This year, it’s possible that the Phoenix Suns could be a playoff team. Apart from the Markieff Morris situation that must be dealt with, there is optimism in Phoenix.
In the brutally tough Western Conference, there may be at least one spot up for grabs if the Portland Trail Blazers and Dallas Mavericks drop out of the playoff picture (and the Oklahoma City Thunder climb in, as expected).
The only teams that could conceivably rise to be the eighth-best team in the conference would be the Suns, Utah Jazz and Sacramento Kings. The Kings might have the talent, but there are a whole lot of new pieces and drama surround the team. The Jazz will be without sophomore guard Dante Exum for the season, but even so they are the Suns’ top competition for the final playoff spot in the West. Can Phoenix take the next step and crack the top eight?
Basketball Insiders previews the Phoenix Suns’ 2015-16 season.
The Suns nearly won the offseason by signing LaMarcus Aldridge. At the end of the day, Aldridge’s decision came down to Phoenix and the San Antonio Spurs, with the free agent power forward admitting that it was a very tough call. He obviously went to the Spurs, but the Suns still did add some veteran reinforcements over the offseason such as Tyson Chandler, Mirza Teletovic and Sonny Weems (in addition to drafting rookie Devin Booker). I’m excited to see how Brandon Knight does alongside Eric Bledsoe, since Knight was sidelined and limited for much of his time with the Suns last season after joining Phoenix via trade. I’m also curious to see how the addition of Chandler impacts this team. I believe the Suns will compete for the eighth seed in the Western Conference this season, but as of the right now, I have the Utah Jazz sneaking in instead of them. With that said, it’ll be a tough battle for that final seed and it wouldn’t surprise me to see the Suns get in if they play to their full potential.
3rd Place – Pacific Division
– Alex Kennedy
On the one hand, getting Tyson Chandler to bolt Dallas was a coup. That was one of the better pickups of the offseason, mostly because this talented Suns roster needed some hard-nosed veteran leadership to help them take things to the next level. Of course, that was when it looked like they were still seriously in the hunt for LaMarcus Aldridge, and that obviously didn’t happen. Now, even Markieff Morris is unhappy with his brother having been shipped off to Detroit, and the Brandon Knight/Eric Bledsoe backcourt combination isn’t one guaranteed to dominate. There are plenty of kids on this roster to like, but it feels like an odd mix. The Pacific is a rough division this year with the Lakers and Kings improving this offseason, so Phoenix could slip a little. If they didn’t make the playoffs the last two years, they certainly aren’t going to do it this season.
5th Place – Pacific Division
– Joel Brigham
Phoenix hovered around .500 last season, but in a stacked Western Conference those type of results won’t raise many eyebrows, if any at all. The team unexpectedly changed pace at the trade deadline shipping guards Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas out of town. The team netted guard Brandon Knight, who was recently locked into a long-term deal with the franchise. On the interior, the Suns signed aging center Tyson Chandler, who will provide a defensive presence. Although there has been plenty of changes in Phoenix, don’t expect too much fluctuation in one direction. Stagnant would be a word that comes to mind when evaluating the 2015-16 Phoenix Suns.
4th Place – Pacific Division
– Lang Greene
If you thought there was drama with the Sacramento Kings, the Phoenix Suns are right there with them. Markieff Morris has made his displeasure with the organization abundantly clear following the trade of his twin, Marcus, to the Detroit Pistons. The outlook of the Suns’ season depends on how this situation plays out. A disgruntled top player doesn’t lead to wins, it leads to turmoil in the locker room and on the court. A trade could garner new talent, though Morris’ public display of unhappiness doesn’t give them much leverage. Where the Suns do have dependability is in the backcourt with guards Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight. They also added Devin Booker in the draft. If Morris cannot contribute as he has in the past, the offseason signing of Tyson Chandler gives the Suns a veteran big man presence regardless. Just as the Kings have gone through ups and downs with DeMarcus Cousins, the Suns could find themselves in a similar situation if this continues this season, which could hinder their improvement.
