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Fixing the Phoenix Suns

Eric Saar evaluates the Phoenix Suns and breaks down what it would take to turn the franchise around.

Eric Saar



The 2015-16 Phoenix Suns season was marked by turmoil, injuries and one bright spot – Devin Booker.

The offseason started it all as Phoenix was “very close” to signing marquee free agent LaMarcus Aldridge according to his conversation with Arizona Republic’s Paul Coro. Aldridge went on to say, “It came down, neck and neck, between Phoenix and San Antonio. It wasn’t overplayed. That was accurate.”

Two factors came into play that made it a close decision between the Spurs and Suns, who after a disappointing season have missed the playoffs six seasons in a row. These factors included adding Earl Watson, who had a strong connection with Aldridge, and the surprising signing of Tyson Chandler for four years, $52 million. The signing was huge for Aldridge as he let it be known that he wanted to play with a true center like Chandler.

Unfortunately, in their attempt to facilitate the potential acquisition of Aldridge, management had to ship out Marcus Morris, Danny Granger and Reggie Bullock for a second round pick. This upset the Morris brothers to no end. They felt disrespected and until Markieff Morris was dealt to the Washington Wizards at the trade deadline, a dense fog hung over the team.

The season started out pretty great as the Suns were 7-5 by November 20th. Then things went downhill. Phoenix was 11-14 on December 13th, then they went on to go 2-17, falling to 13-31 by January 21st. During that stretch, Eric Bledsoe went down with another season-ending injury, management fired Jeff Hornacek’s two main assistant coaches, Jerry Sichting and Mike Longabardi, and then they lost T.J. Warren to a season-ending injury. Then at the beginning of February, seeing the season was lost, they fired Hornacek and promoted Earl Watson to interim head coach.

From then on, the season was all about development. It certainly wasn’t about the playoffs as the Suns finished with a 23-59 record, the fourth-worst in the league only behind the Philadelphia 76ers, Los Angeles Lakers and the Brooklyn Nets.

Fortunately, there was a bright spot in Phoenix – and his name is Devin Booker. The 19-year-old was given a large role with Bledsoe and Warren injured, Morris traded, and Brandon Knight in and out of the lineup. Booker finished as the seventh-highest scoring teenage rookie ever and he would have finished much higher if he had played more in the first few months of the season.

To eventually get back to the playoffs, the Suns need to build the right way, assimilate talent that specifically fits together, develop continuity and chemistry and establish a sustainable culture of winning. It will take the right free agents and the right coach, a pursuit which could be hampered by the recent perception – and reality – of dysfunction regarding player and management relations in Phoenix.


Hire the Right Coach

The Suns have a core of young talent that requires a tough, but personable coach that can create a culture of accountability and trust with his players. The Suns need a coach who understands the player development side and can put his young players in a position to succeed and develop. They also need to instill a culture of accountability and professionalism, especially after the Morris situation splintered the locker room this past season.

Interim head coach Earl Watson certainly has the trust and respect of his roster, who have voiced that they want him back on a permanent basis. The question with him is rotations and creativity on offense.

Phoenix should be a somewhat coveted coaching destination since they have some good, young players so it’s possible they could nab one of the bigger names being floated for current coaching vacancies. However, there will be stiff competition from teams like the Wizards and Timberwolves, among others. Tom Thibodeau would be a good acquisition, and would elevate the defense, but he’s probably looking to turn a fringe playoff team into a contender not a lottery team into a fringe playoff team. Scott Brooks is also a trendy coaching name and, like Watson, seems like a player’s coach, but may be in the same boat as Thibodeau in terms of what situation he’s looking for. Even Jay Wright, coming off a national championship at Villanova, has been linked to the Suns’ job.

The most important part of hiring a coach this offseason is finding someone that can create some synergy with his players and a culture of professionalism and accountability.

Utilize Cap Space Wisely

The Suns have gotten a couple meetings with marquee free agents (most recently Aldridge), but haven’t locked up a superstar recently. That trend may continue in the wake of the dysfunction seen in the Goran Dragic/Isaiah Thomas dilemma as well as the Markieff Morris/Marcus Morris debacle. With that said, you still have to make your pitch to Kevin Durant and other elite free agents, but keep in mind, the Suns will probably end up with a second or third-tier free agent.

