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NBA Daily: Why These Suns Could Be Special

The Phoenix Suns have the second-best record in the league at the midpoint of the season. Obviously, the addition of Chris Paul is one reason for their rise but there is much more to the story of this special team.

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After a strong 8-0 finish to close out last season, the Phoenix Suns have picked up right where they left off. Offseason additions have paid major dividends, too, as they own the second-best record in the league at the All-Star break having won 16 of their last 19 games. It has been more than a decade since Phoenix found its way to the postseason, but that drought should soon end.

But what has changed? And how have they turned things around so quickly?

The easy answer is Chris Paul. The veteran point guard was acquired in a trade just before Thanksgiving, with the Suns essentially only having to surrender a 2022 first-round draft pick and two rotation players in Kelly Oubre Jr and Ricky Rubio. The fit on paper was perfect and the chemistry on the court has proven to be the same.

But, there is another key factor here: head coach Monty Williams.

After taking over head coaching duties for the Suns last season, Williams has left his imprint on this team. Their unblemished record in the “bubble” last season is a microcosm of just how good he has been. Monty is no stranger to the game. Once his playing days were over, Williams became an assistant coach for the US Men’s National Team under Mike Krzyzewski.

It has been quite the turnaround for this franchise, who was statistically (87-241 record) the worst team in the NBA from 2015-16 through the 2018-19 season. Suns owner Robert Sarver had finally had enough, hiring James Jones as the VP of basketball operations in 2017 before becoming the team’s general manager in 2019. Searching for high-character individuals, it didn’t take Jones long to hire Williams as the new coach.

In Monty’s first season as an NBA head coach, he guided the New Orleans Hornets to the playoffs with a 46-36 record, where they lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in six games. Monty also helped develop James Borrego and Mike Malone during his time in New Orleans, both of whom have moved on to become successful head coaches in their own right.

Williams and Paul were only together for that first season in New Orleans, but have reunited a decade later. Their relationship never took a pause though and they clicked from the moment Paul landed in Arizona. These two share a lot of experience and have seen many things during their time in the league. For Paul, the leadership that he brings seems to elevate whatever team he finds himself on.

While Paul’s leadership is highly valued, so too are his basketball ability and intelligence. The game-winning play in Dallas earlier this season was one that Paul drew up specifically for Devin Booker in that situation. The savvy veteran admitted after the game that he learned that play during his time with the Los Angeles Clippers. He is essentially a head coach on the court, giving the Suns yet another advantage over their opponent.

Phoenix made another addition to their roster in the offseason that didn’t garner as much spotlight as the trade that landed Paul but has been instrumental to their success. Now in his ninth season, Jae Crowder has played for seven different teams over the course of his career, only missing the playoffs once. He has been the same guy at every stop, playing unselfish basketball that has contributed to winning.

After helping the Miami HEAT reach the NBA Finals last season, Crowder signed a three-year deal to join Paul in the desert. The versatile forward has 72 playoff games under his belt and, like Paul, has a high basketball IQ. Another thing these two share is the thirst to win a championship — and they have been the catalysts spurring the maturity of the young Suns’ core.

The foundation for this franchise, however, lies with their newest All-Star, Booker, as well as big man Deandre Ayton. Both have elevated their play alongside Paul, though that may be difficult to see just by looking at their statistics. The numbers don’t always tell the story, which is the case here.

Booker’s scoring, rebounding and assists have dipped from last season, but he is much more efficient, no longer having to carry the load on offense alone. It also allows him to save some energy for the defensive end of the floor, an area where he has significantly improved this season and a development that should prove to be even more beneficial when the playoffs roll around.

Ayton was expected to make a massive leap this year with the addition of Paul. Through the first half of the season, the top overall draft pick has not had an uptick in scoring or blocks but he has greatly improved his shooting percentage, in addition to ranking seventh in rebounding. He is also taking fewer shots per game but, like Booker, has been far more efficient with them, getting easier baskets at the rim. Much of the credit goes to Paul for creating those opportunities, but Ayton has been working on his game and it shows.

The emergence of Mikal Bridges has been another notable difference this season. The Villanova product has been tremendous in all facets of the game, but his play on the defensive end of the floor has been particularly impressive. He has the physical tools to be one of the best perimeter defenders in the league and, undoubtedly, is a solid candidate for the Most Improved Player Award this season.

Bridges is averaging career highs in scoring, rebounding, assists, blocks, and shooting percentage. But it’s his percentages that really stand out, as he is hitting 42 percent of his three-pointers, 62 percent from inside the arc and 53 percent overall from the floor. His free-throw shooting is the only thing keeping him from joining the illustrious 50-40-90 club, but he is still shooting it at a solid 84 percent clip.

Like most top-notch teams, the starters will get most of the spotlight. But this is where Phoenix has a real edge over their competition, as the Suns have arguably one of the best second units in the league. Comprised of a mixed bag of talent, ranging from recent draft picks like Cameron Johnson and Jalen Smith to reclamation projects like Cameron Payne, Jevon Carter, Frank Kaminsky and Dario Saric, the Suns’ bench has thrived this season.

