Minnesota Timberwolves v Phoenix Suns

What the Suns should do when the lockout ends

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This is the latest installment of PBT’s series of “What your team should do when the lockout ends.” Up next is the Phoenix Suns. You can also check out our thoughts on other NBA teams here as we work our way through all 30 squads.

Last season: Just one year removed from pushing the eventual champion Lakers to six games in the Western Conference Finals, the Suns took a few steps backward by finishing out the 2010-11 season in mid-April, with a record of 40-42 that wasn’t even good enough to get them back to the playoffs. The reasons for the decline are obvious, of course. But that doesn’t make the lost season any more palatable for Suns fans.

Amar’e Stoudemire was lost in free agency, after the team refused to give him the max deal that he was able to get from the Knicks. The team tried to fill the void left by Stoudemire’s departure with Hedo Turkoglu, Hakim Warrick, and Josh Childress. It was clear fairly early on that Turkoglu wasn’t going to provide enough help, so he was dealt in mid-December to the Magic for Vince Carter and Marcin Gortat. Gortat turned out to be a nice surprise, and Carter was serviceable at times. But the bigger issue was sending Jason Richardson to Orlando, because the Suns largely struggled to replace his consistent scoring on a game-by-game basis for the remainder of the year.

Changes since we last saw the Suns: The only official change to the Suns roster happened on draft night, though there are likely plenty more on the way once the lockout is resolved and the free agency period begins. Phoenix used its 13th overall pick in the draft to sign Markieff Morris, a big man who the Suns believe can provide immediate help on the defensive end of the floor. The Suns talked about his intangibles and toughness on draft night, and if the team’s brain trust is correct in that assessment, Morris could be a nice rebuilding piece for the future.

When the lockout ends, the Suns need to: Make some hard decisions, and stick with them.

The Suns’ best players, while still productive, are on the tail ends of their careers. Steve Nash is still one of the top point guards in the game, and if the Suns want to continue to compete, then they need to sign him beyond next season, when his contract is slated to run out. The team has been adamant about not wanting to trade Nash, and has said that they would only do so at his request. Nash himself has said multiple times that he wants to stay in Phoenix, and that things like stability and camaraderie are just as important to him at this stage of his career as the opportunity to win a championship.

If both player and team are on that same page, the Suns need to fortify their roster with capable complimentary talent that can help Nash and the Suns challenge with another run in the postseason. That means delaying the rebuilding process for a couple of years, and making some short-term decisions that would enable Phoenix to win now. The thing is, the Suns don’t have a lot of room for error here. They’ll need to guess right on their next wave of trades or free agent signings, and can’t afford to make yet another mid-season trade that changes the continuity of the team and provides little short-term hope for success.

As we mentioned, although there haven’t been any changes to the roster since the end of last season, you can bet that they’re coming. Vince Carter will be bought out of his contract, and likely won’t be back unless he is willing to take somewhere in the neighborhood of a minimum deal to stay in Phoenix. Aaron Brooks is a restricted free agent, and depending on how the new collective bargaining agreement is structured, it would be easy to see him begin the new season elsewhere. Mickael Pietrus struggled with injuries the latter part of the season, but even before then, he didn’t provide the team with anything more other than a quirky locker room personality, so he might be another player that the team will look to replace via trade.

If the team does indeed decide to keep Nash beyond next season, they’ll surely want to keep Grant Hill as well. Hill, even at this late stage of his career, has been the team’s best one-on-one defender, and is stellar at getting out on the break and finishing at the rim when the team is pushing the tempo, i.e., doing what it does best. Hill is a free agent right now though, so the decision on him — while certainly tied to the one on Nash — will need to be made sooner rather than later.

It all comes down to the decision to either play in the present or for the future for the Suns heading into next season. Keeping Nash and building around him for another chance to compete would certainly keep the fans happy, but on the flip side, he’s a huge asset that could bring back long-term value for the team if it does decide to go the rebuilding route. The team’s glue guy, Jared Dudley, concisely summed up the toughness of this decision in a recent interview with us.

