring margin improved by 3.6 points per 100 possessions this season when Durant was on the court as opposed to when he was off, a solid mark, but one that ranks him 10th among power forwards and 42nd in the NBA as a whole.
Last season, Durant's presence correlated with an improvement of 6.1 points per 100 possessions, the 14th-best mark in the NBA. To get a more detailed look at how this trade really changes the Suns, here is a chart of the RPM scores (offensive, defensive and total) plus the RPM wins (accounts for minutes played as well) for all the main players in this deal over the past two seasons:
|Kevin Durant (22-23)||3.5||0.2||3.6||7.4|
|Mikal Bridges (22-23)||-1.3||3.4||2.1||8.8|
|Cam Johnson (22-23)||1.8||0.5||2.3||2.1|
|Torrey Craig (22-23)||-3.7||3.5||-0.2||3.6|
|Kevin Durant (21-22)||3.7||2.4||6.1||14.2|
|Mikal Bridges (21-22)||-1.2||4.9||3.7||15.8|
|Cam Johnson (21-22)||1.1||-1.7||-0.6||5.2|
|Jae Crowder (21-22)||-2.3||6.8||4.5||10.8|
Let's unpack. Durant is (obviously) the best offensive player in this deal by a long-shot, and his impact numbers point that out. Both this season and last, Durant's ORPM indicates that we'd expect him to significantly improve the Suns' offense. In fact, while Cam Johnson measured out as a small positive offensive impact for each of the past two seasons, Bridges and Crowder both measured out as net negatives to the Suns' offense, with their impact coming on defense.
Last season, when the Suns had the best record in the NBA, the majority of their defensive punch came from Bridges and Crowder, who both ranked among the top-25 in the NBA in defensive RPM. Crowder ranked fifth and was the highest non-center on the list. I wrote about this phenomenon during the 2020-21 season, pointing out that the quiet contributions of players like Bridges and Crowder were crucial to the Suns' outlook, and a big reason I thought they had a chance to win the West (which they did that season).
Torrey Craig is a strong defender as well, and he projects to the other starting forward now, but there is still a sharp drop-off in the Suns' defensive expectations moving forward this season, compared to what they were last season when they had the best record in the league. This is a large part of why their BPI score is so average. The Suns, with Durant, project as a top-10 offense moving forward per BPI, but they project as an average defense (15th in DBPI).
Could the Suns come out of the West with an average defense? Maybe, if their offense is really on-point. And that is certainly possible, with Durant and Devin Booker as an elite 1-2 scoring punch, Chris Paul as the maestro running the show and Deandre Ayton as a strong tertiary scorer in the paint. But this would rely heavily on their main players to mesh, perform at that level and most importantly, stay healthy.
The health aspect was one of the bigger risks in the trade for the Suns. They traded away quality depth from a team that had already struggled all season with injuries. Bridges is the posterchild for availability, having never missed a game in his NBA career (which is why, in the chart above, he has higher RPM Wins scores than Durant, despite Durant having a higher RPM. Bridges always plays more minutes).
Durant is, of course, still recovering from a major injury now, and he's missed significant time in each of the past four seasons. Booker also has missed 28 games this season with double-digit absences in four of the past six seasons. And Paul's level of performance has dropped precipitously since his 37th birthday and he has an injury history well (including in the postseason) that isn't ideal.
So can the Suns win the West? I believe so. But would I bet them to win with the shortest odds and the least juice in the league? I say no, I'm fading them to win the conference or the title.
There are legitimate question marks, particularly when it comes to defense, depth and health, that shift them in my mind from the favorite to just one of several Western Conference teams with a chance. I'm more likely to bet on one of the other teams with a chance, that also have (in some cases, much) better odds.
Now, let's take a look at the status of the individual player awards coming out of the All-Star Break.
Leader: Nikola Jokic (-300)
In the hunt: Joel Embiid (+425), Giannis Antetokounmpo +700
Longshots of interest: Jayson Tatum (+1000), Luka Doncic (+1500), LeBron James (+4500)
Two-time defending MVP Nikola Jokic is running away with this year's award, according to the oddsmakers. He is certainly spoken of as the most likely to win among the NBA media. There is a bit of an echo chamber when it comes to voting, since the voters are the very members of the media that are all talking about him. Jokic's chances seem strong right now, but should he be such a clear favorite?
