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NBA Daily: Jackson and Ayton give Phoenix hope

After years of dwelling in mediocrity, Josh Jackson and Deandre Ayton give the Suns their first glimmer of promise since the Steve Nash era.

Matt John

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Since ending the Steve Nash era back in 2012, the Phoenix Suns have struggled to find a clear direction to go.

In the last six years, the Suns have been on an unpredictably wild ride to put it delicately. There’s been rebuilding, there’s been overachieving, there’s been re-tooling, there’s been bridge burning, and then there’s been trading that valuable Lakers pick for $70 million of Brandon Knight.

At the height of their wild ride has been their recent draft history.

Following a season in which they were tanking, the Suns whiffed when they took Alex Len with the fifth overall pick in 2013. Two years later, following a season in which they were not tanking, the Suns struck gold when they took Devin Booker with the 13th pick.

Their other picks leading up to 2017 have ranged from solid (TJ Warren) to highly questionable (Marquese Chriss) to long-term project (Dragan Bender). While not bad, it’s fair to say that, up until recently, the Suns’ drafting hasn’t exactly gotten them out of the mess they’ve created since Nash left.

However, their recent lottery picks—Josh Jackson and DeAndre Ayton—have given the team reason to believe that the new glorious new era they’ve been waiting for post-Nash has finally arrived.

This of course started the second Ayton was drafted by the Suns on draft night, but the hype has only grown stronger since the summer league began.

That starts with Jackson. The fourth overall pick from 2017 did not have the best start to his rookie season, but as he got more reps, his numbers vastly improved across the board, indicating that there should be plenty of optimism surrounding what next season holds for the sophomore.

His numbers have not been very pretty so far in the summer league, but Jackson continues to show more and more glimpses of the all-around player that scouts pegged him to be coming into the league, highlighted by his “Welcome to the league” swat of Marvin Bagley during the team’s second game against the Kings.

Even with his struggles, Jackson believes that there has been a notable difference playing in this year’s summer league compared to last year’s for him.

“I’m a lot more comfortable,” Jackson said. “Coming in this year, I feel more like a leader, like I’m more knowledgeable about how things are supposed to go out there so I’ve been trying to be a little bit more vocal with the guys out there, trying to make sure that they are in the right position on offensive and defensive sets.”

Jackson also noted that, since being in the summer league, that his biggest lesson he’s taken is to consistently work hard on the parquet floor.

“The biggest thing I learned is to come out and play with effort,” Jackson said. “Each and every time you step out there, you gotta come with it, or the guy across from you will get the best of you.”

Jackson’s skills have been on display in the summer league, but all eyes have been on this years’ first overall pick in the draft, DeAndre Ayton. Expectations are sky high for the young big as he entered the league. Hence, he wasted no time showing the big leagues what he could do. In only 22 minutes of action against the Dallas Mavericks, Ayton put up an efficient stat line of 10 points and eight rebounds in his first game in the summer league.

Ayton later capitalized on his promising start in his next game against the Kings. The University of Arizona alum made it look too easy out there as he put up a stat line of 21 points and 12 rebounds in just 29 minutes of action. Ayton has continued his electric play since and has looked every bit the player Phoenix believed he could be when they took him.

As far as first impressions go, Deandre Ayton could not have started his career off any better in the Las Vegas Summer League. Though he has met (or arguably even exceeded) expectations so far, Ayton has taken the note of the differences between college ball and NBA ball.

“Transitioning from college to the NBA, everybody is physical,” Ayton said. “Some dudes might not look strong, but they are pretty strong.”

As impressive as he has been, Ayton prefers to remain humble in regards to his performance as he continues to get more experience under his belt as a pro.

“I could do better, but overall I thought I did alright,” Ayton said. “I just think forgetting one or two plays and not really staying vocal with the fatigue, I gotta work on those, but I thought I did alright.”

The Suns have struggled to figure out their identity since they went for the rebuild six years ago. With Jackson and Ayton leading the way among their other youngsters on the roster, the Suns now have a great foundation of youth to work with for the next decade.

For their sake, these young gun Suns will hopefully lead the Suns to more success than the Steve Nash era, but that’s easier said than done.

Much easier.

