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Conclusions From the Suns’ Hot Start

Following their best start in years, Phoneix has shown that they are no longer the NBA’s stomping grounds. Matt John examines what has gone into building the team and, arguably, made them the league’s most pleasant surprise.

Matt John

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Yes, pun very much intended.

Thursday night, the Phoenix Suns suffered their third loss of the season at the hands of the Miami HEAT. Miami, so far, has appeared to be one of the better teams in the league, so seeing them get in the win the desert isn’t too out of the ordinary.

The real shock is that this was the first time that Phoenix was outclassed all season.

Keeping it modest, the Suns were expected to be outclassed left and right when the season began. But, with the loss to Miami, they now stand at 5-3. At first glance, a start like that is encouraging, especially for a team like Phoenix that has dwelled in the NBA’s depths for the better part of 10 years.

But — and good news Suns fans — there’s more to it than that.

Before the HEAT loss, Phoenix’s other two losses came at the hands of the Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz, playoff teams a season ago and, in 2019-20, expected to once reside in the class of the Western Conference. Better yet, both games were decided by a single point, and on last-second shots, no less.

Even against Miami game, the Suns gave it their all for most of the game, which hasn’t exactly been the case for them in recent seasons.

Factoring that in, it’s not just that Phoenix has won more than most thought they would, but they’ve hung around with the best of the best this season.

It’s an odd wrinkle to the season, for sure, that absolutely no one saw coming. But, nevertheless, it’s a welcome sight. In a season that has had plenty of surprises, Phoenix’s best start in years may top them all. But what can we take away from that encouraging start? What should we? Let’s take a look.

Devin Booker and the “Good Stats/Bad Team” Label

Practically since he stepped on an NBA parquet, Devin Booker’s put up magnificent offensive numbers. In fact, following his rookie year, Booker may be the closest thing to a guaranteed bucket that we’ve seen.

In his now five NBA seasons, Booker has also taken massive strides as playmaker. In that time, he’s seen his assists per game jump from just 2.6 his rookie year to a strong 6.8 last season.

Yet, despite the offensive fireworks, Booker has generated little All-Star buzz. The reason has almost always been the same — Phoenix’s success, or lack thereof, combined with the boatload of talent that has made up the Western Conference.

Of course, an All-Star appearance isn’t the be-all-end-all for NBA players. But, unfortunately, the lack of buzz Booker has generated has made many question whether his numbers are truly elite or just empty calories, just an alright player stat-stuffing on an offensively inept roster.

Hopefully, at least thus far, those doubters have come to the conclusion that Booker is anything but. In eight games, Booker has put up his usual, dominant stat line — 25.6 points, 3.5 rebounds, 5 assists — but, with improvements made up-and-down the roster, has managed to do so more efficiently; Booker has shot the ball 52.9 percent from the floor and 50 percent from three-point range, both career highs.

Behind him, the Suns have started the season on a roll. But, if you’re still not convinced, just check his on-off numbers: Phoenix is plus-18.4 points per 100 possessions when Booker is on the floor.

It’s a small sample, sure, and Booker has a lot left to prove defensively. But, when he’s on the floor, the Suns are clearly a better team.

And, assuming their start isn’t just a big fluke, then there may be nothing stopping Booker from making his first All-Star appearance (or at least drumming up some consideration).

The Importance of the Right Personnel

It’s a shame that they’ve only now started to garner some attention, but Phoenix has sneakily made some great moves in recent seasons, and especially this last offseason.

Now, not to say their front office is perfect — they’ve been far from that. The number of moves or former players that one could attach “-fiasco” to is astonishing.

But Phoenix has gotten to where they are this season through some seriously competent additions. They acquired an undervalued asset from the Washington Wizards in Kelly Oubre Jr., an overpaid but productive Tyler Johnson from the HEAT, a buy-low candidate in Dario Saric prior to the 2019 draft.

And, of course, perhaps their most important acquisitions in the last five years, the installment of James Jones as the team’s general manager and Monty Williams their head coach.

The Oubre deal flew under the radar, in part, because of the failed three-way trade with Washington and the Memphis Grizzlies just days earlier. An energetic 3-and-D wing whose youth made him another potential asset on the same timeline as Booker, Oubre was acquired for a then 33-year-old Trevor Ariza, who wasn’t long for Phoenix anyway. The Suns gave Oubre a rich extension over the summer — a two-year, $30 million pact — and, so far, he’s proven worth every penny as he’s averaged 17.1 points and 5.5 rebounds on respectable shooting splits.

