NBA Season Preview: Phoenix Suns

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Last season: 54-28, as they returned to the style that the roster was built for — seven seconds or less. Well, really, it was more like 12 seconds or less as they utilized a lot of secondary options in the transition and drag screens, but the philosophy was the same. The rode that style to the best offense in the league last year, and rode that (and the bench) all the way to the Western Conference finals. A good season.

Head Coach: Alvin Gentry, who showed a lot of veteran coach savvy last year. He understood that the team needed to run against with this roster, so they did. He understood that he had a bench that could be special and he used them well, built them into a unit that won a few playoff games themselves.

Key Departures: Amar’e Stoudemire, half of the best pick-and-roll duo in the game, was not offered a five-year, fully guaranteed contract by the Suns. This may be what you will see under the new CBA — on long-term deals, after three year teams will have an opt-out or inexpensive buyout of a player — but it is not part of the current deal. New York came in with the full five guaranteed and now Stoudemire is going to save basketball in New York.

Leandro Barbosa went out in the Turkoglu deal, but that was not big loss with Nash as the starting point and Goran Dragic is the clear number two. Lou Amundson was allowed to leave and they will miss him, not a lot of energy/rebound/dirty work guys like that around.

Also gone is Steve Kerr, who came in a few years back and tried to convert this roster into a Spurs-style team (trading Shawn Marion for Shaquille O’Neal among other moves), which backfired. Miserably. But to Kerr’s credit he recognized his mistakes and changed course, rebuilt the team again in a running mold. Not a lot of GMs are willing to admit they were wrong and make changes like that.

Key Additions: Hedo Turkoglu comes in but it seems an expensive and odd fit. He theoretically can take some of the load off of Steve Nash because he is a good pick and roll ball handler. He was in Orlando during their run to the finals two seasons ago, but last year in Toronto as the pick-and-roll ball handler he shot just 36.1 percent and the team scored just 0.77 points per possession, and he turned the ball over 18.8 percent of the time. You do not really want to take the ball out of Nash’s hands for that. If he can return to form and remain a good spot up shooter, he can have value. But the drop off as a number two man from Stoudemire to Turkoglu is dramatic.

One of my favorite pickups this summer was the Suns getting Josh Childress back from Greece, at a reasonable five years, $34 million. He’s been overseas for two years and I think a lot of people forgot just how good he is (he was in the running for sixth man of the year before he left). The only question now is now many small forwards the Suns can have on the roster — Grant Hill, Turkoglu, Childress and Jared Dudley.

Hakim Warrick was brought in at an inflated four years, $17 million, but he is athletic and shout fit well with the system. Gani Lawal was drafted.

Former agent Lon Babby is now your head of basketball operations, with Cleveland assistant GM Lance Banks given the head job. However, most of the roster moves were made before these guys came on board (although Turkoglu and Childress were Babby clients, so…). Their fingerprints are not really on this team yet.

Best case scenario: A return to the Western Conference finals and another shot at the Lakers.

For that to happen: The more diversified offense is going to have to work, Turkoglu has to step up, age cannot catch up with this team and somebody has to play a little defense and rebound.

The Suns are now without the unstoppable force that was the Nash/Stoudemire pick and roll. Now you’re going to get a lot more Robin Lopez setting the pick — which he did well with in a limited role last season.

Around them will be the one thing the Suns have in abundance — guys who can shoot the rock. Everyone on this roster can score, and that diversity of attack is what the Suns will count on now that they can’t just fall back on Nash and Stoudemire. They will to a degree (although how late-game situations play out will be interesting). This team is going to put points up because everyone out there can knock it down and there will be open looks in transition. And even at 37, you can expect Nash will still get them the rock. Plus Goran Dragic has become Nash in Waiting with his stepped up play.

At some point, age is going to catch up with Steve Nash and Grant Hill, but for now they remain on the Ponce De Leon plan. Expect good seasons out of them.

The question will be how well with the Suns defend — they were 19th in the league last season in defensive efficiency and they added guys like Turkoglu who is not a great defender and will get major minutes. Stoudemire and Amundson were also their best rebounders, so the Suns will be vulnerable on the boards. And really good running teams start it with defense and rebounding. As a team, the Suns need to find a way to defend and board or every game will be a shootout.

