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Six Things to Know About the Phoenix Suns

Basketball Insiders’ six things series continues with the league’s most surprising team, the Phoenix Suns.

Yannis Koutroupis

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The Phoenix Suns were supposed to be vying for last place this season, not anywhere near the playoff picture. Yet, at 24-17 they’re just three and a half games out of having homecourt in the first round and are 11 games ahead of the last place Utah Jazz. They’re one of the biggest (pleasant) surprises in the NBA this season, and here’s the six most important things you need to know about them.

1. Eric Bledsoe is a star

The hardest thing to do in the NBA is acquire and keep star players. The Suns acquired Eric Bledsoe this offseason in a three-team deal hoping that he could transition from being the best backup point guard in the league to one of the best point guards in the league overall. Based on what he has shown in the 24 games he’s played this season, it’s safe to say that the Suns have their franchise player.

Bledsoe was putting up 18 points, 4.3 rebounds and 5.8 assists prior to undergoing surgery on a torn meniscus in his knee that could cost him the rest of the season. At the young age of 24, Bledsoe is clearly one of the league’s bright stars. The Suns expected this, that’s why they traded for him and tried to sign him to a contract extension prior to the October 31 deadline. While they were unable to, Bledsoe is only going to be a restricted free agent this summer. That means they can match any offer that he receives this summer. There is likely to be multiple teams willing to give him a max contract or very close to it, but there’s nothing prohibiting the Suns from keeping him.

2. They’re in a great position with the salary cap

The Suns do not have one unfavorable contract on their books. They’re well under the salary cap this season at $53 million and only have $23 million in guaranteed contracts for next season, giving them plenty of room to re-sign Bledsoe and still be serious players in free agency.

Before you roll your eyes at the prospect of the Suns landing anyone of note in free agency just because they’re not in a big media market, keep a few things in mind: Bledsoe is the kind of guy who other elite players will want to play with because he’s a fierce competitor and unselfish. Jeff Hornacek is also a player’s coach, being a former player himself.

There have been questions in the past about the franchise’s commitment to winning, but if they give Bledsoe the money that it’s going to take to keep him even with Goran Dragic under contract next year for just $7.5 million, those questions will be answered. They may not be willing to go into the luxury tax, but that’s completely understandable with the stiff penalties in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement – and look no further than the Indiana Pacers and San Antonio Spurs for examples of teams that are championship contenders without paying the tax.

3. Jeff Hornacek was the right hire as head coach

The Suns had several different directions they could have gone in hiring a head coach this past summer. The easiest option was to just remove the interim tag from Lindsey Hunter and see how much he improved from the experience he gained and having a full training camp to work with. There was also several veteran head coaches looking for a job that would have brought instant credibility to the Suns, who needed it at the time.

Instead, first-year general manager Ryan McDonough decided to do exactly what Suns ownership did with him, and give Jeff Hornacek a chance to prove himself.

Hornacek has been outstanding in his first stint as a head coach. He was able to get this young group to buy into his system from the beginning. Rather than paying attention to all the tanking talk that was going on this summer and feeling like the season was a lost cause before it even began, most of the Suns were in Phoenix putting in work. As a result, the Suns have exceeded even the highest expectations for them and almost everyone in the regular rotation is having a career year. Far too often in sports the coach catches all the negativity when things go wrong, while the players get all of the praise when things go right. This isn’t one of those cases, though, Hornacek deserves immense amount of credit. He’s in the mix for the Coach of the Year award, but more importantly, he’s the perfect head coach for this team both in the present and for the future.

4. Ryan McDonough knows what he’s doing

Anytime you take over a head position for the first time in your career, your moves are going to be questioned. As McDonough conducted a fire sale this offseason, shipping off the Suns’ veterans for younger, less experienced players, everyone accused him of blatant tanking. Yet, they’re one game off of last year’s win total, and we’re just halfway through the regular season.

The last few years have been difficult for the Suns faithful as they’ve had to come to terms with the Steve Nash era coming to an end without any championships to show for it, despite being so close. It was reasonable for them to have doubts about whether they could ever get to those heights again, but McDonough has quickly given them reasons to have faith. He has this franchise in an ideal position and it only took him a couple months to do so. Just like Hornacek was the right hire despite more experienced options being out there, so was McDonough.

