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The Phoenix Suns’ Path to Contention

How can the Phoenix Suns take the next step after inking Eric Bledsoe and the Morris twins?

Nate Duncan

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The Phoenix Suns have been the NBA’s most newsworthy franchise over the last week, re-signing Eric Bledsoe to a five-year pact worth $70 million and inking brothers Markieff and Marcus Morris to four-year rookie extensions that kick in for the 2015-16 season. The Morris deals are solid; locking up a starting power forward (as Markieff projects to be) for only $8 million a year in a rising cap climate is solid value, while Marcus could also prove worth his contract even while acknowledging he might have been slightly overpaid to mollify Markieff.

Now that more of Phoenix’s core is locked in, what can we expect going forward? The backcourt of Goran Dragic and Bledsoe projects to be one of the NBA’s best. While Dragic is likely to decline after an age-27 season in which he far exceeded his performance to date, Bledsoe should counteract that with continued improvement. Adding Isaiah Thomas should allow Phoenix to keep its foot on the gas at all times with two scoring ballhandlers always in the game. The Suns appear poised to build on last year’s eighth-ranked offense.

But it is it is quite possible that it doesn’t happen that way due to the loss of Channing Frye. Markieff has flashed three-point range, but he has not shown anywhere near Frye’s shooting prowess in either accuracy or versatility. In fact, Frye was rather unique in that respect among big men. His superior size also gave him the ability to move to center defensively, making his jumper (and more importantly the threat of it) even more deadly. Indeed, Frye ranked as one of the league’s best non-stars by Real Plus-Minus (RPM) in 2013-14 due to his shooting gravity despite pedestrian box score statistics. Among power forwards, he ranked second in Offensive RPM behind Dirk Nowitzki. His 3.92 ORPM was about triple that of the highest rated center, Nikola Pekovic at 1.31. He was even about an average defender for a center by that metric. It is conceivable that Frye’s absence could cause Phoenix to take a major step back offensively and a slight one back defensively.

Nonetheless, the four-year, $32 million offer by the Orlando Magic to take Frye through his 35th birthday was likely an overpay by a team with no better use of its cap space. More importantly, the point here is to figure out how Phoenix can contend if everything goes according to plan with the current roster. If losing Frye kills the offense, Dragic regresses, the Morrises don’t improve or Bledsoe gets hurt again, they are in trouble regardless.

If the current players on the roster can fulfill the Suns’ high but not unreasonable hopes, this roster still tops out as a midpack team in the typically brutal West playoff bracket. In this scenario, the offense should be championship caliber, but it is hard to imagine the defense (13th last year with Frye and some smoke and mirrors by Hornacek) reaching the top 10 without a solid rim-protector and a wing stopper who does not sabotage the offense.

The current roster offers some eventual hope in that regard with center Alex Len, the fifth overall pick in the weak 2013 draft, but he has a long way to go. It might be too far to call it a lost rookie season for Len, but he did not really crack the rotation after a slow start due to surgery on both ankles. I wrote about Len last February,  and we have little information to supplement that evaluation since then as he played little and missed summer league with a finger injury. Unfortunately, there is not much in his overall statistical resume at Maryland and in the pros to indicate he will be a quality starter.

Nevertheless, Len has physical potential defensively with his quick feet for his true center size and a 7’4 wingspan. In limited minutes he allowed a reasonable 48 percent shooting at the rim, so there is at least a slight indication he can evolve into a defensive stopper. But he will need to show a lot this year to convince the Suns that he is the long-term starter at center. The Suns may face criticism if he does not.  Nerlens Noel went a pick later and may break out this year, although he brings his own positional and health issues.

Miles Plumlee will almost certainly start at center this year, but he projects as more of an energy big on a good team. He is not a particularly imposing deterrent at the rim due to being slightly undersized with average instincts, and he is already 26 years old.  It does not seem likely he can develop into the type of stopper the Suns will need to contend.

Meanwhile, the wing stopper role is almost completely devoid of a realistic in-house solution. P.J. Tucker was re-signed over the summer to a three-year, $16.5 million deal, although the last year is only $1.5 million guaranteed. But he is not quite the caliber of player needed on either end, and he is already 29 years old. Tucker has little off-the-dribble game, is only a middling three-point shooter (especially above the break), and as a former power forward lacks the quick feet that define the best wing defenders despite his willingness to compete. Among the remaining options, Gerald Green has always been a bit too spacey despite solid physical tools, and T.J. Warren is a rookie who didn’t have much of a reputation for defense in college.