Phoenix’s young core features Eric Bledsoe (26), Devin Booker (19), T.J. Warren (22), Alex Len (22) and Brandon Knight (24). Knight is talented, but it seems that Booker will be a better fit alongside Bledsoe in the starting backcourt (though in exit interviews, Knight said he doesn’t envision a change in his role). Booker (6’6) is taller than Knight (6’3), which is important on the defensive side playing alongside Bledsoe (6’1). Booker also seems to play better off the ball, while Knight is best with the ball in his hands, so it may be ideal to move Knight to the second unit. If he can accept the demotion, Knight would be a great sixth man off the bench, sparking the second unit as a starting quality point guard.

The Suns will have one max slot open to pay one of the mid-tier free agents this offseason. Whoever they acquire could easily be perceived as overpaid with the lack of elite free agents and so much money ready to be spent across the league. They’ll likely pick up P.J. Tucker’s partially-guaranteed $5.3 million and should re-sign stretch-four Mirza Teletovic (cap hold of $6.6 million) as he holds the record for most threes in a season off the bench in NBA history.

They could re-sign Jon Leuer if they aren’t able to upgrade via the draft or free agency, but that starting power forward spot is the position they need to target this offseason. Some players they could target are Ryan Anderson, Chandler Parsons (as a small-ball four) and Terrence Jones. They should also try and bring a player like Jared Dudley back into the fold. He’s a good three-point shooter, can play the three or the four and has a high basketball IQ. They also need to decide what to do with Archie Goodwin as well since they may bring in Bogdan Bogdanovic from overseas.

Also, there is the lingering issue of what to do with Tyson Chandler. While Chandler has had flashes of his former self, he certainly hasn’t lived up to the hype of his signing. However, he has been a good mentor to Alex Len and the rest of the team and to some extent he has served his purpose as a locker room leader. However, he is still a solid backup to Len, so unless a specific opportunity arises, there is no urgency to move him.

Nail the Draft

Regardless of who they end up getting in free agency, nailing the draft is crucial to rebuilding a team. The Suns have three picks in the first round this summer and where exactly they draft will not be decided until the draft lottery in May.

The Suns have the fourth-best lottery odds (11.9 percent at the number one pick) with their own pick and the Wizards’ pick is 13th (0.6 percent). They are also owed a first-rounder by the Cleveland Cavaliers that will be the 28th selection. The Suns have managed to land some nice pieces in recent drafts, so it’s fair to imagine them finding some nice young talent this year as well. If they manage to do so, they will solidify what is already one of the best collections of young talent in the league, which could quickly change the perception of this team.


This offseason could be a big turning point for the Suns. However, there are a lot of ways this offseason could go, especially considering how many draft picks Phoenix has, how much spending power teams will have and the lack of talent to meet market demand in this year’s free agent class.

In Phoenix’s dream scenario, a top-level free agent like Durant would agree to join the team. However, Durant will be heavily-courted by the entire league essentially, so it doesn’t make sense to get hung up on that scenario. But the Suns could still do well by adding some reasonably-priced free agents, adding some exciting talent through the draft and building a culture of professionalism and accountability through a well-qualified head coach.

Not too long ago the Suns were considered to be one of up-and-coming teams in the NBA. With a good coaching hire, some solid finds in free agency and a strong draft, Phoenix can become one of those teams again rather quickly. Needless to say, the next few months are going to be extremely important for Phoenix.


Based in Arizona, Eric Saar is an analyst for Basketball Insiders. He has covered the league for several years. He loves to converse about the NBA on Twitter, so follow him at @Eric_Saar. Eric graduated with honors from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.


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NBA Daily: Surging HEAT Must Overcome Adversity

The Miami HEAT have been hit with a number of injuries at shooting guard. Can they stay hot?

Buddy Grizzard



The Miami HEAT have surged to fourth in the Eastern Conference on the back of a 14-5 stretch since Dec. 9, including a seven-game win streak that ended with Monday’s 119-111 loss to the Bulls in Chicago. In the loss, shooting guard Tyler Johnson got his legs tangled with Robin Lopez and appeared to suffer a serious injury.

