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Phoenix Suns 2019-20 NBA Season Preview

The Phoenix Suns had a busy off-season, not only hiring a proven leader at head coach but re-making the roster into what looks like a team poised to win some games. Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Phoenix Suns in this 2019-20 NBA Season Preview.

Basketball Insiders

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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.

Enough said.

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

Strengths

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

Weaknesses

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

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NBA Daily: Chasing 40

Can James Harden outdo his last season and drop 40 points per game in 2019-20? History says he can. Drew Mays takes a deep dive into the numbers.

Drew Mays

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As of this writing, James Harden is averaging 38.4 points per game.

Yes, 38.4.

He’s within striking distance of 40 – a number that would put him in the most rarified of air, joining Wilt Chamberlain as the only other player in NBA history to accomplish this feat.

Of course, Wilt averaged over 40 twice – 50.4 in 1961-62 and 44.8 in 1962-63. Harden has played 14 games. There’s a long way to go. But with each passing night, 40 looks more and more in reach.

And why not? He put up 36.1 per contest across 78 games last year. His partitioned game is like a filing system: Put threes there, rim attempts here and free throws in the back. Who says he can’t make one more three and one more free throw per game? He even started this year “slow,” getting 19 and 29 his first two out.

Since those two games, he’s scored under 30 twice. The other 11 games he’s been above 36. Even in today’s game, that’s unheard of – well, unless you’re James Harden.

Only two modern comparisons exist for what Harden’s doing the last 13 months: Michael Jordan in 1986-87 and Kobe Bryant in 2005-06. Jordan averaged 37.1. Kobe averaged 35.4 (for extra points, Rick Barry joins these four in the top-10 scoring seasons of all-time with 35.6 in 1966-67).

This year, Harden has a chance to go supernova — to really pass the Kobe season and to pass Jordan.

On any level, scoring points in the NBA is hard. But scoring at the rate these guys did requires two factors to blend seamlessly into a third. Talent has to meet opportunity in the right era. This equation was true of Wilt’s 50 and 44 seasons, and Jordan and Kobe’s 37 and 35, respectively.

It’s true of Harden’s 2019-20. And he might average 40 because of it.

Kobe, Jordan and Wilt are third, fifth, and seventh in scoring all-time. It’s no surprise they had outlier seasons (though Jordan went for 35 per game the year following 37.1). Harden is currently 55th, but will move into the top 35 or so by year’s end. There’s a good chance he breaks 30,000 career points in the next five years.

The truth is, Harden is as good of a scorer as they were. And he may even be better. Any argument to the contrary isn’t rooted in statistics or results – it’s rooted in a bias against Harden’s ways, or a distorted, reminiscent view of the past. A common refrain against Harden is that his scoring is a product of flopping and free throws – that without that, he wouldn’t be as effective.

Here’s Harden in 2012, still a member of the Thunder.

That looks pretty similar to what he does now — the paced attack; the ball-out, arms-locked attack to incite fouls; the strength to finish anyway.

And here he is the following season, his first as a Rocket.

Copy and paste that into game film from today, and no one notices the difference.

He’s been doing this his whole career…he’s just leveraged his ability with opportunity in the right era to become the most dominant isolation player of the last decade.

Opportunity arises in part because of talent. It’s also borne of team and organizational needs. When Jordan scored 37.1, he was coming off a broken foot and an 18-game season. The 1986-87 campaign saw the Bulls go 40-42, with only three players scoring over 10 per game. Charles Oakley and John Paxson joined Jordan in double figures, with the fourth-highest scorer being Gene Banks at 9.7. Only 8 of the 17 players from ‘86-87 returned the following year.

Charles Oakley scored 9.7 points per game for his career. Paxson scored 7.2. Those were Chicago’s second and third options – with Jordan’s skill level, he had one of the greatest opportunities of all time to put up huge numbers.

In 2005-06, the proud Los Angeles Lakers were on the heels of a 34-48 record and missed the postseason in their first year after Shaquille O’Neal. They entered ’05-06 with Lamar Odom as the only player outside Kobe able to create offense (To our frustration, Smush Parker was as disappointing as we remember him.).

