The Phoenix Suns have had a bad go of it.
In five years, the Suns have managed just 126 wins, tied with the Knicks for the fewest in the NBA over that span. With the exit of Steve Nash in 2012, the team found themselves in a pit that they have yet to dig themselves out of. There was hope in 2014 – the Suns won 48 games but just narrowly missed the postseason – but they have since spiraled and have yet to recover from it.
Fortunately, for the franchise and their fans, there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
The Suns have wallowed in misery for nearly a decade, their young core having been thrown to the wolves and unable to fend for themselves. But now, after an active offseason, the Suns have decided to bolster their future with several well-traveled veterans.
The rebuild may not be over but, for the first time in a long time, the Suns appear to be on the up. At the very least, they look to be turning a corner, a sight for the sore eyes of any and every NBA fan.
FIVE GUYS THINK
It’ll be a pleasure to see Monty Williams back in the big chair again. Having Devin Booker as his go-to guy should make it rather easy to implement an offense that scores consistently. Deandre Ayton hanging around down low will certainly help the rebounding battle on both ends as well. If there’s a position Phoenix has lacked in recent years, it’s point guard. The organization addressed that this summer with the addition of Ricky Rubio, who can run an offense with his playmaking ability. Defense should take priority first and foremost, a notorious area of struggle for many years. Kelly Oubre Jr. and Mikal Bridges will provide the brunt of the physicality on opposing wings to force turnovers. The Valley Boyz certainly had a swagger about them to close last year as well. Still, they’re amongst a stacked group of four other clubs, so don’t expect more than a fifth-place finish.
5th Place – Pacific Division
– Spencer Davies
The name of the game for the Suns in 2019-20 is development. The team boasts some nice pieces. Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton anchor the team, and we should expect to see continued development from them. They also boast strong role players in Kelly Oubre Jr. and Dario Saric and an accomplished floor general in free agent signee-Ricky Rubio. Unfortunately, the Suns missed an opportunity to add Jarret Culver to their roster when they traded back in the draft to clear cap space. New Head Coach Monty Williams certainly has his work cut out for him given their dismal 2018-19 season. But fortunately for Williams, expectations shouldn’t be too high. The Western Conference will be brutally competitive this season, and Phoenix simply doesn’t have the talent to compete with the elite teams out West.
5th place – Pacific Division
– Drew Maresca
The Suns biggest need heading into the offseason was point guard. They’ve perhaps solved that issue temporarily with the free-agent signing of Ricky Rubio. Rubio has been one of the better playmakers in the league throughout his career, and players like Devin Booker and DeAndre Ayton should benefit from playing alongside him. Speaking of Booker and Ayton, the two quietly put up monster seasons this past year. Booker continued his ascent as one of the league’s top wing scorers, and Ayton had a Rookie of the Year type season, only he didn’t get the same national hype as others did. It is concerning that the Suns are on their fifth head coach in as many years, but they have some quality young pieces in place. It’s time to start showing some real progress. Unfortunately for them, the other teams in the Pacific are that much better than them at this point.
5th Place – Pacific Division
– David Yapkowitz
It’s really hard to say what the Phoenix Suns’ strategy was going into this offseason. A rational approach would have been to focus on adding shooters to surround Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton while adding a point guard to give Booker some time off the ball. The Suns could have addressed the point guard issue by drafting Coby White, who projects to be a very solid lead guard in the future and who would have been on a team-friendly contract for several years. Instead, Phoenix decided to move salary off their books (throwing in two second-round draft picks to do so) in order to sign Ricky Rubio to a three-year, $51 million contract. This move was questionable (to say the least) in a vacuum and is even worse when you consider that Phoenix originally had the sixth overall pick and White went seventh to the Chicago Bulls. Oh, and we haven’t even mentioned that the Suns used the 11th overall pick on Cameron Johnson, who was not projected to go anywhere close to this high on anyone’s draft board. Johnson is a good shooter but his skill set is something that could have been addressed in free agency. There are too many issues to cover in this short section, so I will wrap it up by simply saying there was little rhyme or reason to most of what Phoenix did this offseason.
5th Place – Pacific Division
– Jesse Blancarte
It is hard not to look at the Suns as a perpetual NBA dumpster fire. Ownership continues to make bad decision after bad decision and the results have been the same – disappointment. This year, things at least on the surface look better. Monty Williams brings instant credibility to the revolving door at the head coaching position. James Jones as full-time leader of the franchise has made some good roster additions, which begs the question of whether this might actually be the year things turn in Phoenix? On the surface, maybe. Devin Booker could be an MVP candidate if he continues his progression. Former top pick DeAndre Ayton has the tools to be elite, and the roster seems better suited to winning games more so than at any time in the last five years. If all things play out as they look on paper, the Suns should be significantly better. That doesn’t mean they are playoff contenders, but progress is better than no progress.
