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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.

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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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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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