Basketball Insiders continues it’s “Fixing” series for teams who have been eliminated from playoff contention. Today’s team: the Phoenix Suns.
The Suns shifted into a full rebuild in 2015. Four years later, the roster makeup has changed, but their state remains the same. In what may have been the tightest playoff race we may have ever seen from the Western Conference, Phoenix was the one team early on who was doomed to fail from the start.
What Is Working
Devin Booker. Besides that, not much else.
Okay, that over-generalization is a little harsh. Not everything in Phoenix outside of Booker has been a disappointment. In fact, a few things have gone right for Phoenix. Keyword being few.
First, is their rookie class. So much was made of how exceptionally deep this year’s draft was that its first overall pick – Deandre Ayton – had a rookie season that fell under the radar. It’s hard to get noticed when you’re on one of the worst teams in the league. In Ayton’s case, he didn’t make the same headlines as Luka Doncic, Trae Young, Jaren Jackson or Marvin Bagley III. He did, however, do enough to make Phoenix believe they have something good on its hands.
Averaging 16/10 in your first rookie season is pretty impressive no matter how your team does. Ayton’s 10.3 rebounds per game ranked 14th overall in the league and his 58.5 field goal percentage ranked him ninth overall in the league. Even if it didn’t amount to much, those achievements point to a very promising future for Deandre.
It is very possible that Ayton does not have as prosperous of a career as his fellow top-five 2018 draftees, but he’s shown that he’s far from a Darko – or a “Thabeet” type.
There’s also Mikal Bridges. His stats won’t jump out at you – 8.2 points on 43.2 percent shooting and 33.7 percent shooting from three – but the fact that the Suns are plus-4.1 with him on the court shows that Bridges is a keeper.
There there’s who they acquired this season. Many have given Phoenix’s front office grief for some of the moves they’ve made since they decided to rebuild, but stealing Kelly Oubre Jr. from Washington for an aging Trevor Ariza – who had no business being there in the first place – had to be one of the better ripoff trades that nobody paid much attention to.
Oubre’s been excellent since he arrived in the desert. He’s put up almost 17 points a game on 45.3 percent shooting (a career-best) while averaging nearly five rebounds a game. His play has been so encouraging that it’s almost unbelievable that all he was cost was Ariza.
Last, but certainly not least, is Devin Booker.
We already knew Booker was a scoring sensation. We just didn’t know that he was capable of being more than that. Many will bring up his career-highs in both his scoring output (26.6 points a game) and efficiency (46.6 field goal percentage) to show that he’s the real deal. However, what’s most impressive is that when the Suns decided to run the point through him, he ran with it.
Booker’s 1.64 assist to turnover ratio placed him 84th in the league, which won’t turn any heads. Still, dishing out 6.8 assists per game and having an assist percentage of 34 percent when you are designated as a shooting guard shows that there’s more to Devin’s game. Of course, we can’t talk about the guy without mentioning his late-season explosion.
Before his ankle injury the other night, Devin was going off. In the month of March, Booker averaged 34 points on 49/34/88 splits, with his standout performances coming in the last three games, where he put up point totals of 59, 50, and 48.
That didn’t translate into much success for the Suns. They went 5-11 in March and lost every game where Booker had 48 or more. This has brought up a question that many are sure to bring up over the next few years: Is Devin Booker an effective player?
There’s no definite answer to that question presently. Hopefully, there will be when and if they surround Booker with a better roster. Phoenix has a special talent in its young shooting guard. The question the team may have to ask itself is how much patience will he have?
What Needs To Change
Pretty much everything. When you are 27th in offensive rating and 29th in defensive rating, that means an upgrade at pretty much every facet is needed.
The one silver lining is that Phoenix was dead last in both categories last season, which means there’s been some improvement. Devil’s advocate would say that since the Suns have hovered around the bottom ten in both offensive and defensive rating over the past three seasons, that casts some strong doubt as to whether the Suns have made any real progress.
It doesn’t look good when you see where the team places in individual categories. The Suns are the worst three-point shooting team in the league. They are the worst rebounding team in the league. They rank behind only Atlanta in most turnovers on average. They rank behind only Cleveland for highest opponents field goal percentage and are behind only Cleveland and Minnesota for highest opponent three-point field goal percentage.
