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NBA Saturday: Can the Suns Compete?

After making some major trades, the Phoenix Suns may be a playoff threat next season … Gregg Popovich praises Becky Hammon

Cody Taylor

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Can the Phoenix Suns Compete?

For a couple of seasons now, the Phoenix Suns have been known as a young team on the rise. Since finishing last in the Western Conference in the 2012-13 season, they’ve been within reach of the playoffs in each of the last two seasons.

It was just two years ago that the Suns made the jump from the worst team in the West at 25-57 to a team that narrowly missed the playoffs by just one game in 2013-14. Jeff Hornacek guided Phoenix to a 23-game improvement in his first year as head coach as the Suns became one of the feel-good stories of the year.

Following that huge improvement, expectations were high heading into last season. In the face of those high expectations, the Suns responded by going 39-43 and missed the playoffs for a fifth-consecutive season. While some may have labeled their season a bust by not making the playoffs, their wheeling and dealing at the trade deadline may prove helpful down the line.

The Suns were tied with the Oklahoma City Thunder for the eighth-best record in the West on the day of the trade deadline. It was around this time that long-time Suns point guard Goran Dragic informed the team that he would not exercise his player option for the 2015-16 season to stay in Phoenix. The team was then placed into a situation where they could lose Dragic for nothing if they didn’t trade him by the deadline. Suns general manager Ryan McDonough made the decision to trade Dragic, but also traded away Isaiah Thomas as well. By trading both point guards, the Suns were able to acquire three future first-round draft picks.

The Suns entered last season with three starting-caliber point guards in Eric Bledsoe, Thomas and Dragic. The team recognized that the three guards were struggling to coexist on the court, so the decision to trade away two of those players became an easy one to make. The Suns’ front office knew that trading away those players would hurt their short-term success, and consequently hurt their playoff chances as the Suns finished six games out of the final playoff spot in the West.

Executing that trade allowed the Suns to subsequently trade for Brandon Knight from the Milwaukee Bucks. Knight played in just 11 games for the Bucks after an ankle injury limited him, but he was coming off of a career season in Milwaukee, averaging 17.8 points, 5.4 assists and 4.3 rebounds per game.

With Knight coming off of a career year, the Suns made him a priority this offseason and the two sides quickly agreed to a five-year, $70 million deal on the first day of free agency. The Suns then moved on to free agent center Tyson Chandler and agreed to a four-year, $52 million contract the next day. It was clear at this point that the team had laid out a detailed plan on how they wanted to approach the summer.

They’d retain Knight and add Chandler and then use those two signings in an attempt to sell free agent LaMarcus Aldridge on moving to Phoenix. They began to pitch Aldridge on the idea of pairing him up next to Chandler in the frontcourt. The ploy seemed to be working so much that reports surfaced stating the Suns had “closed the gap” in their pursuit of Aldridge. The front office then began to start clearing up cap space in order to sign Aldridge. To seriously be in the running for the most coveted free agent on the market isn’t bad for a team just three years removed from earning the worst record in the conference.

By now, we know that the Suns eventually fell short of signing Aldridge as he instead signed with the San Antonio Spurs. But by trading Marcus Morris, Reggie Bullock and Danny Granger to the Detroit Pistons, the Suns cleared up just over $8 million in cap space. Instead of using that new space on Aldridge, they targeted a stretch-four and opted to sign Mirza Teletovic in free agency. In addition to clearing up cap space, parting ways with those players will also free up more playing time for some of the team’s younger players, such as T.J. Warren and Archie Goodwin. Both players were buried on the bench last season, but figure to see more time next season.

Warren and Goodwin both participated in the Las Vegas Summer League and both were very productive. Warren finished ninth among all players with 18.7 points per game on 54 percent shooting from the field, and Goodwin added 15.9 points per game while shooting 47 percent. Both players have been working out hard this summer and are doing all that they can to improve.

