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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

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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

NBA Daily: Pelicans Might Be Better Off Without DeMarcus Cousins

Without DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis has excelled. It might not be a coincidence.

Moke Hamilton

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Forget Kawhi Leonard, the most interesting storyline of this NBA summer is going to be DeMarcus Cousins.

By now, if you’ve wondered whether the New Orleans Pelicans would be better off without the talented big man, you’re certainly not alone.

Just ask the Portland Trail Blazers.

On Saturday, the Pelicans pulled off an improbable sweep of the third-seeded Blazers in the first round of their best-of-seven playoff series. And while the immediate question that comes to mind is what to make of the Blazers, a similar question can be (and should be) asked of the Pelicans.

Without question, Cousins is one of the most gifted big men the NBA has sen in quite some time, but it shouldn’t be lost on any of us that Anthony Davis began to put forth superhuman efforts when Cousins was absent.

Ever heard the saying that too many cooks spoil the brew?

That may be pricisely the case here.

Sure, having good players at your disposal is a problem that most head coach in the league would sign up for, but it takes a special type of player to willingly cede touches and shots in the name of the best interests of the team.

We once had a similar conversation about Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, mind you. Those that recognized that Westbrook’s ball dominance and inefficiency took opportunities away from Durant to be the best version of himself once believed that the Oklahoma City Thunder would have been wise to pitch Westbrook to New Orleans back when Chris Paul was still manning their perimeter.

For what it’s worth, with Cousins in the lineup, he averaged 18 shots per game. In the 48 games he played this season, the Pelicans were 27-21. With him in the lineup, Davis shot the ball 17.6 times per game and scored 26.5 points per contest.

In the 34 games the Pelicans played without Cousins, Davis’ shot attempts increased fairly significantly. He got 21.9 attempts per contest and similarly increased his scoring output to 30.2 points per game.

Aside from that, Cousins’ presence in the middle made it a tad more difficult for Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday to have the pace and space they need to be most effective. With both Davis and Cousins, the Pelicans struggled to consistently string together wins. Without Cousins, they improbably became the first team in the Western Conference to advance to the second round.

That Cousins tore his achilles tendon and is just a few months from becoming an unrestricted free agent combine to make him the most interesting man in the NBA.

* * * * * *

With Chris Paul having decided that the grass was probably greener with James Harden and Mike D’Antoni than it was with Doc Rivers and Blake Griffin, the Clippers fulfilled his request to be trade to the Houston Rockets and re-signed Griffin to a five-year max. deal. In doing so, they both gave Griffin a stark reminder of what life in the NBA is like and provided a blueprint for teams to follow when they have a superstar player with whom they believe to have run their course.

The glass half full perspective might be that Davis has simply become a better, healthier, more effective player and that with Cousins, he would have another weapon that could help catapult the Pelicans ever further toward the top of the Western Conference. But the half-empty glass might yield another conclusion.

At the end of the day, although he still hasn’t appeared in a single playoff game, Cousins is regarded as a game-changing talent and is one of the few players available on the free agency market this summer that could justify an annual average salary of $30 million. In all likelihood, the Pelicans will re-sign him for a sum that approaches that, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best move.

In the end, the Clippers traded Griffin for Avery Bradley, Tobias Harris, Boban Marjanovic, a first round pick and a second round pick. All things considered, it was a great haul for the Clippers when you consider that, just a few months prior, they could have lost Griffin as a free agent and gotten nothing in return.

Remarkably, after seeing Griffin dealt to Detroit, in the Western Conference, the Pelicans are on a collision course with the Golden State Warriors. Their health a constant concern, the team will have to deal with the pesky perimeter defense of Holiday and Rondo and versatility and two-way effectiveness of Davis.

Nobody gave New Orleans a chance against Portland, and for sure, not many people are going to believe in their ability to score an upset over the defending champions. But believe it or not, New Orleans has become a different team. And they’ve done so without Cousins.

Indeed, believe it or not, the Clippers gave us a blueprint for what a team should do when it has a superstar who might not be the best long-term fit for their program.

And if the Pelicans were wise, they’d be smart to follow it.

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NBA Daily: Rookie Contributors Lifting Playoff Teams

This year’s impressive rookie class has translated their regular season performances to the playoff stage.

