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NBA Daily: Fixing The Phoenix Suns

Matt John continues Basketball Insiders’ “Fixing” series by taking a look at the Phoenix Suns, who have basically stayed in the same place since they started their rebuild in 2015.

Matt John

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Basketball Insiders continues it’s “Fixing” series for teams who have been eliminated from playoff contention. Today’s team: the Phoenix Suns.

The Suns shifted into a full rebuild in 2015. Four years later, the roster makeup has changed, but their state remains the same. In what may have been the tightest playoff race we may have ever seen from the Western Conference, Phoenix was the one team early on who was doomed to fail from the start.

What Is Working

Devin Booker. Besides that, not much else.

Okay, that over-generalization is a little harsh. Not everything in Phoenix outside of Booker has been a disappointment. In fact, a few things have gone right for Phoenix. Keyword being few.

First, is their rookie class. So much was made of how exceptionally deep this year’s draft was that its first overall pick – Deandre Ayton – had a rookie season that fell under the radar. It’s hard to get noticed when you’re on one of the worst teams in the league. In Ayton’s case, he didn’t make the same headlines as Luka Doncic, Trae Young, Jaren Jackson or Marvin Bagley III. He did, however, do enough to make Phoenix believe they have something good on its hands.

Averaging 16/10 in your first rookie season is pretty impressive no matter how your team does. Ayton’s 10.3 rebounds per game ranked 14th overall in the league and his 58.5 field goal percentage ranked him ninth overall in the league. Even if it didn’t amount to much, those achievements point to a very promising future for Deandre.

It is very possible that Ayton does not have as prosperous of a career as his fellow top-five 2018 draftees, but he’s shown that he’s far from a Darko – or a “Thabeet” type.

There’s also Mikal Bridges. His stats won’t jump out at you – 8.2 points on 43.2 percent shooting and 33.7 percent shooting from three – but the fact that the Suns are plus-4.1 with him on the court shows that Bridges is a keeper.

There there’s who they acquired this season. Many have given Phoenix’s front office grief for some of the moves they’ve made since they decided to rebuild, but stealing Kelly Oubre Jr. from Washington for an aging Trevor Ariza – who had no business being there in the first place – had to be one of the better ripoff trades that nobody paid much attention to.

Oubre’s been excellent since he arrived in the desert. He’s put up almost 17 points a game on 45.3 percent shooting (a career-best) while averaging nearly five rebounds a game. His play has been so encouraging that it’s almost unbelievable that all he was cost was Ariza.

Last, but certainly not least, is Devin Booker.

We already knew Booker was a scoring sensation. We just didn’t know that he was capable of being more than that. Many will bring up his career-highs in both his scoring output (26.6 points a game) and efficiency (46.6 field goal percentage) to show that he’s the real deal. However, what’s most impressive is that when the Suns decided to run the point through him, he ran with it.

Booker’s 1.64 assist to turnover ratio placed him 84th in the league, which won’t turn any heads. Still, dishing out 6.8 assists per game and having an assist percentage of 34 percent when you are designated as a shooting guard shows that there’s more to Devin’s game. Of course, we can’t talk about the guy without mentioning his late-season explosion.

Before his ankle injury the other night, Devin was going off. In the month of March, Booker averaged 34 points on 49/34/88 splits, with his standout performances coming in the last three games, where he put up point totals of 59, 50, and 48.

That didn’t translate into much success for the Suns. They went 5-11 in March and lost every game where Booker had 48 or more. This has brought up a question that many are sure to bring up over the next few years: Is Devin Booker an effective player?

There’s no definite answer to that question presently. Hopefully, there will be when and if they surround Booker with a better roster. Phoenix has a special talent in its young shooting guard. The question the team may have to ask itself is how much patience will he have?

What Needs To Change

Pretty much everything. When you are 27th in offensive rating and 29th in defensive rating, that means an upgrade at pretty much every facet is needed.

The one silver lining is that Phoenix was dead last in both categories last season, which means there’s been some improvement. Devil’s advocate would say that since the Suns have hovered around the bottom ten in both offensive and defensive rating over the past three seasons, that casts some strong doubt as to whether the Suns have made any real progress.

