Booker Has Been a Bright Spot for the Suns
Heading into the 2015-16 season, the Phoenix Suns were projected by many to compete for a playoff berth in the Western Conference. The team entered the season with a young core of players that many thought were set to turn the corner.
In addition to the promising core, the Suns made a couple of key offseason moves. First, they re-signed point guard Brandon Knight to a five-year contract after acquiring him at the trade deadline last season. Then, they signed free agent Tyson Chandler to a four-year deal.
Adding a veteran like Chandler was supposed to be the splashy move that Phoenix needed, as he was expected to mentor some of the team’s younger players. He was also viewed as perhaps the missing piece that could help solidify the defense and help the Suns return to the postseason.
However, this season has been anything but positive for the Suns. News broke prior to the start of the campaign that forward Markieff Morris wanted out of Phoenix before training camp. He was unhappy with the team’s management following the trade of his brother, Marcus, to the Detroit Pistons.
In the early goings, it seemed as though the situation with Morris didn’t impact the team that much. After the first month of the season, the team posted an 8-9 record. It wasn’t a great start, but the team was still ninth in the standings at that point.
Since that 8-9 start, the wheels have completely fallen off. The team has gone 6-31 since December 1, which is the worst record in the league during that span. To rectify the poor showing, the team fired two of head coach Jeff Hornacek’s top assistants in an attempt to get the team back on track.
That move didn’t go as planned, as the Suns went on to lose 14 out of their next 16 games, which prompted management to let Hornacek go too. The team hasn’t fared much better under interim head coach Earl Watson either, as they’ve gone winless in five games with Watson in charge.
One potential factor for the team’s poor play this season has been the injuries to several key players.
Eric Bledsoe (knee) and T.J. Warren (right foot fracture) are each out for the rest of the season, while Knight has been out since January 21 with a groin injury, and a timetable for his return is not yet known. Bledsoe, Warren and Knight are three of the team’s top four scorers.
The three injuries have turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the Suns. Injuries create opportunities for other guys, and it gives decision-makers a chance to look at those who wouldn’t normally have a chance to play.
One player who has fully benefited from those injuries in Phoenix has been rookie Devin Booker. After the Suns drafted Booker with the 13th pick in June’s draft, many were questioning the decision given the team’s depth at the guard positions.
Booker didn’t play too much during the first couple months of the season. He averaged just 16 minutes per game through the end of December and was averaging only 6.4 points per game. It’s been a tale of two halves for Booker as the script has completely flipped since the beginning of 2016.
Booker’s playing time has more than doubled to 34.4 minutes per game since January 1. He’s averaging 17.1 points, 3.5 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game during this time. He’s been in the starting lineup in nearly every game since Bledsoe went down with his knee injury and hasn’t looked back.
“Everybody knows that the NBA is an unpredictable business,” Booker said at All-Star Weekend. “You never know what could happen so you always have to be ready for your opportunity and that’s what happened to me. Unfortunately, a couple of my teammates went down, but I get the chance to play now so I’m trying to take full advantage of it.”
Booker made a name for himself at Kentucky last year as one of the best shooters in his rookie class. He averaged 10 points per game for the Wildcats while converting on 41 percent of his shots from three-point range. His numbers this season in the NBA are awfully similar to his college numbers as he’s averaging 10.6 points per game while shooting 40 percent from three.
He currently leads all rookies in three-point percentage, and is sixth in scoring. He set the Suns’ rookie record for three-pointers in a game with six back on January 19 after scoring a career-high 32 points against the Indiana Pacers.
He took part in the Rising Stars Challenge on Friday night for Team USA and the Three-Point Challenge on Saturday night. On Friday night, Booker scored 23 points after shooting 9-of-14 from the field, including 5-of-8 from three-point range.
Saturday night, Booker advanced to the final round of the Three-Point Contest after defeating J.J. Redick and James Harden in the tie-breaker round as the three each finished with 20 points in the first round. Booker would eventually fall to Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson in the final round.
Booker said on Friday that his objective this weekend was simple: “Get buckets. That’s it.”
