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NBA PM: Has a Prudent, Patient Phil Jackson Righted the Knicks Ship?

Despite not making a splashy signing, it appears the Knicks are finally heading in the right direction…

Tommy Beer

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Phil Jackson’s first year captaining the Knicks’ ship was far from pleasant. Choppy waters worsened into a perfect storm of inefficiency, injuries and ineptitude.

However, based on what we have seen over the last few weeks, spanning from the draft on June 25th through the first day free agents can officially sign with their new teams on July 9th, has Jackson successfully navigated the Knicks out of harm’s way? Is there now smoother sailing ahead?

******

Last summer, making his first franchise-defining decision as team president, Jackson decided to offer a $124 million contract to Carmelo Anthony, which included a no-trade clause, a player option for the fifth and final season, and a 15 percent trade-kicker. Even before Anthony underwent season-ending surgery in February, it was a questionable choice, considering no other NBA team could offer ‘Melo more than $96 million.

In addition, just a day before the 2014 Draft last June, Jackson traded away Tyson Chandler (and his expiring contract) and Raymond Felton in exchange for Jose Calderon, Wayne Ellington, Shane Larkin, Samuel Dalembert and two second-round selections.

Calderon had three years and $22.2 million left on his deal at the time. The trade was made before Jackson knew the Knicks’ 2014-15 campaign would go up in flames. However, Calderon struggled mightily, as injuries and inefficiency greatly limited his effectiveness.

As we know, the Knicks would go on to lose 65 games, completing the single worst season in the franchise’s history.

However, the upshot was the Knicks would be rewarded with a high lottery pick. They would also have upwards of $28 million to spend on free agents this summer.

Phil would have a great opportunity to right the ship after it that had drifted way off course.

The question was: Would Jackson feel pressure to immediately restore respectability to an embarrassed organization?

Phil will be 70 years old by the time next season rolls around. His reputation as an executive was on the line, according to the tabloids in Gotham. Would he be willing to be practice patience and attempt to slowly but surely rebuild the franchise the right way? Or might he be tempted to take short cuts in hopes of instantly putting a presentable (if ultimately unsuccessful) product on the floor.

In other words, after investing in Carmelo Anthony and Jose Calderon last summer, would Jackson be willing to reverse course and build towards the future, as opposed to searching for quick fixes in an attempt to sneak into playoffs as 7th or 8th seed?

At the start of the offseason, the answer was still a mystery. Despite a spate of interviews to print outlets and radio programs, the cryptic Jackson wasn’t tipping his hand.

Jackson and the Knicks caught a bad break in the draft lottery when they dropped to No. 4 overall. Unfortunately for the Knicks, the top tier of talent in this draft was only three deep, according to most analysts. After Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell and Jahlil Okafor went off the board in succession, the Knicks were forced to choose from a handful of promising players with a mix of enticing upside and worrisome question marks.

The Knicks ended up selecting largely unknown but highly-touted Latvian prospect Kristaps Porzingis. While the pick is undeniably risky due to the scary downside inherent in taking a skinny, unproven, foreign-born player – the vast upside is also irrefutable. Porzingis possesses an incredibly rare skill set for someone his size. He moves remarkably well and fluidly from baseline-to-baseline. This is noteworthy because lateral quickness is imperative for big men hoping to survive defensively in today’s pick-and-roll heavy NBA. Offensively, he dunks forcefully, yet makes it seems effortless. He needs to improve his low-block ability, but has the foundations of a solid post-up game. Still, the most impressive skill Porzingis brings to the table is his feathery touch from the perimeter. Kristaps has a flawless form that would be impressive from a shooting guard, let alone a guy measuring in at seven feet, three inches. At his size, he’ll be able to effortlessly launch uncontested jumpers from all over the floor. At just 19 years old, he hasn’t yet even scratched the surface of his vast potential.

The selection of Porzingis was also encouraging because it seemed to indicate that Jackson was thinking long-term. He wasn’t dead set on selecting a less risky, more established player (such as Justise Winslow), who was a safer bet and would provide immediate returns, but did not have the same upside as Porzingis. In addition, Phil decided not to trade the pick to move down in the draft while also acquiring a young veteran that would help the Knicks next season. Phil only has four years left on his contract. There’s a very good chance that he won’t even be in New York if and when Porzingis develops into the player Phil and Knicks fans hope he will be.

