Last year, the Phoenix Suns seemed poised to take the next step in their development and challenge for a playoff spot. With a promising core of Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight, Alex Len and Devin Booker along with veterans like Tyson Chandler, P.J. Tucker and more, it’s easy to see how they should have been in the playoff hunt.
The team jumped out to an 8-9 start last year, but then the wheels fell off and things went south quickly. They finished the campaign with a 23-59 record. Head coach Jeff Hornacek was let go in February and Earl Watson took over the position on an interim basis. With Watson now on board as the permanent head coach, the team hopes that a few veteran additions plus the team’s core taking the next step in their development will lead to improvement this season.
Basketball Insiders previews the Phoenix Suns’ 2016-17 season.
FIVE GUYS THINK
The Phoenix Suns are a cautionary tale of what can happen when a rebuilding team experiences too much success too soon. After beating expectations early on under former head coach Jeff Hornacek, the franchise tried to skip a few steps in the normal rebuilding process by adding some players to help them win now. After those moves failed to make them anything more than fringe playoff contenders, the team seemingly went all in on the youth movement again this summer, drafting Dragan Bender and Tyler Ulis and trading multiple picks to the Sacramento Kings for Marquese Chriss. The team now has young talent at every position and are led by Earl Watson, who earned the head coach position by connecting with his players last season. The Suns have a young core to build on and veterans like Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight, Leandro Barbosa, Jared Dudley and Tyson Chandler to help keep the team competitive in the short term, while mentoring the young guys. Having said all of that, there is no one more exciting on the Suns’ roster than Devin Booker, who came on strong towards the end of last season and looks like a potential star at guard.
4th Place – Pacific Division
– Jesse Blancarte
I really like this young core of players and I think the Suns have a lot to be excited about heading forward. Devin Booker exceeded my expectations during his rookie season and he still has so much potential. It seems like he could emerge as a star given his remaining potential, and watching his development will be fun. Throw in fellow up-and-comers like Brandon Knight, Dragan Bender, Marquese Chriss, Archie Goodwin, Alex Len, T.J. Warren and Tyler Ulis – all of whom are under 24 years old (and most are significantly younger than that) – and there’s a lot to like. It’s on head coach Earl Watson to lead this young unit, but that shouldn’t be a problem. Watson is well-respected throughout the NBA and one of the reasons he was given the permanent gig after serving as interim coach is because his players loved him and praised the job he did. Also, veterans like Jared Dudley, Tyson Chandler, P.J. Tucker and Leandro Barbosa are in place to lead and help the youngsters maximize their full potential. I don’t think the Suns will be able to make the playoffs this upcoming season, but the young pieces are in place for this franchise to return to respectability and relevance in the near future.
4th Place – Pacific Division
– Alex Kennedy
The Suns have been a relatively dysfunctional bunch over the past two seasons. From inexplicable trades of their top talent to players demanding trades and head coaching changes, things in Phoenix have resembled a circus as of late. But even with all of the chaos surrounding the franchise there are numerous bright spots. Devin Booker, the team’s 2015 lottery pick, averaged 19 points per game in 28 games post All-Star break (17.4 in 51 contests as a starter) this past season. The club also boasts a dynamic backcourt in Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight and intriguing rookie forwards Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss. The club also invested free agency money in veterans Leandro Barbosa and Jared Dudley this summer to bring leadership into the young locker room. Expect an improvement of last season’s 23-59 mark, but the playoffs are a distant dream on the horizon at the moment.
4th Place – Pacific Division
– Lang Greene
It’s hard to know what to expect from the Suns this coming season. Devin Booker has almost immeasurable promise, but unless Dragan Bender is the second coming of LeBron James, the Suns don’t necessarily seem to be heading anywhere anytime soon. The Brandon Knight-Eric Bledsoe tandem hasn’t paid huge dividends and Tyson Chandler didn’t have the same impact that he has had in some of his prior stops. The Suns will likely find themselves competing with the Lakers to avoid the final spot in the division, and that prediction shouldn’t really come as a major shock to anyone.
5th Place — Pacific Division
— Moke Hamilton
It was a rough year for the Suns last season, due largely to some of the injuries they experienced, but assuming everybody is healthy this time around they could be one of the sneaky good teams in the Western Conference this year. Devin Booker looks like he’s going to be an All-Star sooner rather than later, and he’s just one-third of an impressive backcourt rotation that also includes Brandon Knight and Eric Bledsoe. Leandro Barbosa and Jared Dudley are both back, giving Tyson Chandler a little help in the “veteran leadership” department, and two top-eight picks in Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender should send the ol’ hype train streaming into Arizona this fall at full speed. They’ve got some gelling to do, but the talent is there to make a run at the Western Conference Playoffs. They just have to stay healthy.
