We kicked off a new series here at Basketball Insiders this week. We’ll take a look at each team headed for the lottery and what they could do to improve next season. Spencer Davies started off with the Memphis Grizzlies, and the second installment are the Phoenix Suns.
Despite having the second-worst record in the NBA this season, the Suns do have reason to be optimistic about their future.
What Is Working
Despite having up and down success with the draft in recent years, the Suns appear to have found a few key guys that look like building blocks of the future. They ran into trouble a few summers ago when they tried to go all in on LaMarcus Aldridge and threw a huge contract at Tyson Chandler to try and make that happen.
Even if the Suns landed Aldridge, they still wouldn’t have been good enough to be taken seriously enough in the Western Conference. They were a team in the middle, not good enough to make any serious noise, but not bad enough to land a top lottery pick. They’ve since righted the ship and are firmly committed to a rebuild. Along the way, they’ve still managed to acquire solid young talent.
Devin Booker is a star in the making. Now in his third year in the league, he’s having a career season. His 25.1 points per game, 43.3 percent shooting from the field, 38.4 percent from downtown, 4.6 rebounds, and 4.8 assists are all career-highs. He’s got all the tools to become a franchise guy and multiple All-Star appearances definitely look to be in his future.
The Suns’ most recent pick, Josh Jackson, is also starting to turn heads. He’s already one of the best defensive players on the team, capable of guarding multiple positions. His offense is still a work in progress, but he’s shown encouraging signs, especially within the past several games. Just last week on Feb. 28, in a win over the Memphis Grizzlies, Jackson had a career-high 29 points.
They’ve also got guys like T.J. Warren, Marquese Chriss, and Elfrid Payton who all should be part of the Suns’ growing core moving forward. Depending on who they select with their upcoming lottery pick, they could be close to finalizing their core for the future.
What Needs To Change
The Suns could use a little bit more stability at the helm. They’ve had three different head coaches in the past five years, and there’s no guarantee that current interim Jay Triano will be back on the sidelines next season. One of the most important things a young, growing team needs is consistency and stability from the top. It doesn’t matter how talented a young group is, it won’t do them well to have a new head coach every couple of seasons.
Hopefully, whoever ends up as head coach next season brings in a strong defensive system as well. The Suns currently rank last in the league in opponent points per game, giving up 113.2 per contest. They’ve got guys on the team such as Jackson, Warren, Payton, and Chriss who have the potential to be strong defenders. They need a system to maximize their defensive abilities.
The Suns should also look to move some of their veterans on hefty contracts if they’re able to. Tyson Chandler still has another year left on his deal and could surely help a contending team in need of some additional muscle in the frontcourt. Brandon Knight, on the other hand, will be a bit more difficult to move. He’ll be coming off an ACL injury and, with the trade deadline arrival of Payton, he no longer appears to be the Suns point guard moving forward. He also has two more years left on his deal.
Focus Area: The Draft
Currently, the Suns have the second-best odds at landing the top overall pick in the 2018 draft. Even if they end up getting the second or third pick, that’s still okay as this is shaping up to be a top-heavy draft. Landing the first overall pick would be the ideal outcome here, and with just over one month left in the season, they can still pass the Memphis Grizzlies and increase their odds at drafting first.
Should they get the number one pick, DeAndre Ayton has to be their guy. When it comes to the draft, a general rule to follow is to always go with the best player available regardless of position. In Ayton’s case, he is both for Phoenix. He’s arguably the best player in the draft and he just so happens to play center, the Suns’ biggest area of need.
If they lose out on Ayton, however, Marvin Bagley III is not a bad consolation prize at all. Sure, he isn’t the big bruiser that Ayton is, but in a league that becoming less about position and more about overall skill and talent, a potential jack of all trades star like Bagley is equally valuable. Should the current standings hold, it’s likely the Suns walk away this summer with one of the two; not bad at all.
Focus Area: Free Agency
Free agency is where the Suns have struck out in recent years. A few years ago, they looked like a team that wasn’t sure what direction they wanted to take. Were they going to tear it all down and enter a rebuild, or were they going to sign capable veterans and try and remain competitive in the West? Now it appears that they’ve chosen the right path and have embraced the rebuild.
