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Conclusions From the Suns’ Hot Start

Following their best start in years, Phoneix has shown that they are no longer the NBA’s stomping grounds. Matt John examines what has gone into building the team and, arguably, made them the league’s most pleasant surprise.

Matt John

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Yes, pun very much intended.

Thursday night, the Phoenix Suns suffered their third loss of the season at the hands of the Miami HEAT. Miami, so far, has appeared to be one of the better teams in the league, so seeing them get in the win the desert isn’t too out of the ordinary.

The real shock is that this was the first time that Phoenix was outclassed all season.

Keeping it modest, the Suns were expected to be outclassed left and right when the season began. But, with the loss to Miami, they now stand at 5-3. At first glance, a start like that is encouraging, especially for a team like Phoenix that has dwelled in the NBA’s depths for the better part of 10 years.

But — and good news Suns fans — there’s more to it than that.

Before the HEAT loss, Phoenix’s other two losses came at the hands of the Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz, playoff teams a season ago and, in 2019-20, expected to once reside in the class of the Western Conference. Better yet, both games were decided by a single point, and on last-second shots, no less.

Even against Miami game, the Suns gave it their all for most of the game, which hasn’t exactly been the case for them in recent seasons.

Factoring that in, it’s not just that Phoenix has won more than most thought they would, but they’ve hung around with the best of the best this season.

It’s an odd wrinkle to the season, for sure, that absolutely no one saw coming. But, nevertheless, it’s a welcome sight. In a season that has had plenty of surprises, Phoenix’s best start in years may top them all. But what can we take away from that encouraging start? What should we? Let’s take a look.

Devin Booker and the “Good Stats/Bad Team” Label

Practically since he stepped on an NBA parquet, Devin Booker’s put up magnificent offensive numbers. In fact, following his rookie year, Booker may be the closest thing to a guaranteed bucket that we’ve seen.

In his now five NBA seasons, Booker has also taken massive strides as playmaker. In that time, he’s seen his assists per game jump from just 2.6 his rookie year to a strong 6.8 last season.

Yet, despite the offensive fireworks, Booker has generated little All-Star buzz. The reason has almost always been the same — Phoenix’s success, or lack thereof, combined with the boatload of talent that has made up the Western Conference.

Of course, an All-Star appearance isn’t the be-all-end-all for NBA players. But, unfortunately, the lack of buzz Booker has generated has made many question whether his numbers are truly elite or just empty calories, just an alright player stat-stuffing on an offensively inept roster.

Hopefully, at least thus far, those doubters have come to the conclusion that Booker is anything but. In eight games, Booker has put up his usual, dominant stat line — 25.6 points, 3.5 rebounds, 5 assists — but, with improvements made up-and-down the roster, has managed to do so more efficiently; Booker has shot the ball 52.9 percent from the floor and 50 percent from three-point range, both career highs.

Behind him, the Suns have started the season on a roll. But, if you’re still not convinced, just check his on-off numbers: Phoenix is plus-18.4 points per 100 possessions when Booker is on the floor.

It’s a small sample, sure, and Booker has a lot left to prove defensively. But, when he’s on the floor, the Suns are clearly a better team.

And, assuming their start isn’t just a big fluke, then there may be nothing stopping Booker from making his first All-Star appearance (or at least drumming up some consideration).

The Importance of the Right Personnel

It’s a shame that they’ve only now started to garner some attention, but Phoenix has sneakily made some great moves in recent seasons, and especially this last offseason.

Now, not to say their front office is perfect — they’ve been far from that. The number of moves or former players that one could attach “-fiasco” to is astonishing.

But Phoenix has gotten to where they are this season through some seriously competent additions. They acquired an undervalued asset from the Washington Wizards in Kelly Oubre Jr., an overpaid but productive Tyler Johnson from the HEAT, a buy-low candidate in Dario Saric prior to the 2019 draft.

And, of course, perhaps their most important acquisitions in the last five years, the installment of James Jones as the team’s general manager and Monty Williams their head coach.

The Oubre deal flew under the radar, in part, because of the failed three-way trade with Washington and the Memphis Grizzlies just days earlier. An energetic 3-and-D wing whose youth made him another potential asset on the same timeline as Booker, Oubre was acquired for a then 33-year-old Trevor Ariza, who wasn’t long for Phoenix anyway. The Suns gave Oubre a rich extension over the summer — a two-year, $30 million pact — and, so far, he’s proven worth every penny as he’s averaged 17.1 points and 5.5 rebounds on respectable shooting splits.

