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Fixing The Phoenix Suns

David Yapkowitz breaks down the path forward for the Suns this offseason and into the future.

David Yapkowitz

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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.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Three-Point Champion is Just a Regular Joe

Joe Harris had his league-wide coming out at All-Star weekend when he shocked fans across the globe in upsetting three-point shootout favorite-Steph Curry.

Drew Maresca

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Joe Harris’ fortunes and those of the Brooklyn Nets appear to be traveling on the same trajectory. Harris’ personality and approach embody the softer side of the Brooklyn Nets’ team persona: he is loyal, hardworking and humble. And while Jared Dudley and DeMarre Carroll provide veteran leadership and Spencer Dinwiddie and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson offer personality, Harris provides a grounded approachability.

No one would blame him, though, if he develops a small ego. After all, Harris just received his formal introduction to the world, having won the NBA’s three-point championship last weekend in Charlotte, North Carolina. It’s hard to deny that his star is rising.

And yet, Harris seems unaware that his status is rising.

“To be honest, I am solid in my role. That’s what I’m about,” Harris told Basketball Insiders before the Nets’ January 25 game against the Knicks. “I’m pretty realistic with where I view myself as a player. And I have the self-awareness to realize that I’m not a star player in this league by any means. I mean, I’m good in my role and I’m trying to take that to another level and be as complete as I can in my niche role that I have.”

While Harris’ comments could be misinterpreted as a humble brag, they shouldn’t be. He is simply a hard-working player who perhaps doesn’t quite realize everything he adds to his team. But let’s be clear, Harris’ presence absolutely improves the Nets’ play.

Harris boasts the second-best three-point percentage in the NBA (.471) through the first four months of the season; he trails only Victor Olapido and J.J. Reddick for top three-point percentage of all 48 players who have at least 10 “clutch” attempts from long-range and he’s ranked tenth in points per clutch possession (1.379).

He helps space the floor for teammates D’Angelo Russell and Spencer Dinwiddie, who take advantage of his long-range acumen by attacking an often less congested pathway to the hoop — and drives account for 53.4 percent of the Nets’ points (third in the entire league).

It is no surprise then that the Nets are currently in sixth place in the Eastern Conference.

“At the end of the day we’re just trying to go play good basketball.” Harris said. “The wins are a byproduct of that. It’s about staying locked into this process and how it’s gotten us here regardless of who is on the court.”

Harris’ dedication to the team and its process is becoming more unique each year as players hop from franchise to franchise more frequently than ever before. While Harris only joined the Nets in 2016, he was immediately seen as a key player by the Nets’ leadership, albeit one on a minimum deal – according to Kyle Wagner of the Daily News, Coach Kenny Atkinson saw a lot of Kyler Korver in his game and GM Sean Marks wanted him to study Danny Green.

And while Harris’ 2018-19 stats reflect similar production to the career highs of both of Korver and Green (13.2 points per game with an effective field goal percentage of .622 for Harris versus 14.4 points with an eFG% of .518 for Korver and 11.7 points with an eFG% of .566 for Green), at only 27 years old, he should only continue to improve.

A lot has changed in the two and a half seasons since Harris signed a free agent deal with the Nets, but one thing that hasn’t changed is his character.

“We had various deals that were shorter for more (money),” Harris said. “And some were longer and roughly the same, but this is where I wanted to be and I’m happy it ended up working out.”

Harris ultimately signed a two-year deal for approximately $16 million, which can be viewed as both cashing in, given where he was only two years ago (out of the league), and betting on himself, considering the short-term nature of the contract and his relative youth.

And what’s more, Harris will probably go down as a value signing for the Nets considering his versatility. After all, he is not merely a one-dimensional shooter. In fact, he is actually shooting slightly better than 60 percent on 3.2 attempts per game from the restricted area – which is better than All-Star teammate D’Angelo Russell (53 percent on 2.8 attempts). Further, Harris shoots a fair amount of his three-point attempts above the break, which is to say that he does not rely heavily on the shorter corner threes – which tend to be a more efficient means of scoring (1.16 vs. 1.05 points per possession league-wide from 1998-2018) as they are typically a spot where specialist players lurk awaiting an opening look.

The question is, how much more can we expect to see from Harris in the future? If you ask him, he’d probably undersell you on his ceiling and allude to steady progress that ultimately looks similar to what he’s done recently. But the only thing similar about Harris’ career production is that it has steadily improved – and that’s partially due to his process-oriented approach.

“We talked about it in the midst of the losing streak,” Harris said. “What are you going to change, what are you going to do (when you’re in a slump)? Not that we were going to do the exact same thing, but we felt like we were very process oriented. We felt like we were right there. Our whole thing was about being deliberate and doing it as consistently as possible.”

Harris sees the validity in repeating what works. And he’s figured that out, partially with the help of his teammates. Harris clearly values veteran input and team chemistry.

“You look at our team right now and we have really good veteran presences with Jared and DeMarre and Ed (Davis),” Harris said. “That’s the voice from the leadership standpoint. I’m learning from them just like DLo is. And all the other guys in the locker room are. They’re the guiding presence of what it is to be a professional and they keep everything even keel. They don’t go too low when things are tough, and they don’t let us get too high when things are going well.”

Harris is clearly a little uncomfortable taking credit for his team’s success, and he shies away from the spotlight a bit. He seems to prefer anonymity. But Harris should probably get used to the attention he’s received this season because it will only increase as his profile continues to rise as we enter the 2019 NBA Playoffs.

“He’s not just a shooter,” Atkinson told NBA.com last April. “He’s worked on his drive game, he’s worked on his finishing game. I think he’s worked on his defense. So just a complete player who fits how we want to play. He’s one of our most competitive players. Not a surprise watching, from the first day we had him, how locked in he was, how hungry he was. On top of it, he’s a top, top-ranked human being.”

