It’s not often an NBA team goes from perennial lottery-dwellers to serious title contenders in one season. The Phoenix Suns have done just that, largely due to the addition of Chris Paul and the continued development of Devin Booker and Mikal Bridges. However, no Sun may be as crucial to their title hopes as DeAndre Ayton.
The Suns sit in second place in the Western Conference standings and have formed an identity around their All-Star backcourt. They are one of the slowest teams in terms of pace (23rd), but it never feels slow. They are methodical and deliberate, seeking out the weak point in a defense; exploiting it with their two All-NBA level guards who are surrounded by shooters always ready to fire away from deep.
Their defense is stingy. They don’t force a ton of turnovers, but they make the opposing offense earn it. At times, all five defenders seem like they are playing on a string with their always on-time rotations. The Suns know what they can expect to get from all their key guys come playoff time. Everyone except DeAndre Ayton.
Ayton is the Suns’ biggest wildcard. In fact, he may be the biggest wildcard in the entire NBA in terms of swinging the NBA title race. He’s shown flashes of being capable of taking the next step in being an elite big man. There also times where his effort level fluctuates and his play becomes erratic, particularly defensively.
Ayton has the physical tools and talent to elevate the Suns. Standing at 6-foot-11 and 250 pounds, he has the physical capability to stamp his presence on any game. Despite these physical tools, Ayton is more of a finesse big rather than an imposing paint presence which has provoked the ire of many of his detractors.
The former number one overall pick is averaging a career-low in scoring, just 14.9 per game, but doing so with a career-high in efficiency with a true-shooting percentage at 64.3 percent. His shots are down which plays a role in both those numbers, but Ayton’s offensive role has shifted this season. He’s become more of a play-finisher, rolling to the basket for pocket passes and lobs, crashing the offensive glass, and the occasional face-up in the post.
For Ayton to truly elevate his game and the Suns’ come playoff time, he has to wreak havoc on teams who try to play small-ball lineups when he’s on the court. Ayton has been a reluctant back to the basket big; he is much more comfortable facing up and shooting 15-foot jumpers. This has allowed teams to play smaller guys on him in the past as teams aren’t concerned that he will exploit the perceived mismatch.
Come playoff time, teams will look to exploit weaknesses in the Suns’ defense. In a lineup that includes Chris Paul, Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder, Devin Booker and DeAndre Ayton, teams are going to take their chances with putting Ayton in pick-and-roll actions.
James Harden comes off the screen and faces no resistance here from Ayton. He gives up the free lane easily in what’s a close fourth-quarter game.
Here is where he flashes the potential to be a force on the defensive end. He shuts down the Paul George drive at the basket.
The Suns usually play Ayton in a “drop” type defense where he sits low under the basket, similar to Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz, albeit not as drastic or effective. Ayton has the physical capability to play up higher and even be a reasonable if not good switchable big, but the results have been a mixed bag at best. Ayton often gets beat and it has led to him being targeted at times.
Jeff Green, who isn’t a 1-on-1 scorer, is able to blow past Ayton with no resistance.
But there are flashes where he stifles guards on a switch. Here he stays with Coby White and comes up with the block.
The switch on DeAndre Ayton’s effort levels can be frustrating. He clearly has the capacity to be a game-changing player, but as is the case with young players, consistency is his biggest issue. As the center, he plays the most important defensive position so there is an added pressure for him to be effective there. A fully engaged Ayton would make the Suns an even scarier team come playoff time.
If the Suns are to truly make a playoff run, Ayton will have to elevate his game. He is their ceiling-raiser and the Suns seem to know it. Chris Paul in particular is always in his ear, trying to get the most out of him. Paul has a history of getting the most out of the bigs around him with David West, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Clint Capela all serving as testimonials.
The Suns will need Ayton to match up against the likes of Nikola Jokic, Anthony Davis and Rudy Gobert. The Suns don’t have other options to guard those guys. Their backup big is small-ball center Dario Saric, who has been excellent coming off the bench but won’t be able to defend that caliber of big man.