5. Goran Dragic’s value is higher than ever

Coming into the season, it seemed like just a matter of time before Dragic was the next casualty of the Suns’ rebuilding process. Not only did he survive the transition, he’s also playing the best basketball of his career. Dragic is putting up 19.4 points, 3.3 rebounds and 5.9 assists a game. Now all the sudden, his contract, which is paying him $7.5 million this year and the next two (Dragic has a player option for the final year in 2015-16) has as much value as any in the league.

The combination of Dragic and Bledsoe in the backcourt worked surprisingly well. It seemed like the Suns were going to have to choose between the two at some point, but they really don’t have to anymore based on how well they’ve played off of each other.

Until Bledsoe’s name is on a new contract, Dragic is also the best insurance the Suns can have in the case of his unexpected departure. Once Bledsoe is signed, the Suns can shop Dragic if they want with a much higher price tag than this past summer because they’ll have all the power in negotiations. He’s playing the best basketball of his career and they only reason they will move him is if it makes them a better team, that’s the necessary formula to make a favorable trade.

6. They have four first-round picks coming their way the next two years, not including their own.

From all the wheeling and dealing McDonough did this summer, the Suns have a few first round picks coming their way. Here’s a full list of their future assets:

2014: Receives the Indiana Pacers, Minnesota Timberwolves (top 13 protected) and Washington Wizards first round picks.

2015: Receives the Los Angeles Lakers (top five protected) first round pick.

Meanwhile, the only pick that they have going out is their 2015 second rounder. With as much young talent as they already have, it’s a near certainty that they will shop these picks for more proven talent. The 2014 and 2015 draft classes are highly touted and first-round picks are coveted; the Suns will have no trouble getting value in exchange for them.

No matter how the second half of the season goes, there’s a lot of reason to be optimistic about the Suns. The have their star player, a talented young core and most importantly they have the right guys at general manager and head coach. The rebuilding process, if you can even call it that now, is well ahead of schedule. It was hard to imagine these words being uttered back in August but it’s true: the Suns are on their way to becoming contenders again.

Yannis Koutroupis is Basketball Insiders' Managing Site Editor and Senior Writer. He has been covering the NBA and NCAA for seven years.

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Miami’s Struggles About More than One Player

Drew Maresca assesses the Miami HEAT’s early-season struggles and their statistical slide from the 2019-20 campaign.

Drew Maresca

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The Miami HEAT appeared to successfully turn the corner on a quick rebuild, having advanced to the bubble’s 2020 NBA Finals. It looked as though Miami took a short cut even, rebounding from the LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh era incredibly quickly. Ultimately, they did so through smart drafting – including the selections of Bam Adebayo, Kendrick Nunn and Tyler Herro – plus, a little luck, like the signing of Jimmy Butler and smartly sticking with Duncan Robinson.

But despite the fact that they should have improved from last season, the tide may have turned again in South Beach.

Through 15 games, the HEAT are an underwhelming 6-9 with losses in each of their last two games. Miami is also scoring fewer points per game than last season – 109.3 versus 112  – while giving up more – 113.1 against 109.1.

Miami has played the 14th-toughest schedule in the NBA, and there are some embarrassing and noteworthy loses thus far. They lost by a resounding 47 points to the Milwaukee Bucks earlier this season, with extra harsh defeats of 20 points to the lowly Detroit Pistons and the mediocre Toronto Raptors.

What’s to blame for Miami’s woes? Unfortunately for the HEAT, it’s a number of things.

First of all, they need more from a few of their stars – and it starts at the very top. Jimmy Butler was Miami’s leading scorer in 2019-20, posting 19.9 points per game. But this season, Butler is scoring just 15.8 points per game on a sub-par 44.2 percent shooting. While Butler shot poorly from three-point range last season, too (24.4 percent), he hasn’t connected on a single three-pointer yet in 2020-21. This, coming from a guy who shot 34.7 percent from deep in 2018-19 and 35 percent in 2017-18.

But it’s not just his lack of scoring that’s hurting. Butler is also collecting fewer assists and rebounds as well. He’s averaging only 5.5 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game, down from 6.7 ad 6.0 last season.

However, Butler’s main struggle this season has nothing to do with any statistic or slump. Butler has missed seven straight games due to COVID-19 protocols. Although to go-scorer wasn’t playing particularly well prior to isolating from the team – scoring in single digits twice – the HEAT are always in better shape if their leader takes the floor with them.