3rd Place – Pacific Division
Anyone who has spent time around Jeff Hornacek would attest to his spirit and presence. There’s something about him that simultaneously puts his players at ease, but still garners their respect. Entering this season, the two questions I have for them revolve around Eric Bledsoe and Tyson Chandler. First, Bledsoe quietly put together what could be regarded as the best season of his career last year. He played 81 games after missing 39 games of the 2013-14 season. Without Goran Dragic, Bledsoe will have to carry more weight for the Suns, as Brandon Knight will clearly be regarded as his secondary. Tyson Chandler’s spirit and work ethic will have a positive effect on the youngsters he will be surrounded by, and in the end, I’d expect the Suns to continue to overachieve behind Hornacek and have a shot at a playoff berth. Along with the Mavericks, Jazz and maybe the Kings, the Suns will probably hang around the eighth seed until the final week of the season, though they are still a notch below the powers in the Pacific. I’ll pencil the Kings in above them, but I do so reluctantly.
4th Place — Pacific Division
Top of the List
Best Offensive Player: Eric Bledsoe
This is Eric Bledsoe’s team. While Brandon Knight is his running mate in the dual point guard attack, everything stems from Bledsoe’s driving penetration, blazing speed and Hulk-like strength and toughness finishing in the lane. It’s his time to be the Suns’ alpha dog. Seemingly, Bledsoe is taking a larger leadership role going into the season and becoming more vocal. It may his time to take the league by storm, and it seems he is primed for a big season. The Suns will only go as far as Bledsoe takes them.
Best Defensive Player: P.J. Tucker
Tyson Chandler could’ve gotten the nod here, but we’ll focus on him more later and decided to go with Tucker instead since he is the heart and soul of this Suns team. Tucker is the king of fourth-quarter clutch rebounds, and he is a great defender. He is also versatile, guarding multiple positions. Additionally, he has what every coach looks for in a player: an intense work ethic and team-first attitude. Every year, Tucker adds something to his game, typically on the offensive side of the ball. We’ll see what new wrinkles to his game he comes to camp with this year, but expect him to continue being a lockdown defender.
Top Playmaker: Brandon Knight
It’ll be nice to see Knight actually flourish in a Suns uniform this year after being limited by injuries toward the end of last season. Last year was a disaster for Phoenix in many ways. They were beaten on a ridiculous amount of improbable buzzer beaters, were kind of forced to trade away a third of their roster at the trade deadline and dealt with some nagging injuries. This year (especially once the Markieff Morris fiasco gets sorted out), everything is looking up for the Suns in general and for Brandon Knight. Healthy and comfortable in the system, Knight may be able to produce at the level he did in the first half of last year with Milwaukee.
Best Clutch Player: Markieff Morris
Morris was far and away the most consistently clutch player for Phoenix last year and near the top of the league as well. The chance that he’ll be on the Suns by the beginning of the season is quite low, and it’s even less likely he’s on the team following the February trade deadline. But he remains with the team right now, so he’s eligible for this distinction. If he does stay in Phoenix and everything gets resolved, he’s the go-to option down the stretch in a close game.
Best New Addition: Tyson Chandler
This is such a great (and underrated) pickup for the Suns. While he is past his prime, Chandler brings exactly what the Suns need. He brings stability to the center position (the budding Alex Len tends to get banged up with small “inconsequential” injuries). He brings spectacular interior defense as well as communication, leadership and accountability on that end, which the Suns have basically never had in the history of their franchise. He also sets great picks, which Phoenix has been recently pretty poor at and will benefit Bledsoe and Knight greatly.
Who We Like
Alex Len: Len is a cornerstone piece for the Suns. He is a legit center with a smooth touch on his shot. He has length, explosiveness and athleticism. While still learning the game, for a 22-year-old he shows flashes of greatness. He is a bit injury-prone, but not in a major way. He’s had a broken nose here, bruised something there, but nothing major since his early ankle/foot issues. He gets to be mentored by Tyson Chandler and gets to play against backup centers (even though he started last year and is starting-caliber). He’s going to feast on backup centers all year. He has the whole package. It’s coming along slowly, but the improvement is there. Look for a big season from him this year or next.