“I was scared,” said HEAT small forward Josh Richardson, who joined his teammates in racing down the court to check on Johnson. “You never want to see a guy, whether it’s on your team or the other team, down like that. I talked to him when he was in here [the locker room] and he said he didn’t know what was up.”

Coach Erik Spoelstra told pool reporters after the game that X-rays were negative. It was initially feared to be a knee injury, but Spoelstra said the knee is okay and the ankle is the area of concern. Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel tweeted that an MRI was not deemed necessary and Johnson will be listed as doubtful for Wednesday’s game in Milwaukee.

Meanwhile, the HEAT is facing a serious shortage at shooting guard, having lost Dion Waiters to season-ending knee surgery, Rodney McGruder to a left tibia stress fracture that will likely keep him out until February, and now Johnson. Miami has applied for a $5.5 million disabled player exception after losing Waiters, according to the Sun-Sentinel. HEAT power forward James Johnson said the team will be looking for other players to step up.

“I think it’s the next guy’s gonna step up like we always do,” said Johnson. “As we have guys going down we also have guys getting back and getting back in their groove [like] Justise Winslow. Hopefully, it’s going to give another guy a chance to emerge on this team or in this league.”

Johnson added that the loss to Chicago came against a hot team and the HEAT didn’t have the right mental approach or defensive communication to slow them down.

“Our communication was lacking tonight,” said Johnson. “I think our brains rested tonight and that’s not like us. Tilt your hat to Chicago. They’re shooting the hell out the ball. They didn’t let us come back.”

Richardson echoed the theme of communication and the inability to counter a hot-shooting team.

“We weren’t communicating very well and we were not giving them enough static on the three-point line,” said Richardson. “They’ve been the number one three-point shooting team in the league for like 20 games now. They ran some good actions that we were not reacting right to.”

Spoelstra referred to a turnover-riddled close to the first half as “disgusting” basketball and agreed that the defense let his team down.

“I don’t know what our record is in HEAT franchise history when we give up 120-plus,” said Spoelstra. “I would guess that it’s probably not pretty good.”

The good news for Miami is that it can try a combination of Richardson and Winslow at the wings, while Wayne Ellington has been shooting the leather off the ball from three this season (40.5 percent on over seven attempts per game). The HEAT is the latest team to attempt to defy history by making a serious run without a superstar player. To make that a reality and remain in the upper half of the East’s playoff bracket, Miami will have to personify the “next man up” credo.

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NBA Daily: Is It Time To Cash Out On Kemba Walker?

Should the Hornets get serious about trading Kemba Walker or risk losing him in 2019 for next to nothing?

Steve Kyler



Is It Time To Sell?

Every professional sports team at some point has to decide when its time to cash out, especially if they have a star player heading towards free agency. The Charlotte Hornets are a team teetering on this decision with star guard Kemba Walker.

Now, let’s be honest for a moment. The Hornets are getting nothing of meaningful value in a trade for Walker if they decided to put him on the trade market—that’s something that will drive part of the decision. Check out these UK sports books with free bets!

The other part of the decision is evaluating the marketplace. This is where Charlotte may have an advantage that’s easy to overlook, which is the ability to massively overpay.

Looking ahead to the cap situations for the NBA in the summer of 2019, there doesn’t appear to be a lot worth getting excited over. While it’s possible someone unexpected goes into cap clearing mode to get space, the teams that project to have space in 2019 also project to have space in 2018, meaning some of that 2019 money could get spent in July and change the landscape even more.

But for the sake of discussion, let’s assume most of the 2019 cap space teams swing and miss on anything meaningful this summer and have flexibility the following summer. Not only will Walker be a name to watch, but guys like Boston’s Kyrie Irving, Minnesota’s Jimmy Butler, Golden State’s Klay Thompson, Dallas’ Harrison Barnes, Detroit’s Tobias Harris, San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard and Cleveland’s Kevin Love can all hit unrestricted free agency.

That’s a pretty respectable free agent class.

While most of those names will likely stay where they are, especially if their teams shower them with full max contracts as most would expect, there are a few names that might make the market interesting.

The wrinkle in all of it is the teams projected to have space. Based on what’s guaranteed today, the top of the 2019 cap space board starts with the LA Clippers.