It doesn’t look good when you see where the team places in individual categories. The Suns are the worst three-point shooting team in the league. They are the worst rebounding team in the league. They rank behind only Atlanta in most turnovers on average. They rank behind only Cleveland for highest opponents field goal percentage and are behind only Cleveland and Minnesota for highest opponent three-point field goal percentage.

Here’s where it gets odd. Despite having the league’s 27th-rated offense, the Suns have the 16th-highest field goal percentage in the league (45.9 percent). Despite having the league’s 29th-rated defense, the Suns rank second in steals per game (8.9) and are tied for 13th in blocks per game (5.1).

So it sounds like the offense isn’t a total disaster and there is a legitimate effort on defense. It’s just not leading to any favorable results. There are no quick fixes for the Suns, but there are ways in which they can translate their efforts into victories.

Get a Point Guard – Credit to Booker for doing what he could, but he needs someone who can handle the offense in the backcourt beside him. Booker posted a career-low in three-point percentage at 32.6 percent. If he has a point guard who can find him in the right spot, his efficiency as a shooter could improve drastically.

The Suns tied for 18th in assists per game despite not really having a true point guard on the roster. That would be impressive if it weren’t for the previously mentioned low offensive rating. Getting a point guard who can help the offense pick its spots can help it reach new heights.

Get a three-point shooter – Outside of T.J. Warren and Troy Daniels – who both played less than 50 games – the Suns did not have any player who shot 36 percent from distance or better. Booker is enough of a scoring threat and an underrated distributor that having three-point shooters will force opponents to stay on their heels.

That is easier said than done, but the Suns’ offense could see a lot of improvement if they just had more floor spacing around their young star.

Get a rebounder – The Suns’ rebounding issues may have very well contributed to their defensive issues. Phoenix surrendered the highest average of offensive rebounds a game with 11.7, which led to them giving up the most second-chance points in the league with 15.3.

Ayton’s proven he can get on the boards, but he can’t do it alone. If the Suns add someone who can give him help in that department, the defense could take another step forward.

There are more problems on this squad than just the ones mentioned above, but these are the most basic holes that Phoenix needs to have filled.

Focus Area: Free Agency

Even after trading Ryan Anderson’s team-friendly deal for Tyler Johnson’s bloated contract, Phoenix should have a fair amount of cap flexibility on its hands.

With Tyson Chandler, Austin Rivers, Darrell Arthur and Wayne Ellington among others all coming off the books, Phoenix will have a shade under $87 million on its cap. Some of that free cash should go into a possible extension for Kelly Oubre Jr.

Oubre’s inflated numbers have come at just the right time since he’ll be a restricted free agent and hence, will probably have a fair amount of suitors. More teams will have money this season and may look to spend their money elsewhere when the big fish are off the table. His shooting percentages are not and never have been the prettiest, but Oubre has shown that he is a fit. Don’t be surprised if he winds up staying long-term.

With the Suns not picking up Dragan Bender’s player option for next season, his return isn’t likely. Troy Daniels, Richaun Holmes and Jamal Crawford’s returns are all up in the air. Phoenix could take or leave any of them.

Even though they should have cap room, the Suns’ lack of success will probably prevent them from being serious bidders for the best free agents on the open market. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be on the lookout for productive players who could come on a bargain.

One player who could be the ideal target would be Clippers forward JaMychal Green. With LA hoping to get in the sweepstakes for a star or two, Green just might be available if the Clippers’ plans succeed.

Green would solve a fair amount of the Suns’ problems by himself. Not only is he a career 36.6 percent shooter from three, but his rebounding numbers per-36 (10) are excellent for a guy his size, and have steadily gotten better every season. With presumably more minutes with the Suns, he’d show the league what he’s made of.

Focus Area: Draft

By finishing with one of the three worst records in the NBA, Phoenix has a 14 percent chance of getting the first overall pick in the draft while also having a 42.1 percent chance of getting a top-four pick. If they get No. 1, then things get a little interesting.

Zion Williamson is believed to be the best prospect to come out of this draft and one of the best prospects the league has had in years. Phoenix would be foolish not to take him obviously, but they should not brush off their point guard issues. Williamson is undisputedly going to have the most glorious career in the draft, but Ja Morant showed he’s no slouch in the NCAA tournament this season. It is worth pondering who to take if it came to that.