5th place – Pacific Division
– Steve Kyler
FROM THE CAP GUY
With Ricky Rubio inked to a three-year, $51 million contract, Devin Booker on a maximum contract and the re-signing of Kelly Oubre at two years, $30 million, the Suns are relatively invested in their developing core. Add in DeAndre Ayton and Mikal Bridges, whose team options for the 2020-21 season are sure to be picked up before November, and the Suns do not project to have enough cap space to sign a max player next summer (perhaps up to $25 million).
Phoenix is still midway through the rebuilding process, perhaps overpaying Rubio will prove worthwhile with a steady point guard. Meanwhile, the team owns all of its own first-round picks and has decent expiring contracts in Tyler Johnson ($19.2 million), Aron Baynes ($5.5 million) and Dario Saric ($3.5 million), should a trade opportunity present itself before the deadline in February. Saric is eligible for an extension prior to the start of the season.
– Eric Pincus
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Devin Booker
Does this need any explanation?
Devin Booker is one of the best young offensive weapons in the game, certainly the best in Phoenix. Last season, the guard averaged 26.6 points, 4.1 rebounds, 6.8 assists and shot 46.7 percent from the field while he led the team in points and assists.
Booker saw his three-point percentage dip to 32.6 percent, but he has averaged 35.4 percent for his career so some positive regression should be expected.
Booker has been good, great even, thus far into his career. But the 23-year-old should be even better next season. With the best supporting cast of his young career, it would be a surprise if Booker didn’t take a step forward in almost every facet of his game.
Top Defensive Player: Mikal Bridges and Kelly Oubre Jr.
It was hard to decide between Mikal Bridges and Kelly Oubre for this spot, so I didn’t.
Both players are long, twitchy and have the size and speed to defend multiple positions. Both averaged more than a steal per game with the Suns last season (Oubre also played 29 games with the Wizards) while Oubre managed a block per game as well. Both hustle and give everything they have every time they step onto the court.
Case-in-point: the Suns have a pair of spectacular defenders that they can deploy anywhere and everywhere.
The presence of Booker and Deandre Ayton could put a strain on any defense, but the Bridges-Oubre combo should make up for what those two lack on that end of the floor. If nothing else, the two should prove invaluable assets to Phoenix in what has seemed like a never-ending rebuild.
Top Playmaker: Ricky Rubio
It isn’t a stretch to say that Rubio is far and away the Suns’ best point guard since the team traded Eric Bledsoe to the Milwaukee Bucks in 2017.
In fact, while Bledsoe is certainly more athletic, one could argue that Rubio is the best point guard Phoenix has rostered since Goran Dragić before him, or even Nash before him. If nothing else, he’s certainly the point guard they have needed these last few seasons — a primary playmaker that can take on a secondary scoring role.
Alongside Donovan Mitchell – a player, despite their height difference, not too dissimilar to Booker – Rubio averaged 12.1 points, 6.1 assists and shot over 40 percent from the field last season. For his career, the Spaniard has averaged 7.7 assists, which would register as the Suns’ highest mark since Nash posted 10.7 per game in 2012.
To take their next step, Phoenix desperately needed a playmaker alongside Booker, not only to take on some playmaking responsibility but to displace some defensive attention as well. Rubio could do just that for them next season.
Top Clutch Player: Devin Booker
Booker was born with the clutch gene. With the amount of losing the Suns have done in the last few seasons he hasn’t been able to put it to much use, but Booker can clearly turn up the heat when under pressure.
In his four seasons, Booker has hit shot, after shot, after shot (you get the point) to either take the lead or win the game outright for Phoenix. Last season, in the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime and the score within five points, Booker had 35 field goals, good for 16th in the NBA and far and away most on the Suns.
He only managed to shoot 40.2 percent (87 attempts) in those situations, but that fact may be a double-edged sword. Yes, Booker was inconsistent, but the Suns trust him in those moments and should continue to do so.
The team’s newest additions should only serve to draw defensive heat away from Booker, not only in the clutch but throughout the game, so don’t be surprised to see Booker’s efficiency take a jump.
The Unheralded Player: Deandre Ayton
Overshadowed by Rookie of the Year Luka Dončić, Ayton managed to have perhaps the quietest yet dominant season from a rookie in recent memory. In 71 games, the rookie out of Arizona averaged 16.3 points, 10.3 rebounds and shot 58.5 percent on the season.
