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NBA DPOY Watch 2019-20: Preseason Edition

Can Rudy Gobert three-peat or will another standout defender take his crown? According to Jack Winter, here’s where the Defensive Player of the Year race stands as the regular season fast approaches.

Jack Winter

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At long last, the preseason is finally in full swing, giving basketball fans limited time to process the NBA’s drastically-altered state of play before the 2019-20 season officially tips off in a couple of weeks.

But one dynamic that was left mostly unchanged by the wildest summer of player movement in league history? The race for Defensive Player of the Year, in which a handful of familiar candidates pace the preseason pack, followed by a group of hopefuls with long track records of dominant play on that side of the ball

With an emphasis on the likelihood for team success, among many other individual factors, this is how Defensive Player of the Year stacks up as the regular season fast approaches.

6. Patrick Beverley – Los Angeles Clippers

The Clippers have more defensive talent than any team in basketball.

Not since Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen swarmed for the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s has a team featured a more dangerous pair of wing defenders than Paul George and Kawhi Leonard. Ivica Zubac was one of the best rim-protectors in basketball last season after LA stole him from the other side of Staples Center, while Moe Harkless, JaMychal Green and Rodney McGruder provide Doc Rivers with even more individual and team-wide options defensively.

But if the Clippers live up to their ceiling as a top-three this season, the presence of Beverley is poised to be the biggest reason why – as much for the tone he sets on that end of the floor as his dogged, disruptive individual defense of opposing ball handlers and primary scorers.

Beverley’s ability to capably check star wings as well as guards will make it easier for Los Angeles to get by defensively early in the season as George recovers from double shoulder surgery, and later when it comes time for Leonard to rest. He probably won’t be the Clippers’ most impactful defender due to his size limitations, but given Beverley’s rare versatility and ironclad status as a team leader, don’t be surprised if he receives the lion’s share of credit for their success on defense this season.

5. Rudy Gobert – Utah Jazz

Gobert is the two-time defending Defensive Player of the Year, and finished second to Draymond Green in 2016-17. He’s still just 27, has maintained a relatively clean bill of health throughout his career and, maybe most importantly, the Jazz enter the season as one of a handful of teams with legitimate title aspirations. Don’t forget the team that’s long caused Gobert the most problems defensively — the Golden State Warriors — are a shell of the offensive juggernaut they’ve been in recent seasons, too.

But voter fatigue is real and Utah, after ranking first and second in defensive rating over the last two years, respectively, could slide down the rankings a bit following a summer roster overhaul. Bojan Bogdanovic is underrated defensively, but not quite as good as the departed Jae Crowder. The Jazz will miss Derrick Favors both for his ability to mostly hold up defensively playing next to Gobert, and his much-improved effectiveness as a rim-protector when shifting to center. Joe Ingles, who slipped a bit in 2018-19, is a year older and Dante Exum just can’t be counted on to stay healthy.

There’s a legitimate chance that Gobert renders those factors moot, leading Utah to another top-two finish in defensive rating and thus joining Dwight Howard as the only player in league history to win three straight DPOY awards. But if the Jazz’s relative lack of continuity and quality depth causes an adjustment period, Gobert’s candidacy will take a hit almost no matter how dominant he remains.

4. Anthony Davis – Los Angeles Lakers

Let’s just put it out there: The Lakers will be better defensively than many anticipate. LeBron James will coast regardless of his teammates’ pledges to hold him accountable and Dwight Howard, newly svelte, might very well be a liability on defense at this point in his career. But Los Angeles is huge and experienced, with multiple quality perimeter defenders, and arguably no player in basketball is more capable of erasing teammates’ mistakes than Davis.

Davis would rank higher on this list if the plan was to play him at center something close to full-time. In a way, it’s unfair that Davis’ unmatched defensive versatility for a game-changing rim-protector could hurt his DPOY chances. If Gobert was on a team that planned to use two mobility-challenged seven-footers in the rotation, for instance, his struggles to chase stretch 4s and switch onto guards without negative recourse would be a huge issue for Utah.