However, the Knicks draft did not end there. An hour or so after selecting Porzingis, Jackson did a masterful job getting back into the first round by trading the one-dimensional Tim Hardaway Jr. for the No. 19 overall selection, which he used to select point guard Jerian Grant from Notre Dame. Grant is a big (6’4″ with a 6’7.5” wingspan) and athletic (exhibit A) guard that should be able to contribute on both sides of the ball. In addition to being a superb scorer, he is also a gifted passer with impressive court vision. In college, Grant dished out a total of 690 assists during his Notre Dame career, which was more NCAA assists than the first 15 picks in the 2015 draft combined.

Phil’s final move on draft night was acquiring the draft rights of the 35th overall pick, Guillermo Hernangomez, from the Philadelphia 76ers. Hernangomez is a smart, aggressive 6’11” center from Spain (and a teammate of Porzingis). Heading into the 2015 draft, there were rumors that several teams, including the San Antonio Spurs, were considering selecting him towards the end of the first round. The Knicks will likely stash Hernangomez overseas for a season or two, in order for him to gain some seasoning and keep his salary off the books until he is ready to contribute on the NBA level.

Based on the draft, it appeared Phil was content eschew a quick fix, and instead look farther down the road.

Still, free agency would begin the very next week, and would obviously have a major impact on both the Knicks short and long-term future.

*****

Some Knicks fans will complain that Phil wasn’t able to land a big fish such as Kevin Love, Marc Gasol, or LaMarcus Aldridge. But those expectations were unreasonable. Simply playing in a major market is no longer enough to lure the cream of the free agent crop. Fans in both New York and Los Angeles can attest to this fact. In this new, flattened world we live in, players know they don’t need to live in a major metropolitan hub in order to become internationally famous and land incredibly lucrative endorsement deals. Kevin Durant plays for a team in Oklahoma. LeBron James is based out of Ohio. Desirable free agents in today’s NBA (Love, David West, Greg Monroe and Aldridge being the latest examples) often end up choosing their new team in large part based on which team gave them the greatest chance to win big.

Some frustrated Knicks fans were upset because the Knicks didn’t hit a grand slam this summer. However, this Knicks also didn’t strike out. Better yet, they avoided grounding into a double play.

At the start of the process, the worst case scenario for the Knicks during this free agency period was not failing to sign a single big name free agent. No, the worst case scenario would have been overpaying for marginal talent and locking up their cap space for years to come.

The understandable fear from some forward-thinking Knicks fans was that Phil would compound last summer’s mistake by going “all in” and attempting to skips steps in the rebuilding process. A focus on an immediately return to relevancy, while it may have added a few more wins to their 2015-16 record, would have likely (ultimately) ended in disaster.

NBA history lessons have taught us that it’s nearly impossible to cheat the rebuilding process. The least desirable place to be in this league is on the fringe of the playoffs, chasing the 8th seed with an aging “win now” roster.

The Knicks weren’t able to land a true difference-maker this summer, but they were able to add solid rotation pieces, while also maintaining cap space and roster flexibility going forward.

*****

Last month, there were published reports that Arron Afflalo was looking to get between $36 and $38 million over three years. That would have been too much to pay for Afflalo, who was coming off an awful season. However, it appears the Knicks will sign him to a two-year deal for $16 million, with a player option on that second season. (It is important to note that no contracts have been signed and that no deal can become official until the league-wide moratorium is lifted on July 9th). Taken in context of the market, when DeMarre Carroll and Wes Matthews will ink deals for approximately four years and $60 million, the Afflalo contract certainly seems reasonable considering his previously exhibited production and skill set.

In addition, Afflalo may become a valuable trade chip for the Knicks at the 2016 trade deadline, especially if he proves he is healthy and shows he can still produce. Remember, just four months ago (February, 19th 2015), he was traded from the Nuggets to the Blazers in exchange for a future first rounder.

The Knicks big ticket item was Robin Lopez, who will reportedly sign a four-year, $54 million contract later this week. Some fans were disappointed NY didn’t land Greg Monroe, but Lopez might actually be a better fit along the Knicks frontline. $13 million per year is a lot to pay for a player who has averaged 10 points and seven rebounds over the last three seasons, but, again, the market for starting-caliber centers had already been established.

The other positive to take away from the Lopez signing is that it’s an indication Phil Jackson and company will put an emphasis on defense. The Knicks have been near the bottom of the league in defensive efficiency basically since the day Jeff Van Gundy skipped town back in December of 2001. Year after year, the NBA’s elite teams and championship contenders are those teams that defend well on a consistent basis. The proof is in the pudding: The last 14 (and 19 of the last 20) NBA champions have all finished in the top-10 in Defensive Efficiency.

