Connect with us

NBA

NBA Daily: Why These Suns Could Be Special

The Phoenix Suns have the second-best record in the league at the midpoint of the season. Obviously, the addition of Chris Paul is one reason for their rise but there is much more to the story of this special team.

Chad Smith

Published

on

After a strong 8-0 finish to close out last season, the Phoenix Suns have picked up right where they left off. Offseason additions have paid major dividends, too, as they own the second-best record in the league at the All-Star break having won 16 of their last 19 games. It has been more than a decade since Phoenix found its way to the postseason, but that drought should soon end.

But what has changed? And how have they turned things around so quickly?

The easy answer is Chris Paul. The veteran point guard was acquired in a trade just before Thanksgiving, with the Suns essentially only having to surrender a 2022 first-round draft pick and two rotation players in Kelly Oubre Jr and Ricky Rubio. The fit on paper was perfect and the chemistry on the court has proven to be the same.

But, there is another key factor here: head coach Monty Williams.

After taking over head coaching duties for the Suns last season, Williams has left his imprint on this team. Their unblemished record in the “bubble” last season is a microcosm of just how good he has been. Monty is no stranger to the game. Once his playing days were over, Williams became an assistant coach for the US Men’s National Team under Mike Krzyzewski.

It has been quite the turnaround for this franchise, who was statistically (87-241 record) the worst team in the NBA from 2015-16 through the 2018-19 season. Suns owner Robert Sarver had finally had enough, hiring James Jones as the VP of basketball operations in 2017 before becoming the team’s general manager in 2019. Searching for high-character individuals, it didn’t take Jones long to hire Williams as the new coach.

In Monty’s first season as an NBA head coach, he guided the New Orleans Hornets to the playoffs with a 46-36 record, where they lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in six games. Monty also helped develop James Borrego and Mike Malone during his time in New Orleans, both of whom have moved on to become successful head coaches in their own right.

Williams and Paul were only together for that first season in New Orleans, but have reunited a decade later. Their relationship never took a pause though and they clicked from the moment Paul landed in Arizona. These two share a lot of experience and have seen many things during their time in the league. For Paul, the leadership that he brings seems to elevate whatever team he finds himself on.

While Paul’s leadership is highly valued, so too are his basketball ability and intelligence. The game-winning play in Dallas earlier this season was one that Paul drew up specifically for Devin Booker in that situation. The savvy veteran admitted after the game that he learned that play during his time with the Los Angeles Clippers. He is essentially a head coach on the court, giving the Suns yet another advantage over their opponent.

Phoenix made another addition to their roster in the offseason that didn’t garner as much spotlight as the trade that landed Paul but has been instrumental to their success. Now in his ninth season, Jae Crowder has played for seven different teams over the course of his career, only missing the playoffs once. He has been the same guy at every stop, playing unselfish basketball that has contributed to winning.

After helping the Miami HEAT reach the NBA Finals last season, Crowder signed a three-year deal to join Paul in the desert. The versatile forward has 72 playoff games under his belt and, like Paul, has a high basketball IQ. Another thing these two share is the thirst to win a championship — and they have been the catalysts spurring the maturity of the young Suns’ core.

The foundation for this franchise, however, lies with their newest All-Star, Booker, as well as big man Deandre Ayton. Both have elevated their play alongside Paul, though that may be difficult to see just by looking at their statistics. The numbers don’t always tell the story, which is the case here.

Booker’s scoring, rebounding and assists have dipped from last season, but he is much more efficient, no longer having to carry the load on offense alone. It also allows him to save some energy for the defensive end of the floor, an area where he has significantly improved this season and a development that should prove to be even more beneficial when the playoffs roll around.

Ayton was expected to make a massive leap this year with the addition of Paul. Through the first half of the season, the top overall draft pick has not had an uptick in scoring or blocks but he has greatly improved his shooting percentage, in addition to ranking seventh in rebounding. He is also taking fewer shots per game but, like Booker, has been far more efficient with them, getting easier baskets at the rim. Much of the credit goes to Paul for creating those opportunities, but Ayton has been working on his game and it shows.

