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NBA Daily: Looking Back on Phoenix’s Unlikely Playoff Path

As they make their first Conference Finals appearance in over a decade, Tristan Tucker takes an in-depth dive into the Phoenix Suns and how exactly the team took the league by storm.

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The year is 2019. The NBA season had just concluded, and with it, the Phoenix Suns stretched their playoff drought to nine seasons. There were some reasons for hope scattered across those years, but the team was coming off firing its fifth head coach in that span of nine years. From Alvin Gentry to Igor Kokoskov, the Suns just couldn’t seem to find the answer to their head coach conundrum. And then came Monty Williams.

With the Suns eliminating the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers and now sweeping the MVP-led Denver Nuggets, it’s a good time to reflect on how Phoenix got here. Like the Nuggets, and another western playoff contender, the Utah Jazz, the Suns built primarily through smart drafting and excellent free-agent decisions. Let’s take a closer look at how the Suns came to be.

Draft Developments

Of the team’s top six scorers, four of them were drafted by Phoenix. Devin Booker is the most notable Suns draftee on board. Originally an unsuspecting 13th overall pick out of Kentucky, Booker quickly became one of the deadliest players in the NBA. Booker was the lone bright spot of many Phoenix teams, especially across a stretch in which the team took Josh Jackson and Dragan Bender in the top five of their respective draft classes.

Even though he was drafted in 2015, Booker is younger than players like Mikal Bridges, who was drafted in 2018. Those seasons of experience and determination are finally playing dividends for Booker, the face of the franchise. In his first playoff showing, Booker is averaging 27.2 points, 6.3 rebounds and 4.9 assists while shooting 49.4 percent from the field and 39.6 percent from deep.

Outside of the obvious, the Suns have gotten great contributions from their other draft picks. While DeAndre Ayton might not be Luka Doncic, who the Suns passed over, Ayton isn’t making Phoenix regret its decision. Ayton is averaging 15.6 points and 11 rebounds per game in the playoffs while connecting at an outstanding 72.9 percent clip from the field. Ayton is tied for third on the team in defensive rating in the playoffs while leading the team by a healthy margin in offensive rating.

It’s due to Ayton’s hard work ethic that the Suns are as good as they are. In fact, when Ayton is the lead defender on Jokic, the MVP has just 40 points on 39.1 percent shooting from the floor and 20 percent from deep along with four turnovers. It’s hard to shut down someone as offensively fluent as Jokic, but Ayton is the closest thing to a brick wall that Jokic has seen this postseason.

Mikal Bridges should’ve been in the Most Improved Player conversation more than he was, as he took an outstanding leap this season after being taken alongside Ayton in the 2018 draft. Bridges blossomed into a three-level scorer in his third season, averaging 13.5 points on a 54.3/42.5/84 shooting line.

Phoenix’s other recent draftee making a splash is Cameron Johnson, who seemed like a huge reach at the time of the 2019 draft. But Johnson and Phoenix are having the last laugh, as Johnson has been able to be plugged in anywhere from the two to the four. Johnson’s production has tapered off a bit in the playoffs as the rotation shortened, but he’s still a consistent three-point shooter, as advertised. In his career, Johnson is averaging 5.2 three-point attempts per game and is connecting on 36.7 percent of those.

Trades

There’s no denying the phenomenal abilities of Chris Paul, but what he’s doing for Phoenix is otherworldly. In-game two against the Nuggets, Paul became the first player in NBA history to have three 15-assist, 0-turnover performances in the playoffs. What’s even wilder is that that mark was set in three different decades, in 2008 with the New Orleans Hornets, in 2014 with the Los Angeles Clippers and now, in 2021, with the Suns.

In exchange for Paul and Abdel Nader, the Suns sent the Oklahoma City Thunder Ricky Rubio, Kelly Oubre Jr., Ty Jerome, Jalen Lecque and a 2022 first-round pick. That’s what it cost for a likely Western Conference Finals appearance.

For a further illustration of Paul’s effect on teams, take a look at the change in win percentage for teams before and after he arrived. The New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets went from 18-64 (21.9 win percentage) in 2004-05 to 38-44 (46.3 percent) in his first season. The Clippers went from 32-50 (39 percent) to 40-26 (60.6 percent). The Houston Rockets went from 55-27 (67.1 percent) to 65-17 (79.3 percent). The Oklahoma City Thunder went from 49-33 (59.8 percent) to 44-28 (61.1 percent) and the Suns went from 34-39 (47.2) to 51-21 (70.8). Starting to notice a trend?