If Len doesn’t develop into a defensive stopper, what paths are available to the Suns to acquire the two key players needed? The crown jewel in Ryan McDonough’s war chest is the Lakers’ top-five protected 2015 draft pick from the Steve Nash trade, which should fall in the back half of the lottery.  L.A. is unlikely to make the playoffs but should be good enough to avoid the top five. While drafting for need is always risky, shot-blocking centers like Kentucky’s Willie Cauley-Stein or Texas’ Myles Turner could be available in that range, though they will take time to develop. Another option would be trading that pick and perhaps other assets for an immediate starting center solution.

Warren, while he is not the greatest fit with this roster that already features plenty of scoring punch, could flash enough in his rookie year to be part of a trade package. Phoenix also will have its own draft picks at its disposal, plus a first-rounder* from Minnesota from the Wesley Johnson salary dump.

*Unfortunately, this will convert to two second rounders if not conveyed by 2016. That is likely with the pick top-12 protected through 2016 and the Wolves probably a lottery team for the near future.

The Suns’ other option for improving the defense is cap space. With all the recent signings, including Zoran Dragic, they project to have only about $6.7 million in salary cap space (assuming a $70 million cap) in the summer of 2015, including an $11.3 million cap hold for Dragic if he declines his player option. And even that assumes declining a $3 million team option on Anthony Tolliver. That is not enough to acquire a good two-way wing or a solid defensive center unless other cost-cutting moves are made.

Phoenix093014 Dragic Cap Hold

If Dragic decides to move on, or the Suns won’t meet the asking price for the then-29 year-old guard, they could have max cap room in 2015. That is not inconceivable considering the presence of Bledsoe and Thomas as insurance if he leaves.

But let’s assume Dragic re-signs for reasonable money, call it a four-year $48 million pact in 2015.   That may seem a little low, but the Suns–experts in brother sops these days–did bring over Zoran (who based on his European performance is a fringe NBA player). Those numbers are identical to what Kyle Lowry got, and that is a good proxy. The two players are of similar quality, and while the cap will have gone up, Dragic at 29 will also be a year older than Lowry when he signed his deal in the summer of 2014.

The next summer, the salary cap could go up to about $80 million as money from the new TV deal continues to be phased in. The Suns would have about $15 million in cap space even with a big $7.6 million cap hold for restricted free agent Plumlee. If they renounce his rights, that climbs north of $20 million even with Dragic re-signed and the rest of the essential core in place.

Phoenix093014 Dragic Extension

With so many players aiming for the summer of 2016 as free agents, the Suns should be able to fill at least one of their major holes. The problem is, everyone else is going to have a ton of cap room that summer too. And with Dragic on the wrong side of 30 by then, the offense may not have sufficient firepower to contend going forward even if the defense can be improved.

This is not to imply that the Suns are surely destined for the treadmill of mediocrity. With young players like Len, Warren and even the young Archie Goodwin on the roster along with the Lakers pick in the future, the Suns have a number of lottery tickets that could fill out the roster through internal development or facilitate trades. And as a desirable warm-weather market, they could hit really big in 2016 free agency, especially if they can make the playoffs the next two years.

Nevertheless, this offseason was a missed opportunity. The Suns had $23 million in cap space at the start of the summer, and ended up basically exchanging Frye for Thomas and re-signing Bledsoe. With Bledsoe’s small cap hold at the start of the summer, the Suns could have spent up to the cap (minus Bledsoe’s small hold) and then exceeded it by re-signing Bledsoe, as the Houston Rockets hoped to do by signing Chris Bosh and then re-signing Chandler Parsons.*

*The Pistons had a similar opportunity with Greg Monroe’s restricted free agency.