Ayton is the only rookie ever to average 16, 10 and shoot at least 58 percent from the field.
Ayton also finished second in win shares among rookies, yet, somehow, the center earned a meager 66 points in Rookie of the Year voting and not a single first or second place tally. Both Dončić and the second-place Trae Young posted exceptional rookie seasons, but it would seem as if the NBA just passed Ayton by for some reason or another.
But the Suns (to an extent) know what they have in Ayton (or at least one would hope); there’s a reason they took him with the top selection over Dončić in 2018. If they can push him to be his best, Ayton may not only prove those that have doubted him wrong, but he could become the star Phoenix has long searched for.
Best New Addition: Dario Šarić
The Minnesota Timberwolves sent Šarić to Phoenix when they moved up from 11 to six in the 2019 NBA Draft. Šarić showed promise in his first two seasons with the Philadelphia 76ers but, in a lesser role, took a step back in Minnesota.
Now, the Suns have the opportunity to capitalize on the Croatian forward.
In just 25 minutes split over 81 games in Philadelphia and Minnesota, Šarić averaged just 10.6 points and 5.6 rebounds. He also saw a dip in his field goal percentage and three-point percentage. But there is plenty of talent there; Šarić averaged 14.6 points, 6.7 rebounds and 2.6 assists in the season prior, and had the look for a future star.
Whether a starter or reserve, Šarić is more talented than what he put on display last season. If the Suns can recapture the spark that was his 2017 mini-breakout, they could add a star-caliber piece to their already impressive young core.
– Shane Rhodes
WHO WE LIKE
1. Aron Baynes
The Suns acquired Baynes from the Boston Celtics in a July trade and, while it seemed questionable at the time, there is some logic in the acquisition of a 32-year-old backup.
Baynes, along with some of the other new Suns, should provide a capable, steady veteran to man the second unit. In a similar vein, he should also prove a strong locker room presence for a young team that is going to need a leader.
Likewise, Baynes is a stout defender – during his short time in Boston, he was a key cog in one of the league’s best defenses – and he should prove a competent mentor on that side of the ball for the second-year Ayton.
2. Ricky Rubio
Another veteran addition, Rubio wasn’t the sexiest pickup. But, he could prove vital in the Suns’ quest to return to relevancy in the Western Conference.
He isn’t going to lead the team in scoring, nor will he dominate the ball. But Rubio should vastly improve the flow of the offense without taking too much away from Booker.
But, and perhaps most importantly, Rubio has been there before; maybe not to the extent of the Suns in recent years, but he wallowed in losses with the Timberwolves. In his six years in Minnesota, the team never won more than 40 games, and Rubio can likely empathize with how hard that can be to deal with on a competitive level.
And, after back-to-back postseason appearances with the Utah Jazz, Rubio should now also understand what it can take to reach the top of the Western Conference. Hopefully, he can impart some of that wisdom upon Phoenix next season.
3. Mikal Bridges
On paper, Bridges’ rookie season doesn’t look like much. But, when the Suns allowed him to do so, the wing flashed and he flashed brightly.
We’ve already discussed the fact that Bridges can be an impact defender, but there is room for some major offensive growth in his game. The 23-year-old shot 33.5 percent from three-point range, good for fifth among rookies with at least 200 attempts and fifth among the other Phoenix youngsters.
While his assist totals were low, Bridges also, on occasion, showed excellent court vision and passing ability.
Bridges is talented, and he’s exactly what the best NBA teams are built on– a long, versatile wing that can shoot and play great defense. With a full offseason under his belt and an understanding of the season-long NBA process, it wouldn’t be a shock to see him make a jump in year two.
4. Ty Jerome
Despite his age, Ty Jerome is another piece that could go a long way in the Suns’ hopeful turnaround.
The Virginia product is one of the few players with some winning experience. Fresh off a National Championship win, he is set to join the few already on the Suns’ roster with a championship pedigree.
Jerome should also prove a serviceable reserve in his rookie year; in his last season at Virginia, he averaged 13.6 points, 4.2 rebounds, 5.5 assists 1.5 steals and shot 43.5 percent from the field. Jerome was also a sharpshooter, as he knocked down three-point shots at a 39.9 percent clip.
– Shane Rhodes
There is a reason the Suns have sat near the bottom of the NBA for so long. They don’t have many strengths as a team, and that is partly the fault of the personnel, partly the fault of management.
But, Phoenix does have one thing on their side: youth.
The Suns brought in plenty of veteran talent to oversee their operation this season, but their youth is what can drive them into the NBA stratosphere. Ayton, Booker, Bridges, Jerome, Oubre, Saric are, on paper, one of the best young cores in the league and, perhaps more importantly, they are under contract for the foreseeable future.
