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NBA PM: Suns Still Fighting Despite Down Season

The Suns struggled this season, but they’ve used the campaign to develop young players and a team identity.

Cody Taylor

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Suns Still Fighting Despite Down Season

Although the record for the Phoenix Suns doesn’t necessarily reflect it, the players inside the locker room are still showing plenty of fight. They’re buying into the new system created by interim head coach Earl Watson, and their play on the court is beginning to show that.

The Suns have posted one of the worst records in the league up to this point at 17-46. They find themselves with the third-worst record in the NBA, behind only the Philadelphia 76ers and Los Angeles Lakers.

This was supposed to be a team that challenged for a playoff berth this season. With a promising core of Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight, Alex Len and Devin Booker – with veterans like Tyson Chandler, P.J. Tucker, Sonny Weems and Mirza Teletovic among others – it’s easy to see how such a talented group could have been in the hunt for the postseason.

Instead, the Suns are just 9-37 since the beginning of December after jumping out to a decent 8-9 start. There was turmoil within the system among players, and their head coach was fired at the beginning of February.

Watson was appointed head coaching duties shortly after Jeff Hornacek was fired. He’s well respected around the league from his time as a player, and was even hired in an attempt to persuade LaMarcus Aldridge to join Phoenix in free agency last summer. Aldridge obviously chose to sign with the San Antonio Spurs instead, but seriously considered the Suns.

Phoenix is just 3-11 with Watson in charge, but it’s clear that the team is beginning to look ahead to next season. The team is trying to change a losing culture over the past several years, and it appears to be working even though their record doesn’t reflect it. It remains to be seen whether Watson will be the guy to lead that charge, but he’s operating as if it’s his job for the taking.

Watson is trying to instill an edge in his players over the remainder of the season. He spoke very highly of Orlando Magic head coach Scott Skiles on Friday night. Watson was a big fan of Skiles from his time as a player, and he loves the way his teams have always resembled how Skiles performed as a player.

Skiles was known to have been a grit-and-grind type of player who never backed down. Watson wants his guys to play with that sort of edge that Skiles displayed, and it seems that philosophy is beginning to resonate with the team.

“It takes a while when you’re going through a coaching change to really understand the philosophy,” Chandler said. “Guys are buying in. We’ve been so banged up, but I feel like guys are definitely buying in. That’s the most important part for any team. [From] the most successful teams [to] the teams at the bottom of the league, if you’re not buying in, it doesn’t matter the type of talent that you have.”

Two of Watson’s three wins have come within the last two games. The Suns dominated the Magic on Friday night en route to a 102-84 win, and they’re coming off of an impressive 109-100 win over the Memphis Grizzlies last night. It’s the first two-game win streak for the Suns since wins over the Chicago Bulls and Magic back on December 7-9.

The Suns were in control for nearly the entire game on Friday night, and seemed to be playing with that edge that Watson and his staff wanted. Chandler set the tone early during the game after picking up a flagrant foul with a few minutes left in the first quarter. There seemed to be some chippiness between the two teams following that foul.

Several players were jawing back and forth with each other, and it seemed as though they were following in Chandler’s footsteps. It’s easy to see how such fight and aggressiveness could be non-existent for a team well out of playoff contention, but it’s an attitude that has been set by their new coach and has continued during their play on the court.

“It says a lot about us, that we’re not going to give up,” Booker said. “We haven’t won very many games this year and the playoff chances are not there, but we’re still fighting. That’s starting the rebuild process right now. We’re going to get ready for next year. Once we get our full roster back, they’re going to mix in. They’ve been here supporting us, too. They see what we’ve been going through, so next year will be fun.”

The team had high hopes for this season. They have a young core that’s continuing to develop, and they had a good summer in free agency. After acquiring Knight at last season’s trade deadline, they re-signed him to a five-year, $70 million extension. Shortly after, they signed Chandler to a four-year, $52 million contract.

Those two moves were thought to be part of a bigger plan to lure Aldridge to Phoenix over the summer. Chandler joined Watson, Bledsoe, former head coach Hornacek and a few members of the Suns’ front office in a meeting with Aldridge during free agency. Aldridge confirmed in January that he was “very close” to picking the Suns over the Spurs.