Probably the most important decision they’re going to have to make this summer when it comes to free agency is with Payton. He’s been brilliant since coming over from Orlando at the deadline. He’s put up 16.4 points on 47. 9 percent shooting, 8.0 rebounds, and 8.2 assists. In the nine games he’s played in Phoenix, he’s had two triple-doubles. He’s also set to hit restricted free agency.
The Suns are going to have decide if he is their point guard of the future, and if so, to ultimately pay him. His outside shooting is a little concerning, but overall, he’s got the qualities a lead guard should have.
They’ve got a few other smaller decisions to make, such as whether or not to bring back Tyler Ulis and Alan Williams, both of whom have non-guaranteed contracts. But other than that, it should be a quiet free agency for Phoenix. They shouldn’t be looking to add any major salary. If they do make any free agent moves, it should be to bring in younger guys with possibly untapped potential as they’ve done recently with Josh Gray and Shaquille Harrison. Or maybe add a couple veteran mentors on reasonable contracts like they did with Jared Dudley. Internal development is the way to go for Phoenix.
Despite multiple seasons of finishing in the lottery, the sun does appear to be rising in Phoenix. Nailing the draft and coming away with one of Ayton or Bagley would go a long way to bringing the Suns back to respectability. Prior to worrying about the draft and free agency, however, they need to lock down their next head coach. If they can accomplish all of this, don’t be surprised to see the Suns start to climb the West standings little by little in the years to come.
Fixing The Chicago Bulls
Spencer Davies says the Bulls have a long way to go, but they’re taking steps forward. In year one without the former face of the franchise, that’s about all they can ask for.
Next up on Basketball Insiders’ “fixing” series is a stop in the Windy City.
In spite of the criticisms over last summer’s Jimmy Butler trade with the Minnesota Timberwolves, it feels like the Chicago Bulls at least have a sense of direction. Many members of the media—including this one—expected them to finish dead last in the NBA, yet they have 23 wins, with seven other teams worse off.
Obviously, the goal for the organization this season was to establish an identity and see what they had with their new cornerstone pieces. To a good extent, there’s optimism regarding those players because of the potential they’ve shown.
There’s still a good chunk of the year left, but the Bulls are 12th in the Eastern Conference standings with 15 games to go.
What Is Working
If it weren’t for the spectacular seasons by Donovan Mitchell and Ben Simmons, Chicago stretch big man Lauri Markkanen might be the Rookie of the Year. Even with some second-half struggles, the entire body of work is impressive.
The 7-foot Finnish forward continues to stay aggressive with a high usage and great mentality in snatching up those boards. It’s normal for a first-year player to go through those ups and downs. Add in a back injury that’s been bothering him as of late and the slump make a little more sense. Markkanen has shown the skill and consistent effort that it takes to be a mainstay in this league.
Bobby Portis is another member of the frontcourt who’s made a noticeable impact off the Bulls’ bench. In his third year, you can see the confidence continue to grow as a versatile offensive threat with a ton of touches. He’s taken a responsibility upon himself to lead the second unit and the proof is in the pudding. According to Cleaning The Glass, the team is a net plus-11.5 per 100 possessions with him on the court.
Second-year swingman Denzel Valentine has filled the stat sheet in multiple games as one of the most unselfish players on the roster. David Nwaba’s role from the beginning was to be a defensive menace and he’s come through for the majority of the year. Even two-way contract rookie Antonio Blakeney has shown flashes as a volume scorer in stretches.
Recently, Chicago has given a couple of cast-offs opportunities to display their skills. In 10 games, Cameron Payne looks as comfortable as he has in quite some time coming off a major foot injury. Noah Vonleh has been an effective late addition playing next to Portis and filling in for Markkanen. Let’s not forget that these two were lottery picks and are still in their early 20s.
What Needs To Change
Looking at what Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine have done, it’s been a mixed bag. With that being said, there’s clearly untapped potential between the both of them.