“I’m feeling a lot more comfortable out there,” Warren said. “I’m familiar with the NBA style more so basically [I’m] just trying to work on my game. [The game is] coming a little slower. [I] just got to be patient with certain type of stuff [and] just got to use my head and going with my first instinct but that will come with more development and more experience being out there.”

Some critiqued the Suns for signing an aging Chandler to such an aggressive deal. Chandler will be 36 at the conclusion of that deal and will be well past his prime. The Suns are hoping that the 7’1 center can make the team an immediate contender in the stacked Western Conference. He averaged 10.3 points, 11.5 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game last season in his second stint with the Dallas Mavericks. Adding Chandler to the lineup will certainly help the Suns’ chances of taking another step forward in their rebuild. His addition should also help the younger players on the team develop as well.

“From what I’ve heard about him it seems like he’s a great guy, especially in the locker room,” Goodwin said. “From what I’ve seen on the court, he talks a lot. He’s very active and he’s very energetic. I think that’s something that we missed out on last year. I’m happy to have him with us and I know he’s going to be a great acquisition for us.

“I think we’re going to be led better than we were last year because we have a lot more veteran guys. I think that’s going to be the biggest thing. … We’re going to be a lot more playing for each other instead of playing for one person. The teams that are winning, they always play for each other, not for themselves. I feel like if we play for each other we’re going to have a great chance of making [the playoffs].”

With the West as stacked as it is, there could be 11 teams vying for playoff spots by the end of the season with the Suns being a part of that mix. While Chandler’s addition has been a welcomed sign for the team, another positive they’ll be carrying into next season will be the health of Bledsoe. Last season was his fifth in the league and the first in which he’s played in at least 80 games since his rookie campaign. Having Bledsoe back at 100 percent will be a crucial part of the plan to get back into the playoffs.

The Suns are hoping their deadline deals will pay out in the long term. They gambled by passing on a potential playoff appearance this season in favor of multiple appearances down the road by making those trades. And the draft picks the Suns acquired will certainly be important assets they can utilize moving forward.

Now, it’s time to see what the new pieces can accomplish and if they can prove to be a playoff threat next season.

Popovich Praises Becky Hammon

Perhaps one of the biggest stories of the Las Vegas Summer League was Spurs assistant coach Becky Hammon. She coached the Spurs’ squad to a Summer League championship and earned praise from virtually everyone in the sports world, and even from those outside of the sports world.

So, it should come as no surprise that Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich was among those that was impressed.

“I hired her because she was in my coaches meetings for an entire year because she was injured,” Popovich said in a radio interview on KNBR in San Francisco. “She’s got opinions and solid notions about basketball. Obviously, she was a great player. As a point guard, she’s a leader, she’s fiery, she’s got intelligence, and our guys just respected the heck out of her, so she’s coaching with us, she’s running drills. That’s why we made her a full-time coach and gave her the opportunity to coach at summer league.”

As history has shown, Popovich has a long history of hiring assistant coaches that have gone on to become head coaches. Mike Budenholzer, Alvin Gentry, Monty Williams and Brett Brown are some of the names that were Spurs assistant coaches before finding roles as head coaches later on. Hammon could be well on her way to finding a head coaching position as well.

“I don’t even look at it as, well, she’s the first female this and that and the other,” Popovich said. “She’s a coach, and she’s good at it. I think some people thought this was some kind of gimmick or we were just trying to be cool.

“I’m glad she’s there. I respect her opinion, I enjoy the give-and-take with her, and when she went to the summer league, that stuff’s about development. … That was her purpose at summer league, and she did a great job trying to make guys play the way we wanted them to play.”

Cody Taylor is an NBA writer in his fourth season with Basketball Insiders, covering the NBA and NCAA out of Orlando and Miami.

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Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards

Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.

David Yapkowitz

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We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.

The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.

With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.

The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.

Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old

Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.

He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.

Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.

Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old

Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.

He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.

Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.

Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old

Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.

He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.

One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.