Johnson, to a much lesser extent, was another successful move. Grossly overpaid? You betcha. But, while they may have had to swallow the $19.2 million price tag, Johnson brought stability to the guard spot and, behind Booker and now Ricky Rubio, is an upgrade over what Phoenix had had there previously.

Many were confused when Phoneix traded the sixth overall pick for the 11th and Saric, but he has proven a strong option in the frontcourt as he’s averaged 8.9 points and 6.1 rebounds and posted a plus-6.1 in eight games. Saric can also add some much-needed floor spacing and playmaking, while he also is one of the few on the team with some postseason experience.

There have been plenty of other, solid additions: Rubio, Aron Baynes, Frank Kaminsky and others. While the general consensus wasn’t exactly positive, the team desperately needed a veteran like Rubio in the backcourt alongside Booker, while Baynes and Kaminsky have proven vital in the absence of Deandre Ayton, lost to suspension.

As a result of these moves, the Suns are more well-rounded than they’ve been in years. They’ll definitely need further reinforcements, but now they have a solid core around their star, Booker, a core that, clearly can compete night-in and night-out.

We Have Our First Coach of the Year Candidate

Even with the right roster in place, a good team still needs the right maestro to make it all work. And Monty Williams has proven the right man for the job in Phoenix.

For the longest time, Phoenix has had little to call home about; they’ve ranked near the bottom of every statistical category whether it be offensive or defensive rating, three-point percentage, total points, rebounds or assists. It was never pretty.

But, in his first year, Williams has done everything he can to turn that around. The Suns, thus far, are sixth in the NBA in net rating (5), while they have also shot the second-highest true-shooting percentage (58.2) and seventh-highest three-point percentage (37.3). They have averaged the second-most assists per game (27), while their 114.1 points per game is good for seventh in the NBA.

Of course, give credit where credit is due and applaud the players for the turnaround. But, much of that success should also be attributed to Williams, who has established a system that has worked wonders on the court and positive culture in the Suns’ locker room.

In fact, he’s done such a great job to this point, that it would be a shock if he wasn’t in the running for Coach of the Year in his first with the team. The season is still young, but if Phoneix can keep this up Williams could prove a shoo-in for the award.

This Might Not Be the Final Product

As it’s been stated before, Phoenix improved in many areas, but they’re not without their flaws. No team is.

With Ayton gone, they lack a major scoring threat to take the load off of Booker. And, as good as they’ve been, opponents should start to take advantage of that and dare the Suns’ lesser players to score. Even once Ayton’s back in the fold, another option behind him and Booker would only ease the burden on Phoneix’s young roster.

The Suns could also use more help on the defensive perimeter. As of now, they’re in the middle of the pack on that side of the ball. But, if they want to completely right the ship, they need to get even better.

That said, it’s impressive to see how far Phoenix has come, and even more exciting to think that they could even get better. Lucky for them, there should be plenty of players on the market that could help them and, with Johnson’s large salary, the Suns should have no trouble matching salaries.

Danillo Gallinari, Andre Iguodala and a number of other veterans on not-so-great teams could prove solid additions, depending on where the Suns find themselves later in the year.

Don’t get ahead of yourself: nobody is saying Phoenix is a title contender. The excitement may fade, and it may be all for naught if they miss the postseason.

But playing competitive, winning basketball is a huge step in the right direction. And, so far, the Suns have done little else than do just that. “The Phoenix Suns are back!” sure does have quite a nice ring to it.

Matt John is a staff writer for Basketball Insiders. He is currently a Utah resident, but a Massachusetts native.

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NBA Daily: Pacers Preparing For The Future

Without their star player leading the charge, the Indiana Pacers have quietly been laying the groundwork for one of the top spots in the Eastern Conference. Chad Smith details how Indiana’s strong start will pay dividends in the second half of the season.

Chad Smith

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Head coach Nate McMillan entered this season fully aware that he would be without his superstar guard for several months. He was cognizant of the roster turnover and understood that the team chemistry was going to take some time. He also knew that the Indiana Pacers had a soft schedule to start the year and that they had a golden opportunity to position themselves well upon Victor Oladipo’s eventual return.

Things got off to a rocky start, as they dropped their first three games, which came against the Cleveland Cavaliers and then the Detroit Pistons sans Blake Griffin. Since then though, Indiana has been on a tear by posting a 14-5 record since the night before Halloween. Over that time span, only the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers have won more games.