The emergence of Mikal Bridges has been another notable difference this season. The Villanova product has been tremendous in all facets of the game, but his play on the defensive end of the floor has been particularly impressive. He has the physical tools to be one of the best perimeter defenders in the league and, undoubtedly, is a solid candidate for the Most Improved Player Award this season.

Bridges is averaging career highs in scoring, rebounding, assists, blocks, and shooting percentage. But it’s his percentages that really stand out, as he is hitting 42 percent of his three-pointers, 62 percent from inside the arc and 53 percent overall from the floor. His free-throw shooting is the only thing keeping him from joining the illustrious 50-40-90 club, but he is still shooting it at a solid 84 percent clip.

Like most top-notch teams, the starters will get most of the spotlight. But this is where Phoenix has a real edge over their competition, as the Suns have arguably one of the best second units in the league. Comprised of a mixed bag of talent, ranging from recent draft picks like Cameron Johnson and Jalen Smith to reclamation projects like Cameron Payne, Jevon Carter, Frank Kaminsky and Dario Saric, the Suns’ bench has thrived this season.

In fact, those guys have all been so good that established veterans like E’Twaun Moore and Langston Galloway are unable to get on the floor. They have provided a spark and have developed incredible chemistry that is on full display every night.

Jones has done a masterful job with this group. Despite being the second-slowest team in terms of pace, they are still a top-12 scoring offense and have the eight-best offensive rating in the NBA. They make the magic happen on defense though, where they rank third in opponents scoring, third in defensive rating and have the second-best net rating in the league.

The fun doesn’t stop there. The Suns are top-five in the league when it comes to field goal percentage, top-ten in three-point shooting, second in free-throw shooting, third in assists and sixth in turnovers per game. To be near the top in one or two of these categories would be one thing, but the proof is in the pudding with this team.

The seven-seconds-or-less Suns are a thing of the past, while Booker has matured quite a bit from his 70-point performance that was celebrated by the team, despite losing the game. None of those players besides Booker are even on their roster this year. Ayton himself has acknowledged his lapse in judgment from his 25-game suspension last season for taking a banned diuretic. This nucleus is still very young, yet has the maturity and experience needed to make some serious noise in the playoffs.

Both Ayton and Bridges will hit free agency after next season. Paul has a $44.2 million player option for next season, where he will turn 37 years old in May. Paul has reiterated that he came to Phoenix because of Booker. Everyone in the organization shares the same desire to not just be good, but to be great. Looking at their timeline going forward, the window of opportunity for Phoenix is right now.

The Suns have gone through eight head coaching changes since their last sustained success with Mike D’Antoni. It would appear they finally found the right guy, but Williams is just one of the many puzzle pieces that have been put together in Phoenix. The front office has made the right moves, the players have bought in and their team-first approach has them on the path to something special.

Advertisement




2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Pingback: NBA Daily: Why These Suns Could Be Special - sublimatedsportsuniforms.net

  2. Pingback: NBA Daily: Why These Suns Could Be Special | Phoenix Sports Today

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

NBA

NBA Daily: The Lakers’ Path Back to the NBA Finals

In the wake of Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Bobby Krivitsky examines the Los Angeles Lakers’ path back to the NBA Finals.

Bobby Krivitsky

Published

on

It’s been 15 games since a high ankle sprain sidelined LeBron James. 

With the Western Conference standings congested and Anthony Davis already out due to a right calf strain and a re-aggravation of his right Achilles tendinosis, the Los Angeles Lakers faced the threat of a fall that would require their participation in the play-in tournament.

However, the Lakers have fought admirably in the absence of their two stars, going seven and eight. As a result, their fall in the standings has been painless, going from third at the time of James’ injury to now occupying fifth place in the West.

The primary reason the Lakers have been able to tread water without their two stars is they’ve remained stingy on defense. Since James’ injury, they have the fourth-best defensive rating in the league. That’s despite facing four teams who rank in the top five in offensive rating and six of the categories’ top-10 members.