Dunn proved in very little time that the narrative of him being a lost cause was far from the truth. Hoiberg’s trust in him to be Chicago’s floor general has gone a long way. He’s been in attack mode with the ball in his hands, has seen his outside game get better and has been bothersome with his length defensively. It hasn’t resulted in wins, but remember—it’s this group’s first season together.
As for LaVine, it’s difficult to judge where a player is using a 23-game sample size. Yes, it’s a good amount of playing time, but let’s not forget he’s coming off a devastating left ACL tear. His defense has been subpar, but the bounce seems to still be there. The jumper is on and off, but he hasn’t been bashful at all. Starting the year off fresh in 2018-19 will benefit him.
Speaking of next season, the goal for the front office of Gar Forman and John Paxson should be simple—get younger. Currently, Robin Lopez is the highest paid player on the Bulls and he’ll have one year left on his deal going into the summer. The same applies to Justin Holiday. These are two veterans who could contribute on teams ready to win now, and it would be logical to part ways considering the direction the franchise is going.
Focus Area: The Draft
Due to the Nikola Mirotic trade on February 1st, Chicago acquired a first-round draft pick from the New Orleans Pelicans. That gives them two chances to add to their young talent pool in the upcoming 2018 NBA Draft.
Typically you’d go with the best player available when you’re slotted in the top ten, but the Bulls should feel good about their backcourt and the power forward position. What they really are lacking are reliable shooters and perimeter defenders, as well as a player with a bulldog mentality.
Chicago doesn’t get to the free throw nearly enough and they don’t convert looks that they should. Considering a true wing is amiss, it’d be the ideal scenario for Michael Porter Jr. to fall right into their lap. The Missouri freshman just returned after missing basically the entire season with a back injury. He was a top name coming into the class because of his size and could be a steal with the eighth selection.
If Porter Jr. doesn’t make it to them, Miles Bridges would make for a heck of a consolation prize. Unlike Porter, he has a more muscular frame at 6-foot-7, 230 pounds that allows him to bully the opposition. There’s a relentless nature and fearlessness about him that will translate to the next level.
Using that Pelicans pick, the Bulls would be happy to see Duke sharpshooter Gary Trent Jr. fall to them in the early-to-mid 20s, but that seems more unlikely with Anthony Davis continuing to carry New Orleans to new heights. If they end up selecting towards to the back end of the first round, Arizona junior guard Allonzo Trier could end up being a good fit as well.
Focus Area: Free Agency
Entering the summer, Chicago doesn’t have too many decisions to make on the contract front.
The trade exception from the Butler deal expires on June 22nd. If it’s not used by then, the amount will be renounced if the team goes under the salary cap. The deadline to present Noah Vonleh and David Nwaba a qualifying offer is June 29th.
Everybody’s going to keep an eye on LaVine because of restricted free agency, but the Bulls have indicated they prefer him to be a part of their core. They’ll in all likelihood look to bring him back on a long-term contract. If he doesn’t approve of the terms, he can always choose to play on his qualifying offer and bet on himself.
Chicago has to decide whether or not to guarantee Paul Zipser’s $1.5 million salary for next season by July 18th. The extension deadline for Payne, Portis, and Grant is the day before the first day of the 2018 campaign and team option deadlines for Dunn and Markannen come on Halloween.
There probably won’t be too much activity on the Bulls’ part regarding free agency. The focus will lay on improving their young core and getting guys who are just getting on the upswing in the pros. There are talents out there who fit the bill. It just all depends on what comes from the draft.
All in all, Chicago has a long way to go to get back into the postseason conversation, but they’re taking steps forward. In year one without the former face of the franchise, that’s about all you can ask for.
NBA Daily: 76ers’ Ben Simmons Enters Rarefied Air
Philadelphia 76ers guard Ben Simmons passed Magic Johnson for second in rookie triple-doubles.
As the Philadelphia 76ers continued their playoff push with a come-from-behind victory over the woebegone New York Knicks Thursday, rookie Ben Simmons joined some NBA legends in the record book. With his eighth triple-double of the season, Simmons passed Magic Johnson for second all-time in triple-doubles among rookies. According to ESPN’s Ian Begley, Simmons is only the third rookie to record 1000 points, 500 rebounds, and 500 assists.