Kobe was all LA had – he obliged by taking 27 shots per game and leading the league in scoring.

Generational, ball-dominant perimeter talents anchoring otherwise average to below-average rosters equal the recipe for lots and lots of points.

That’s where Harden has found himself in Houston, this year more than ever.

Since the now-infamous Thunder deal, Harden is averaging 29 points per game. He’s on his way to his third straight 30-point-per-game season, and second above 35. His numbers have continued to climb not only due to individual improvement, but also within his permanent place as the unquestioned center of the offense. This is the collection of point guards Harden’s seen during his Houston tenure:

Jeremy Lin, Patrick Beverley, Aaron Brooks, Ty Lawson, Chris Paul.

The latter four were far from central playmakers – Paul was the only other star Harden’s joined forces with, and even he declined significantly last season. Sidenote: We’re also not counting the failed Dwight Howard experiment. While other teams were doubling and tripling down on star-laden rosters, Harden was primarily left as the single-engine to the Rockets’ vehicle. He had no choice but to make all the decisions.

This becomes even more true with Paul gone. Paul and Harden have similar styles in that they both control the ball. Consequently, even with the two often playing staggered minutes, Harden’s opportunities decreased. Paul took some of the slowed-down possessions away from him.

The fit with Russell Westbrook, however, is more complementary. Westbrook has Houston playing at the fastest pace in the NBA. He gets it and goes. When he doesn’t have it in transition, he pulls back and gives it to Harden. Harden isn’t losing those prodding isolation possessions anymore.

As Harden has improved year-by-year, he’s done it amid a changing NBA. His rise has coincided with the three-point boom – and it’s led to the possibility of a 40-point-per-game season.

In 1986, Michael Jordan was doing things on a basketball court that few had ever seen.

The ability to leap and hang in the air wasn’t common then. The clip below encapsulates Jordan’s 37.1 ppg season:

Look at that spacing! Jordan clunkily misses a jumper over a double-team, gets the ball back and makes a play at the basket. He scored because he was more athletic than everyone else. That’s not an indictment on Jordan, and he didn’t only score this way – he was skilled this early in his career, too. But the athleticism was the predominant thing. Just check out this clip from 1988:

You’d have thought MJ was a Salem Witch the way the announcers reacted to a behind-the-back dribble. Imagine if they saw Kyrie back then!

Jordan was unparalleled in talent over the history of the NBA; this was especially true, athletically, in 1986. That, along with the state of the Bulls’ roster, mightily contributed to his single-season top-five scoring average.

Kobe Bryant took 2,173 shots in 2005-06. Of those, 1,655 were two-pointers. And of those two-pointers, 1,041 were taken between 10 feet and the three-point line. Kobe took 27 shots per game and 13 of them were long twos. Think about that: Kobe spent an entire NBA season not only shooting 27 times a night, but taking the least efficient shot in basketball nearly half the time.

(Quick aside: Jordan took 27.8 shots per game in ’86-87. Wilt took 34.6 shots per game in his 44-point season and 39.5 shots per game in his 50-point season. So, when Harden scores 49 on 41 shots as he did in Minnesota last week, please don’t complain while standing up for the other three.)

The league’s climate in ’05-06 was perfect for Bryant to hoist an inordinate amount of mid-range shots. 79.8 percent of the league’s field goal attempts came from two-point range, compared to 62.5 percent this year — Harden’s Rockets are at 49.4 percent. Kobe’s greatest strength was the NBA’s most popular shot, and he took advantage.

That brings us to Harden. If Harden followed Steph Curry’s lead and broke basketball last season, he’s slammed into a million pieces in 2019-20.

Harden set a record last year by attempting 1,028 threes, making up over half of his total field goal attempts. That averages out to 13.2 per night – and most of those were unassisted. His shooting percentage of 61.6 was otherworldly, considering the difficulty of his looks.

Now, he’s back for an encore.

His shot chart is more categorized than ever. 56 percent of his attempts are threes, up slightly from last season. 21 percent come at the rim, and almost 20 come from 3-10 feet – and if you watch, most in the 3-10 range are short floaters. Only 2.9 percent of Harden’s looks are between 10 feet and the three-point line.