The Clippers currently have just Blake Griffin and Danilo Gallinari under contract going into 2019. They will have qualifying offers on Milos Teodosic and Sam Dekker, but that’s about it. If the Clippers play their cards right, they could be looking at what could be close to $48 million in usable cap space, making them the biggest threat to poach a player because of the LA marketplace. It should be noted, though, that DeAndre Jordan’s situation will have an impact here.

The Chicago Bulls come in second on the 2019 cap space list with just $35.77 million in cap commitments. The problem for the Bulls is they are going to have to start paying their young guys, most notably Zach LaVine. That’s won’t stop the Bulls from getting to cap space, it’s simply a variable the Bulls have to address this summer that could get expensive.

The Philadelphia 76ers could come in third on the 2019 cap space list, although it seems the 76ers may go all in this summer on re-signing guard J.J. Redick and a swing at a big fish or two. If the 76ers miss, they still have an extension for Ben Simmons to consider, but that shouldn’t impact the ability to get to meaningful space.

For the Hornets, those three situations have to be a little scary, as all of themff something Charlotte can’t offer – big markets and rosters (save maybe the Clippers) with potentially higher upside.

The next group of cap space markets might get to real salary cap room, but its more likely they spend this summer like say the Houston Rockets or are equal to less desirable situations like Sacramento (similar), Dallas (has Dennis Smith Jr), Atlanta (similar) or Phoenix (likely drafts a point guard).

That brings us back to the Hornets decision making process.

If the Hornets put Walker on the market, historically, teams get pennies on the dollar for high-level players headed to free agency. If traded, its more likely than not that Walker hits free agency and goes shopping. That’s the scary part of trading for an expiring contract unless you get the player early enough for him to grow attached to the situation, most players explore options. That tends to drive down the potential return.

The Hornets can also start extension discussions with Walker and his camp this summer and it seems more likely than not the Hornets will pay Walker the full max allowed under the collective bargaining agreement, which could be a deal north of $150 million and he could ink that in July.

It’s possible that someone offers the Hornets the moon for Walker. That has happened in the past. The Celtics gave the Cavaliers a pretty solid return for Irving, a player the Cavaliers had to trade. So it’s not out of the question real offers come in, especially with the NBA trade deadline approaching, but what’s far more likely is the Hornets wait out this season and try to extend Walker this summer.

League sources at the G-League Showcase last week, doubted that any traction could be had on Walker while admitting he’s a name to watch, despite however unlikely a trade seemed today.

The challenge for the Hornets isn’t as simple as cashing out of Walker, not just because the return will be low, but also because where would the franchise go from here?

It’s easy to say re-build through the draft, but glance around the NBA today – how many of those rebuild through the draft situations are yielding competitive teams? How many of them have been rebuilding for five years or more?

Rebuilding through the draft is a painfully slow and frustrating process that usually costs you a coach or two and typically a new front office. Rebuilding through the draft is time consuming and usually very expensive.

It’s easier to rebuild around a star already in place and the fact that Walker himself laughs off the notion of him being anywhere but Charlotte is at least a good sign and the Hornets have some time before they have to really make a decision.

At some point, Charlotte has to decide when to cash out. For the Hornets, the time to make that decision on Walker might be the February 8 trade deadline. It might also be July 1, when they’ll know whether Walker would sign a max contract extension.

If he won’t commit then, the Hornets have their answer and can use the summer to try an extract a package similar to what the Cavaliers got for Irving.

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Cavs Woes Reason For Concern, But Not Dismissal

Spencer Davies takes a look at the Cavs’ issues and why we shouldn’t count them out just yet.

Spencer Davies



The Cleveland Cavaliers are the classic case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

When they’re on, they look like the defending three-time Eastern Conference Champions. When they’re off, they look like an old team that’s worn down and, at times, disinterested—and it gets ugly.

Take this past three weeks for example. After going on a tear of 18 wins in 19 games, the Cavs have dropped eight of 11 and are falling fast. Two of those three victories in that stretch were decided by four points or less against bottom-of-the-barrel teams in the East.

So what happened? For one, the schedule got significantly tougher. Beyond just the level of competition, Cleveland has been on the road for a long while. Nine of the games in this recent down period have been away games. The only time they’ve been home was for a quick second in mid-December and a short stay for New Years.

