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The Phoenix Suns’ Path to Contention

How can the Phoenix Suns take the next step after inking Eric Bledsoe and the Morris twins?

Nate Duncan

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The Phoenix Suns have been the NBA’s most newsworthy franchise over the last week, re-signing Eric Bledsoe to a five-year pact worth $70 million and inking brothers Markieff and Marcus Morris to four-year rookie extensions that kick in for the 2015-16 season. The Morris deals are solid; locking up a starting power forward (as Markieff projects to be) for only $8 million a year in a rising cap climate is solid value, while Marcus could also prove worth his contract even while acknowledging he might have been slightly overpaid to mollify Markieff.

Now that more of Phoenix’s core is locked in, what can we expect going forward? The backcourt of Goran Dragic and Bledsoe projects to be one of the NBA’s best. While Dragic is likely to decline after an age-27 season in which he far exceeded his performance to date, Bledsoe should counteract that with continued improvement. Adding Isaiah Thomas should allow Phoenix to keep its foot on the gas at all times with two scoring ballhandlers always in the game. The Suns appear poised to build on last year’s eighth-ranked offense.

But it is it is quite possible that it doesn’t happen that way due to the loss of Channing Frye. Markieff has flashed three-point range, but he has not shown anywhere near Frye’s shooting prowess in either accuracy or versatility. In fact, Frye was rather unique in that respect among big men. His superior size also gave him the ability to move to center defensively, making his jumper (and more importantly the threat of it) even more deadly. Indeed, Frye ranked as one of the league’s best non-stars by Real Plus-Minus (RPM) in 2013-14 due to his shooting gravity despite pedestrian box score statistics. Among power forwards, he ranked second in Offensive RPM behind Dirk Nowitzki. His 3.92 ORPM was about triple that of the highest rated center, Nikola Pekovic at 1.31. He was even about an average defender for a center by that metric. It is conceivable that Frye’s absence could cause Phoenix to take a major step back offensively and a slight one back defensively.

Nonetheless, the four-year, $32 million offer by the Orlando Magic to take Frye through his 35th birthday was likely an overpay by a team with no better use of its cap space. More importantly, the point here is to figure out how Phoenix can contend if everything goes according to plan with the current roster. If losing Frye kills the offense, Dragic regresses, the Morrises don’t improve or Bledsoe gets hurt again, they are in trouble regardless.

If the current players on the roster can fulfill the Suns’ high but not unreasonable hopes, this roster still tops out as a midpack team in the typically brutal West playoff bracket. In this scenario, the offense should be championship caliber, but it is hard to imagine the defense (13th last year with Frye and some smoke and mirrors by Hornacek) reaching the top 10 without a solid rim-protector and a wing stopper who does not sabotage the offense.

The current roster offers some eventual hope in that regard with center Alex Len, the fifth overall pick in the weak 2013 draft, but he has a long way to go. It might be too far to call it a lost rookie season for Len, but he did not really crack the rotation after a slow start due to surgery on both ankles. I wrote about Len last February,  and we have little information to supplement that evaluation since then as he played little and missed summer league with a finger injury. Unfortunately, there is not much in his overall statistical resume at Maryland and in the pros to indicate he will be a quality starter.

Nevertheless, Len has physical potential defensively with his quick feet for his true center size and a 7’4 wingspan. In limited minutes he allowed a reasonable 48 percent shooting at the rim, so there is at least a slight indication he can evolve into a defensive stopper. But he will need to show a lot this year to convince the Suns that he is the long-term starter at center. The Suns may face criticism if he does not.  Nerlens Noel went a pick later and may break out this year, although he brings his own positional and health issues.

Miles Plumlee will almost certainly start at center this year, but he projects as more of an energy big on a good team. He is not a particularly imposing deterrent at the rim due to being slightly undersized with average instincts, and he is already 26 years old.  It does not seem likely he can develop into the type of stopper the Suns will need to contend.