Instead, Aldridge landed with the Spurs and the two franchises are heading in completely opposite directions. While Chandler was brought in to help the team sign Aldridge, he’s been a critical part of the team’s rebuilding process. His stats in his first season with the Suns don’t necessarily jump off of the page (he’s averaging 6.3 points and 8.4 rebounds in 23.5 minutes per game), but he’s given the locker room a leadership presence that was desperately needed.

“It’s the reason that I came here,” Chandler said. “I thought it was a great opportunity to grow with a young team and kind of help change the culture around here. For me, it’s about showing up and playing the right way.

“Granted, we want to win every game, but the most important part is how you show up and how you play the game. I’m trying to show my guys that you come out and you play no matter what. We’re on a back-to-back and there are no excuses. I thought the guys fought hard.”

With the Suns suffering injuries to several key players, it’s created an opportunity for Booker. He didn’t see too much time on the court during the first couple months of the season, averaging just 16 minutes per game through the end of December.

However, since that time, Booker has more than doubled his playing time to 34 minutes per game and is averaging 16.6 points, 3.2 assists and 3.1 rebounds. He credited Chandler with his development on and off of the court during his up-and-down rookie campaign.

“[He’s meant] everything,” Booker said. “It’s like a leadership voice. He’s kind of like the father of our locker room. It’s crazy because some of the things he says, my dad still says to me. They’re around the same age [and] it’s just great to have him around. He’s not the only veteran around here – P.J. [Tucker] is also very vocal. Ronnie [Price] is over 10-plus years in here.

“It’s a lot of good vets that we have, they’re teaching us the ways. They’ve all been on losing teams before, so they’ve been through this and they’re just trying to talk us through it. You’re still being evaluated by every other team in the league so just go out there and play your hardest every time you get a chance.”

For Chandler, the feeling between he and Booker is mutual. Chandler spoke of Booker almost like a proud older brother and praised his maturity level and his understanding of the game.

“He understands how to handle himself,” Chandler said. “He listens, he takes advice from vets and he’s a sponge. As a vet, that’s all you want from a younger player. If they listen and you see them out there trying to implement a lot of things that we’re telling them then you know they got a shot.

“For him, it’s just understanding the pace of the game and picking his times. He’s a rookie so he’s going to make some mistakes. He still doesn’t understand traps and things like that at times, but the more and more that he sees it, he adapts. He has such a high basketball IQ as a young player that we’ve seen him over the last couple of games adapt.”

While the 2015-16 season is far from where the Suns would like to be, it seems as though they have the pieces in place for their future. They seem to have a good mixture of young players and veterans that should experience more success next year.

If things fall their way, the Suns could be back on track as soon as next season. They could have as many as three first-round picks in June’s draft, and they could have as much as $32 million in cap space this summer.

The team will have to address their head coaching situation at some point, but it looks as though Watson has the team buying in and on the right track heading into the final games of the season.

Cody Taylor is an NBA writer in his fourth season with Basketball Insiders, covering the NBA and NCAA out of Orlando and Miami.

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NBA Sunday: Kristaps Porzingis Sure Looks Ready To Be The Franchise

The Knicks hope Kristaps Porzingis can become their franchise. Thus far, he seems up to the challenge.

Moke Hamilton

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He stood in front of his mentor, isolated, just like they used to do in practice.

He’d seen the jab steps before and the head fakes—they were nothing new. And when Carmelo Anthony mustered the acceleration he still has in his 33-year-old legs to drive around Kristaps Porzingis, Anthony knew he had the 7-foot-3 Latvian big man beat.

Anthony triumphantly rose to the basket and delicately attempted his right-handed layup. Before he knew what hit him, though, Anthony’s shot had been sent to the free throw line.

The message was clear—Kristaps had taken the torch.

“It was fun,” Porzingis said about his confrontation with Anthony. “We went at it in practices a lot and one-on-one after practices.

“It was a lot of fun knowing what he was going to do and try to stop him.”

The Oklahoma City Thunder were much closer to the NBA Finals than the Knicks were last season, and removing Anthony from the Knicks and pairing him with Russell Westbrook and Paul George gives the Thunder a triumvirate that can at least conceivably challenge the Golden State Warriors. They are perhaps the only team in the entire league with enough firepower and defensive pieces.

So no, the Knicks may not be hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy anytime soon, but at the very least, the franchise seems to be in good hands—the big, soft hands of Porzingis.