The Suns could certainly have beaten the Miami HEAT’s offer for Luol Deng, perhaps with a two-year, $24 million offer ($4 million more than the HEAT) that would have preserved flexibility in the summer of 2016. Another option would have been getting in on the Trevor Ariza sweepstakes and offering a two-year deal with much more annual value than the four-years, $32 million he got from Houston to preserve space for 2016. They also might have played hardball with Tucker’s contract (he was arrested in May for “super-extreme DUI”) or simply let him go, which could have opened up over $10 million in 2015 cap space even after re-signing Bledsoe and accounting for Dragic’s cap hold. Or Frye could have been re-signed on a large annual value two-year deal that could have come close to what he got from the Magic.*

*It should be noted that the Suns are still paying $7.3 million in 2014-15 for Josh Childress. Spending the maximum possible on free agents and then re-signing Bledsoe would have put the Suns’ out-of-pocket team salary about $13 million higher than it will likely be this season. One would think that did not go unnoticed by owner Robert Sarver.

It must not be forgotten that McDonough took over a team projected to be among the league’s worst and got them to 48 wins last year. Hiring Hornacek and trading Jared Dudley (who was straight up dumped by the Clippers at the cost of a future first-rounder a year later) for Bledsoe were genius moves. But the 2013 draft and 2014 free agency are looking like missed opportunities for Phoenix right now. It remains to be seen whether they can acquire the remaining personnel needed to become a true contender, but they have a chance to do so much more quickly than anyone thought when they were branded tankers in the summer of 2013.

Nate Duncan is an NBA analyst and attorney. He writes regular features for Basketball Insiders and chats weekly at 11 Eastern on Tuesdays.

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NBA Daily: Three-Point Champion is Just a Regular Joe

Joe Harris had his league-wide coming out at All-Star weekend when he shocked fans across the globe in upsetting three-point shootout favorite-Steph Curry.

Drew Maresca

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Joe Harris’ fortunes and those of the Brooklyn Nets appear to be traveling on the same trajectory. Harris’ personality and approach embody the softer side of the Brooklyn Nets’ team persona: he is loyal, hardworking and humble. And while Jared Dudley and DeMarre Carroll provide veteran leadership and Spencer Dinwiddie and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson offer personality, Harris provides a grounded approachability.

No one would blame him, though, if he develops a small ego. After all, Harris just received his formal introduction to the world, having won the NBA’s three-point championship last weekend in Charlotte, North Carolina. It’s hard to deny that his star is rising.

And yet, Harris seems unaware that his status is rising.

“To be honest, I am solid in my role. That’s what I’m about,” Harris told Basketball Insiders before the Nets’ January 25 game against the Knicks. “I’m pretty realistic with where I view myself as a player. And I have the self-awareness to realize that I’m not a star player in this league by any means. I mean, I’m good in my role and I’m trying to take that to another level and be as complete as I can in my niche role that I have.”

While Harris’ comments could be misinterpreted as a humble brag, they shouldn’t be. He is simply a hard-working player who perhaps doesn’t quite realize everything he adds to his team. But let’s be clear, Harris’ presence absolutely improves the Nets’ play.

Harris boasts the second-best three-point percentage in the NBA (.471) through the first four months of the season; he trails only Victor Olapido and J.J. Reddick for top three-point percentage of all 48 players who have at least 10 “clutch” attempts from long-range and he’s ranked tenth in points per clutch possession (1.379).

He helps space the floor for teammates D’Angelo Russell and Spencer Dinwiddie, who take advantage of his long-range acumen by attacking an often less congested pathway to the hoop — and drives account for 53.4 percent of the Nets’ points (third in the entire league).

It is no surprise then that the Nets are currently in sixth place in the Eastern Conference.

“At the end of the day we’re just trying to go play good basketball.” Harris said. “The wins are a byproduct of that. It’s about staying locked into this process and how it’s gotten us here regardless of who is on the court.”

Harris’ dedication to the team and its process is becoming more unique each year as players hop from franchise to franchise more frequently than ever before. While Harris only joined the Nets in 2016, he was immediately seen as a key player by the Nets’ leadership, albeit one on a minimum deal – according to Kyle Wagner of the Daily News, Coach Kenny Atkinson saw a lot of Kyler Korver in his game and GM Sean Marks wanted him to study Danny Green.

And while Harris’ 2018-19 stats reflect similar production to the career highs of both of Korver and Green (13.2 points per game with an effective field goal percentage of .622 for Harris versus 14.4 points with an eFG% of .518 for Korver and 11.7 points with an eFG% of .566 for Green), at only 27 years old, he should only continue to improve.

