Not much has gone right for the Phoenix Suns this season. After a disappointing season opener against the Dallas Mavericks, the Suns starting stringing together some wins and looked like a solid playoff-caliber team led by point guards Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight. That duo looked to be playing themselves into at least the conversation for All-Star spots.
Then the losses started coming. They blew fourth quarter lead after fourth quarter lead to sub-par or depleted teams. Home court wasn’t defended as they lost games to terrible teams in Phoenix. What seemed like a very good defensive team on paper (with Bledsoe, P.J. Tucker and offseason acquisition Tyson Chandler) has struggled mightily – currently ranking 22nd in the NBA.
Their guards struggled to contain penetration and their rotations were slow, resulting in fouling late (which just compounded the issue). They couldn’t stop anyone in transition. The bad defense combined with stretches during games where the offense stalled gave opponents time to gain a lead that proved to be insurmountable once the Suns got out of their funk within the game. This resulted in losses piling up.
The entire season has been overshadowed by the Markieff Morris situation. The offseason issues and trade demands have been looming over the Suns for months. The situation got even worse with the recent incident where Morris hit head coach Jeff Hornacek with a towel as he was upset with being benched. Morris was suspended two games by the team, but that didn’t affect the rotation much since he had been inserted into the lineup only sparingly in the last month.
The first game Morris missed due to suspension was in Phoenix against the lowly Philadelphia 76ers. The 76ers only had one win on the season at that point, yet the Suns lost to them at home. To make it even worse, Philadelphia was missing their highest scorer and rebounder, rookie Jahlil Okafor, making it an even more inexcusable loss.
Everything started going downhill from there. Two issues arose out of that game.
First, Bledsoe (arguably Phoenix’s best player) hurt his knee. After evaluation, it was determined he needed surgery to fix his meniscus, making this the third serious knee injury that he has had during his NBA career (although the previous two surgeries were on his other knee). The original timeline was about six weeks, but following the surgery on Tuesday, Bledsoe was ruled out for the entire season. That is because they are repairing the meniscus instead of removing it, which is better for the long-term health of his knee, but has a long recovery period.
Secondly, the Suns management sat down with all the players following the Philadelphia debacle and decided to fire the two lead assistant coaches Mike Longabardi and Jerry Sichting. They promoted Earl Watson and Nate Bjorkgren and already have Corey Gaines as an assistant coach. Watson was seemingly hired to help recruit LaMarcus Aldridge this offseason and was retained even when Aldridge chose San Antonio. Bjorkgren was, as recently as last season, coaching the Suns’ Developmental League team (the Bakersfield Jam), but was promoted to the Suns’ staff as player development coordinator this offseason. According to reports, the Suns are reluctant to fire Hornacek and are trying to shake up the coaching staff in any other way. It certainly doesn’t seem like Hornacek will be gone before the end of the season with the recent news, but he may be gone in the summer.
This leaves Phoenix with some choices as they try to right the ship.
One choice is to “blow it up” and another is to plod along and hope they can make the playoffs. The former plan follows the likes of the Boston Celtics when they traded Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and eventually Rajon Rondo until they had basically no vets but a lot of young players and draft picks. Now they are starting to be competitive. Another example is the Portland Trail Blazers, who just blew it up and are already occasionally competitive, but not consistent. An example of the latter is roster tinkering that the Toronto Raptors have been doing for a few years. They keep a young core, even though they are having no success in the playoffs, choosing to switch out ancillary pieces until they find the right one. The constant seems to be that Markieff Morris will be traded no matter what. Let’s take a deeper look at the potential plans.
Choice #1: Plod Along
This choice isn’t as far-fetched as it seems. While the Suns are sitting with a horrible record of 12-22, as of this writing, they are currently only three games out of the eighth seed in the Western Conference. The bottom of the West is pretty weak with the Houston Rockets (16-17) in seventh, the injury-plagued Utah Jazz (13-17) in eighth and the Portland Trail Blazers (14-20), Minnesota Timberwolves (12-20), Sacramento Kings (12-20) and Denver Nuggets (12-21) all clustered together as the only teams in between the Suns and the playoffs. It certainly isn’t out of the realm of possibility the Suns can still make the playoffs. However, it certainly isn’t likely as it seemed in the middle of November.