Now if the Suns get No. 2, then they’ll have no problem taking whoever is left between the two. If it’s No. 3 or lower, then Phoenix will have a conundrum.

There are some appealing prospects after Williamson and Morant, but they are not sure things. Cam Reddish, RJ Barrett, and De’Andre Hunter have something to offer. The problem is that their cloudy ceilings will make the Suns have to gamble, which has not worked out too often for them in the past.

The Suns do not have the best track record when it’s come to the draft in recent years. After hitting a bullseye with Booker – in a season in which they weren’t trying to tank – they then whiffed on Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender, then selected an enigma in Josh Jackson before getting Ayton.

The Suns have had four picks in the top eight over the last three years, and the only one who looks like a sure thing is Ayton. If they don’t get a top-2 pick, then the pressure will increase tenfold.

Some rebuilds are quite short while others take seemingly forever. In the Suns’ case, their rebuild has taken longer probably than they would have liked. Everyone involved in the franchise wants to see the team take its next step forward.

That just might come from this summer if they play their cards right.

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

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Simple Problems With Difficult Solutions

Matt John takes a look at three teams that need to address weaknesses in their rosters and the challenges each team faces in doing so.

Matt John

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Remember when Carmelo Anthony was out of the NBA? That seems so long ago now even though his stint in Portland started less than a month ago.

Let’s go back to that time. In ‘Melo’s almost one-year exodus from the NBA, fans, media, and even players alike were begging for his return. To be fair, this was based more on his reputation as one of the best scorers of his time rather than his recent play with his previous two teams.

Looking back, it was a little odd that for almost an entire year, absolutely no one wanted to roll the dice on Carmelo. Not even on a non-guaranteed contract. But, what was even odder was that although he had plenty of advocates on his side, said advocates couldn’t collectively decide which team really needed him.

At this stage in his career, it was a little tricky to figure out what role he could play because it wasn’t clear how much he had left in the tank or how he’d adapt to his decline after his underwhelming performances with both Oklahoma City and Houston. There was a lot of demand for Carmelo to come back to the NBA. Where he should make his comeback was the question.

Of course, now, we’ve seen that Carmelo can still bring it – so far – if given the right opportunity. The simple problem, in this case, was that Carmelo needed another chance in the NBA. The difficult solution was that, at the time, there was no clear-cut team that would have been perfect for him to go.

That brings us to this season. We are approaching the 1/4th mark in the NBA regular season and now we’re starting to see the true colors of some of these teams. The following teams have simple problems that need to be fixed. At the same time, how they’re going to solve them will be tough to figure out.

San Antonio Spurs

With every minute that passes, the playoff odds are looking less and less in the Spurs’ favor. When was the last time anyone said that about San Antonio? 1996? The naysayers have been dreaming of this day for longer than Vince Carter’s entire career, but this might just be the moment they’ve been waiting for – the end of an era.

San Antonio is currently 8-14, they have a point differential of minus-4.0, and worst of all, they’ve played one of the easiest schedules in the NBA. Maybe it would be different if Davis Bertans or Marcus Morris were around, but that doesn’t change that it’s only going to get harder from here.

Twenty-two games into the season and it’s clear the Spurs’ established stars – DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge – do not mesh well with one other, sporting a net rating of minus-7.2 together. Any three-man lineup with DeRozan/Aldridge plus one of Dejounte Murray, Bryn Forbes, and Derrick White has a frighteningly negative net rating – all are minus-7.3 or lower.

It gets worse. Both DeRozan and Aldridge have very negative net ratings – Spurs are minus-10.5 with Aldridge on the court, minus-13.3 with DeRozan. All three of Murray, White, and Forbes have negative net ratings as well, but why it looks worse for the former All-Stars is because those two are supposed to be the main ingredients of a projected playoff team and they’re most certainly not that right now.

Trading them would be the advisable next step but to who is the million-dollar question. Both of them are really good players. They’re just not great players. They’re both lethal scorers. Both of them can put up 20-30 points on any given night. The real issue is that even if they put up their usual numbers, that doesn’t always equate to a win. If you don’t believe that, look at the Spurs’ record again.