“It sounds good to trade the franchise player and try to get something back, but sometimes the stuff you get back isn’t that good and then you’re in for a long haul to try and get back up to the top,” he said.

And therein lies the dilemma for your 2011-12 Phoenix Suns.

Back to the drawing board for Thunder against Spurs

SAN ANTONIO,TX - APRIL 30: Kawhi Leonard #2 of the San Antonio Spurs scores against the Oklahoma Thunder during game one of the Western Conference Semifinals for the 2016 NBA Playoffs at AT&T Center on April 30, 2016 in San Antonio, 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 Ronald Cortes/Getty Images)
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There was a possession where LaMarcus Aldridge grabbed a defense rebound, outlet-passed to Manu Ginobili, who then turned and fired a 70-foot strike to Kawhi Leonard for a dunk.

The whole play took about 3 seconds. And the ball never touched the floor.

Not everything came that easily for San Antonio in the opener of the Spurs’ Western Conference semifinal series against Oklahoma City. It only seemed that way, as they rolled to a 124-92 win and will now look to take a 2-0 lead when the series resumes in San Antonio on Monday night.

“Now we’ve got to get back to the drawing board and see what we’ve got to do better to get ready for Game 2,” Oklahoma City guard Russell Westbrook said. “Come out and play with a different mindset.”

That would be a start.

The three worst playoff losses of Kevin Durant and Westbrook’s time together in Oklahoma City all have one thing in common – they all happened in San Antonio.

The Spurs won by 35 on May 21, 2014, followed that up eight nights later with a 28-point win and now added a 32-pointer for good measure. And the Game 1 margin was the biggest defeat Thunder coach Billy Donovan has dealt with in more than 17 years.

It was Feb. 10, 1999 – 660 games ago for Donovan – when his Florida Gators lost 91-56 to Tennessee. That Gator team recovered and won four of its next five games, and if the Thunder are going to get out of this series they’ll have to do something similar.

“I think the guys in that locker room are pretty competitive,” Donovan said. “I think they’re going to want to come back and respond.”

The key for the Thunder in Game 2 will be stopping Aldridge. They had no answers for him in Game 1; Aldridge scored 38 points and didn’t even play 30 minutes.

When the Spurs acquired him, it was evident that San Antonio would again be a major title favorite. It’s working out exactly as San Antonio planned.

“I don’t know an exact date,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said when asked how long it took Aldridge to get comfortable with the Spurs. “It was a progression. Any new player in a new program, it’s a progression. It takes a little bit of time to get comfortable with the system and secondly, with teammates – who does what, when, where, how, all that kind of thing. It was just a steady kind of improvement and recognition as the year went on.”

If players get asked to play big minutes Monday, that shouldn’t be an issue. Game 3 isn’t until Friday night in Oklahoma City.

A look at Game 2:

Thunder at Spurs, San Antonio leads 1-0. 9:30 p.m., TNT

It’s been long established that Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are one of the league’s all-time trios. But the sheer margin by which they’re separating themselves from some of the others on that list is getting to be staggering.

Consider:

Magic Johnson, Michael Cooper and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won 600 games together for the Los Angeles Lakers. Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish won 632 in their days as Boston Celtics teammates.

It took a long time for those numbers to be passed. It’s going to take a real long time before anyone even comes near what Duncan, Parker and Ginobili have done – now with 700 wins together after Saturday’s Game 1 triumph.

Everything worked for the Spurs in the opener. They had 39 assists and all but one of their players who got minutes had at least one – the exception being Andre Miller. And the Spurs are now 43-1 at home this season, 34-0 when Duncan is in the lineup.

And for all the adjustments Oklahoma City will make, figuring out how to get better against Leonard’s defense probably should be foremost. Leonard spent much of Game 1 guarding Westbrook, helping force him into a 5 for 19 night from the floor. Meanwhile, Leonard and Aldridge combined to make 28 of 36 shots.

