The last time the Phoenix Suns qualified for the playoffs was the 2009-10 NBA season. Back then, the Suns had players like Steve Nash, Amar’e Stoudemire, Grant Hill, Jason Richardson, Robin Lopez and Goran Dragic (who was eventually traded to the Houston Rockets in 2011, but re-signed with the Suns as an unrestricted free agent in 2012). For the first time since then, the Suns enter the upcoming NBA season with legitimate expectations of making it to the postseason.
Last season, the Suns won 48 games, which far exceeded anyone’s most optimistic expectations. This season, the Suns bring back a majority of last year’s team. That includes Eric Bledsoe, who finally came to terms with the Suns, agreeing to a five-year, $70 million contract. In addition, the Suns acquired former Sacramento Kings point guard Isaiah Thomas during the offseason, adding a third starting quality point guard into the Suns’ rotation. The Suns also added some new young talent in T.J. Warren, Tyler Ennis, and Zoran Dragic (brother of Goran).
But while the Suns have an explosive trio of point guards, and perimeter scorers, they are going to rely on young, and for the most part, unproven big men in the frontcourt. The loss of Channing Frye especially hurts in this regard, but the hope is that Markieff Morris can sufficiently fill the void.
With all of that in mind, the pressing question is, can the Suns make the playoffs this season?
First, consider the competition. The Western Conference has been loaded with good teams for years, and this year figures to be no different. Here are the regular season records from last season for all 15 Western Conference teams:
The San Antonio Spurs (like they do every season) should compete for the best overall record this season. The Los Angeles Clippers added some solid players in Spencer Hawes and Jordan Farmar, and with a full season of experience under head coach Doc Rivers, figure to be better this season than last. The Oklahoma City Thunder will start the season without superstar Kevin Durant due to a foot injury (specifically a Jones fracture), but shouldn’t lose more than three-to-four games they would have won with Durant through the first few weeks of the season. The Rockets project to finish somewhere in the middle of the West with stars James Harden and Dwight Howard leading the way. The loss of small forward Chandler Parsons may seem like a step back for Houston, but the Rockets replaced him with Trevor Ariza who is coming off a strong year with the Washington Wizards and is a better defensive player than Parsons. The Portland Trail Blazers were another surprise team last season, and figure to be better this season with more depth on the bench with the additions of Chris Kaman and Steve Blake. The Golden State Warriors hired a new head coach in Steve Kerr, and with a new, motion-based offense may be due for a big jump in the standings this season.
These six teams are very likely to either match or surpass their records from last season (except for maybe the Thunder), and are essentially locks to make the playoffs. That leaves just two playoff spots between the Mavericks, Grizzlies, Suns, Nuggets, and Pelicans (who could be in the playoff mix this season now that Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans and Ryan Anderson are healthy and with the addition of center Omer Asik).
The Mavericks added Chandler Parsons this offseason, and traded for Tyson Chandler, though they had to trade away underrated point guard Jose Calderon. The Grizzlies added Vince Carter, while the Nuggets added shooting guard Arron Afflalo and get back several players who were lost to injury last season, including versatile forward Danilo Gallinari. These two teams will probably be the Suns’ biggest competition for the final two playoff spots in the West, but with internal development and the addition of Isaiah Thomas, the Suns may have the inside track on these two teams this season.
The signing of Isaiah Thomas caught many fans and analysts by surprise considering the Suns already had Dragic and Bledsoe under contract. But at four-years, $27 million, Thomas is a strong signing for the Suns (especially considering he put up numbers that rival Kyrie Irving’s from last season). Last season, Suns head coach Jeff Hornacek proved that he could play Dragic and Bledsoe together effectively, and now has another up-tempo, scoring point guard to rotate in the backcourt.
But what does Thomas potentially bring to Phoenix’s backcourt? The Suns already have good floor-spacing, as evidenced by their 765 made three-pointers last season (sixth best overall), at 37.2 percent (tied for sixth best). Now factor in that the Suns have, according to NBA.com’s SportVU data, three point guards who are among the league’s best at driving to, and scoring at the rim. Think about how effective the Spurs’ offense is with Tony Parker driving to the basket and kicking the ball out to wide-open teammates for open jump shots. Now consider that the Suns have three point guards who each drive and finish to the rim virtually as well as Parker (though Parker averaged more points per game on drives than the each of the Suns guards) and have just as many three-point shooters to kick the ball out to.