The Suns are one of the Western Conference has a handful of teams who legitimately feel this is their year. Their title hopes could land on the broad shoulders of DeAndre Ayton.
NBA veterans are offseason targets for LeBron James and Lakers
From Bleacher Report’s Jake Fischer, the reporter mentioned, “Lakers have a ton of veteran-type players ready and interested to come sign on minimum deals.” Now, this is not necessarily breaking news near the end of July, but this gives fans a reason to believe that Los Angeles is going all in this offseason to win their eighteenth championship next season. Concerning trade rumor speculation, the Trail Blazers, Kings, Wizards, Lakers, and Suns have all been involved and mentioned by NBA analysts across the Internet.
LeBron James is turning 37-years-old this December, and Anthony Davis suffered a few injuries last season, such as a strained calf and groin. Davis is a 9-year NBA veteran, but of course, him and James are not getting any younger. As they continue to age, these players will be placed at a greater risk of sustaining more injuries. The organization will need all the fire power they can acquire this offseason, if they hope to remain at the top of the competition in the Western Conference.
According to another report by Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer, the Los Angeles Lakers have “stepped up their efforts” in their pursuit of Kings‘ shooting guard Buddy Hield by including the No. 22 pick to an existent trade deal that would also be comprised of Montrezl Harrell and either Kyle Kuzma or Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Harrell has a player option this offseason, and he may even be interested in playing in Sacramento.
Sources say he has strong connections with Kings’ developmental coach Rico Hines. On November 22, 2020, the 27-year-old center/power forward signed as a free agent with the Lakers. The contract he signed was a two-year, $19 million deal. Regarding the trade rumors, Harrell reacted on Twitter tweeting, “Lmaoo this is wild man!”
Lmaoo this is wild man! 😂😂😂
— Montrezl Harrell (@MONSTATREZZ) July 28, 2021
Last season on the Lakers, Harrell averaged 13.5 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 1.1 assists in 69 games. In 71 games played in the 2020-21 NBA season, Hield averaged 16.6 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 3.6 assists. The 28-year-old Bahamian also shot 40.6 percent from the field last season. On October 21, 2019, Hield signed a four-year, $94 million contract extension with the Kings. He will earn $22.4 million next season.
This news about Hield comes one week after the story broke concerning Wizards’ guard Russell Westbrook’s potential trade to the Lakers. The trade was pertaining to a Westbrook sign-and-trade for Kyle Kuzma, Dennis Schroder, and Talen Horton-Tucker. Suns’ guard Chris Paul was another mentioned player target on the Lakers’ offseason list. In 65 games played last season, Westbrook averaged 22.2 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 11.7 assists. The 13-year NBA veteran led the league in turnovers last season (312), but he also has the most career triple-doubles (184) and the highest assist percentage in the league (48.6 percent).
Westbrook is also projected to lead the league in assists and triple-doubles in the upcoming season as well. He finished his performance last season with 38 triple-doubles, the second most in a season in his NBA career. On December 2, 2020, the 32-year-old point guard was traded from the Houston Rockets to the Washington Wizards for John Wall and a 2023 first-round pick. However, Westbrook is set to earn $44.2 million in the 2021-22 season. Lakers GM Rob Pelinka will have to make a big decision on this one.
Additionally, Chris Paul, who finished third in assists per game (8.9) last season, is set to earn $44.2 million in the upcoming season, too. This amount is recognized as Paul’s player option. Either way, the organization might have to overpay for their talent. Referencing Spotrac, the current contracts of Davis and James consume nearly 63 percent of the Lakers’ total salary cap. If Kuzma and Caldwell-Pope get traded, this will clear up $26 million of cap space.