Archie Goodwin: Goodwin is just fun to watch. He seemingly has boundless energy and a knack for disrupting the opposition. He’s a spark. His season will be very intriguing to track. He isn’t a “gimmick” player (i.e. dunk contest winner Jeremy Evens, who hasn’t done much else), but he also hasn’t proven that he can have consistent production across a season. His shot was unreliable to say the least, but as is evident from summer league, he seems to have reworked it and his release is quicker and cleaner, and his shot looks smoother. He will be competing with sharpshooter rookie Devin Booker for backup shooting guard duties and probably has the upper hand right now due to experience, but if he can’t have a consistent jumper in his back pocket, he could end up buried on the depth chart.
T.J. Warren: Toward the end of last season and even during this year’s summer league (where Warren took home first-team honors), he looked like a breakout candidate for his sophomore season. He has a beautiful arsenal of floaters and unconventional shots around the basket that he can pull out at any time. His floater even extends further, rivalling the rest of the NBA. His off-ball cutting is superb as well. His jumper is just okay, but not great, and he hasn’t quite extended it to three-point range yet. That, as well as upping his defense from barely below average to average defender, will take him to the next level. But he really has an amazing knack for scoring. He just gets the ball in the hoop.
Devin Booker: Booker is a flat out pure shooter. Just being drafted, he instantly became the best three-point shooter on the Suns. He’s a rookie and depending on how the competition between he and Goodwin goes, he could spend some time over in Bakersfield playing for the Suns’ D-League affiliate. His shot release is quick and so, so, smooth. It’ll be nice for Phoenix to have a knockdown shooter from deep again. He will help space the defense for the likes of Bledsoe and Knight to drive into the lane.
Mirza Teletovic: It never hurts to have a guy on your team who cares so much that he says he’d die for basketball, right? That really is the embodiment of the phrase “ball is life.” Teletovic is a stretch-four, who missed a bunch of last season when he played for the Brooklyn Nets and developed a blood clot in his lung. Depending on how the Markieff Morris situation plays out, Teletovic could have a bigger role on the Suns than initially expected when he was first acquired.
Sonny Weems: A relative unknown to casual NBA fans, he started his NBA career with the Denver Nuggets and Toronto Raptors but has been playing overseas in Lithuania and Russia in recent years. Now, Weems will be a veteran presence on the young squad. The 29-year old will be a spark off the bench. He shouldn’t be relied on to initiate the offense, but he can get out in transition, he works well off the ball and he can shoot pretty well (including from three, especially after expanding his shot while overseas). He has a long wingspan, great athleticism and plays good defense. We’ll see how he fares against NBA competition once again, seeing as he hasn’t faced opponents of that caliber in a while. He has a high IQ and a high motor and could thrive in a bench role for Phoenix this year.
One strength for Phoenix is their depth. They have one of the better benches in the league, especially with the addition of Chandler moving Len back to the bench, Warren’s emergence and the drafting of Booker. This Suns team has always loved getting out in transition and that shouldn’t change this year. They prefer that style and are very good at running that up-tempo system. Their bigs like to run, along with their point guards. They also have a solid mix of youth and experience, which is what teams want.
In contrast to their depth, probably the biggest problem Phoenix has had (since Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire left) is the lack of a superstar. They have a lot of good players, but no great ones (yet).
Phoenix also has a problem winning close games. They won a few last year, but lost even more, including some brutal buzzer-beaters. They had issues getting technical fouls at all the wrong times, which may be helped by moving Marcus Morris and the seemingly imminent departure of Markieff Morris, but Bledsoe and Tucker were also part of this problem. Tyson Chandler will help in this aspect for sure.
Booker (and to a lesser extent Weems) will help with Phoenix’s three-point shooting woes, but it will probably still not be a strength for them. The same goes for Chandler and Phoenix’s rebounding.
The Burning Question
What will happen with Markieff Morris?