The Lakers don’t have that problem with Davis. Of course, he’s the one who publicly announced his desire to play power forward, too, a preference that will ripple through lineup constructions for the season’s duration. Like his trade demand from the New Orleans Pelicans last February erased his All-NBA consideration, that development factors into Davis’ likelihood of winning DPOY – given both his decreased defensive impact at power forward and the likely team-wide fallout of that reality.

It’s a testament to Davis’ incredible combination of length, quickness, explosiveness and sense of timing that he’s such a viable candidate anyway. In a vacuum, there’s a case to be made that he’s the best defensive player in basketball.

3. Giannis Antetokounmpo – Milwaukee Bucks

The ongoing chorus of James Harden defenders decrying Antetokounmpo’s MVP victory over the Houston Rockets superstar conveniently overlooks one significant aspect of his case. Antetokounmpo finished a strong second in DPOY last season, earning 20 more first-place votes than Paul George, even reaching the First Team All-Defense for the first time in his career too.

The Bucks could be even better on defense this season than a year ago, somehow, when they ranked first in defensive rating. Antetokounmpo’s on-court rating of 101.8 was Milwaukee’s best among nine players who notched at least 1,000 minutes during the regular season as well.

There’s a possibility the gap between his on- and off-court defensive ratings narrows a bit in 2019-20. Robin Lopez is a big upgrade over the Bucks’ previous backup centers, and another year in Mike Budenholzer’s system – with largely the same personnel – should lead to better communication and fewer breakdowns. Regardless, Antetokounmpo will be among the league leaders in combined steals and blocks again this season and continue to prove himself as not just an imminently looming, highlight-reel off-ball defender, but a switch-proof isolation stopper to boot.

2. Myles Turner – Indiana Pacers

After his gradual progress stalled in a disappointing 2017-18 campaign, Turner re-established himself as a key two-way building block for the Pacers last season. It wasn’t improvement offensively that sparked his early-career turnaround, but Turner suddenly developing into one of the most impactful defenders in basketball – and a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate for the foreseeable future.

He finished fifth in the voting last season, an impressive showing for a newcomer to the DPOY race that played in relative anonymity for a non-contender and rarely on national TV. The bet here is that he substantially improves on that showing in 2019-20, with the basketball world taking more appropriate notice of his all-around defensive influence.

Turner led the league in both blocks and blocks per game last season, but ranked ninth in defensive field goal percentage at the rim against among players who challenged at least five such shots. With another year of understanding and further increased mobility this season, that latter metric should more closely align with the former ones.

A potential mitigating factor: Indiana starting Domantas Sabonis upfront. Can the Pacers, a quiet third in defensive rating last season, duplicate that effort playing two traditional big men major minutes? There’s a reason to believe so, but none loom larger than Turner continuing to rise up the ranks of basketball’s truly elite defenders.

1. Joel Embiid – Philadelphia 76ers

It seems like Embiid’s time.

The Sixers’ status as one of the league’s best defenses has been tethered to his on-court presence since his abbreviated rookie season, never to a greater extent than in last year’s playoffs. Philadelphia’s defensive rating with Embiid on the floor during the postseason was 93.0, a number that vaulted all the way up to 120.1 when he was on the bench – a 27.1 point discrepancy that more than doubled Jimmy Butler’s second-highest mark on the team.

The 76ers signed Al Horford with that dynamic specifically in mind. They’ve been rotating in replacement-level backups for Embiid since 2016-17, and now have the luxury of sliding another elite defensive big man down to center when he’s sidelined by rest, injury or load management.

Embiid’s DPOY resumé could theoretically take a hit by Philadelphia proving much stingier when he’s not on the court. But this team has a chance to rank among the best defenses in modern NBA history in large part due to that possibility, one for which Embiid will undoubtedly receive the most credit should it come to fruition.