While Thomas could potentially turn an already good Suns offense into an elite offense, the bigger question is whether the Suns can improve defensively. The Suns, surprisingly, finished last season as the 13th best defensive team in the league (surrendering 103.8 points per game), even though they relied heavily on big men like Miles Plumlee and Channing Frye to be defensive anchors. But Plumlee was the only Suns player to average more than one block per game last season, evidencing Phoenix’s poor overall rim protection. This is why Alex Len, the fifth overall pick in the 2013 Draft, is so important for the Suns this season. At 7’1, Len is the Suns’ best hope for a decent rim protector and an improved team defense. If Len can establish himself as a solid shot blocker (and stay healthy), the Suns may benefit more from that added dynamic even more than they may from Thomas’ potential offensive contributions. If Len is unable to do this, the Suns may remain stagnant defensively, and again rely on their explosive offensive to compete for a playoff spot.
Another issue for the Suns defensively is the health of Bledsoe. Bledsoe is the Suns’ best perimeter defender, but has struggled with injuries throughout his career. Bledsoe is fast enough to slow down opposing point guards, and strong enough to guard opposing shooting guards. But if Bledsoe misses significant time because of injuries, the Suns will lack a lockdown perimeter defender, which is especially problematic without a proven shot blocker protecting the basket.
Additionally, If Bledsoe misses significant time because of injuries, it will limit the effectiveness of Dragic and Thomas as those two will surrender a ton of points to opposing teams if they play significant time together in the backcourt. Bledsoe is the defensive glue that makes playing two points guards together possible, and without him the Suns defense will be very vulnerable. Hopefully Bledsoe will be able to put together a full season for the first time in his short career.
So, should Suns fans expect the team to make the playoffs this season? Considering that there are still questions about how well coach Hornacek can manage his point guard rotation, whether Bledsoe can stay healthy, whether the Suns can become a top-10 defensive team and how good teams like the Mavericks, Nuggets and Grizzlies will be with their new additions, fans probably shouldn’t expect the Suns to make the playoffs. But they should be cautiously optimistic that after putting together a nice collection of wing players, young talent, and an explosive backcourt, the Suns have as good of a chance, if not better, than the Mavericks, Grizzlies, Nuggets or Pelicans of getting the seventh or eighth seed. And with a backcourt unlike any the NBA has seen in recent memory, perhaps they will surprise us all again this year and snatch an even higher seed.
A Breakout Season for Joe Harris
Brooklyn Nets swingman Joe Harris talks to Basketball Insiders about his second chance with the Nets.
The NBA is all about second chances. Sometimes players need a change of scenery, or a coach who believes in them, or just something different to reach their full potential. They may be cast aside by several teams, but eventually, they often find that right situation that allows them to flourish.
Such was the case for Joe Harris. Originally drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers with the 33rd overall pick in the 2014 draft, Harris rarely saw the court during his time in Cleveland. He averaged about 6.4 minutes per game over the course of about one and a half seasons with the Cavaliers.
During the 2015-16 season, his second in Cleveland, he underwent season-ending foot surgery. Almost immediately after, the Cavaliers traded him to the Orlando Magic in an attempt to cut payroll due to luxury tax penalties. He would never suit up for the Magic as they cut him as soon as they traded for him.
After using the rest of that season to recover from surgery, he would sign with the Brooklyn Nets in the summer of 2016. He had a very strong first season in Brooklyn, but this season he’s truly broken out.
“I think a lot of it has to do with just the right situation in terms of circumstances. It’s a young team where you don’t really have anybody on the team that’s going out and getting 20 a night,” Harris told Basketball Insiders. “It’s a collective effort most nights and it can be any given person depending on the situation. It’s one of those things where we’re real unselfish with the ball. A lot of guys get a lot of good looks, so your production is bound to go up just because of the system now that we’re playing.”
Known primarily as a sharpshooter in college at the University of Virginia as well as his first stop in Cleveland, Harris has started developing more of an all-around game. He’s improved his ability to put the ball on the floor and make plays as well as crashing the glass and playing strong defense.
In a relatively forgettable season record-wise for the Nets, Harris has been one of their bright spots. He’s putting up 10.1 points per game on 47.3 percent shooting from the field while playing 25.4 minutes per game. He’s up to 40.3 percent from the three-point line and he’s pulling down 3.3 rebounds. All of those numbers are career-highs.
“My role, I think, is very similar to the way I would be anywhere that I was playing. I’m a shooter, I help space the floor for guys to facilitate,” Harris told Basketball Insiders. “I’m opportunistic offensively with drives and such. I’m out there to try and space the floor, knock down shots, and then play tough defensively and make sure I’m doing my part in getting defensive rebounds and that sort of stuff.”
Although Harris didn’t play much in Cleveland, he did show glimpses and flashes of the player he has blossomed into in Brooklyn. He saw action in 51 games his rookie year while knocking down 36.9 percent of his three-point attempts.