Matt John is a staff writer for Basketball Insiders. He is currently a Utah resident, but a Massachusetts native.

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NBA Daily: Boston’s Potential Crisis

The Kyrie drama may finally be over in Boston, but some tough decisions could be on the horizon for the Celtics, writes Matt John.

Matt John

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It’s hard to get a read on what exactly the Boston Celtics are going to be this upcoming season.

Losing a talent with the rap sheet that Kyrie Irving has at only 27 years old would usually spell misery for any fanbase. Yet, after all that transpired this season, there may not be a fanbase happier to see an NBA superstar in his prime walk than Celtics Nation was when Irving bolted.

Besides, the sting of his departure was mitigated by the arrival of Kemba Walker. Kemba is a slight downgrade from Kyrie, but his consistent improvement, as well as his reputation as a team player, has some believing that he may be able to produce more effectively than Kyrie did as a Celtic.

The most damaging loss the Celtics suffered from the summer is Al Horford. Horford’s all-around game was the perfect fit in Brad Stevens’ system. His floor-spacing, vision, defense, and unselfishness benefitted the team in so many ways that it would be almost impossible to replace every dimension he brought to the Celtics by himself.

Instead of finding a replacement for Horford, the Celtics thought outside of the box by bringing in Enes Kanter. Kanter can’t do everything that Horford does – comparing those two defensively alone is downright laughable – but Kanter still commands double-teams, is one of the league’s best rebounders and is joining a team that ranked 22nd in rebounds per game. It’s definitely a downgrade, but Enes has proven he can be a solid contributor.

That’s not even factoring in the other unknowns facing the Celtics this season. Jayson Tatum in year three; Jaylen Brown in year four; Gordon Hayward being two years removed from his leg injury. After a down year so difficult that pretty much everyone involved took a step back, it’s hard to say where the bar should be set for this team.

Presently, Boston’s ceiling is drastically lower than it was at this exact time a year ago. But when you consider that they won 49 games, is it delusional to think they’ll be able to exceed that win total with a seemingly lesser roster?

That will depend on whether they can solve a possible crisis that their roster as constructed could produce.

In basketball, it’s common sense that if you want to win, you put your five best players on the court when things matter most. As long as those best players can actually play together on the court. That’s the Celtics’ problem right there.

Boston’s five best players are slated to be the following:

-Kemba Walker
-Jayson Tatum
-Gordon Hayward
-Jaylen Brown
-Marcus Smart

With Kanter designated as the starting center – this may change as the season progresses – one of these five is going to start the season coming off the bench, which Brad Stevens will figure out with due time. Hayward, Brown, and Smart have all played significant minutes with the second unit recently so it shouldn’t be much of an adjustment there.

The problem is, if all five of those players play to the best of their abilities, all of them are too good to be wasting away on the bench in crunch time. But if they all are on the court to close out games, who plays center? The only one out of the five who has any experience playing the five position is Hayward, which came last year and he only played one percent of his minutes there.

Brad Stevens has always been one to experiment. He’s never been hesitant to thrust players who aren’t usually the center type into the role of the small-ball five. From Brandon Bass to Jonas Jerebko to Semi Ojeleye, Stevens can really commit to the small in small-ball.

There’s just one problem. The Celtics’ top competitors for the crown this season sports some of the best centers in the league, which include Anthony Davis, Joel Embiid, and Nikola Jokic among others. Should Boston try to use its projected best players in its crunchtime lineup, they won’t stand much of a chance. Gordon Hayward and Marcus Smart are good defenders, but they’re not that good.

Boston right now isn’t really considered a contender by most people who follow the NBA but adding the 29-year-old Walker, who is now entering the prime of his career, signaled that they aim to be one. Say Boston tries the Walker-Smart-Brown-Tatum-Hayward lineup, and it does not pan out, they may have to trade one of them in order to balance out the roster and crunchtime lineup.

Who they would ship out is the real mystery. They’re definitely not trading Kemba after they just added him. Jayson Tatum’s trade availability expired the second Anthony Davis was traded to the Lakers. Many fans are clamoring for it after a not-so-stellar comeback, but Gordon Hayward is unlikely to be traded. His contract at this moment is an albatross, and when teams trade the star free agents they lured to them shortly after said luring, it’s not a good look for the franchise, especially after what Hayward has gone through.