Horford is a far different defender than Embiid, too. Opponents’ share of shots from the restricted area ticked up 3.1 percent with Embiid on the bench last season, further evidence of his case as the league’s preeminent rim-protector. Expect a similar difference this year; Horford’s effectiveness as a defender is more about all-court versatility than sovereignty in the paint.

Embiid should also be more comfortable on those rare occasions when he’s tasked with stepping outside to the perimeter after losing 25 pounds over the offseason. No player in basketball over the past three years has come out of nowhere for more jaw-dropping weak-side and chase-down blocks. With improved mobility and overall conditioning, expect those highlights to come even more frequently in 2019-20.

Embiid has had an argument as the best defender in basketball for a while now but hadn’t quite reached the apex. The gap between them is negligible if he’s not already Gobert’s equal as a rim-protector, plus there’s ample reason to believe he isn’t done improving both physically and mentally.

There will be several extremely strong contenders for DPOY. When all is said and done, though, none will boast the blend of individual dominance and team success needed to best Embiid.

Also under consideration: Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors; Paul George, Los Angeles Clippers; Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors; Marcus Smart, Boston Celtics; Aaron Gordon, Orlando Magic

Check back all season long for updates on Basketball Insiders’ Postseason Awards Watch. Even better, click here for the preseason MVP Watch.

Jack Winter is a Portland-based NBA writer in his first season with Basketball Insiders. He has prior experience with DIME Magazine, ESPN, Bleacher Report, and more.

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NBA Daily: Gordon Hayward’s Short-Lived But Crucial Return

Gordon Hayward has dealt with adversity. Now, despite a recent injury setback, he would seem to be himself again on the basketball court. Chad Smith examines what that could mean to the Boston Celtics going forward.

Chad Smith

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Gordon Hayward’s career was flapping in the breeze just two seasons ago. A devastating leg injury left many questioning whether he would ever be the star player that shined with the Utah Jazz again.

Since, Hayward’s journey toward a complete recovery had been an arduous one. But, to start the 2019-20 season, it seemed as if the Boston Celtics’ patience was finally paying off.

Then, it happened.

With less than two minutes left before halftime against the San Antonio Spurs, Hayward was blindsided by LaMarcus Aldridge on a screen. He left the game and, later, x-rays confirmed that he had sustained a fracture in his left hand and was set to miss time.

Through their first eight games, Hayward was one of Boston’s best and just one of three Celtics to average more than 20 points per game this season. He had led the team in field goal percentage (56.4 percent) while also shooting an impressive 44.4 percent from beyond the arc, by far his shooting from distance since his rookie season.

His 39-point performance against the Cleveland Cavaliers, a near triple-double that tied a career-best scoring mark, in the very same Quicken Loans Arena where he suffered that gruesome leg injury was almost a signal: Hayward was back. He was dominant in every facet of the game, as he also finished with 7 rebounds, 8 assists and shot 16-for-16 inside the three-point line.

To provide some context, the only other player in NBA history to match that stat line was none other than Wilt Chamberlain.

After the game, the 10-year veteran said that the injury is gone from his mind; a crucial hurdle in his return to the fromer-Hayward. Without nagging, troublesome thoughts at the forefront of his brain, Hayward’s instincts with the ball in his hands proved better than ever, while the aggression he often displayed in Utah that pushed him into elite company had returned.

Heading into their duel with the Spurs, Hayward had averaged 20.3 points per game, a career mark second to his last season with the Jazz. Likewise, Hayward’s rebound (7.9) and assist (4.6) numbers were the best or near the best of his career.

And his rejuvenation couldn’t have come at a better time for Boston; with Jaylen Brown out with an illness and Enes Kanter nursing a leg injury, Hayward’s contributions were necessary for the Celtics to start the season the way they have. He isn’t the most athletic body, but Hayward knows the game well and understands how to utilize his tools on both ends of the floor, stepping up and filling in quite nicely on either end of the floor

That, coupled with the context of Hayward’s last two seasons, has only made this most recent setback all the more awful. The former All-Star appeared well on his way to a second appearance in the mid-season classic.

