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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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David Nwaba and the Road Less Traveled

David Nwaba speaks to Basketball Insiders about his unconventional path to the NBA.

David Yapkowitz

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A player’s path to the NBA usually follows the same formula: A star in high school, a strong college career, and then eventually being selected in the NBA Draft. However, there are times when a player’s path is more unconventional. In the case of David Nwaba, he definitely took the path less traveled.

He attended University High School in West Los Angeles, where he was named All-Western League MVP twice as well as being an all-league selection. He finished his senior year in 2011 putting up 22.0 points per game and 11.5 rebounds per game.

He went to an NCAA Division 2 school, however, Hawaii Pacific University, but never suited up for them as he redshirted his freshman year. He played a year at Santa Monica Community College, where he was the Western State Conference South Division Player of the Year before transferring to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. According to Nwaba, the decision to leave Hawaii Pacific was made with the NBA in mind.

“It was always a dream of mine, it’s also why I left a Division 2 school that I started at,” Nwaba told Basketball Insiders. “I had bigger dreams of playing D1 and potentially the NBA. So that was a dream of mine. I never thought the journey would go like this but it is how it is.”

Behind Nwaba, Cal Poly made their first-ever NCAA appearance in 2014. They won the Big West Tournament as the seventh seed out of eight teams, and then knocked off Dayton for the right to come in as a No. 16 seed against No. 1 seed Wichita State. Cal Poly would go on to lose to Wichita State, but sparking that run to March Madness put Nwaba on the basketball map.

He didn’t get to the NBA right away, though. His first professional experience came with the then Los Angeles D-Fenders, now South Bay Lakers, the Los Angeles Lakers G-League affiliate. He initially began with the Reno Bighorns, the Sacramento Kings affiliate, but his rights were traded to Los Angeles. His strong play in the G-League was what caught the Lakers’ attention, enough to give him a pair of 10-day contracts, and then one for the rest of the season.

“It was a perfect spot to start up my professional career The G-League is a place to develop your game, and I think I developed a lot,” Nwaba told Basketball Insiders. “I learned a lot about the game, and I think it was a good place for me to start just out of college.”

Although he made a strong impression on the Lakers, Nwaba found out that nothing is ever guaranteed in the NBA. Due to a roster crunch when the team signed Kentavious Caldwell-Pope over the summer, the Lakers ended up cutting him. He didn’t stay unemployed for long though. Before he had a chance to hit the open market, the Chicago Bulls claimed him off waivers.

He’s since carved out a role as one of the Bulls most dependable players in the second unit. And just like his path to the league, his role is a bit of an unconventional one as a shooting guard. He’s shooting 51.7 percent from the field, but most of his shots come from in the paint. He only shoots 26.3 percent from three-point range. It’s been effective for him though.

“It’s just bringing energy off the bench and just being that defender,” Nwaba told Basketball Insiders. “For the most part, I just try to be aggressive going to the basket, finishing at the rim, making the right plays, just defending and playing hard.”

The Chicago Bulls got off to a slow start this season. They lost 17 of their first 20 games. In December, they started to pick up their play, winning 11 of their 20 games including a seven-game win streak. However, they’ve now dropped eight of their last 11 games. Despite that, Nwaba does see some encouraging signs. And in the Eastern Conference, he’s not quite ready to count out another run.

“We’re developing every game, just building chemistry amongst each other,” Nwaba told Basketball Insiders. “Who knows, all it takes is just a streak of eight to ten games or something and we’re already back in the playoff race. You never know, anything can turn around. It’s still a long season, a lot of games to be played, and a lot of time to develop our game. We’ve still got a lot of time with each other.”

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NBA Daily: The Los Angeles Lakers Could Be Up Next

The Los Angeles Lakers may not make the playoffs this season, but they’re trending in the right direction.

Dennis Chambers

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The Los Angeles Lakers are coming.

They may not be playoff-bound this season as some of their purple and gold faithful hoped for, but the prestigious franchise occupying the Staples Center is showing improvement from their young players. Perhaps even enough to lure the likes of established stars come summer time.

In Luke Walton’s second season as the Lakers’ head coach, he hits the All-Star break with his team holding a 23-34 record. Granted, that’s not the level of success he was used to during his time with the Golden State Warriors, but it is only three fewer wins than his team had all of last season.

Prior to limping into the break on the back of a three-game losing streak, the Lakers had won eight of 10. During that stretch, they’d beaten the likes of Oklahoma City (twice), Indiana, and Boston. Along with making the most of their performances over that span, the Lakers were also doing so without 2017’s second overall pick, Lonzo Ball, who’s sidelined with an injury.

But Ball isn’t the only Los Angeles darling who has shined this season. In fact, it’s arguable that he’s not even the most impressive youngster on the team.

Drafted second overall last season, Brandon Ingram is showing the improvement this season that warranted such a high selection. His play thus far suggests he’s one of the building blocks of the Lakers’ next era in contending for a championship.

In his 53 games this season, Ingram is averaging 16.2 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 3.7 assists per game. His shooting from the floor and from beyond the arc have both seen dramatic increases as well this season. Over the same stretch that saw the Lakers go 8-2 with wins over cemented playoff teams, Ingram upped his assists per night to 5.2, taking the place of facilitator with Ball sidelined.

Though Ingram and the Lakers haven’t been setting the win column on fire all season, the steady growth and improvement show to him that the team is moving in the right direction, under the right coach.

“I think we’ve been doing a pretty good job,” Ingram said to reporters during All-Star weekend. “I think guys have gotten better every single day. I think we come in with the mindset that we have a really good coach that pushes us every single day. I like the progress of what we’re doing in our organization.”