“[You have to] show what you can do,” Booker said of the weekend’s games. “I know our rookie class last year when we were at the McDonald’s [All-American] and Jordan games it was all business – we didn’t take it as fun and games. We’re all cool off of the court, but once you hit the court that’s our job, that’s our business, so we have to take it serious.”
For all of the players involved in the weekend’s festivities, it was a welcomed opportunity to take a break from the regular season. Players were able to chill out and catch up with their friends and families. Now that All-Star weekend has passed, the grind of the second-half of the season picks back up this week.
Booker sounded ready to continue his rookie season and end it on a high note. While he’s likely all but eliminated from the Rookie of the Year race, he wants to continue improving his game and be a leader his teammates can count on moving forward.
“I always have to work on something,” Booker said. “With a lot of our point guards going down, even though I’m young, [I want to] try to be a leader out there. Try to be a leader and get all of my teammates involved still, but at the same time I have to make the right play. Just try to figure that out at a young age.”
While it’s been a tumultuous season for the Suns, the emergence of Booker has left the team with something to feel good about. With so many injuries this season, it’s created more opportunities for players like Booker, Archie Goodwin and others as well.
The Suns have been mentioned as a team that could be very active this week ahead of the trade deadline. The team may be looking at ways in which they can improve for next season, so making a couple of moves may not be out of the question. It’s clear that they will be competing for a draft pick again this season, but the team doesn’t seem to be too far off from returning to the playoffs.
On to the Trade Deadline
Now that All-Star Weekend is officially behind us, the rumors surrounding the trade deadline will certainly begin to pick up. Teams now have less than three days to pull the trigger on trades, so expect to hear plenty of chatter from now until the 3 p.m. EST deadline on Thursday.
The week leading up to the deadline typically involves little to no movement until the final day teams can make trades. Most deals won’t happen until hours before the cutoff time on Thursday. As one executive told our own Steve Kyler: “We don’t do things in the NBA until there is a deadline.”
Trade rumors typically slow down around the All-Star game, but the same names surfaced in rumors today that came up prior to the break:
According to a report by Frank Isola of the New York Daily News, the Houston Rockets and Miami HEAT have been talking about a deal that would involve Dwight Howard and Hassan Whiteside.
Trading Whiteside could become problematic for the HEAT in this potential deal as he’s earning less than $1 million this season. Miami would need to include several other high-priced players in order to match the $22,359,364 Howard is earning this season.
The Atlanta Hawks have long been rumored to be interested in trading Al Horford, Jeff Teague and/or Kyle Korver prior to the deadline. According to the New York Post, one executive claimed the Hawks are looking to break up their team, leaving Horford, Teague or Korver among the players that could be moved.
Boston, Houston and Orlando have all been said to be interested in some of the Hawks’ players.
It was reported over the weekend by the Cleveland Plain Dealer that the Cavaliers are unlikely to re-sign Timofey Mozgov this summer. The team has been trying to play smaller, and trading Mozgov seems like a real possibility now that they may not want him back.
Mozgov is making just under $5 million this season and is on an ending deal, which could make him an attractive option for teams at the trade deadline. One potential replacement for Mozgov could be Kosta Koufos, as the team has been reportedly pursuing him, per Marc Stein.
Be sure to check in with Basketball Insiders all week for all things regarding the trade deadline.
Cavs Woes Reason For Concern, But Not Dismissal
Spencer Davies takes a look at the Cavs’ issues and why we shouldn’t count them out just yet.
The Cleveland Cavaliers are the classic case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
When they’re on, they look like the defending three-time Eastern Conference Champions. When they’re off, they look like an old team that’s worn down and, at times, disinterested—and it gets ugly.
Take this past three weeks for example. After going on a tear of 18 wins in 19 games, the Cavs have dropped eight of 11 and are falling fast. Two of those three victories in that stretch were decided by four points or less against bottom-of-the-barrel teams in the East.
So what happened? For one, the schedule got significantly tougher. Beyond just the level of competition, Cleveland has been on the road for a long while. Nine of the games in this recent down period have been away games. The only time they’ve been home was for a quick second in mid-December and a short stay for New Years.