The Suns may or may not capitalize on the talent they have; players sometimes just don’t “get it,” others can be mismanaged or fall out of favor. But, youth is something that can give Phoenix and their fans hope and, going into next season, it’s one of the few things they have going for them.
– Shane Rhodes
If it wasn’t already clear, the Suns have been bad, and they’ve been bad for a very long time. A losing culture has been ingrained into the fabric of the franchise.
That type of atmosphere can be hard to overcome, even if a team has all the talent in the world; heavy is the head that wears the crown, but even heavier is the head under the crown’s boot. If Phoenix is ever to find their way out of the NBA’s basement, a monumental effort is going to be required of everyone, players, coaches and executives alike.
– Shane Rhodes
The Burning Question
Can the Suns Finally Take a Step Forward?
The Suns have shown so much promise before, only to trip and land flat on their face. It would be foolish to say they could make a push for the postseason, even more so in the Western Conference, but the roster is clearly on the up; can the franchise push them to the next level? Thus far, they’ve been unable, but with new management in the fold – Jeff Bower, James Jones, Monty Williams, etc. – it could almost be like a fresh start for the Suns next season.
– Shane Rhodes
Could Gordon Hayward Officially Be ‘Back?’
Following what had to be a frustrating season, Gordon Hayward is showing signs of being the Hayward of old. Matt John examines what looks different about Gordon and what impact that could have on the Boston Celtics.
Let’s not dwell on Gordon Hayward’s injury from two years ago. You probably saw it, and if you didn’t, first of all, consider yourself lucky; and second, you probably know what happened.
Instead, let’s talk about what happened this past season with Gordon. In hindsight, maybe we should have seen his struggles coming. What happened back on opening night in 2017 would be quite the hurdle for anyone to get over one year later, but in Hayward’s case, it may have been worse for him than anyone could have expected.
Hayward entered the summer of 2018 hoping to get back into his old routine, but after experiencing serious discomfort, Gordon opted to get another surgery at that time to remove the screws in his ankle. Little did everyone know, the second surgery was a major setback for the former All-Star. All of his plans he had got pushed back to the fall, which – long story short – meant that Hayward had little time to prepare for the start of last season.
That should have been the red flag that maybe the Celtics weren’t getting the old Gordon back to start. It’s tough because since they were paying him handsomely, they wanted to get him involved as much as possible on a team that wanted a championship. Unfortunately, it was clear through the first couple of months that he was both not back to normal and would take time to get up to speed.
It was nobody’s fault. Fate threw both the Celtics and Gordon some unfair and unexpected twists.
Did he get better as the season went on? Uh… sure? Every so often we got flashes of the old Hayward, but they were few and far between. Another problem was that Gordon was on a team filled with one too many guys who needed both minutes and touches. Force-feeding him minutes when he was still in recovery over talented players at full health was a frustrating ordeal for everyone.
Hayward ended the regular season on a promising stretch and followed that up with a solid outing against the very short-handed Pacers in the first round of the playoffs. His progress halted when Boston faced Milwaukee the following round. Everything fell apart for the Celtics when that series ended, but Hayward’s disappearance specifically made any remaining optimism surrounding his comeback follow suit. Being outplayed by Pat Connaughton, who was making barely over five percent of his salary, would do that to him.
When it was over, one question remained. Would Gordon Hayward ever be Gordon Hayward again?
The man who just two seasons before was coming off of the best one of his career, averaging 22 points, 5.4 rebounds and 3.5 assists on 47/40/84 splits? The man who while leading an excellent Jazz team, was a shoo-in All-Star and garnered serious all-NBA consideration during that time? The man who the Celtics traded down from the first overall pick, as well as the long-tenured Avery Bradley, to make room for him money-wise?
We can’t really answer that at the current moment since we’re only entering the beginning of preseason. But since the start of training camp, all reports about Hayward have been encouraging to say the least.
It started with Enes Kanter, who played with Hayward for over three years in Utah. At media day, Kanter stated that not only was Gordon back to where he was, but that he would “shock the world” as well.
Then, Robert Williams III followed it up with similar sentiment.
Robert Williams said he would get up at 9 or 9:30 am to work out and Gordon Hayward would be finishing up his work.
On Gordon’s explosion: “He just got it back, man. He’s back.”
— Jay King (@ByJayKing) October 5, 2019
Danny Ainge sounded optimistic as well about Hayward coming back to his normal self, but he tried to temper both his and everyone else’s excitement. The buzz around the Celtics as training camp started was all the same – Gordon Hayward was back to normal.