Even the losses have been close, tightly contested games too. They lost an overtime thriller in Charlotte, suffered a nine-point loss in Houston, fell to the Bucks and had a three-point loss in Philadelphia. Given their situation with all of the injuries and new personnel, it has been a remarkable first quarter of the season.

While the schedule has been extremely light and the easiest in the league there have been quality wins as well. They have beaten Brooklyn, Oklahoma City, Memphis, plus Orlando two times each. They also have a victory over Utah, but the Jazz haven’t quite been the elite team that many pegged them out to be before the start of the season.

Sure, it sounds cliché but you can’t worry about how the schedule looks, you have to win the games in front of you. Every team will have some easy stretches on their schedule, but those are the games that must be won. For Indiana, this is especially true as they fight without their All-Star guard. Once healthy, this should be a formidable group in the Eastern Conference.

Jeremy Lamb has already missed nine games, while Myles Turner lost eight with concussion-like symptoms. Then there’s Malcolm Brogdon out for three and Domantas Sabonis was for an additional two games. Edmond Sumner has missed the most time as he has played just three games due to a broken hand.

Brogdon was the big addition this off-season, and he has been sensational. The former Rookie of the Year is averaging 19 points, five rebounds and eight assists as the head man. The dynamic guard led the league in free throw percentage a year ago and is on pace for a repeat performance again this season.

Indiana’s biggest concern heading into this season was if the duo of Turner and Sabonis would work. So far, so good. Sabonis is having a career year averaging 18 points and 13 rebounds while also dishing out 4 assists per game. The former Gonzaga product is a big reason why the Pacers have had success in the paint.

Turner led the league in blocks last season, but somehow didn’t even make one of the three All-Defensive teams. That has motivated him to be more aggressive and more diligent in his defensive positioning. His rebounding has improved, and he continues to be an elite stopper at the rim averaging 2.3 blocks per game.

After his first five seasons in the league were clouded by defunct teams in Phoenix, TJ Warren has proven that he is a capable scorer at this level. After shooting a career-high 43 percent from three-point range last season, he is just a tick below that (41 percent) so far this year. He is shooting nearly 52 percent from the floor, averaging nearly 19 points per game. When the Pacers need a bucket, they have been consistently going in his direction with the ball.

This squad is the very definition of the word team and is proving it on a nightly basis. Each night, a different guy is stepping up, whether it is on offense or defense. Indiana ranks fourth in defense, tenth in offense and they have the fifth-best net rating entering today’s game in New York. The Knicks, who just fired head coach David Fizdale yesterday, will get Indiana on the second night of a back-to-back.

The schedule will ramp up for the Pacers after this weekend. They will host the Los Angeles Clippers on Monday, then play in Boston 48 hours later. A showdown with LeBron James and the Lakers awaits the following week, followed by a brutal back-to-back set with Milwaukee and Toronto just before Christmas.

An early tip time awaits on New Year’s Eve against Philadelphia, which is then followed by a matchup with Denver. In this nearly three-week span, the Pacers will face Philly, Minnesota, Denver and Miami two times each. This will be a difficult test, but one that they need.

We are only a week into the month of December but, oddly enough, Indiana has already finished up their four-game series with Detroit. The Central division foes will only meet again if they find each other in the postseason. That is the destination for the Pacers, who will likely get their franchise player back before the All-Star break.

The Pacers still have not yet announced a timeline for Oladipo’s return, but indications are that he will be coming back within the next two months. After such a devastating injury, you can expect the organization to proceed with extreme caution once he returns to the floor.

Oladipo himself has admitted that he has been itching to make his return and that he wants to go full throttle once he is given the green light. Indiana will, of course, limit his minutes early on and there is no chance he will play any back-to-back games. This slow but necessary transition will be another speed bump on the road to the postseason for the Pacers.

The players have had 22 games to get a feel for one another. When you consider how much time each of them has missed, it is actually much fewer than that. They are still trying to build chemistry and camaraderie among themselves. As they inch closer to that point, a new wrinkle will be thrown in when the time comes to work their star back into the lineup.

But, ultimately, it is a good problem to have for Indiana. Adding a top 25 player to your team is obviously a major positive, but it won’t come without any setbacks. The team will once again have to gel and understand how to play with one another — most notably the newest additions to the team, which include their other star guard, Brogdon.