Plus, Harrell’s salary represents almost 8 percent of the team’s total salary cap. With all things considered, the Lakers are much better off working out a trade with the Kings to acquire Hield rather than Paul or Westbrook. Team chemistry is a notable factor in this discussion, and LeBron might not be on board with an isolation-style player, similar to that of Westbrook. Head coach Frank Vogel hinted back in earlier January that randomness was the key to the team’s offensive scheme.
Mike D’Antoni to step away as Nets assistant coach
On Wednesday evening, the Brooklyn Nets organization announced that assistant coach Mike D’Antoni would not be returning to Steve Nash’s coaching staff for the 2021-22 NBA season. Coach D’Antoni is deciding to step down from his position after one season spent with the organization. The reason D’Antoni is deciding to leave the team is unknown. In late June, D’Antoni met with the Portland Trail Blazers for the vacant head-coaching position; he was interviewed twice.
From ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the 70-year-old veteran coach is still seeking to pursue another job as head coach. Coach Nash commented on the story stating, “I will forever be grateful for his guidance and will carry on a lifetime of lessons from the many years we’ve spent together. Our players and staff all benefited from this time in Brooklyn and we wish Mike, Laurel, and their family the very best in what lies ahead.” This news has personally shocked Nash, considering their history together.
Brooklyn Nets assistant Mike D’Antoni is stepping away from a full-time coaching role on Steve Nash’s staff, sources tell ESPN. D’Antoni is expected to pursue head coaching jobs again in the future. He was a finalist for the Portland opening this year.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) July 28, 2021
— Brooklyn Nets (@BrooklynNets) July 28, 2021
In his 16-year NBA head coaching career, D’Antoni’s W-L record is 718-555 (.564). Despite never winning an NBA championship, D’Antoni won the 2005 Coach of the Year award with the Phoenix Suns when Nash was his star point guard, and he won his second award while coaching the Houston Rockets in 2017. The 2004-05 Suns finished 62-20 (.756), ranking first in the Pacific Division and first overall in the Western Conference. However, the Suns went on to lose four games to one against the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals.
The 2017-18 Rockets ended their season 65-17 (.793), ranking first in the Southwest Division and first in the Western Conference Finals. Though, once again, D’Antoni’s team came up short, losing in Game 7 versus the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals. Coach D’Antoni was also the NBA All-Star Game head coach in 2007 and 2018. Moreover, the Nets lost another assistant coach this offseason after the Boston Celtics hired Ime Udoka to become their next head coach. On July 9, 2021, the Nets hired former Trail Blazers assistant coach David Vanterpool to their coaching staff.
NBA Draft: Déjà Vu in Detroit
Tomorrow night the Detroit Pistons will make the first overall selection in the NBA Draft for just the second time in team history. They selected a Hall of Famer with that pick 51 years ago. Chad Smith details why it might happen again, this time with a player that resembles a guy that was once the face of their franchise.
It has been 18 years since the Detroit Pistons had a top-three pick in the NBA Draft. Unfortunately, it was arguably the worst selection in the history of the event as they took Darko Milicic second overall ahead of Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. It was a night that everyone in Detroit would love to forget, and now they might be able to do just that.
Detroit will kick off the 2021 NBA Draft on Thursday night in what has been labeled as a loaded draft class, especially at the top. The last time the Pistons had the top overall pick, they did well by selecting Hall of Fame center Bob Lanier out of St. Bonaventure in the 1970 draft. The organization is hopeful that history will repeat itself.
Cade Cunningham is the consensus number one pick this year, which speaks volumes when considering the other candidates. While Detroit has not publicly hinted that they will take Cunningham, it would be an absolute shocker if he does not end up in the Motor City. It is a place that Cunningham has already grown fond of.
Cade Cunningham on his impressions of the city of Detroit pic.twitter.com/jIXItQYGx7
— Rod Beard (@detnewsRodBeard) July 23, 2021
Should things go according to plan on Thursday night, there could be some déjà vu in Detroit. Aside from the Darko debacle, the last top-three selection by the franchise came in 1994 when they took Grant Hill out of Duke. The physical attributes are quite clear. Both players are listed at 6’ 8” tall and around 220 pounds. Just as their build is the same, so too is their demeanor on and off of the court.