It’s not just Butler either. Tyler Herro also needs to regain his bubble form, at least as far as shooting is concerned. After connecting on 38.9 percent on 5.4 three-point attempts in 2019-20, he’s sinking only 30.2 percent of his 5.3 three-point attempts per game this season.

While Herro is scoring more – 17.2 points per game this season – and doing so more efficiently, he’s doesn’t pose the same threat from deep this season. So while he’s sure to pick it up sooner than later, he must do so to put more pressure on opposing defense.

It’s fair to assume Herro will solve his long-distance shooting woes, but the fact that he’s also struggling from the free throw line is concerning because it speaks more to his form. Herro is still well above the league average, connecting on 76.5 percent of his attempts from the charity stripe, but he shot a scorching 87 percent on free throw attempts last season.

So what’s behind the slump? More importantly, which Herro can the HEAT count on for the remainder of 2020-21? As much as Herro is on track to grow into an incredible player, Miami needs his efficiency to return to last season’s form if they expect to compete. But like Butler, a major part of Herro’s struggles are off the court.

Herro is currently dealing with an injury, having missed the last five games with neck spasms. Coach Erik Spoelstra noted that giving the injured Herro so many minutes before his big layoff likely exacerbated his injuries.

“There’s no telling for sure if this is why Tyler missed these games,” Spoelstra told the South Florida SunSentinel. “But it definitely didn’t help that he had to play and play that many minutes. We didn’t have anybody else at that point. If he didn’t play, then we would have had seven.”

But the HEAT’s struggles are about more than any one player – and that’s a big part of what makes Miami, Miami.

Still, their team stats are equally puzzling, like that the Miami HEAT currently ranks 20th in offensive rating and 23rd in defensive rating. In 2019-20, they were 7th in offensive rating and 11th in defensive rating. Obviously, something isn’t translating from last year, but what is it that’s missing?

Firstly, the HEAT are only the 18th best three-point shooting in terms of percentage. Last season, Miami was 2nd by shooting 37.9 percent. Herro returning to his old self should help quite a bit, and Butler making at least a few threes should improve spacing, too.

But it’s not just three-point shooting as the HEAT ranked last in field goal attempts last season, tallying just 84.4 attempts per game. And while they’re last again this season, they’ve managed to average even fewer attempts per game (81.7) despite maintaining nearly all of their roster.

The HEAT are also last in offensive rebounding, which translates to fewer field goal attempts and fewer points. And while Miami was 29th in offensive rebounds last season, they’re corralling 2.1 fewer rebounds this season (6.4) than in  2019-20 (8.5). What’s more, Miami is now last in total rebounds with only 40.9 per game. A number that also represents a fairly significant change as the HEAT were 17th a season ago with 44.4 per game – whew!

Lastly, Miami is turning the ball over more often than nearly any other team – sorry, Chicago – in 2020-21. During the prior campaign, the HEAT were barely middle of the pack, turning the ball over 14.9 times per game, a mark that left them 18th-best in the league. This season, they’re 29th and turning the ball over 17.7 times per game – dead last in terms of turnovers per 100 possessions.

It’s not all bad news for the HEAT, though. Bam Adebayo looks great so far, posting 20.3 points, 8.9 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game. Second-year stud Kendrick Nunn is averaging 21.5 points on 56 percent shooting through the past four games; while Duncan Robinson is still a flame thrower, shooting 44.4 percent on 8.4 three-point attempts per game.

The HEAT’s upside is still considerable, but it’s easy to wonder if they captured magic in a bottle last season.

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NBA Daily: Lonzo Ball Presents Difficult Decision For Pelicans

Lonzo Ball is struggling early in his fourth NBA season, leaving the Pelicans questioning whether he will be a part of the team’s long-term plans moving forward.

Garrett Brooks

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Lonzo Ball and the New Orleans Pelicans failed to reach an extension prior to the deadline entering the 2020-21 NBA season – which made this season an important year for the former second overall pick to prove his worth.

But things have not gone according to plan for Ball. Originally acquired by the Pelicans in the Anthony Davis trade, Ball has failed to get going early in the current season. After a few years of what seemed like positive progression in the guard’s shooting stroke, this 2021 has brought up the same questions that surrounded Ball in his earlier scouting reports.