For better or worse, Gordon Hayward is remaining a Boston Celtic. That leaves Smart and Brown. This is where this hypothetical crisis gets interesting. If Danny Ainge’s hand is forced to choose between the two, who does he trade?

If Ainge wants to keep the one with the highest ceiling, it’s Brown. Jaylen did not have the easiest start last season. He was so bad in fact that they benched him for Smart. Over time, Brown found his game again off the bench. As good as he was, a man of Brown’s talents should not be relegated to the bench.

If that’s not enough, remember that just the year prior, Brown was one of the most vital contributors on a team that was within inches of the NBA Finals. Eighteen points on 46/39/64 splits in 18 of what had to be the most important games of his life as a 21-year-old cemented Brown’s status as a high-upside, possible star player.

Between Brown and Smart, Brown has a higher ceiling.

If Ainge wants to keep the one who solidifies the team culture, it’s Smart. Smart may never have the scoring prowess or the reliable jumper that Brown has, but ask anyone who sets the tone for the game more, and it’s Smart.

Ever since he first walked on the court, Smart’s been one of the most intense, high-energy players in the league. His playmaking and defense inspire the Celtics to play at their best. When the Celtics’ 2018 playoff run comes up, people talk about how impressive the youngsters were, but they forget that their fortunes may not have turned out so well if Smart had not come back in time from injury.

It’s true that his love for the game puts his flaws on display, but Marcus Smart is what helped catapult the Brad Stevens era and establish a successful culture in Boston. His efforts probably won’t lead to any All-Star appearance, but they solidify him as an impact player for a championship team.

Between Brown and Smart, Smart brings more of a winning culture.

Some other components at play – Brown is in a contract year, and he should have suitors next offseason, while Smart is currently being paid $12 million (salary that could be used in a possible trade for a star player).

Now there’s the chance that none of this happens. The Celtics may go forward with the core they have right now, and maybe they have something up their sleeve that nobody knows about. There’s also the chance they may trade both Smart and Brown for an upgrade or trade someone else.

There’s obviously no way to tell what will happen at this point. However, these are the pertinent questions that the Celtics need to ask themselves as we approach the upcoming season.

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High-Performance Mindfulness: Incorporating The Mental Health Resource Into The NBA

Jake Rauchbach outlines best practices and working parameters for integrating a mental health/Mental Performance resource into the coaching staff. 

Jake Rauchbach

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As NBA teams begin to integrate mental health resources into the overall working structure of their organizations, several key points should be taken into consideration so that practitioners can be most effective when working with players.

Before we dive in, it is important to note that, within the mental health spectrum, there are generally two avenues.

There is the clinical side, which focuses on diagnosing and treating behavioral disorders like depression, substance abuse and learning disabilities. There is also the applied/performance-related side, where the end goal is to improve on-court performance through techniques such as High-Performance Mindfulness.

Let’s jump in and break down some of the best practices and key considerations for successfully installing this resource within your staff:

Best Practices & Key Considerations

Player Buy-In

Player buy-in should be the number one priority. All other considerations should directly feed into facilitating and supporting this. With any sort of coaching, trust and rapport with the player are vital. The same thing holds for mental health resources/High-Performance Mindfulness coaches. Credibility and strong rapport with the player must be built.

This responsibility lies on the shoulders of the interpersonal skill-sets of the High-Performance Coach. However, much more of this responsibility resides with the decision-makers, who define the working parameters for the resource. If players do not like, trust or see value in the resource and the services offered, it is going to be very tough to make much headway. Before any substantial progress, this foundation must be in place first.

Staff Buy-In (Cooperation)

If a player senses that staff members, especially decision-makers, surrounding that player do not support or are sending mixed messages regarding the value, effectiveness, and acceptance of the mental health work, it can derail or block the initiative. When leaders within the organization outwardly support the role of the practitioner and initiative, it makes it that much easier to effectively serve the player.

In a perfect world, all levels of the organization are sending the same message to the player(s) regarding the role, value and implementation of the mental health practitioner. More realistically, outward support and clear definition of the practitioner’s role goes a long way.