He’s taking 13.9 three-point attempts per game. Before last night’s loss in Denver, he’d already taken 200 threes!

His total shot attempts per game are at 25.4 (lower than Wilt, Jordan and Kobe during their historic seasons) and he’s taking 14.5 free throws per game. If you threw twos out the window, Harden would get you 28 points on threes and free throws alone!

The free throw rate should slightly regress. He took 11 per game last year and should stay in that 11-12 range. But his shooting percentages are down; he’s shooting 42.5 from the field and 34 from three, about two percentage points lower than his Houston norms. Assuming those tick back up, there’s no reason to believe he can’t add a few points per game to break 40.

Averaging 40 is next to impossible. Only one person has ever done it – and he did it towering over the league, on 39.5 and 34.6 shots each night, at a breakneck pace. Jordan, Kobe and Harden are the only players in the last 30 years or so to even sniff it.

Harden is at the peak of his powers. He plays with a team that relies on him to be the offense and a star running mate whose game doesn’t clash with his. He’s reached the heights of his game at the summit of the three-ball movement, where shot distribution and efficiency are king.

He still has to prove it can work in the playoffs. And even if he can’t, maybe that’s okay. Maybe, among the detractors whining about his style, complaining about his methods, we should enjoy this for what it is: an all-time scorer tearing through the league.

Jordan had a funny quote about his 37.1-point season that went something like this: It was hard, because he’d score 32 one night and then realize, man, I have to get 42 tomorrow to stay on track.

Harden had 27 last night. He’d need 53 Friday to keep the pace.

It’s kind of ridiculous when you think about it that way. Still, it seems unwise to bet against him.

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NBA Daily: Reliable Burks Thriving In Long Sought-After Opportunity

Spencer Davies takes a look at Alec Burks’ outstanding start to the season with the Golden State Warriors.

Spencer Davies

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If you go back and look at the 2011 NBA Draft, you’ll see big names all around.

Champions such as Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson and Kyrie Irving. All-Stars like Jimmy Butler, Kemba Walker and Nikola Vucevic.

19th overall pick Tobias Harris turned out to be a maximum contract player. “Mr. Irrelevant” was Isaiah Thomas, a player that made an All-NBA team in a near-MVP season.

But there’s still time for another man to prove himself as one of the best talents in his class and, so far this year, he has given us a reason to believe he will.

Once plagued by injuries and often dealt with inconsistent roles, Alec Burks finally has the opportunity he’d been seeking — and this time around, he’s doing the stepping up instead of being the one on the sideline.

Last night against the Memphis Grizzlies, Burks exploded for 29 points, 8 rebounds and 2 assists, plus a block and a steal. It’s the most he’s scored in a single game since Dec. 2017 and the fourth game where he’s eclipsed the 20-point mark this season already.  And in the nights that he’s played over 30 minutes, he’s averaging 23.6 points, 6.6 rebounds and 2.2 assists.

While that is an impressive accomplishment in its own right, the way Burks is going about getting his points is the real encouraging story. Healthy and fearless, he’s attacking with purpose and being rewarded with results, one way or another.

Burks is drawing fouls at a high rate with his aggressiveness. He’s getting to the line at will and knocking down his free throws, an astounding 23-for-25 over the last three games. A knack for disrupting opposing offenses, he’s been able to capitalize on the other end with a team-leading 5.5 points off turnovers per 100 possessions. That would also explain his success in transition, where he’s made a living on the open floor.

Don’t mistake Burks as a one-tool guy, either. He’s one of Golden State’s top threats in the pick-and-roll, using his dual-threat ability to either penetrate or pull up from distance. Trailing just Paul George, Andrew Wiggins and James Harden, the veteran combo guard is deadly off handoffs with 1.67 points per possession in such situations.

In addition, Burks has had a noticeable impact on the defensive end. The Warriors suffer when he’s not on the floor, as the opposition’s effective field goal percentage is 8.4 percent better when he sits. According to Cleaning The Glass, that ranks in the 99th percentile in the league. Furthermore, those teams are scoring 120.3 points per 100 possessions if he’s on the bench.