Meanwhile, the wing stopper role is almost completely devoid of a realistic in-house solution. P.J. Tucker was re-signed over the summer to a three-year, $16.5 million deal, although the last year is only $1.5 million guaranteed. But he is not quite the caliber of player needed on either end, and he is already 29 years old. Tucker has little off-the-dribble game, is only a middling three-point shooter (especially above the break), and as a former power forward lacks the quick feet that define the best wing defenders despite his willingness to compete. Among the remaining options, Gerald Green has always been a bit too spacey despite solid physical tools, and T.J. Warren is a rookie who didn’t have much of a reputation for defense in college.

If Len doesn’t develop into a defensive stopper, what paths are available to the Suns to acquire the two key players needed? The crown jewel in Ryan McDonough’s war chest is the Lakers’ top-five protected 2015 draft pick from the Steve Nash trade, which should fall in the back half of the lottery.  L.A. is unlikely to make the playoffs but should be good enough to avoid the top five. While drafting for need is always risky, shot-blocking centers like Kentucky’s Willie Cauley-Stein or Texas’ Myles Turner could be available in that range, though they will take time to develop. Another option would be trading that pick and perhaps other assets for an immediate starting center solution.

Warren, while he is not the greatest fit with this roster that already features plenty of scoring punch, could flash enough in his rookie year to be part of a trade package. Phoenix also will have its own draft picks at its disposal, plus a first-rounder* from Minnesota from the Wesley Johnson salary dump.

*Unfortunately, this will convert to two second rounders if not conveyed by 2016. That is likely with the pick top-12 protected through 2016 and the Wolves probably a lottery team for the near future.

The Suns’ other option for improving the defense is cap space. With all the recent signings, including Zoran Dragic, they project to have only about $6.7 million in salary cap space (assuming a $70 million cap) in the summer of 2015, including an $11.3 million cap hold for Dragic if he declines his player option. And even that assumes declining a $3 million team option on Anthony Tolliver. That is not enough to acquire a good two-way wing or a solid defensive center unless other cost-cutting moves are made.

Phoenix093014 Dragic Cap Hold

If Dragic decides to move on, or the Suns won’t meet the asking price for the then-29 year-old guard, they could have max cap room in 2015. That is not inconceivable considering the presence of Bledsoe and Thomas as insurance if he leaves.

But let’s assume Dragic re-signs for reasonable money, call it a four-year $48 million pact in 2015.   That may seem a little low, but the Suns–experts in brother sops these days–did bring over Zoran (who based on his European performance is a fringe NBA player). Those numbers are identical to what Kyle Lowry got, and that is a good proxy. The two players are of similar quality, and while the cap will have gone up, Dragic at 29 will also be a year older than Lowry when he signed his deal in the summer of 2014.

The next summer, the salary cap could go up to about $80 million as money from the new TV deal continues to be phased in. The Suns would have about $15 million in cap space even with a big $7.6 million cap hold for restricted free agent Plumlee. If they renounce his rights, that climbs north of $20 million even with Dragic re-signed and the rest of the essential core in place.

Phoenix093014 Dragic Extension

With so many players aiming for the summer of 2016 as free agents, the Suns should be able to fill at least one of their major holes. The problem is, everyone else is going to have a ton of cap room that summer too. And with Dragic on the wrong side of 30 by then, the offense may not have sufficient firepower to contend going forward even if the defense can be improved.

This is not to imply that the Suns are surely destined for the treadmill of mediocrity. With young players like Len, Warren and even the young Archie Goodwin on the roster along with the Lakers pick in the future, the Suns have a number of lottery tickets that could fill out the roster through internal development or facilitate trades. And as a desirable warm-weather market, they could hit really big in 2016 free agency, especially if they can make the playoffs the next two years.

