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
The X-Factors: Indiana
Matt John continues Basketball Insiders’ X-Factors series by taking a look at how certain aspects affect the Indiana Pacers’ chances.
There’s a lot going on right now. So much so that it’s overshadowed a positive string of news – the NBA is (hopefully) coming back. We don’t know when that is, and we don’t know how they’re going to approach the rest of the 2019-20 season, but at least we know that pro basketball is coming back.
If you’ve been keeping in touch with Basketball Insiders over the past week, we’ve been looking over X-Factors that can shape the chances of potential playoff teams. X-Factors like injuries, how teams figure out their rotation, getting past their internal issues, and so on and so forth. We’ve already gone over New Orleans, Portland, Brooklyn and Memphis. Today, we’re going over the Indiana Pacers.
Over the past three years, the Pacers have been unanimously crowned as one of the league’s more entertaining underdogs. Since they started their new era of basketball post-Paul George, their identity has centered around their scrappiness and effort. It’s what’s led to them having two consecutive 48-win seasons and being on pace to win 49 this season. If that’s not enough, they’ve done this while having their new face of the franchise Victor Oladipo fully healthy for only one season during that time.
There’s only one problem. In spite of them wildly exceeding expectations, it hasn’t led to much playoff success. In their defense, some of that came from factors that were out of their control, like having to face LeBron in the first round one year and losing Oladipo mid-season the next. This upcoming postseason is their chance to prove that there is more to them than being the little train that could.
For Indiana to take that next step, their chances start and end with how much of Victor Oladipo that we’ll get to see from Victor Oladipo.
First, let’s give props to the Pacers for being able to manage without ‘Dipo for the past year or so. Teams more often than not crash and burn after they lose their best player. Indiana can take pride knowing that they weren’t one of them. They’ve proven that they’re a good team without him – which definitely wasn’t the case his first year when he exploded. At this point though, good isn’t enough for them, which is why they still need him at full strength to achieve their full potential.
Alas, integrating an all-NBA caliber player following a devastating injury to a team that was playing fine without him is much easier said than done — the 2018-19 Boston Celtics can attest to that. It can really boggle down to two reasons why.
1. A star coming off a serious injury mid-season needs time to shake off the rust
2. Working him into a rotation that was doing fine without him is hard to maneuver
When Oladipo came back, neither he nor the Pacers could avoid those issues. Indiana went 7-6 and seemed to go hot and cold. After winning an overtime thriller against Chicago, they went on a five-game losing streak. They followed that with a six-game winning streak before losing to Boston in a close battle just as the NBA shut down. In that 13-game span, Oladipo averaged nearly 14 points on 39/30/78 splits along with three rebounds and three assists. Those numbers are to be expected knowing what’s happened to him, but not the ones you regularly want from your franchise player.
However, that last loss to Boston bred reason for optimism for Oladipo. He had his best game of the season by, scoring 27 points on 9-for-16 shooting including 5-for-7from three. Better yet, he single-handedly spurred a 9-2 run that helped the Pacers catch up to the Celtics late in the fourth quarter. He was the best player on the floor when it mattered, and he did his damage against a good team. He looked like Victor Oladipo again!
Unfortunately, his performance was like a show putting on its best episode just as it was about to go on hiatus. Because the NBA shortly put the season on hold afterward, we don’t know if it was all a fluke or if it was him trending upwards. We’ll get a better look when the season resumes.
If we get the Victor Oladipo that put the league on notice just two years ago, then the Pacers become one of the playoff sleepers with an ambiguous ceiling. Granted, Indiana has progressed enough as a team that they don’t have to rely on him as much as they did two years ago, but adding a two-way star to an already good team opens so many possibilities. It wouldn’t be the end of the world if they don’t get that version of Oladipo when the playoffs come around, but if they do, absolutely no one would want to face them in the playoffs.
If they believe that they can get the Oladipo of old, his presence would mean someone(s) else isn’t getting minutes. Playoff rotations always shorten because teams want their best guys out there. Jeremy Lamb’s awful season-ending knee injury does make things simpler in that regard, but Oladipo will have to absorb a lot of minutes if Indiana wants him to get his best form back, which means the back-end rotation guys in Indiana like TJ McConnell and the Holiday brothers might be riding the pine more than what they are used to.
Oladipo at full strength is obviously a lot better than those players, but as stated before, him coming back at full strength is not a guarantee. Giving him minutes at the expense of others who have been productive is a gamble especially now that it’s looking more and more likely that the NBA will start with the playoffs right off the bat.