As young NBA players come into their own and attempt to fulfill the lofty expectations that everyone has of them, the third year is the charm, almost invariably. And in that that year, a young player can’t control the other pieces that are around him—that’s why they shouldn’t be judged by their team’s wins and losses.

In that third year, a young player also can’t really control the frequency of his injuries. The simple truth is that many 21 or 22-year-old players simply lack the hardened bones of a fully grown adult that most men become after the age of 25.

But what the young player can prove is that he is prepared to shoulder the burden and take the fight to anyone who stands before him. Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks epitomizes this ideal better than any other young player in the league. He is absolutely fearless and it’s a pleasure to watch.

So is Porzingis.

Since the influx of European-born players began about 20 years ago, we have seen our fair share of “soft” European players. His talent aside (which is considerable), Porzingis has proven to be anything but, and that by itself can help players go a very long way.

In what must have felt like the longest summer ever, Porzingis saw the franchise that drafted him undergo an overhaul that resulted in a light beaming so brightly on him, you would have thought the third-year forward was starring in a Broadway musical.

Say what you want about Porzingis, but he has already done all that he can to notify everyone that have anything to do with the Knicks that his bony shoulders aren’t indicative of the weight he’s capable of carrying.

And in Oklahoma City, against his mentor, Porzingis did the heavy lifting.

“I saw energy,” head coach Jeff Hornacek said after his team’s opening night loss.

“He was great moving. He played 38 minutes, and maybe last year that would be a struggle. He would maybe get tired, and get some silly fouls, but even toward the end on that 37th or 38th minute, he was still up hollering, moving, blocking shots and getting rebounds, so he had a great game and we expect a lot more of that from him.”

Being a Knicks fan is something that nobody should wish on their worst enemy. The franchise has made scores of maneuvers that lacked wisdom and seemingly gone out of its way to alienate people beloved by the franchise. On top of it all, Knicks tickets are among the highest in the entire league.

Fans as passionate and dedicated as Knicks fans deserve a team they can be proud of and a front office that dedicates itself to putting winning ahead of petty feuds and politics.

The hiring of Scott Perry may signify just that.

So when the Knicks traded Carmelo Anthony and ended up getting back 10 cents on the dollar for his value, everyone should have prepared for a long season in New York City.

Coming in, Knicks fans once again found themselves in the unenviable predicament of having to talk themselves into believing that Ramon Session, Michael Beasley and Tim Hardaway were capable of giving this team feel good moments. And while they certainly are, they will surely pale in comparison to the amount of losses that the club accrues along the way.

If there’s one thing the Philadelphia 76ers have taught everyone, however, it’s that the losses don’t necessarily need to be in vain.

So heading into this season, what Knicks fans should have been looking forward to and hoping for is nothing more than the installation of a culture that’s marked by effort, communication and selfless basketball—the hallmarks of the Golden State Warriors.

Aside from that, yes, they should have also come in with the hope that Kristaps Porzingis would take an appreciable step forward and prove himself to truly be a capable franchise cornerstone.

To this point, from the way he holds his head highly, despite a win or a loss, and the way he competes to the best of his abilities, despite his limitations. For now, it’s really all that could reasonably be asked of him.

When it was all said and done—when Porzingis looked the Knicks’ past in the eyes after the Thunder had soundly defeated his New York Knicks—Carmelo Anthony probably told him that he was proud of him and that he wished him all the luck in the world.

He probably told him to continue to work on his game and hone his craft and to block out the background noise.

And above all else, Carmelo probably told Kristaps that he believes he is capable of being his successor.

With his nodding head and serious demeanor, Porzingis, in all his glory, listened intently. Even more so, he believed every word. 

It doesn’t take all day to figure out whether the sun is shining—it’s an adage that remains as true in basketball as it does on a May Day in New York.

For Porzinigis, the bright sky and the beaming sunlight—he’s basking in it all. Not only has he becomes the Knicks’ franchise by default, he believes he’s capable of shouldering the burden.

In this town, that’s more than half the battle.

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Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal

The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.

Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.

There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.

Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.

Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.

That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.

Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.

At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.

It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.

One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.

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NBA Saturday: Jabari Bird Experiences The NBA Whirlwind

Jabari Bird entered a hostile environment Friday night after being on his couch just three days before.