This is obviously the big question with the Suns. By making it clear that he wants to leave, this hurt the leverage the Suns have in trade talks, which may actually decrease the chance of Morris getting dealt.
However, Morris insists that he doesn’t have a future with the Suns, so it’s very possible he’ll be moved anyway despite Phoenix’s lack of leverage. Markieff is an above-average player, but is by no means a star who can try to demand anything from his team. He also can’t threaten to leave since he has several years left on his contract. Morris hasn’t handled things very professionally, publicly demanding a trade (which resulted in a fine) and overreacting to the trade of his brother. He also had an offseason assault charge that really hurt his trade value.
Morris is probably gone by opening night, unless they can’t get his trade value up, in which case he’s almost certainly gone by the February trade deadline. He’s not a bad player and will probably still improve, but he isn’t a player worth this recent trouble.
NBA Daily: Ivica Zubac Rounding Into Form For Clippers
David Yapkowitz writes about Ivica Zubac and his strong bubble performances for the Los Angeles Clippers – is he the key for a deep postseason run?
The Los Angeles Clippers have no shortage of star power. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George form one of the most dangerous duos in the NBA, and both Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell are averaging close to 20 points a game each while coming off the bench.
But there is one player on the roster who might be the team’s X-Factor, one player who could hold the key to being able to withstand the imposing frontline of the Los Angeles Lakers – and that’s Ivica Zubac.
Zubac was once a Laker before he was casually tossed aside to the Clippers at last season’s trade deadline. He had shown flashes of his capabilities with the Lakers but spent most of his first couple of seasons in the league with the Lakers’ G League affiliate. Upon his arrival to the Clippers, he immediately became a key player and has since settled into the starting center role.
His arrival to the NBA’s restart bubble in Orlando was initially held up as he had tested positive for COVID-19. He has since joined the team after a mandatory quarantine period and is looking ready to help the team as they gear up for a playoff run.
He admitted that although he only experienced mild symptoms from the virus, he still felt winded and not quite up to speed as he tried to ease himself back into regular game flow.
“It’s much better, it’s much better than when I got here. I can feel it getting better with each practice, each game,” Zubac said on a recent conference call with media.
“After I first started getting back in shape, after I was cleared, I felt like I was out of shape. My chest was a little tighter when I would do some stuff. But I feel great right now. I don’t feel anything. I’m getting back into shape, I’m almost there. It’s going to take some more time.”
Zubac feeling like his old self again has been evident with each passing game. He started slow, only finishing with two points and three rebounds against the Lakers while being outworked by Anthony Davis. Against the New Orleans Pelicans, he looked a bit better, especially with his effort on the glass.
In the Clippers’ third game of the restart against the Phoenix Suns, Zubac put up 18 points and 12 rebounds while shooting 77 percent from the field. He followed that up with his best bubble game to date with 21 points on a perfect 10-for-10 shooting and 15 rebounds against the Dallas Mavericks.
Zubac equated his increased production with gradually regaining his conditioning and mobility and getting the feel again for regular game speed.
“I’m getting the feel, I’m starting to remember what guys like, what are the best spots on the court for me. My conditioning is getting better each practice, each game,” Zubac told media after the Mavericks game. “I’m feeling like I can stay on the floor for a while, I can run the floor, I can fight in the post with guys, I can rebound. Everything with my conditioning getting back, I can get on another level in every aspect of my game.”
Before his performance against the Mavericks, Zubac had a pretty solid game against the Suns – but the center was obviously still readjusting to his teammates and being able to make the right reads and be in the correct spots on the floor. He played solid defense on Deandre Ayton, but he also ended up having a costly turnover late in the game that set up Devin Booker’s eventual game-winner.
Following the Suns game, Clippers head coach Doc Rivers had mentioned there were a few areas that Zubac could use improvement in, and he was much more effusive in his praise after his performance against the Mavericks.
“He was phenomenal. We talked about it, he did all the things we needed, he really ran the floor, that didn’t show up statistically, but what it did, it created space, it created mismatches,” Rivers told media after the game.