But talk is talk. As great as all of this sounded for Boston, everyone needed to see for themselves if Hayward was back to his old self. In his first preseason game against Charlotte, he only played briefly because of an elbow injury, but when he was on the floor, it looked like the believers would have their faith rewarded.
Too bad @gordonhayward got injured (hopefully it's a minor injury), because he was ROLLING during the first half of last night's game against Hornets.
He got his bounce back again! Highlights: pic.twitter.com/SMSvxJZLie
— Tomek Kordylewski (@Timi_093) October 7, 2019
Of course, it’s just one game. Worse, it’s one preseason game, an exhibition that means nothing for just about everyone except the guys who are trying to make the roster. But for Hayward, this definitely looked different for two reasons. First, the fluidity. If you compare how he moved on the floor during that game to how he looked at this exact time a year ago, you can see the difference.
When he started out last year, Gordon ran like he had ankle bracelets attached to his feet. Maybe it’s the added leg spandex, but from the looks of things, Hayward is moving much as he did before his injury. He was never an elite athlete, but Gordon’s specialty was how crafty he was on his feet. If that has returned, then his ceiling should be right back where it was when he first came to Boston.
Second, his confidence. Among all of Hayward’s issues from last season, one of them was that he never figured out what his role was for the Celtics. The overabundance of talent, combined with his recovery both physically and mentally, made it hard for Gordon to know what he was supposed to do.
Now, Kyrie Irving is gone. Al Horford is gone. Marcus Morris is gone. Terry Rozier is gone. On the one hand, the Celtics don’t have nearly as high of expectations. On the other, less could be more for them. With those four gone, there’s more room for Hayward to stretch his legs and play his game. That’s going to take having faith in himself, which Gordon showed he might just have again.
In that one preseason game, Hayward drove to the basket, made quick decisions and played within the team’s concept. Even when he missed a bunny, seeing Gordon drive to the basket without hesitation is something we saw him do only on occasion last season as opposed to pre-injury when he’d do it all the time.
Didn't finish it but Gordon Hayward making these moves 👀 pic.twitter.com/jM9fvojn2S
— Chris Forsberg (@ChrisForsberg_) October 6, 2019
So if Hayward is 100 percent as he’s clamored up to be, one question remains: What should we expect of him? Even with all the team lost, Boston still has plenty of scoring with Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and even Enes Kanter if we’re really including their best scoring options.
Because of that, expecting Gordon to put up the same scoring numbers he did in Utah may be unrealistic. Where Gordon could really make up for the Celtics is in his passing. The Celtics made up about as well as they could have from Kyrie’s departure by adding Kemba, but Al Horford is a different story.
Replacing all that Al Horford could do is downright impossible because he’s a big who can do pretty much everything. Hayward can’t replace that because Al’s got a few inches and, hence, can play taller positions. What Gordon can do – now that he’s expected to have a bigger role – is replace Al’s playmaking abilities.
Hayward’s always been a good passer; it’s why he’s a good fit in Brad Stevens’ offense. Last season, he still put up around the same assist numbers that he did in Utah despite a significant dip in minutes. Now that he’ll have a bigger role, and the Celtics offense will want to remain in motion, Hayward can be the playmaker in the offense that Al was. Gordon can’t do all the things that Horford can, but he can make up some of the difference with Horford’s departure on passing alone.
When it comes down to it, Gordon should not have a repeat performance of last season. Instead, we should see a more accurate version of the player the Celtics had in mind when they rolled out a max deal back in 2017.
The Celtics are going to have a lot of questions to answer as this season goes on. If that one preseason game is a sign of what’s to come from Gordon Hayward, they can rest easy knowing he won’t be one of them.
Collins, Whiteside Appear Mismatched During Blazers’ Preseason Opener
Zach Collins and Hassan Whiteside started up front for the Portland Trail Blazers on Tuesday — but after just one preseason game, it’s clear they’re still a long way from proving that partnership’s staying power, writes Jack Winter.
It’s been proven time and again that deducing meaningful conclusions from preseason basketball is mere folly. The games are often played at barely-more-than-half-speed, while teams don’t go through extensive scouting reports or implement major schematic changes related to specific opponents. Exhibition contests are far more about players and teams simply getting their feet wet against real competition leading up to the regular season grind than anything else.
But during the Portland Trail Blazers’ preseason opener at Veterans Memorial Coliseum — where, of note, the franchise won its only championship in 1977 — it was difficult not to wonder if the hopes of bringing another title to Rose City might be mitigated by a starting frontcourt that seems mismatched.