Dennis Chambers

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This past NBA season had the luxury of an incredibly entertaining and high-powered rookie class. Every other day it seemed like the feats of either Donovan Mitchell, Jayson Tatum, Lauri Markkanen, Dennis Smith Jr., Kyle Kuzma, or Ben Simmons were dominating the discussion about how advanced the league’s crop of newbies appeared to be.

As a result, the 2017-18 Rookie of the Year race was a much more heated discussion than the year before.

With the impressive campaign these NBA freshmen put together, it should come as no surprise that on the on bright stage of playoff basketball, three of the aforementioned crop are helping lead their team’s in tight first-round battles.

Donovan Mitchell has been the leading scorer for the Utah Jazz through two games in their series against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Jayson Tatum is stepping up for the Boston Celtics to help fill in the void of Kyrie Irving as they take on the Milwaukee Bucks. Ben Simmons is nearly averaging a triple-double through three games for the Philadelphia 76ers in their matchup with the Miami HEAT.

Lottery pick talents are expected in today’s NBA to come in and have some level of impact for their clubs. Usually, they play the role as a foundational building block that shows flashes of promise with an expected up-and-down first season. While these three playoff contributors haven’t been perfect all year long, under the pressure of the postseason, they’ve stepped up their play and appear to be avoiding the learning curve.

With that, let’s highlight further what Mitchell, Tatum, and Simmons have been able to do thus far in the postseason.

Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz

All season long Mitchell threw the entire scoring load of Salt Lake City on his back for the Jazz and helped carry them to a 5-seed in the Western Conference when early season projections suggested they should head towards in the wake of Rudy Gobert’s injury.

However, the 13th pick out of Louisville had no intentions of missing out on the postseason. And from the looks of his production so far, who can blame him?

Through the first two games of the Jazz-Thunder series, Mitchell yet again placed his name in the same breath as Michael Jordan. Mitchell’s 55 points in his first two playoff games broke Jordan’s record of 53 for most points scored by a rookie guard in that scenario.

Mitchell’s 27 points in Game 1 and 28 points in Game 2 led the Jazz to even the series and steal home court advantage from the Thunder. While he hasn’t been responsible for setting up the team’s offense, tallying just five assists through those two games, Mitchell is fulfilling the role of Gordon Hayward as the team’s primary scorer.

In a series against a team that features the likes of Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony, Utah needs Mitchell to go out there and get as many buckets as he possibly can.

So far, he appears to be welcoming the challenge.

Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

When it was announced that Kyrie Irving would be lost for the entire postseason due to injury, the Boston Celtics’ hold on the 2-seed seemed a lot less intimidating than it once was in the Eastern Conference.

However, three games into the first round series against the Bucks, the Celtics hold a 2-1 lead. A lot part of that has to do with the role Tatum has been able to step in and play right away with the Celtics down their main scorer and playmaker.

Throughout the first three games of the series, Tatum 12.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists, and 2.3 steals. The third overall pick in the 2017 draft started the series off with 19 points, 10 rebounds, and three steals to help Boston start off the matchup with a 1-0 lead.

At just 20 years old, Tatum is matching his age number with his usage percentage thus far against Milwaukee. For some perspective, Jaylen Brown managed just 12 minutes a night for the Celtics last season as a rookie when the playoffs rolled around.

Granted, injuries and missing players are helping in Tatum being on the court as much as he has, but the rookie is earning his time out there on the court.

Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers

The perceived frontrunner for Rookie of the Year, Ben Simmons has taken control in his first ever playoff series.

For starters, Simmons is averaging nearly a triple double over his first three games against the HEAT; 20 points, 10 rebounds, and 9.7 assists.

On top of his triple double ways, Simmons has upped arguably his biggest weakness so far in the playoffs, shooting 75 percent from the charity stripe. During the regular season, Simmons struggled from the line, hitting only 56 percent of his attempts.

With the offensive prowess of Simmons obvious, it’s the job he’s doing on the defensive end of the court against an aggressive and tough Miami squad that’s elevating his play to the next level.

Simmons’ ability to switch all over the defensive end of the court has placed his responsibilities from Goran Dragic to Justise Winslow to James Johnson, and seemingly everywhere in between.

Now with Joel Embiid back in the fold for the Sixers and Simmons, the rookie point guard has his defensive partner on the floor to help ease the workload on that end. A two-way performance each night will be imperative for Simmons in helping lead the young Sixers past the experienced HEAT team.