3rd Place – Pacific Division
– Joel Brigham
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Eric Bledsoe
Although he appeared in just 31 games last season, Bledsoe led the Suns in points per game at 20.4. A knee injury sidelined him for the rest of the year in December, and the Suns began their downward descent shortly after. While the team has capable scorers in Brandon Knight, T.J. Warren and Devin Booker, their success hinges largely on having a healthy Bledsoe around. He possesses great speed teams want out of their point guard and he has a great ability to drive to the rim and make defenders miss. He can be electric to watch at times and is active all over the court. Unfortunately, the story throughout his career is his health. It’s certain that if he can remain healthy this season, the Suns could be a fun team to watch.
Top Defensive Player: P.J. Tucker
While an argument can be made here for Tyson Chandler, we’re going to highlight Tucker instead. Tucker held opponents to a lower field-goal percentage last season when he guarded them compared to what the opponent normally shot. His opponents shot 44.6 percent on average, but that number fell to 43 percent when Tucker guarded them. That number doesn’t exactly place him into elite status around the league as a defender, but it’s still a promising number nonetheless. Tucker has always proven to be a guy that does the dirty work on the defensive end by grabbing loose rebounds, making hustle plays and putting the team’s needs ahead of his own. Look for Tucker to continue to be a workhouse on the defensive end for the Suns this season.
Top Playmaker: Brandon Knight
We like Bledsoe as the team’s playmaker, but Knight is also just as capable as Bledsoe. Knight battled through several various injuries last season and appeared in just 52 games, but he looked to be very effective when he did play. He averaged 19.6 points, 5.1 assists, 3.9 rebounds and 1.2 steals per game last season. There have been questions on whether or not Knight would start in the backcourt alongside Bledsoe, but it looks as though Knight will be able to produce and continue being a great playmaker in the starting lineup or off of the bench. Knight is a proven starter, but he could flourish even more off of the bench when matched up against the opposing team’s second unit. It will be an intriguing decision for head coach Earl Watson to make when it appears Bledsoe, Knight and Booker could all start in the backcourt.
Top Clutch Player: Eric Bledsoe
Most analysts classify clutch stats as how they performed during the last five minutes of games in which their team is either ahead or behind by five minutes. Seeing as how the Suns won just 23 games last season, there may not have been many games that qualified. Bledsoe ranked 82nd last season with 46 total points scored in the last five minutes of games in which the Suns were either ahead or behind by five points. Knight actually ranked three spots higher than Bledsoe in terms of total points, but Knight shot just 27 percent in those situations while Bledsoe was a bit better at 34 percent. It’s clear that both Bledsoe and Knight are the team’s go-to players late in games, but Bledsoe gets the nod here due to his higher field-goal percentage. He’s a guy that can be trusted to take care of the ball in crucial situations and can make his way to the basket when needed.
The Unheralded Player: Tyson Chandler
Ask any of his former teammates, and it’s likely most of them will say Chandler is a great locker room guy. The Suns want to build a positive culture and so far have done exactly that. The young players on the team rave about Chandler and what he’s meant for their development on and off of the court. While last season wasn’t exactly Chandler’s best as he averaged 7.2 points, 8.7 rebounds and .7 blocks, he still is a major part of this team. The former Defensive Player of the Year in 2012 brings so much to floor defensively, especially in the paint. That alone is a big reason why the Suns signed him last summer. Since his stats don’t exactly jump off of the page, Chandler brings so much more to the Suns than his production on the court and may not receive as much love as he should.
Best New Addition: Jared Dudley
In terms of a new player on the team that will be able to impact games, Dudley gets the nod here. An argument can be made for one of the many rookies the Suns added over the offseason, but the Suns know what they’re getting with Dudley. The team wanted to add a veteran player that can help mentor the younger players and Dudley is perfectly fine with that role. Dudley has become a prototypical player that can thrive in the pace-and-space style of play the NBA is shifting toward. He can guard multiple positions, he’s proven that he can play up-tempo and he is a career 39 percent shooter from three-point range.
– Cody Taylor
WHO WE LIKE
1. Earl Watson
Head coach Watson headlines the list of individuals we like within the Suns organization. He’s one of the most respected guys all around the league from his time as a player and that has clearly carried over into the team’s locker room. Watson was named as the interim head coach after Jeff Hornacek was fired in February and the players began buying in his system soon after. When new coaches are integrated into new situations, it’s easy for players to eventually tune them out, but it’s been the complete opposite with Watson and his roster. He took over the job last season as if it was his for the taking, and it’s that confidence that led him to become the permanent head coach starting this season.
2. Devin Booker
It was Booker’s strong second-half of last season that really gave him a lot of momentum heading into this year. In 48 games before the All-Star break, Booker averaged 10.6 points, 2.2 rebounds and 1.8 assists in 23.3 minutes per game. In 28 games following the All-Star break, Booker elevated those numbers to 19.2 points, 4.1 assists and three rebounds in 35.4 minutes per game. He saw a much bigger role under Watson and there’s no reason to believe that won’t continue this season. Booker was also one of the best players during the Las Vegas Summer League and he showed a lot of confidence in his game during his time there. It’s going to be very interesting to see if he can pick up where he left off from last season, but all indications are that he will be able to.
3. Ryan McDonough
General manager Ryan McDonough’s work in June’s draft has many impressed with what he did. The team added Dragan Bender, Marquese Chriss and Tyler Ulis in all throughout draft night. They drafted Bender with the fourth pick and then packaged Bogdan Bogdanovic along with the 13th and 28th draft picks to move up and take Chriss eighth. Drafting Ulis with the 34th overall pick in the second round seemed to be a steal considering Ulis was projected as a first-round player. It remains to be seen exactly what role each rookie will have moving forward, but each player they added features a ton of upside, and that’s basically what any team is looking for in the draft. The Suns as a whole have a lot of younger players, but also some crafty veterans to help those guys development into better players. The Suns look to be in a great position to see improvement this season.
4. Leandro Barbosa
The addition of Barbosa will certainly help the Suns in the backcourt. The team had good depth prior to Barbosa returning to the Suns, but his addition can only be seen as a positive. Barbosa of course brings his experience from his time with the Golden State Warriors and playing in the past two NBA Finals series. The Suns have made it no secret that they wanted to add high-character veterans into the locker room and Barbosa certainly fits that bill. It’ll be interesting to see how things play out in that backcourt with the likes of Bledsoe, Knight, Booker, Ulis, Archie Goodwin and Barbosa all sharing minutes.
– Cody Taylor
SALARY CAP 101
The Suns are well below the NBA’s $94.1 million salary cap, with just $79.9 million in guaranteed salaries. The team has 14 players locked in for the season, with a decision to be made on John Jenkins, who is non-guaranteed at $1.1 million for 2016-17. Teams are required to spend at least $84.7 million this season, even with Jenkins, the Suns are $3.8 million under – any shortfall will be paid out to the team’s rostered players at the end of the year.
With at least $13.2 million in cap space, Phoenix will have significant flexibility in trade throughout the season. Looking ahead to next summer, the Suns could have in the neighborhood of $32 million in spending power. Before November, the team will need to make decisions on the rookie-scale options for Devin Booker and T.J. Warren, and extensions for Alex Len and/or Archie Goodwin. Keeping both Booker and Warren is a no-brainer, but the team will have to put serious thought into locking in Len and/or Goodwin before they become restricted free agents next July.
– Eric Pincus
Perhaps one of the biggest strengths on this Suns team is their youth. In a time in the NBA when teams would like to be as young as possible to build up for the future, the Suns certainly fit the bill with an average age of 25.3 (fifth-youngest in the league). Led by Devin Booker, the Suns also have several other young core players like Len, Warren, Knight and Goodwin among others. Of course, they also added three new rookies in Bender, Chriss and Ulis. Another strength on paper looks to be the team’s depth. The backcourt seems to be its strongest right now with the addition of Barbosa in free agency. Watson will have a decision to make for his starting backcourt with Bledsoe, Knight and Booker all in contention for the two starting spots. Regardless of who starts, his second unit looks to be strong.
– Cody Taylor
Just as the team’s youth can be seen as a strength, it can also be viewed as a weakness. Young players are bound to make mistakes and that showed all throughout last season. A big part to the team’s success this season will depend on those younger guys continuing to develop and minimizing their mistakes. Another critical thing will be learning how to close out games. We’ve seen time and time again how young teams can fall apart late in games. This will be something to monitor throughout the season to see if the team can move past those issues.
– Cody Taylor
THE BURNING QUESTION
Can the Suns return to being competitive in the Western Conference?
Last year, the Western Conference didn’t look to be as dominant as it was in prior years. Even in a down year in the conference, the Suns didn’t come anywhere close to being competitive. In a year in which the conference looks to be picking up steam again, will the Suns prove to be players come the second half of the season? The roster didn’t go through many changes compared to last year, so the front office will be banking on these players taking the next step in their development. Don’t be surprised if the Suns can improve on last season’s 23-win mark, but locking down a playoff seed might still be a season or two away.
– Cody Taylor
NBA Daily: Surging HEAT Must Overcome Adversity
The Miami HEAT have been hit with a number of injuries at shooting guard. Can they stay hot?
The Miami HEAT have surged to fourth in the Eastern Conference on the back of a 14-5 stretch since Dec. 9, including a seven-game win streak that ended with Monday’s 119-111 loss to the Bulls in Chicago. In the loss, shooting guard Tyler Johnson got his legs tangled with Robin Lopez and appeared to suffer a serious injury.
“I was scared,” said HEAT small forward Josh Richardson, who joined his teammates in racing down the court to check on Johnson. “You never want to see a guy, whether it’s on your team or the other team, down like that. I talked to him when he was in here [the locker room] and he said he didn’t know what was up.”
Coach Erik Spoelstra told pool reporters after the game that X-rays were negative. It was initially feared to be a knee injury, but Spoelstra said the knee is okay and the ankle is the area of concern. Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel tweeted that an MRI was not deemed necessary and Johnson will be listed as doubtful for Wednesday’s game in Milwaukee.
Tyler Johnson will be listed as doubtful for Wednesday's game against the Bucks, still with no plans for an MRI on his sprained left ankle sustained Monday in Chicago. He remains with the team, which did not practice Tuesday.
— Ira Winderman (@IraHeatBeat) January 16, 2018
Meanwhile, the HEAT is facing a serious shortage at shooting guard, having lost Dion Waiters to season-ending knee surgery, Rodney McGruder to a left tibia stress fracture that will likely keep him out until February, and now Johnson. Miami has applied for a $5.5 million disabled player exception after losing Waiters, according to the Sun-Sentinel. HEAT power forward James Johnson said the team will be looking for other players to step up.
“I think it’s the next guy’s gonna step up like we always do,” said Johnson. “As we have guys going down we also have guys getting back and getting back in their groove [like] Justise Winslow. Hopefully, it’s going to give another guy a chance to emerge on this team or in this league.”
Johnson added that the loss to Chicago came against a hot team and the HEAT didn’t have the right mental approach or defensive communication to slow them down.
“Our communication was lacking tonight,” said Johnson. “I think our brains rested tonight and that’s not like us. Tilt your hat to Chicago. They’re shooting the hell out the ball. They didn’t let us come back.”
Richardson echoed the theme of communication and the inability to counter a hot-shooting team.
“We weren’t communicating very well and we were not giving them enough static on the three-point line,” said Richardson. “They’ve been the number one three-point shooting team in the league for like 20 games now. They ran some good actions that we were not reacting right to.”
Spoelstra referred to a turnover-riddled close to the first half as “disgusting” basketball and agreed that the defense let his team down.
“I don’t know what our record is in HEAT franchise history when we give up 120-plus,” said Spoelstra. “I would guess that it’s probably not pretty good.”
The good news for Miami is that it can try a combination of Richardson and Winslow at the wings, while Wayne Ellington has been shooting the leather off the ball from three this season (40.5 percent on over seven attempts per game). The HEAT is the latest team to attempt to defy history by making a serious run without a superstar player. To make that a reality and remain in the upper half of the East’s playoff bracket, Miami will have to personify the “next man up” credo.
NBA Daily: Is It Time To Cash Out On Kemba Walker?
Should the Hornets get serious about trading Kemba Walker or risk losing him in 2019 for next to nothing?
Is It Time To Sell?
Every professional sports team at some point has to decide when its time to cash out, especially if they have a star player heading towards free agency. The Charlotte Hornets are a team teetering on this decision with star guard Kemba Walker.
Now, let’s be honest for a moment. The Hornets are getting nothing of meaningful value in a trade for Walker if they decided to put him on the trade market—that’s something that will drive part of the decision. Check out these UK sports books with free bets!
The other part of the decision is evaluating the marketplace. This is where Charlotte may have an advantage that’s easy to overlook, which is the ability to massively overpay.
Looking ahead to the cap situations for the NBA in the summer of 2019, there doesn’t appear to be a lot worth getting excited over. While it’s possible someone unexpected goes into cap clearing mode to get space, the teams that project to have space in 2019 also project to have space in 2018, meaning some of that 2019 money could get spent in July and change the landscape even more.
But for the sake of discussion, let’s assume most of the 2019 cap space teams swing and miss on anything meaningful this summer and have flexibility the following summer. Not only will Walker be a name to watch, but guys like Boston’s Kyrie Irving, Minnesota’s Jimmy Butler, Golden State’s Klay Thompson, Dallas’ Harrison Barnes, Detroit’s Tobias Harris, San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard and Cleveland’s Kevin Love can all hit unrestricted free agency.
That’s a pretty respectable free agent class.
While most of those names will likely stay where they are, especially if their teams shower them with full max contracts as most would expect, there are a few names that might make the market interesting.
The wrinkle in all of it is the teams projected to have space. Based on what’s guaranteed today, the top of the 2019 cap space board starts with the LA Clippers.
The Clippers currently have just Blake Griffin and Danilo Gallinari under contract going into 2019. They will have qualifying offers on Milos Teodosic and Sam Dekker, but that’s about it. If the Clippers play their cards right, they could be looking at what could be close to $48 million in usable cap space, making them the biggest threat to poach a player because of the LA marketplace. It should be noted, though, that DeAndre Jordan’s situation will have an impact here.
The Chicago Bulls come in second on the 2019 cap space list with just $35.77 million in cap commitments. The problem for the Bulls is they are going to have to start paying their young guys, most notably Zach LaVine. That’s won’t stop the Bulls from getting to cap space, it’s simply a variable the Bulls have to address this summer that could get expensive.
The Philadelphia 76ers could come in third on the 2019 cap space list, although it seems the 76ers may go all in this summer on re-signing guard J.J. Redick and a swing at a big fish or two. If the 76ers miss, they still have an extension for Ben Simmons to consider, but that shouldn’t impact the ability to get to meaningful space.
For the Hornets, those three situations have to be a little scary, as all of themff something Charlotte can’t offer – big markets and rosters (save maybe the Clippers) with potentially higher upside.
The next group of cap space markets might get to real salary cap room, but its more likely they spend this summer like say the Houston Rockets or are equal to less desirable situations like Sacramento (similar), Dallas (has Dennis Smith Jr), Atlanta (similar) or Phoenix (likely drafts a point guard).
That brings us back to the Hornets decision making process.
If the Hornets put Walker on the market, historically, teams get pennies on the dollar for high-level players headed to free agency. If traded, its more likely than not that Walker hits free agency and goes shopping. That’s the scary part of trading for an expiring contract unless you get the player early enough for him to grow attached to the situation, most players explore options. That tends to drive down the potential return.
The Hornets can also start extension discussions with Walker and his camp this summer and it seems more likely than not the Hornets will pay Walker the full max allowed under the collective bargaining agreement, which could be a deal north of $150 million and he could ink that in July.
It’s possible that someone offers the Hornets the moon for Walker. That has happened in the past. The Celtics gave the Cavaliers a pretty solid return for Irving, a player the Cavaliers had to trade. So it’s not out of the question real offers come in, especially with the NBA trade deadline approaching, but what’s far more likely is the Hornets wait out this season and try to extend Walker this summer.
League sources at the G-League Showcase last week, doubted that any traction could be had on Walker while admitting he’s a name to watch, despite however unlikely a trade seemed today.
The challenge for the Hornets isn’t as simple as cashing out of Walker, not just because the return will be low, but also because where would the franchise go from here?
It’s easy to say re-build through the draft, but glance around the NBA today – how many of those rebuild through the draft situations are yielding competitive teams? How many of them have been rebuilding for five years or more?
Rebuilding through the draft is a painfully slow and frustrating process that usually costs you a coach or two and typically a new front office. Rebuilding through the draft is time consuming and usually very expensive.
It’s easier to rebuild around a star already in place and the fact that Walker himself laughs off the notion of him being anywhere but Charlotte is at least a good sign and the Hornets have some time before they have to really make a decision.
At some point, Charlotte has to decide when to cash out. For the Hornets, the time to make that decision on Walker might be the February 8 trade deadline. It might also be July 1, when they’ll know whether Walker would sign a max contract extension.
If he won’t commit then, the Hornets have their answer and can use the summer to try an extract a package similar to what the Cavaliers got for Irving.
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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.