Here’s where it gets odd. Despite having the league’s 27th-rated offense, the Suns have the 16th-highest field goal percentage in the league (45.9 percent). Despite having the league’s 29th-rated defense, the Suns rank second in steals per game (8.9) and are tied for 13th in blocks per game (5.1).
So it sounds like the offense isn’t a total disaster and there is a legitimate effort on defense. It’s just not leading to any favorable results. There are no quick fixes for the Suns, but there are ways in which they can translate their efforts into victories.
Get a Point Guard – Credit to Booker for doing what he could, but he needs someone who can handle the offense in the backcourt beside him. Booker posted a career-low in three-point percentage at 32.6 percent. If he has a point guard who can find him in the right spot, his efficiency as a shooter could improve drastically.
The Suns tied for 18th in assists per game despite not really having a true point guard on the roster. That would be impressive if it weren’t for the previously mentioned low offensive rating. Getting a point guard who can help the offense pick its spots can help it reach new heights.
Get a three-point shooter – Outside of T.J. Warren and Troy Daniels – who both played less than 50 games – the Suns did not have any player who shot 36 percent from distance or better. Booker is enough of a scoring threat and an underrated distributor that having three-point shooters will force opponents to stay on their heels.
That is easier said than done, but the Suns’ offense could see a lot of improvement if they just had more floor spacing around their young star.
Get a rebounder – The Suns’ rebounding issues may have very well contributed to their defensive issues. Phoenix surrendered the highest average of offensive rebounds a game with 11.7, which led to them giving up the most second-chance points in the league with 15.3.
Ayton’s proven he can get on the boards, but he can’t do it alone. If the Suns add someone who can give him help in that department, the defense could take another step forward.
There are more problems on this squad than just the ones mentioned above, but these are the most basic holes that Phoenix needs to have filled.
Focus Area: Free Agency
Even after trading Ryan Anderson’s team-friendly deal for Tyler Johnson’s bloated contract, Phoenix should have a fair amount of cap flexibility on its hands.
With Tyson Chandler, Austin Rivers, Darrell Arthur and Wayne Ellington among others all coming off the books, Phoenix will have a shade under $87 million on its cap. Some of that free cash should go into a possible extension for Kelly Oubre Jr.
Oubre’s inflated numbers have come at just the right time since he’ll be a restricted free agent and hence, will probably have a fair amount of suitors. More teams will have money this season and may look to spend their money elsewhere when the big fish are off the table. His shooting percentages are not and never have been the prettiest, but Oubre has shown that he is a fit. Don’t be surprised if he winds up staying long-term.
With the Suns not picking up Dragan Bender’s player option for next season, his return isn’t likely. Troy Daniels, Richaun Holmes and Jamal Crawford’s returns are all up in the air. Phoenix could take or leave any of them.
Even though they should have cap room, the Suns’ lack of success will probably prevent them from being serious bidders for the best free agents on the open market. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be on the lookout for productive players who could come on a bargain.
One player who could be the ideal target would be Clippers forward JaMychal Green. With LA hoping to get in the sweepstakes for a star or two, Green just might be available if the Clippers’ plans succeed.
Green would solve a fair amount of the Suns’ problems by himself. Not only is he a career 36.6 percent shooter from three, but his rebounding numbers per-36 (10) are excellent for a guy his size, and have steadily gotten better every season. With presumably more minutes with the Suns, he’d show the league what he’s made of.
Focus Area: Draft
By finishing with one of the three worst records in the NBA, Phoenix has a 14 percent chance of getting the first overall pick in the draft while also having a 42.1 percent chance of getting a top-four pick. If they get No. 1, then things get a little interesting.
Zion Williamson is believed to be the best prospect to come out of this draft and one of the best prospects the league has had in years. Phoenix would be foolish not to take him obviously, but they should not brush off their point guard issues. Williamson is undisputedly going to have the most glorious career in the draft, but Ja Morant showed he’s no slouch in the NCAA tournament this season. It is worth pondering who to take if it came to that.