Aldridge would be easier to trade on paper because his contract is more favorable since it’s guaranteed for next season, but potentially trading for DeRozan is a little more delicate of a situation. DeMar has a player option after this season, which can be a catch-22 for players like him. If he plays well, he’ll opt out of the contract and go for his next payday. If he doesn’t, he’ll opt-in and drag the cap down another season.

That makes it harder for teams to invest assets for a guy like him. He would usually be worth more if his contract was longer, but the risk of him leaving after less than one season is too big to give up something good for him. There are teams that could definitely use the offensive boost that DeMar provides, but they may not have the matching contracts nor be willing to offer the young value that the Spurs would want in a deal.

Some retooling definitely looks in order for San Antonio, but this situation is a lot more complicated than it was last year.

Boston Celtics

At 15-5, the Celtics are both exceeding expectations and are fun to watch. In other words, they look like a Brad Stevens team again.

Boston’s offense has looked much-improved thanks to both better production from Brown, Hayward and Jayson Tatum as well as letting their most egregious ball stoppers walk. By having less pure scorers on the team, there are a lot more touches to go around, which has made the offense look more fluid than it did last year.

What’s more surprising than their more team-oriented offense is their stingy defense. The Celtics have the sixth-best defensive rating, allowing 104 points per 100 possessions, despite losing Al Horford and Aron Baynes.

Marcus Smart’s ability to cover just about anyone on the basketball court provides so much cushion for them on the defensive end. Brown, Hayward, and Jayson Tatum have all been stingy switchable wings that make life harder for opponents. Even guys like Semi Ojeleye and Grant Williams have proven to be passable options as undersized centers.

Even their pure bigs haven’t been that bad. Daniel Theis has been excellent as the team’s most reliable rim protector, allowing opponents to shoot just 52 percent at the rim, and Enes Kanter has the third-best net rating among rotation players, as Boston is plus-5.6 with him on the floor.

Despite that, no matter how good this Celtics crew may look, the knock on them will be the same until they change it: They need an upgrade in the frontcourt.

Theis has been about as good as the Celtics could have hoped for from him, but as of now he can only reasonably be counted on for 20-25 minutes at most. The Celtics have done a great job covering Kanter’s holes, but is that going to hold up in the postseason? Robert Williams III has made substantial progress, but the young mistakes he makes demonstrate that he’s still a year or two away.

Boston has been better than what many thought they would be, but they’d rest easy knowing they had another dependable option in their frontcourt.

Where do they get one though? They don’t have any expendable contracts to give up in a deal. They’ve made it clear that neither Hayward nor Smart are going anywhere, and for good reason. The only other big contract they have on the books is Kemba Walker, and they’re definitely not trading him.

Since Theis and Kanter get paid $5 million each, it’s hard to combine them for an upgrade because the hypothetical upgrade they would need would cost more than that. Since those two are Boston’s most proven bigs, it’d be hard to see them getting rid of both. Their only option might be the buyout market in February, which is a risky game to play.

As good as Boston has been, they haven’t squelched the fears surrounding their frontcourt issues. It only makes you wonder what this team would look like if they still had Al Horford.

Memphis Grizzlies

They may not be a good team right now, and probably won’t be a good team for a couple of years, but how can you not like this young Memphis Grizzlies team?

They’ve hit two consecutive bulls-eyes with Jaren Jackson Jr. and Ja Morant. They’ve got some good complementary veterans in Jonas Valanciunas and Jae Crowder as well as good complementary young guys like Brandon Clarke and Dillion Brooks.

It might be weird to say this, but even though they are one of the worst teams in the league, they’re ahead of schedule. The pieces are in place. They are forming a good culture. They probably will get another high lottery pick depending on what record they finish with. It’s a far cry from the Grit-n-Grind era, but the promise the young Grizzlies possess is undeniable.

There’s only one elephant in the room – Andre Iguodala. He’s been an issue that they’ve been avoiding ever since they acquired a first-round pick by adding his “services.” The word “issue” should be taken with a huge grain of salt because it’s not really causing any disruption. Iguodala wants to play for a winner, and Memphis wants to get something good for him.