Nevertheless, this offseason was a missed opportunity. The Suns had $23 million in cap space at the start of the summer, and ended up basically exchanging Frye for Thomas and re-signing Bledsoe. With Bledsoe’s small cap hold at the start of the summer, the Suns could have spent up to the cap (minus Bledsoe’s small hold) and then exceeded it by re-signing Bledsoe, as the Houston Rockets hoped to do by signing Chris Bosh and then re-signing Chandler Parsons.*

*The Pistons had a similar opportunity with Greg Monroe’s restricted free agency.

The Suns could certainly have beaten the Miami HEAT’s offer for Luol Deng, perhaps with a two-year, $24 million offer ($4 million more than the HEAT) that would have preserved flexibility in the summer of 2016. Another option would have been getting in on the Trevor Ariza sweepstakes and offering a two-year deal with much more annual value than the four-years, $32 million he got from Houston to preserve space for 2016. They also might have played hardball with Tucker’s contract (he was arrested in May for “super-extreme DUI”) or simply let him go, which could have opened up over $10 million in 2015 cap space even after re-signing Bledsoe and accounting for Dragic’s cap hold. Or Frye could have been re-signed on a large annual value two-year deal that could have come close to what he got from the Magic.*

*It should be noted that the Suns are still paying $7.3 million in 2014-15 for Josh Childress. Spending the maximum possible on free agents and then re-signing Bledsoe would have put the Suns’ out-of-pocket team salary about $13 million higher than it will likely be this season. One would think that did not go unnoticed by owner Robert Sarver.

It must not be forgotten that McDonough took over a team projected to be among the league’s worst and got them to 48 wins last year. Hiring Hornacek and trading Jared Dudley (who was straight up dumped by the Clippers at the cost of a future first-rounder a year later) for Bledsoe were genius moves. But the 2013 draft and 2014 free agency are looking like missed opportunities for Phoenix right now. It remains to be seen whether they can acquire the remaining personnel needed to become a true contender, but they have a chance to do so much more quickly than anyone thought when they were branded tankers in the summer of 2013.

Nate Duncan is an NBA analyst and attorney. He writes regular features for Basketball Insiders and chats weekly at 11 Eastern on Tuesdays.

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High-Performance Mindfulness: What Players Can Learn From Brandon Ingram

By implementing a Daily Gratitude Practice, Brandon Ingram may be ahead of the game. Jake Rauchbach dives in.

Jake Rauchbach

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For younger players, maybe one of the most important elements of successful progression is their ability to mentally and emotionally self-manage.

Throughout a career, and as the stakes increase, the amount of external variables that a player is faced with processing can multiply exponentially both on and off the court.

For players with effective and leverageable skill sets for clear decision-making, as well as mental and emotional self-management, this is a valuable asset. However, for many, it can be like a trial by fire. This means that habits picked up through a career to cope can be either supportive or destructive.

However, players who have the foresight to employ proactive self-management tools — before the volatility of life hits — have a leg up on overall well-being, and with on-court performance.

Brandon Ingram

Brandon Ingram, who is still only 22 years old, helps to shed light on how important it is to have mental and emotional processes in place.

Ingram, who is having a career-best year in New Orleans, averaging 25.4 points per game on 49% shooting, experienced ups and downs during his time with the Lakers.

Whether through proactively seeking out mental skills or by picking them up along the way, BI has seemed to find a process that works for him. He also seems to have found an understanding of how important it is to train these internal habits.

“People around me, they can give me talks, they can tell me what to do, but if I don’t have the right mentality, then nothing good is going to happen for me because I’m not going to be confident,” Ingram said.

As one of the younger up and coming players in the league, it is no coincidence that Ingram learned early the importance of implementing a Daily Gratitude Practice. He employs this tool both in the morning and at night after practice.