Now if the Suns get No. 2, then they’ll have no problem taking whoever is left between the two. If it’s No. 3 or lower, then Phoenix will have a conundrum.
There are some appealing prospects after Williamson and Morant, but they are not sure things. Cam Reddish, RJ Barrett, and De’Andre Hunter have something to offer. The problem is that their cloudy ceilings will make the Suns have to gamble, which has not worked out too often for them in the past.
The Suns do not have the best track record when it’s come to the draft in recent years. After hitting a bullseye with Booker – in a season in which they weren’t trying to tank – they then whiffed on Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender, then selected an enigma in Josh Jackson before getting Ayton.
The Suns have had four picks in the top eight over the last three years, and the only one who looks like a sure thing is Ayton. If they don’t get a top-2 pick, then the pressure will increase tenfold.
Some rebuilds are quite short while others take seemingly forever. In the Suns’ case, their rebuild has taken longer probably than they would have liked. Everyone involved in the franchise wants to see the team take its next step forward.
That just might come from this summer if they play their cards right.
NBA Daily: Bobby Portis Ready For Anything After Hectic Offseason
Bobby Portis rightfully earned his first-ever NBA payday this summer, but he’s ready to settle in with the New York Knicks and play his role — whatever it may be — writes David Yapkowitz.
NBA free agency can be a stressful time for players, that often goes without saying. It can be a waiting game as teams put their time and resources into the big-name guys, while the rest of the league is left to twiddle their thumbs until the dominoes begin to fall.
This offseason was no different as Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard and Kyrie Irving, among others, hit the open market. For players like Bobby Portis, who was experiencing free agency for the first time in his career, the initial process can seem like a whirlwind.
At the start of the 2018-19 season, Portis was entering the final year of his rookie contract with the Chicago Bulls. As a player who has improved every year since he started playing regular minutes, Portis was in line for a solid payday this summer.
Before the start of the season, Portis and the Bulls were unable to agree on a contract extension, so Chicago moved him to the Washington Wizards at the trade deadline. Several teams were interested in Portis once free agency hit, but the young big man came to a quick agreement with the New York Knicks.
Although he made his decision in the early days of free agency, the entire process was still a little hectic for Portis.
“It was crazy, every day hearing the different teams that were interested in me, really not knowing what’s going to happen,” Portis told Basketball Insiders. “Luckily, on the first day of free agency, I was able to pick where I wanted to go and it was a blessing. It was just kind of crazy leading up to it though, hearing from different teams and just not knowing. But I’m blessed.”
For the past several years, the Knicks have been on the lower end of the NBA’s totem pole and they last made the playoffs back during the 2012-13 season. Since then, it’s been lottery season after lottery season with seemingly nothing to show for it.
Things look like they might changing a bit, however. This past season’s lottery finish yielded a highly-touted prospect in R.J. Barrett. Last summer’s draft brought them Kevin Knox and Mitchell Robinson. While Knox remains raw, Robinson emerged as a legitimate building block for the future.
They also struck gold with Allonzo Trier, who went undrafted last summer. And David Fizdale, who will be entering his second year as head coach, has brought with him the same no-nonsense attitude and solid culture that he had in Memphis. In fact, it was conversations with Fizdale that really helped sway Portis to the Knicks.
“Just the feel, they have a great coach in David Fizdale, they got a lot of young pieces out there I think I can come in and fit with,” Portis told Basketball Insiders. “I love that they signed Julius [Randle], that’s another guy that can bang and really play at a high level. I love everything David was talking about with me in the meeting that I had with him.”
Portis wasn’t the only big free-agent addition that the Knicks added to their roster, actually making a flurry of signings once the period got underway. They addressed some of their playmaking and shooting woes with the additions of veterans like Wayne Ellington, Reggie Bullock and Elfrid Payton. They also bolstered their frontcourt with Julius Randle, Marcus Morris and Taj Gibson.
To some pundits out there, the Knicks’ free-agent moves came across as a head-scratcher, especially their frontcourt signings. While Gibson will undoubtedly come off the bench, Portis, Randle and Morris each have strong cases to be the starting power forward.