It makes all the sense in the world. Neither side owes the other anything. Iguodala shouldn’t be spending what’s left of his career on a team that just pressed the reset button. Memphis shouldn’t let a guy with his skillset go if he can be had for something. Even at almost 36, Iggy is still a valuable player.

Besides the fact that no one is going to offer a first-round pick for a role player in his mid-30’s on an expiring deal, the biggest issue for the Grizzlies is that hardly any team vying for his services has an expendable matching contract to trade for Andre and his $17+ million contract.

Most teams who have expendable deals in the NBA are ones that don’t have any use for Andre because they’re not going anywhere. Atlanta, Cleveland, Charlotte, Detroit are all teams that have guys on overpaid deals that are worth giving up, but the likelihood that they go for a guy like him with the place they are at now isn’t likely.

Teams like the Clippers, Blazers or HEAT could certainly put themselves in the bidding, but that would require sacrificing guys who are thriving in their rotation, like Meyers Leonard, Moe Harkless, or Kent Bazemore.

The one option that makes sense is Dallas. They have a player currently out of their rotation that is being paid enough to be used to get Andre – Courtney Lee. They definitely need some help along the wing, and Iguodala would bring championship experience to a team that has exceeded all reasonable expectations.

What Dallas might do is try to see if they can get a better overall player since the team has both Lee’s and Tim Hardaway Jr’s contracts that can be used to acquire a star. They don’t have a lot of assets, but that may be worth looking into first before looking at Iguodala.

Releasing Iguodala would be Memphis’ last resort, which they don’t want to do, but finding an acceptable trade partner is going to be difficult especially if they want to get something back for him. The longer they wait, the lesser the value.

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Summer League Standouts Faring Well

Jordan Hicks takes a look back at some of the most notable All-Summer League Team players and discusses the contributions they’ve made up to this point in the NBA season.

Jordan Hicks

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The NBA season is in full swing and players are seeing their impact being felt throughout the league. Veterans continue to lead their respective franchises, and role players continue doing what they can to push the scales in their team’s favor.

While the more tenured professionals capture the bulk of the headlines, the first and second-year players often go unnoticed. There’s the occasional breakout star here and there, but for the most part, the young guys do what they can to find time on the court and help their club in any meaningful way.

Every summer, the NBA hosts the now-famous tournament in Nevada, the Las Vegas Summer League, where the stage is open for up-and-coming players to make their first mark in the NBA. Year after year, some newcomers supply the NBA loyalists with enough highlights to keep them happy until mid-October.

At the close of the tournament, a handful of players will make the All-Summer League Team – similar to an All-NBA Team for the regular season. Let’s take a look at how a handful of the All-Summer League Team members have fared this season and what their potential outlook looks like moving forward.

Brandon Clarke — First Team

The former college All-American out of Gonzaga University had quite the impact in his Summer League debut. Not only did he earn first-team All-Summer League honors, but he also took home the Summer League MVP and Tournament MVP, too. He was a statistical monster and a clear reason why the Memphis Grizzlies took home the coveted — to some at least — Summer League Championship trophy.

Clarke currently finds himself in a sixth man-style role. He’s sixth in the team in minutes per game and is doing plenty in that span. He’s averaging 11.8 points on 63 percent from the field and a more impressive 45.5 percent from three. He’s also bringing in 5.9 boards and just under a block [er game. His effective field goal percentage of 66.4 percent is currently good for fifth-best in the entire NBA.

In per 36 minutes, that would be 20.1 points, 10 rebounds and 1.6 blocks on average. He’s not getting starter minutes just yet, but it’s more than safe to say that the Memphis Grizzlies are receiving incredible value out of their 21st overall pick.

Nickeil Alexander-Walker — First Team

Selected with the 17th overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, Alexander-Walker contributed in a big way during the Summer League in Las Vegas. His athleticism is clearly a strong suit but his tenacity on the court is what helps him get minutes.

He’s playing a tad over 14 minutes per game for the New Orleans Pelicans thus far, netting 6.5 points and 2.1 assists on average. New Orleans’ roster is flooded with talented guards, so it’s no surprise Alexander-Walker isn’t getting more minutes, but he seems to be doing an admirable job with the minutes Alvin Gentry gives him.