In fact, those guys have all been so good that established veterans like E’Twaun Moore and Langston Galloway are unable to get on the floor. They have provided a spark and have developed incredible chemistry that is on full display every night.

Jones has done a masterful job with this group. Despite being the second-slowest team in terms of pace, they are still a top-12 scoring offense and have the eight-best offensive rating in the NBA. They make the magic happen on defense though, where they rank third in opponents scoring, third in defensive rating and have the second-best net rating in the league.

The fun doesn’t stop there. The Suns are top-five in the league when it comes to field goal percentage, top-ten in three-point shooting, second in free-throw shooting, third in assists and sixth in turnovers per game. To be near the top in one or two of these categories would be one thing, but the proof is in the pudding with this team.

The seven-seconds-or-less Suns are a thing of the past, while Booker has matured quite a bit from his 70-point performance that was celebrated by the team, despite losing the game. None of those players besides Booker are even on their roster this year. Ayton himself has acknowledged his lapse in judgment from his 25-game suspension last season for taking a banned diuretic. This nucleus is still very young, yet has the maturity and experience needed to make some serious noise in the playoffs.

Both Ayton and Bridges will hit free agency after next season. Paul has a $44.2 million player option for next season, where he will turn 37 years old in May. Paul has reiterated that he came to Phoenix because of Booker. Everyone in the organization shares the same desire to not just be good, but to be great. Looking at their timeline going forward, the window of opportunity for Phoenix is right now.

The Suns have gone through eight head coaching changes since their last sustained success with Mike D’Antoni. It would appear they finally found the right guy, but Williams is just one of the many puzzle pieces that have been put together in Phoenix. The front office has made the right moves, the players have bought in and their team-first approach has them on the path to something special.

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Jazz agree to trade Derrick Favors, first-round pick to Thunder

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First reported by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the Utah Jazz are trading power forward/center Derrick Favors and a first-round pick to the Oklahoma City Thunder for a future second-round pick. The goal here was to help reduce their tax bill. While the six-foot-eight Georgia native does not have any notable NBA awards or honors on his basketball résumé, in the 2020-21 NBA season, Favors averaged 5.4 points, 5.5 rebounds, and a field goal percentage of 63.8 percent. The 11-year NBA veteran also recorded a free throw shooting percentage of 73.8 percent last season.

The 2020-21 Thunder finished 27-50 (.306), ranking 14th overall in the Western Conference. They could use another first-round pick. Plus, per ESPN’s Bobby Marks, this trade will put Utah $13 million below the luxury tax. On November 24, 2020, Favors signed a three-year, $29.2 million contract with the Jazz. Favors is set to earn $9,720,900 next season. This is the second time in his career he has left the Jazz.

He played with them from the 2010-11 season to the 2018-19 season, before he was traded to the New Orleans Pelicans on July 7, 2019 for a 2021 second-round pick and a 2023 second-round pick. For the 2022-23 season, he has a player option of $10,183,800. The Jazz plan to also re-sign Mike Conley, so this was somewhat of a drastic move to help clear up cap space. On July 6, 2019, Conley was traded by the Memphis Grizzlies to the Jazz, in exchange for Grayson Allen, Darius Bazley, Kyle Korver, and a 2020 first-round pick.

Moreover, scoring-wise, the 33-year-old point guard has not lived up to his performances from his last few seasons on the Grizzlies, but the Jazz need all the help they can get. Jazz general manager Justin Zanik will make it a top priority to re-sign Conley here soon. Conley earned $34,504,132 in the 2020-21 season.

According to Spotrac, Conley has a cap figure of $39,344,900. Center Rudy Gobert and shooting guard Donovan Mitchell have a combined percentage of 47.61 percent of Utah’s total salary cap. On December 20, 2020, Gobert signed a five year, $205 million extension with the team. He will earn $35,344,828 next season.

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Wizards, Lakers agree to Russell Westbrook and Three-Player Trade Deal

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The Los Angeles Lakers have agreed with the Washington Wizards to acquire Russell Westbrook in a three-player trade, sending Kyle Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and the No. 22 pick in Thursday’s 2021 NBA Draft to the Wizards. According to ESPN, the Wizards are also giving up their 2024 and 2028 second-round picks as well. During last night’s draft, at pick No. 22, the Lakers sent Wildcats’ center Isaiah Jackson to the Pacers via the Wizards. At pick No. 15, the Wizards drafted Gonzaga forward Corey Kispert. In the second round, at pick No. 31, the Milwaukee Bucks traded NBA G League player Isaiah Todd to the Wizards via the Pacers.

On Thursday, Harrell decided to pursue his $9.7 million player option for next season. Yesterday, rumors surfaced across social media regarding a possible Lakers-Kings trade involving Harrell. Despite the outlandish predictions and mindless speculation from fans over these last couple of days, this trade move could work out great for both teams.