All three have very similar skillsets in terms of versatile big men that can do a little bit of everything on the court. Portis admits that it’ll be a challenge at first when it comes to establishing roles and figuring out minutes in the rotation but, ultimately, he’s confident it will all figure itself out.
“It’s going to be competitive every day, it’s going to be a grind, it’s going to be difficult at first, but I think as things slowly progress, it’s going to go really, really well for us. I think we’re going to be really good,” Portis told Basketball Insiders. “We got a lot of guys who can do a lot of different things with the basketball.
“In today’s NBA game, you need a lot of guys who can stretch the floor, shoot the ball, put the ball on the floor and make plays for others. I think we have a lot of versatile guys on our team and I think that’s where our team is at right now.”
When it comes to his own role in the team, Portis is confident about what he brings to the table. As the offseason winds to a close, and training camp right around the corner, he’ll be entering his fifth year in the NBA. He’s still only 24 years old with his best basketball ahead of him.
With massive steps forward every campaign, Portis has officially established himself as a legitimate stretch big man who can thrive in the modern landscape. This past season, he put up career-highs of 14.2 points per game, 8.1 rebounds and 39.3 percent shooting from three-point range.
With other versatile big men on the roster, Portis is willing to adapt to whatever role the Knicks ask him to play.
“I bring energy, I love to score the basketball, I can score from all three levels. Driving the basketball, shooting the three, posting up, finding the mismatch, just being who I am,” Portis told Basketball Insiders. “I think I’ve done a good job since I’ve been in the league of being who I am, knowing my role on the team and playing it to a tee. I think I can hone in on any role that Coach Fizdale wants me to play.”
NBA Daily: Team USA Facing More Adversity Than Just On-Court Competition
Lots of current and future NBA stars pulled their names from consideration for the 2019 FIBA World Cup, but the bigger challenge comes from the game’s ever-increasing global presence. Drew Maresca examines how Team USA might be facing a perfect storm of adversity.
The 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup is upon us. The World Cup takes place every four years with — usually — two years between it and the Olympics. But FIBA made some changes to the tournament last year, moves that included delaying the World Cup one year and announcing that it would become a broader qualifying event for the Olympics. In years’ past, only the winner of the tournament automatically qualified. The United States is looking to defend the gold after having won the past two tournaments in 2010 and 2014.
Basketball Insiders’ Douglas Farmer recently covered the potential free agency implications of players participating in Team USA. And while a select few NBA clubs will probably benefit from the synergy and friendships generated while playing with the roster, the team itself might struggle to maintain the gold standard – no pun intended – set by previous iterations.
Team USA has lost a good deal of the talent that it might have assumed to have on its roster as of a few months ago: Marvin Bagley Jr., Bradley Beal, Anthony Davis, Andre Drummond, De’Aaron Fox, Eric Gordon, James Harden, Montrezl Harrell, Tobias Harris, Damian Lillard, Kevin Love, Kyle Lowry, CJ McCollum, Paul Milsap, JJ Redick, Julius Randle , P.J. Tucker and Trae Young. Of course, this doesn’t take into consideration those who pulled their names from consideration prior to this summer.
The above-mentioned players opted out of Team USA for a variety of reasons, from load management to injuries and so on. But the overarching takeaway is that personal success and professional priorities take precedence over international basketball.
And that’s understandable. Many of the players who opted out have either experienced previous achievements with Team USA or are young enough to look ahead to future opportunities to do so.
But where does that leave Team USA this summer? Who is left to build around? Well, there’s Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Kemba Walker, Khris Middleton and Donovan Mitchell. Those five are probably the most talented players left on the USA’s roster. On paper, that group represents a dynamic and talented core that can compete with virtually anyone.
But that doesn’t guarantee success. First of all, there is a significant drop off in talent from previous years. During the most recent Olympics, Team USA had nine reigning All-Stars, but this current collection only has two – the lowest total since 1998, a lockout year for the NBA in which the professionals mostly opted out.
And the competition in the 2019 FIBA World Cup isn’t just anyone.
Sure, there is still talent on Team USA – albeit less than there was on past teams – but the real challenge for this team is the ever-increasing talent and competition overseas.
