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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.

Jimmy Butler still begging Fred Hoiberg to coach him harder

CHICAGO, IL - JANUARY 20: Head coach Fred Hoiberg of the Chicago Bulls talks with Jimmy Butler during a game against the Golden State Warriors
at the United Center on January 20, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using the photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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The Bulls reportedly has chemistry issues last season stemming from the Jimmy Butler-Fred Hoiberg relationship. Butler’s most public critique of Hoiberg came in December, when the wing said, “We probably have to be coached a lot harder at times.”

A reasonable criticism for the mild-mannered Hoiberg? Perhaps, especially for a team that responded so well to the hard-driving Tom Thibodeau for the better part of five years.

The best delivery? Probably not, considering Hoiberg was still trying to find his way in his first NBA season.

But Butler hasn’t changed his message.

Butler, via CSN Chicago:

“I told Fred, ‘As much as you can, use me as an example. I want you to really get on my tail about every little thing.’,” Butler said. “Because if Doug or Tony or whoever it may be is watching coach talk to me like that, it’s going to be like, ‘If he can talk to Jimmy like that, I know he’s going to come at me a certain way.’ That’s what I try to remind him every day. I think he’s ready for that. I’m a player. I’m coachable like everybody else. I want that. I need that.”

Tim Duncan was celebrated for years for taking the brunt of Gregg Popovich’s criticism in San Antonio, setting an example for younger Spurs. So much of what Butler has done lately has been spun into a negative, but it seems he’s really trying to sacrifice his pride to help teammates like Doug McDermott and Tony Snell.

If Hoiberg goes along, this could quiet complaints about Butler’s leadership and preferential treatment.

With Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah in New York, the Bulls are Butler’s team now. Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo have said as much.

It seems Butler is doing what he can to lead the Bulls – his way. The question: Does Hoiberg also think that’s the best way?

Jeremy Lin: My race made Linsanity bigger

Dallas Mavericks v New York Knicks
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Jeremy Lin might want to move past Linsanity, but  he’ll always be linked to that period in 2012. It was so enthralling for numerous reasons, including:

  • Lin played unsustainably great basketball, leading the Knicks to a 7-1 record while starting with Carmelo Anthony injured and averaging 25.0 points and 9.5 assists per game in that span.
  • Lin was excelling in New York, America’s biggest media market.
  • The Knicks were desperate for success, having not won a single playoff game in the last decade.
  • Lin was undrafted and relatively unknown before breaking out.
  • Lin played at Harvard, which is universally known for academics and barely known for basketball.
  • Lin is Asian-American, a rarity in high-level basketball.

Yes, that last factor mattered.

Lin, via Peter Botte of the New York Daily News:

“In some ways, Linsanity wouldn’t have been Linsanity if I was a different skin color, most likely, it wouldn’t have been as big of a deal, and that went to my advantage, too, but if you look prior to that, a lot of the obstacles to even get to that point where I could get to a position of getting on the floor, those were definitely obstacles that were very much stereotypes that I had to fight along the way. So I’ve always understood that there’s good and there’s bad and you have to take them together and just be thankful for it all.”

Linsanity was a culmination of all the elements listed above. Maybe it would’ve happened without one or two, but THE essential factor was Lin’s on-court production. Without that, he never would’ve become a national phenomenon.

Lin’s heritage – he was born in California to Taiwanese-born parents – accentuated his basketball skills, but the basketball skills were the base for his popularity.

And as Lin said, his race was a double-edged sword. It made him less likely to get the benefit of the doubt when rising through the basketball ranks. I believe that coaches, scouts and other players were less inclined to believe in his basketball ability because of his race.

But Lin overcame that and eventually reaped the awards of being an outlier.

Lin has long seemed to possess a keen understanding of himself and a willingness to discuss it. I think he’s spot-on here, and it leads to a better understanding of one of the biggest NBA stories in recent years.

51Q: Will we see what the Trail Blazers saw in Evan Turner?

CAMBRIDGE, MA - JULY 27:  NBA player Evan Turner of the Portland Trail Blazers speaks to members of AS Roma during a friendly match against the Boston Bolts at Ohiri Field on July 27, 2016 in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Mike Lawrie/Getty Images)
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We continue PBT’s 2016-17 NBA preview series, 51 Questions. For the past few weeks, and through the start of the NBA season, we tackle 51 questions we cannot wait to see answered during the upcoming NBA season. We will delve into one almost every day between now and the start of the season.

Last season, Trail Blazers general manager Neil Olshey received the most Executive of the Year first-place votes.

This offseason, he signed Evan Turner to a four-year, $70 million contract.

How could someone who engineered such a smart 2015 offseason – nailing move after move – give Turner so much money? He earned the benefit of the doubt by rebuilding on the fly without LaMarcus Aldridge, but Olshey spent a lot of his capital (and Paul Allen’s money) on a mid-level, seemingly ill-fitting small forward.

Is this another example of Olshey outfoxing us, or did he finally get tripped up?

I expected brilliance from Portland this summer given Olshey’s successful retool around Damian Lillard last year, when Aldridge bolted. Olshey traded Nicolas Batum for Noah Vonleh and Gerald Henderson, signed Al-Farouq Aminu (four years, $30 million) and Ed Davis (three years, $20 million) to team-friendly contracts, traded a late first-rounder for Mason Plumlee, practically got Maurice Harkless for free and carved out bigger roles for C.J. McCollum, Allen Crabbe and Meyers Leonard by letting Wesley Matthews, Robin Lopez and Arron Afflalo walk. The Batum trade is the only move that’s not a clear victory, but Batum was headed into unrestricted free agency and might have left Portland empty-handed, and the 21-year-old Vonleh could still develop.

Not only did the younger Trail Blazers come together far more quickly than expected, winning 44 games and a playoff series, they did so under budget. Portland had enough cap space at the trade deadline to extract a first-rounder for eating Anderson Varejao‘s contract – the type of move usually reserved for tankers like the 76ers.

The 2016 offseason brought even more possibilities. Thanks to low cap holds for Crabbe, Leonard and Harkless, the Blazers were flush with cap space.

And they spent a big chunk of it on… Evan Turner.

Turner is an alright player, but I don’t think he’s worth $17.5 million per year in a vacuum – and Portland presents a tough fit.

His strengths – passing for his position, mid-range shot creation – matter less on team where the ball is frequently in Lillard’s or McCollum’s hands. Portland shouldn’t take the ball from Lillard and McCollum to give Turner more touches, either.

When off the ball, Turner’s poor outside shooting is a liability to efficient scoring and floor spacing. He made 24% of his 3-pointers last season and 30% for his career. Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts believes Turner will shoot better in Portland, but that optimism is usually wishful thinking. For his part, Turner sounds more focused on the mid-range, where he’s not efficient enough to take shots from the typical looks generated by Stotts’ space-strong scheme.

Portland could use defensive help, and Turner is fine at that end. But he’s not the stopper his 6-foot-7 frame would suggest. He’s just not quick or bouncy enough to stay with many opponents.

It just doesn’t add up – unless Olshey knows what he’s doing, which he might. After impressing so much in his other dealings, Olshey has put the spotlight on Turner this season – with the rest of us watching to see just how Turner will add $70 million of value to the Trail Blazers.

Giannis Antetokounmpo tells terrible joke at Bucks media day (video)

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 16:  Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks reacts to his foul during a 103-90 Los Angeles Clippers win at Staples Center on December 16, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and condition of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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Thankfully, Giannis Antetokounmpo has a lucrative career and doesn’t need  to make ends meet through stand-up comedy: