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Phoenix Suns 2017-18 Season Preview

Will this be the year the impressive youth in Phoenix breaks out? We take a look at the 2017-18 Suns in this preview.

Basketball Insiders

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It’s been a quiet off-season for the Phoenix Suns. Outside of the draft, the team has done little to add to the roster. Around them, the Western Conference has seen an influx of star talent and player movement: Paul George; Paul Millsap; Chris Paul; the list goes on. How will the Suns fair come training camp and the regular season? Here’s a look.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

To hear people talk, Devin Booker could be the reincarnation of Kobe Bryant. His 70-point game last season put him on people’s maps as the league’s next great scorer, and it’s hard to argue with that logic, even this early in his career. He is really good at scoring the basketball, but so far he hasn’t been good enough to lift his team out of the West’s lower half and return the Suns to the playoffs. That day might be coming, though, especially with athletic kids like Josh Jackson and Marquese Chriss giving fans further optimism for what lies ahead. Phoenix isn’t ready for primetime just yet, but the pieces are starting to look like they’re in place. With great veteran leadership in place, the Suns are rising in the West.

3rd Place – Pacific Division

– Joel Brigham

Another year, another top-five draft pick joins the Phoenix Suns.

This season, Josh Jackson joins the Suns as the next part of their youth movement that already features the likes of Devin Booker, Marquese Chriss, Tyler Ulis, and Alex Len. Phoenix is adopting their own long-term moniker a la the Philadelphia 76ers, and laying out “The Timeline” for fans in hopes to set the tone for the bigger picture.

At the center of it all is Booker. After his breakout year last season, and with some help along the wing coming in by the way of Jackson this season, Booker could really be headed for that next jump in terms of performance. With Brandon Knight lost for the season with a torn ACL and Eric Bledsoe constantly involved in trade rumors, the Suns look to be headed towards another season with a sub-.500 winning percentage. But, with budding young talent already in-house for Phoenix, their timeline may not be as drawn out as some other rebuilds around the league.

5th place – Pacific Division

– Dennis Chambers

From a team-building angle, the 2017-18 season should be a straightforward exercise for the Phoenix Suns. They don’t have to “tank,” per se – with the amount of youth in prominent places on their roster plus the relative lack of Western Conference teams actively looking to be bad, a lot of losing will come organically. The Suns can get tons of experience for young guys like Devin Booker, Josh Jackson, T.J. Warren and Marquese Chriss, all of whom should be able to play huge roles without fear of any negative scoreboard effects. The Suns should jockey with the Lakers for the bottom seed out West and in the Pacific, which will put them in position for yet another elite building block in a top-heavy 2018 draft.

5th place – Pacific Division

– Ben Dowsett

The 2017-18 season will be another developmental season for the Phoenix Suns, who have not made the playoff since 2010. Phoenix drafted Josh Jackson from Kansas with the fourth overall pick in this year’s draft. Jackson is another talented prospect for Phoenix’s impressive young core, which includes Devin Booker, Marquese Chriss, Dragan Bender, Tyler Ulis and T.J. Warren. The Suns still have a few veterans who no longer fit on this developing roster, such as Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight, Tyson Chandler and Jared Dudley. Don’t be surprised if Phoenix aggressively looks to trade some of these veterans in exchange for draft assets or young talent.

5th Place – Pacific Division

– Jesse Blancarte

Tanking stinks. From a basketball perspective it’s dreadfully bad, but when you look at the treasure trove of young players the Suns are amassing, it’s simply a matter of time before they start to turn the corner and become really good. There is too much talent there for it not to happen. The problem for Suns fans is that this year won’t be that year – but like Philadelphia has preached, trusting the process can yield a lot more than quick fix trades or overpriced free agent signings. The Suns have a promising core. It’s time for them to learn and grow together because next season could be when they break out of the basement.

5th Place – Pacific Division

– Steve Kyler

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Devin Booker

Devin Booker’s 70-point game against the Boston Celtics last season was just a flash of the almost limitless offensive potential he possesses. Booker paced the Suns last season by scoring 22.1 points per game while shooting 36.3 percent from three with a true shooting percentage of 53.1 percent. Booker led the team in usage percentage and minutes played as well, coming in at 28.6 percent and 2,730 minutes, respectively. Going into his third season, expect those trends to continue and expect Booker to further improve upon his numbers.

Top Defensive Player: Alan Williams

Alan Williams rarely saw the floor for the Suns early on in the season, averaging just 7.2 minutes per game in the first half. When given consistent playing time after the All-Star break, however, Williams was a beast. In 24 second half games, Williams registered 20 steals, 18 blocks and pulled in 155 defensive rebounds in just over 22 minutes per game. Per 100 possessions, Williams’ numbers jump off the page at 13.4 defensive rebounds in addition to 1.8 steals and 2.2 blocks. Williams block percentage of 3.7 percent would have ranked 16th best in the league had he played in enough games to qualify as well. The defensive talent is there and, with enough playing time, Williams should be a defensive force for the Suns next season.

Top Playmaker: Eric Bledsoe

Eric Bledsoe showed the NBA what he can do with a full slate of games at his disposal. Last season, amidst plenty of trade rumors, Bledsoe averaged a career high in points and assist with 21.1 and 6.3 per game, respectively. Bledsoe’s assist percentage of 31.1 percent led the Suns, as did his 418 total assists and four offensive win shares. While trade rumors continue to swirl around Bledsoe, he is still a part of the team and will be a main fixture in the offense next to Booker in the starting lineup.

Top Clutch Player: Eric Bledsoe

Most would expect Booker to take this spot, but in clutch time it was Bledsoe who was the go-to player on the floor for the Suns last year. Across 31 games with five minutes left in the fourth quarter or overtime and a point differential of five or less, Bledsoe shot 42 of 92, good for a 45.7 field goal percentage while also shooting eight of 22 (36.4 percent) from three. Booker was not too shabby himself, shooting 39 of 94 in clutch time across 34 games, good for a 41.5 percent field goal percentage. Booker, however, shot just seven of 27 (25.9 percent) from three. While both are excellent clutch time shooters in their own right, Bledsoe gets the nod for his superior shooting percentages.

The Unheralded Player: Tyson Chandler

Tyson Chandler started in 47 of the first 57 games for the Suns last season, but did not make an on-court appearance for the rest of the season. The reason to consider Chandler unheralded is not for his on-court production, however, but because of the guidance and advice he can provide for the Suns’ up-and-coming roster. A 16-year NBA veteran, Chandler was an integral part of the Dallas Mavericks title run in the 2011 season. That experience is almost invaluable to the Suns, who have very little playoff exposure outside of Chandler and fellow veteran Jared Dudley

Best New Addition: Josh Jackson

The Suns haven’t made many additions this offseason but, even if they had, Josh Jackson probably would still be the best of them. His shooting may be a work in progress, but the effort and intensity he brings on the defensive end will be a boon for the Suns starting lineup. With a defensive rating of 109.3, Phoenix was one of the worst defensive units in the NBA last season; Jackson’s energy and attitude should provide a much-needed boost.

– Shane Rhodes

WHO WE LIKE

1. Devin Booker

Booker carried plenty of momentum into the end of the regular season. In 22 games following the All-Star break, he averaged 24.6 points, 4.2 rebounds and 4.1 assists; had he averaged those across the season, Booker would have been one of just eight to average those numbers, bumping shoulders with the likes of LeBron James, James Harden, Russell Westbrook and others. With another offseason of training under his belt, expect a dominant season from Booker.

2. Eric Bledsoe

If Bledsoe can remain healthy for the entire season — a big if — the Suns have a big chance of improving on their 24 and 58 record from a season ago. Bledsoe was flat-out dominant at times last season and, barring a trade, should be able to easily replicate his numbers from last season.

3. Josh Jackson

Jackson won’t solely contribute on the defensive end. While his jumper has its problems, he is a great basket cutter and Jackson’s explosiveness and athleticism will play a huge role in his offensive success as he makes the transition from college to the NBA. In his lone season at Kentucky, Jackson averaged 16.3 points, 7.4 rebounds, 1.7 steals and 1.1 blocks per game. While it’s hard to expect those numbers from any rookie, Jackson should have no trouble making an impact early and often for the Suns on both ends of the floor.

4. Alan Williams

After his mini-breakout in the second half of the season, Williams will likely be allotted plenty of minutes in the upcoming season. While he doesn’t stretch the floor much — Williams attempted just one three-pointer last season — Williams is a great rebounder and paint-presence. Per 100 possession, Williams averaged 23.4 points, an absurd 19.7 rebounds, 1.8 steals and 2.2 blocks. While Williams won’t be the offensive fulcrum for the Suns, if he’s surrounded by floor stretchers patrolling the paint should be an easy task for him.

SALARY CAP 101

The Suns are currently $6.3 million under the NBA’s $99.1 million salary cap. That includes Alex Len’s $12.1 million cap hold as a restricted free agent. Phoenix cannot rescind their $4.2 million qualifying offer to Len without his approval. The team otherwise has 15 players under contract with Elijah Millsap and Derrick Jones non-guaranteed. If Len agrees to move on and the Suns cut Millsap and Jones, they’d drop to $21.2 million below the cap. The team also has its $4.3 million Room Exception available.

Eric Bledsoe has just one year remaining on his contract after this season. The Suns may want to look to move him before he fits free agency in July of 2019. As currently constructed, Phoenix projects to have $21.4 million in spending power next year. The franchise also needs to decide, before the start of the coming season, on the team options of Dragan Bender, Marquese Chriss and Devin Booker.

– Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

Youth is certainly a strong point for the Suns, who currently roster seven players under the age of 25 (eight including Alex Len, who is currently a restricted free agent). The average age of their roster, 24.8 years, remains one of the lowest in the league despite hosting several older veterans such as Chandler and Jared Dudley. While other teams may lag at the end of the season, the Suns’ youth should keep them energized down the final stretch. Another strength for the Suns is their plethora of big men. Williams, Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender are all under the age of 25 and flashed major upside when on the floor last season. While Williams is a more traditional big man, Chriss and Bender are capable of stretching the floor beyond the three-point line, which should be a major boost for the Suns in the coming season.

– Shane Rhodes

WEAKNESSES

Earl Watson may be respected by his peers and his players, but coaching is one of the Suns’ more glaring problems. Under his watch, the Suns have a 33-82 record; not promising for a team hoping to ride its young talent to the promised land. It’s not completely Watson’s fault the Suns have stumbled, but should they falter again in 2017 expect him to be on the hot-seat. Youth –something that could be considered a strength — could also be a weakness for Phoenix. Closing out games could be a problem for the team, as could their lack of experience down the stretch.

– Shane Rhodes

THE BURNING QUESTION

Can the Phoenix Suns finally make the leap in 2017?

This question has seemingly been asked of the Suns for the past several years. But with improvements made almost across the Western Conference, don’t expect the Suns to be making any playoff push come May. The team remains relatively unchanged from last season and with the likes of Paul George, Paul Millsap and others joining the West, expect the Suns’ regular season record in 2017 to look similar to their record in 2016.

– Shane Rhodes

The Brooklyn Nets Preview dropped yesterday, and the LA Lakers Preview will drop later today. Keep swinging by Basketball Insiders for new team previews every day all the way to the start of NBA Training Camps.

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Defensive Player Of The Year Watch – 11/17/17

Spencer Davies updates the list of names to keep an eye on and who’s in contention for DPOY.

Spencer Davies

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We’re exactly one month into the season now, as the NBA standings have started to take shape headed into winter.

A couple of weeks ago, Basketball Insiders released its first Defensive Player of the Year Watch article to go in-depth on players that could compete for the prestigious award. Since then, there have been injuries keeping most of the household names out of the picture.

Guys like Rudy Gobert (knee) and Al-Farouq Aminu (ankle) have been or will be sidelined for weeks. Kawhi Leonard has yet to make his season debut recovering from a bothersome right quad.

While that isn’t the best news for fans and the league at the moment, it’s likely that those players will be just fine and return with the same impact they’ve always made. In the meantime, there are opportunities for others to throw their names in the hat as elite defenders. With new names and mainstays, here’s a look at six healthy candidates.

6) Joel Embiid

Trusting the Process in Philadelphia was worth the wait. As polished as the seven-footer is with the ball in his hands on offense, he might be even more dangerous as an interior defensive presence.

One of ten players in the NBA averaging at least a block and a steal per game, Embiid makes a world of a difference for in limiting opponents. Through 14 games, the Philadelphia 76ers are allowing just 96.4 points per 100 possessions with him playing. Furthering that, he’s the only one on the floor who dips the team’s defensive rating below 100 and has the second-highest Defensive Real Plus-Minus rating (3.03) in the NBA.

5) Kristaps Porzingis

Like Embiid, it’s been an incredible season for the one called The Unicorn. Before the season started, Porzingis stated it was a goal of his to accomplish three things—an All-Star game appearance, Most Improved Player, and Defensive Player of the Year.

So far, he’s on the right track. Outside of being the league’s third-highest scorer (28.9 points per game), the Latvian big man is hounding and deterring shot attempts nearly every time inside. According to SportVU data, Porzingis is allowing his opponents to only convert 35.1 percent of their attempts at the rim, which is the lowest by far among his peers seeing at least four tries per game. Oh, and when he’s off the floor, the Knicks have a 112.4 defensive rating, which is 9.3 more points per 100 possessions than with him on.

4) Nikola Jokic

At the beginning of the season, it looked like the same old story with the Denver Nuggets defense, but their intensity has stepped up on that end of the floor for the past couple of weeks. Playing next to new running mate Paul Millsap has taken some getting used to, but it seems like the two frontcourt partners have started to mesh well.

Though it might not have been the case a season ago, the Denver Nuggets are a net -12.4 per 100 possessions defensively without Jokic on the court as opposed to a team-best 100.1 defensive rating with him on. A huge knock on the Serbian sensation last year and before then was his inability to defend. He’s still got things to work on as a rim protector with his timing, but the progress is coming. He’s seventh in the league in total contested shots (168) and has been forcing turnovers like a madman. Averaging 1.6 steals per game, Jokic has recorded at least one takeaway in all but two games.

3) Draymond Green

In the first DPOY watch article, the Golden State Warriors had been better off defensively with Green sitting. That right there should tell you how much we can really put into data in small sample sizes. It’s changed dramatically since that point in time.

Without Green playing, the Golden State Warriors have a defensive rating of 105.4 as opposed to 98.4 on the same scale with him on the floor. His matchups are starting to grow weary of driving on him again, as he’s seen less than four attempts at the basket. Currently, in DRPM, he ranks eighth with a 2.60 rating.

2) Al Horford

The Boston Celtics are still the number one team in the NBA in defensive rating. Horford is still the straw that stirs the drink for Brad Stevens. If you didn’t see that watching that knockdown, drag-it-out game against the Warriors on Thursday, go back and watch it.

He has the highest net rating on the team among starters and is leading the team by altering shots and grabbing rebounds with aggressiveness we haven’t seen since he played for the Atlanta Hawks. Ranking fourth in Defensive Box Plus-Minus and in DRPM, Horford is continuing to make his presence felt.