Meanwhile, Boston, after a season that can only be described as confusing and disappointing, was back to playing fun, winning basketball.

Even without Hayward, the Celtics made quick work of the Spurs. But, going forward, they are going to seriously miss their star on the wing. While, in the midst of a seven-game win streak, they sit atop of the Eastern Conference, Boston still has to deal with the Philadelphia 76ers, Milwaukee Bucks, Miami HEAT and other potential top-dogs in the conference.

For however brief a time he was back, Hayward was back to his old ways; he was aggressive on offense, stout on defense and put the team in a position to win every possession and every game. While his injury robbed us, the viewer, of his talent for the last two seasons, he overcame some major obstacles and was better for it.

With that Hayward, a key piece to the team’s Larry O’Brien puzzle and the same player that Danny Ainge and Co. inked to a four-year, max salary, the Celtics could go toe-to-toe with any of those aforementioned teams, or any teams in the NBA en route to an NBA Finals bid, for that matter.

But now, with him sidelined once again, Boston is certainly in for their share of struggles.

In a post on his website back in September, Hayward gushed about the upcoming season. And, amidst the chat of his return from injury and his prior relationship with Kemba Walker, his message was clear: “I’m ready to be the player I came here to be.”

Hayward will return, his injury not season-ending. And, while it may seem cruel or unfair, this minor setback is just that: a minor setback, a pitstop near the end of Hayward’s journey.

And, despite that setback, Hayward, if he hadn’t already, is well on his way to proving that he is, in fact, the “player [he] came here to be” (or better, even), something that not only the Celtics, but the whole of the NBA is glad to see.

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NBA Daily: Devonte’ Graham — Breakout or Mirage?

Devonte’ Graham has been one of the 2019-20 regular season’s most pleasant surprises. But is his current level of play something close to the new normal, or an early-season flash in the pan? Jack Winter examines.

Jack Winter

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Based on the first two weeks of the regular season, the Charlotte Hornets seem to have found their franchise point guard.

It’s a reality that’s come as a major surprise to most fans and analysts, who deemed the three-year, $57 million contract Charlotte awarded to Terry Rozier as among the summer’s very worst. More shocking, though, is that it’s not Rozier who’s staked his claim as the Hornets’ undisputed floor general in the season’s early going.

To be fair, even the die-hards whose eyes were opened by Devonte’ Graham at Summer League didn’t see this coming. He’s been Charlotte’s most influential player, and it’s not particularly close. The Hornets outscore opponents by 15.8 points per 100 possessions with Graham on the court compared to the bench, per NBA.com/stats, best among regulars. While his per-game averages of 17.0 points and 7.0 assists are hardly spectacular, they’re also a team-high in both categories.

It’s not like Graham, who’s come off the bench in Charlotte’s eight games, has done a sizable majority of his work against reserves, either. He’s fourth on Charlotte in total minutes, and is the only player head coach James Borrego has felt it necessary to have on the floor for each of his team’s 19 crunch time played this season.

Coming into 2019-20, believers saw enough in Graham to think he could be a valuable third guard, if the long-range shooting prowess he showed in Las Vegas wasn’t a flash in the pan, anyway. He launched a whopping 6.9 triples per game at Summer League, connecting at a 41.8 percent clip despite most of his tries coming off the bounce. Graham has been even better than that for the Hornets, putting the kind of imminent pressure on defenses with the ball that’s allowed other aspects of his game to shine.

Graham, obviously, won’t shoot 50 percent on pull-up threes all season. But even if he recedes to somewhere in the mid-to-upper thirties, he’ll nevertheless have staked his claim as one of the league’s most dangerous off-dribble shooters.