A lot has changed in the two and a half seasons since Harris signed a free agent deal with the Nets, but one thing that hasn’t changed is his character.

“We had various deals that were shorter for more (money),” Harris said. “And some were longer and roughly the same, but this is where I wanted to be and I’m happy it ended up working out.”

Harris ultimately signed a two-year deal for approximately $16 million, which can be viewed as both cashing in, given where he was only two years ago (out of the league), and betting on himself, considering the short-term nature of the contract and his relative youth.

And what’s more, Harris will probably go down as a value signing for the Nets considering his versatility. After all, he is not merely a one-dimensional shooter. In fact, he is actually shooting slightly better than 60 percent on 3.2 attempts per game from the restricted area – which is better than All-Star teammate D’Angelo Russell (53 percent on 2.8 attempts). Further, Harris shoots a fair amount of his three-point attempts above the break, which is to say that he does not rely heavily on the shorter corner threes – which tend to be a more efficient means of scoring (1.16 vs. 1.05 points per possession league-wide from 1998-2018) as they are typically a spot where specialist players lurk awaiting an opening look.

The question is, how much more can we expect to see from Harris in the future? If you ask him, he’d probably undersell you on his ceiling and allude to steady progress that ultimately looks similar to what he’s done recently. But the only thing similar about Harris’ career production is that it has steadily improved – and that’s partially due to his process-oriented approach.

“We talked about it in the midst of the losing streak,” Harris said. “What are you going to change, what are you going to do (when you’re in a slump)? Not that we were going to do the exact same thing, but we felt like we were very process oriented. We felt like we were right there. Our whole thing was about being deliberate and doing it as consistently as possible.”

Harris sees the validity in repeating what works. And he’s figured that out, partially with the help of his teammates. Harris clearly values veteran input and team chemistry.

“You look at our team right now and we have really good veteran presences with Jared and DeMarre and Ed (Davis),” Harris said. “That’s the voice from the leadership standpoint. I’m learning from them just like DLo is. And all the other guys in the locker room are. They’re the guiding presence of what it is to be a professional and they keep everything even keel. They don’t go too low when things are tough, and they don’t let us get too high when things are going well.”

Harris is clearly a little uncomfortable taking credit for his team’s success, and he shies away from the spotlight a bit. He seems to prefer anonymity. But Harris should probably get used to the attention he’s received this season because it will only increase as his profile continues to rise as we enter the 2019 NBA Playoffs.

“He’s not just a shooter,” Atkinson told NBA.com last April. “He’s worked on his drive game, he’s worked on his finishing game. I think he’s worked on his defense. So just a complete player who fits how we want to play. He’s one of our most competitive players. Not a surprise watching, from the first day we had him, how locked in he was, how hungry he was. On top of it, he’s a top, top-ranked human being.”

So expect to see more of Joe Harris this April and beyond, but don’t be surprised by his humility. It’s one aspect about him that won’t change.

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NBA Daily: Danuel House Optimistic About Future

David Yapkowitz speaks to Danuel House about life as a two-way player for the Houston Rockets & what he hopes comes out of his time in the G League with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.

David Yapkowitz

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Opportunity is everything in the NBA. Last season’s implementation of two-way contracts gave a lot more players potential opportunities in the league that may not have been previously available.

One player who has used two-way contracts to showcase himself and really prove that he belongs in the NBA is Danuel House Jr.

House actually began his career two years ago as an undrafted rookie with the Washington Wizards. However, he suffered a wrist injury only about a month into the 2016-17 season.

He was subsequently cut by the Wizards and used the summer to heal up before joining the Houston Rockets for training camp prior to the start of last season. He ended up being one of the final cuts in camp, and he joined the Rockets’ G League affiliate, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.

His strong play earned him a two-way contract with the Phoenix Suns after only two months of G League play. This year, he rejoined the Vipers, only to earn another two-way contract with the Rockets. Having had some experience now with a two-way, it’s something that House sees as being beneficial.