Both Cunningham and Hill have similar playing styles and share many of the same strengths and weaknesses. They have incredible vision and passing ability that allows them to create for teammates. They use their size and strength against smaller defenders near the basket and are incredibly versatile with the ball in their hands. They are able to initiate offense from anywhere on the floor and have a complete all-around game that includes defense.
Cade Cunningham projects as a mid-post killer due to his size, footwork & touch inside of 15 feet. Really effective with his face-up shimmy, can get to jump hooks with either hand and has the makings of a turnaround game. More on Cunningham's go-to moves. https://t.co/dptqk6czxG pic.twitter.com/uiK7LQyNlo
— Mike Schmitz (@Mike_Schmitz) July 24, 2021
Hill recorded 29 triple-doubles in his career. That is something that Detroit hopes to get out of the 19-year old playmaker. Unlike many situations where the top overall pick finds himself on a team lacking talent, the Pistons have done a marvelous job of transforming their roster under Troy Weaver. Most of their core is already under contract for next season and will be earning less than $6 million.
Cunningham will join Jerami Grant and Mason Plumlee, as well as two All-Rookies in Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart. With Killian Hayes missing much of his rookie season due to injury, the Pistons have plenty of talent surrounding their new floor general. With some more talent and veteran leadership possibly coming onboard during free agency, Detroit should be able to return to the postseason next year.
As gifted as Cunningham is, he is not the most explosive athlete for his size. He won’t blow by defenders on the perimeter or leap over them for a highlight dunk, but that doesn’t stop him from attacking the basket. Like Hill, he has shown the ability to either create for teammates, create for himself, or simply finish at the rim. He makes the right reads against traps and hard hedges, making him even more difficult to defend.
The versatility is on full display whether it be on offense or defense. Cunningham’s seven-foot wingspan adds another element to his game as a physical defender with active hands. His high basketball IQ allows him to capitalize on filling passing lanes and his timing on shot-blocking. His improved jump shot has also elevated him as a true dynamic threat, scoring from all three levels.
Cade Cunningham is the most complete basketball player that I can remember coming into the draft. pic.twitter.com/lZpkwsbimk
— Jay Bilas (@JayBilas) July 28, 2021
As a Freshman at Oklahoma State, Cunningham averaged 20.1 points, 6.2 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.6 steals per game while shooting 44 percent from the floor. He plays under control and never looks rushed or uncomfortable. It may take him some time to adjust to the NBA game but he has all of the tools and attributes you would want a top prospect to possess.
The fit in Detroit is tailor-made for the versatile guard. Cunningham can do a little bit of everything and elevates the play of his teammates. Whether he is facilitating, scoring, or playing off the ball, his impact on the court is significant. Despite not being an elite athlete, he can initiate the offense and get his own shot when needed.
Detroit clearly lacked guard play last season, with Hayes out of the lineup. They relied upon Grant and Plumlee to fuel their offense, with the rookies filling in at times. With the addition of Cunningham and the return of Hayes, the Pistons will have a sensational young backcourt to go along with their already established frontcourt.
There is also the potential for Detroit to have one of the most improved defenses in the conference. With their length and athleticism, this young core fits right in with the culture of a blue-collar team built around defense. Much of their success will ride on the shoulders of Dwane Casey, as he returns for his fourth season in Detroit.
Both Hill and Cunningham are from Texas and their birth dates are just ten days apart. Hill spent his first six seasons in Detroit, where he enjoyed the prime years of his playing career that included the Rookie of the Year Award. Five of his seven All-Star seasons came as a member of the Pistons and he was often seen as the next great superstar.
While injuries derailed his career, Hill’s journey ended with a trip to the Hall of Fame. While it is too early to put those expectations on a 19-year old, it is safe to say that the Pistons are in good hands for many years to come.
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