Paul’s average change in win percentage in his first season with a team is plus-16.8 percent, an absolutely absurd figure. If you remove that season with the Thunder, that change in win percentage jumps to plus-20.7 percent. However, that season with the Thunder might be Paul’s most impressive campaign. Regardless, it’s clear to see just how much Paul affects winning.

While the Paul trade was obviously phenomenal, the Suns have gotten solid value from lower-end trades. For starters, Phoenix got Torrey Craig from the Milwaukee Bucks at the trade deadline for pennies on the dollar. Craig, as detailed here, has given the Suns a defensive punch off the bench.

Craig is the quintessential three-and-D wing, averaging 7.2 points on 36.9 percent shooting from three with Phoenix. In the playoffs, Craig became the defensive specialist of the bench unit, usually playing alongside Cameron Payne and Johnson. While Craig isn’t someone to fill up the stat sheet, getting an energetic contributor in the playoffs for cash is an automatic win.

Jevon Carter is another bright spot from Phoenix’s trading, coming to the team in the 2019 offseason. The Suns departed with former top pick Josh Jackson, alongside De’Anthony Melton, in the trade but got back Carter. While Carter hasn’t been a big part of the rotation this season, he was a huge reason the team went 8-0 in the NBA bubble last season.

Free Agency

The best teams in NBA history play the free-agent market well and fill out their rotations with complementary pieces to boost their teams to the next level. The Phoenix Suns epitomize this with just two key moves that were some of the best in recent memory.

For starters, the Suns signed Jae Crowder in the shortened offseason fresh off his 2020 Finals run with the Miami HEAT. Phoenix got Crowder at an incredibly low $9.3 million price tag for this season and he’s delivering on that contract. Crowder isn’t the type of player to put up 20 points per game or be an excellent shooter, but he’s the perfect glue guy. The forward fits so well on any contender because of his excellent defensive abilities and his new-and-improved ability to knock down the three-ball.

In fact, Crowder is the perfect player to keep on the wings. He’s able to be a complete hound on defense, going up well against names like LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Then on offense, Crowder can typically rest in the corner or switch around the arc, pick up a pass from the lead guard and knock it down. 25.5 percent of Crowder’s three-point attempts are from the corner and he’s hitting those at a 40.2 percent clip.

However, Crowder isn’t the most impressive free-agent addition by the Suns. Once an afterthought, Cameron Payne became the ultimate role player and playoff hero for Phoenix. Named a Luke Walton All-Star by Zach Lowe of ESPN, Payne thought his career was over in 2020 after the Dallas Mavericks opted to sign Trey Burke before the bubble over him.

“This is why you can’t take nothing for granted in the NBA,” Payne told Lowe. “Appreciate the little things. They can be gone quick.”

It’s clear Payne took his own words to heart, as he ultimately helped to lift Phoenix over the defending champs. In the playoffs, Payne is not only averaging 10.9 points per game on 41.2 percent shooting from three but he’s also done the ever-important job of holding down the fort without Paul on the floor.

In the regular season, Payne quickly earned the trust of the coaching staff and finished with a plus-10 net rating per 100 possessions. Moves like the Payne signing are what make good teams great. Finding diamonds in the rough is a legitimate skill and clearly, it’s paying dividends for the Suns.

My name is Tristan Tucker and I am a basketball writer currently enrolled at North Carolina State University. I am the school paper's assistant sports editor and have written for SB Nation and Fansided. I joined Basketball Insiders in December of 2020.

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Grizzlies trade Jonas Valanciunas to Pelicans for Eric Bledsoe, Steven Adams

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According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Andrew Lopez, the New Orleans Pelicans are shipping guard Eric Bledsoe, center Steven Adams, the Nos. 10 and 40 picks of the 2021 NBA Draft, and two future first-round picks to the Memphis Grizzlies for center Jonas Valanciunas and the Nos. 17 and 51 picks of this week’s upcoming draft. So, the Pelicans are giving up the Lakers’ 2022 first-round pick. Valanciunas, the 29-year-old veteran center, averaged 17.1 points, 12.5 rebounds, and 1.8 assists per game in 62 games played throughout the 2020-21 season. He also shot 59 percent from the field. The seven-foot Lithuanian also ranks fourth overall in true shooting percentage (.616) among active players. On July 11, 2019, Valanciunas signed a three-year, $45 million contract with the Grizzlies. He is set to earn $4 million next season.

