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.

Amir Johnson on South Beach: 2006 Pistons ‘let the streets beat us’

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Amir Johnson is a savvy veteran on the young 76ers.

On the 2006 Pistons, he was a scarcely used rookie straight out of high school.

But he was learning lessons he’d apply to his current role.

Tim Reynolds of the Associated Press:

Philadelphia heeded Johnson’s advice. The 76ers won Games 3 and 4 in Miami to take a 3-1 series lead.

The Pistons went 0-3 in Miami during the six-game 2006 Eastern Conference finals. There was little shame in losing to those Heat. They pushed Detroit to seven games in the 2005 conference finals and were – with Dwyane Wade transcendent while Shaquille O’Neal remained in his prime – even better the following year.

But too much partying is a major charge and a somewhat surprising one. The Pistons were led by the same veteran core – Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, Ben Wallace and Rasheed Wallace – that made the previous two NBA Finals and won the 2004 title. They’d been around long enough to know better.

Gregg Popovich to miss Spurs-Warriors Game 5

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Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has missed Games 3 and 4 of his team’s first-round series against the Warriors following the death of his wife, Erin.

Unsurprisingly, he won’t coach the Spurs as they leave San Antonio for Game 5 tomorrow at Golden State.

David Aldridge of NBA.com:

Popovich should take all the time he needs. Ettore Messina is capable as acting coach, and Popovich being with his family now is more important anyway.

This will probably be the final game of the series. Up 3-1, the Warriors are the better team and at home.

LeBron James on Lance Stephenson-drawn technical foul: ‘I gave him a little nudge, and he falls to half court. Come on’

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LeBron James and Lance Stephenson have met in 23 playoff games.

Stephenson has tried to agitate LeBron throughout all of them.

From the choke sign back when Stephenson was still a benchwarmer to the infamous ear blow to the tapping of LeBron’s face the next game, Stephenson has been relentless. And LeBron has mostly kept his cool.

But not last night.

Midway through the fourth quarter of the Cavaliers’ Game 4 win over the Pacers, Stephenson stuck close to LeBron as LeBron went to the Cleveland bench. LeBron pushed Stephenson away and received a technical foul.

LeBron:

I mean, I should never have gotten a tech in the first place. There’s a timeout called, and this guy’s following me to my bench. I gave him a little nudge, and he falls to half court. Come on. But I should know better. I should know better. I’ve been dealing with this since elementary. It’s like I tell you a joke – I tell you a joke and then you laugh, and you get caught. That’s what happened. Lance told me a joke. I laughed. Teacher caught me. Now, I’ve got to go see the principal. That’s what happened.

Stephenson earned that technical foul. He did just enough to bait LeBron, but too much where Stephenson would get a tech. Then, Stephenson exaggerated the contract.

LeBron got got, and he knows it.

He’s also probably savvy enough to remain on greater alert to Stephenson’s antics the rest of the series and avoid responding again.

Where the Blazers, Neil Olshey, and Terry Stotts go from here

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The Portland Trail Blazers were a frustrating team to watch to start the season. They floundered early as players like Moe Harkless and Evan Turner failed to take the next step forward to help the team. The emergence of Zach Collins playing in tandem with a healthy Ed Davis was a good story, but not enough to overcome Portland’s fatal flaws. Most of the talk surrounding the Blazers remained about roster construction — as it has since GM Neil Olshey signed Turner to his massive 4-year, $70 million contract back in 2016.

Then things flipped.

Starting with a win over the Golden State Warriors on February 14, Portland rattled off 13 straight. Harkless was no longer moody, Damian Lillard was playing like a Top 5 MVP candidate, and CJ McCollum hummed right along with him. Al-Farouq Aminu was shooting well, Shabazz Napier was an important rotational piece, and even Turner’s midrange turnarounds felt like a simple change of pace rather than a glaring misfit. Roster talk died down because Portland looked unstoppable, and with a new defensive effort the team felt like a lock to beat whichever squad they faced in the first round.

But the Blazers found themselves outgunned, overmatched, and demoralized as they took on the New Orleans Pelicans after the conclusion of the regular season. Portland got swept, 4-0, in perhaps the most embarrassing playoff sweep in franchise history since their series with the San Antonio Spurs at the turn of the last century.

So here we are, with both the Blazers and fans in Portland back to wondering the same thing: just what can be done to fix this roster and maximize Lillard’s prime?

We have to start with the basic fact that Portland is not going to trade McCollum.

Part of the internal friction for the Blazers is that McCollum is the guy Olshey seems most emotionally attached to. Olshey was fully at the helm of the organization when McCollum was drafted in 2013, and thus McCollum is wholly an Olshey guy. Portland had scouted Lillard long before Olshey arrived 24 days prior to the 2012 NBA Draft. Not that Olshey values one over the other, but there’s an odd, unspoken understanding that Olshey wants to make McCollum work along with Lillard partly as a matter of pride.

So if we move away from the possibility of changing the overall theory of a roster built around those two guards, where does that leave the Blazers? The answer comes with a boggling number of variables.

