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Porzingis Alters Knicks’ Free Agency Focus

The emergence of Kristaps Porzingis has altered the New York Knicks’ approach to free agency.

Tommy Beer

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Back in June of 2015, before New York Knicks fans were forced to come to terms with a harsh reality, hopes in New York were sky high. For the first time in a very long time, the Knicks were well under the salary cap, allowing them to be major players in the 2015 free agency bonanza.

Coming off their worst season in franchise history, New Yorkers were optimistically hoping that nearly $30 million in cap space would enable the Knicks to rapidly rebuild their crumbling franchise. With Phil Jackson doing the recruiting, and the allure of the bright lights of Broadway beckoning, surely New York would be extremely appealing to the the majority of top-tier free agents, right?

Wrong.

The Knicks’ most pressing need heading into last offseason was adding a quality big man to a dangerously depleted frontline. Fortunately for New York, there was a plethora of top-tier, unrestricted power forwards and centers up for grabs. Yet, the cream of the crop never seriously considered taking the Knicks’ money. The best center available, Marc Gasol, re-signed with the Memphis Grizzlies without even meeting with Jackson. LaMarcus Aldridge landed with the San Antonio Spurs. Kevin Love re-upped with the Cleveland Cavaliers. DeAndre Jordan (after a brief detour to Dallas) ended up back with the Los Angeles Clippers. Paul Millsap decided to stay with the Atlanta Hawks. Greg Monroe, whom many had prognosticated was highly likely to sign with the Knicks, ended up choosing the Milwaukee Bucks instead.

The Knicks eventually rounded out their frontcourt by adding Robin Lopez (four-year, $54 million contract), Kyle O’Quinn (four-year, $16 million contract), Derrick Williams (two-year, $10 million contract) and Kevin Seraphin (one-year, $2.8 million contract). O’Quinn has been a bit of disappointment thus far. Williams has been a relatively pleasant surprise, exceeding expectations of many who thought New York overpaid. Seraphin has been buried on the bench. Lopez, to the surprise of nobody, has been impressively solid.

Still, Knicks fans were disheartened by the fact that Jackson was forced to “settle” for a solid veteran such as Lopez after the elite stars rejected the Knicks advances, seemingly without even giving the Knicks so much as a second thought.

It was a harsh way to learn a valuable lesson.

At one point in the not so distant past, having the good fortunate of being located in a city such as New York often tilted the playing field when it came to attracting superstars. Nowadays, simply playing in a major market is no longer enough to lure in the most sought after targets. Knicks and Lakers fans can attest to this proven fact. In this new, flattened world we live in, players know they don’t need to live in a major metropolitan hub in order to become internationally famous and land incredibly lucrative endorsement deals.

Desirable free agents in today’s NBA (Love, Aldridge, Monroe and David West being the latest examples) often end up choosing their new team in large part based on which organization has the most attractive foundation in place, thus giving them the greatest chance to win big.

The Knicks, coming off a season in which they were arguably the worst team in the entire league, were anything but alluring.

The good news for Knicks fans is that (due to the enormous pending spike in the salary cap) Jackson and company will once again have cap space to spend this summer. Depending on whether current Knicks Derrick Williams and Arron Afflalo decide to opt out of their current current contracts, New York will be looking at somewhere between approximately $20 million and $30 million to spend on free agents.

Still, based on the somber situation New York found itself in last July, Knicks fans should anticipate another discouraging and anticlimactic offseason, right?

Wrong.

Things have changed in NYC. The future of the Knicks has been altered dramatically, in large part because of one person.

The arrival and emergence of Kristaps Porzingis has resulted in a monumental directional shift in the present and future of the organization.

Knicks executives no longer have to rely on futilely attempting to sell players solely on the virtues of living in New York City and playing in the “World’s Most Famous Arena.” Future free agents will now be enticed to consider the Knicks because they would then be able to play alongside the world’s most famous and uniquely talented 7’3 forward/center.

We know about the consternation that consumed New York once the Knicks lost the draft lottery last May and dropped to fourth overall, which meant they would lose out on the opportunity to draft one of the only three “sure-fire” future stars available in the 2015 draft (Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell and Jahlil Okafor). We know all too well about the boos that greeted Porzingis after Commissioner Adam Silver called his name. Yet this pessimistic prologue only makes Porzingis’ rapid rise to fan-favorite status all the more remarkable.