“I loved that our guys were looking for him. I thought his rebounding was fantastic. Really coming off the way we ended the game the other day with Zu, then coming back, playing like that, that was fantastic for his confidence.”
Throughout the season, Zubac has been a player that doesn’t need the ball in his hands to be effective. He does have a soft touch around the rim and can establish a strong position in the post, but he does a lot of damage when he’s rolling to the rim, cutting and moving without the ball and catching lobs from his teammates.
He’s also a good rebounder who gets points off of offensive putbacks, and he’s a solid defender who acts as the team’s interior defensive anchor. He’s also usually on the bench at the end of games when Harrell is in with the starters. But depending on potential matchups, perhaps against the Denver Nuggets and Nikola Jokic, or even the Lakers and Davis, Zubac could find himself finishing some games.
What is certain though, is he’s proving his importance to the team and he’s showing that come playoff time, he could end up being the X-factor. He knows that his teammates are going to look for him and he’s ready for that.
“It’s just communication on the floor, knowing what Kawhi and P.G like, knowing how to get a better angle on a screen, just the plays we run, got to have a better understanding what’s good at the time. It’s mostly communication on the floor,” Zubac said. “It feels great to get rewarded by my teammates after doing all the hard work.”
Free Agency Update: Changes In The Bubble
Drew Maresca explores the free agency implications of the first week of play in the bubble as the NBA continues its return to post COVID-19 play.
Free agency is always a fun time for the NBA and its fans, but particularly so in 2020. Most free agents have usually earned their next deal by the 65th game of any given season – but this year is far from typical. Instead, the NBA has returned, sans its eight worst teams, meaning that competition is consistently better. And with limited competition for our attention, every game is a major event that draws more eyes and has a greater effect on the paydays of to-be free agents.
We’re still only three or four games into the official return of the NBA, but there have already been some changes to how we perceive some players. Take T.J. Warren, for example, who’s averaging over 39.7 points per game through three contests. Or Michael Porter Jr., who looks more like the focal point of a team than a player in his first year of professional action.
This article will focus explicitly on the changes in perception of free agents to-be as a result of their play in the bubble in Orlando. We understand that the players listed below can still hurt their standings and that teams rate free agents differently. While the sample size is small, we’ve seen deals made based on an equally small body of work (e.g., Jerome James to the New York Knicks).
One caveat to keep in mind is the unprecedented fiscal challenges facing the NBA and its club in 2020. Not only will the COVID-19 pandemic inevitably hurt the 2020-21 salary cap, but there’s also still a conclusion to be had with the preseason China situation.
With all of that in mind, let’s explore the players that have made the loudest cases for a payday come this offseason.
Mike Conley Jr., Utah Jazz – Player Option
Conley Jr. has a player option for 2020-21 – but he played poorly enough through March, relative to what we’ve come to expect from him, that it was more than reasonable to assume he would opt-in at $34.5 million.
But wait, there’s a chance that Conley does us all a favor and makes free agency 2020 more interesting. Conley’s averaged 19.8 points and 5.8 assists per game, way, way up from 13.8 points and 4.3 assists per game prior to the stoppage in March. If Conley keeps this going – and especially if he performs well in the playoffs – he might want to test the market considering the lack of elite talent that’s anticipated to hit it – assuming he’s unhappy in Utah, that is.
Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans – RFA
Ingram’s looked similar to the guy we saw in 2019-20 before the play stoppage – he’s averaging 23.5 points and 7.5 rebounds per game when playing 30 or more minutes. While he was less effective in a loss against the Clippers (14 points and two rebounds in 24 minutes), he’s demonstrated growth in how decisively he makes his move and how seamlessly he then scores on the move.
Ingram was probably going to get max offer as of the All-Star break – especially after reaching his first All-Star team at 22 – but COVID-19 probably altered the ability for teams to dole out lucrative deals. But then play resumed and Ingram picked up right where he left off – and with a confidence to use it liberally. Ingram is nearly a lock for a max deal now.