Honorable Mentions:
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old

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Looking Toward the Draft: Small Forwards

Basketball Insiders’ examination of the 2020 draft class continues with a look at the small forwards.

Drew Maresca

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It was announced on Wednesday that the NBA Draft would be delayed from Oct. 16 to Nov. 18. The rationale is that the extra month gives the league and its players association more time to negotiate changes to the CBA. It also grants teams additional time to procure information on prospects and allows the NBA to establish regional virtual combines. But nothing is set in stone.

Still, draft prep must continue. This year’s draft class has more question marks than usual – which was complicated by the cancellation of the NCAA tournament (along with the NIT and a number of conference tournaments). There are incredibly skilled offensive players with limited offensive upside and jaw-droppingly talented defenders with incomplete offensive packages. But if (recent) history serves as a guide, there will be a few guys who make an immediate impact – and some of them very well could be small forwards.

The small forward position is key for the modern NBA. Want proof? Survey the league and you’ll find that most – if not all – contenders have an elite small forward – Milwaukee, Los Angeles (both), Boston, Miami, Toronto.

But the list of can’t miss small forward prospects feels smaller than usual. Scanning the numerous legitimate mock drafts (including our own by Steve Kyler), it becomes apparent that we lack a consensus on which small forwards will be selected (and in what order) after the top 3 or 4. Can any of them grow into a star? Maybe. Maybe not. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s identify what the top few bring to the table.

Deni Avdija, Israel – 19 years old

Avdija is a relatively well-rounded prospect who’s played professionally since he was 16. He boasts good height (6-foot-9) and uses it effectively to shoot over and pass around opposing defenses. Further, Avdija is an exceptional playmaker and he’s incredibly confident, enabling him to take chances many players would be apprehensive trying. Avdija is a high-IQ player. And what’s more, he’s a surprisingly strong defender. His height and above-average athleticism allow him to block shots, and he’s more physical than you’d expect him to be.

But there are drawbacks to Avdija, too. His main issue is around shooting. Avdija shot only 28% in the EuroLeague last season, and he shot only 60% from the free-throw line. Further, while he’s a decent athlete, he’ll struggle to secure a role in the NBA. He’s going to need to add speed to stay with modern wings, and he’ll also have to bulk up to bang with power forwards.

Still, Avdija’s upside is alluring. He’s only 19, and his smarts, confidence and grittiness should provide him cover for much of his rookie season. Avdija should be the first small forward off of the board.

Isaac Okoro, Auburn – 19 years old

Avdija might be the flashier name currently, but Okoro will give him a run for his money in terms of which small forward is first off the board. Okoro is built like a traditional NBA wing; he’s 6-foot-6 with good strength packed in his muscular frame (215 lbs). Okoro finishes well around the rim and he converts well through contact. He’s an exceptional athlete who excels catching the ball on the move. Like Avdija, Okoro has the poise and composure of a more experienced player. Also, like Avdija, Okoro looked the part of a high IQ player in his lone season at Auburn.

And while all that is great, the main allure of Okoro is his defense. He’s a fairly advanced defender given his age, and his athleticism and timing make him an effective weak side help defender.

While Okoro’s raw abilities are exquisite, his refined offensive skills leave something to be desired. Okoro shot 28 percent on three-point field goals and he struggled from the free-throw line (67.2 percent). His mid-range jump shot also needs work, and he struggles in isolation situations.

If Okoro can hone his offensive game, he could grow into an All-Star. He has the ability to guard multiple positions, and his strength and athleticism give him a leg up on most prospects. But even if he doesn’t become an All-Star, he possesses a fairly high floor given his defensive abilities — and the guy definitely fills the state sheet (12.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists, .9 steals and .9 blocks). He has lockdown defender potential and he’ll put his stamp on the game beginning on night one.

Devin Vassell, Florida State – 20 years old

Vassell played two seasons at Florida State, but he came into his own in his Sophomore season. He averaged 12.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. He shot a more than respectable 41.5% on three-point attempts, and he demonstrated a strong stroke from the free-throw line (73.8 percent) and on two-point field goal attempts (53.2).