The Knicks pursuit of Derrick Williams seems odd because Williams has been a major disappointment since being selected second overall in the 2011 NBA draft. He’s an impressive athlete with great physical tools, but has been relatively ineffective and inefficient on both ends of the floor at the pro level. Jackson and company must have seen something special in him and believe they can rejuvenate his career, considering they offered him $10 million over two seasons.

The Knicks best value signing of the summer will likely end up being Kyle O’Quinn. A native New Yorker (born and raised in Queens), O’Quinn was a second-round pick by the Magic in 2012. Coming out of Norfolk State, he played sporadically over his first three NBA seasons in Orlando, but performed relatively well when given extended minutes. O’Quinn has averaged 13.0 points, 10.5 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per-36 minutes thus far in his NBA career. The Knicks lack depth on the frontline, so he’ll see time backing up both the power forward and center spots. He possesses limited athleticism in his bulky frame, but has a high-intensity motor and brings relentless energy on a nightly basis.

It sounds like O’Quinn will sign a four year deal for a total of $16 million. This is a smart gamble by Phil, as there is potentially a solid payoff, yet very little risk involved. Consider this: In 2016-17 season, when the salary cap will purportedly jump up to $108 million, O’Quinn will account for just 3.7 percent of the Knicks total cap space. If O’Quinn becomes even a decent role player in New York, that contract will return astonishing value.

The offseason isn’t over, as the Knicks still have their $2.8 million room exception to spend, but the lion’s share of the cap space has been invested in the four players detailed above.

At this early stage, it would be a leap to heap praise on Phil for his work this summer. Just as it would be unfair to claim the Knicks offseason was a failure. The fact of the matter is that these were just the first few steps in a long and arduous rebuilding process.

Yet, it seems these baby steps have the Knicks heading in the right direction, which in and of itself, is encouraging.

Completing out baseball analogy from earlier, Phil hit a solid double this summer. He set the table for future acquisitions and improvements. This summer will generate some much needed momentum, which gives the organization an opportunity to build on that going forward.

Phil will also have flexibility, an incredibly valuable commodity. The Knicks will have only 5 players with guaranteed contracts that extend beyond the 2016-17 season (Anthony, Lopez, O’Quinn, Porzingis, and Grant). New York is also suddenly now flush with young, athletic players with varying levels of intriguing potential (Porzingis, Grant, Hernangomez, Cleanthony Early, Derrick Williams, Thanasis Antetokounmpo, Langston Galloway, Louis Labeyrie…).

*****

We will only be able to fairly and accurately grade the moves the Knicks made in the summer of 2015 once we see who they sign next July and the following summer. By that time, we should have a much better idea of exactly what kind of players Jerian Grant and Kristaps Porzingis will be. Might future free agents be impressed by the nucleus Jackson has assembled and be convinced the Knicks are on the verge of taking that next step?

Still, based on what we’ve seen from Phil Jackson and New York hierarchy these past few weeks, Knicks fans have reason to be slightly optimistic for the first time in a long time.

For 15 straight seasons, the Knicks organization has gone broke year after year chasing “get rich quick” schemes. Fortunately, it appears as though Phil Jackson is willing to patiently and prudently make sound investments that may allow the Knicks to eventually build a team capable of sustaining success.

Tommy Beer is a Senior NBA Analyst and the Fantasy Sports Editor of Basketball Insiders, having covered the NBA for the last nine seasons.

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NBA Daily: Crabbe’s Arrival Brings Wolves Needed Shooting

The Minnesota Timberwolves trading for Allen Crabbe was not simply to move Jeff Teague or to create future trade possibilities, but mostly to give Robert Covington a chance at a few more clean looks. Douglas Farmer writes.

Douglas Farmer

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By trading away Jeff Teague and his $19 million expiring contract, the Minnesota Timberwolves clearly created more time for Shabazz Napier and perhaps opened a pathway to increasing the aggression from Andrew Wiggins, as seen earlier in the year. But to hear head coach Ryan Saunders tell it, acquiring Allen Crabbe from the Atlanta Hawks will help forward Robert Covington more than anyone else.