  • Defined Role: Clearly defining the role, will properly position the resource. It will also put players and staff members on notice regarding working parameters.
  • Embed Resource in Coaching Staff: The highest probability for success is by having the resource sit on the bench during the game, ideally right between the player rotation. This is ultra-effective in improving performance and halting performance issues straight away as they arise during the game.
  • Direct Line of Communication: A direct line of communication from the mental health resource/performance coach to the decision-makers within the organization is vital. The mental and emotional responses of athletes are illogical and often unpredictable. So is the performance improvement of the player. It is very rarely a straight line up. A clean and clear feedback loop from the mental health expert to the decision-makers make this job much easier.
    • Expert feedback presented consistently is a must, ideally in weekly or bi-weekly meetings. Confidentiality is always a major consideration. However, performance results and projective performance trajectories of a player are different than confidential information. When it comes to player performance, results, trajectories and player progression can be shared and must be put into context.

Measurable Success

In High-Performance Mindfulness, there should be measurables, or metrics, showing the improvement for the player. Performance coaches should be judged by the tangible production they can facilitate for a player or set of players. In a results-based business such as professional basketball, showing the value add via statistical improvement is important. This is especially true in a growth space such as Mental Performance.

Finding a way to do this so that it does not infringe upon the domains of other coaching staff members is also a consideration. However, not acknowledging that Mental Performance has the potential for improving statistical on-court performance would be missing the point.

Time

There is a gestation period that exists in High-Performance Mindfulness Coaching. Just like any other type of coaching, there is a period between the implementation of the work and the actual production improvement results. Understanding this will provide clarity and context.

There are just some of the best practices for helping jump-start your mental health and High-Performance Mindfulness initiatives at the NBA and professional basketball level.

The application of the mental health and High-Performance Mindfulness resources within the NBA and professional basketball is a little like the wild west right now. Through trial and error, organizations will see what works and what doesn’t within the context of their given situation.

One thing is for sure, though: This space is growing and growing fast, and decision-makers better have foundational understanding for how to give this initiative the best probability for success.

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NBA Daily: Grading The Offseason – Denver Nuggets

James Blancarte continues Basketball Insiders’ “Grading The Offseason” series by examining the Denver Nuggets’ deep roster.

James Blancarte

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James Blancarte continues Basketball Insiders’ “Grading the Offseason” series analyzing the Denver Nuggets.

Throughout the offseason, Basketball Insiders has been taking a look at each respective franchise’s roster after the draft, offseason signings and trades. In doing so, we look to analyze and determine how each team did as they prepare for next season and beyond.

There are numerous strategies teams can take when it comes to the future. Some teams look to acquire various assets in exchange for taking on players with undesirable contracts. Having cleared up cap space, other teams use the offseason targeting free agents with the hope of making a big leap going forward. This offseason was one for the ages with a few teams willing to take huge risks and spend a treasure trove of assets to build an instant contender. Successful teams oftentimes resist the urge to make any major additions or subtractions and take a bet on internal growth and continuity.

And that leads us to the Denver Nuggets. Denver is fresh off a playoff run that nearly saw the franchise return to the Western Conference Finals. Some teams in big markets seem to come away with the biggest free agents. This offseason, Denver mostly did not come up with any top-tier acquisitions. However, with the talent and youth of their key players, the Nuggets shouldn’t be concerned. A year older, more mature and with the benefit of continuity, the Nuggets again enters the upcoming season as a Western Conference contender.

Overview

Last year, the Nuggets jumped up to second place in the west after finishing in ninth the prior two seasons. With that jump, Denver finally returned to the postseason, ending a five-season playoff drought. Jumping up seven seeds is an impressive season-to-season jump not often seen in the NBA. However, many Nuggets followers would argue that the team had been better than their prior results and the jump shouldn’t come across as a major surprise.

Credit the Nuggets’ investment and patience in their core players for last year’s results. The team has allowed their franchise star Nikola Jokic to fully explore his talents as his minutes, effectiveness and usage have increased year-to-year. Alongside Jokic, the team has seen significant development and improve play from Gary Harris and Jamal Murray.