“It’s got its good perks and its bad perks. But then the NBA is just trying to open more doors for more guys to be seen and have an opportunity,” House told Basketball Insiders. “I think it’s a good idea, it’s gonna work the kinks out so it can be more beneficial to the players. It’s still new and it’s still trending and working itself through the NBA.”

This season has been a bit of a whirlwind for House. He initially joined the Golden State Warriors for training camp, only to have them cut him before the start of the season. After spending about a month with the Vipers, the Rockets called him up, only to cut him and then eventually re-sign him to a two-way deal.

Due to injuries in the Rockets lineup, House saw meaningful minutes right away, even being placed in Houston’s starting lineup. He had some solid performances down the stretch of last season with the Suns, but this season he really looked the part of a legitimate NBA rotation player.

When a player signs a two-way deal, they are allotted a maximum of 45 days of NBA service, meaning that the rest of the time they must remain in the G League. If a player exceeds the 45-day limit, they must be sent back down to the G League unless they’re able to reach an agreement on a standard contract with the NBA team.

Because of the Rockets’ necessity of House in the rotation, he used up his NBA days last month. He and the Rockets were unable to agree on a contract, so he returned to the G League with the Vipers. While there haven’t been many updates as of late, he’s still hopeful that something can work out with the Rockets.

“Hopefully I can go back to Houston and compete for a title. There’s nothing like learning from James [Harden] and Chris Paul, Gerald Green, Eric Gordon and those guys,” House told Basketball Insiders. “And now with the additions of [Iman] Shumpert and Kenneth Faried, I’m just excited to hopefully get something done so I can be out there and competing with those guys.”

Initially, House wasn’t playing with the Vipers upon returning to the team. But he made his return to the court a few weeks ago on Feb 8. In that game, House shook off some initial rust and ended up having a solid performance including hitting the game-winning free-throws.

In the past, the G League was often times seen as a punishment for NBA players. The league didn’t have that great of a reputation, but over the past few years that image has started to change. The competition has gotten a lot stronger, and according to House, there are plenty of guys who are that close to making it to the NBA.

“The competition here is real. There’s a lot of dudes out here that got a lot of talent that they can showcase. They just want their one opportunity, their one chance that I was so fortunate and blessed with,” House told Basketball Insiders. “I know not to come out here and take it for granted, that’s why I’m playing hard and of course still trying to be a student of the game and learn.”

Recently, during a media availability session, Rockets star and perennial MVP candidate James Harden expressed hope that the Rockets and House could work something out. Harden told reporters that they all know how good House is and what he brings to the team.

In 25 games for the Rockets this season – including 12 starts – House put up nine points per game while shooting 45.8 percent from the field and 39 percent from the three-point line. He’s in the mold of a three-and-D type player, but he also moves well without the ball on cuts to the rim and can attack the basket as well.

“My role was to play defense and make the right read,” House told Basketball Insiders. “Shoot when I’m open, drive, attack the rack, and run the floor. Of course, defend and rebound and make good reads. It was easy.”

As it stands, the Rockets have 12 players on their roster, and a pair of two-way deals for House and Vincent Edwards. House is not eligible to rejoin the Rockets until the G League season concludes. Even then, he won’t be eligible to play in the playoffs as per two-way deal restrictions.

The Rockets will need to add at least two players to get up to the league-mandated 14 players on the roster. House would appear to be a good candidate for one of those spots, but that remains to be seen. But regardless of whether or not it works out in Houston, House is confident that he’s done enough to prove he belongs in the NBA.

“It gave me the utmost confidence, but my hard work, my passion, and my faith in the man upstairs gave me the ability. I asked him to guide me through the journey and he’s been taking care of me,” House told Basketball Insiders. “I’m so grateful that the opportunities and I used my ability to perform and do something I love to take care of my family.”

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PODCAST: Checking In On Clippers & Lakers, East Arms Race, Warriors’ Challengers

Basketball Insiders Deputy Editor Jesse Blancarte and Writer James Blancarte evaluate the L.A. teams after the trade deadline, break down the Eastern Conference contenders, and look for the Warriors’ biggest challengers.

Basketball Insiders

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Basketball Insiders Deputy Editor Jesse Blancarte and Writer James Blancarte evaluate the L.A. teams after the trade deadline, break down the Eastern Conference contenders, and look for the Warriors’ biggest challengers.

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