Walton, this season more than last, has shown the ability to get the most out of the players he has. Ingram’s improvement, plus the capability as a point guard Ball has shown, are the givens. They were highly selected players, expected to contribute immediately. But it’s the production of the players who were afterthoughts that are a major testament to Walton’s teachings.

Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart were selected with the 27th and 30th picks in last June’s draft. Both were collegiate upperclassmen with noted handicaps in their respective games that led to teams selecting younger, or more athletic, or sweeter shooting players in their place.

A few years from now when everyone looks back, that could prove to be a silly mistake.

All Kuzma has done this season is keep his name consistently in the Rookie of the Year award race by averaging 15.7 points, 5.9 rebounds and shooting nearly 36 percent from beyond the arc. He’s been a lightning rod of scoring for the Lakers on nights where they desperately need it, racking up 13 games where he’s reached at least 20 points, and three games breaking the 30-point plateau.

Hart, on the other hand, hasn’t been as steady a performer as his fellow late first-round selected teammate. But when called upon, especially since Ball has been out, Hart’s shown the all-around game that made him one of the most decorated players in college basketball while at Villanova.

Over the last month, Hart has averaged 8.8 points and five rebounds per game, while shooting 52.8 percent from the field and 44.4 percent from beyond the arc. During that same stretch, Hart’s scored in double-figures six times and registered three straight double-doubles at the beginning of February.

Moving forward, as the Lakers look to add high-priced free agent in the coming summers, having guys like Kuzma and Hart on cost-effective rookie contracts is a luxury teams around the league hope to have.

Diamonds in the rough like Kuzma and more than capable contributors like Hart are nice, of course, but the real reason for optimism in L.A. is Ingram. He’s the player with a star power ceiling. He’s the guy that the likes of LeBron James and Paul George look at when they weigh their free agent options, as a guy who can handle the workload on the nights they may not have it.

Ingram’s game isn’t finished, though; far from it, in fact. But he knows that, and he’s aware of the steps he needs to take to get to that next level.

“To improve my game I think from a shooting standpoint,” Ingram said. “If I get that down, I think it would be a lot more easier for me to drive to the basket, break down a lot of guys, make plays for my other teammates. I think it would take me to a whole other level.”

Playing for the Los Angeles Lakers doesn’t come void of expectations. There, in Hollywood, everyone is always watching. Fans, other teams, the media, everyone is waiting for the next time a Laker championship comes around. With the weight of the world on their shoulders, Ingram thinks the current legend captaining the ship is the young team’s best asset to achieving that ultimate success everyone in Los Angeles is accustomed too.

“Magic Johnson,” Ingram said. “He’s in our front office. He’s at most of every practice, every single day. For any advice why not go to him, with the caliber of player he was and how many championships he won, the way he carries himself. He always there for just information on anything we need.”

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NBA All-Star Friday Recap

Simon Hannig recaps NBA All-Star Friday 2018.

Simon Hannig

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NBA All-Star Celebrity Game

The NBA All-Star Celebrity Game was highlighted by many stars this year, including Tracy McGrady, Paul Pierce, Nate Robinson, Candace Parker, Bubba Watson, Rachel DeMita and many more. Team Lakers was led by head coach, Rachel Nichols. Team Clippers was led by Katie Nolan.

Quavo, of hip hop group Migos, had the first the two points for Team Clippers, and Justin Bieber had the first three points for Team Lakers.

Team Clippers defeated Team Lakers 75-66.

Quavo led the way for Team Clippers with 19 points on 7/10 shooting, with 5 rebounds and 3 assists. Olympic sprinter Andre De Grasse had 17 points on 8/14 shooting and 6 rebounds. Actor and social media star Brandon Armstrong finished with 16 points on 6/17 shooting, 11 rebounds and 3 assists for Team Clippers. Both wereamong the top three leading scorers for Team Clippers.

NBA2KTV host, actress and model, Rachel DeMita led the way for Team Lakers with 17 points on 6/12 shooting and 2 rebounds. NBA legend Nate Robinson was the second leading scorer for Team Lakers with 14 points on 4/11 shooting, 5 rebounds and 4 assists.

Other notable NBA and WNBA legends stats from tonight’s game — Stefanie Dolson (Chicago Sky) had zero points. Paul Pierce had 4 points on 2/3 shooting and 1 rebound. Jason Williams had 2 points on 1/3 shooting and 1 rebound. Tracy McGrady had 3 points on 1/3 shooting, 3 assists and 2 rebounds. Candace Parker (Los Angeles Sparks) had zero points.

Quavo was named MVP.

BBVA Compass Rising Stars Game

There is a ton of young talent in this league, and the league will be in good hands for years to come. The talent was put on display tonight in Los Angeles.

Utah Jazz rookie sensation Donovan Mitchell gave us an early preview of the dunk contest tomorrow by throwing an ally-oop pass to himself off the backboard in the first half.

However, it was all Team World in the first half as they led 78-59 at the break. Buddy Hield and Bogdan Bogdanovic of the Sacramento Kings each had 14 points to lead Team World. Jaylen Brown led the way for Team USA with 16 points at the half.

It felt like a three point contest throughout the entire game, as there were 96 combined three point attempts. Bogdanovic led the way with seven three pointers made for both teams.

All in all, Team World defeated Team USA 155-124. Hield led the way for Team World with 29 points, 3 rebounds and 2 assists. Jaylen Brown of the Boston Celtics led the way for Team USA with 35 points and 10 rebounds.

The MVP of the game was Bogdan Bogdanovic, who dazzled the crowd with his three point shooting. He had 26 points, 6 assists and 4 rebounds with seven made three’s.

Next up for the NBA in this fun-filled weekend is NBA All-Star Saturday Night with the dunk contest, three point contest and much more.

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