The 28-year-old has been a top-10 defender when it comes to guarding his assignments coming off screens, too, holding those players to 33 percent from the field.

Watching Burks operate with a clean bill of health is a gift from the basketball gods who have been cruel to him over the last three years of his career. It’s a shame that this chance has been given to him with his teammates on the mend, but how many times has he been on the other side of that battle?

Selected by the Utah Jazz at No. 12 eight years ago, Burks started his NBA career on a high note. He was a part of a franchise built around Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson, playing a complementary bench role while developing with the likes of Gordon Hayward and Enes Kanter. Then, Trey Burke was added to the mix along with Rudy Gobert in Burks’ third season, one where he appeared in a career-high 78 games.

That following year when he signed an extension, things took a downturn. Already having to adjust to a new head coach in Quin Snyder, Burks began having shoulder issues and played through them until electing to have surgery in late December. The Jazz also brought in Rodney Hood and Dante Exum as rookies.

Burks came back from the setback and, again, had been on the floor consistently in the 2015-16 campaign — except the injury bug decided to rear its ugly head in another way. Almost one year to the date that his season ended with shoulder surgery, he suffered a fractured left fibula that once again cut his year short. Snakebitten by misfortune in way too many occasions, his role in Utah never really was the same. His minutes diminished, his rhythm was off and Snyder had his backcourt rotations set.

Utah ultimately parted ways with Burks via a trade to the Cleveland Cavaliers last year, and while he did show flashes of his abilities and even snuck in a game-winning dunk during that 34-game stint, it wasn’t long before the organization moved on. The Cavaliers flipped him to the Sacramento Kings, where he had 15 DNPs and played less than 10 minutes per game.

Burks admitted at Warriors media day that being traded twice after spending seven years with one organization took a toll on him and his family. By the same token, he also knows that things happen for a reason.

Originally signing with the Oklahoma City Thunder this past summer, Burks pivoted to Golden State because he wanted to reevaluate his following the trades of Paul George and Russell Westbrook. He was sold on the Warriors’ team culture and an opportunity to play for a winner. Unfortunately, Stephen Curry went down with a major injury early this season, D’Angelo Russell is out for a couple of weeks and Draymond Green has missed some time as well — so championship aspiration is aiming high.

At the same time, the Warriors need a veteran to show young guys the ropes. Steve Kerr needs a guy to produce at a high-level to keep up with a fast-moving, deep Western Conference. Burks is proving each night that this group can rely on him.

That first-round pick all those years ago with so much promise, so many obstacles to overcome is now on the other side of the spectrum. The chance he’s been starving for is staring him right in the face.

Believe that Burks won’t take it for granted.

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NBA

Hungry HEAT Destined To Be Dark Horse In East

The Miami HEAT are off to a hot start at 9-3. Jordan Hicks details why this may actually be legitimate and why the HEAT have a chance to go deep in the playoffs.

Jordan Hicks

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After Jimmy Butler was acquired by the Miami HEAT this past offseason, everyone expected them to be a solid team in the Eastern Conference. They weren’t expected to go deep in the playoffs, and very few people had them pegged as one of the league’s elite teams. But 12 games into the season, the HEAT are 9-3…and they might be — dare we say — really, really good.

The crazy part about how their team is playing together is all the moving pieces that make it work. Butler is the leader of the team — both in general and in scoring — but he’s only averaging 18.4 points. They have six guys averaging double-digit points, another at 9.7 and three more all above 7 points per game.

As a team, they are number one in the league in field goal percentage, third in three-point shooting, fifth in assists per game and first in steals per game. They are tied with the Toronto Raptors for the fourth-best plus-minus.

Looking into more advanced statistics, they are fifth in the NBA in net rating, helped greatly by their current defensive rating of 101.2. They are second in the league in assist percentage and first in both effective and true field goal percentage.