1) DeMarcus Cousins

Dominance is the word to describe Cousins’ game. With a month-long absence of Gobert, he has a real chance to show fans and voters that his defensive side of him is no façade.

Next to his partner Anthony Davis, Boogie has kept up the physicality and technique of locking up assignments. The third and final member of this list averaging at least a block and steal per game, Cousins is at the top of the mountain in DRPM with a 3.13 rating.

The New Orleans Pelicans significantly benefit with him on the hardwood (102.3 DRTG) as opposed to him on the bench (112.7 DTRG). He’s one of six players in the league seeing more than six attempts at the rim, and he’s allowed the lowest success percentage among that group. He’s also contested 193 shots, which is the second-most in the NBA.

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Gregg Popovich Continues To Be The Gold Standard For Leadership

There are three guarantees in life: death, taxes and Gregg Popovich.

Moke Hamilton

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There are three guarantees in life: death, taxes and the San Antonio Spurs.

Okay, let’s be honest, it’s probably not the first time that you’ve heard that one, but it also won’t be the last.

Behind the genius of Gregg Popovich, the Spurs have qualified for the NBA Playoffs 20 consecutive years. In hindsight, they appear to have been the only team to legitimately frighten the Golden State Warriors during their 16-1 playoff run last year, and this season, well, they’ve been the same old Spurs.

That’s been especially amazing considering the fact that the team has been without Kawhi Leonard. Although Popovich recently said that Leonard would return “sooner rather than later,” he himself admitted to not being certain as to what that meant.

Best guess from here is that Leonard will return within the next few weeks, but at this point, it’s entirely fair to wonder whether or not it even matters.

Of course, the Spurs don’t stand much of a chance to win the Western Conference without Leonard thriving at or near 100 percent, but even without him, the Spurs look every bit like a playoff team, and in the Western Conference, that’s fairly remarkable.

“A team just has to play in a sense like he doesn’t exist,” Popovich was quoted as saying by Tom Osborn of the San Antonio Express-News.

“Nobody cares if you lost a good player, right? Everybody wants to whip you. So it doesn’t do much good to do the poor me thing or to keep wondering when he is going to be back or what are we going to do. We have to play now, and other people have to take up those minutes and we have to figure out who to go to when in a different way, and you just move on.”

In a nutshell, that’s Popovich.

What most people don’t understand about Popovich is what makes him a truly great coach is his humility. He is never afraid to second-guess himself and reconsider the way that he’s accustomed to doing things. Since he’s been the head coach of the Spurs, he’s built and rebuilt offenses around not only different players, but also different philosophies.

From the inside-out attack that was his bread and butter with David Robinson and Tim Duncan to the motion and movement system that he built around Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, the latest incarnation of Popovich’s genius isn’t only the fact that he has survived without Kawhi Leonard, it’s what could fairly be considered the major catalyst of it.

There are many head coaches around the league that take their roles as authority figures quite seriously, and that’s why a fair number would have been threatened by one of their star players requesting that things be rebuilt in a way to maximize his potential.

So when LaMarcus Aldridge proactively sat down with his coach to discuss the ways that he felt he was being misused in the team’s schemes, it wouldn’t have come as a shock for Popovich to meet him with resistance.

Instead, he did the opposite.

“We have talked about what we can do to make him more comfortable, and to make our team better,” Popovich acknowledged during Spurs training camp.

“But having said that, I think we are mostly talking about offense. Defense, he was fantastic for us. Now, we have got to help him a little bit more so that he is comfortable in his own space offensively, and I haven’t done a very good job of that.”

Just 11 days after those comments were printed, the Spurs announced that they had signed Aldridge to a three-year, $72 million extension.

Considering that Aldridge’s first two years as a member of the Spurs yielded some poor efforts and relatively low output, the extension seemed curious and was met with ridicule.

Yet, one month later and 15 games into the season, the Spurs sit at 9-6. They’ve survived the absence of Kawhi Leonard and the loss of Jonathon Simmons.