Let’s be honest here: You probably already knew Indy’s playoff chances revolve around how Oladipo performs. You might be asking if there are other factors at play. There most certainly are for them. Although not nearly to the same proportion as Oladipo is.
A consistent subplot over these last three years has been the shaky pairing of Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner. Nate McMillan, whose coaching has been among the best in the league during that time, has tried his darndest to make the pairing work. The Pacers aren’t worse when they share the court together – they have a plus-2.1 net rating as a duo — but they clearly don’t make the team better together.
It’s clear that this team ain’t big enough for the two of ‘em, and this season, Sabonis has made it obvious that he is the better player of the two. Indiana should probably look into trading Turner this summer, but that’s not relevant for why this is all being brought up. The point is, if the Pacers want to go the distance, they have to mix and match those two to the best of their abilities.
In other words, they need to stop putting themselves on the court together for an extended period of time. It’s a shame because they are two of Indiana’s best players that just happen to play at their best at the same position. The playoffs are about playing the best lineups and exploiting the best matchups. In order to do that, they shouldn’t be playing at the same time.
Having two really good centers can be a positive though. It makes it so that the Pacers will always have at least one of them on the floor at all times. That can do wonders for them.
There are other factors at play here. TJ Warren will be getting his first taste of playoff action. He’s done an excellent job replacing Bojan Bogdanovic this season, but who knows if that is going to continue when the playoffs start? Aaron Holiday has a much bigger role than he had last year and did not get much playoff burn as a rookie. If the Pacers entrust him in the playoffs, is he going to fill in Cory Joseph’s shoes?
There’s also the playoff formatting that’s still very much in the air. If they do the standard formatting, Indiana will be facing Miami in the first round for what should be a very entertaining – not to mention nostalgic – playoff series. If they decide to do seeding based on league standings, they would face Denver, which would provide a fair amount of fun matchups. We may not even get that either.
Whatever the case is, Indiana can at least sleep well at night knowing that this go-round, they’ll have their best player back on the team to lead the fight.
The biggest question is how much of the said best player will be there when they do.
The X-Factors: Memphis
David Yapkowitz continues Basketball Insiders’ “X-Factor” series by identifying potential difference-makers for the Memphis Grizzlies should the NBA return this July.
Developing news: the NBA is forging a path towards resuming the season, something that didn’t seem all that likely a couple of months ago. Now there are still quite a few things needed to be addressed before a resumption, but things have seemingly gained momentum within the past week or so.
Different scenarios have been floated around. But the ultimate question, should the season indeed resume, is how? Will the NBA opt to go only with the teams that were in a playoff spot before the shutdown, or will they include the bubble teams who had a fighting shot at the playoffs as well?
We’ve begun a new series here at Basketball Insiders in which, assuming those bubble teams have a legit shot, we take a look at not only the potential issues each team may face, but the x-factors that could swing their favor in their respective quests toward the postseason.
Today, we look at the Memphis Grizzlies, one of the regular season’s biggest surprises. Of course, nobody would blame you if you picked them to miss the postseason — they came into the season as an extremely young team with not a lot of experience. And they started the season about as you would have expected, 14 losses in their first 20 games. Come 2020, their record stood at 13-35 as they sat near the bottom of the Western Conference.
Then, on Jan. 4, something changed. A big 140-114 win on the road against the Los Angeles Clippers, a team many expected to represent the conference in the NBA Finals, set off a chain reaction. From there, the Grizzlies would go on to win seven straight as they cemented themselves a spot in the race for the conference’s last playoff spot. When the NBA suspended play on March 11, Memphis sat at 32-33 and 3.5 games ahead of the Portland Trail Blazers for the eighth spot in the conference.
So, what exactly could prove the Grizzlies x-factor should the season resume? First and foremost would be the health of budding star Jaren Jackson Jr.
After a pretty solid rookie season in 2018-19, Jackson appeared on an upward trajectory prior to his injury. The archetype of the modern big, he is an elite defender with a great range from beyond the arc. He may not shoot the prettiest ball, but it goes in nonetheless: the former Michigan State Spartan took 6.3 three-point attempts per game and knocked them down at a near 40 percent clip. He’s active around the basket and, given his size and potential in the pick-and-roll, Jackson is the perfect complement to the Grizzlies fellow phenom and future star, Ja Morant.