Neuroplasticity & Epigenetics

As neuroscientists like Dr. Joe Dispenza are now showing, the differentiating factor in human potential may be the ability to harness thought and emotion. In his Wall Street Journal bestseller, Becoming Supernatural, Dispenza provides several studies showing how these two variables are being shown to directly affect the up or down-regulation of the human gene. Meaning, for every thought or emotion that is produced in the body, there is a corresponding chemical reaction. Each one of the reactions, whether positive or negative, either up-regulate or down-regulate the gene. This is especially true for longstanding thought patterns.

According to neuroscience, Ingram, through his Daily Gratitude Practice, may be positively influencing more levels to his game than he consciously realizes. Players like Ingram who can entrain to higher mental and emotional habits can positively influence physiology and performance.

Conversely, a player with chronic and ingrained negative thought and emotional patterns, such as depression, often produces volatile or underwhelming on-court results. On a psychosomatic level, their mental and emotional states are affecting their physiology and performance.

A player like Ingram, who self admittedly went through many ups and downs, has been able to stabilize and hit his stride this season with the Pelicans. What about the players that have not been able to right the ship?

A deeper understanding of how mindset and emotional states affect a player’s physiology and performance can help us understand what is going on under the hood.

Player Development tools that do this can work to reshape long-standing mental and emotional patterns. Furthermore, providing players with a systematic way of shifting well-being and performance upwards can provide alignment.

Energy Psychology – Player Development

As discussed in previous columns, Energy Psychology – Player Development works on the habit level of the player to remove mental and emotional barriers that inhibit peak performance and overall wellbeing.

Based on Dispenza’s neuroscience findings, when holding all else constant, there seems to be real evidence to show that a player’s thoughts and emotions are the drivers behind overachievement. With this, EP methods help player’s upshift mental state, physiology and performance by neutralizing subconscious blocking thoughts and emotions.

Whether by the player proactively implementing these techniques or through standardized programs set up by the team, working in this fashion goes much deeper than just getting up shots.

Younger Players & The G-League

Ingram is ahead of the curve in regards to implementing elements of consistent mental skills training into his everyday routine. Other players should take heed.

For younger players still on their rookie contracts — or those just coming into the league — support like this may be a deciding factor in how they move throughout the rest of their career.

The G League also may be an ideal proving ground. A proactive mental performance initiative could provide players still trying to solidify an opportunity for an added skill-set. This could provide a leg-up, not only on the court once that call-up opportunity does come.

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NBA Daily: Sixth Man of the Year Watch — 12/6/2019

A Washington sharpshooter joins the ranks of the league’s best reserves, but the Sixth Man conversation still focuses on Los Angeles in Douglas Farmer’s opinion.

Douglas Farmer

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In this update on Sixth Man of the Year candidates, one name must be bid farewell. Unexpected to begin the year but increasingly expected in recent weeks, Charlotte Hornets guard Devonte’ Graham has played too well to keep coming off the bench, most recently shining with 33 points on 10-of-16 shooting from deep Wednesday. In a lost season for the Hornets, Graham’s emergence may be the brightest silver lining, hence his starting their last 13 games.

A similar fate is set to befall another name below in the absence of an injured superstar, but technically speaking, that Brooklyn Nets guard has not started half his team’s games yet, so he remains in this listing one more time …

5. Dāvis Bertāns — Washington Wizards

Bertāns’ recent shooting spurt has not brought the Wizards many wins, but it has led to him reaching double digits in eight of their last nine games, including four instances of 20 or more points. During that stretch, Bertāns has hit 47.5 percent of his looks from beyond the arc, the type of shooting that earns notice.

At this point, he is averaging only 13.6 points and 4.5 rebounds per game, numbers that may not bring out the checkbook this summer, but if Bertāns keeps at his recent pace, his contract year should elicit a worthwhile payday. That would be true in any summer, but even more so in an offseason devoid of many pertinent free agents like 2020 should be.

4. Dwight Howard — Los Angeles Lakers

No. 39’s numbers have not taken off, and they will not, but this space will continue to trumpet Howard’s impact because it has been surprising and quietly important. Even beyond his counting stats — 7 points and 7 rebounds per game — playing fewer than 20 minutes per game will keep Howard from broader recognition for most of the season.