More likely the Suns will: Be entertaining but not as good, and struggle to make the playoffs. Simply put, talent wins games and the Suns lot some with the Stoudemire departure.

Last season the Suns offense was good enough to overcome the defense, and the bench could win them games. This season, the defense and rebounding will likely be a bigger anchor on a good, but not quite as good, offense. Turkoglu will be spotty. Hill and Nash will need a couple nights off.

So long as Steve Nash is on the team the Suns will be entertaining and dangerous. But to get back to where they need to be just too many things have to go perfect again, and that’s hard to expect.

Prediction: 44-38, fighting for (and maybe missing out on) one of the last playoff spots in the West.

Jrue Holiday hits game winner, Anthony Davis has 45, Pelicans beat Heat in OT, 124-123

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Anthony Davis had 45 points, 17 rebounds, five blocked shots and five steals, and the New Orleans Pelicans beat the Miami Heat 124-123 in overtime Friday night for their fourth consecutive victory.

Goran Dragic scored 30 points and Dwyane Wade hit two runners to give the Heat the lead twice in the last 36 seconds of overtime, but Davis responded to the first with a layup as he was fouled, and Jrue Holiday answered the second with a runner in the lane with 7 seconds left.

Wade had one last shot for the win with Holiday defending him closely. It bounced off the rim to Josh Richardson, whose rushed put-back missed the basket as time expired in Miami’s third straight loss.

Davis, who has scored no fewer than 38 points in a game during New Orleans’ winning streak – and 42 or more three times – raised both arms in triumph as he looked up at the jubilant crowd, and then exchanged high fives with fans along the court.

Holiday finished with 29 points and nine assists, connecting with Davis on a couple of alley-oop dunks. Ian Clark scored a season-high 21 points and Nikola Mirotic capped his 10-point, nine-rebound performance with a crucial 3 in overtime.

Hassan Whiteside had 19 points and 16 rebounds before fouling out in overtime when he hacked Davis on a put-back attempt. Davis hit both free throws to tie it at 117, and then gave New Orleans a brief lead with his fifth alley-oop dunk of the game on a fast-break lob from Holiday with 1:10 to go. Wade had 16 points, while Richardson and Tyler Johnson each scored 15 points.

Neither team was able to build a double-digit lead during game which riveted a boisterous crowd with its fast pace and array of highlights on both ends of the floor. There were 13 ties and nine lead changes.

New Orleans scored 37 fast-break points. Davis threw down seven dunks. He converted one alley-oop while being fouled and also turned a steal into a fast-break layup as he was fouled. And the All-Star wasn’t the only one blocking shots for New Orleans. Emeka Okafor, now in his second 10-day contract after being out of the league for four-plus seasons, had five blocks.

After trailing much of the second half, the Pelicans appeared to be seizing control with a 10-0 run during which Holiday scored eight points, giving New Orleans a 104-99 lead with 2:51 to go.

But the Heat rallied to tie it at 106 on Wade’s free throws.

Davis hit a jumper with 23 seconds left and Wade missed on the other end, but a rebound contested by several players fell to Dragic in the paint, and he hit an uncontested layup to tie it again.

The Pelicans had 14 seconds to set up a winning shot, but Davis’ drive was cut off along the baseline and his awkward layup attempted missed and the game went to overtime after Miami was unable to get a shot from an inbounds play with .8 seconds left.

 

Jimmy Butler leaves game with apparently serious right knee injury

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The Basketball Gods have not been appeased, and apparently have dealt the NBA another serious injury to a star player.

Jimmy Butler — Minnesota’s leader, an All-Star, and a guy having a fringe of the MVP ballot NBA season — went down grabbing his knee on this play against the Rockets Friday night.

Butler reportedly said “it’s torn” while being helped off the court.

After the game, Tom Thibodeau said it was a right knee injury that would be re-evaluated with an MRI tomorrow.

