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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.

Way too early look: Who could make up USA’s 2020 Tokyo Olympic basketball team?

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 21:  Jimmy Butler, Kevin Durant, DeAndre Jordan and Kyle Lowry #7 of United States stand on the podium after defeating Serbia in the Men's Gold medal game on Day 16 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at Carioca Arena 1 on August 21, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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Let’s start with the obvious: This is an exercise in futility. There is no way to predict accurately what the 2020 USA men’s basketball team headed to the Tokyo Olympics will look like. There will be injuries that sideline guys. There will be contract situations where key guys decide it’s in their best interest to sit out. Plus, there could be a guy just now entering his junior year of high school who we don’t know well yet but in four years will be a clear choice for the team.

Now that we’ve gotten through the tedious disclaimer, let’s have fun:

What will the 2020 USA Basketball team look like?

First, it will have a bit of a business attitude — Gregg Popovich is coaching now. Not that Mike Krzyzewski ran a college party Team USA, far from it, but with Popovich’s demeanor and the scare put into the 2016 team (and some improving world powers, such as Canada), expect the USA to be a little more focused next time around.

For the roster, who from the 2016 gold medal team in Rio returns for more gold? At the top of the list: A 31-year-old Kevin Durant will be back for one more run (and to climb on top of the USA Olympic scoring list). He will be the unquestioned team leader. The alpha. It will be his team.

After that? Young stars who want one more go at it such as Paul George, DeMarcus Cousins, DeAndre Jordan, and Klay Thompson will seriously consider a return. Maybe Jimmy Butler. Those guys will have a leg up having Olympic experience and a commitment to the program.

After that, some big names that passed on Rio are going to suit up in Japan. There will be far less defection of top talent this time around — the fears around Brazil will be gone, and NBA players wanting to sell more shoes in Asia will be eager to sign up. I expect you will see Stephen Curry, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, Russell Westbrook, and maybe James Harden decide they are in for the next round. LeBron James said he felt left out and may consider a return, but he will be 35 years old with 17 NBA seasons on his body by that point, does he want to put his body through an international curtain call? Probably not.

Rounding out the roster, expect a few guys from this year’s USA Select Team — the team the Olympic squad practiced against in Las Vegas at the start of camp — to make the leap up (as Kyrie Irving and others did this year).

Who? That’s the hardest thing to predict, it depends on development. Guys to watch include Victor Olidipo, Justise Winslow, Devin Booker, Brandon Ingram, and Jabari Parker — some of them will be ready to make the leap.

One clue to the 2020 roster: Players that you see in China for the 2019 FIBA World Cup will be more likely to make the 2020 team. (Yes, the World Championships are now the year before the Olympics, welcome to more of FIBA’s wisdom, as is the fact the Cup qualifiers fall during the NBA/Euroleague seasons.) Guys from the select team now that head to China in three years and perform well in that setting will likely have the USA across their chest in Japan.

Whatever team we send will have the most talent in those games. The question is will that be enough?

Check out the Cleveland Cavaliers Top 10 plays from last season

AUBURN HILLS, MI - APRIL 24: Kyrie Irving #2 and LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers prepare for tip off against the Detroit Pistons in game four of the NBA Eastern Conference quarterfinals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at the Palace of Auburn Hills on April 24, 2016 in Auburn Hills, Michigan. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
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With athletes such as LeBron James and Kyrie Irving on the team, you know the Cleveland Cavaliers Top 10 plays of last season were going to have some special moments.

Yes, the block by LeBron and the stepback three by Irving that sealed the first Cleveland title in 52 years are on top of the list.

But there are some other ridiculous Irving handles and even a Timofey Mozgov dunk in there (a $64 million dunk, apparently).

Watch Spurs’ Dejounte Murray throw off-the-backboard alley-oop to himself in pickup game

Washington guard Dejounte Murray, center, dribbles the ball past Mount St. Mary's center Taylor Danaher (50) as Washington forward Marquese Chriss, right, watches duirng the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Thursday, Nov. 19, 2015, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
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Just a suggestion for rookie Dejounte Murray: Don’t do this in front of Gregg Popovich. You may not like his reaction.

That said, the Spurs needed to get more athletic this off-season — landing Pau Gasol certainly didn’t help that cause — so enter first-round pick Murray, who pulled this off in a recent pickup game.

Murray is going to be brought along slowly in a backcourt where Tony Parker and Patty Mills will be splitting time at the point. Murray is more of a combo guard and is going to have to shoot a lot better than he did in college (28.8 percent from three) to get some run. But this is a situation where the Spurs can groom him, bring him along slowly, and see if they have another draft steal.

He’s certainly got the athleticism.

Corey Brewer: “James (Harden) is going to play defense this year”

HOUSTON, TX - MARCH 18:  James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets walks across the court during their game against the Minnesota Timberwolves at the Toyota Center on March 18, 2016 in Houston, Texas.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
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James Harden‘s defense is not as bad as its reputation.

Well, at least it wasn’t two seasons ago — his near MVP season he was in good enough shape that he could put in a respectable effort on that end and still handle his massive offensive load. There were still some mental lapses, but his focus was better and his improvement lifted the team defense. Last season, he regressed back to youtube “highlight” defense Harden — his conditioning was not where it needed to be, he didn’t expend as much effort on that end, and it showed.

Harden got a massive contract extension this summer, and Dwight Howard is Atlanta’s problem — now Harden has to lead the Rockets. By example. Corey Brewer told ESPN you’re going to see that on defense.

“I think this year he’s going to play better defense, We’re going to let the past be in the past. It’s the future of the Rockets, man. James is going to play defense this year.”

We’re all Missourians on this one: Show me.

Remember that the Rockets will be out and running — Mike D’Antoni is the coach now, and Daryl Morey is going to get the up tempo ball he wants (which Kevin McHale had them doing, but Harden didn’t like him so…). D’Antoni’s teams in Phoenix played better defense than their reputation — points per possession they were middle of the pack — but that has never been his focus.

Will Harden be able to run like he needs to on offense and still defend at a reasonable level?

If he can, it’s a big step toward the Rockets being a dangerous team in the West because if he does it others will follow. Otherwise, every Rockets game will be a shootout, which is entertaining but not going to get a team deep into the playoffs.