In the Lakers’ 12 wins by 10 or fewer points, Howard has totaled a plus-38. As long as Anthony Davis stays healthy and Los Angeles is the title favorite, Howard’s contributions should not be diminished, even if he is not the prototypical sixth man candidate.

3. Spencer Dinwiddie — Brooklyn Nets

When the Nets face the Hornets tonight, Dinwiddie’s nominal bench status will be in the rearview mirror for the foreseeable future. Through 21 games, he has started 10, fitting the sixth man qualification by one role night. With that distinction, his 20.8 points and 5.8 assists per game place him firmly in this conversation.

If he will have started half Brooklyn’s games by the end of the day, then why include him between Howard and a three-time Sixth Man of the Year winner? Because when Kyrie Irving returns from his extended absence (shoulder injury), Dinwiddie may return to the bench and skew his games off the bench back to the majority of his action.

That effect combined with Dinwiddie keeping the Nets steady and in the East’s top half without Irving is a unique combination of a contribution.

2. Lou Williams — Los Angeles Clippers

Death, taxes and Lou Williams. He has broken 20 points in 14 games this season with two more cracking 30, averaging 21.1 points per game. That was to be expected, even with his slow start to the year. The 14-year veteran is a metronome of a bucket-getter.

His 6.3 assists per game, however, are on pace to be a career-high. While that may not have been anticipated, this will be Williams’ fifth year in a row raising that average. Those dispersals have not shorted Williams’ scoring, as everyone knows. That is all to say, the league’s ultimate sixth man, maybe its best ever, has improved as a complete player in the latter half of his possibly interminable career.

1. Montrezl Harrell — Los Angeles Clippers

At some point this year, this biweekly Sixth Man listing may need to become a one-man testament. Harrell is rendering the preceding four nominations moot. His 19.1 points and 8.0 rebounds per game are impressive, but his pivotal role with the Clippers is even more deserving of lauds.

His 29.7 minutes per game are fourth for Los Angeles — a category Williams actually tops — and his plus-156 leads the Clippers handily, with only Kawhi Leonard’s plus-144 within 60 of Harrell. Yes, Harrell’s on-court impact in Los Angeles rivals Kawhi Leonard’s, despite one of them coming off the bench in 20 of 22 games and the other being the reigning Finals MVP.

The season is still in the early aughts — but some classic and new frontrunners are here to stay. For now, we’ll have to see how Paul George, Kyrie Irving and others ultimately impact the leaders on this list, but the Sixth Man of the Year race has only just started to heat up.

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NBA Daily: Equal Opportunity System With Butler Fueling HEAT

Seemingly always trapped in “good but not good enough” territory, the Miami HEAT have finally turned a corner. They might even be contenders, writes Drew Mays.

Drew Mays

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209 wins, 202 losses.

That’s what the Miami HEAT have to show in the record column since LeBron James left in the summer of 2014.

Their record tells us out loud what we’ve known over the last five years: Miami is a proud franchise. The team maximizes what it has and is a perennial postseason threat no matter who is on the roster.

Middling seasons aren’t necessarily a good thing by NBA standards, however. Competitiveness is a stepping stone to title contention. Without contention, it makes sense to bottom-out and rebuild through draft capital and assets. 40-win seasons are neither of these things.

But what the HEAT have in their favor is their location. NBA stars love South Beach. And this summer, Miami got what it needed: A star to push them over the hump in Jimmy Butler.

Butler wasn’t the shiniest addition, but he was one of the most important. A top-15 player, Butler’s antics in Minnesota frustrated his value over the past few seasons.