Of their nine wins, two of them came on the road against the Milwaukee Bucks and the surprising Phoenix Suns, and another came at home in the complete demolition of the Houston Rockets. Their three losses were all the road against the Minnesota Timberwolves, Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Lakers — three games you’d almost expect them to lose.

This isn’t a take that’s expecting you to believe the HEAT are the real deal based solely on their wins and losses up to this point in the season, but the fact they are completely taking care of business shows that Erik Spoelstra may be well on his way to one of his best head coaching seasons since the departure of LeBron James.

Just what is making this team so good? Let’s start by highlighting their stingy defense, the main driver behind their early-season success.

Butler is leading the entire NBA in steals with 2.8 per game. He is their leader on that end and a large part as to why they’re so successful. They are currently leading the NBA in steals as a team. This is great for a very obvious reason. It takes possessions away from the opposing offense and, in many cases, leads to an easy look in transition on the other end. The most efficient way to score is a wide-open dunk or layup, and fast breaks usually turn into that. The HEAT are averaging a tick under 10 steals per game, so that is plenty of looks their opponents won’t get off.

A huge breakout player for the HEAT this year is Bam Adebayo. Ever since his rookie year, you got the feeling he’d turn out to be solid, but his third season in the league finally feels like Adebayo’s time to shine. He’s averaging 13.9 points, 10.5 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.5 blocks. Guess how many other players in the NBA are putting up a similar stat line? Just one. His name is Giannis Antetokounmpo, you may have heard of him before.

In a league that is being overrun with efficient scoring, the glue guy is a key piece to any championship team that often goes unnoticed. Take Draymond Green, for example. You remember Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, and Klay Thompson, but Green played as big of a role as any of those guys in bringing rings back to Oracle. Adebayo has a chance to take an incredibly large leap this season, and some are even calling him an early candidate for the Most Improved Player award. No big deal, just HEAT-royalty Dwayne Wade.

Most impressive is where Adebayo currently sits in box plus-minus. This leaderboard is usually nestled with all the top players in the league, and Adebayo currently sits at No. 8. It’d be crazy if he stayed there all season, but the fact he’s up there already 13 games into the season is pretty impressive.

On the offensive end, things seem to be clicking on many different cylinders. As previously mentioned they have six, basically seven guys in double figures. Two of them happen to be rookies, and one of those rookies happens to be undrafted. That undrafted guy, Kendrick Nunn, is making a whole lot of noise.

He’s second in per-game scoring behind Rookie of the Year favorite Ja Morant, and he leads all rookies in steals per game. He’s first in made field goals and first in total steals, too. He leads all rookies in overall plus-minus. He’s second on the HEAT in points per game behind Jimmy Butler and second in steals per game, as well. He’s shooting well from the field as well as from behind the three, where he’s tied with Coby White for most threes made out of all rookies. He’s shooting the three at 38.4 percent which is killer for a rookie considering he’s shooting over six of them per game.

The other rookie standout, Tyler Herro, is averaging 13.3 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. He’s a great spot-up shooter, but is capable of creating his own looks, too. Of the rookies on the roster, he’ll likely be the better shooter in the long run, and he’s shown every bit of why he deserved to be drafted in the lottery at No. 13.

The HEAT have many other players contributing in diverse ways, some big and some small. Meyers Leonard is shooting over 60 percent from three on two attempts per night. Justise Winslow was pacing the team in nightly plus-minus before his concussion. Goran Dragic — a savvy veteran who is somehow glossed over in this group — is scoring 16 per game on very efficient marks. One could go on and on about all the talent this Miami team has deep on its roster.

Listen, there is still an eternity left before the playoffs start, and Jimmy Butler has shown previous incapabilities of putting the team first. But the HEAT seem to be off to an incredibly productive start. Most wouldn’t pencil them in as a championship team, but with all the parity in the league today, they absolutely have an argument to be considered the top dark horse.

The Miami HEAT have plenty of pieces to make a deep run in the playoffs. Apart from Butler, they are definitely lacking a superstar or two, but they make up for it with early-season continuity, solid coaching and overall execution on both ends of the floor. With all the talent on their roster at almost every poisition, don’t be surprised if the HEAT end up coming out of the East.

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