Fortunately for Indiana, the season is a long one, and they should have ample time to get Oladipo back fully integrated into the system. It will be a mega boost for the team and could be a major thorn in the side for the rest of the teams in the East.

A defensive unit with Oladipo, Brogdon and Turner fueled with the offensive firepower of guys like Sabonis, Warren and Lamb could prove to be elite. Should they find themselves healthy, they will be factors in the playoffs yet again. Of course, to get there, they have to keep winning the easy games on the schedule.

So far, so good.

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NBA

High-Performance Mindfulness: What Players Can Learn From Brandon Ingram

By implementing a Daily Gratitude Practice, Brandon Ingram may be ahead of the game. Jake Rauchbach dives in.

Jake Rauchbach

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For younger players, maybe one of the most important elements of successful progression is their ability to mentally and emotionally self-manage.

Throughout a career, and as the stakes increase, the amount of external variables that a player is faced with processing can multiply exponentially both on and off the court.

For players with effective and leverageable skill sets for clear decision-making, as well as mental and emotional self-management, this is a valuable asset. However, for many, it can be like a trial by fire. This means that habits picked up through a career to cope can be either supportive or destructive.

However, players who have the foresight to employ proactive self-management tools — before the volatility of life hits — have a leg up on overall well-being, and with on-court performance.

Brandon Ingram

Brandon Ingram, who is still only 22 years old, helps to shed light on how important it is to have mental and emotional processes in place.

Ingram, who is having a career-best year in New Orleans, averaging 25.4 points per game on 49% shooting, experienced ups and downs during his time with the Lakers.

Whether through proactively seeking out mental skills or by picking them up along the way, BI has seemed to find a process that works for him. He also seems to have found an understanding of how important it is to train these internal habits.

“People around me, they can give me talks, they can tell me what to do, but if I don’t have the right mentality, then nothing good is going to happen for me because I’m not going to be confident,” Ingram said.

As one of the younger up and coming players in the league, it is no coincidence that Ingram learned early the importance of implementing a Daily Gratitude Practice. He employs this tool both in the morning and at night after practice.

Neuroplasticity & Epigenetics

As neuroscientists like Dr. Joe Dispenza are now showing, the differentiating factor in human potential may be the ability to harness thought and emotion. In his Wall Street Journal bestseller, Becoming Supernatural, Dispenza provides several studies showing how these two variables are being shown to directly affect the up or down-regulation of the human gene. Meaning, for every thought or emotion that is produced in the body, there is a corresponding chemical reaction. Each one of the reactions, whether positive or negative, either up-regulate or down-regulate the gene. This is especially true for longstanding thought patterns.

According to neuroscience, Ingram, through his Daily Gratitude Practice, may be positively influencing more levels to his game than he consciously realizes. Players like Ingram who can entrain to higher mental and emotional habits can positively influence physiology and performance.

Conversely, a player with chronic and ingrained negative thought and emotional patterns, such as depression, often produces volatile or underwhelming on-court results. On a psychosomatic level, their mental and emotional states are affecting their physiology and performance.

A player like Ingram, who self admittedly went through many ups and downs, has been able to stabilize and hit his stride this season with the Pelicans. What about the players that have not been able to right the ship?

A deeper understanding of how mindset and emotional states affect a player’s physiology and performance can help us understand what is going on under the hood.

Player Development tools that do this can work to reshape long-standing mental and emotional patterns. Furthermore, providing players with a systematic way of shifting well-being and performance upwards can provide alignment.

Energy Psychology – Player Development

As discussed in previous columns, Energy Psychology – Player Development works on the habit level of the player to remove mental and emotional barriers that inhibit peak performance and overall wellbeing.

Based on Dispenza’s neuroscience findings, when holding all else constant, there seems to be real evidence to show that a player’s thoughts and emotions are the drivers behind overachievement. With this, EP methods help player’s upshift mental state, physiology and performance by neutralizing subconscious blocking thoughts and emotions.

Whether by the player proactively implementing these techniques or through standardized programs set up by the team, working in this fashion goes much deeper than just getting up shots.

Younger Players & The G-League

Ingram is ahead of the curve in regards to implementing elements of consistent mental skills training into his everyday routine. Other players should take heed.

For younger players still on their rookie contracts — or those just coming into the league — support like this may be a deciding factor in how they move throughout the rest of their career.