After the win over the Knicks, Simmons told reporters that the process for him has been to disregard the expectations thrust upon him as a scorer and focus on his ability to contribute in a variety of ways.
“I try not to get carried away with what people say,” said Simmons. “People want me to be a scorer or a player that I’m not right now. I can score the ball, but I can also rebound and pass the ball. I’d rather do that and do what I’m pretty good at than force things.”
Simmons was clearly aware of the gravity of what he had accomplished in the postgame locker room. He spoke with reverence of the legendary players his name will always be associated with, including Oscar Robertson, whose record of 26 triple-doubles as a rookie may never be challenged.
“It’s surreal knowing the game’s been played for a long time,” said Simmons. “So many greats have been through. I’ve set a record with Magic and Oscar Robertson, which is surreal to me.”
Before the game, Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek described how Simmons’ combination of size, speed, and court vision make him especially difficult to guard.
“He’s got the speed, he’s got those long strides and he’s got the vision as a passer to pick you apart,” said Hornacek. “You’ve got to kind of collapse and kind of create a wall to not let him get in [the paint], but then he goes ahead and throws it out to the shooters that they have on his team.”
Begley also quoted 76ers coach Brett Brown during the pregame discussing how Simmons’ assignment to the point guard position was debated within the organization.
“I’m so pleased that the organization, he, the coaching staff, had the courage to try him as a point guard,” said Brown. “Because, let’s face it, that was highly scrutinized.”
It seems it was the right decision, as Simmons’ 507 assists easily leads all rookies. Lakers point guard Lonzo Ball is second with 325 while Dallas’ Dennis Smith follows with 289, De’Aaron Fox of the Kings has 262 and fellow Rookie of the Year candidate Donovan Mitchell of the Jazz has 236. Simmons leads the 76ers with 7.7 assists per game and is third in scoring with 16.2 points, trailing leading scorer Joel Embiid (23.6) and veteran shooting guard J.J. Redick (16.6). His 7.8 rebounds per game trails only Embiid (10.9) for the team lead.
The 76ers are currently sixth in the Eastern Conference, but could easily move up with only three of its final 15 games coming against teams in playoff position. Philadelphia trails the third-seed Pacers by a mere two games, so home court advantage in the first round is definitely in play. Meanwhile, Simmons said at a practice over the weekend that he hasn’t experienced a rookie wall.
“I don’t think there’s a wall,” said Simmons. “I wake up every morning and I love what I do. You’re going to have great games and you’re going to have some bad games, but that just comes with it.”
With history notched into his belt and no signs of slowing with the playoffs looming, Simmons’ All-Star snub could look even more ridiculous as time passes. Magic posted an eerily-similar 18 points, 7.3 assists and 7.7 rebounds per game as a Lakers rookie. He was an All-Star starter and became the first rookie to be named NBA Finals MVP.
Fixing the New York Knicks
How can the Knicks build a contender around Kristaps Porzingis?
The City That Never Sleeps. The Big Apple. The World’s Most Famous Arena. All home to the New York Knickerbockers.
When the Knicks are competitive, the basketball world is better for it. The NBA thrives when the Mecca is packed night in and night out. However, that’s not the reality of this rendition of the Knicks.
Sitting at 24-44, the Knicks are without their best player for the rest of the season, and are plummeting down the standings. On the bright side, with a star player already in-hand, a home run in June’s draft could move past the Knicks’ misfortunes into the next era of competitive New York basketball.
So, without further ado, let’s fix the New York Knicks.
What is Working?
To reach the point the Knicks have this season, it means not much of what they planned coming into this campaign is working. Granted, New York didn’t account for a season-ending injury to Kristaps Porzingis.
In a season that’s over before it’s actually over, the most important thing for that particular club is evaluating what they have for the next season. In that regard, certain players for the Knicks are helping their case as being fixtures for the future in New York.
After signing Trey Burke from the G-League, the former lottery pick is proving himself more than capable of contributing quality NBA minutes off of the bench. In-season finds and rediscovering talent like Burke is a positive note for new Knicks brass Steve Mills and Scott Perry can hang their hat on during an otherwise disappointing season.