Dennis Chambers

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When Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending injury six minutes into the Boston Celtics’ season on Wednesday, he wasn’t the only player who saw his season changed in the blink of an eye.

“I was at home in California watching the game as a fan,” Jabari Bird said.

Bird was the 56th overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft. After playing his college ball at the University of California, the Celtics gave the 6-foot-6 swingman a shot to continue his career. After impressing throughout the preseason, Bird was signed to a two-way contract with Boston and returned home to the west coast.

That didn’t last long.

“After the game was over my phone was going off that I had to get on the quickest flight to Boston,” Bird said about opening night. “Got in 7:30 the next morning, suited up against Milwaukee, now I’m here in Philly.”

With the massive hole Hayward left in Boston’s roster due to his injury, the Celtics are going to have to turn to some unlikely performers throughout the season to pick up the slack. Bird didn’t light up the scoreboard or stuff his stat sheet, posting just three points and one rebound in 13 minutes of play. But down the stretch in a close game against the Philadelphia 76ers Friday night, Bird came up big on defense.

As the Celtics trailed the Sixers 61-53 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Bird subbed in for Jaylen Brown and was tasked with guarding J.J. Redick, who was in the midst of carrying Philadelphia with his lights out shooting.

After wiping away the Sixers lead and gaining an 86-84 advantage in the fourth quarter, the Celtics still had Bird sticking Redick. The Sixers’ shooting guard — and highest paid player — rose up for another three-point attempt which would’ve given Philadelphia a late lead and a momentum shift at home with a raucous crowd behind them. Only this time, Bird’s hand was in his face and the shot attempt didn’t find the back of the net.

In a big-time moment on the road, for a team facing a potential three-game losing streak to start the season, the unlikely rookie answered the call.

“Like I said before, he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA, really good perimeter scorer,” Bird said of Redick. “For the team to trust me with that responsibility, with us being down on the road needing to get a win, I was hyped up and ready to go. I was ready for the challenge.”

Placing such a responsibility like guarding Redick on a night where it seemed like the Sixers marksman couldn’t miss on a player who was sitting on his couch three nights ago seems like a bold strategy. Head coach Brad Stevens, however, knew what he was doing.

“All the way through preseason and training camp I felt like he was one of our better perimeter defenders,” Stevens said. “I think he has huge upside. His rebounding spoke for itself in preseason practices. His ability to guard off the ball, especially shooters coming off screens is just really good. He’s not afraid, and you knew he’d step up.”

Going from the couch to a red-eye flight from California to Boston, to the bench in Milwaukee, to the court in Philadelphia is nothing short of a whirlwind experience. With such a series of events, it’s hard to be coached into that moment. As a player, sometimes you have to just go out and play.

“I wasn’t prepared at all for tonight. Mentally I just had to lock into the game,” Bird said. “Coach just looked at me and said ‘Bird get Jaylen.’ ‘Alright.’ So that’s what I did.”

After signing Hayward to $127 million contract this summer, the Celtics were expecting the small forward to provide an elite scoring 1-2 scoring punch with Kyrie Irving. Obviously, at least for this season, Boston will need to move forward without that possibility. An opening night loss, followed by another defeat to Milwaukee the following night, had the Celtics 0-2 heading into Philadelphia and searching for answers a lot sooner than they may have anticipated just a week ago.

Bird’s journey during his first week in professional basketball represents how quickly things can change, and how the ripple effects of injuries and other moves have far outreaching waves.

“I was already packed, I was ready to go to the G-League,” Bird said. “We had training camp coming up. My bags were already packed, I was ready to get out the house. Then I got the call to go to Boston and I was like alright I’m ready to go, just gimmie a flight. And that’s what happened.”

All-star point guard, and Bird’s new teammate, Kyrie Irving doesn’t foresee the rookie leaving the clubhouse anytime soon. With the adversity the Boston Celtics have felt in the first week of the 2017-18 season, Bird’s addition and impact are a prime example of being ready when your number is called, and the culture this team is looking to create.

“Jabari is now probably gonna be on every trip with us,” Irving said. “Guys are gonna be called up and called upon to be ready to play. We just have to have that expectation that when we come into the game we’re gonna be able to play, and we trust one another and have each other’s backs.”

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