To say that the rookie big man has simply exceeded expectations is obviously an understatement. Porzingis hasn’t just been good, or “good for a rookie.” Not only do his teammates sing his praises on a daily basis, but rival coaches, players and executives across the country rave about the kid at each stop the Knicks make on the road.

Porzingis currently ranks third among all rookies in points (13.9), second in rebounds (8.0), first in blocks (2.0), first in free-throw percentage (86 percent) and second in double-doubles (15).

His versatile skill set is remarkably unique, even in a league chock full of freakish athletes. Consider this: There is currently only one player in the league this season who has blocked more than 80 shots and knocked down more than 40 three-pointers. That player is Kristaps Porzingis.

There are plenty of other extraordinary stats that could be used to highlight his early-season success; however, it’s not simply the mind-boggling numbers that stand out when discussing Porzingis. It could be argued that the most amazing aspect of his first three months as an NBA player is the way he’s handled the sudden flood of fame and adulation. Considering he’s a 20-year-old kid from Latvia, it’s almost inconceivable how well he’s dealt with the crush from local and national media alike. Somehow, he carries himself with incredible confidence on the court, yet remains remarkably humble once he steps off the floor.

And he’s only getting better, and bigger. Both his game and his frame are still growing.

The scary reality is that if Porzingis was playing this well two years from now, when he was just 22 years old, he’d still be considered way ahead of schedule. The phrase “the sky’s the limit” is an overused cliche, but in this case it actually rings true. His upside is not simply All-Star level, it’s All-NBA level.

And, tangentially, because of Porzingis, the Knicks’ future is brighter than it’s been in a very, very long time.

MeloKP1Playing alongside one of the most intriguing young big men to come into the league in some time will surely change the way future free agents view the Knicks. He’s a big man who can stretch the floor and create space, finish alley-oops in traffic and erase defensive mistakes at the basket. That’s the kind of individual other great players want to run with.

Furthermore, Carmelo Anthony, who has embraced Porzingis as a “little brother,” is enjoying a renaissance and is currently playing some of the best, most unselfish, well-rounded basketball of his career. Joining the tag-team of Porzingis and Anthony will be an enticing proposition.

The Knicks’ biggest need heading into the 2016 offseason will be upgrading the point guard position. Jose Calderon, while providing valuable veteran leadership, is simply not a starting-caliber NBA point guard. Although Calderon is still relatively effective on the offensive end, he is an absolute sieve defensively. Rookie Jerian Grant has shown flashes here and there, but he’s no where near consistent enough to be relied on as the undisputed point guard of the present or future.

In today’s NBA, having a top-level point guard who can break down defenses by penetrating into the paint to score and creating opportunities for others – as well as being able to defend other quality point guards – is imperative.

If the Knicks are able to add an elite point guard to their current nucleus, they would have a legit chance to push into the postseason and make some noise in the Eastern Conference.

The best point guard on the market in 2016 will be Mike Conley. Currently 28 years old, Conley has spent his entire career with the Grizzlies. He doesn’t get much national attention, likely because he flies under the radar down in Memphis, but he’s widely considered one of the more underrated floor generals in the NBA. He posted his best statistical season in 2013-14, when he finished the year as one of just six players to average at least 17 points and six assists while shooting at least 45 percent from the floor (the other five players in that club were Steph Curry, Chris Paul, LeBron James, Isaiah Thomas and James Harden). And despite a nagging foot injury, Conley has been remarkably durable throughout his career, playing in at least 85 percent of the Grizzlies’ games in each of the last six seasons. It is also important to note that Conley has been a winner. He’s captained a Memphis team that has won at least 50 games in three straight seasons.

When Conley officially becomes an unrestricted free agent on July 1, it’s safe to assume the Knicks will have interest. Conley will seek max or at least near-max money, and considering the shifting financial landscape of the NBA (so many teams with excessive cap space and many others needing to spend money to hit the rising salary floor), he’ll get it from someone. From a Knicks perspective, he seems to check all the boxes: a savvy point guard who is both efficient offensively and solid defensively. He has posted a PER north of 18 in four straight seasons. In contrast, the Knicks have had only one point guard with a PER greater than 18 in the last 25 years (Stephon Marbury).

However, here’s where things get interesting.

If the Knicks fork over $90+ million to Conley this summer, they are obviously making a long-term commitment. This is important not only because of the financial investment it entails, but also opportunity cost. It would mean the Knicks wouldn’t be able to shop for a point guard the following summer, when arguably the three best point guards in the NBA will likely all hit the free agent market at the same time.

