The Phoenix Suns were perfect, and it didn’t matter. The NBA invited them to the Orlando bubble, they won all eight games in which they played, and it didn’t matter. Devin Booker emerged as a superstar, Deandre Ayton proved that he’s more than just the guy who was drafted ahead of Luka Doncic, and this whole Suns roster won over fans who had ridiculed them for even being invited to the bubble. The young, hungry Suns wouldn’t lose, and for all that winning they were sent packing before the playoffs.
After going 8-0 in the bubble, the Suns tied for the no. 9 seed in the Western Conference; both they and the Memphis Grizzlies had identical 34-39 records. Memphis took the season series against Phoenix 3-1 way back in the beforetimes, and thus won the tiebreaker to put them into a play-in game against the Portland Trail Blazers for the final postseason berth in the West. Phoenix almost made the play-in game—if Caris LeVert of the Brooklyn Nets would’ve hit a last-second jumper Thursday night to beat the Blazers, Portland would’ve fallen behind Phoenix in the standings and the Suns would be playing on. Instead, we’re left with an outcome that feels wrong. Why were the Suns even invited to Orlando if there was a scenario where they could go undefeated and get sent home anyway?
I have a solution. While the Suns didn’t qualify for the Western Conference play-in game, they should still be allowed to compete. They should take part in a play-in game against the Orlando Magic for the no. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference. This would go against the rules the NBA set up for the bubble restart, but it’d be the best way for the league to handle the awkwardness of a team accomplishing bubble perfection and still coming up short. Here are three reasons why this is the obvious move:
1. The Suns Deserve It
The Suns finished with a record of 34-39; the Magic are a game worse at 33-40, and the Suns play in a tougher division in a tougher conference. The Suns went 8-0 in Orlando. The Magic went 3-5. The Suns certainly seem like the better team—and what I’m proposing still allows the Magic to prove me wrong and beat the Suns. If they can’t, they don’t belong in the playoffs.
2. There’s No Need for Conferences Right Now
The NBA has had Eastern and Western conferences since its inception, hypothetically to cut down on travel. I like this format, even if the East has been the significantly weaker of the two conferences for most of the 21st century. (We should all take fewer and shorter plane rides!)
But if there were ever a circumstance in which we didn’t need to differentiate teams geographically, it’s when every single team is already playing in the same location. A Suns run through the East playoffs could pit them against the Bucks, Heat, and Celtics, and in most seasons that would require flying tens of thousands of miles from Phoenix to Milwaukee, Miami, and Boston, respectively. This year, the Suns would probably stay in the same hotel as some of those opponents!
3. It Would Be Cool, and That’s What Matters Most
Sure, it’d be unfair to suddenly spring this solution on the Magic. Orlando played the last few weeks under the presumption that if it were the no. 8 seed and finished four games ahead of the no. 9 seed, it would advance straight to a first-round series instead of needing to win a play-in game to qualify. But the league should prioritize what’s fun over what’s fair. Besides, it’s not like it would break some long-standing tradition by adding a second play-in game at the NBA bubble restart. Before June, there was no such thing as a “play-in game at the NBA bubble restart.”
So much of this format is arbitrary. The NBA simply decided that the cut-off for inviting teams into the bubble was that they were six or fewer games back from the no. 8 seed in their conference; it simply decided that each team would play eight games in the restart; it simply decided that teams would qualify for a play-in game only if they were four or fewer games back from the no. 8 seed. This entire thing was made up 10 weeks ago. Why should the league be beholden to rules it threw together on the fly?
Just let the Suns play the Magic. Whoever wins would probably get destroyed by the Bucks anyway. Before that, though, let’s get some more single-elimination basketball. The Suns just spent the last two weeks proving they won’t go down without a fight. Give them more chances to fight instead of a plane ticket home!