Prior to the league shutdown, Jackson had missed nine straight with a left knee injury. His absence was evident — Memphis went 4-5 in his absence after that aforementioned seven-game win-streak — and a potential return could give the Grizzlies the boost they need to solidify their position in the standings.
While Memphis would have almost certainly have preferred to have Jackson in the lineup, they may have stumbled upon another potential x-factor in his absence: Josh Jackson.
The former lottery pick had a humbling experience to start this season, as the team essentially told him not to show up to training camp and instead had him immediately assigned to their G-League team, the Memphis Hustle.
Down in the G-League, Jackson was given the opportunity to hone his craft, expand his repertoire and further build on the talent that made him the fourth pick back in 2017. Later in the year, the Grizzlies seemingly liked what they saw: recalled to the team in late January, Jackson proved a nice spark for the team off the bench as averaged 10.4 points, 1.7 assists 3.2 rebounds and a steal per game in 18 contests. In that time, Jackson also shot a career-high 43.9 percent from the field.
Of course, there was never any question about his talent — Jackson was a lottery pick for a reason — but in his short time with the Phoenix Suns, Jackson just couldn’t put it together. That said, he’s shown some serious improvement defensively and in terms of his shot selection and, still only 23-years-old, he could quickly become a major difference-maker for Memphis off the bench. In the short-term, his improvements should only serve to benefit the team’s postseason chances.
Their youth and inexperience, something that has often been regarded as their biggest weakness, could also serve as another wild card or x-factor for the Grizzlies. Only three players — Gorgui Deng, Jonas Valanciunas and Kyle Anderson — are over the age of 26, and the energy their young legs would bring to any potential tournament could serve as their ace in the hole.
Looking back toward the standings, the San Antonio Spurs and Portland Trail Blazers, two veteran-laden teams with significantly more experience than Memphis, loom large. Should the NBA give those teams on the bubble a real opportunity to reach the postseason, the Grizzlies’ youth will have to play a significant role. Of course, their inexperience may prove fatal, given the amount of time away from the game.
But, over the course of the season, Memphis proved a resilient bunch — there’s no reason to think that might change should the season resume.
The X-Factors: Brooklyn
Drew Maresca continues Basketball Insiders’ “X-Factor” series by identifying potential difference-makers for the Brooklyn Nets when the NBA returns this July.
The NBA season appears ready to resume. It looks set to do so in Walt Disney World (Orlando, Florida), and it may or may not consist of all 30 teams.
While the details aren’t entirely ironed out, it seems to no longer be the question of if, but when for the 2019-20 season’s return. With that in mind, Basketball Insiders has set out to identify the x-factors of each team in their respective quests to qualify for and advance in the 2020 NBA Playoffs. We’ve already covered the New Orleans Pelicans and Portland Trail Blazers. Next up, we turn out attention to the most controversial of the whole bunch – the Brooklyn Nets.
The Nets are currently 30-34 – a significant step back from the winning season they posted in the previous season (42-40). But injuries and acclimating to new star players cost them dearly. Fortunately for the Nets, they are still either the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference or 15th in the league overall, depending on how the playoffs are to be seeded – but either way they’ll pick up where they left off or qualify for the postseason, facing off against either the Toronto Raptors or the Los Angeles Lakers.
The Nets have as much to gain from the two-month-long, COVID-19-related interruption as anyone. But they also have plenty of unanswered questions – and big ones at that. Questions include, “How effectively will Jacque Vaughn take over in Kenny Atkinson’s place?” and “Will Jarrett Allen’s relegation to the bench continue? If so, will it adversely affect team chemistry?” But somehow, those aren’t even the team’s biggest x-factors.
Their first x-factor is their biggest – almost literally. It’s also, figuratively, the NBA’s biggest x-factor—and it’s not even close. It’s Kevin Durant. When healthy, Durant is one of the three best players on the planet – even with LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo. But just how good is he? Well, he’s good for 27 points and 7 rebounds per game across his entire 12-year career. He also dealt 5.9 assists per game in 2018-19 on average – a career-high. He’s long, scores in every way imaginable, defends and plays better in the clutch – to which his two-NBA Finals MVP awards speak.
But enough about Durant’s abilities, will he be ready to play? Unfortunately for Brooklyn, it’s unclear if its newest and shiniest toy is ready to be unboxed. Durant tragically ruptured his Achilles tendon in Game 5 of last year’s NBA Finals, and he hasn’t played since. Durant’s representatives did an excellent job of managing expectations, clearly stating that — regardless of circumstance — Durant was unlikely to return at all in 2019-20.