Russell Westbrook’s contract expires following the 2016-17 season. Ditto for Steph Curry. Chris Paul has a player option in his contract that will allow him to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, 2017, as well.

Obviously, the odds of landing any of those three superstars are low. However, unlike last summer, the Knicks are now holding an ace of their own and will be able to ante up at the big boy table.

Would the uber-talented (yet temperamental) Westbrook contemplate re-locating to NYC? Considering he’s developed his own major clothing line, would he prefer to live and play so close to the 5th Avenue and the Fashion District in Manhattan?

It would certainly be surprising, if not shocking, to see Curry leave a great situation in Golden State to move across the country, but obviously a lot can change over the next 16 months.

Paul would seem to be the most realistic target. It’s common knowledge that he’s very good friends with Anthony. At Carmelo’s wedding in 2010, CP3 toasted to them eventually uniting as teammates.

However, would a 33-year-old Chris Paul be a major upgrade over a 30-year-old Mike Conley?

There is one other All-Star-caliber point guard likely to hit free agency in 2017. Toronto’s Kyle Lowry also has a player option to become a free agent as well. He would be another interesting option to consider at that point.

The summer of 2017 obviously seems like the distant future right now, but the decisions made this summer will have a direct impact on what New York can do going forward.

Furthermore, it’s unknown if Conley would be willing to even entertain signing with the Knicks. However, it’s obviously not just Conley or bust for New York in the summer of 2016. There are a handful of other point guard options (Rajon Rondo, Brandon Jennings and the restricted Jordan Clarkson to name just a few). And of course the Knicks are not obligated to use the lion’s share of their cap space on a playmaker, especially since Jose Calderon has another year at over $7 million left on his contract.

Still, at some point Jackson and Steve Mills will have to decide what direction they want to take the franchise. What will be their primary focus? Is the goal to maximize Anthony’s dwindling prime? That would mean adopting a win-now approach – zeroing in on players who complement ‘Melo’s game in an attempt to build a team that gives them the best chance of winning next season, even at the possible detriment of the long-term salary cap situation.

Or will Phil and company come to the conclusion that the best chance the Knicks have to eventually become a legitimate contender (as opposed to merely a playoff participant) several years in the future and focus on that? Will they build with several years down the road in mind, when Porzingis eventually inherits the responsibility of being the face of the franchise and the team’s best and most important player? If the Knicks embrace that philosophy, it may necessitate sacrificing in the short-term, in order to build the best possible foundation around Porzingis, which ideally would result in sustained, long-term success.

Or, will the Knicks attempt to somehow find a middle road and try to blend both approaches?

These are important questions Phil Jackson is going to have to answer sooner rather than later.

If Conley is interested, do they make a full-court press? Does New York use all of their cap space in 2016 to round out their roster with players who provide immediate bang for their buck? Or, do the Knicks get greedy and take a risk, holding out hope they can land a franchise-changing point guard the following summer?

Prior to the arrival and emergence of Porzingis, it would have been preposterous to say that New York had even an outside shot at signing a superstar such as Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry or Chris Paul via free agency. But the Knicks no longer have to rely on the bright lights of Broadway and the Big City as their major selling point. Kristaps Porzingis is now the beacon that will hopefully attracts other stars into New York’s orbit.

Tommy Beer is a Senior NBA Analyst and the Fantasy Sports Editor of Basketball Insiders, having covered the NBA for the last nine seasons.

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NBA Daily: Crabbe’s Arrival Brings Wolves Needed Shooting

The Minnesota Timberwolves trading for Allen Crabbe was not simply to move Jeff Teague or to create future trade possibilities, but mostly to give Robert Covington a chance at a few more clean looks. Douglas Farmer writes.

Douglas Farmer

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By trading away Jeff Teague and his $19 million expiring contract, the Minnesota Timberwolves clearly created more time for Shabazz Napier and perhaps opened a pathway to increasing the aggression from Andrew Wiggins, as seen earlier in the year. But to hear head coach Ryan Saunders tell it, acquiring Allen Crabbe from the Atlanta Hawks will help forward Robert Covington more than anyone else.

Teague’s return to Atlanta has little effect on either team’s salary cap structures moving forward. All three pieces — Teague and Crabbe, along with Treveon Graham — are on expiring contracts, and the combination of Teague and Graham out-costs Crabbe by only $2.6 million. The lack of long-term effect has created some speculation Crabbe may be a part of another deal for the Timberwolves before February’s trade deadline, but more likely, he is on hand to create the spacing Minnesota has lacked all season as it implements a modern offensive system.