Phoenix can continue to play the older players like Tyson Chandler, P.J. Tucker, Ronnie Price, Mirza Teletovic and Sonny Weems in their appropriate roles and hope the coaching changes help propel them to the eighth seed in the weak Western Conference. The “next man up” mentality could aid in this endeavor and they could make waves.
The pros of this plan are potentially breaking the five-year playoff drought since the team’s Steve Nash days and getting Phoenix’s young guys invaluable playoff experience. It would certainly help sell tickets and the entire business side of the organization.
With the salary cap in the NBA going up so significantly in the next few years, it wouldn’t be too difficult to even add some other veterans and tread water and make the playoffs, while the young players gain experience.
The cons of this plan are both the improbability of securing a postseason berth (everything would have to go right) and that it would make the draft pick in the offseason worse. Also, adding veterans would take minutes from the young guys, stunting their development.
Choice #2: Blow It Up
In this scenario, Suns’ management basically surrenders this season, trading Chandler, Tucker, Teletovic and, of course, Morris for whatever young players and draft picks they could return. You then also see what you have in Sonny Weems for a little longer and then potentially cut ties with the 29-year-old swingman, who has spent most of his career overseas.
Then, they play as many young players as possible. The starting lineup becomes Brandon Knight (23), Devin Booker (19), T.J. Warren (22), Jon Leuer (26) and Alex Len (22). They would also have a big dose of Archie Goodwin (21) to see if he can be a solid rotation player. In this scenario, development is key. Wins and losses don’t matter, but the plan is to get the young guys to play consistently and together as a team, increasingly at a high level. With the way the East is pretty good across the board (10 teams are within five games of first place) and the way Phoenix is playing, there is a decent chance the Suns’ draft pick this summer could be in the top five.
The Golden State Warriors are so good, along with the San Antonio Spurs and even the Oklahoma City Thunder, that even if Phoenix kept the band together for a few years, the chances they would break through to the Finals are minuscule. However, if they blow it up, they will have a solid base of talent that could grow together, the way the Boston Celtics and now the Portland Trail Blazers are doing.
The cons to this plan are losing games. A lot of games.
Choice #3: A Combination Rebuild
Perhaps a better option would be to do a selective “blowup.” If they don’t think Chandler has anything left in his tank, then trade him. Tucker is the perfect complementary piece on a contender. Of course, Morris is probably gone. But you only trade them (Morris excluded) if the trade is perfect. The value needs to be in Phoenix’s favor.
In this scenario, you do everything you can to avoid even the idea of “tanking.” It can plague a team and its players for years. Consistent losing can stunt development and even sour your young core, pushing them out the door after their rookie contracts are up. While a Finals berth probably isn’t in the offing for a handful of years, playoff experience is absolutely crucial if you ever want to get there. So maybe they don’t blow it up completely. They keep the young core, find value players over the next few years to mix in and take into account fit as well. They keep a mix of youth and vets. It wouldn’t hurt to avoid certain players so there is not a repeat of the Morris fiasco. That is certainly a high bar, but Ryan McDonough, Hornacek and company are up for the challenge. It’s time for them to get to work, and get creative. We’ll see which path Phoenix goes down very soon.
Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal
The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.
It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.
Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.
There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.
Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.
Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.
That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.
Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.
At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.
It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.
One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.
NBA Saturday: Jabari Bird Experiences The NBA Whirlwind
Jabari Bird entered a hostile environment Friday night after being on his couch just three days before.
When Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending injury six minutes into the Boston Celtics’ season on Wednesday, he wasn’t the only player who saw his season changed in the blink of an eye.
“I was at home in California watching the game as a fan,” Jabari Bird said.
Bird was the 56th overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft. After playing his college ball at the University of California, the Celtics gave the 6-foot-6 swingman a shot to continue his career. After impressing throughout the preseason, Bird was signed to a two-way contract with Boston and returned home to the west coast.
That didn’t last long.