Right now, the Lakers are 2.5 games ahead of the sixth-seeded Portland Trail Blazers, with a 4.5-game cushion between them and the Dallas Mavericks, who are seventh in the conference. That should be a large enough gap to keep Los Angeles out of the play-in tournament, but the two teams are going to converge for a two-game series starting Thursday. For the Lakers, getting swept would re-open the possibility of having to compete in the play-in tournament.

Fortunately for them, even splitting that series would make it unlikely the Mavericks finish ahead of the Lakers in the standings. And help might be on the way for the Lakers: Davis may soon rejoin the lineup, per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, meaning there’s a distinct possibility he’s active for at least one of those two matchups. As for James, he’s on track to return in three weeks.

While Los Angeles’ stars are getting closer to making their returns, the Denver Nuggets got dealt a more severe blow when Jamal Murray tore his ACL in a recent game against the Golden State Warriors. Denver is 10-2 since acquiring Aaron Gordon at the trade deadline and looked the part of a legitimate title contender prior to Murray’s injury. 

Denver is fourth in the West, 1.5 games ahead of Los Angeles. But even if the Nuggets have home-court advantage, they’re the preferable opening-round opponent, not just for Los Angeles, but any team with a legitimate chance at the fourth or fifth seed.

Fortunately for the Lakers, that’s the place in the Western Conference pecking order where they’re most likely to finish this season. So long as the Nuggets don’t freefall in Murray’s absence, Los Angeles will likely start the playoffs against an opponent that’s gone from having the potential to present the greatest challenge to the defending champions’ quest to get back to the Finals to becoming a desirable first-round matchup.

After that, the Lakers may have to get past the Utah Jazz and or the Los Angeles Clippers to make a return trip to the NBA Finals. The former has the best record in the league this season, but locking horns with the defending champions in a best of seven series is a far more challenging and potentially rewarding proving ground.

The Jazz have a deep, reliable rotation, they have the best net rating in the NBA, they’re in the top five in points for and against per 100 possessions, and they’re attempting the most threes per game, but also rank in the top five in three-point shooting percentage. However, the Lakers would have the two best players in a series against Utah. Usually, an opponent doesn’t overcome that disadvantage.  

As for the Clippers, Rajon Rondo has quickly proven to be an impactful acquisition. Los Angeles is seven and one with him in the lineup, generating the highest net rating in the league during that span. Last season, the Lakers saw first-hand how impactful playoff Rondo can be. Now, the Clippers are hoping he can bring structure to their offense, something they sorely lacked last postseason and was at the forefront of them blowing a 3-1 series lead over the Nuggets. Doing so would go a long way towards maximizing the production of a team that has the talent to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy for the first time in franchise history.

If this is the year the battle of LA takes place in the postseason, it figures to be a slugfest. Still, the Clippers have their doubters after last year’s meltdown in the playoffs. There’s also a large contingency who are skeptical about how far the Jazz can go in the postseason, given their lack of a top-tier superstar. Despite the validity of those concerns, both teams can beat the Lakers in a best of seven series. That no longer appears to be the case for the Nuggets, which is a shame for them and people who want to see the best possible matchups in the playoffs. But Murray’s injury, as unfortunate an occurrence as it is, makes it easier for the Lakers to get through the gauntlet that is the Western Conference and have a chance to claim an 18th championship, which would break their tie with the Boston Celtics for the most titles in NBA history.

Continue Reading

NBA

NBA AM: The Play-In Game – West

With the season winding down, Ariel Pacheco takes a look at how the play-in tournament is shaping up in the Western Conference.

Ariel Pacheco

Published

on

With the regular season’s end in sight, teams are making their last push to make the playoffs in what has been a condensed season. But the new play-in tournament is providing more teams than ever a chance at a coveted playoff spot.