Vassell is an extremely athletic leaper, who can rise up for a highlight dunk and sprint down the floor with ease. He has good body control and demonstrated a strong mid-range game, especially his step-back jump shot. But Vassell must generate more free throws through decisive moves to the hoop, which would be bolstered by a more muscular frame. Additionally, he must improve his ball-handling to get more from isolations.

Vassell will have an adjustment period in terms of scoring the ball at the next level. Fortunately, his defense and shooting should get him by. If he can bulk up and improve his handling, Vassell could grow into a serious player.

Aaron Nesmith, Vanderbilt – 20 years old

Nesmith probably has a lower floor than any of the other top small forward prospects given that he’ll be 21 by the draft. Still, he looked quite good in his Junior year, averaging 23 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game on a scorching 52.2 percent shooting from deep. Nesmith is an incredibly gifted shooter who has impressive range. His ability to catch-and-shoot and create space with fakes makes him a promising prospect – for the right team.

Nesmith is a high IQ player who uses his smarts on the defensive end. He’s also quite strong, can get buckets in the open floor and demonstrates above average ball-handling skills, as long as he’s not taking the ball to the hoop.

But there are inherent limitations in Nesmith’s game. He’s doesn’t create for his teammates too effectively and he turns the ball over more frequently than one would like with. Further, Nesmith is plagued by robotic movements that limit his athleticism. His ball-handling breaks down when taking the ball to the rack – something he’ll certainly have to work on in the NBA if he wants to be a versatile scoring threat against the bigger and stronger competition.

Still, Nesmith’s positives give him an excellent chance at being selected in the first round. His range alone will intrigue teams in need of a shooter.

Honorable Mentions:

Saddiq Bey, Villanova – 21 years old

Jaden McDaniels, Washington – 19 years old

Robert Woodard II, Mississippi State – 20 years old

With the uncertainty around small forward prospects, expect to see a revolving door of names enter the discussion after the first four wing prospects are off the board prior to Nov. 16 – assuming the draft is held then. But regardless of how you have them ranked, all of the aforementioned prospects have question marks. But all have had far more time to improve than they would have in years’ past. Let’s hope that shows come next season.

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NBA Daily: Opposite Plotlines for Today’s Matchups

With the two matchups going on today, Matt John examines the two teams who could be in the most trouble because of one of their individual stars for opposite reasons.

Matt John

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The second round of the NBA playoffs was hyped up to be one of the most entertaining we’ve had in years. So far, they haven’t fallen short of expectations. We knew that Houston and Los Angeles’ battle of opposite philosophies would make for some twists and turns. We knew that Boston and Toronto would duke it out in an Atlantic Division showdown. We knew that Miami would push Milwaukee to new heights. We didn’t really know if the Nuggets would give the Clippers a good series, but the fact that they have so far has made an intense postseason all the more gripping.

Anyway, today we’re getting two games from two series in completely opposite places. The Lakers and the Rockets will face off for the series lead, while the HEAT will try to finish off the Bucks once and for all. Below, we’re going to focus on two teams who have an individual star that either may be more flawed than we thought or one that may not be as flawed as we thought.

Bucks vs. HEAT: Giannis is great and all, but…

We all pretty much knew this was going to be a good series. We did not expect this.

The buzz surrounding Bucks v. HEAT was that Miami was going to make Milwaukee earn every win they got in this series. If that was the plan, then Miami has failed miserably, because until Khris Middleton went supernova on them on Sunday, Milwaukee had come up terribly short.

Let’s first give Miami the credit that they are due and more. With Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler alone, Miami was going to be a tough matchup for Milwaukee – but to see the Bucks all but roll over in this series is an unpleasant sight. Acquiring Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala has paid huge dividends and it’s showing. There are other factors involved, but Miami’s defensive efforts have limited Giannis to 21.8 points a game and that’s played a role in the HEAT being in the driver’s seat of this series.