He also saw action in six playoff games during the Cavaliers’ run to the 2015 Finals. But more importantly, it was the off the court things that Harris kept with him after leaving Cleveland. The valuable guidance passed down to him from the Cavaliers veteran guys. It’s all helped mold him into the indispensable contributor he’s become for the Nets.
“Even though I wasn’t necessarily playing as much, the experience was invaluable just in terms of learning how to be a professional,” Harris told Basketball Insiders. “The approach, the preparation, that sort of stuff. That’s why I learned a lot while I was there. All those good players that have had great, great, and long careers and just being able to kind of individually pick their brains and learn from them.”
When Harris came to Brooklyn two years ago, he initially signed a two-year deal with a team option after the first year. When he turned in a promising 2016-17 season, it was a no-brainer for the Nets to pick up his option. Set to make about $1.5 million this season, Harris’ contract is a steal.
However, he’s headed for unrestricted free agency this upcoming summer. Although he dealt with being a free agent before when he first signed with the Nets, it’s a different situation now. He’s likely going to be one of the most coveted wings on the market. While there’s still a bit more of the regular season left, and free agency still several months away, it’s something Harris has already thought about. If all goes well, Brooklyn is a place he can see himself staying long-term.
“Yeah, it’s one of those things that I’ll worry about that sort of decision when the time comes. But I have really enjoyed my time in Brooklyn,” Harris told Basketball Insiders. “It’s a great organization with a lot of good people, and they try and do stuff the right way. I enjoy being a part of that and trying to kind of rebuild and set a good foundation for where the future of the Brooklyn Nets is.”
NBA Daily: 2018 NBA Mock Draft – 3/20/18
With most of the major NBA draft prospects eliminated from March Madness, things in the mock draft world are starting to get interesting.
A Lot of Mock Movement
With the race to the bottom in full swing in the NBA and the field of 64 in college basketball whittled down to a very sweet sixteen, there has been considerable talk in NBA circles about the impending 2018 NBA Draft class. There seems to be a more consistent view of the top 15 to 20 prospects, but there still seems to be a lack of a firm pecking order. Arizona’s Deandre Ayton seems like to the prohibitive favorite to go number one overall, but its far from a lock.
It’s important to note that these weekly Mock Draft will start to take on more of a “team driven” shape as we get closer to the mid-May NBA Combine in Chicago and more importantly once the draft order gets set. Until then, we’ll continue to drop our views of the draft class each Tuesday, until we reach May when we’ll drop the weekly Consensus Mock drafts, giving you four different views of the draft all the way to the final decisions in late June.
Here is this week’s Mock Draft:
Here are some of the pick swaps and how they landed where they are currently projected:
The Cleveland Cavaliers are owed the Brooklyn Nets’ first-round pick as a result of the Kyrie Irving trade this past summer. The Brooklyn Nets traded several unprotected picks to Boston as part of the Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce trades in 2015.
The Philadelphia 76ers are owed the LA Lakers’ 2018 Draft pick, unprotected, as a result of the 2012 Steve Nash trade with the Suns. The Suns traded that pick to the 76ers as part of the Michael Carter-Williams three-team trade with the Milwaukee in 2015. The 76ers traded that pick to the Boston Celtics as part of the draft pick trade that became Markelle Fultz before the draft; it has 2 through 5 protections and based on the standings today would convey to Philadelphia.
The LA Clippers are owed the Detroit Pistons first-round pick in 2018 as a result of the Blake Griffin trade. The pick is top four protected and based on the current standings would convey.
The Phoenix Suns are owed the Milwaukee Bucks’ first-round pick as part of the Eric Bledsoe trade. The pick only conveys if the Bucks pick lands between the 11th and 16th pick, which based on the standings today would convey.
The Phoenix Suns are owed the Miami HEAT’s first-round pick as part of the Goran Dragic trade in 2015, it is top-seven protected and would convey to Phoenix based on the current standings.
The Atlanta Hawks are owed the Minnesota Timberwolves’ first-round pick as part of the Adreian Payne trade in 2015. The pick is lottery protected and based on the current standings would convey.
The Chicago Bulls are owed the New Orleans Pelicans first-round pick as a result of the Nikola Mirotic trade. The pick is top-five protected and based on the current standings would convey.
The LA Lakers are owed the Cleveland Cavaliers first-round pick as a result of Jordan Clarkson/Larry Nance Jr. trade. The pick is top-three protected and based on the current standings would convey.