The competition being produced by Europe, Africa, Australia and Canada is far better than it’s ever been before. For reference, there were only 70 foreign-born players in the NBA at the start of the 2008-09 season, according to Basketball-Reference, the season that immediately followed the Redeem Team’s first-place finish in the 2008 Summer Olympics. That number jumped to 108 during 2018-19, representing an increase of more than 50 percent in only 10 years. In fact, 108 isn’t even the record for most foreign-born players on NBA rosters on opening night as that accomplishment belongs to the 113 in 2016-17.
Not only is there more foreign-born talent, that new competition is only getting stronger. There were only 17 foreign-born All-Stars in the 64 seasons prior to 2010; there have been 13 in the nine years since 2010 and three in 2018-19 alone.
But truly elite talent and volume are different. The NBA has crowned three different foreign-born MVPs over the past 14 seasons — Giannis Antetokounmpo, Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash — and only one during its first 48 years of existence (Hakeem Olajuwon).
And while there is more high-level international talent in the NBA than the league has ever seen, it’s undeniable that some countries produce significantly more of it. For example, there are far more NBA players from France, Canada and Australia than from China or Mexico – meaning that international talent is centralized in a select few countries.
Notably, as of 2018-19, there were 42 Canadian-born NBA players, 30 Serbians, 30 French, 25 Australians, 22 Croatians, 18 Germans, 17 Brazilians, 17 Nigerians and 12 Argentinians, among others.
So, obviously, Team USA has its fair share of competition. America still currently produces more top-tier talent than any other country — but without its best players available, the US could be in big trouble.
But this is a natural progression for a game that has become increasingly more global. According to the NBA, 127 current and former players and coaches visited 40 different countries this offseason to continue growing the game. And what’s more, 2018-19 NBA broadcasts reached one billion unique viewers. 35 percent of NBA.com visitors hail from outside of North America and NBA League Pass is available in 200 countries around the globe.
To call the NBA’s international footprint vast would somehow still undersell the sport’s rapid growth around the planet.
So it is logical to assume — while the United States will continue to produce elite players — that the rest of the world is on a more aggressive trajectory in creating their own other-worldly competitors. And it probably won’t be long before Team USA’s advantage on the hardwood becomes a thing of the past and other nations enter international tournaments as the favorite – regardless of whether the best in this country are participating or not.
Donovan Mitchell, Jazz Ready To Become Contenders
Can Donovan Mitchell do for the new-look Jazz what Dwyane Wade did for the 2006 Miami HEAT? Utah’s title hopes depend on it.
After a five-year run that saw two regular-season MVPs, a 73-win campaign and three NBA championships, Kevin Durant’s departure and Klay Thompson’s torn ACL has Golden State on the outside looking in. The Warriors will still make a playoff push, and should likely succeed, as a healthy Stephen Curry and reinvigorated Draymond Green can do that for you. But the title no longer runs through Oracle – and not just because they’re leaving Oakland.
Golden State coming up short didn’t just signal the end of a dynasty; it represented a power shift in the NBA. Their loss to Toronto was the first domino to fall over six weeks of player movement that saw six All-NBA members switch teams. The conventional wisdom of the last decade – that you needed three stars to win a ring – had suddenly unraveled and players began doubling up instead of tripling.
The starriest example comes from the Staples Center, where Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are on one side of the hallway, and LeBron James and Anthony Davis are on the other. On the whole, Los Angeles is now the overwhelming favorite to win the 2020 NBA Championship as Vegas puts the Clippers and Lakers at +350 and +400 respectively. Milwaukee, Houston and Philadelphia follow these two teams, with one boasting the reigning MVP and the others involved in splashy offseason moves.
There’s another sexy title pick, especially for those that consider themselves in tune with the NBA: the Utah Jazz. The additions of Mike Conley Jr. and Bojan Bogdanović give the Jazz the much-needed playmaking and shooting they’ve badly missed over the past two postseasons. With them in tow and Rudy Gobert owning the middle, Utah is only one development away from winning the West: Donovan Mitchell becoming the 2006 version of Dwyane Wade.
Mitchell and Wade are often linked and for good reason. They share sizes, athletic abilities and euro-steps. They were both thrust into scoring roles on playoff-ready teams as rookies, and both have now played for Team USA.