Graham has let it fly with such freedom and confidence early in the season that it’s tempting to believe that inevitable regression isn’t a foregone conclusion. He’s jacking 4.3 pull-up threes per game, 10th-most in basketball behind a who’s who of star shot-makers. Only Buddy Hield is currently shooting a higher percentage on those tries than Graham, and his film would seem to reveal a player more in line with that esteemed company than one due for a significant backslide.

Graham shoots an easy ball, and his quick, compact release allows him to frequently rise up for threes with only marginal contests by the defense. He loves to stop and pull-up in transition, and doesn’t hesitate to shoot when defenders give him even just a sliver of air space, whether coming around a high ball screen or isolated at the top of the floor.

Graham’s balance on step-backs and side-steps is also impressive and, coupled with his comfort from multiple feet behind the line, sparks optimism about his long-term prospects as a game-changing shooter.

But possessing that plus attribute alone would limit his ceiling to a glorified Quinn Cook – certainly a helpful player, but not the type of guy whose presence answers more questions than it poses. Graham, though, has leveraged his newfound threat as an off-dribble marksman into star-like effectiveness as an overall playmaker.

Graham, 24, played all four years at the University of Kansas, and it shows in the way he operates with the ball. He’s always probing for ways to manipulate the defense with ball fakes, look-aways and extra dribbles, nuance that, combined with defenders’ fear of his jumper, has made him a more effective penetrator than he would be otherwise.

He is merely an average quick-twitch athlete, but Graham compensates with rare body control and a keen understanding of how to protect the ball while finishing. His 71.4 percent shooting at the rim, accuracy normally reserved for the Giannis Antetokounmpo’s and dunk-centric bigs of the world, is another statistical outlier bound to drop as the season wears on, but indicates just how crafty Graham is around the basket.

Graham doesn’t need to be an elite or even above-average finisher for a guard. With defenders going over every screen he uses on or off the ball and tip-toeing at every hesitation dribble, he’ll continue creasing the paint with relative ease going forward, drawing attention that frees up his teammates for easy looks.

Other than the shooting, it’s as a table-setter where Graham has inspired most thus far. The same sense of control and pace he exhibits as a scorer is even more evident as a passer; Graham has routinely been a step ahead of the defense, creating angles that aren’t initially there for pocket passes and dump-offs in the paint. He’s even tossed a few pinpoint lobs from half court, too.

It bears repeating that Graham won’t shoot flames from distance the entire season. Defenses will treat him differently once that regression comes, prompting a ripple effect that’s likely to decrease his efficiency and make him less dynamic with the ball.

But, even if Graham settles into a 35 percent pull-up shooter from three, he’ll still be a surefire rotation player. Ball handlers who must be guarded beyond the arc and know how to create in the paint will always have a role in the league, especially those who double as solid defenders.

Graham’s innate knack for getting to the line raises his baseline, too. James Harden and Goran Dragic, foul-drawing maestros, are the only players also taking at least half of their shots from deep who have a higher free throw rate than Graham’s 39.8 percent, per Basketball Reference.

For now, Graham’s ceiling is unknown. Considering his marginal physical profile and the fact his current level of shot-making is unsustainable, it would seem as if Graham’s early-season play might be his peak. His 41.9 percent shooting on twos doesn’t exactly portend stardom, either.

But then you remember how much he’s improved since last season, and how with each game the action seems to be slowing down.

Only true basketball savants, after all, are capable of making plays like this at the NBA level.

Fortunately for the Hornets, they don’t need to decide how Graham fits into their utmost plans any time soon. His rookie contract runs through next season, sending him to restricted free agency in the summer of 2021.

And, until then, Charlotte should continue to stretch the limits of his game. As his recent play has made abundantly clear, putting a cap on Graham’s potential could prove missed opportunity the Hornets won’t get again.

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Conclusions From the Suns’ Hot Start

Following their best start in years, Phoneix has shown that they are no longer the NBA’s stomping grounds. Matt John examines what has gone into building the team and, arguably, made them the league’s most pleasant surprise.