NBA report admits referees missed Raptors’ DeRozan’s foul on Pacers’ Mahinmi

TORONTO, ON - MAY 01:  DeMar DeRozan #10 of the Toronto Raptors is congratulated by Paul George #13 of the Indiana Pacers following the final whistle of Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at the Air Canada Centre on May 01, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  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 Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
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It was one of the most discussed plays in the final minutes of Toronto’s thrilling if sloppy Game 7 win against Indiana. The Pacers were down three with less than 20 seconds left (after Frank Vogel had taken a poor timeout messing up a four-on-two transition chance) and ran a play for a quick two that resulted in Paul George driving on the right side and Bismack Biyombo coming over to help. George could have gotten off a shot but instead threw a lob to Ian Mahinmi at the rim.

Except that DeMar DeRozan can in and fouled Mahinmi, pushing him out of the way. The ball flew over Mahinmi’s head and became a turnover on what was Indiana’s last decent offensive possession of the game.

Monday the league admitted DeRozan committed a foul, saying:

DeRozan (TOR) makes body contact with Mahinmi (IND), dislodging him and affecting his ability to catch the alley-oop pass.

This, of course, changes nothing.

There were a number of other questionable calls in this game, but the league said every other one in the last two minutes of the game was correct, save for the fact Myles Turner should have been called for a foul on Biyombo with 2.6 seconds left, but that would not have changed the outcome. The NBA’s report does not look at close calls outside the final two minutes, such as Paul George’s offensive charging foul on DeRozan with 3:51 left.

Ultimately, it’s not the referees that decided this game. If Pacers fans want to be frustrated, they need to look at the fact their team let Toronto grab the offensive rebound on 35 percent of their missed shots, and the seven George turnovers (including a couple of key ones late). Those are the things that turned the game.

Report: D-League All-Star, Magic call-up Keith Appling arrested with loaded AK-47 in strip club

Orlando Magic's Keith Appling (15) makes a shot in front of Philadelphia 76ers' Jerami Grant (39) and Nerlens Noel (4) during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2016, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
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If you’re on the fringe of the NBA, trying to get teams to take a chance on you, this is the opposite of what you should do.

Former Michigan State star Keith Appling, who last season was a D-League All-Star for the Erie Bay Hawks and got a couple of 10-day contracts with the Orlando Magic, has reportedly been arrested and is still in jail in Dearborn, Michigan, for allegedly taking a loaded assault rifle into an area strip club. (Dearborn police have not yet responded to NBC’s request for confirmation. Some Michigan outlets with sources in the area do have confirmation but few details.) This is how the story broke:

If true, Appling has much bigger problems then getting an invite to an NBA training camp next fall.

Byron Scott says he felt “a little” blindsided by Lakers’ firing

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 29:  Los Angeles Lakers head coach Byron Scott watches play against the Los Angeles Clippers at Staples Center on January 29, 2016 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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Lakers fans were demanding it. Logic dictated it — even the questionable talent did not fully explain why Byron Scott could not get the Lakers to defend, they had one of the two worst defenses in the NBA each of his two seasons as coach.

Still, Byron Scott said he was blindsided by his firing by the Los Angeles Lakers, something he said on the Dan Patrick Show this morning (video above).

Scott makes a couple of valid points. First, the Lakers did take their time after the season (letting good coaches get snapped up elsewhere) while making this call, giving the impression Scott might be safe.

Second, the Lakers did not give Scott much talent to work with. I don’t care if you resurrected Red Auerbach and John Wooden and had them tag team as the coach, these Lakers were not making the playoffs. Scott was brought in to both shepherd the Kobe farewell years — he did that exactly as management wanted — and start to develop the young talent on the team, building a foundation for the future. That is where he fell short, both in terms of building a defensive foundation or forming a strong relationship with the young Lakers, most notably D'Angelo Russell.

Scott discussed his relationship with Russell, too.

It’s far too early to say how good a coach Luke Walton will be for the Lakers, but it’s safe to say he’s an upgrade over Scott. In that way, the Lakers made the right move.