Johnson, to a much lesser extent, was another successful move. Grossly overpaid? You betcha. But, while they may have had to swallow the $19.2 million price tag, Johnson brought stability to the guard spot and, behind Booker and now Ricky Rubio, is an upgrade over what Phoenix had had there previously.

Many were confused when Phoneix traded the sixth overall pick for the 11th and Saric, but he has proven a strong option in the frontcourt as he’s averaged 8.9 points and 6.1 rebounds and posted a plus-6.1 in eight games. Saric can also add some much-needed floor spacing and playmaking, while he also is one of the few on the team with some postseason experience.

There have been plenty of other, solid additions: Rubio, Aron Baynes, Frank Kaminsky and others. While the general consensus wasn’t exactly positive, the team desperately needed a veteran like Rubio in the backcourt alongside Booker, while Baynes and Kaminsky have proven vital in the absence of Deandre Ayton, lost to suspension.

As a result of these moves, the Suns are more well-rounded than they’ve been in years. They’ll definitely need further reinforcements, but now they have a solid core around their star, Booker, a core that, clearly can compete night-in and night-out.

We Have Our First Coach of the Year Candidate

Even with the right roster in place, a good team still needs the right maestro to make it all work. And Monty Williams has proven the right man for the job in Phoenix.

For the longest time, Phoenix has had little to call home about; they’ve ranked near the bottom of every statistical category whether it be offensive or defensive rating, three-point percentage, total points, rebounds or assists. It was never pretty.

But, in his first year, Williams has done everything he can to turn that around. The Suns, thus far, are sixth in the NBA in net rating (5), while they have also shot the second-highest true-shooting percentage (58.2) and seventh-highest three-point percentage (37.3). They have averaged the second-most assists per game (27), while their 114.1 points per game is good for seventh in the NBA.

Of course, give credit where credit is due and applaud the players for the turnaround. But, much of that success should also be attributed to Williams, who has established a system that has worked wonders on the court and positive culture in the Suns’ locker room.

In fact, he’s done such a great job to this point, that it would be a shock if he wasn’t in the running for Coach of the Year in his first with the team. The season is still young, but if Phoneix can keep this up Williams could prove a shoo-in for the award.

This Might Not Be the Final Product

As it’s been stated before, Phoenix improved in many areas, but they’re not without their flaws. No team is.

With Ayton gone, they lack a major scoring threat to take the load off of Booker. And, as good as they’ve been, opponents should start to take advantage of that and dare the Suns’ lesser players to score. Even once Ayton’s back in the fold, another option behind him and Booker would only ease the burden on Phoneix’s young roster.

The Suns could also use more help on the defensive perimeter. As of now, they’re in the middle of the pack on that side of the ball. But, if they want to completely right the ship, they need to get even better.

That said, it’s impressive to see how far Phoenix has come, and even more exciting to think that they could even get better. Lucky for them, there should be plenty of players on the market that could help them and, with Johnson’s large salary, the Suns should have no trouble matching salaries.

Danillo Gallinari, Andre Iguodala and a number of other veterans on not-so-great teams could prove solid additions, depending on where the Suns find themselves later in the year.

Don’t get ahead of yourself: nobody is saying Phoenix is a title contender. The excitement may fade, and it may be all for naught if they miss the postseason.

But playing competitive, winning basketball is a huge step in the right direction. And, so far, the Suns have done little else than do just that. “The Phoenix Suns are back!” sure does have quite a nice ring to it.

Matt John is a staff writer for Basketball Insiders. He is currently a Utah resident, but a Massachusetts native.

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NBA Daily: What Should the Raptors Do at the Trade Deadline?

The Toronto Raptors are surging. Bobby Krivitsky examines whether they’ve been good enough to keep their current core intact or if they should take a different approach at the trade deadline.

Bobby Krivitsky

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After losing eight of their first 10 games to start the season, the Toronto Raptors have won 14 of their last 23 matchups, surging to fifth in the Eastern Conference.

The Raptors had to quickly recharge during a truncated offseason, get acclimated to a new setting and adjust to Aron Baynes and Chris Boucher stepping into the void left by the departures of Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka. Despite all of that, they’re scoring the 10th-most points per 100 possessions, are 13th in defensive rating and have the ninth-best net rating in the NBA.