You’ve got to think about how that affects a psyche, not only from an on-court standpoint but also in regard to spending time with loved ones and family. LeBron James brought attention to his own homesickness on Christmas Day while he was in the Bay Area instead of in Northeast Ohio to celebrate the holidays. If it gets to him, you know it’s got to get to the other players as well. These guys are human beings with lives, and the rigors of travel can wear differently on people. Luckily for them, seven of their next nine games will be at Quicken Loans Arena.
With that being said, everybody in the NBA goes through it, so it’s no excuse for how flat the Cavs have been. Anybody on the team will tell you that, too. However, when you’re figuring out rotations and re-implementing players who had injuries, it’s not easy. This is exactly why nobody should envy Tyronn Lue.
He’s being asked to make room in his rotations and adjust on the fly as Cleveland gets guys back. When they went on that month-long run, the reason they had success was that the second unit really clicked. Dwyane Wade found his niche as the maestro of the bench bunch along with any mixture of Kyle Korver, Jeff Green, Cedi Osman, Channing Frye, and Jae Crowder. Lue had found the perfect group to spell LeBron James and company.
But then, Tristan Thompson came back and, with all due respect, it messed with their flow. The spacing is no longer there for Wade or Green to penetrate because the paint is clogged. It makes it easier on opposing defenses to just stick to Korver because there aren’t any other threatening shooters on the floor (besides Osman, maybe). Worst of all, the change basically kicked Frye—who has a plus-14 net rating, according to Cleaning The Glass—out of the rotation completely.
Deciding who plays and when is a tough job. Derrick Rose is set to come back soon. Iman Shumpert is coming along as well. Lue likes a 10-man rotation, but there are at least 12 players who deserve to be on that court. We already know Rose is expected to commandeer the second unit in Wade’s absence on back-to-backs. As for if Shumpert remains in Cleveland, who knows? It’ll be interesting to keep an eye on how this situation is managed moving forward.
Isaiah Thomas, on the other hand, is somebody the Cavs have been waiting on to return since the season started. Despite LeBron being LeBron and Kevin Love having as great of an offensive year as he’s ever had on the team, the starting unit lacks an extra punch. Thomas can be that shot in the arm, and he proved that in his debut at home against Portland and on the road in Orlando. There are two snags that both he and the team are going to hit before the 29-year-old returns to his All-Star form: 1) He’s got to get his legs under him to regain the consistency in his game and 2) His teammates are going to have to adjust to playing with him.
These are not easy things to do. Remember, aside from Jae Crowder, there is nobody on Cleveland’s roster that has played with Thomas before. Add in that he’s trying to re-discover his own game and that makes for a pretty bumpy road, at least out of the gate.
Start here—put Thompson in the starting lineup. As poor of a fit he’s been on the bench, he has shown promising signs of a developing chemistry with Thomas. It’s only been four games, but he loves having a partner in the pick-and-roll game. That’s clearly where you’ll get the most production out of him and how he can thrive. He’ll provide hustle, second chance opportunities, and a semi-decent big that can at least bother some of the competition’s drives to the basket. Sliding Love over to the four might change his game a little bit, but you can still get him going in the post before giving him chances as a shooter to work him outside-in.
The resulting effect helps the second unit as well. They’ll get one of either J.R. Smith or Crowder, depending on who would be relegated there. Both of those guys can use a spark to get them going. Because of Crowder’s familiarity with Thomas, let’s say Smith gets kicked out. Maybe that gets him out of the funk he’s in? It also allows for Frye, who hasn’t seen more than 20 minutes in a game since December 4, to get re-acclimated to a group he truly helped on both ends of the floor earlier in the year.
Outside of the need to make a move at the deadline, the Cavs can figure this out. It’s understood that they’re the fourth-worst defensive team in the NBA, but they’ve gone through these kinds of ruts at this time of year, specifically since LeBron came back. There might not be statistical evidence backing up the claim of any improvement, but the track record speaks for itself.
The panic button is being hit, but pump the brakes a bit. This isn’t anything new. The pieces are a little different and things look as bad as they ever have, but in the end, the result will likely be the same.
NBA Daily: Zach LaVine Has Solid Debut With Bulls
Zach LaVine put together a solid performance for the Bulls in his first game back from injury.