In his first three seasons, Lonzo saw his three-point accuracy increase each year. It started at a 30.5 percent accuracy rate and had jumped to an impressive 37.5 by his third NBA season, 2019-20.

Now well into his biggest campaign yet, he sits below 30 percent for the first time in his career, though there is a lot of time left to see that number increase. If Ball expects to be part of the Pelicans’ long-term plans, improvement is absolutely vital.

Obviously, shooting is a key part of the NBA game today, especially as a guard. Simply put, a player needs to give his team the proper floor spacing needed to maximize their scoring output in an offensively driven league.

That point is especially true for Ball, who needs to prove he can play alongside franchise cornerstones Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson. Both players are showing the skillset to be a dominant one-two punch for years to come, and the biggest need around them is proper floor spacing.

So even with all the positives Ball brings to the defensive side of the floor and as a playmaker, he cannot fit alongside Williamson and Ingram unless he’s a threat to hit shots from behind the arc. He’s obviously trying to prove himself in that regard as he has never averaged more three-point shots per game than he currently is – and yet, the result has been concerning.

When the two sides failed to reach an extension this offseason, it was abundantly clear that the Pelicans needed to see consistency before they’d tie long-term cap space to the guard. In the early going of the season, Ball is perhaps playing his most inconsistent basketball since his rookie campaign with the Los Angeles Lakers.

But will the Pelicans benefit from not signing Ball prior to the season? Maybe even by getting him to agree to a team-friendly contract if his struggles continue all year?

That seems highly unlikely. First off, not all teams are as desperate for a good shooting guard as the Pelicans are. As previously stated, Williamson and Ingram are in place as the franchise cornerstones. That means every player brought in on a long deal from here on out is brought in with the plan to fit alongside the forward combination.

Most teams with cap space don’t have the luxury of already having two franchise cornerstones in place. That means they are more likely to build around a player they sign – that’s especially true for a player that will hit free agency at a young age as will be the case with Ball.

While there’s almost no way the Pelicans won’t make a qualifying offer to Ball this offseason, it becomes a whole different question when pondering if they’ll match any contract he signs, depending on the financials involved.

He’ll offer significantly more value to another franchise than he might to the Pelicans because of the fit. The New York Knicks, for example, will be among the teams with cap space this offseason, they could see Ball as a player they can build things around moving forward.

That instantly makes him much more valued by the Knicks than he currently would be by the Pelicans. Of course, New Orleans would maintain their right to match the contract, but what good would it be if he isn’t going to fit next to the stars of the team? At no point will he be prioritized over the likes of Williamson and Ingram, which means he’s on a ticking clock to prove he can play alongside them as the team continues its ascension.

The first step could be adjustments to the rotation that sees Ball play more of the traditional point guard role with the rock in his hands. This isn’t easy for head coach Stan Van Gundy to do though as Ingram and Williamson thrive with the ball in their hands.

In all likelihood, Ball’s future in New Orleans will hinge on his consistency as a shooter, which, contrary to popular belief, he has shown the ability to do in the past. First off, confidence and staying engaged are keys; while Ball has struggled with both of those things in his early NBA seasons.

The second is an adjustment to his tendencies. Instead of settling for the spot-up opportunity every time it is presented, Ball would benefit from attacking the closeout more often and maximizing the chances that come from doing so.

Those options are in areas like finding the next open man for a three-pointer, getting to the free-throw line and finishing at the rim instead of hitting the deep shot. If he does these things, he’ll quickly find himself facing less aggressive closeouts and will be more confident in his game. Naturally, those things could lead to a more successful shooting number as the season continues on.

Ball is as talented as they come and it’s understandable why the Pelicans want to slide him in behind the two franchise forwards they have. The unfortunate reality is that time is running out on pass-first guard’s big chance to prove it’s the right move for the Pelicans moving forward.

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What We Learned: Western Conference Week 4

Ariel Pacheco

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It’s only been a month, but the NBA season has already seen plenty of ups and downs. In the Western Conference, especially, the 2020-21 season has been a smashing success for some, but a complete and total slog for others.

But which teams have had it the best in the West so far? The worst? Let’s take a look in the latest Western Conference installment of Basketball Insiders’ “What We Learned” series.

The Clippers Hit Their Stride

Los Angeles’ holdovers from a season ago have often pointed to their regular season complacency as to why they fizzled out during last year’s postseason. And, because of that, they’ve made a concerted effort to play hard on every possession so far in the 2020-21 season.