Fred VanVleet, Toronto Raptors – UFA
VanVleet started off his time in the bubble with a solid performance (13 points and 11 assists), but he really showed out in his second game against the Miami HEAT. VanVleet led the Raptors to a win against Miami with a career-high 36 points. And then he got right back to being Mr. Consistent for Toronto by posting 21 points and 10 assists in a win against Orlando.
So ultimately, VanVleet has led the Raptors to a 3-0 (re)start, and he’s either scored a career-high or dropped 10-plus assists. James Dolan and Leon Rose are somewhere together – albeit socially distanced, we’re sure – drooling – as are all of the teams in need of a lead guard, like Detroit. VanVleet can only increase his value from here. He’s not assumed to be a max-level player, but if he plays well enough through the playoffs, it’ll be interesting to see just how high he can reach.
DeMar DeRozan, San Antonio Spurs – Player Option
It’s hard to imagine DeRozan’s value increasing much at this point in his career. After all, he’s an 11-year veteran that has been named to the All-Star Game four times and an All-NBA team twice.
But still, there’s always been presumed limitations to his game, namely his inability to shoot three-pointers. Since being traded to San Antonio, he’s fallen out of the national spotlight a bit. As a 31-year-old capable of reaching unrestricted free agency, DeRozan is at a major inflection point in his career. He could attempt to a final big deal or snag a smaller one if the market for his services doesn’t meet expectations. Or he could just opt-in.
But DeRozan has done his part to remind everyone that he has loads of high-quality basketball left in him. He tallied 30 points on 11-for-20 shooting on Tuesday in a close loss to the 76ers and he’s averaged 22.3 points, 7.3 assists and 4.8 rebounds per game since the Spurs resumed play last Friday. While those averaged mostly coincide with what he did this season, it also represents a decent boost in assists. But more importantly, it solidifies that DeRozan should still receive a serious look as a lead star. And he’ll probably get interest from a number of teams.
The Known Commodities
Marcus Morris Sr., Los Angeles Clippers – UFA
While Morris Sr. is a known commodity, teams could use additional poor performances against him in negotiations. He’ll probably still have the option to sign for a veterans minimum or mid-level exception with a contender like the Clippers or Lakers. But if he’s eyeing another payday that pays him an annual salary equal to what he made in 2019-20, it would behoove him to make his mark on the stat book.
Making A Case
Trey Burke, Dallas Mavericks – UFA
Burke hasn’t been overly consistent since NBA play resumed last week. But he did have a huge breakout game against the Rockets, scoring 31 points on 8-for-10 for three-pointers in only 30 minutes, while also dishing six assists.
Yes, Burke is averaging just 5.5 points in 18 minutes in the two games since, but the fact that he scored 31 in an NBA game will be enough to get looks as an off-the-bench scorer. And it’s a narrative that can be supported by his past work, too. Remember, Burke is still just 27-years-old and he has a 42-point career-high. He’s also exploded for 30 four times and eclipsed the 20-point mark on 38 occasions in his 389 career games. So even if it’s just a reminder, it’s good to know that Burke can still get it done offensively – and teams are always looking for ways to manufacture offense.
Jordan Clarkson, Utah Jazz – UFA
Clarkson’s shot only 40 percent from the field since play resumed last Thursday, with an even worse 20 percent from three-point range. Still, scorers are as valuable as ever. It’s what made J.R. Smith so much money in this league, as well as Lou Williams and countless others – and rightfully so. Ultimately, it’s about putting the ball in the hoop. And with that being said, a franchise is going to pay Clarkson and they’ll end up paying more than they would have as of March.
Reggie Jackson, Los Angeles Clippers – UFA
Jackson has less to prove than most guys in this part of this list – but given his injury history, he does have to make a statement.
On the whole, Jackson has looked good – but not necessarily great. He averaged 12.5 points, seven rebounds and two assists in his first two contests, but he regressed in the Clippers’ most recent game against the Suns. But on a positive note, Jackson received only 23 minutes on Tuesday versus Phoenix and his 15 points on 5-for-9 shooting, eight rebounds, two assists and two steals accumulated in just 20 minutes.