That may sound counterintuitive since Crabbe is in the midst of a career-worst shooting season, hitting only 32.3 percent of his attempts from deep while taking barely half as many per game as he did the last two seasons. Combining that with Covington’s season-long struggles from beyond the arc — and adding a scuffling shooter to a scuffling shooter — seems a poor way to strengthen the league’s No. 23 offense.

Looking at Crabbe in terms of his career, though, a 38.9 percent three-point threat better fits Saunders’ thoughts.

“A lot of times you see, just for example, a pick-and-roll, the ball will be in Andrew [Wiggins]’ hands, with [Karl-Anthony Towns] the screener,” Saunders said Saturday.  “A lot of times [Covington] is in the high [quadrant]. If you put another high-level shooter in the opposite corner, defenses when they’re coming in to help on the roll, they have to make a choice between Cov and who they want to get the shot up.”

With Towns missing more than a month before this weekend, Saunders’ exact scenario has been rare of late, but the concept holds up.

As Napier spurned Gorgui Dieng’s screen and drove, he looked past Wiggins at the break and instead fired to Covington in the high quadrant just as Saunders suggested. Covington hit the contested shot, part of a recent uptick from the six-year veteran, but it was by no means the open shot a system based on spacing is supposed to provide.

“Certain positions, maybe we have guys at a significantly lower percentage than Cov that [defenses] heavily shade to Cov,” Saunders said. “So I think it’ll really help Cov.”

Saunders tried to be political — not the only time in the availability, as he danced around criticizing some poor calls in Friday’s loss at the Indiana Pacers — but even the coachspeak made the reality clear. The Timberwolves do not have shooting on the roster, and they know it; that has only further hampered the shooting they do have in Covington.

Crabbe’s career mark would rank third on Minnesota’s roster this season, behind only Towns’ 40.6 percent and Dieng’s 39.2. Of Timberwolves attempting at least three 3’s per game, only Towns and Covington are shooting better than even Crabbe’s current 32.3 percent. (That excludes Jake Layman, who has appeared in only 14 games due to a sprained toe.)

Whether Crabbe spots up in the corner or at the break, a la Wiggins above, or Covington does so with Crabbe at the top, the Minnesota newcomer will offer much better shooting than has been available through the first half of the season. Even if it is not in a pick-and-roll situation, an added shooter will give Napier both a better chance to find a marksman and better spacing to get to the rim.

Despite no genuine complementary shooters, Covington has already begun to change his season’s tide. Through the year’s first 32 games, he was shooting only 33.7 percent from beyond the arc on a little under five attempts per game. Those would both be his second-worst career marks for a season.

Something shifted in the new year. In the last nine games, Covington has hit 39.5 percent of his threes on over eight attempts per game. Those would both be career-highs for a season.

All along, a significant portion of Covington’s attempts has been contested. His shooting motion may as well have become a default pump fake, welcoming a defender and then popping.

“Cov has always been a tough shot maker,” Saunder said. “Some guys have that.”

If Crabbe’s arrival has the intended effect, Covington may not need to prove that skill as often moving forward.

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NBA Daily: Gary Clark Hopes To Stick In Orlando

David Yapkowitz chats with Orlando Magic forward Gary Clark about his time in Houston and showing what he’s capable of in the duration of his 10-day contract.

David Yapkowitz

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Life on a non-guaranteed contract in the NBA can be a little bit stressful. Players have to work just a little bit harder and be just a little more efficient than everyone else. They’ve got to do about their daily grind with the thought they can be cut at any moment in the back of their minds.

Sometimes there isn’t any advance warning. They could have put in all the necessary work and gone above and beyond what was asked of them, but still end up being cut. It’s no fault of their own and they may be left wondering where they went wrong.

There are also contract deadlines they need to be cognizant of. Depending on the roster outlook at various points in the season, teams may have to make quick decisions regarding contracts. The first major hurdle players have to overcome is the initial opening night roster deadline. Once they make it past that, they’re still not out of the woods just yet.

The next deadline is in early January when all contracts become guaranteed for the remainder of the season. After impressing the organization enough last season to make the Houston Rockets’ opening night roster out of training camp, Gary Clark didn’t survive this season’s January deadline.