Jokic is an amazing player, but part of his MVP narrative is that he doesn't have any other big-name star players on his team, so he must be doing more to carry his team than his competition. However, again, we do have impact stats such as RPM that can estimate how much a player's presence on the court correlates with their team's success. Jokic was number one in the NBA in both RPM and RPM wins last season when he won his second MVP. This season, he currently sits at fourth in RPM, behind Tatum, Embiid and LeBron.
Tatum stands out the most, because he leads the NBA in both RPM and RPM wins, and is currently leading the team with the best record in the NBA. Jokic is averaging the triple-double, which always generates a wow factor, but Tatum's box score stats are very strong with averages of 30.6 PPG, 8.4 RPG and 4.5 APG. When you factor in that he measures out as the highest impact individual player in the NBA, while also leading the team with the best overall record, it's surprising to me that he is considered such a long shot to win.
I'd also have Embiid at least even if not ahead of Jokic on my personal ballot, with similar impact overall on another contending team. Embiid also dominated Jokic in their last head-to-head matchup, which is worth factoring in.
LeBron was +15,000 to win MVP the last time I did an update, and I noted then that he had a puncher's chance to get into the race because of all the hype that would surround his surpassing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for most points of all-time. He has done that, but in order to have any sort of realistic path into the race the Lakers would have to finish on a major run and in the top-6 in the West. As I wrote last week, the Lakers moves at the trade deadline could have them poised for a strong finish, but the odds aren't great that they win enough for James and company to get into the race. I'll still keep an eye on them though.
Leader: Paolo Banchero (-1000)
In the hunt: Bennedict Mathurin (+650)
Longshots:Walker Kessler (+2,500), Jaden Ivey (+5,000)
Nothing has changed at the top, where Banchero remains a runaway favorite to win the award. We may be far enough into the season that not even injury could derail his coronation at this point. Mathurin and Ivey continue to play well enough to be First Team All-Rookie selections. The one newcomer to this list is Kessler, who won't win the award, but has at least played himself into the conversation among the top rookies this season.
Leader:Jaren Jackson Jr. (-225)
In the hunt: Brook Lopez (+375), Bam Adebayo (+650)
Longshots:Nic Claxton (+900), Evan Mobley (+1600), Giannis Antetokounmpo (+2000)
Jackson remains the odds-on favorite to win and his odds have gotten even better. Jackson's 3.3 BPG would lead the NBA by a significant margin over Claxton's 2.6 BPG, once he plays enough games to be eligible. The Grizzlies are second in the NBA in team Defensive Rating, slotted in between the first place Cavaliers and the Bucks. But both the Cavs (Mobley and Jarrett Allen) and Bucks (Lopez and Giannis) have two players among the top-10 favorites to win DPoY, while Jackson is given the lion share of the credit for the Grizzlies' defensive prowess.
The analytics actually tell a slightly different story. While Jackson's +6.1 DRPM score is the fourth-highest in the NBA, Mobley actually leads the NBA at +8.2 and Adebayo is third at +6.5. While Allen is a very good defender, it appears that the Cavaliers' defensive success correlates more closely with Mobley's presence and that he may just be the biggest impact defender in the NBA.
Adebayo made the biggest leap in these rankings since last month's update, up from +1800 to +650. With his strong DRPM scores, and the fact that the Heat have the fourth-best team Defensive Rating, Adebayo should continue to be in the conversation down the stretch.
Leader: Malcolm Brogdon (-170)
In the hunt:Norman Powell (+300), Tyrese Maxey (+300)
Longer shot:Russell Westbrook (+600), Christian Wood (+3000), Bennedict Mathurin (+5000)
This race has seen the biggest shake-up since the last update. Brogdon has played excellent basketball for the Celtics, who have dealt with several perimeter injuries. He's taken over as the odds-on favorite.
Westbrook, who had been the odds-on leader for most of the season, fell into the longshot category after he was traded away from the Lakers. It isn't fully clear what Westbrook's role will be with the Clippers. If he continues to come off the bench, he could immediately start climbing these odds again.
Maxey has also moved seriously into the conversation, embracing his role off the bench for the 76ers once everyone was healthy. If he continues to play well, and the 76ers move further up the standings, he has a legit chance to win as well.
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