This is a non-contact injury that has the appearance of an ACL tear (hope that is not the case). Butler had ripped an offensive rebound away from Nene and was making a move to go back up when he went to the ground grabbing his knee.

Butler leads the NBA in minutes played per game. He was selected an All-Star but chose to sit out that game because he said he needed rest for the rest of the season. His coach, Tom Thibodeau, has a reputation for running players into exhaustion with heavy use (ask Joakim Noah) and does not subscribe to the kind of rest we see in Golden State, San Antonio, and other elite programs trying to keep players fresh.

This is troubling for a Timberwolves team looking to end an 11-year playoff drought — Minnesota is -8.3 points per 100 possessions when Butler is not on the court this season. While tied for the three seed going into Friday night, Minnesota is just four games from falling out of the playoffs in a competitive West.

Jimmy Butler to Lou Williams on All-Star snub: put up $100K for 1-on-1 game

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Jimmy Butler earned his spot on the All-Star team — he’s had an All-NBA, bottom of the MVP ballot level season. He deserved the trip to Los Angeles.

But when he got there, Butler didn’t play in the All-Star Game itself, saying he needed to rest. That frustrated a few All-Star snubs, and Lou Williams called him out on it.

Butler fired back before the Timberwolves took on the Houston Rockets.

“My thing is this, to Lou or anyone else who thinks they’re an All-Star, with all due respect, LeBron and them got $100,000 for winning, so if you got $100k to put up, you guard me I guard you, I’ gonna show you why. All this talk, put $100,000 up and I’ll show you why and where I’m at.” (That may have been paraphrased)

Butler earned his spot, he deserved to be there. He can do as he sees fit.

But if you’re not going to roll out there for even five minutes (LaMarcus Aldridge played four and nobody is saying anything to him), then give the spot up to someone else. You don’t need the $100K that badly.

Kevin Durant no fan of one-and-done, says he would have come straight to NBA

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With the money funneled to future NBA players through agents in the spotlight thanks to a FBI investigation (one that doesn’t even get into the money from boosters and shoe companies), the one-and-done rule the NBA has for players sending them to college for a semester of cakewalk classes one year has come back in the spotlight.

The league and players’ union are discussing changing the rule — with some input from the NCAA. If they want Kevin Durant‘s advice, scrap the whole thing — he would have come straight to the NBA if he could have.

“You want these players to go out there and play on the biggest stage. The Final Four is one of the biggest sporting events in the world, in sports, and they don’t get a dime for it. I don’t think it’s right

“If they want to come out of high school, it should be on them. You know what I mean? You can’t control everything. So if they feel as though they’re ready, that’s on them. They want to make a decision on their life, that’s on them. If they don’t get drafted, it’s on them. You can try to control it, but you’re still not really doing anything.”

Would Durant have come out from high school rather than spend a season at Texas?

“Yeah, probably. I needed the money.”

The NBA is discussing changes, and they want to see the recommendations from Condoleezza Rice’s NCAA commission. But the league’s owners are not all on the same page.

“In terms of the NBA, we’re conflicted, to be honest…” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said All-Star weekend. “And from a league standpoint, on one hand, we think we have a better draft when we’ve had an opportunity to see these young players play an elite level before they come into the NBA.

“On the other hand, I think the question for the league is, in terms of their ultimate success, are we better off intersecting with them a little bit younger? Are we better off bringing them into the league when they’re 18 using our G League as it was designed to be as a Development League and getting them minutes on the court there? And there is also recognition that for some of these elite players, there is no question that they can perform in the NBA at 18 years old.”

There seems to be some momentum toward a “baseball rule” compromise — players can come to the NBA straight out of high school, but if they go to college they have to stay for at least two years. Unlike the last time high schoolers were rushing into the NBA, most teams are far better prepared to develop young players and be patient with them. There will still be busts — there are even with guys who spent years in college — but teams are in better positions to make it work.

The other thing I would want to see: If a player signs with an agent out of high school, does not get drafted, give him the chance to go to college still. Some young men are going to get terrible advice (from family, AAU coaches, friends, a whole lot of people) and they deserve a chance to choose a better path.