“After the game was over my phone was going off that I had to get on the quickest flight to Boston,” Bird said about opening night. “Got in 7:30 the next morning, suited up against Milwaukee, now I’m here in Philly.”
With the massive hole Hayward left in Boston’s roster due to his injury, the Celtics are going to have to turn to some unlikely performers throughout the season to pick up the slack. Bird didn’t light up the scoreboard or stuff his stat sheet, posting just three points and one rebound in 13 minutes of play. But down the stretch in a close game against the Philadelphia 76ers Friday night, Bird came up big on defense.
As the Celtics trailed the Sixers 61-53 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Bird subbed in for Jaylen Brown and was tasked with guarding J.J. Redick, who was in the midst of carrying Philadelphia with his lights out shooting.
After wiping away the Sixers lead and gaining an 86-84 advantage in the fourth quarter, the Celtics still had Bird sticking Redick. The Sixers’ shooting guard — and highest paid player — rose up for another three-point attempt which would’ve given Philadelphia a late lead and a momentum shift at home with a raucous crowd behind them. Only this time, Bird’s hand was in his face and the shot attempt didn’t find the back of the net.
In a big-time moment on the road, for a team facing a potential three-game losing streak to start the season, the unlikely rookie answered the call.
“Like I said before, he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA, really good perimeter scorer,” Bird said of Redick. “For the team to trust me with that responsibility, with us being down on the road needing to get a win, I was hyped up and ready to go. I was ready for the challenge.”
Placing such a responsibility like guarding Redick on a night where it seemed like the Sixers marksman couldn’t miss on a player who was sitting on his couch three nights ago seems like a bold strategy. Head coach Brad Stevens, however, knew what he was doing.
“All the way through preseason and training camp I felt like he was one of our better perimeter defenders,” Stevens said. “I think he has huge upside. His rebounding spoke for itself in preseason practices. His ability to guard off the ball, especially shooters coming off screens is just really good. He’s not afraid, and you knew he’d step up.”
Going from the couch to a red-eye flight from California to Boston, to the bench in Milwaukee, to the court in Philadelphia is nothing short of a whirlwind experience. With such a series of events, it’s hard to be coached into that moment. As a player, sometimes you have to just go out and play.
“I wasn’t prepared at all for tonight. Mentally I just had to lock into the game,” Bird said. “Coach just looked at me and said ‘Bird get Jaylen.’ ‘Alright.’ So that’s what I did.”
After signing Hayward to $127 million contract this summer, the Celtics were expecting the small forward to provide an elite scoring 1-2 scoring punch with Kyrie Irving. Obviously, at least for this season, Boston will need to move forward without that possibility. An opening night loss, followed by another defeat to Milwaukee the following night, had the Celtics 0-2 heading into Philadelphia and searching for answers a lot sooner than they may have anticipated just a week ago.
Bird’s journey during his first week in professional basketball represents how quickly things can change, and how the ripple effects of injuries and other moves have far outreaching waves.
“I was already packed, I was ready to go to the G-League,” Bird said. “We had training camp coming up. My bags were already packed, I was ready to get out the house. Then I got the call to go to Boston and I was like alright I’m ready to go, just gimmie a flight. And that’s what happened.”
All-star point guard, and Bird’s new teammate, Kyrie Irving doesn’t foresee the rookie leaving the clubhouse anytime soon. With the adversity the Boston Celtics have felt in the first week of the 2017-18 season, Bird’s addition and impact are a prime example of being ready when your number is called, and the culture this team is looking to create.
“Jabari is now probably gonna be on every trip with us,” Irving said. “Guys are gonna be called up and called upon to be ready to play. We just have to have that expectation that when we come into the game we’re gonna be able to play, and we trust one another and have each other’s backs.”
Mavs Guard Devin Harris on Personal Leave from Team
Guard Devin Harris will take an indefinite leave from the Dallas Mavericks after the tragic death of his brother, Bruce.
“I was with him yesterday and just encouraged him that when he’s ready to come on back,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I don’t know when that will be. He can take as long as he needs.”
Source: Tim MacMahon of ESPN