After all, Westbrook is a 9-time NBA All-Star and three-time assists leader. In his MVP season back in the 2016-17 season, over the course of 81 games, he averaged a career-high 31.6 points, 10.7 rebounds, 10.4 assists, and 1.6 steals per game. On Twitter, Westbrook tweeted, “I’m blessed to have been a part of such a stand up organization. It didn’t take long to make a home in DC, and I will forever be grateful and appreciative of my experience with the organization. Thank you!”

In the 2020-21 NBA season, Caldwell-Pope averaged 9.7 points, 2.7 rebounds, and 1.9 assists per game in 67 games started for the Lakers. The 28-year-old shooting guard will make $13 million next season. As for Kuzma, in 68 games played last season, he averaged 12.9 points, 6.1 rebounds, and 1.9 assists per game. Kuzma is set to earn $13 million next season. For Harrell, in 69 games played last season, he averaged 13.5 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 1.1 assists per game. The six-foot-seven power forward/center is also a six-year player. Instead of having one or two notable super stars, the Wizards having several contributing players might work out better in their favor.

Last season, in 65 games played in his only season spent on the Wizards, Westbrook averaged 22.2 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 11.7 assists. The 32-year-old point guard finished the 2020-21 season with 38 triple-doubles, ranking first in the league and second highest in his own playing career. Westbrook also surpassed Oscar Robertson last season for the most all-time assists; Robertson accumulated 181 triple-doubles in 14 seasons. Now, the two-time NBA scoring champion has 184 career triple-doubles, the most all-time for any player. Furthermore, this is Westbrook’s fourth team in his NBA career.

He is the fifth former MVP in league history to play on four different teams over the course of four seasons or less, adding to the existent list of Bob McAdoo, Allen Iverson, Shaquille O’Neal, and Derrick Rose. Moreover, on December 2, 2020, Westbrook was traded by the Houston Rockets to the Wizards for John Wall and a 2023 first-round draft pick. He is set to earn $44.2 million in the upcoming season. His player option for the 2022-23 season is $47 million. This trade deal will not be official until August 6th.

Per Bovada’s NBA Futures odds, the Lakers now have +300 odds of winning their eighteenth championship in the 2021-22 season. This is a move from 4/1 odds before the trade, leaping the Milwaukee Bucks and Golden State Warriors, and they now have the second best odds behind the Brooklyn Nets (+250). Westbrook also has the best odds of leading the league in assists next season, with first place odds showing EVEN. He is ahead of James Harden (+150), Trae Young (+450), and Luka Doncic (+600). With +6600 odds, he also ranks 19th in the NBA for next season’s MVP odds, trailing Lakers’ teammates such as James (+1200) and Davis (+2800).

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Russell Westbrook joins L.A. Lakers in One of the biggest trades in NBA History

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(Image courtesy of AP)

In one of the biggest NBA Draft trades ever, Los Angeles Lakers acquired the services of Washington Wizards’ former MVP, Russell Westbrook, last night!

As a result of the trade, the Lakers can now boast a holy trinity of attacking talent in Westbrook, Anthony Davis, and, of course, Lebron James, unlike anything seen in recent memory. Assuming this new contingent clicks into gear, it might just be the most frighteningly talented trio to play together in NBA history, rivaling the Bulls triple horn of Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and Dennis Rodman, or that great Lakers team of the late 80s with Magic Johnson, James Worthy, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

In exchange for their star man, the Wizards received three players and what was the No 22 overall pick in last night’s NBA Draft. The former Lakers tasked with replacing Westbrook in Washington will be Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Montrezl Harrell.

Washington then spent the Lakers No.22 pick on Kentucky’s Isaiah Jackson, but immediately traded him on to the Indiana Pacers in a deal that saw the Wizards acquire pick No.31 and point guard Aaron Holiday. Wizards then used pick No.31 to draft Isaiah Todd to bolster their ranks at power forward.

(Image courtesy of AP)

The effervescent Westbrook had another great year in 2020-21, averaging 22.2 points, 11.7 assists, and 11.5 rebounds per game in his first season with the Wizards.

In joining the Lakers star cast, which already boasts the likes of LeBron James and Anthony Davis, Westbrook, a 9x NBA All-Star & 2016-17 MVP, will now be hoping to end his NBA championship drought.

Westbrook has since taken to social media to thank the WashingtonWizards franchise for a great year spent in the capital, tweeting:

“Thank you DC! You welcomed my family and I with open arms from day one,” he wrote. “Everyone from the front office, to the training staff, the coaches, my teammates, and the fans. I’m grateful y’all took a chance on me and supported me every step of the way.”

“I’m blessed to have been a part of such a stand up organization. It didn’t take long to make a home in DC, and I will forever be grateful and appreciative of my experience with the organization. Thank you!”

With a legendary point guard now fixed among the ranks, 2020 NBA Championship winners the Lakers have all the talent required to wrestle back the title from the freshly-crowned Milwaukee Bucks.

So, get yourselves ready for an influx of NBA betting lines on Antetokounmpo, Holiday, and Middleton vs. LeBron, Davis, and Westbrook for next year’s championship games!

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