Those annoyances were overshadowed by his play for Philadelphia in the playoffs last spring — even with Joel Embiid, Butler may have been the 76ers’ best player. Either way, he was definitely their most important. He took control of games as a ball-handler down the stretch, repeatedly working from 15-feet and in and running pick-and-roll when the games screeched to a halt and defenses were loaded up. With Butler in tow, the Sixers were a few bounces away from the Eastern Conference Finals — although, he’d tell you they would’ve won the whole thing.

Instead of running it back in Philadelphia, Butler flew south in free agency to where he’d always wanted to go: Miami. His signing, followed by the arrival of rookie Tyler Herro, the emergence of Kendrick Nunn, a jump by Bam Adebayo and the support of the rest of the roster has the HEAT at 15-6 and poised to make a deep playoff run.

Miami has seven players averaging double figures. Kelly Olynk, averaging 9.2 per game, is close to making it eight. The balance extends beyond scoring numbers – those eight players all play between 23 and 34 minutes, with fifth starter Meyers Leonard as the lowest-used regular at just under 19 minutes per game. No one shoots the ball more than Nunn and his 13.8 attempts per game, and four players average over 4 assists each night.

While most teams are built on top-down schemes with a few stars and role players filling in the blanks, Miami is thriving in an equal-opportunity system. Much of this has to do with their culture and ability to amplify each player’s talents.

This even attack wouldn’t exist if Herro wasn’t flourishing in his rookie season; if Nunn hadn’t become a revelation after going undrafted in 2018; if Adebayo hadn’t made a leap, detailed recently by Jack Winter; if Goran Dragic hadn’t accepted going to the bench after starting essentially the last seven years; if Duncan Robinson hadn’t developed into an NBA rotation player.

All of these things are hard to predict individually, let alone them coming together at once. But with Miami, and with what we know about Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra, it was almost a foregone conclusion.

Butler’s infusion into Miami’s culture has been the perfect marriage 20 games in. His toughness matches the HEAT’s, and he seems to respect the work ethic of his teammates – something that’s been a huge problem in the past. He’s been able to be “the guy” without forcing it, leading Miami in scoring, but trailing Nunn in attempts per game.

The HEAT’s diversity on offense has led to an effective field goal percentage of 55.2 percent, second-best in the league. They’re 3rd in three-point percentage, 6th in two-point percentage, and 7th in free throws made. They’re 10th in assists. Even with their league-worst turnover percentage, they are 11th in offensive rating and 6th in overall net.

Defensively, the team is doing what Miami has traditionally done. They’re eighth-best in opponent field goal percentage and 2nd in the entire league in three-point percentage at 31.6%. In today’s NBA, defending the three-point line that well will breed success.

After defeating the Toronto Raptors on Tuesday — and the defending champions’ subsequent loss to the Houston Rockets — the HEAT are tied with them for third place in the Eastern Conference standings. And we’re 20 games in, so what we’ve seen from them so far is real. They are contenders to represent the East in the Finals in June.

Toronto and the Boston Celtics are good. They’ve both had strong starts, bolstered by the ridiculousness of Pascal Siakam and the insertion of Kemba Walker, respectively. But they aren’t markedly better than Miami. Are their offenses good enough to overcome the HEAT in a playoff series?

The Milwaukee Bucks, the proverbial frontrunner, still have the glaring non-Giannis weaknesses. They lost Malcolm Brogdon and showed their vulnerability by losing four straight in the conference finals last year. Philadelphia struggled out of the gate, but have won 8 of their last 11. But sans Jimmy Butler, the Sixers face the same questions they faced before his arrival in 2018-19: Who is the guy down the stretch? Who can create offense late in a playoff game?

That hasn’t been answered for Philadelphia yet. There’s no assurance that it’ll be answered at all. That question is answered in Miami.

They have Butler now. They have their star.

Combine that with Herro, Nunn, Adebayo, Dragic, Justise Winslow — who they haven’t even had for half of their games thus far — and the rest of the package, and Erik Spoelstra has what he hasn’t had since LeBron James was still in Miami.

A contender.

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