PHOENIX — Working title for the Phoenix Suns‘ season: You CAN win for losing.
The ping-pong balls will have the final say, but by losing 25 of their last 26 games, the Suns have positioned themselves with the best chance of the No. 1 pick in the June draft. The math is not final. A few losses still remain.
But as the Suns (19-59) prepare for another game without their top three scorers — against Sacramento at Talking Stick Arena on Tuesday — they have all but assured themselves of the best chance to win the NBA draft lottery. Memphis (21-56), Atlanta (22-55) and Orlando (22-54) are the other contenders.
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Sacramento (23-53) fell out of the running by beating the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday, halting a four-game losing streak.
Both the Suns and Kings understand the value of the draft.
Both have benefitted from 2017 top-five picks, even if the record does not reflect it at this point. The Suns took small forward Josh Jackson with the fourth overall pick and the Kings followed by selecting point guard De’Aaron Fox at No. 5.
Jackson has averaged 18.2 points, 5.9 rebounds and 2.2 assists in 27 games since Jan. 29, and he is getting even more run the last few weeks as the Suns have played without leading scorer Devin Booker (24.9 points a game), No. 2 scorer TJ Warren (19.6) and point guard Elfrid Payton, who has averaged 11.8 points and 6.2 assists since being acquired at the trade deadline for what could be considered an extended tryout. Payton can be a free agent this summer.
Booker has missed the last eight games with a sprained right hand and Warren has missed the last seven with left knee inflammation. Payton has been dealing with knee issues.
“We don’t have a lot of natural scorers” in the absence of Booker, Warren and Payton, Suns interim coach Jay Triano said after a loss to the Clippers last week.
The Suns extended their franchise-record losing streak to 15 in a 117-107 loss at Golden State on Sunday, but there were some bright spots. Second-year forward Marquese Chriss had a season-high 22 points and eight rebounds. Chriss has a tangential relationship to the Kings, too. The Suns acquired the No. 8 pick in the 2016 draft that they used to select Chriss in a draft-day deal with Sacramento.
“When his energy is high and his focus is great, these are the type of numbers he can have,” said Triano, who is playing Chriss more in the absence of others, including centers Alex Len and Tyson Chandler.
“With the minutes, he’s working himself into shape where he can play 30 minutes a game and be effective for all 30.”
Kings guard Buddy Hield, the principal return in the Demarcus Cousins deal with New Orleans last year, led the Kings with 19 points in the 84-83 victory over the Lakers on Sunday. He has averaged 16.1 points while shooting 43.5 percent from three-point range since the All-Star break.
Fox also made his presence felty against the Lakers, sinking a floater from the lane for an 84-80 lead that iced the game with 11 seconds remaining. He was only 6-of-18 from the floor, but he had six assists against one turnover and scored 14 points.
Kings coach Dave Joerger is looking for Fox to continue to assert himself in the final few games, a step toward in cementing his leadership role moving into next year.
“He’s got to demand from the rest of his team that he’s the leader, and going forward, set the tone for what he’s looking for,” Joerger told the Sacramento Bee last weekend
“And get the ball out faster or, ‘Give me some space and I’ll get you a shot.’ Those kinds of things where you go to the next level of leadership.”
Fox, who is averaging 11.4 points and 4.3 assists, has learned the point on the fly after playing only one season at Kentucky.
“I feel like I’ve had to develop my point guard skills … more intangibles than I’ve had to develop physically on the court,” Fox told the Bee. “I feel like I’ve become a lot smarter player as the year went on.
“Even if I’m not shooting well, I’m just trying to touch the paint and get guys open.”