He played a key role at times for the Rockets as a rookie, but found himself on the outside looking in this season. Houston had three players on non-guaranteed contracts: Clark, Ben McLemore and Isaiah Hartenstein. Clark kind of knew his time in Houston was coming to an end when he was the only one of the three who was on the bench most of the time.

“I kind of expected it, just knowing how the basketball world works when it comes down to trigger dates and stuff like that with contracts. Being a guy that wasn’t playing much at that time, I figured it was kind of between me and two other guys, the three of us,” Clark told Basketball Insiders. “That week, I was the only one that wasn’t playing out of us three. It was obvious what the business decision had to be, but you just take it for what it is and keep going forward.”

Clark didn’t remain a free agent for long. Just a couple of days after being cut by the Rockets, the Orlando Magic signed him to a 10-day contract. An injury to Jonathan Isaac precipitated a need for additional help on the wing and in small ball situations as the Magic find themselves entrenched in playoff positioning in the Eastern Conference.

Clark joined the Magic for their current west coast road trip, and he’s immediately been inserted into the rotation. Head coach Steve Clifford has been impressed so far by what he’s seen from Clark, and he’s eager to see how Clark responds while playing on a 10-day contract.

“He can shoot and he’s got good toughness. I think he’s got a good feel for how to play,” Clifford told reporters after a recent game against the Clippers. “I want to see what he can do. We need somebody at that spot that’s skilled like that.”

Clark had his best game of this three-game stretch in his first game with the Magic, a big win over the Los Angeles Lakers. He had 10 points off the bench on 4-for-6 shooting from the field, including 2-for-4 from the three-point line. He didn’t score against the Los Angeles Clippers, but he pulled down four rebounds and gave the team an all-around toughness on the court.

In the Magic’s most recent game against the Golden State Warriors, he shot well again, hitting two of his three attempts — including one from the three-point line. Clark’s early role in Orlando has been similar to what he brought in Houston. That’s a wing who can space the floor and play some power forward in small-ball situations.

“Just bringing some energy and knocking down shots. Being versatile defensively, being able to switch on multiple guys if need be, and use my athleticism,” Clark told Basketball Insiders. “Knocking down shots is one thing, but my activity on the glass on both ends has been solid.”

When Isaac went down, the Magic lost one of the best defensive players in the NBA this season. Isaac was certainly a candidate for First Team All-Defense and had even played his way into the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year. Bringing some of that same defensive effort is something that Clark can definitely do.

He was a standout defensive player while in college at Cincinnati. He was a two-time AAC Defensive Player of the Year and displayed a similar skill-set to Isaac in being able to guard multiple positions. In his early stint with the Rockets, he showed his ability to defend at the NBA level as well.

In his first couple of games with the Magic, he saw himself opposite players like LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard. It’s the defensive end of the floor where he feels he can make a solid impact.

“I think this team gives me an opportunity as a young guy to show that I’m capable of doing that,” Clark told Basketball Insiders. “The times that I did get those opportunities, I think I did solid against those guys. It’s going to come, when the opportunity comes I’ll be ready for it.”

While Clark started out as a rotation player as a rookie in Houston, he eventually hit the rookie wall and saw himself sent down to the Rio Grande Valley Vipers in the G League for seasoning. This season, he found himself on the end of the bench but saw some opportunity when Danuel House Jr. went down with an injury.

Although his role was a bit inconsistent, Clark believes he learned some things with the Rockets that will help him in his professional journey. One of the biggest takeaways for him is being able to communicate effectively with the rest of the team, especially when you’re unfamiliar with the team’s plays.

“It’s communication no matter what,” Clark told Basketball Insiders. “I don’t know most of the stuff that guys run or fully know all the schemes, but just being able to talk on the floor on both offense and defense and be there for guys and guys being there for me as well.”

This stint with Orlando is nothing new to Clark in terms of having to prove himself. The Magic have two options once his 10-day runs out. They either release him or sign him to another 10-day. If he makes it past the second 10-day, the Magic have to sign him for the remainder of the season or release him.

No matter what happens, Clark is confident that he’s shown enough both with the Rockets and the Magic to prove that he belongs in the NBA.

“I think any guy that comes from a trade or being waived struggles to make the transition like I’m going through. I can’t be too high or too low in this stint that I’m here, or in the 10-day,” Clark told Basketball Insiders. “I think I did enough in Houston to show my versatility and my ability to knock down shots. I think in the long haul, what I bring to the table is good enough to be here.”