Here is what the new play-in tournament will look like: Teams that finish with the Nos 7 and 8 seeds will face off against each other. The winner of this game will be No. 7. The Nos. 9 and 10 seeds will also play and the winner will play the loser of the first game. The winner of this game will be the No. 8 seed. 

The play-in tournament provides intrigue and adds pressure on teams in both conferences to finish in the top six and avoid the play-in altogether. The Western Conference, in particular, is shaping up to have a rather exciting finish. There are a number of teams who could find themselves fighting for their playoff lives in this year’s tournament – all below in tiers.

Teams Likely To Avoid Play-In

Portland Trail Blazers (32-24)
Games Left: 16
Home Games Left: 8
Games Against Teams Over .500: 12
Games Against West: 11

The Trail Blazers are currently the sixth seed in the West meaning, for now, they are safe from the play-in tournament. However, they are just two games above the Mavericks from possibly dropping down a place. They’re the team most likely to secure that sixth seed because they have more talent than the teams below them – hello, Dame – and they also have an elite offense. However, the defensive concerns are very real and if they were to slip, it would likely be because of their struggles on that side of the ball.

Likely Play-In Teams

Dallas Mavericks

Games Left: 16
Home Games Left: 9
Games Against Teams Over .500: 5
Games Against West: 8

On paper, the Mavs have a really easy schedule as the season winds down. They have just five games against teams over .500 and two against the Los Angeles Lakers, who may be without their two stars for those games. However, they are just 10-12 this season against sub .500 teams and are coming off a disappointing loss to the Sacramento Kings. There’s still a pretty good chance they get the sixth seed and avoid the play-in, but it also wouldn’t be surprising to see them in it as well.

Memphis Grizzlies
Games Left: 17
Home Games Left: 7
Games Against Teams Over .500: 8
Games Against West: 12

The Grizzlies are often overlooked, but they are about as well-coached as any other team in the NBA. It is likely they will be in the play-in game, but don’t be surprised if they are able to sneak into the sixth seed. They lost last year’s play-in game in the Bubble to the Blazers, so they do have experience in this type of setting. They may be getting Jaren Jackson Jr. back soon which should help. 

Golden State Warriors
Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: 9
Games Against Teams Over .500: 6
Games Against West: 13

The Warriors are getting just other-worldly performances from Stephen Curry on an almost nightly basis at this point. However, they continue to struggle to win games, in large part due to the struggles when he sits on the bench. Their schedule is pretty light to close the season, which bolsters their chances. The talent on this team isn’t great, but Curry’s play should be enough to get them in the play-in tournament. 

San Antonio Spurs
Games Left: 17
Home Games Left: 6
Games Against Teams Over .500: 12
Games Against West: 7

The Spurs have struggled of late, especially after the All-Star break. Their defense has dropped off badly, but if there’s any reason to be positive, it’s that they are still coached by Gregg Popovich and their young guys continue to show improvement. They have been really good on the road this season and a majority of their games are on the road. It won’t be easy, but the Spurs should find themselves in the play-in tournament.

Outside Looking In

New Orleans Pelicans
Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: 6
Games Against Teams Over .500: 9
Games Against West: 11

The Pelicans have been hit with the injury bug of late, but their inconsistent play this season continues to be a huge problem. Their defense continues to bleed three-pointers and while point Zion Williamson has worked, there just isn’t enough shooting to maximize him just yet. It seems unlikely the Pelicans make a late-season run to the play-in game.

Sacramento Kings

Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: 8
Games Against Teams Over .500: 8
Games Against West: 14

The Kings are the least likely team to make the play-in tournament. Their defense is still problematic and they just recently ended their 9-game losing streak. It’ll take a huge late-season push and the Kings just haven’t shown that they are capable of putting it all together for a long enough stretch. 

The play-in tournament adds a new layer of competition that will bring excitement at the end of the season. Be sure to check out how the play-in tournament is shaping up in the Eastern Conference.

Continue Reading

NBA

NBA Daily: The Play-In Game — East

With the play-in tournament just around the corner, Matt John previews who in the Eastern Conference might qualify for it.