Teague’s return to Atlanta has little effect on either team’s salary cap structures moving forward. All three pieces — Teague and Crabbe, along with Treveon Graham — are on expiring contracts, and the combination of Teague and Graham out-costs Crabbe by only $2.6 million. The lack of long-term effect has created some speculation Crabbe may be a part of another deal for the Timberwolves before February’s trade deadline, but more likely, he is on hand to create the spacing Minnesota has lacked all season as it implements a modern offensive system.

That may sound counterintuitive since Crabbe is in the midst of a career-worst shooting season, hitting only 32.3 percent of his attempts from deep while taking barely half as many per game as he did the last two seasons. Combining that with Covington’s season-long struggles from beyond the arc — and adding a scuffling shooter to a scuffling shooter — seems a poor way to strengthen the league’s No. 23 offense.

Looking at Crabbe in terms of his career, though, a 38.9 percent three-point threat better fits Saunders’ thoughts.

“A lot of times you see, just for example, a pick-and-roll, the ball will be in Andrew [Wiggins]’ hands, with [Karl-Anthony Towns] the screener,” Saunders said Saturday.  “A lot of times [Covington] is in the high [quadrant]. If you put another high-level shooter in the opposite corner, defenses when they’re coming in to help on the roll, they have to make a choice between Cov and who they want to get the shot up.”

With Towns missing more than a month before this weekend, Saunders’ exact scenario has been rare of late, but the concept holds up.

As Napier spurned Gorgui Dieng’s screen and drove, he looked past Wiggins at the break and instead fired to Covington in the high quadrant just as Saunders suggested. Covington hit the contested shot, part of a recent uptick from the six-year veteran, but it was by no means the open shot a system based on spacing is supposed to provide.

“Certain positions, maybe we have guys at a significantly lower percentage than Cov that [defenses] heavily shade to Cov,” Saunders said. “So I think it’ll really help Cov.”

Saunders tried to be political — not the only time in the availability, as he danced around criticizing some poor calls in Friday’s loss at the Indiana Pacers — but even the coachspeak made the reality clear. The Timberwolves do not have shooting on the roster, and they know it; that has only further hampered the shooting they do have in Covington.

Crabbe’s career mark would rank third on Minnesota’s roster this season, behind only Towns’ 40.6 percent and Dieng’s 39.2. Of Timberwolves attempting at least three 3’s per game, only Towns and Covington are shooting better than even Crabbe’s current 32.3 percent. (That excludes Jake Layman, who has appeared in only 14 games due to a sprained toe.)

Whether Crabbe spots up in the corner or at the break, a la Wiggins above, or Covington does so with Crabbe at the top, the Minnesota newcomer will offer much better shooting than has been available through the first half of the season. Even if it is not in a pick-and-roll situation, an added shooter will give Napier both a better chance to find a marksman and better spacing to get to the rim.

Despite no genuine complementary shooters, Covington has already begun to change his season’s tide. Through the year’s first 32 games, he was shooting only 33.7 percent from beyond the arc on a little under five attempts per game. Those would both be his second-worst career marks for a season.

Something shifted in the new year. In the last nine games, Covington has hit 39.5 percent of his threes on over eight attempts per game. Those would both be career-highs for a season.

All along, a significant portion of Covington’s attempts has been contested. His shooting motion may as well have become a default pump fake, welcoming a defender and then popping.

“Cov has always been a tough shot maker,” Saunder said. “Some guys have that.”

If Crabbe’s arrival has the intended effect, Covington may not need to prove that skill as often moving forward.

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NBA Daily: Gary Clark Hopes To Stick In Orlando

David Yapkowitz chats with Orlando Magic forward Gary Clark about his time in Houston and showing what he’s capable of in the duration of his 10-day contract.

David Yapkowitz

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Life on a non-guaranteed contract in the NBA can be a little bit stressful. Players have to work just a little bit harder and be just a little more efficient than everyone else. They’ve got to do about their daily grind with the thought they can be cut at any moment in the back of their minds.

Sometimes there isn’t any advance warning. They could have put in all the necessary work and gone above and beyond what was asked of them, but still end up being cut. It’s no fault of their own and they may be left wondering where they went wrong.

There are also contract deadlines they need to be cognizant of. Depending on the roster outlook at various points in the season, teams may have to make quick decisions regarding contracts. The first major hurdle players have to overcome is the initial opening night roster deadline. Once they make it past that, they’re still not out of the woods just yet.

The next deadline is in early January when all contracts become guaranteed for the remainder of the season. After impressing the organization enough last season to make the Houston Rockets’ opening night roster out of training camp, Gary Clark didn’t survive this season’s January deadline.