Behind an offensive system tweaked to take advantage of his gifts, in the early goings, Aldridge is averaging 22 points per game, a far cry above the 17.7 points per game he averaged during his first two years in San Antonio.

Coincidence?

I think not.

Death, taxes and the Spurs.

So long as Gregg Popovich is at the helm, exhibiting strong leadership while remaining amazingly humble, the Spurs will be the Spurs.

Sure, Kawhi Leonard will be back—at some point.

But until then, the Spurs will be just fine.

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NBA AM: Atlanta’s Dewayne Dedmon Is Letting Shots — And Jokes — Fly

Dewayne Dedmon’s emergence has been an unexpected positive for the rebuilding Atlanta Hawks.

Buddy Grizzard

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It’s been a brutal season for the Atlanta Hawks, currently 3-12 with the worst record in the Eastern Conference.

Wednesday’s franchise-record 46-point win over the visiting Sacramento Kings was a rare chance for Atlanta to have a laugh in the postgame locker room and reflect on things that have gone well, including hot shooting for the team and a potential breakout season for center Dewayne Dedmon.

The Hawks trail only the Golden State Warriors in three-point shooting at just over 40 percent. Prior to joining the Hawks, Dedmon had attempted only one three-pointer in 224 career games. As a Hawk, though, Dedmon is shooting 42 percent on 19 attempts. Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer explained after Wednesday’s game how his staff decided to encourage Dedmon to extend his range.

“You do your research and you talk to friends around the league, you talk to people who have worked with him and you watch him during warmups,” said Budenholzer. “We had a belief, an idea, that he could shoot, he could make shots. We’re kind of always pushing that envelope with the three-point line. He’s embraced it.”

Dedmon is currently averaging career-highs in points, rebounds, blocks and minutes, and set season-highs in points (20), rebounds (14) and assists (five) against the Kings. He’s also brought an offbeat sense of humor that has helped keep the locker room loose despite the struggles. It became apparent early on that Dedmon was a different type of dude.

At Media Day, when nobody approached Dedmon’s table and reporters instead flocked to interview rookie John Collins at the next table, Dedmon joined the scrum, holding his phone out as if to capture a few quotes.

“This guy’s going to be a character,” said a passing Hawks staffer.

Those words proved prophetic, as Coach Bud confirmed after Wednesday’s win.

“He brings a lot of personality to our team, really from almost the day he got here,” said Budenholzer. “I think he’s getting more and more comfortable and can help the young guys and help everybody.”

Dedmon took an unconventional path to the NBA. Growing up, his mother — a Jehovah’s Witness — forbade him to play organized sports. Once he turned 18, Dedmon began making his own decisions. He walked on to the team at Antelope Valley College, a two-year school in Lancaster, Ca., before transferring to USC and eventually making it to the league.

His personality, which formed while Dedmon forged his own path, shone through in the locker room after the Sacramento win. Asked about conversations he’s had with Budenholzer about shot selection, Dedmon turned to teammate Kent Bazemore at the adjacent locker.

“What’s the phrase, Baze? LTMF?”

“Yep,” Bazemore replied.

“Yeah, LTMF,” Dedmon continued. “Let it fly. So he told me to shoot … let it go. I’m not going to say what the M means.”

Amidst laughter from the assembled media, he explained that ‘LTMF’ is Budenholzer’s philosophy for the whole team, not just part of an effort to expand Dedmon’s game.

“Everybody has the same freedom,” said Dedmon. “So it definitely gives everybody confidence to shoot their shots when they’re open and just play basketball.”

With the injury bug thus far robbing Atlanta of its stated ambition to overachieve this season, Dedmon’s career year and team success from three-point range are two big positives.

Rebuilding or retooling can be a painful process. But with a unique personality like Dedmon helping keep things light in the locker room, Atlanta should make it through.

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