In a loss to Miami a few weeks back, Alexander-Walker went 6-of-9 from three and finished with 27 points. He followed that performance with 19 points and 4 assists in a win against the Golden State Warriors. His minutes have been sporadic so far, but he’s contributed when given a chance. As the season goes on, look for Alexander-Walker to find more time in Gentry’s lineups.

Kendrick Nunn — First Team

Perhaps the biggest surprise of all the young players this season, Nunn has proven to be quite a threat on the offensive side of the court. He’s averaging 15.3 points per game, good for third on the talented Miami HEAT roster. He led the team with 22.4 points per game in October and was averaging 16.9 points through the first 10 games, but he’s cooled a bit.

For a team that was already planning on starting the season strong, the fact Nunn has managed to carve out 29.4 minutes per night is a testament to his nightly contributions. He has taken the confidence he earned from his Summer League accolades and is supplying the HEAT with stellar play on a nightly basis. There’s a chance his scoring will continue to die down a bit, but he’s already proven worthy of his roster spot in such a short amount of time.

Rui Hachimura — Second Team

The Washington Wizards are currently playing the fastest pace in the NBA and oddly enough have the fourth-best offense to date, too. Hachimura is a key reason for this.

He’s averaging 13.4 points on an effective field goal percentage of 50.4 percent. He’s also pulling down 5.6 boards and dishing out 1.7 assists per game. His season-high is 30 points on the road against the Los Angeles Clippers, and he’s scored in double-figures on 12 out of 19 games this season.

Hachimura’s long frame, coupled with his elite athleticism, allows him to get to the rim and create opportunities for himself as well as for his teammates. He’s still figuring the game out — his flaws on defense are easy to spot — but he has the ability to develop into a great basketball player.

Other recipients of Summer League honors include second-year players Mitchell Robinson, Lonnie Walker IV, Anfernee Simons and third-year player Jarrett Allen. Each of these guys has been producing for their respective teams in big ways.

The Las Vegas Summer League can sometimes be an interesting topic. Each year, second-year guys may or may not return to their Summer League squads and new faces abound. But if there’s anything that recent history has shown us, it’s that cream will always rise to the top. The guys that notch the All-Summer League honors will usually contribute to their teams almost immediately.

Each of these guys mentioned — and even the ones not discussed — will continue to cement their presence in the NBA and may very well become the regular season All-Stars of the future. It’s hard to decipher a player’s value based solely on box score statistics, but when one first enters the league, it’s never a bad thing to see the box score go up. For the young guys, it’s all about finding comfort and learning in which ways they can contribute best. Some may end up being the scorer, while others will develop into a defensive savant or playmaking maestro.

Whatever the future holds, remember the names above. They all have a solid chance of being the face of a franchise someday.

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NBA Daily: Three Veterans Reviving Their Careers

As the league continues to evolve, three players have revived their careers by changing the way they play. Chad Smith examines the mental aspect of these changes and how they are helping their new teams.

Chad Smith

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Life is all about second chances and what you do with them. Basketball isn’t much different in that regard, as most players and coaches will tell you much of their success is about opportunity. Sometimes a fresh start in a new environment is all you need, as three players, in particular, have proved so far this season.

Health is always a big part of these things, but there is so much more that goes into it. Basketball players are creatures of habit, and old habits can be very difficult to break. Changing your perspective on the type of player you are and changing your style of play simply cannot be done overnight. It takes a strong culture, the right people around you and acceptance to make it all work.

With nearly a quarter of the season in the books, there have been plenty of surprises and disappointments. When looking at the former, three guys stand out that many people thought were finished as NBA players, but are now reviving their careers after taking on a new role.

Carmelo Anthony, Portland Trail Blazers

The Carmelo experiment in Portland has gone very well for both sides. Two weeks in, the 10-time All-Star has relished his new role as another offensive weapon behind Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. The league announced on Monday that the 35-year-old had been named as the Western Conference Player of the Week — averaging 22.3 points, 7.7 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game — as Portland posted a perfect 3-0 record.

The last time Carmelo won the weekly award was March 10, 2014. Now seven games into his 2019-20 season, he is averaging 18 points, 6 rebounds and over 2 assists per game. His shooting percentages are above average, and he is being utilized much better than he was in Houston or Oklahoma City. He is not trying to carry the offense, but he is more than just a spot-up shooter.

