Timberwolves, Mavericks and Suns could become best non-playoff teams in modern NBA history

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Since the NBA playoffs expanded to 16 teams in 1984, no lottery team has been better than the current Timberwolves, Suns or Mavericks. Two of them will not make the postseason.

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Editor's Note: An initial version of this story did not mention the Timberwolves. We apologize for the error.

One of the Suns, Mavericks or Grizzlies will not make the NBA playoffs. Those three teams are jockeying for two spots; all have 43 wins with less than a dozen games remaining. I will spare you by withholding comment on the state of the race for the Eastern Conference's No. 8 seed, since you know this is a bad situation getting worse with every Hawks loss. Let's focus on the cosmic injustice to happen in the West only.

I used Basketball-Reference's Play Index to find the best non-playoff teams since the NBA expanded the field to 16 in 1984. (The playoff field gradually grew from six in 1947 to 12 in 1977 before going to the full 16.) I used margin of victory -- the truest simple assessment of a team's quality -- and plucked out the five best teams that missed the postseason.

The Suns and Mavericks are currently better than all of them. And as we'll find out later, there's another lottery team this year that's even better than the Suns and Mavericks.

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The best non-playoff team since 1984 by scoring margin is currently the 2000-01 Rockets, who had a +2.29 margin of victory and a 45-37 record. The Suns' current scoring margin: +2.71. The Mavericks are at +2.34.

A common answer for best non-playoff team is the 48-win 2007-08 Warriors. They won a ton of games, but their scoring margin was comparatively low: they had a margin of victory of +2.21. If the Suns happen to miss the playoffs, it could be with 48 or 49 wins ... and we'd expect that they'd blow away Golden State's 2008 scoring margin.

The Grizzlies don't look as wronged when you consider scoring margin: those early-season struggles without Marc Gasol set them back, and they have the margin of victory of a 46-win team. Phoenix, meanwhile, has the scoring margin of a 48-win team. Dallas looks like a 47-win team.

Right now, Dallas is on the outside looking in due to a tough loss to the Clippers on Thursday. But the race is so tight (one game separates the three teams) that anything can happen. If Phoenix or Dallas ends up on the outside, we'll have a new answer as to the best team to ever miss the playoffs in the modern era.

But regardless of what happens in the race for Nos. 7 and 8, it is actually the Minnesota Timberwolves who should become the best non-playoff team in history by scoring margin at season's end. Minny's margin of victory is currently +3.06, that of a 50-win team. An impossibly poor record in close games has kept them bouncing around .500, though. That doesn't work in the powerful, deep West. So, there's a chance that this season's West will have produced the two best teams to miss the playoffs in modern history.

Speaking about conference imbalance just briefly: not including this season, three of the five best non-playoff teams of the modern era are fairly recent teams from the Western Conference. The '01 Rockets are a bit outside of that -- the West was dominant at the top back then, but the yawning gap below the top tier didn't burst open until a few years later.

And because I know you're curious: will the Hawks (currently -1.31) be the worst playoff team ever by margin of victory if they manage to make the postseason? Nope. Not even close, really. The 1988 Spurs made the playoffs with a -4.88 scoring margin. The Spurs were 31-51 and the fifth worst team in a 23-squad league by scoring margin. And they made the playoffs! They got swept by the Lakers in three, losing by an average of 10.6 points.

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