Speaking of Giannis Antetokounmpo, this series has not been a good look for the Defensive Player of the Year. Especially since it looks like his second consecutive MVP (presumably) is right around the corner. So, to see both him and Milwaukee, once an unstoppable force without an immovable object in sight, get stopped by a sturdy but not immovable squad is saddening.

Nearly a year ago, Basketball Insiders compared these current Bucks to the Dwight Howard-led Orlando Magic from the late-2000’s/early 2010’s. To oversimplify things, both were contenders led by a superstar with a rare physique that made them tough to stop. To put the superstar in the best position, they surrounded them with playmakers and three-point shooters.

While the teams’ roster constructions weren’t exactly the same, their strengths as a team certainly were. Now we’re seeing the Bucks’ flaws just as we did the Magic 10 years ago. If you have the personnel to make the lone superstar uncomfortable, the team doesn’t function as well.

Giannis is near impossible to stop, but the one major flaw is that if you take away his ability to drive and force him into a jumper, he loses his rhythm. Even if his shot is on – never a guarantee – his opponents will let him beat them that way until he makes them pay. Hardly any team can pick on this, but the HEAT are one of them, and now they’re one win away from their first Eastern Conference Finals since LeBron James took his talents out of South Beach.

This ultimately is what puts Antetokounmpo below the likes of LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard for now. Those guys are rare physical specimens like him, but their elite games don’t revolve entirely around their natural gifts as he does or Dwight did. At 25 years old, there’s plenty of time for him to change that and, for all we know, he will, but to see him struggle at a time when the conference was supposed to run through him has ignited tons of questions.

Milwaukee’s technically not out yet, but they’ve shown their mortality against Miami. If this really is it for them, then they’ve got to find a quick fix for this problem because if they don’t, then the unspeakable may happen.

Lakers vs. Rockets: Westbrook has been bad and all but…

Shaking off the rust and recovering from a balky knee would be tough for anyone. For Russell Westbrook, it’s killing his productivity and, in turn, the Rockets’ playoff chances. He’s averaging 15.6 points on 39/16/47 splits with a most recent 10-point, 4-of-15 effort from the field which included seven turnovers and air balling wide-open threes sticking out like a sore thumb.

It also doesn’t help that he’s playing the Lakers of all teams. When Westbrook has been in, the Lakers have taken advantage of his shortcomings offensively and it shows both on the court and the stat line.

Most of Westbrook’s damage is hurting Houston on the offensive end. With the All-Star guard in the game, Houston is minus-13.7 with him on the court, the worst offensive rating on the team. The 12 turnovers he’s coughed up in this series probably have something to do with that.

With Westbrook’s struggles and his predecessor Chris Paul coming off of his best individual season since 2016, this, of course, has led to many second-guessing the swap last summer. Or let’s rephrase that: People have been second-guessing that trade since the moment it was announced and, in light of recent events, they’re piling on now more than ever.

Maybe they’re right. Even after playing in the NBA for over a decade now, Westbrook still hasn’t proven that he can control himself enough to reach his potential as a team player. We’ve seen glimpses. On the other hand, Paul showed that he can still pick apart defenses while holding his own on that end.

But replacing Paul with Westbrook was Harden’s idea. He didn’t want to play with Paul anymore and chose to play with one of his closest friends. You may think that the better fit is what’s best for the team, but we’ve seen the damage that can happen when your team’s best players have friction with one another. It hurt Utah this season. It hurt Boston last season. It destroyed the Lakers back in 2013. There’s no telling what it could have done to Houston this season.

Besides, we know that as bad as Westbrook has been, he’s capable of being better. Not a knockdown shooter, not even an efficient scorer, but he has done better in the past when the focus was on him. The more days he takes to shake off the rust from his knee, the more optimistic the Rockets ought to be.

The Rockets have to take the glass-half-full on this one because they don’t really have a choice otherwise.

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