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NBA Daily: Ricky Rubio Raising Expectations in Phoenix

The momentum train in Phoenix may have slowed down, but the Suns are still rolling along nicely. There has been a myriad of changes since last season, but one acquisition, in particular, has been invaluable to the franchise’s major turnaround.

Chad Smith

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When Ricky Rubio signed a three-year contract with the Phoenix Suns for $51 million in July, it was immediately deemed an overpay. The point guard was rumored to be headed to Indiana, but the Suns simply made him a better offer. The offseason addition quickly paid off for the Suns, who were one of the darling surprise teams in the first couple months of the season.

This move was met with criticism because heading into free agency, the biggest need for Phoenix was perimeter shooting. Notoriously known as a guard that can’t shoot the ball, Rubio has shown over the past two seasons that is a false narrative. Rubio is shooting over 41 percent from the floor and 34 percent from distance — those are both near career-highs for the 29-year old floor general.

Some of that can be attributed to the spacing that has opened up with the additions of Dario Saric and Aron Baynes, and, of course, the franchise’s best player, Devin Booker. The other part though is the work that Rubio has put in during the summer and over the course of the season. After six entertaining years in Minnesota and a couple of seasons in Utah, Rubio has truly excelled in Monty Williams’ system.

After a rough month of December, the Suns have been much better as of late. They have won four of their last five games, including last night’s contest in Boston. Rubio, in particular, has been stuffing the stat sheet. In New York City on Thursday night, Rubio served up 25 points, 8 rebounds, 13 assists and 4 steals. Better, he was 10-for-18 from the floor including 3-for-5 from downtown.

Now in his ninth year in the league, Rubio’s 13.6 point scoring average is a career-high. The points are what people will take notice of, but it is his distribution that should be getting the attention. Rubio is averaging a career-high 9.4 assists per game, which ranks second in the league behind only LeBron James. This is what is has been fueling the turnaround in Phoenix.

There is something to be said for shot creation, but also the effectiveness being paired with Booker. The notion early on was that it wouldn’t work because they both need the ball. It is this exact reason though that both are having more success this year. Booker no longer has to handle the ball for the bulk of possessions and create shots for himself and for others. The duo has been lethal in transition. Only LeBron and Giannis Antetokounmpo have scored more fast-break points than Booker this season.

Last season Booker had the third-highest usage rate (32.9) in the league, behind only James Harden and Joel Embiid. Through 41 games this season, Booker now ranks 19th in that category. Booker has been reaping the rewards in a lot of areas. His scoring is still right where it was last year, but his efficiency is up tremendously. In the 38 games that he has played this season, Booker is shooting 51 percent from the floor which is nearly five percent higher than any of his previous four seasons.

The pace (9th) and offensive rating (14th) have vastly improved with Rubio running the point. The emergence of Kelly Oubre Jr has been building for a couple of years now, but Rubio has brought out the best in him. Surrounding him with capable shooters in the form of big men has helped as well. Both Baynes and Saric have thrived in their roles, and rookie Cameron Johnson has been a solid contributor in that regard.

Amid all of this happening, keep in mind that the Suns have been doing all of this essentially without their franchise big man Deandre Ayton. The No. 1 overall pick in 2018 has played just 11 games this season due to his 25-game suspension. He exploded for his first 20-20 game on Thursday in New York, posting 26 points and 21 rebounds. He was perfect from the free-throw line but he has surprisingly only taken 17 attempts this year.

Perhaps the best quality of Rubio’s presence is just how contagious his style of play has become. Last season the Suns ranked 20th in team assists — and this year they are second in the league. Once everyone is able to see the ball move and they can trust that their teammates will keep moving the ball to find the open man, it really puts pressure on the defense. San Antonio has been notorious for this style of play, while Brad Stevens has been doing the same thing in Boston.

When the ball moves where it is supposed to, great things happen.

The road ahead doesn’t look pretty for Phoenix. Now they will face San Antonio twice, Indiana, Memphis, Dallas, Oklahoma City and Milwaukee. They also have matchups with Houston, Denver and the Los Angeles Lakers before the All-Star break.

Realistically, the Suns could be well out of the playoff picture at that point — but considering where they have been for the past few years, the season could still be considered a success. They could have more wins by the break than they have won in total for each of the last four seasons. Williams is building something special in the desert and most of it began with the acquisition of something they have been missing for several years: A quality starting point guard.

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