Through Toronto’s ups and downs this season, they’ve been able to count on Fred VanVleet. After signing a four-year, $85 million contract to remain with the Raptors, the fifth-year guard from Wichita State has once again taken his game to a higher level. He’s averaging 20 points, 6.7 assists and 4.5 rebounds — all career-bests — and eighth in the NBA with 1.7 steals per contest. It’s discomforting to imagine where this team would be if he had left.

Then there’s Pascal Siakam, who’s finally shaken off a rough second-round series against the Boston Celtics last postseason and thawed from an icy start to his 2020-21 campaign. Siakam is averaging 20.1 points, 7.5 rebounds, 4.8 assists, and 1.2 steals per game. One of the main reasons for his turnaround has been Siakam’s growth as a facilitator: those 4.8 assists represent a career-best. And, with the Raptors shifting more towards small-ball, Siakam is thriving working off a screen from guards, spotting where the defense is vulnerable and taking advantage of it.

Another crucial component of Siakam’s improvement is him playing with more energy on the defensive end. Effort can only take a defender so far, but when that individual is 6-foot-9 with a 7-foot-3 wingspan and has the strength, quickness and intelligence to guard positions one-through-five for varying amounts of time, doing so can have a significant impact on the outcome of the game.

 

 

While Siakam’s production has more of an impact on the Raptors’ ceiling than any other player on the team, Kyle Lowry, alongside VanVleet, establishes Toronto’s floor. Lowry, who turns 35 in March, is averaging 18 points, 6.5 assists, 5.5 rebounds, and 1.2 steals per game this season. He remains the heart and soul of the team. That makes it even more impressive that, despite losing him to a thumb injury during a Feb. 16 matchup against the Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto went on to win that night and again two days later, stretching their winning streak to four games (including a victory over the Philadelphia 76ers).

One major change stemming from the Raptors playing small more often is Norman Powell entering the starting lineup. He’s started his last 17 games and is averaging a team-high 21.8 points, 3.8 rebounds and 1.4 steals. During that stretch, the sharpshooting Powell is also knocking down 44.4 percent of his 6.4 threes per game and shooting 51.2 percent from the floor. Toronto has won 10 of those 17 games.

Powell gives the Raptors more offensive firepower, allows them to play faster and, when they don’t have a traditional center on the floor, has made it easier for them to switch on defense. It’s an adjustment that’s worked so well for Toronto, even in Lowry’s absence, Baynes came off the bench while DeAndre’ Bembry joined the starting lineup.

So, with the Raptors finding their footing and the March 25 trade deadline inching closer, what’s Toronto’s best course of action? That decision revolves around their plan with Lowry.

Lowry, whose $30 million deal is set to expire after the season, is interested in playing at least two more seasons at a similar value, per Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer. Are the Raptors willing to meet those demands, paving the way for the franchise icon to spend the remainder of his career with them? Secondly, the Raptors aren’t a title contender right now, which could lead to the two sides working together to send Lowry to a team meeting that criteria by the trade deadline, which also happens to be his 35th birthday.

If it comes to that, Pompey listed the 76ers, Miami HEAT and Los Angeles Clippers as Lowry’s preferred destinations, noting the North Philadelphia native would like to return to his roots. For the Raptors to go through with trading the six-time All-Star, it would likely take multiple first-round picks and promising young players along with any contracts included for salary-matching purposes to be expiring after this season. 

Considering Toronto’s current place in the NBA’s hierarchy, if Lowry intends to leave for a title contender or the Raptors aren’t willing to meet his contractual demands, it’s clear what they should do at the deadline. Trading Lowry isn’t going to net Toronto the return necessary to vault them into the league’s top tier, but it would still figure to serve them better in the long term, even though the Raptors’ resurgence suggests if he’s still on the team after Mar. 25th, they’re once again going to be a difficult out in the playoffs, and they could go as far as the Eastern Conference Finals.

If they want to play the long game, it would also make sense for them to trade Powell, who has an $11.6 million player option he’s likely to decline in the offseason. Granted, he’ll be 28 next season, so it’s not as if re-signing him would be short-sighted.

There’s nothing wrong with preserving the possibility Lowry never dons another team’s jersey — and parting with a franchise icon is never easy. But trading Lowry may be the best bet for the franchise’s future, while it would neither change the fact that the team will someday retire his jersey, nor would it take away from his legacy. In fact, doing right by him and giving Lowry another opportunity to compete for a title may just be the best parting gift the Raptors could give him while also strengthening their own long-term outlook.