You’ve got to think about how that affects a psyche, not only from an on-court standpoint but also in regard to spending time with loved ones and family. LeBron James brought attention to his own homesickness on Christmas Day while he was in the Bay Area instead of in Northeast Ohio to celebrate the holidays. If it gets to him, you know it’s got to get to the other players as well. These guys are human beings with lives, and the rigors of travel can wear differently on people. Luckily for them, seven of their next nine games will be at Quicken Loans Arena.

With that being said, everybody in the NBA goes through it, so it’s no excuse for how flat the Cavs have been. Anybody on the team will tell you that, too. However, when you’re figuring out rotations and re-implementing players who had injuries, it’s not easy. This is exactly why nobody should envy Tyronn Lue.

He’s being asked to make room in his rotations and adjust on the fly as Cleveland gets guys back. When they went on that month-long run, the reason they had success was that the second unit really clicked. Dwyane Wade found his niche as the maestro of the bench bunch along with any mixture of Kyle Korver, Jeff Green, Cedi Osman, Channing Frye, and Jae Crowder. Lue had found the perfect group to spell LeBron James and company.

But then, Tristan Thompson came back and, with all due respect, it messed with their flow. The spacing is no longer there for Wade or Green to penetrate because the paint is clogged. It makes it easier on opposing defenses to just stick to Korver because there aren’t any other threatening shooters on the floor (besides Osman, maybe). Worst of all, the change basically kicked Frye—who has a plus-14 net rating, according to Cleaning The Glass—out of the rotation completely.

Deciding who plays and when is a tough job. Derrick Rose is set to come back soon. Iman Shumpert is coming along as well. Lue likes a 10-man rotation, but there are at least 12 players who deserve to be on that court. We already know Rose is expected to commandeer the second unit in Wade’s absence on back-to-backs. As for if Shumpert remains in Cleveland, who knows? It’ll be interesting to keep an eye on how this situation is managed moving forward.

Isaiah Thomas, on the other hand, is somebody the Cavs have been waiting on to return since the season started. Despite LeBron being LeBron and Kevin Love having as great of an offensive year as he’s ever had on the team, the starting unit lacks an extra punch. Thomas can be that shot in the arm, and he proved that in his debut at home against Portland and on the road in Orlando. There are two snags that both he and the team are going to hit before the 29-year-old returns to his All-Star form: 1) He’s got to get his legs under him to regain the consistency in his game and 2) His teammates are going to have to adjust to playing with him.

These are not easy things to do. Remember, aside from Jae Crowder, there is nobody on Cleveland’s roster that has played with Thomas before. Add in that he’s trying to re-discover his own game and that makes for a pretty bumpy road, at least out of the gate.

Start here—put Thompson in the starting lineup. As poor of a fit he’s been on the bench, he has shown promising signs of a developing chemistry with Thomas. It’s only been four games, but he loves having a partner in the pick-and-roll game. That’s clearly where you’ll get the most production out of him and how he can thrive. He’ll provide hustle, second chance opportunities, and a semi-decent big that can at least bother some of the competition’s drives to the basket. Sliding Love over to the four might change his game a little bit, but you can still get him going in the post before giving him chances as a shooter to work him outside-in.

The resulting effect helps the second unit as well. They’ll get one of either J.R. Smith or Crowder, depending on who would be relegated there. Both of those guys can use a spark to get them going. Because of Crowder’s familiarity with Thomas, let’s say Smith gets kicked out. Maybe that gets him out of the funk he’s in? It also allows for Frye, who hasn’t seen more than 20 minutes in a game since December 4, to get re-acclimated to a group he truly helped on both ends of the floor earlier in the year.

Outside of the need to make a move at the deadline, the Cavs can figure this out. It’s understood that they’re the fourth-worst defensive team in the NBA, but they’ve gone through these kinds of ruts at this time of year, specifically since LeBron came back. There might not be statistical evidence backing up the claim of any improvement, but the track record speaks for itself.

The panic button is being hit, but pump the brakes a bit. This isn’t anything new. The pieces are a little different and things look as bad as they ever have, but in the end, the result will likely be the same.

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