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Pelicans Role Players are Key to Success

The supporting cast in New Orleans is a big part of their playoff surge, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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The New Orleans Pelicans have taken a commanding 3-0 lead in their first-round playoff series again the Portland Trail Blazers. While surprising to some, the Pelicans only finished one game behind the Blazers in the standings. The Pelicans have the best player in the series in Anthony Davis and the defensive duo of Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday have stifled Portland’s backcourt.

The truth is, the Pelicans have been a good team all season long. A lot of attention and recognition has been given to Davis, Rondo and Holiday this season and playoffs, and rightfully so. But New Orleans wouldn’t be where they are without the important contributions of some of their role players.

Take E’Twaun Moore, for example. Moore bounced around the NBA early in his career, with stops in Boston, Orlando and Chicago before finding long-term stability contract wise with the Pelicans. He’s primarily been a bench player with them before this season, his second in New Orleans, his first as a full-time starter.

He’s given the Pelicans a huge boost, especially from the three-point line. He’s put up 12.5 points per game on 50.8 percent shooting from the field, both career-highs. He’s shooting 42.5 percent from three-point range.

“I think it’s just our style of play,” Moore told Basketball Insiders. “We play fast and open. Coach [Gentry] gives us a lot of freedom, a lot of confidence. That’s why my game is up, my shooting is up.”

It’s not just offensively though. Moore has always been one of the more underrated defensive guards in the league. Paired up alongside Rondo and Holiday, the trio form a solid wing defensive unit. They’re a big reason for Portland’s offensive struggles.

Moore is the type of role player that every playoff contender needs to succeed. He knows that his role may change from game to game. Some nights he may be asked to score a little more. Other nights his defense is going to be called upon. Whatever it may be, he’s always ready to do what’s asked of him.

“I bring the energy. I bring a spark,” Moore told Basketball Insiders. “It’s knocking down shots, playing defense, getting out in transition. Just trying to be a spark.”

The Pelicans bench has also been a huge factor all season long. Their depth took a major hit early in the season with the injury to Solomon Hill. Hill has since returned to the lineup, but his absence paved the way for other players such as Darius Miller to step up.

This is Miller’s second stint with the Pelicans after spending two years overseas. Drafted 46th overall in 2012, he didn’t play much his first three years in the NBA. In 2014, he was cut by the Pelicans only about a month into the season. This year was different, he was thrown into the rotation from the get-go.

“This is a huge opportunity,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I just come in and try to work every day, try to get better every day. My teammates have done a great job of putting me in situations where I can be successful.”

Miller has given the Pelicans a capable stretch four in the second unit who can slide over to small forward if need be. He’s averaging a career-best 7.8 points per game, the most out of any of New Orleans’ reserves. He’s their best three-point shooter off the bench, connecting on 41.1 percent of his long-range attempts.

While he acknowledges that he’s enjoying his best season yet as an NBA player, he’s quick to praise his teammates for allowing him to flourish.

“I just try to bring a spark off the bench. I come in and try to knock some shots down,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “My teammates do a great job of finding me when I’m open, I just try and knock down shots and compete.”

Sometimes time away from the NBA helps players grow and mature. The NBA game is fast paced and it can take awhile to get used to it. While some players have begun to use the G-League as a means of preparing for the league, Miller took an alternate route of heading to Germany.

For him, it’s a big reason why he’s been able to make an easier transition back to the NBA. His contract for next season is non-guaranteed, but he’s probably done enough to warrant the Pelicans keeping him around. He’s a much different and much-improved player. If not, he’s sure to draw interest from other teams.

“It was a lot to learn for me personally,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I had to learn a lot of different things like how to take care of my body, how to manage my time, a whole bunch of stuff like that. The time overseas really helped me to mature and grow up and learn a few things.”

These Pelicans have most certainly turned quite a few heads since the playoffs began. We shouldn’t deal too much with hypotheticals, but it’s interesting to wonder what this team’s ceiling would’ve been had DeMarcus Cousins not been lost for the season due to injury.

This is a confident bunch, however. They’ve beaten both the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets during the regular season. They’ve already shattered a lot of expert predictions with their performance in the first-round. The Pelicans feel like they can hang with anyone out West.

“As far as we want to go,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I feel like we’ve competed with all the best teams in the league this whole season. We just got to come out, stay focused and do what we do.”

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