Additionally, in 71 games played last season, Bledsoe averaged 12.2 points, 3.4 rebounds, and 3.8 assists. The six-foot-one guard also shot 42.1 percent from the field in the 2020-21 season. On November 23, 2020, as part of a four-team trade, Bledsoe and Adams were traded to the Pelicans from the Oklahoma City Thunder, along with two future first-round picks and the right to swap two additional first-round picks. Last season, in 71 games played, Bledsoe averaged 12.2 points, 3.4 rebounds, and 3.8 assists. His field goal percentage was 42.1 percent as well. The 11-year veteran is set to earn $18,125,000 in the 2021-22 season. Before he was traded to New Orleans, on March 4, 2019, the guard signed a four-year, $70 million extension. He earned his first All-Defensive second-team selection in the 2019-20 season.

Moreover, in 58 games played last season, Adams averaged 7.6 points, 8.9 rebounds, and 1.9 assists per game. The six-foot-eleven center ranks fifth among active players for effective field goal shooting percentage (.591). The eight-year veteran also ranks third in offensive rebounding percentage, with an active statistic of 14 percent. On November 23, 2020, the same day Adams was traded to the Pelicans, he signed a two-year, $35 million extension. For next season, he is projected to earn $17,073,171. To add to this trade news, the Grizzlies and Pelicans are swapping second-round picks in this year’s draft, too. Referencing NBA.com’s “Consensus Mock Draft” article, with the No. 10 pick of the draft, the Pelicans were originally expected to draft either Josh Giddey or Davion Mitchell at this number. However, plans have now changed.

From ESPN’s Bobby Marks, the trade will not be finalized until August 6th, and this is because of the annual salaries of these said players. Free agency will begin on August 2, 6:00 p.m. (EST). Furthermore, per Spotrac’s 2021-22 NBA salary cap table, next season’s luxury tax threshold is $136,606,000. The team’s current available luxury tax space is $22,555,195. The Pelicans and Grizzlies have a salary cap maximum of $112,414,000. Brandon Ingram, Bledsoe, and Adams had a combined cap percentage of 39.2 percent. Considering that Bledsoe and Adams are traded away, this will clear up $35,198,171 of dead cap space.

Yesterday, CBS Sports reported the news pertaining to Lonzo Ball’s desire to remain in New Orleans. With extra cap space, the team is expected to re-sign the 23-year-old guard. Likewise, for the Grizzlies, the teams has a luxury tax space of $37,019,952. Their current cap space is $8,321,229. As stated before, the transactions have not yet been finalized. The Grizzlies’ outgoing cap is now $14 million, but from the contracts of Adams and Bledsoe, they are bringing in $35,198,171.

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NBA Trade Rumors: Jazz considering trade offers for Bojan Bogdanovic, Joe Ingles, Royce O’Neale, and No. 30 pick of the 2021 NBA Draft

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Per one interesting announcement from Bleacher Report’s Jake Fischer, the Utah Jazz are open to trading forward Bojan Bogdanovic, forward-guard Joe Ingles, small forward Royce O’Neale, and the No. 30 pick of the 2021 NBA Draft. Fischer stated, “The Utah Jazz are known to be one of the few teams actually searching to move playoff-tested talent. Retaining Mike Conley is an offseason priority, sources said, and the Jazz have held numerous discussions with teams around the league about offloading salary to create for Conley in free agency.” Point guard Mike Conley is set to become a free agent this offseason. Though, general manager Justin Zanik will aim to re-sign the 33-year-old guard in the coming weeks. Conley earned $34.5 million in the 2020-21 season.

“League personnel most often mention Joe Ingles as the Jazz wing to watch, and Bojan Bogdanovic and Royce O’Neale are also considered available for trade as Utah narrows its focus towards building a contender around Donovan Mitchel. The Jazz are also open to discuss trading their No. 30 pick, sources said.” In the 2020-21 season, in 72 games played, Bogdanovic averaged 17 points, 3.9 rebounds, and 1.9 assists per game. On May 1, 2021, in the team’s 106-102 victory over the Toronto Raptors, the six-foot-seven Croatian scored a season-high 34 points, shooting 12-for-22, and he finished his performance with four rebounds and four assists as well. On July 7, 2019, he signed a four-year, $73 million contract with the Jazz.

In 67 games played last season, Ingles averaged 12.1 points, 3.6 rebounds, and 4.7 assists per game. The six-foot-eight forward is set to earn $14 million in the 2021-22 season. Plus, among the mentioned players, Royce O’Neale has contributed the least. In 71 games played last season, he averaged seven points, 6.8 rebounds, and 2.5 assists. On January 19, 2020, the forward signed a four-year, $36 million extension with the team. He will earn $8.6 million next season. According to The Athletic, in the team’s seventh workout for draft prospects, they viewed Quentin Grimes, David Duke, Matt Mitchell, and a few other players. In the first round, if the team chooses not to draft any of the players they are holding workouts for, the organization will trade the No. 30 pick.