Zach Collins and Hassan Whiteside were on the floor for tipoff against the Denver Nuggets on Tuesday, as the Blazers have planned since late July. They played just about the opening seven minutes of the first quarter and headed to the bench with Portland trailing Denver 13-11. Both Whiteside and Collins returned to action in the second quarter, but not together. Whiteside was paired with Anthony Tolliver upfront, while Collins played center in a downsized lineup that slotted Rodney Hood at the de facto power forward slot.
That first quarter stint, it turned out, would be the lone occasion Collins and Whiteside were on the floor at once.
Head coach Terry Stotts downplayed the significance of that development after the game, alluding to a minutes restriction on Whiteside and the whims of exhibition play as the reason why the Blazers’ new starting bigs saw such brief court time simultaneously.
“That was because of minutes, Hassan was limited to 12 minutes,” he told Basketball Insiders. “It was predetermined he was gonna play the first six minutes with the one group, and then the next six minutes with the second. I think during preseason you’re gonna see different matchups at the 4-5.”
Whiteside missed multiple practices last week after tweaking his left ankle, plus Portland did indeed experiment with several different combinations in the post. Stotts specifically mentioned a desire to get the tandem of Collins and Skal Labissiere some run, which he did in the third quarter, and the Blazers slid Mario Hezonja down to power forward later on as both teams went deep into their bench units.
The limits of analyzing preseason basketball don’t need further explanation. But just because there’s only so much new to be learned from it hardly means exhibition play isn’t useful for confirming offseason talking points.
For Portland, that came in the form of a newfound emphasis on pace propelled by the addition of multiple capable ball handlers. Bazemore, ultra-disruptive in his Blazers debut with a whopping seven steals, routinely pushed the ball up the floor himself — even when playing with Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. Hezonja lived up to his teammates’ training-camp hype by mostly functioning as a true point forward. During his biggest and most exciting moment on the open floor, Hezonja went coast-to-coast off a defensive rebound before dumping the ball behind his head to Whiteside for a layup.
Lillard, McCollum, Anfernee Simons and even Bazemore all dribbled into pull-up jumpers after bringing the ball up the court without making a single pass.
The result was a blistering first-half pace of 112.0, nearly eight possessions more than the Atlanta Hawks’ league-leading average last season. That number suggests the Blazers were able to play fast, even with Collins and Whiteside on the floor. But a deeper dive into the advanced box score reveals that breakneck pace was owed almost solely to their second unit – especially notable given the struggles of the starters in the halfcourt.
Ignore the poor shooting for now as Portland may not play a half all season in which Lillard and McCollum combined to go 5-of-15 overall and 1-of-8 from beyond the arc. The Blazers don’t need to worry about their star backcourt misfiring on a few makable jumpers. Nonetheless, Lillard and McCollum could find it tough to find room to operate in the halfcourt when playing with Collins and Whiteside.
Like Al-Farouq Aminu in years past, defenses just won’t feel the need to guard Collins away from the ball when he’s spotted up from deep until he proves he’s a reliable three-point shooter. Making matters worse is the difficulty Whiteside has operating in a crowd, cue the video evidence:
Collins isn’t on the floor in the second clip, but Portland’s mucked-up spacing, with Hood in the dunker spot and the strong-side corner empty, make it a facsimile of what the Blazers can count on seeing this season while Collins and Whiteside are playing together. Neither is a good screener, either, with Collins hindered by his lack of girth and Whiteside’s longtime indifference to the finer points of basketball – which contributed to his demise as a building block for the Miami Heat – almost fully ingrained.
Those worries will be at least partially alleviated if Collins improves as a shooter. He sarcastically joked that he didn’t shoot any threes this summer at media day before describing all the work he put in and looked confident from range against Denver despite missing both of his attempts.
Collins’ three made jump shots from the right elbow area, meanwhile, serve as both an encouraging example of his natural perimeter touch and the spacing and efficiency pitfalls of playing him at power forward if he remains most comfortable from mid-range.
Reminder: It is far, far too early to write off the long-term viability of Collins and Whiteside as Portland’s starters in the frontcourt.
In any case, the Blazers are bound to get more comfortable offensively with them on the floor together given additional playing reps. Collins has never started at power forward before and Whiteside, as he loves to remind reporters, has never played in an offense that asks him to handle the ball on the perimeter.
But Portland certainly wouldn’t be the first team to stagger a pair of starters after the first and third quarters, and their new priority of increased pace clearly makes Hood, Hezonja or even Tolliver a better stylistic fit at power forward than Collins – before accounting for their superior ability to stretch the floor, too.
If the Trail Blazers want to remain true conference contenders, they’ll need to figure out their new on-court intricacies sooner rather than later — thankfully, the preseason is the perfect playground to do so.