Along with Burke, the development of last year’s lottery pick Frank Ntilikina is crucial. Ntilikina’s season has had its ups and downs, as most teenagers experience in their first go around with an NBA year. But the Frenchman currently leads his team in steals and has shown flashes of being a future elite wing defender in this league.
Jeff Hornacek, despite not having a full arsenal of talent at his disposal, is still taking this season to implement his system. Predicated on winning the rebounding battle and moving the basketball, two of the lone categories the Knicks actually rank in the top half of the league, Hornacek’s style of play should become more effective upon Porzingis’ return (much like their early season success).
It’s been a rough year in New York, but take away the franchise player from almost any team in the NBA and the results would surely be disappointing. Not all hope is lost for the Knicks.
What Needs to Change?
The Knicks need to evolve with the rest of the NBA.
Simply, they take too many two-point jumpers. That’s not where the rest of the league is trending. Today’s game is based on the three ball, and simple math proves three points beats two points every time.
A lot of that comes down to personnel. The Knicks only have three players who attempt three shots from deep a game — Porzingis, Courtney Lee, and Tim Hardaway Jr. Porzingis is effective when he’s on the court, Lee shoots 41 percent from downtown, but Hardaway Jr. shoots below the league average at 31 percent.
While the Knicks aren’t built right now as a team who can fire away from beyond the arc, they need to address that the best they can moving forward, or risk getting left behind in the rapid change of the game.
Equally, learning to take care of possessions needs to be a point of emphasis for New York as well. In fouls and turnovers, the Knicks rank 20th and 22nd in the league, respectively. For a team that doesn’t possess the firepower that many of the teams around the league do, making the most of their chances is going to go a long way.
Focus Area: The Draft
Thanks to Phil Jackson, the Knicks already have their franchise player in Porzingis.
And because of Porzingis’ injury this year, the Knicks have another chance in the draft lottery to add a big piece next to their star.
Ntilikina has shown signs of growth this season, but there’s no indication thus far that he’s a star caliber player capable of being Porzingis’ second option. If the season ended today, the Knicks would be picking ninth in the draft (barring some lottery magic). But New York is just two games out of jumping into the top-seven and having a chance at nabbing one of the projected elite talents in the draft.
Because of the Knicks’ situation of having just one star player, they aren’t in a position to be drafting for fit. Their game plan heading into the draft process is to identify the best talent available for where they will be drafting, and take that player regardless of position.
In other words, despite drafting a point guard last year in Ntilikina, should a talent like Trae Young or Collin Sexton be available when the Knicks are on the clock, they should take a long, hard look at selecting a player of that caliber.
To take the Knicks to the next level, Porzingis needs star caliber help. New York’s next best chance at getting their unicorn that player is in June’s draft.
Focus Area: Free Agency
The biggest elephant in the room this summer comes in the shape of Joakim Noah’s contract.
On the hook for $18,530,000 next season, the Knicks need to figure out how to shed the big man’s even bigger cap hit.
Back in January, the team and Noah came to an agreement that he would no longer be involved with the club in any basketball-related activities. While that’s a plus for the on-court production, Noah’s still collecting a paycheck. If the Knicks want to have cap flexibility to make productive moves when it comes to filling out the rest of their roster for the future, addressing Noah is the first priority in doing so.
After Noah, the Knicks have a few boisterous contracts that don’t allow them much maneuverability come summertime. Lee is on the hook for over $12 million, and Hardaway Jr. is going to cost over $17 million. While Lee has been productive this season, he’s 32 years old, and that type of price at that age isn’t ideal for a team that’s rebuilding.
Shedding some of the bigger cap hits with an eye on future summers to use the New York draw as a pitch to free agents may be a crucial decision Knicks’ brass will have to make if they want to field a more talented roster around Porzingis, Ntilikina, and whichever college star they come away with in June’s draft.
While this season is a wash for the Knicks, they have a star player already on their roster, which is more than a lot of teams in a similar position can say. That alone could help speed up their rebuild should they execute the other areas they need to effectively.