Matt John

Published

on

It’s official: we’re entering the regular season’s endgame. Every game from here on out will have much bigger consequences, a statement even truer in 2021 than perhaps any other season thanks to the NBA’s new play-in tournament.

If you’re not familiar, the play-in tournament will consist of two matchups within each conference. The seventh and eighth seeds of both conferences will face off against one another, while the ninth and 10th seeds shall do the same. The winner of the seven-eight matchup will take their conference’s seventh seed, while the winner of the nine-10 game will face the aforementioned match’s loser for the eighth and final spot in the postseason. It’ll serve as a nice appetizer before the playoffs get underway.

So, now that we have 15 games left give or take, it’s time to get a full scope of who we’re most likely to see in this year’s play-in, starting with the Eastern Conference. There’s really no need to go over teams that have all but clinched their playoff spots like Philadelphia, Brooklyn, or Milwaukee. Just like there’s no need to mention teams that are way too out of a reach for a playoff spot like Detroit and Orlando.

But that does leave ten teams in the Eastern Conference that we could potentially see in the play-in. At first glance, it would sound ridiculous to say that Boston and Cleveland could be in the play-in seeing how they are separated by ten and a half games, but Boston is only two and a half games ahead of Miami for that seventh seed while Cleveland is only three games behind Chicago for the tenth seed.

The best way to evaluate is to divide these into tiers. One for playoff teams who are likely to avoid the play-in, one for teams that are most likely to be in the play-in, and those that are likely to miss out on the play-in.

Likely to Avoid

Atlanta Hawks (30-26)
Games Left: 16
Home Games Left: 11
Games Against Teams Over .500: Six
Games Against East: 13

Replacing Lloyd Pierce with Nate McMillan proved to be a genius move by Atlanta’s front office, as the Hawks have won 16 of their last 23 games. They may have had that stretch where they lost four of five, but that was on a West Coast Trip. Seeing how almost 75 percent of their remaining games will be at home, it’s hard to see Atlanta collapsing. They may be decimated by injuries right now, but the schedule seems a little too easy for them to blow this.

Boston Celtics (31-26)
Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: Eight
Games Against Teams Over .500: Four
Games Against East: 10

Much like Atlanta, Boston’s really hit their stride over the past few weeks. Getting healthy and making a few roster changes have helped them rediscover the team that started out so well at the beginning of the season. It’s hard seeing Boston folding down the stretch primarily because they won’t be facing too many strong opponents from here until the regular season’s end. Given their recent strong play, don’t expect an appearance at the play-in tournament.

Likely Play-In Teams

New York Knicks (30-27)
Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: Nine
Games Against Teams Over .500: Eight
Games Against East: Six

Give credit where credit is due. The Knickerbockers are not going away. They’ve stayed the course when many thought this was going to be another wasted year for them. They’ve given no reason to indicate that they’re stopping now. The reason they’re not as sure of a thing as Atlanta or Boston is because, over this last stretch, they’re going to face off against several Western Conference contenders looking for the highest seeding possible. As tough as that’s going to be, the Knicks are going to make each one of them earn those wins, guaranteed.

Miami HEAT (28-28)
Games Left: 16
Home Games Left: Eight
Games Against Teams Over .500: Seven
Games Against East: 11

It’s been difficult to get a read on the reigning Eastern Conference champions. They go on stretches that basically even out each other. After starting out 11-17, they win 12 of their next 13, then follow that up by losing their next six games, then win six of their next seven, then finally and most recently, they lose their next three games. No one really knows what Miami’s ceiling is right now. Odds are, the HEAT will probably be in the play-in. It’s just a matter of where. Also, why have we still not gotten any updates on Victor Oladipo?