Just for a reminder, retrieved from Spotrac, the 2021-22 NBA luxury tax threshold is $136,606,000. Utah’s active roster cap is $133,284,695, the maximum cap is $112,414,000, and the current cap space is $72,990,215. Furthermore, center Rudy Gobert currently has the highest guaranteed contract on the team. On December 20, 2020, Gobert signed a five-year, $205 million extension with the organization. Gobert is set to earn $35.3 million in the coming season, whereas Donovan Mitchell will earn $28.1 million. Gobert and Mitchell combined consume 47.6 percent of the team’s salary cap. For the upcoming 2021-22 season, the Jazz have a guaranteed total of $129,719,453. Based on the team’s future outlook, the Jazz will have to make a trade or two in order to retain their star players. This should go without saying.

NBA Analysis Network reported a few days ago that a potential Jazz-Knicks trade target is Bojan Bogdanovic. Greg Patuto proposed the Knicks receiving Bogdanovic, while the Jazz would receive Kevin Knox II, and the Nos. 19 and No. 32 picks of the 2021 NBA Draft. Now, this could still happen at some point during this draft week, but then again, sports bettors and fans alike understand that these news reports could be just rumors. The most intelligent, unforthcoming general managers know not to leave bread crumb trails for the media, especially leading into the offseason. They will do everything necessary to protect their foolproof plans.

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Raptors, Pacers, Timberwolves, Kings, and Cavaliers among teams showing interest in Ben Simmons

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According to Jake Fischer of Bleacher Report, five teams have shown interest in pursuing Ben Simmons from the Philadelphia 76ers. Fischer reported, “Cleveland, Indiana, Minnesota, Sacramento, and Toronto all showed interest in acquiring the runner-up for Defensive Player of the Year.” Furthermore, the teams are wanting Simmons to change position from point guard to forward. “Multiple executives from those teams, when contacted by Bleacher Report, mentioned their excitement at incorporating Simmons as a play-making forward—not at the point guard position he’s played in Philadelphia.” The six-foot-eleven guard averaged 14.3 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 6.9 assists in the 2020-21 NBA season. This might sound fine for a young rookie, but as a five-year player, these aforementioned statistics were career lows.

However, the 25-year-old also earned his third NBA All-Star selection and second All-Defensive first-team selection last season. After a less than mediocre performance in his third postseason of his NBA career, the majority of 76ers’ fans would agree that it’s now time for Simmons to have a change in scenery. With a regular season record of 49-23 (.681), the No. 1 ranked 76ers in the Eastern Conference entered the conference semifinals as favorites over the Atlanta Hawks. Leading into this series, some NBA analysts were predicting Philadelphia to prevail four games to two. The 2016 first overall pick was expected to limit Trae Young in scoring and rally his team from point deficits, but none of this ever manifested.

Pertaining to postseason averages, Simmons had a playoff series-low of 9.9 points and 6.3 rebounds per game in the conference semifinals against the Hawks. This lackluster showing proved to be a more significant downfall for the superstar, considering Simmons had only five points, eight rebounds, and 13 assists in Game 7 versus the Hawks. In the 2019-20 season, he averaged 2.1 steals per game, leading all other players in the league. Moreover, Simmons currently ranks sixth in the NBA for active player triple-doubles (32). With a total of 32 career triple-doubles, he ranks 13th on the all-time list, tied with Clippers’ guard Rajon Rondo.

On July 16, 2019, Simmons signed a five-year, $169.65 million contract extension with the 76ers. He is set to earn $30.5 million in the 2021-22 season. Among these teams interested in Simmons, Cavs’ Kevin Love has the fourth largest contract guarantee of $91.4 million. Love is due to earn $31.3 million next season, and the 13-year veteran’s contract consumes 26 percent of the team’s salary cap. He could be traded this offseason. Timberwolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns has a contract guarantee of $130.8 million. The 25-year-old Wolves center will earn $31.6 million in the upcoming season.

Plus, Kings’ 2017 first-round pick De’Aaron Fox has a guaranteed contract of $171.1 million. Fox will earn $28.1 million next season. To add to that, Raptors’ Pascal Siakim has a contract guarantee of $131.4 million. Not to mention, reported by Yahoo Sports via trade rumors yesterday, the Golden State Warriors are a potential trade partner for Toronto. The Warriors could make a move on Siakim, clearing up space on the Raptors for Simmons. Per Spotrac, the 2021-22 season cap maximum is $112,414,000. In the coming weeks, one of these said five teams might make a substantial trade offer to the 76ers’ organization that they cannot refuse.

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