Wade isn’t just a comparison for Mitchell, he should be an aspiration as well.
Dwyane Wade’s arrival on the national scene came in his third season. He dominated the 2006 NBA Finals, bringing the HEAT back from 0-2 and giving Miami their first championship. While year three was impressive, his real breakout occurred the year before. In year two, Wade’s numbers looked like this:
24.1 points, 6.8 assists, 5.2 rebounds per game on 47.8/28.9/76.2, with an effective field goal percentage of .483.
Now, here’s Donovan Mitchell last year, in his sophomore season:
23.8 points, 4.2 assists, 4.1 rebounds per game on 43.2/36.2/80.6, with an effective field goal percentage of .493.
The scoring numbers are almost identical and Mitchell has already proven himself a better three-point shooter. The assist discrepancy is a product of Utah’s reliance on Mitchell to score, causing him to force shots often. Mitchell also started this past season poorly and after the first 33 contests of 2018-19, the athletic guard’s line sat at just 20.7 points, 3.5 assists, and 3.3 rebounds per game.
He played the next 44 games at a rate of 26.7 points, 4.9 assists, and 4.6 rebounds per game with 44.5/42/82.5 splits.
In 2005-06, Wade averaged 27.2 points, 6.7 assists, and 5.7 rebounds a night, all despite being a nonentity from three. That season is eerily similar to the back end of Mitchell’s second-season effort and it should give Jazz fans optimism that he can play at the same level in 2019-20.
Of course, the odds of doing so are in his favor. Conley is as steady as they get, even coming off a career-year in points per game and his highest assist totals since 2012-13. Despite turning 32 years-old in October, he remains an above-average defender. But, most importantly for Mitchell, he’s another ballhandler and playmaker.
Utah has run into a brick wall in Houston during the playoffs each of the last two seasons. While their gimmicky defense and failure to hit open looks contributed to this year’s loss, the overarching struggle was a complete inability, by anyone not named Donovan Mitchell, to create shots. Joe Ingles is serviceable as a third or fourth playmaker as he can attack switches and overzealous closeouts.
But if he’s your second-best playmaker, or becomes the first out of necessity, the offense is in huge trouble.
Simply put, Conley solves that problem. He’ll naturally take loads of pressure off Mitchell, who tied LeBron James with the seventh-highest usage rate at 31.6%. Conley also allows Mitchell to slide back to his natural off-ball role, letting him can catch and swing passes against rotating defenses or run more side pick and roll. Both of these actions get Mitchell opportunities away from the teeth of the defense, which can’t happen when he’s repeatedly forced to initiate offense out high.
Along with Bogdanović, Conley also solves addresses Utah’s often awkward floor spacing troubles. The Jazz spent the last two years with Ricky Rubio at point guard – defense and vision aside, he’s still a below-average shooter that the opposition can leave open during the most important moments. Conley and Bogdanović replacing Rubio and Derrick Favors enables Utah to put three shooters and plus-defenders around Mitchell while the always-effective Rudy Gobert screens or waits in the dunker’s spot.
The newly-added Jeff Green, a healthy Dante Exum and an improving Royce O’Neal round out a solid rotation group. The key, then, is Mitchell. The Jazz figure to remain a top-five defensive team even in a loaded Western Conference, and the offensive mentioned above will make huge strides. However, when April rolls around, the games slow down. Movement-centric offenses don’t always succeed, and defenses break down. To win in the postseason, franchises need to create one-on-one opportunities. Analytics that preach threes, free throws and layups get tossed out the window; the midrange is in play again.
It’s why Jimmy Butler, Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard have dominated the postseason for years – they can score from all three levels.
Without a doubt, Mitchell has to be that player for Utah.
He’s the only player on their roster who can potentially match the star-power of other teams. If he regresses in 2019-20, the Jazz will fall victim to the same issues that sent them home the last two years. If he plateaus, they likely won’t have enough to overcome the top-half of the conference.
But, if Donovan Mitchell makes that leap, Utah will have a real chance to win the whole thing and bring their city its first NBA championship.
That sounds a lot like the 2006 HEAT.
Now, all they need is their Dwyane Wade.