Life in the Western Conference is terribly unfair.
While teams fail upwards into playoff spots in the East, two deserving teams in the West will be on the outside of the playoffs looking in when the season ends in mid-April.
One, the Minnesota Timberwolves, would be a certain playoff team in the opposite conference. The other, a yet-to-be-determined squad, will have the gripe of ranking as perhaps the third best team in the East, were they able to swap conferences. (And that's just based on record, not to mention the difference in schedule quality.)
As unfortunate as it is given how exciting and surprising their season has been, that other team looks like it may be the Phoenix Suns.
The expectations for the Suns entering the season were extremely low, with nobody predicting any modicum of success. This was a rebuilding year, a chance to bottom out like the Philadelphia 76ers and then leverage four first-round draft picks in the loaded 2014 draft, instantly rebuilding around an Eric Bledsoe-led core.
Instead, the Suns shocked everyone, opening the season 24-17 despite trading away Marcin Gortat, not getting a single minute from Emeka Okafor and having Bledsoe active for just 24 of those games. Goran Dragic has become a borderline All-Star, Gerald Green and Miles Plumlee look like new men, the Morris twins have developed and Channing Frye has returned from a scary heart issue to once again provide premiere floor spacing.
Jeff Hornacek is a Coach of the Year candidate, Ryan McDonough is an Executive of the Year candidate far earlier than he surely thought, and any number of players on the team are Most Improved Player candidates.
It's been a lot of fun, as Cinderella stories tend to be. Unfortunately, there may not be a happy ending this year.
Bledsoe returned on Wednesday, playing 32 minutes off the bench, but the team came up short against the Cleveland Cavaliers, 110-101.
The loss dropped the Suns to 36-28 and pushed them two games back of the final playoff spot in the West. As unfair as it is, the Memphis Grizzlies and Dallas Mavericks are 39-27 and 38-26, respectively, holding appreciable edges given that just 18 games remain for Phoenix.
While it's nowhere near impossible - and count this Suns team out at your own peril - it seems unlikely Phoenix can close the gap. Their remaining schedule is arduous, with 12 road games to just six home games and 10 games against winning teams. They follow up a deadly three-game stretch in early April (all playoff teams) with an easier game and then a trip to San Antonio, who is likely to still be fighting for the conference's top seed.
Given this difficulty, not even the Suns' superior point differential appears capable of making up the difference. ESPN gives Phoenix just a 23.3 percent chance of making the playoffs, with Basketball Reference slightly more optimistic at 37.4 percent. They have less than a 50/50 shot, in short.
What these systems are essentially saying is that two games isn't a lot, but it is when only 18 remain.
On April 12 and April 14, the Suns play Dallas and Memphis, two of their final three games of the year. Should the Suns stay within a game or two until then, they'll hold their own destiny in their hands. Given how tough their road is to that point, however, that may be wishful thinking.
Feature photo courtesy of USA Today Sports/Jennifer Stewart