The key that unlocked Portland’s potential to dismantle most of their opponents after Valentine’s Day was a happy Harkless, one who was dropping 3-pointers from the corners and dishing out assists rather than moping on the deepest part of the bench. That was the big variable that made the switch for the Blazers. But in the playoffs, Portland got a Harkless that was just coming off knee surgery, and he wasn’t as effective.

Harkless said in exit interviews on Sunday that team brass reiterated to him how important he’s going to be to them next season, and they aren’t blowing smoke. Harkless is young, cheap, and versatile. He’s a better passer and dribbler than Aminu, whose contract expires after next season, and he’s a better pure shooter from deep. The problem is relying on Harkless, who admits to being moody and letting that emotional variance affect him on the court.

This puts us back to the question of Turner. For as much as Olshey likes to talk as though he slow plays the league, it was an extreme reach not only to pay Turner his contract but to sell the public the logic behind it. After McCollum and Lillard were trapped to death in the playoffs a few years ago, Olshey grabbed Turner as a third ball handler, one who could let Lillard and McCollum run around screens off-ball to reduce turnovers. At least, that was the story.

It didn’t really work all that well given the symbiotic nature of the game of basketball. Last season, Aminu’s shooting dipped and opposing defenses simply helped off of him and onto Portland’s main dribblers. That made Harkless and Allen Crabbe invaluable as shooters, not only as scorers but as sources of gravity to open up passing lanes.

There was as similar issue this season as Aminu’s shooting percentages rose while Harkless sat on the bench in the middle of the year. Without Harkless or Crabbe to anchor the 3-point line, that left Portland with just one shooter outside of Lillard and McCollum in Aminu. Teams drifted toward Aminu, leaving Turner as the open shooter on the 3-point line. He shot 32 percent from deep, and Portland went from 8th in 3-point percentage to 16th in a year.

Turner adapted his game over the course of this season the best he could to compliment Portland’s system and needs. He’s just not useful enough at top clip. This explains the position the Blazers have been in the entirety of Turner’s contract — it’s going to be impossible to move him without attaching significant assets and in the process, delaying the progress of the team. No trade involving Turner will return the wing Portland needs. That’s just not how it works when you’ve got an albatross contract in 2018.

And so, after their sweep at the hands of the Pelicans, the conversation in Portland swiftly moved to speculation that coach Terry Stotts could be on the hot seat. The reality of Portland firing Stotts, if they are considering it, is of a major setback.

Stotts is beloved by his players, most of all Lillard, the franchise cornerstone. Stotts was a genuine Coach of the Year candidate this season for his role in developing guys like Napier and Pat Connaughton, who were useful at different parts of the season. Stotts pushed Nurkic to be more aggressive, a major factor in their late-season success. He rehabilitated Harkless. Reaching back even further, Stotts masterminded an offense that turned Mason Plumlee into the third creator on offense for Portland before the Nurkic trade last year. He’s been excellent, and firing him would be a colossal mistake.

I’ll put it this way: when Lillard had his “where is this going” conversation about the Blazers with owner Paul Allen, that talk wasn’t about Stotts. It was about Olshey’s roster construction.

The conversation about Stotts is a bit ridiculous, although it’s understandable given Olshey is both above him organizationally and a bit more financially annoying to fire after a recently-signed extension. But unlike Stotts, Olshey has not exceeded expectations in his position. Despite some clever draft day trades and the rumored rejection of a max contract bid offered by Chandler Parsons‘ camp two summers ago, the fact is Olshey is the one who has hampered the team, while Stotts has done the best with what he’s been given.

And so here we are, with the same questions about the Blazers roster nearly two years down the line and with an embarrassing playoff sweep in their possession. McCollum and Lillard are firmly cemented, perhaps more so thanks to their defensive improvement and the team’s win total. The Blazers can’t move their pieces thanks to poor fiscal management, and they’re in danger of losing valuable contributors like Davis, Napier, and eventually Aminu because of it.

It appears Portland’s only way forward is to do what they’ve always done, although it won’t be by their own volition, much as Olshey would like to spin it that way. Olshey, who said as much during exit interviews, will look for value in the draft and build a team that functions as a unit. I would assume that he’ll also need to ask owner Allen to tempt the repeater tax as he tries to re-sign Davis this year and Aminu the next. Olshey will need to hope Harkless is more consistent, and that he can find yet another shooter in the draft or via an exception signing or trade. All of these things are pretty big ifs, particularly in the light of Lillard’s public urgency and the results of Olshey’s bigger misfires.

The end to the season in Portland was disappointing, because of their sweep but also because they didn’t do enough to change our minds about their flaws and roster issues. That burden lies squarely with Olshey. Portland’s GM says he wants to stay measured in his approach, but moves like signing Turner, trading Crabbe for an exception, and swapping Plumlee for Nurkic were anything but. Those are big swings with mixed results.

Portland’s roster isn’t good enough to sustain large dips, and its plodding, “calculated” approach to roster management has put the Trail Blazers in a place similar to what you’d expect from a front office with a more flamboyant, laissez-faire style. Big contracts, an overpaid supporting cast, and an inconsistent bench rolled into a cap hit scraping $121 million.

The roster theory is understandable, but the execution in Portland is lacking. Eventually, the Blazers — and Olshey — are going to have to stop being measured and simply measure up.