Matt John

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Yes, pun very much intended.

Thursday night, the Phoenix Suns suffered their third loss of the season at the hands of the Miami HEAT. Miami, so far, has appeared to be one of the better teams in the league, so seeing them get in the win the desert isn’t too out of the ordinary.

The real shock is that this was the first time that Phoenix was outclassed all season.

Keeping it modest, the Suns were expected to be outclassed left and right when the season began. But, with the loss to Miami, they now stand at 5-3. At first glance, a start like that is encouraging, especially for a team like Phoenix that has dwelled in the NBA’s depths for the better part of 10 years.

But — and good news Suns fans — there’s more to it than that.

Before the HEAT loss, Phoenix’s other two losses came at the hands of the Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz, playoff teams a season ago and, in 2019-20, expected to once reside in the class of the Western Conference. Better yet, both games were decided by a single point, and on last-second shots, no less.

Even against Miami game, the Suns gave it their all for most of the game, which hasn’t exactly been the case for them in recent seasons.

Factoring that in, it’s not just that Phoenix has won more than most thought they would, but they’ve hung around with the best of the best this season.

It’s an odd wrinkle to the season, for sure, that absolutely no one saw coming. But, nevertheless, it’s a welcome sight. In a season that has had plenty of surprises, Phoenix’s best start in years may top them all. But what can we take away from that encouraging start? What should we? Let’s take a look.

Devin Booker and the “Good Stats/Bad Team” Label

Practically since he stepped on an NBA parquet, Devin Booker’s put up magnificent offensive numbers. In fact, following his rookie year, Booker may be the closest thing to a guaranteed bucket that we’ve seen.

In his now five NBA seasons, Booker has also taken massive strides as playmaker. In that time, he’s seen his assists per game jump from just 2.6 his rookie year to a strong 6.8 last season.

Yet, despite the offensive fireworks, Booker has generated little All-Star buzz. The reason has almost always been the same — Phoenix’s success, or lack thereof, combined with the boatload of talent that has made up the Western Conference.

Of course, an All-Star appearance isn’t the be-all-end-all for NBA players. But, unfortunately, the lack of buzz Booker has generated has made many question whether his numbers are truly elite or just empty calories, just an alright player stat-stuffing on an offensively inept roster.

Hopefully, at least thus far, those doubters have come to the conclusion that Booker is anything but. In eight games, Booker has put up his usual, dominant stat line — 25.6 points, 3.5 rebounds, 5 assists — but, with improvements made up-and-down the roster, has managed to do so more efficiently; Booker has shot the ball 52.9 percent from the floor and 50 percent from three-point range, both career highs.

Behind him, the Suns have started the season on a roll. But, if you’re still not convinced, just check his on-off numbers: Phoenix is plus-18.4 points per 100 possessions when Booker is on the floor.

It’s a small sample, sure, and Booker has a lot left to prove defensively. But, when he’s on the floor, the Suns are clearly a better team.

And, assuming their start isn’t just a big fluke, then there may be nothing stopping Booker from making his first All-Star appearance (or at least drumming up some consideration).

The Importance of the Right Personnel

It’s a shame that they’ve only now started to garner some attention, but Phoenix has sneakily made some great moves in recent seasons, and especially this last offseason.

Now, not to say their front office is perfect — they’ve been far from that. The number of moves or former players that one could attach “-fiasco” to is astonishing.

But Phoenix has gotten to where they are this season through some seriously competent additions. They acquired an undervalued asset from the Washington Wizards in Kelly Oubre Jr., an overpaid but productive Tyler Johnson from the HEAT, a buy-low candidate in Dario Saric prior to the 2019 draft.

And, of course, perhaps their most important acquisitions in the last five years, the installment of James Jones as the team’s general manager and Monty Williams their head coach.