He played a key role at times for the Rockets as a rookie, but found himself on the outside looking in this season. Houston had three players on non-guaranteed contracts: Clark, Ben McLemore and Isaiah Hartenstein. Clark kind of knew his time in Houston was coming to an end when he was the only one of the three who was on the bench most of the time.

“I kind of expected it, just knowing how the basketball world works when it comes down to trigger dates and stuff like that with contracts. Being a guy that wasn’t playing much at that time, I figured it was kind of between me and two other guys, the three of us,” Clark told Basketball Insiders. “That week, I was the only one that wasn’t playing out of us three. It was obvious what the business decision had to be, but you just take it for what it is and keep going forward.”

Clark didn’t remain a free agent for long. Just a couple of days after being cut by the Rockets, the Orlando Magic signed him to a 10-day contract. An injury to Jonathan Isaac precipitated a need for additional help on the wing and in small ball situations as the Magic find themselves entrenched in playoff positioning in the Eastern Conference.

Clark joined the Magic for their current west coast road trip, and he’s immediately been inserted into the rotation. Head coach Steve Clifford has been impressed so far by what he’s seen from Clark, and he’s eager to see how Clark responds while playing on a 10-day contract.

“He can shoot and he’s got good toughness. I think he’s got a good feel for how to play,” Clifford told reporters after a recent game against the Clippers. “I want to see what he can do. We need somebody at that spot that’s skilled like that.”

Clark had his best game of this three-game stretch in his first game with the Magic, a big win over the Los Angeles Lakers. He had 10 points off the bench on 4-for-6 shooting from the field, including 2-for-4 from the three-point line. He didn’t score against the Los Angeles Clippers, but he pulled down four rebounds and gave the team an all-around toughness on the court.

In the Magic’s most recent game against the Golden State Warriors, he shot well again, hitting two of his three attempts — including one from the three-point line. Clark’s early role in Orlando has been similar to what he brought in Houston. That’s a wing who can space the floor and play some power forward in small-ball situations.

“Just bringing some energy and knocking down shots. Being versatile defensively, being able to switch on multiple guys if need be, and use my athleticism,” Clark told Basketball Insiders. “Knocking down shots is one thing, but my activity on the glass on both ends has been solid.”

When Isaac went down, the Magic lost one of the best defensive players in the NBA this season. Isaac was certainly a candidate for First Team All-Defense and had even played his way into the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year. Bringing some of that same defensive effort is something that Clark can definitely do.

He was a standout defensive player while in college at Cincinnati. He was a two-time AAC Defensive Player of the Year and displayed a similar skill-set to Isaac in being able to guard multiple positions. In his early stint with the Rockets, he showed his ability to defend at the NBA level as well.

In his first couple of games with the Magic, he saw himself opposite players like LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard. It’s the defensive end of the floor where he feels he can make a solid impact.

“I think this team gives me an opportunity as a young guy to show that I’m capable of doing that,” Clark told Basketball Insiders. “The times that I did get those opportunities, I think I did solid against those guys. It’s going to come, when the opportunity comes I’ll be ready for it.”

While Clark started out as a rotation player as a rookie in Houston, he eventually hit the rookie wall and saw himself sent down to the Rio Grande Valley Vipers in the G League for seasoning. This season, he found himself on the end of the bench but saw some opportunity when Danuel House Jr. went down with an injury.

Although his role was a bit inconsistent, Clark believes he learned some things with the Rockets that will help him in his professional journey. One of the biggest takeaways for him is being able to communicate effectively with the rest of the team, especially when you’re unfamiliar with the team’s plays.

“It’s communication no matter what,” Clark told Basketball Insiders. “I don’t know most of the stuff that guys run or fully know all the schemes, but just being able to talk on the floor on both offense and defense and be there for guys and guys being there for me as well.”

This stint with Orlando is nothing new to Clark in terms of having to prove himself. The Magic have two options once his 10-day runs out. They either release him or sign him to another 10-day. If he makes it past the second 10-day, the Magic have to sign him for the remainder of the season or release him.

No matter what happens, Clark is confident that he’s shown enough both with the Rockets and the Magic to prove that he belongs in the NBA.

“I think any guy that comes from a trade or being waived struggles to make the transition like I’m going through. I can’t be too high or too low in this stint that I’m here, or in the 10-day,” Clark told Basketball Insiders. “I think I did enough in Houston to show my versatility and my ability to knock down shots. I think in the long haul, what I bring to the table is good enough to be here.”