Five Breakout Players to Watch — Southeast Division
The Southeast Division is full of young, on-the-cusp players. A number of them could easily have breakout seasons in 2019-20, and that could have long-term implications on the division — and the entire league. Drew Maresca writes.
The Southeast Division saw its fair share of new additions this offseason. And while there is less established talent within the division than there is in the Atlantic or Pacific, there is plenty of youth on the precipice of breaking out.
With the NBA season right around the corner, Basketball Insiders’ breakout players series is underway. With that in mind, let’s examine five players poised to have breakout years in the Southeast Division. We’ll skip past those that are mostly established; to say a guy like Trae Young, John Collins or Terry Rozier is “primed for a breakout year” is a stretch since the first two are no brainers and the latter already had his coming out party two seasons ago – albeit, with a good amount of regression last year.
Let’s instead focus on guys on the cusp on stardom who haven’t yet received national attention for their performances. And with that being said, we’ll jump in.
Miles Bridges – Charlotte Hornets
Bridges is dangerously close to stardom. He is a walking highlight reel and appears ready to take on a significantly larger role in the Hornets’ offense considering the loss of Kemba Walker in free agency.
But a few things are holding him back from reaching his fullest potential. The first is shooting. Bridges is a career 32.5 percent three-point shooter; however, he told reporters on Hornets Media Day that he aspires to shoot 38 percent from deep this season. In his preseason debut last Sunday, Bridges’ performance looked quite similar to his career average from beyond the arc (33.3 percent on three attempts), but he also notched an impressive 12 points and 10 rebounds in 23 minutes — in which time he posted a plus-8 in a Hornets’ loss. If Bridges can extrapolate that production across heavier minutes throughout the season, his 2019-20 campaign should be quite strong.
The second item holding Bridges back is defense. Historically, Bridges is viewed a capable but inconsistent defender. He is 6-foot-7 and 225 poundswith a 6-foot-9 wingspan. And he boasts an impressive (approximately) 40-inch vertical. Much of Bridges’ growth must come from an improved understanding of schemes and responsibilities. His on-ball defense was mostly fine (for a rookie), but he looked lost and relied on others to direct him too often last season. He posted a defensive rating of 112 and a defensive plus-minus of .5. For context, Hasaan Whiteside led the league in defensive rating with a 99.0 and Leonard posted a 105, while Rudy Gobert led the league in defensive plus-minus with 5.1 and Leonard posted a 0.7.
But it’s not like the Hornets’ coaching staff lacks confidence in Bridges’ defense. In fact, Bridges told reporters at media day that head coach James Borrego recently told him that he has the potential to become “a Kawhi-like defender” who can switch screens across all positions. If Bridges can grow into that a Leonard-like defender and improve on his three-point shooting, he will become a perennial All-Star and, possibly, a household name.
Justise Winslow – Miami HEAT
Expectations were pretty high for the 10th overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft. So much so, that Danny Ainge and the Boston Celtics allegedly offered six drafts picks — four of which were first-rounders— in exchange for the Hornets’ ninth overall pick with an eye on the Duke product. But the Hornets badly wanted Frank Kaminsky, leaving the HEAT with Winslow. Last season could almost, sort-of be considered a breakout year; Winslow averaged 12.6 points, 5.4 rebounds and 4.3 assists, and played even better than that from Dec. 8 and on after an injury to Goran Dragic opened the door for him to slide into the starting point guard role.
But if last season might be considered a semi-breakout season, 2019-20 will leave no doubt. Winslow is big and athletic, especially for a point guard (listed at 6-foot-7, 225 pounds). And after catching a bad rap regarding his long-range accuracy earlier in his career, he first improved his three-point percentage in 2017-18 (38 percent on 1.9 attempts per game) and then began shooting more at a very similar percentage last year (37.5 percent from three-point range on 3.9 attempts per game).
Winslow just needed a little more time to iron out the kinks in his game and the freedom to play on the perimeter – both of which he’s now had. Winslow told Basketball Insiders last April in the final game of the season that “playing a more natural perimeter position was a better fit for me more than small ball forward.” And now with Jimmy Butler on board in Miami, and another offseason in the books to work on the limited short comings he has left, he should get even more of the notoriety that he rightfully deserves.
Bam Adebayo – Miami HEAT
With Hassan Whiteside’s inclusion in the four-team, Jimmy Butler trade, a path has been cleared for Adebayo. Yes, the HEAT also returned Myers Leonard, but the HEAT appear poised to give the starting nod to Adebayo, so long as he doesn’t muck it up.