The Minnesota Timberwolves are owed the Oklahoma City Thunder’s first-round pick as part of the Jazz/Wolves Ricky Rubio trade this past summer. The Jazz acquired the pick as part of the Thunder’s deal to obtain Enes Kanter in 2015. The pick is lottery protected and based on the current standings would convey.
The Brooklyn Nets are owed the Toronto Raptors’ first-round pick as part of the DeMarre Carroll salary dump trade this past summer. The pick is lottery protected and based on the current standings would convey.
The Atlanta Hawks are owed the Houston Rockets’ first-round pick as part of a three-team deal with the LA Clippers and Denver Nuggets involving Danilo Gallinari and taking back Jamal Crawford and Diamond Stone. The pick is top-three protected and based on the current standings would convey.
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NBA Daily: Jonathan Isaac Proving to be Key Part of Orlando’s Future
Basketball Insiders spoke with Jonathan Isaac about his rookie season, injuries, areas to improve on, his faith and more.
On January 13, the Orlando Magic were eliminated from playoff contention. This date served as a formality as the team has known for quite some time that any postseason hopes had long since sailed. The Magic started the year off on a winning note and held an 8-4 record in early November. However, the team lost their next nine games and never really recovered.
Many factors play a role in a young but talented team like the Magic having another season end like this. Injuries to franchise cornerstone Aaron Gordon as well as forward Evan Fournier and forward Jonathan Isaac magnified the team’s issues.
Isaac, a rookie selected sixth overall in the first round of the 2017 NBA Draft, started the season off reasonably well. On November 10, in 21 minutes of action, he registered an 11-point, six-rebound, one-assist, one-steal, two-block all-around effort against the Phoenix Suns to help the Magic get to that 8-4 record. Isaac then suffered an ankle injury midway through his next game and wouldn’t play again until December 17, by which time the team was already 11-20 with the season quickly going sideways. From November until March, Isaac would only play in three games until finally returning to consistent action in the month of March with the season all but decided.
Basketball Insiders spoke to Isaac recently to discuss how he has pushed through this season, staying healthy, his impressive skill set and more.
“I’ve had a lot of time off from being injured so, I think my body is holding up fine along with how much I’ve played. I haven’t played a full season,” Isaac told Basketball Insiders “I feel good. I feel good.”
Isaac talked about what part of his game he feels strongly about and has improved on.
“I think defensively,” Isaac said. “I didn’t expect myself to make strides defensively like I have. I’ve been able to just be able to just do different things and help this team defensively and I didn’t expect that coming in so, that would be the one thing.”
Magic Head Coach Frank Vogel was effusive in his praise of Isaac’s defense and also focused on the rookie’s great defensive potential.
“His defense is out of this world. I mean it’s really something else,” Vogel said. “Just watch him play and everybody’s getting a taste of it right now. They haven’t seen him a whole lot but he’s an elite defender right now at 20-years old and the sky’s the limit for what he can be on that end of the floor.
While Isaac hasn’t logged a huge number of minutes on the floor this season, he has impressed in his limited action. As Coach Vogel stated, anyone who has taken the time to watch Isaac play this season has noticed his ability to guard other big men and his overall defensive impact.
“I think I’ve been able to do a good job on most of the people that I’ve had to guard,” Isaac said.
Missing Isaac’s defense impact and overall contributions partially explains why the Magic cooled off after their hot start. However, with the playoffs no longer an option, younger players like Isaac now have the opportunity to play with less attention and pressure. While it can be argued that the Magic aren’t really playing for anything, the truth is these late-season games can be an opportunity to develop these younger players and determine what to work on during the offseason.
There is more to Isaac than just basketball, however. Isaac discussed other parts of his life that are important to him, including religion and his faith.
“[M]y faith in Jesus is something that I put a lot of emphasis on,” Isaac told Basketball Insiders. “It’s a part of me.”
Isaac did not hesitate to credit his faith when asked if it helped him push through his injuries.
“I would say definitely,” Isaac said. “Especially with getting injured so early in the season and being out for 40 games. That’s a lot on somebody’s mental capacity and then just staying positive, staying joyful in times where joy doesn’t seem like it’s the right emotion to have. And I definitely [attribute] that to my faith.”
Looking forward, both Vogel and Isaac discussed the future and what the young big man can improve on.
“Offensively, he’s grown in confidence, he’s gained so he’s going to give us a big lift and our future’s bright with him,” Vogel stated.
Isaac gave a hint of his offseason training plans when asked what he looks forward to working on.
“I would say consistency with my jump shot. Really working on my three-ball and I would say ball-handling,” Isaac stated.
When asked if there was anything more he wanted to add, Isaac simply smiled and said, “Oh no, I think I got to get to church right now,” as the team prepared to play later that evening.