The G League also may be an ideal proving ground. A proactive mental performance initiative could provide players still trying to solidify an opportunity for an added skill-set. This could provide a leg-up, not only on the court once that call-up opportunity does come.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Sixth Man of the Year Watch — 12/6/2019

A Washington sharpshooter joins the ranks of the league’s best reserves, but the Sixth Man conversation still focuses on Los Angeles in Douglas Farmer’s opinion.

Douglas Farmer

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In this update on Sixth Man of the Year candidates, one name must be bid farewell. Unexpected to begin the year but increasingly expected in recent weeks, Charlotte Hornets guard Devonte’ Graham has played too well to keep coming off the bench, most recently shining with 33 points on 10-of-16 shooting from deep Wednesday. In a lost season for the Hornets, Graham’s emergence may be the brightest silver lining, hence his starting their last 13 games.

A similar fate is set to befall another name below in the absence of an injured superstar, but technically speaking, that Brooklyn Nets guard has not started half his team’s games yet, so he remains in this listing one more time …

5. Dāvis Bertāns — Washington Wizards

Bertāns’ recent shooting spurt has not brought the Wizards many wins, but it has led to him reaching double digits in eight of their last nine games, including four instances of 20 or more points. During that stretch, Bertāns has hit 47.5 percent of his looks from beyond the arc, the type of shooting that earns notice.

At this point, he is averaging only 13.6 points and 4.5 rebounds per game, numbers that may not bring out the checkbook this summer, but if Bertāns keeps at his recent pace, his contract year should elicit a worthwhile payday. That would be true in any summer, but even more so in an offseason devoid of many pertinent free agents like 2020 should be.

4. Dwight Howard — Los Angeles Lakers

No. 39’s numbers have not taken off, and they will not, but this space will continue to trumpet Howard’s impact because it has been surprising and quietly important. Even beyond his counting stats — 7 points and 7 rebounds per game — playing fewer than 20 minutes per game will keep Howard from broader recognition for most of the season.

In the Lakers’ 12 wins by 10 or fewer points, Howard has totaled a plus-38. As long as Anthony Davis stays healthy and Los Angeles is the title favorite, Howard’s contributions should not be diminished, even if he is not the prototypical sixth man candidate.

3. Spencer Dinwiddie — Brooklyn Nets

When the Nets face the Hornets tonight, Dinwiddie’s nominal bench status will be in the rearview mirror for the foreseeable future. Through 21 games, he has started 10, fitting the sixth man qualification by one role night. With that distinction, his 20.8 points and 5.8 assists per game place him firmly in this conversation.

If he will have started half Brooklyn’s games by the end of the day, then why include him between Howard and a three-time Sixth Man of the Year winner? Because when Kyrie Irving returns from his extended absence (shoulder injury), Dinwiddie may return to the bench and skew his games off the bench back to the majority of his action.

That effect combined with Dinwiddie keeping the Nets steady and in the East’s top half without Irving is a unique combination of a contribution.

2. Lou Williams — Los Angeles Clippers

Death, taxes and Lou Williams. He has broken 20 points in 14 games this season with two more cracking 30, averaging 21.1 points per game. That was to be expected, even with his slow start to the year. The 14-year veteran is a metronome of a bucket-getter.

His 6.3 assists per game, however, are on pace to be a career-high. While that may not have been anticipated, this will be Williams’ fifth year in a row raising that average. Those dispersals have not shorted Williams’ scoring, as everyone knows. That is all to say, the league’s ultimate sixth man, maybe its best ever, has improved as a complete player in the latter half of his possibly interminable career.

1. Montrezl Harrell — Los Angeles Clippers

At some point this year, this biweekly Sixth Man listing may need to become a one-man testament. Harrell is rendering the preceding four nominations moot. His 19.1 points and 8.0 rebounds per game are impressive, but his pivotal role with the Clippers is even more deserving of lauds.

His 29.7 minutes per game are fourth for Los Angeles — a category Williams actually tops — and his plus-156 leads the Clippers handily, with only Kawhi Leonard’s plus-144 within 60 of Harrell. Yes, Harrell’s on-court impact in Los Angeles rivals Kawhi Leonard’s, despite one of them coming off the bench in 20 of 22 games and the other being the reigning Finals MVP.

The season is still in the early aughts — but some classic and new frontrunners are here to stay. For now, we’ll have to see how Paul George, Kyrie Irving and others ultimately impact the leaders on this list, but the Sixth Man of the Year race has only just started to heat up.

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