So expect to see more of Joe Harris this April and beyond, but don’t be surprised by his humility. It’s one aspect about him that won’t change.

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NBA Daily: Danuel House Optimistic About Future

David Yapkowitz speaks to Danuel House about life as a two-way player for the Houston Rockets & what he hopes comes out of his time in the G League with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.

David Yapkowitz

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Opportunity is everything in the NBA. Last season’s implementation of two-way contracts gave a lot more players potential opportunities in the league that may not have been previously available.

One player who has used two-way contracts to showcase himself and really prove that he belongs in the NBA is Danuel House Jr.

House actually began his career two years ago as an undrafted rookie with the Washington Wizards. However, he suffered a wrist injury only about a month into the 2016-17 season.

He was subsequently cut by the Wizards and used the summer to heal up before joining the Houston Rockets for training camp prior to the start of last season. He ended up being one of the final cuts in camp, and he joined the Rockets’ G League affiliate, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.

His strong play earned him a two-way contract with the Phoenix Suns after only two months of G League play. This year, he rejoined the Vipers, only to earn another two-way contract with the Rockets. Having had some experience now with a two-way, it’s something that House sees as being beneficial.

“It’s got its good perks and its bad perks. But then the NBA is just trying to open more doors for more guys to be seen and have an opportunity,” House told Basketball Insiders. “I think it’s a good idea, it’s gonna work the kinks out so it can be more beneficial to the players. It’s still new and it’s still trending and working itself through the NBA.”

This season has been a bit of a whirlwind for House. He initially joined the Golden State Warriors for training camp, only to have them cut him before the start of the season. After spending about a month with the Vipers, the Rockets called him up, only to cut him and then eventually re-sign him to a two-way deal.

Due to injuries in the Rockets lineup, House saw meaningful minutes right away, even being placed in Houston’s starting lineup. He had some solid performances down the stretch of last season with the Suns, but this season he really looked the part of a legitimate NBA rotation player.

When a player signs a two-way deal, they are allotted a maximum of 45 days of NBA service, meaning that the rest of the time they must remain in the G League. If a player exceeds the 45-day limit, they must be sent back down to the G League unless they’re able to reach an agreement on a standard contract with the NBA team.

Because of the Rockets’ necessity of House in the rotation, he used up his NBA days last month. He and the Rockets were unable to agree on a contract, so he returned to the G League with the Vipers. While there haven’t been many updates as of late, he’s still hopeful that something can work out with the Rockets.

“Hopefully I can go back to Houston and compete for a title. There’s nothing like learning from James [Harden] and Chris Paul, Gerald Green, Eric Gordon and those guys,” House told Basketball Insiders. “And now with the additions of [Iman] Shumpert and Kenneth Faried, I’m just excited to hopefully get something done so I can be out there and competing with those guys.”

Initially, House wasn’t playing with the Vipers upon returning to the team. But he made his return to the court a few weeks ago on Feb 8. In that game, House shook off some initial rust and ended up having a solid performance including hitting the game-winning free-throws.

In the past, the G League was often times seen as a punishment for NBA players. The league didn’t have that great of a reputation, but over the past few years that image has started to change. The competition has gotten a lot stronger, and according to House, there are plenty of guys who are that close to making it to the NBA.

“The competition here is real. There’s a lot of dudes out here that got a lot of talent that they can showcase. They just want their one opportunity, their one chance that I was so fortunate and blessed with,” House told Basketball Insiders. “I know not to come out here and take it for granted, that’s why I’m playing hard and of course still trying to be a student of the game and learn.”

Recently, during a media availability session, Rockets star and perennial MVP candidate James Harden expressed hope that the Rockets and House could work something out. Harden told reporters that they all know how good House is and what he brings to the team.

In 25 games for the Rockets this season – including 12 starts – House put up nine points per game while shooting 45.8 percent from the field and 39 percent from the three-point line. He’s in the mold of a three-and-D type player, but he also moves well without the ball on cuts to the rim and can attack the basket as well.

“My role was to play defense and make the right read,” House told Basketball Insiders. “Shoot when I’m open, drive, attack the rack, and run the floor. Of course, defend and rebound and make good reads. It was easy.”

As it stands, the Rockets have 12 players on their roster, and a pair of two-way deals for House and Vincent Edwards. House is not eligible to rejoin the Rockets until the G League season concludes. Even then, he won’t be eligible to play in the playoffs as per two-way deal restrictions.

The Rockets will need to add at least two players to get up to the league-mandated 14 players on the roster. House would appear to be a good candidate for one of those spots, but that remains to be seen. But regardless of whether or not it works out in Houston, House is confident that he’s done enough to prove he belongs in the NBA.

“It gave me the utmost confidence, but my hard work, my passion, and my faith in the man upstairs gave me the ability. I asked him to guide me through the journey and he’s been taking care of me,” House told Basketball Insiders. “I’m so grateful that the opportunities and I used my ability to perform and do something I love to take care of my family.”

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Insiders Podcast

PODCAST: Checking In On Clippers & Lakers, East Arms Race, Warriors’ Challengers

Basketball Insiders Deputy Editor Jesse Blancarte and Writer James Blancarte evaluate the L.A. teams after the trade deadline, break down the Eastern Conference contenders, and look for the Warriors’ biggest challengers.

Basketball Insiders

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Basketball Insiders Deputy Editor Jesse Blancarte and Writer James Blancarte evaluate the L.A. teams after the trade deadline, break down the Eastern Conference contenders, and look for the Warriors’ biggest challengers.

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