If Jackson continues to be a contributor to the contending Clippers, someone will overspend on him. After all, good point guards are few and far between.
Harry Giles III, Sacramento Kings – UFA
Giles III only played four minutes in the Kings’ first game back against the Spurs and he didn’t fare much better over 12:55 versus the Mavericks on Tuesday. But when you’re a fringe player that had injury concerns throughout your young career, any positive outings are good – especially those that come in a contract year. Giles tallied 23 points and eight rebounds in only 20 minutes against the Orlando Magic – a significant jump from his 7.2 points and 4.2 rebounds averages this season. And that’s probably enough to generate interest amongst a number of teams.
The Kings curiously declined Giles’ fourth-year option, making him an unrestricted free agent as of the end of this season. That’s an interesting decision because the option was relatively cheap given that he was only the No. 20 overall pick (2017). Further confusing matters is the idea that by passing on the fourth-year option, they also lost matching rights – so Giles won’t even be restricted.
To make matters worse, the Kings can’t even bid more than $3.9 million to retain his services. So the Kings ultimately wasted a first-round draft pick on Giles for a grand total of 14.5 minutes per game across 99 games – and he’ll walk before they even know what they had in him.
But this all works out nicely for Giles, who will absolutely get an opportunity elsewhere – and he’ll be paid more than he would have received in Sacramento for it. How good is still an unknown, but he’s shown enough for a team to take a flyer on considering his size, skill set and versatility. He was the No. 1 overall recruit coming out of high school according to ESPN just four short years ago.
Free agency is going to be different than ever before and, up until very recently, that was assumed to be a bad thing. But with some of the above players changing the narratives around them, it could become even more exciting than it’s been in the recent past. Add in the likes of DeMarcus Cousins, Davis Bertans, Christian Wood – and we’re looking at an under-appreciated free-agent class.
NBA Daily: Breaking Down The Bubble’s Race For 8th
Ben Nadeau analyzes the race for the No. 8 and 9 spots in the Western Conference – who will make the cut?
As the NBA inched toward its inevitable rebirth, the instant drama surrounding the Western Conference’s No. 8 seed became a conversation wildfire.
Was the league rolling out the red carpet in hopes of a Zion Williamson-LeBron James showdown in the first round? Could the healthier Portland Trail Blazers make another historic run toward history? De’Aaron Fox, the Sacramento franchise cornerstone, took umbrage over a lack of Kings-related faith, while the Memphis Grizzlies had more than enough ground to protect their standing in the current hierarchy.
Three or so games in to our bubbled adventure, everything has changed – and fast.
The Pelicans, still worrisome over Williamson’s health and conditioning, played him about 15 minutes in each of their first two contests – coincidently, New Orleans went 0-2. With their backs against the wall and slowly losing traction in a muddied race, the Pelicans played the future superstar for 25 minutes, where he racked up 23 points, seven rebounds and used a personal 6-0 run to clinch a much-needed win. Not only did the victory signify an important swing in momentum for the veteran-laden squad, but it was another crushing defeat for Grizzlies, who fell to 0-3 and further loosened their once-gridlocked hold on the final playoff seed.
Long perceived to be a five-team fight for the right to face Memphis in the play-in game(s), the Grizzlies’ early struggles have now nearly opened both spots up. All the more interesting, the San Antonio Spurs have begun 2-1, alongside the Phoenix Suns’ 2-0 effort. Although invited without much media afterthought, both the Spurs and Suns – who boast two of the most reliable constants of the bunch, Gregg Popovich and Devin Booker, respectively – are within the four-game window needed to force a play-in too.
So then: Thanks to the Grizzlies’ scuffles, who’ll be the two franchises to reach that play-in showdown?
Let’s start with the Pelicans, a team that’ll be better the more Williamson is allowed on the floor, obviously. While that variable remains up in the air, New Orleans’ remaining schedule is not. They’ll finish with the Kings twice, plus winnable matchups against the Spurs, Wizards and Magic. Although that opening day loss versus Utah stings, there’s no shame in falling to the Clippers, so the opportunity is certainly still there for the Pelicans to reach Nos. 8 or 9 in the coming days.