So far, the results have been good. More than good, even; the Clippers, tied for the best record in the NBA with their in-house rival, the Los Angeles Lakers, are on a six-game win streak. Paul George has played like an MVP candidate, while Kawhi Leonard has looked healthy and at the peak of his powers. Offseason additions Nicolas Batum, Serge Ibaka and Luke Kennard have all made strong contributions as well.

With so many versatile players and a roster as deep as any in the NBA, anyone can be “the guy” for Los Angeles on any given night. And, tough to guard because of that versatility, they’ve managed the NBA’s second-best offensive rating through the first month.

After last season’s let-down, the Clippers have played without much pressure this season — and it’s showed. Still, with Leonard a potential pending free agent (Leonard can opt-out after the season), it’s paramount that the team play hard and show him they’re good enough to compete for a title in both the short- and long-term.

So far, they’re off to a great start.

Injury Woes Continue in Portland

Portland’s been bit by the injury bug. And badly.

Already without Zach Collins, the Trail Blazers have lost both Jusuf Nurkic and CJ McCollum in recent weeks. They couldn’t have come at a worse time, either; Nurkic had turned a corner after he struggled to start the year, while McCollum, averaging 26.7 points on 62 percent true shooting, was in the midst of a career year.

It would seem, once again, like Portland has put it all on the shoulders of Damian Lillard. But, in a brutally competitive Western Conference, he may not be able to carry that load alone. They do have some solid depth: more of a featured role could be just what Robert Covington has needed to get out of a rut, while Harry Giles III, the former Sacramento King that was signed in the offseason, has a ton of potential if he can just to stay on the court. Carmelo Anthony, Gary Trent Jr. and Enes Kanter should see expanded roles in the interim, as well.

But will it be enough? We can only wait and see. But, if that group can’t keep the Trail Blazers afloat until Nurkic and McCollum can return, Portland could be in for a long offseason.

Grizzlies Are Competitive — With or Without Ja Morant

Memphis, on a five-game win streak, is just a half-game back of the West’s fifth seed. And they’ve managed that despite the sheer amount of adversity they’ve had to deal with to start the year. Jaren Jackson Jr. is expected to miss most of if not the entire season, multiple games have been postponed due to the league’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols and Ja Morant missed eight games due to an ankle sprain.

However, head coach Taylor Jenkins has the Grizzlies playing hard, regardless of who is in the lineup. They have the third-best defensive rating in the NBA at 106.1 and have managed huge wins over the Brooklyn Nets, Philadelphia 76ers and Phoenix Suns.

Of course, Memphis is glad to see Morant over his injury and back in the lineup, but they might be just as happy to see how their entire core has progressed. Their success this season has, in large part, been a group-effort; rookies Xavier Tillman and Desmond Bane have been strong off the bench, while youngsters Brandon Clarke, Dillon Brooks and Grayson Allen have all proven integral pieces to the Grizzlies’ core for years to come.

As the year carries on, Memphis might not stick in the playoff picture. But, if their young core can continue to develop, they might not be on the outside looking in for much longer with Morant leading the charge.

What’s Going On In New Orleans?

The Pelicans have struggled and there wouldn’t appear to be an easy fix.

5-9, on a three-game losing streak and having dropped eight of their last nine, New Orleans just can’t seem to figure it out. The rosters fit around cornerstones Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram has proven awkward at best, as the team ranks in the bottom-10 in both offensive and defensive rating. Lonzo Ball has struggled offensively to start the season while JJ Redick can’t find his shot. Newcomer Eric Bledsoe has been fine but, as one of the team’s few offensive creators, his impact has been severely minimized.

Despite their stable of strong defenders, Stan Van Gundy’s defensive scheme, which has maximized their presence in the paint but left shooters wide open beyond the arc, has burned them continuously. Williamson’s effort on the defensive end, meanwhile, has been disappointing at best; he hasn’t looked like nearly the same impact defender he did at Duke University and in short spurts a season ago.

They still have time to work it out, but the Pelicans need to do so sooner rather than later. If they can’t, or at least establish some sort of consistency, New Orleans might never see the heights many had hoped to see them reach this season.

Be sure to check back for the next part of our “What We Learned” series as we continue to keep an eye on the NBA all season long.

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