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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

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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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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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