And Adebayo appears more than ready to take the challenge head-on. He already averages 13.2 points, 10.7 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per 36 minutes through two professional seasons. And while he shot only 20 percent from three-point range last season, he shot very well from mostly everywhere else on the floor: 71.6 percent at the rim, 41.5 percent from 3-10 feet, 37.3 percent from 10-16 feet and 43.8 percent from 16 feet to the three-point line. If he can continue to stretch the floor to the mid-range (and maybe even beyond it ) he’ll open up lots of space for Butler, Winslow, Dragic and others.
And Adebayo embraces the expectations— exactly as he should.
“I wouldn’t consider it pressure,” Adebayo recently told the Miami Herald. “I would more consider it an opportunity, a big opportunity for that matter. And (I plan on) just going out there and just playing positive, staying positive and showing everybody what I can do.”
Jonathan Isaac – Orlando Magic
Isaac was drafted sixth overall in 2017. He hasn’t exactly met expectations, but there is still massive excitement around the 6-foot-10 forward in Orlando. In his second season in the league, Isaac averaged 9.6 points and 5.5 rebounds while shooting 43 percent from the field and 32 percent from three-point range — which jumped to 11.8 points and 6.2 rebounds across their final 31 games.
He put in some work with the great Tracy McGrady this offseason, which should result in at least some improvement, too. Furthermore, he is an above average (and versatile) defender whose length and instincts allow him to cover a wide range of opposing forwards and wings; Isaac finished 2018-19 ranked 17th in block percentage with an above average real defensive plus-minus of 1.02 (which is actually lower than what he posted in his rookie season). If Isaac can become a consistently above-average three-point shooter, he could enter All-Star discussions sooner than later.
Mo Bamba – Orlando Magic
Bamba was seen as the second or third best big man in the 2018 NBA Draft. Deandre Ayton mostly lived up to the hype. Unfortunately, the other two – Wendell Carter Jr. and Bamba – did not. In Bamba’s case, injuries and a loaded Orlando front court limited him to 16.3 minutes per game across only 47 games.
Still, his skill set is ideal for a modern center. The 7-foot-1 center has the potential to become a defensive force; he averaged 3 blocks per 36 minutes in his limited action last season. He shot only 55.5 percent on two-pointers and 30 percent on threes last seasons; however, the shooting range that caught scouts’ eyes has been on display in the early part of the preseason so far this year.
Bamba shot 3-for-5 from downtown on Monday night against the Pistons (posting 13 points, 8 rebounds and 2 blocks in 16 minutes), and 7-for-11 from the field on Saturday (18 points, 7 rebounds and 3 blocks in 19 minutes). While Bamba has been a backup thus far this season, look for creative ways for the Magic to deploy him throughout the season – especially if he keeps performing as he’s done through two preseason games.
Honorable Mention: Markelle Fultz – Orlando Magic
Fultz is the unfortunate position of being written off as a bust by many, while still being seen for his potential by others. And to be fair, Fultz was a huge disappointment in Philadelphia – failing to deliver after being drafted before Jayson Tatum and Donovan Mitchell will do that to a player. But the NBA loves a comeback story, and Fultz landed in a good spot to begin his with the Orlando Magic.
Fultz has done very little in 33 games across two seasons. He’s shot 26.7 percent from three-point range and only 53.4 from the free-throw line. But what’s more worrisome is his lack of confidence and the noticeable hitch he developed in both his set shot and free-throw shooting form. Rumors ran rampant about the cause of Fultz’s yips; but if three preseason games and an offseason workout video are to be trusted, he might be ready to rejoin the world as a successful basketball player.
Fultz’s shooting form looks much improved across the Magic’s first three preseasons games, and he appears more comfortable shooting the ball; while he’s missed all four three-pointers he’s attempted, he is at least 2-for-2 on free throw attempts. And while he’s missed his share of shots, he’s demonstrated confidence in launching it – which is probably the most encouraging sign yet. But he’s also flashed the athleticism and length that set him apart from other 2017 NBA Draft prospects, getting in passing lanes and pushing the ball up the floor on fast breaks. We obviously need to see more from Fultz before anointing him a contributor, but things are beginning to look up.
The bar is low for Fultz this season, and this writer believes that he’ll exceed most expectations. The Magic lack depth at point guard, so there is a real opportunity for him to earn minutes and contribute. And the Magic already picked up Fultz’s option for 2020-21; so if he plays well enough, he might even earn the starting spot for next year and beyond.
All six, except for Justise Winslow (23), are 22 years old or younger. Therefore, all still have lots of development ahead. All will also have the opportunity to contribute to their respective teams this season.
If they can do so effectively, all will carve out a spot in this league for years to come – and probably have their breakout season sooner than later.