The Chicago Bulls are turning a corner this season. Zach LaVine is healthy after completing a year of rehabilitation from an ACL injury. LaVine’s return comes at a critical moment. The team is 13-7 over the last twenty games. Many of the wins in this stretch are over current competitors for a potential spot in the playoffs. This includes wins against the Charlotte Hornets (in overtime), the Philadelphia 76ers and three wins (one in overtime) against the New York Knicks. The stretch of winning ties into the return of forwards Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotic. Having these key players back and winning this many games recently has changed the dynamics of what had been shaping up to be a losing season.
LaVine played in his first game of the season on Saturday and hit three of four three-point baskets while scoring 14 points in 19 minutes played. LaVine described how he felt physically and about the team’s recent run.
“I thought I did pretty good. I was tired as hell at first. But, we got the win,” LaVine said. “We’re going to keep this thing going.”
The team went into this season having parted ways with their franchise player, Jimmy Butler, in a trade that was derided by many for being lopsided. The trade netted the Bulls LaVine, point guard Kris Dunn and the sixth pick in the 2017 draft in exchange for Butler and the number 16 pick. The trade also allowed Butler to be reunited with coach Tom Thibodeau in Minnesota. For the Bulls, Dunn has greatly improved from the poor play of his rookie season in Minnesota. In addition, the Bulls selected Lauri Markkanen, whom has already displayed some serious talent and potential. Now with LaVine in the lineup, the Bulls can see the total value of the trade on the court.
So, where do the Bulls now stand? According to FiveThirtyEight, as of January 14, the Bulls are projected as having a three percent chance of making the playoffs with a projected record of 32-50. This is a jump from less than one percent (essentially zero percent) back on December 11, 2017. Still, three percent is not the most reassuring projection.
In addition, the recent shift to winning basketball also puts Chicago’s 2018 draft pick in a more precarious position. On December 6, 2017, the Bulls were 3-20 and were on pace to have one of the worst records in the league, if not the worst. Now every win moves the pick further away from a likely top three or even a potential number one pick and moves it closer to a top-10 selection or even middle of the first-round pick.
At the moment, the team is 16-27, good enough for 12th place in the Eastern Conference behind the Hornets, Knicks, 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks for the eighth and final spot in the playoffs. Being 6.5 games back and having seven more losses than the Bucks means the Bulls will need to continue winning at a high rate to make up the difference in the time left in the season.
LaVine didn’t hold back when it came to expressing his optimism regarding the team’s potential.
“I think we can make a push for this thing,” LaVine said. “That’s our job to do. That’s our job to do that,”
LaVine isn’t paying much attention to skeptics who still don’t believe the Bulls have much change to win anything meaningful this season.
“You know, we can’t control outside thoughts or anything,” LaVine said. “We’re ball players, we go out there and try to win every competition. You know, I think we’re good. I think we’re going to be good.”
In LaVine’s absence, Mirotic and Portis (despite their offseason scuffle) have emerged as two of the team’s best players. In addition, center Robin Lopez has done an admirable job keeping up his effort all season long while fulfilling his role as a veteran leader for the team. Lopez described the atmosphere on the team as positive recently in an interview with Joel Brigham of Basketball Insiders.
Despite the reason for optimism, it must be noted that the franchise might make another big trade that would diminish the team’s ability to be competitive this season. Despite his recent on-court success, reports are that Mirotic would like to be traded and that the Bulls asking price is a first-round pick.
Until such a move occurs, the Bulls appear poised to maintain their recent rate of success. Every win could cost the Bulls what could be a top overall pick in 2018. Regardless, the Bulls are surely feeling better about the results of the Butler trade, especially after LaVine’s impressive Chicago debut.
NBA Daily: Lopez’s Enjoys “Old Guy” Role on Young Team
Robin Lopez is the old man on a very young Chicago Bulls team, but he says the camaraderie is a big reason why he’s happy there, and why the team is overachieving so much this year.
When the Chicago Bulls started the season 3-20, nobody was surprised that they stunk. Everything was fine. They were supposed to stink. That was the entire reason they traded away Jimmy Butler for younger players in the first place. They wanted got their rebuild underway in earnest. (more…)