The Spurs, following a hard-fought effort against Philadelphia on Monday, unfortunately, have a much harder path forward: Denver, Utah, New Orleans, Houston and Utah. No Magic, no Nets, no Kings, even. Just New Orleans and three teams currently fighting for ‘home court’ advantage in the first round. Of course, betting against Gregg Popovich is beyond stupid and that is a lesson some select few must re-learn every spring – but they still seem like the least likely of six to leapfrog into a spot.
Likewise, it isn’t much better for Phoenix. They’ll conclude with the Clippers, Indiana Pacers and T.J. Warren’s supernova act, Miami HEAT, Oklahoma City Thunder, Philadelphia 76ers and Dallas Mavericks. Thankfully, Mikal Bridges’ efforts in Orlando and Ricky Rubio’s trusty playmaking have served as great foils for Deandre Ayton and the aforementioned Booker. Overall, their offensive rating just cracks the top half (15th, 110.4) and their defense remains in the lower half – but stars win games and Booker fits the bill.
Even the Kings, losers to the Spurs and Magic to open their bubble campaign, get the Pelicans twice but also a downright bad Brooklyn Nets squad and a potentially-resting Los Angeles Lakers team in four of their final five games – so don’t count them out either. With their destiny firmly in hand, expect the Kings to make a run of their own. Fox put up 39 points against San Antonio before tallying just 13 versus Orlando – and, in the latter, Sacramento’s only scorer above 15 went to Harry Giles’ 23. Given the context and a very winnable schedule, the next week or so bodes well for the Kings’ hopes.
As for Portland, the squad with the most bankable 1-2 punch of the collection, have an impossibly-tough Rockets-Nuggets-Clippers-76ers run-in before ending with the Mavericks and Nets. Worse, that stretch of difficult opposition will come fast and furious – a classic three games in four days slog. But above all, their defense leaves too much to be desired, even with the return of Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins. Before the shutdown, Portland’s defense was only better than the Atlanta Hawks, Cleveland Cavaliers and Washington Wizards at 113.6 in the ratings department.
In the two games back, well, it’s actually been even worse and their putrid 132.0 defensive rating is a whopping 7 points behind the Kings’ 29th-rated unit. It’s early and the sample size is certainly small – but with only six games left, they’ll need to figure it out in the against some of the league’s best. Still, Damian Lillard is a big-moment killer – he did, after all, break up the Thunder core on his own last April – and he’s capable of hot streaks that few others are.
Lillard and Nurkic put up 30 points apiece against Boston – plus 17 from CJ McCollum and 21 notched by Gary Trent Jr. – and totaled 124 as a team… yet it still wasn’t enough. The heroics of Portland’s stars will be relentless, but if they can’t stop the opposition – they’ll come up short.
In the end, even guessing at Nos. 8 and 9 is a fool’s errand. The Bubble has provided shock after shock already – and the added hurdle of rested players for locked-in seeds are soon to come – but six teams will be whittled down to two before long. Despite the slow start, Memphis remains in the driver’s seat – if they can pick up a win on Wednesday versus a seriously-slumping Jazz side, it’ll go a long way toward clinching their place.
And they’d better hope so: If they don’t, they’ll need to hope for some load management with the Thunder, Raptors, Celtics and Bucks to end the mini-campaign. It’s one of the tougher schedules left in the Western Conference, but their cushion, no matter how rapidly it is shrinking, is still reason to believe they’ll limp into the do-or-die scenario.
As for the second spot, it still feels like the Pelicans’ to lose. Between Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball, JJ Redick, Brandon Ingram and, duh, Williamson, there’s too much firepower here to completely struggle through an easier-than-most schedule.
But, sure, bet against Gregg Popovich, Damian Lillard, De’Aaron Fox and Devin Booker at your own risk – conventional wisdom suggests that at least one of them will crash the party, no matter how unlikely it seems today.