Last year saw the two-man game between Jokic and Murray take off to a new level. Their intuitive and fluid two-man game created a foundation on offense that the team thrived on. Throw in a full season of Paul Millsap and the team became that much more dangerous. The year prior, the Nuggets acquired the multi-skilled Millsap but an injury kept him out much of the year and prevented the team from gelling fast enough to get back into the playoff picture. With a full season of Millsap in addition to the team’s young core, the Nuggets were able to hit another level.

The Nuggets should be lauded for their ability to draft, acquire and develop young talent. This past season saw second-year guard Monte Morris join the rotation and establish himself as another key contributor. Malik Beasley, a first-round pick for Denver in 2016, also had his best year so far and started in 18 games. Longtime mainstay Will Barton did struggle with injury last season. With his explosiveness somewhat limited, Barton didn’t have the same overall impact he has had in year’s past.

The Nuggets and Portland Trail Blazers matchup in the semifinals produced fireworks. Denver came out of the wrong end of an unbelievable quadruple-overtime game. Losing that marathon game could have easily been the kind of loss that a team doesn’t recover from in a close matchup. Instead, the Nuggets came back and even led the series 3-2. Despite going toe-to-toe, the Nuggets came up just short in the final quarter of game seven.

Offseason

Unlike a few other teams this year, there is no splashy star acquisition and that is just fine. Having come so close to making the Conference Finals and having already seen year-to-year growth from multiple key contributors, slow and steady may still win the race for the Nuggets. Jokic is arguably a top-10 player and is a realistic MVP candidate entering this upcoming season. Also, Jamal Murray was signed to a five-year, $170 million extension. Murray is an emerging talent and has the skill to be a dynamic offensive force in the future.

Just because the Nuggets didn’t sign or trade for a top-tier free agent doesn’t mean they would never consider it. There have been murmurs at times about whether Denver would or should pull the trigger and use their wealth of young talent to acquire a potentially available star like Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal. That speculation never seemed to amount to much and the team opted for a few smaller transactions.

On June 29, Denver exercised their team option to keep Millsap for $30 million for the 2019-20 season. Again, Millsap played well last season and helps make the Nuggets more versatile on both ends of the floor.

The Nuggets also acquired forward Jerami Grant by jumping into the Thunder fire sale of assets that started with the Paul George trade. In exchange for a 2020 first-round pick, the Nuggets picked up a versatile and capable defensive forward to help round out their deep roster.

There are a few other minor transactions to take note of. The Nuggets closed the book on Trey Lyles, who has been in the team’s big man rotation for the past few years. In spot play, he contributed at times but didn’t make an overall impact sufficient to justify the continued investment.

Denver has a deep roster and will need to stay flexible and figure out their best rotations next season. Barton will be looking to re-establish himself. Juan Hernangómez, who can play on the wing or as a small-ball four, will again be trying to find a permanent place in the rotation. Center Mason Plumlee formed a towering two-man front-court tandem that allowed Jokic to play from the perimeter, in addition to his backup center minutes. Plumlee may be wary of Jerami Grant, who could usurp some of those frontcourt minutes alongside Jokic.

PLAYERS IN: Jerami Grant, P.J. Dozier, Tyler Cook, Vlatko Cancar

PLAYERS OUT: Isaiah Thomas, Trey Lyles, Tyler Lydon, Brandon Goodwin, Thomas Welsh

What’s Next

Finishing second in the west, being a quarter away from the Conference Finals and bringing back the same squad of up and coming players should make the Nuggets a near lock to be a top-shelf team again. Continued development from many of their young players and an MVP season from Jokic could easily place them in the top-tier of the Conference again.

Unfortunately, the Nuggets will have to contend with newly minted contenders in the Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers. Add a stellar offseason for the Utah Jazz and the possibility that the James Harden-Russell Westbrook experiment could succeed and there are at least four other realistic contenders for the top two spots in the west.

Simply holding the two spot will be quite the challenge. However, the Nuggets have the benefit of youth, player development and continuity. Few teams can tout continuity as a major asset the way Denver can. This upcoming season will be an interesting test to see how important continuity is in an always-improving Western Conference.

Offseason Grade: B+

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