Charlotte Hornets (27-28)
Games Left: 17
Home Games Left: 11
Games Against Teams Over .500: Eight
Games Against East: 13

What’s happened to the Hornets over the past few weeks is just straight up not fair. If LaMelo Ball and Gordon Hayward were playing, they’d solidly be in the same tier as Boston and Atlanta. With their squad fully healthy, Charlotte’s a playoff team, but being down their two best players definitely takes them down a peg. They deserve props that they haven’t rolled over since losing those two, but sadly they’re nowhere near as good as they were with their whole squad. Their schedule is easy enough that it shouldn’t knock them out of the play-in. If LaMelo and Hayward are back by then, then it’s hard not seeing the Hornets get into the postseason.

Indiana Pacers (26-29)
Games Left: 17
Home Games Left: 11
Games Against Teams Over .500: Seven
Games Against East Teams: 11

It hasn’t been talked about enough how injuries have really shaken up Indiana’s season. TJ Warren’s foot injury was a substantial season-long setback and Caris Levert’s cancer, as miraculous of a story as that was, was another prolonged absence. Overall, Indiana’s injuries have led to a rather underachieving season compared to past results. Luckily their schedule for the rest of the season shouldn’t be too tough, so making the play-in seems realistic.

Outside Looking In

*One of these teams will get the play-in as the 10th seed.

Toronto Raptors (23-34)
Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: Eight
Games Against Teams Over .500: Nine
Games Against East Teams: Seven

That’s right, the same Raptors, who only weeks ago were in serious talks to trade Kyle Lowry to the highest bidder, have suddenly found themselves in the fight for the final spot for the play-in. It’s not that they’ve suddenly turned it all around. It’s that the competition is too weak for them to bow out completely. Their schedule may allow them to go all-in on the tank, but maybe one last hurrah with the franchise’s greatest player isn’t the worst way to go.

Chicago Bulls (23-33)
Games Left: 16
Home Games Left: Seven
Games Against Teams Over .500: Nine
Games Against East Teams: 16

Good news: Nikola Vucevic looks like he’s fitting in splendidly. Bad news: The team has been on a downward spiral since his (and others) acquisition. Chicago has only won four of their last 13 games since the trade deadline and their remaining schedule is not going to be a breeze. On paper, they should be a shoo-in for the 10th seed, but the roster holes right now appear to be too glaring for Chicago to take the next step. If they don’t at the very least make the play-in, that’s not going to be a good look after all the moves they made.

Washington Wizards (23-33)
Games Left: 16
Home Games Left: Eight
Games Against Teams Over .500: Five
Games Against East Teams: 10

Remember when Washington was one of the worst teams in the league record-wise? And how they managed to only slightly improve themselves over the course of the season? Well, apparently that was enough to get them into the conversation for the play-in because, lo and behold, they’re now tied with Chicago for that 10th seed. It gets better too. They only face two tough challenges from here on out – Lakers and Bucks – but after that, it’s honestly easy enough that they might be the favorite to get that last play-in spot.

Cleveland Cavaliers (20-36)
Games Left: 16
Home Games Left: Nine
Games Against Teams over .500: Six
Games Against East Teams: 12

This sounds the most ludicrous seeing how the Cavs are currently the East’s 13th seed, but being three games behind Chicago while facing only six teams over .500 gives them a fighting chance. If the Cavaliers are actually able to get the play-in, that’s a big stepping stone for their future. It’s an accomplishment to build off of in an era with no LeBron James to speak of, which they haven’t been able to do since Friends was on the air.

As you can see, the play-in has, in a way, brought a new dimension to the NBA season. In any previous season (excluding the last one) no one would bat an eye at the 10 through 13 seeds. Their season at this point would be all but done and no one would care, but because of the possibility of going to a play-in tournament, teams suddenly have the chance to make something of what usually would have been a lost season.

Some teams may get annoyed by it because their time is coming to a close and there’s no need to delay the inevitable. For others, the play-in signifies that it could just be the beginning.

Continue Reading
Advertisement
Advertisement

ZigZagSport - Best Online Sportsbook & Casino

Advertisement
American Casino Guide
NJ Casino
NJ Casino

NBA Team Salaries

Advertisement

Bet on NBA at BetNow Sportsbook

CloseUp360

Insiders On Twitter

NBA On Twitter

Trending Now