Blazers head coach Terry Stotts has done a remarkable job of injecting Carmelo into the offense, and not altering it completely. By using his strengths on that end of the floor, it actually alleviates some pressure for Lillard and McCollum, while at the same time freeing up space inside for Hassan Whiteside to get better position. Everyone on the roster seems to be benefiting from Melo’s presence, and the team has reaped the rewards.

No one had doubts that Carmelo still had plenty of game left in the tank. The concerns were believed to be the inability to find a situation that was conducive to his mentality. Carmelo had been fighting the notion that he is not the same quality of player that he was in his prime, being above taking on a reserve role with a team. Now that he has bought in, everything has changed.

The 16-year veteran could be just what the doctor ordered for the ailing Trail Blazers. After a number of injuries and a slow start for McCollum had them searching for answers, Portland had the longest winning streak of any team in the Western Conference entering Tuesday night’s tilt with the LA Clippers. When Carmelo is willing to make the extra pass and doesn’t hesitate after getting the ball, Portland has found success.

Dwight Howard, Los Angeles Lakers

When Howard decided to return to the Lakers for a second stint this past summer, there were plenty of people skeptical of the move. The top overall pick of the 2004 draft has answered his critics in a resounding way. After several unsuccessful stops in Atlanta, Charlotte and Washington, he has finally been able to get his back healthy and return to the floor.

After a dominating start to his career in Orlando, where he was the face of the organization for eight seasons, Howard went to team up with Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles. The two did not see eye-to-eye, and he made his way to Houston the following year. The injuries began to pile up and his production suffered. Never known as a serious guy that had a laser focus on getting better, Howard made himself a target as the losses piled up — and his frustrations were made public.

Now in his 15th season, Howard has finally bought into the system. His role with this Lakers team is clearly defined, and he has accepted it. He has embraced it. He has played to his strengths, which is exactly what the Lakers need from him. He is a three-time Defensive Player of the Year. Five times he has finished with the most rebounds in the league. He has had the most blocks in two seasons and has been named to an All-Defensive team five times during his career. As he nears his 34th birthday, he has been fantastic on and off the court.

While averaging 8 points, 7 rebounds, and 2 blocks per game may not sound incredible, keep in mind that Howard is only playing around 20 minutes per game. The loaded frontcourt with Anthony Davis, JaVale McGee, LeBron James and Kyle Kuzma has played a significant role in that.

Just by watching Howard play, it is easy to see how much quicker and freely he is able to move on the floor. No longer plagued by back issues, he has been sprinting back on defense, running in transition, and finishing above the rim. The Lakers thought they would have the services of DeMarcus Cousins before the season began, but this may actually work out better for them in the long run.

Isaiah Thomas, Washington Wizards

The journey for Thomas has been much different. After struggling to find minutes, then thriving as the face of the Boston Celtics franchise for three years, IT found himself looking for a home after the hip injury that ended his tenure in Beantown after a deep playoff run.

The first stop came in Cleveland, where he was part of the trade package for Kyrie Irving. He was then sent to the LA Lakers where the fit simply didn’t work. He played just 32 total games during the 2017-2018 season and appeared in only 12 games for the Denver Nuggets after signing a free-agent deal. With his career hanging in the balance entering his age 30 season, Thomas found a new home in Washington.

Much like the two names mentioned above, Thomas has done exactly what the team has needed them to do. The Wizards knew they would be without their star point guard John Wall for the entire season. While they understood the backup role that Ish Smith would play, they needed another playmaker to draw the attention away from Bradley Beal. Fortunately for everyone involved, IT has been able to deliver so far this year.

The assist numbers for IT this year are on par with his average during his three seasons in Boston, which is a career high. The scoring obviously isn’t similar, but that is not what the Wizards need from him. Washington’s offense is a well-oiled machine that is humming along quite nicely. They have multiple guys that can score, and they do it from all areas of the court. The second-ranked scoring offense in the NBA is a clear indication that this team is more than just Beal.

Thomas may not be the same All-Star player that fueled the Celtics to the Eastern Conference Finals three years ago, but he has been playing his best basketball since that run.

Not bad for an undersized guy taken with the very last pick in the 2011 draft.

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