And all was well in Brooklyn. The Nets still had to work Kyrie Irving into their rotation, and they were clearly on board with Durant’s rehab plan. The media’s expectations have been tempered, leading to a more seamless rehabilitation schedule, and it was widely known that Durant would not return before the start of 2020-21.
But expectations change quickly in New York. First, we saw leaked videos featuring Durant working out painlessly on the basketball court, in which he was running and jumping. And then, COVID-19 turned our worlds upside down. It put the entire NBA season and just about everything else on hold. As we approached the light at the end of the tunnel that is the NBA season, the NBA universe began considering what finishing the season would mean to players and staff. Paramount in that series of questions is one that greatly affects the Nets – does the late-July start date for the return of the NBA season give Durant enough extra time rehabbing his Achilles to come back this season?
Unfortunately for Brooklyn – as well as the broader basketball community – the answer is probably “no.” The risk is too great. As unique and talented as Durant is, he’s also bound to be out of basketball shape. The speed of the game would be a challenging adjustment, even if he is fully healed. After all, healthy and ready are worlds apart. But nothing’s been decided yet, and that means there’s still a chance. And it’s ultimately, entirely up to Durant – who’s been unsurprisingly tight-lipped.
If Durant does return, he would headline a pretty deep and very talented roster. But Durant along doesn’t make the 30-34 Nets a contender all by himself. He needs at least one other piece to do so, which leads us to Brooklyn’s other major x-factor – Kyrie Irving.
Like Durant, Irving alone doesn’t make the Nets a contender – we actually have more evidence of this given that the Nets were only 4-7 through Irving’s first 11 games before he suffered an injury. But Irving played incredibly in that time, averaging 28.5 points, 7.2 assists and 5.4 rebounds. Maybe the problem was less Irving and more the team’s ability to fit around him? Then again, maybe not. Either way, Irving is an obviously special player who can steal away an opponent’s momentum in the blink of an eye. And like Durant, Irving thrives on clutch situations, sporting a few highlight-worthy crunch-time moments and one legendary game-winner in the 2016 NBA Finals.
So how is Irving an x-factor? After starting out the season on fire, Irving missed 26 consecutive games with a shoulder injury. He returned to play in nine games in early 2020 before opting for surgery to repair his injured shoulder on March 3. The New York Daily News reported in April that Irving would be sidelined for approximately six months, which means Irving shouldn’t be ready to return until September.
Still, it’s within the realm of possibilities that Irving opts to speed up his rehab schedule. After all, allowing an entire season to go to waste with the core and role players that Brooklyn has under contract is unwise. Championship windows aren’t open forever. Granted, this season was always seen as a throwaway for Brooklyn. But making a run this season is kind of like betting with house money. Ultimately, if one of Durant and Irving want to return, expect the other to follow.
So assuming they’re healthy enough to do so, what would the Nets chances be with them both back in the fold? The less-likely scenario is unfortunately the more interesting one. And it’s against the Lakers.
The Lakers are clearly the favorites – even with Durant and Irving dressing for the other side. They have the league’s best player and its most dominant big man, respectively. And while Irving and Durant would be healthy, the time off would have likely aided James more than anyone. So if the NBA decides to re-seed all 16 playoff teams and Durant and Irving can return, the Nets face a very tough decision.
But the other possibility is more likely, and it provides an easier first-round matchup with the Raptors. This writer was down on the Raptors all season, and they made sure to prove me wrong at just about every possible juncture to do so. But the fact remains – they’re not as good as their record indicates. They’re 46-18 this season, good for the second-best record in the East and third-best in the entire league. They’re quite good – but they just don’t have the horsepower to play with the elite teams in the league (e.g., Lakers, Clippers, Bucks, against whom they are a collect 1-4). When Leonard left, so too did any hopes of winning another championship with this particular unit. The thought of facing off against Durant and Irving has probably haunted Masai Ujiri and Nick Nurse since the idea first entered their brains a month or so ago.
This isn’t predicting an upset, but let’s put it like this: if Durant returns, I would advise bettors to steer clear of this matchup. And if Durant and Irving lead a first-round upset, they’ll enter the Eastern Conference semifinals (or the equivalent of them) with serious momentum and nothing to lose – and that’s a dangerous combination.
One way or the other, the NBA season will be back this summer. As much as this season will always carry an asterisk, it will still end with an NBA champion being crowned.
And that matters to the players — asterisk or not.