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NBA Daily: Don’t Forget About Romeo Langford

Once a top-five high school recruit, Romeo Langford has yet to make an impact in his brief NBA career.

Dylan Thayer

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As a highly-touted high school prospect, Romeo Langford found himself at the fifth spot in the 2018 ESPN Top 100. His play earned him a spot in the 2018 McDonald’s All-American Game among big-name recruits such as Zion Williamson, and after a very successful high school career, the five-star shooting guard decided to take his talents to Indiana over both Kansas and Vanderbilt. 

Langford’s time as an Indiana Hoosier was short-lived as he only spent one year with the team before declaring for the draft. He played in thirty-two games despite tearing a ligament in his thumb. His shooting percentages reflected this injury as he shot a meager 27.2 percent from three and 44.8 percent from the field, per Sports-Reference. Both of these percentages were not reflective of the electric, efficient scorer he was at New Albany High School. 

Selected with the No. 14 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft by the Boston Celtics, there was a lot to be excited about. For starters, the Celtics were able to draft a player just inside the lottery who many thought would be a top-five pick before the 2018-19 NCAA season. They were also able to get a resilient player that grinded through his injury and was still able to pace the BIG 10 in freshman scoring with 16.5 points per game. The potential with a healthy Langford is there, and that’s what led to him being a Boston Celtic.

During a 2019 interview with Boston.com, Celtics head coach Brad Stevens spoke highly of their rookie. 

“If they would have been more on the national radar, and he would have not hurt his thumb, he probably would have been even more discussed,” Stevens said at the Celtics practice facility. “He’s a guy we were all well aware of before his first game at IU.”

If it was not clear by this quote, big things were expected from the former Indiana Mr. Basketball. 

Unfortunately, his first season on the Celtics was not much of one to write home about. Across 32 games, he managed to average only 2.5 points with 1.3 rebounds in 11.6 minutes per game, often finding himself with Boston’s G League affiliate, the Maine Red Claws.

This should not be a big indicator of how things will end up for Langford though – as flourishing Charlotte Hornets star Terry Rozier was also an afterthought off the Celtics’ bench in his first season, even though many people saw his future potential. In a Feb. 7th matchup with the Atlanta Hawks, Langford made the most of a starting opportunity, dropping 16 points on 5-for-11 shooting, including 2-for-5 from three-point range, and 3 blocks. Later, he would then undergo season-ending surgery to repair the scapholunate ligament of his right wrist during the team’s playoff run in the bubble.

As the 2020-21 season heads towards the All-Star break, Langford has yet to suit up as he still is recovering from surgery. But according to a report by NESN, Langford should be healthy enough to return following the pause. 

This then leaves the question: where does Langford fit on the Celtics roster, if at all? Amidst a disappointing start to the season, many fans and people around the Celtics have begun to sound the alarm. When the owner even comes out to 98.5 The Sports Hub and acknowledges the fact that the young Eastern Conference finalists are not currently a contender, there should be plenty of reason to panic.

The Celtics’ troubles have been all over the place this season, but the one that seems to be the most glaring is the lack of explosive scoring outside of Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. There has been some great play off the bench by Payton Pritchard and Robert Williams, but players like Grant Williams, Jeff Teague and Semi Ojeleye have struggled to be consistent factors. 

As the Celtics continue to look for splashes in the trade market, there is a lot of uncertainty around Langford’s future as the team now seems to lack tradable assets outside of the core. 

Despite his long injury, Langford is still a much more desirable piece than Javonte Green or Grant Williams. Moving on from Jeff Teague may be a route that the Celtics opt to take as well because he has failed to make much of an impact off of the bench, and this would open up playing time to test out a 100 percent healthy Langford. 

Langford could bring a great burst of energy off the bench for the Celtics if healthy, and so exciting to see how he fits alongside the outstanding rookie point guard in Pritchard. With Langford on the second unit, it would open up the floor for Tatum as he would have another solid scorer to kick the ball out to. 

Could Langford end up being the guy that fixes the bench scoring problem for the Celtics? Only time will tell, but based on his high school and collegiate careers, he very well might be 𑁋 if he’s still on the team past the deadline.

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NBA Daily: Luke Walton’s Uncertain Future

Could this be it for Luke Walton in Sacramento? David Yapkowitz examines.