The Oubre deal flew under the radar, in part, because of the failed three-way trade with Washington and the Memphis Grizzlies just days earlier. An energetic 3-and-D wing whose youth made him another potential asset on the same timeline as Booker, Oubre was acquired for a then 33-year-old Trevor Ariza, who wasn’t long for Phoenix anyway. The Suns gave Oubre a rich extension over the summer — a two-year, $30 million pact — and, so far, he’s proven worth every penny as he’s averaged 17.1 points and 5.5 rebounds on respectable shooting splits.

Johnson, to a much lesser extent, was another successful move. Grossly overpaid? You betcha. But, while they may have had to swallow the $19.2 million price tag, Johnson brought stability to the guard spot and, behind Booker and now Ricky Rubio, is an upgrade over what Phoenix had had there previously.

Many were confused when Phoneix traded the sixth overall pick for the 11th and Saric, but he has proven a strong option in the frontcourt as he’s averaged 8.9 points and 6.1 rebounds and posted a plus-6.1 in eight games. Saric can also add some much-needed floor spacing and playmaking, while he also is one of the few on the team with some postseason experience.

There have been plenty of other, solid additions: Rubio, Aron Baynes, Frank Kaminsky and others. While the general consensus wasn’t exactly positive, the team desperately needed a veteran like Rubio in the backcourt alongside Booker, while Baynes and Kaminsky have proven vital in the absence of Deandre Ayton, lost to suspension.

As a result of these moves, the Suns are more well-rounded than they’ve been in years. They’ll definitely need further reinforcements, but now they have a solid core around their star, Booker, a core that, clearly can compete night-in and night-out.

We Have Our First Coach of the Year Candidate

Even with the right roster in place, a good team still needs the right maestro to make it all work. And Monty Williams has proven the right man for the job in Phoenix.

For the longest time, Phoenix has had little to call home about; they’ve ranked near the bottom of every statistical category whether it be offensive or defensive rating, three-point percentage, total points, rebounds or assists. It was never pretty.

But, in his first year, Williams has done everything he can to turn that around. The Suns, thus far, are sixth in the NBA in net rating (5), while they have also shot the second-highest true-shooting percentage (58.2) and seventh-highest three-point percentage (37.3). They have averaged the second-most assists per game (27), while their 114.1 points per game is good for seventh in the NBA.

Of course, give credit where credit is due and applaud the players for the turnaround. But, much of that success should also be attributed to Williams, who has established a system that has worked wonders on the court and positive culture in the Suns’ locker room.

In fact, he’s done such a great job to this point, that it would be a shock if he wasn’t in the running for Coach of the Year in his first with the team. The season is still young, but if Phoneix can keep this up Williams could prove a shoo-in for the award.

This Might Not Be the Final Product

As it’s been stated before, Phoenix improved in many areas, but they’re not without their flaws. No team is.

With Ayton gone, they lack a major scoring threat to take the load off of Booker. And, as good as they’ve been, opponents should start to take advantage of that and dare the Suns’ lesser players to score. Even once Ayton’s back in the fold, another option behind him and Booker would only ease the burden on Phoneix’s young roster.

The Suns could also use more help on the defensive perimeter. As of now, they’re in the middle of the pack on that side of the ball. But, if they want to completely right the ship, they need to get even better.

That said, it’s impressive to see how far Phoenix has come, and even more exciting to think that they could even get better. Lucky for them, there should be plenty of players on the market that could help them and, with Johnson’s large salary, the Suns should have no trouble matching salaries.

Danillo Gallinari, Andre Iguodala and a number of other veterans on not-so-great teams could prove solid additions, depending on where the Suns find themselves later in the year.

Don’t get ahead of yourself: nobody is saying Phoenix is a title contender. The excitement may fade, and it may be all for naught if they miss the postseason.

But playing competitive, winning basketball is a huge step in the right direction. And, so far, the Suns have done little else than do just that. “The Phoenix Suns are back!” sure does have quite a nice ring to it.

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