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NBA Daily: Ricky Rubio Raising Expectations in Phoenix

The momentum train in Phoenix may have slowed down, but the Suns are still rolling along nicely. There has been a myriad of changes since last season, but one acquisition, in particular, has been invaluable to the franchise’s major turnaround.

Chad Smith

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When Ricky Rubio signed a three-year contract with the Phoenix Suns for $51 million in July, it was immediately deemed an overpay. The point guard was rumored to be headed to Indiana, but the Suns simply made him a better offer. The offseason addition quickly paid off for the Suns, who were one of the darling surprise teams in the first couple months of the season.

This move was met with criticism because heading into free agency, the biggest need for Phoenix was perimeter shooting. Notoriously known as a guard that can’t shoot the ball, Rubio has shown over the past two seasons that is a false narrative. Rubio is shooting over 41 percent from the floor and 34 percent from distance — those are both near career-highs for the 29-year old floor general.

Some of that can be attributed to the spacing that has opened up with the additions of Dario Saric and Aron Baynes, and, of course, the franchise’s best player, Devin Booker. The other part though is the work that Rubio has put in during the summer and over the course of the season. After six entertaining years in Minnesota and a couple of seasons in Utah, Rubio has truly excelled in Monty Williams’ system.

After a rough month of December, the Suns have been much better as of late. They have won four of their last five games, including last night’s contest in Boston. Rubio, in particular, has been stuffing the stat sheet. In New York City on Thursday night, Rubio served up 25 points, 8 rebounds, 13 assists and 4 steals. Better, he was 10-for-18 from the floor including 3-for-5 from downtown.

Now in his ninth year in the league, Rubio’s 13.6 point scoring average is a career-high. The points are what people will take notice of, but it is his distribution that should be getting the attention. Rubio is averaging a career-high 9.4 assists per game, which ranks second in the league behind only LeBron James. This is what is has been fueling the turnaround in Phoenix.

There is something to be said for shot creation, but also the effectiveness being paired with Booker. The notion early on was that it wouldn’t work because they both need the ball. It is this exact reason though that both are having more success this year. Booker no longer has to handle the ball for the bulk of possessions and create shots for himself and for others. The duo has been lethal in transition. Only LeBron and Giannis Antetokounmpo have scored more fast-break points than Booker this season.

Last season Booker had the third-highest usage rate (32.9) in the league, behind only James Harden and Joel Embiid. Through 41 games this season, Booker now ranks 19th in that category. Booker has been reaping the rewards in a lot of areas. His scoring is still right where it was last year, but his efficiency is up tremendously. In the 38 games that he has played this season, Booker is shooting 51 percent from the floor which is nearly five percent higher than any of his previous four seasons.

The pace (9th) and offensive rating (14th) have vastly improved with Rubio running the point. The emergence of Kelly Oubre Jr has been building for a couple of years now, but Rubio has brought out the best in him. Surrounding him with capable shooters in the form of big men has helped as well. Both Baynes and Saric have thrived in their roles, and rookie Cameron Johnson has been a solid contributor in that regard.

Amid all of this happening, keep in mind that the Suns have been doing all of this essentially without their franchise big man Deandre Ayton. The No. 1 overall pick in 2018 has played just 11 games this season due to his 25-game suspension. He exploded for his first 20-20 game on Thursday in New York, posting 26 points and 21 rebounds. He was perfect from the free-throw line but he has surprisingly only taken 17 attempts this year.

Perhaps the best quality of Rubio’s presence is just how contagious his style of play has become. Last season the Suns ranked 20th in team assists — and this year they are second in the league. Once everyone is able to see the ball move and they can trust that their teammates will keep moving the ball to find the open man, it really puts pressure on the defense. San Antonio has been notorious for this style of play, while Brad Stevens has been doing the same thing in Boston.

When the ball moves where it is supposed to, great things happen.

The road ahead doesn’t look pretty for Phoenix. Now they will face San Antonio twice, Indiana, Memphis, Dallas, Oklahoma City and Milwaukee. They also have matchups with Houston, Denver and the Los Angeles Lakers before the All-Star break.

Realistically, the Suns could be well out of the playoff picture at that point — but considering where they have been for the past few years, the season could still be considered a success. They could have more wins by the break than they have won in total for each of the last four seasons. Williams is building something special in the desert and most of it began with the acquisition of something they have been missing for several years: A quality starting point guard.

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