David Yapkowitz

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There’s one big question surrounding the Sacramento Kings this season: what, exactly, will become of head coach Luke Walton? Walton, in the second year of a four-year deal he signed back in 2019, has often headlined the group of coaches that are thought most likely to be let go next.

Brought in by the previous regime, Sacramento’s situation has changed considerably since they brought in Walton. Former general manager Vlade Divac has since stepped down and been replaced with Monte McNair. And, often, new management will look to build their team, coaching staff included, in their own mold — that’s nothing really against the current personnel, just that different voices sometimes have different visions and want to construct a team within that vision.

If the team plays well, the new management team may be inclined to ride it out with the current staff. In a somewhat recent example, when Masai Ujiri first took over in the Toronto Raptors front office, the Raptors started surging in the standings and Ujiri held on to Dwane Casey for a while before ultimately replacing him with Nick Nurse. Casey had been hired by former executive Bryan Colangelo.

The Kings are in an interesting scenario in that, despite being a perennial bottom-dweller, expectations have existed for the team for over a decade now, the main expectation being that they would eventually improve beyond that bottom-feeder status. Now, that expectation may be more warranted than ever, as Sacramento has some seriously talented pieces in place, including franchise cornerstone De’Aaron Fox and Rookie of the Year contender Tyrese Haliburton.

In fact, just a few weeks ago, the Kings looked like they might actually be turning things around. On a four-game win streak, with wins over the Los Angeles Clippers and Boston Celtics, they looked like a different team.

Since then, unfortunately, they’ve reverted to the Kings of old. Now, they’re on an eight-game losing streak, their first such skid since 2019.

There are plenty of good teams in the Western Conference and, because of that, at least a couple of them are going to be on the outside looking in come playoff time. Of course, it can be hard to fault teams that show consistent effort and improvement. But that just hasn’t been the Kings, for quite some time now.

The main area of concern for the Kings where they haven’t shown real improvement is on the defensive end. They were already among the bottom half of the league on that end before their most recent skid, while it’s been significantly worse during their last eight games.

It’s always a possibility to bring in a defensive-minded assistant to help with that end, much like Sacramento tried to do on offense this past offseason. To spark the team on that end of the court, the Kings added Alvin Gentry to Walton’s staff and for the most part, it’s worked out: Sacramento is 12th in the league in scoring, up from 22nd last season. They’re also shooting better from three-point range while playing at a quicker pace.

But in order to win in this league, you need to do it on both ends. And that’s something the Kings haven’t shown the ability to do.

Sacramento is allowing 119.6 points per game, dead last in the NBA. Their defensive rating of 118.7 is also last. And, at this point, simply adding an assistant might not do the trick; at this point, it might just be easier (and more effective) for management to simply cut ties with Walton and set up a new staff under a new head coach.

Walton’s popularity and potential as a head coach first piqued during the 2015-16 season with the Golden State Warriors. When he stepped in for Steve Kerr, who took leave from the team to recover from back surgery, Walton guided the team to a 24-0 start and a 39-4 record upon Kerr’s return. While the Warriors were in their second of what would be five-straight runs to the NBA Finals and had a strong foundation already in place, Walton’s involvement in the feat can’t be discounted, while it opened the league’s eyes as to his potential as a head coach.

But later, during Walton’s years as head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, the team showed slight, if minimal improvement each year at best. In fact, those Lakers were similar to these Kings in that they were a young team with no real experience just trying to get better. And, obviously, it’s much easier to look good when you already have an established unit.

Coaching in the NBA is a tough and often thankless job. When things go right, they get little credit. When they go wrong, the blame lies almost squarely on their head. As with players, sometimes a coaching situation just isn’t the right fit for either party; maybe this Kings’ roster just isn’t built to maximize Walton’s system.

That said, in this particular case, it would probably be best for the Kings to ride the current situation out. Sacramento has shown some improvement from last season and Walton deserves some credit for that. He’s shown constant faith and trust in his rookie, Haliburton, while he has Fox playing at a near All-Star level and Richaun Holmes looking like one of the NBA’s best in the painted area (and an absolute steal, given his contract).

Going forward, it’s worth rolling the dice and seeing if they can’t end this skid and get back to their strong play earlier in the year. Further, it might not be that great an idea to make such a radical structural change halfway through the season when your team might still have a realistic shot at the postseason.

That said, should the team continue to struggle, then it would be wise to revisit the matter in the offseason. If they do, it wouldn’t be much of a reach if McNair decides that two years is enough and that he wants to bring in a head coach of his own choosing.

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