On Aaron Brooks and life after Steve Nash in Phoenix

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Steve Nash has defined the Phoenix Suns franchise since the summer of 2004, but every passing day brings the Suns that much closer to parting with their only remaining star. Joe Johnson, Shawn Marion, and Amar’e Stoudemire have all come and gone, and the last great remnant of the Suns team that embarked on Seven Second or Less’ maiden voyage will likely be out of Phoenix by the end of the season. By this time next year, Nash will be almost 39 years old and an unrestricted free agent. As committed as he’s been to the Suns over the last half-decade or so, the man would be twiddling away the twilight of his career on a fringe playoff team if he elected to remain in Phoenix beyond the completion of his current deal.

With Nash no longer in the locker room, controlling the offense, and selling tickets, the Suns will have a lot of introspection to do. If Phoenix lets Nash’s contract expire without dealing him for assets of some kind, the team will be left with what’s functionally a blank slate in terms of roster construction. Marcin Gortat, Jared Dudley, Channing Frye, Hakim Warrick, and Josh Childress are all rotation-caliber players, but they lack the ability to collectively grant their team a post-Nash identity. The Suns will have options, but for the moment appear lacking in the ability to execute a rebuilding plan with any kind of expediency.

That said, the one unknown in Phoenix’s future that could potentially shift their long-term plans — if only slightly — is Aaron Brooks. The Suns already gave Brooks a qualifying offer back in June, giving them the right to either retain him for another season or match any offer sheets he gets as a restricted free agent. That should extend Brooks’ trial run in Phoenix, and give Alvin Gentry and his staff time to properly evaluate whether Brooks is able to act as some kind of Steve Nash surrogate in order to keep the current offensive system in place after the former MVP’s departure. That may not sound like much, but a capable initiator — armed within a team’s proven stylistic approach and given effective sets to work with — would at least give the Suns a very basic foundation.

Brooks is coming off of the most disappointing season of his professional career, but that’s true in part because his play had previously never garnered much expectation at all. The ’09-’10 season served as his public arrival; Brooks’ per-game averages shot up to 19.6 points and 5.3 assists per game, good enough to earn him the league’s kind-of-bogus Most Improved Player award. Brooks was able to live up to his solid per-minute projections from his first few seasons in the league, and play well for a winning team that barely missed the postseason.

Yet his latest campaign was a fair bit more disastrous, as Brooks combined injury, poor play, and a worse attitude in order to put up some incredibly underwhelming numbers . Houston traded Brooks to Phoenix mid-season for Goran Dragic, and a surface-level glance at that production and narrative would deem Brooks unworthy of starting responsibilities just about anywhere.

But Brooks is a better player than he let on last season in Houston, and he showed just enough in his 25 games as a Sun for us to wonder how extended playing time in Gentry’s system might bode for Brooks’ career. Don’t let his mere 9.6 points per game fool you; Brooks played limited minutes as a Sun, but he produced at a level virtually on-par with his offensive production in ’09-’10. That doesn’t make him an offensive star, but all signs point to him being a decent shot creator and a strong outside shooter in Phoenix for as long as they’ll have him.

Picking out the inconsistencies

A player who posts unremarkable points per game averages for two consecutive seasons to start his career, manages one season of almost 20 points per game, and subsequently falls back to Earth in the following year naturally garners some skepticism. Yet in Brooks’ case, his per-minute averages suggest he was capable of solid production in each of his four NBA seasons to date. It’s his minutes per game that have dictated the variance in his production, all the while his efficiency has stayed within a much smaller range. Brooks’ latest partial season in Houston was still a step down, but his uptick in Phoenix was enough of a return to normalcy to quell the thought of Brooks’ 2010 season being an aberration.

Instead, the real inconsistency appears to be Brooks’ randomly slashed three-point percentage. After starting out his career as an average shooter from the perimeter and improving that percentage in his second and third seasons, Brooks’ shooting from beyond the arc plummeted to .284 in his 34 games for Houston last season. Perhaps Brooks won’t consistently be able to shoot around 40 percent from three-point range as he did in ’09-’10, but there’s something to be said about Brooks’ best shooting season coinciding with his most consistent playing time.

The fluke in Brooks’ profile is this latest season, if only because his awful shooting percentages sandbagged what otherwise was a comparable statistical campaign. We can expect that shooting to return to a more acceptable mark in the year(s) to come, as he’ll likely settle in at slightly above the league average in three-point percentage.

Hope as a playmaker

Even in a golden age of point guards, Nash’s vision is unparalleled. In that regard, Brooks is a poor substitute; he sees the most obvious and immediate trees in the forest, but fails to see the forest itself for the trees. Passing is a simple action for Brooks rather than a mechanism through which an offense functions, a reality that warranted him a “shoot-first,” label.

Yet Brooks’ skill as a set-up man surfaced a bit when he was asked to back up Nash. His mere 25 games in Phoenix provides a terribly small sample size, but in those contests Brooks posted easily the highest assist rate of his career (35.3% — on par with Jason Kidd, Andre Miller, and Tony Parker). His assists per minute didn’t just crank up as a product of the Suns’ fast pace; Brooks was legitimately making plays for his teammates more than ever, as he benefited from the perimeter shooting and offensive fluidity that makes the Suns such a marvel.

Rick Adelman’s offense can be a beautiful thing, but it doesn’t exactly empower the point guard. By using the high post as a focal point of the offense, Adelman took the ball out of Brooks’ hands in Houston and pigeon-holed him into a label he barely had a chance to earn. Next season could serve as a referendum on Brooks’ ability to create plays for others.

The bad news

There’s no getting around it: if Brooks is going to be a regular for Phoenix going forward, they’ll have to account for his defensive limitations; Brooks is undersized and lacks the defensive technique to properly make up for it. Starting from square one with a defensive liability isn’t ideal, but again, the Suns aren’t without a ton of assets at this point. Brooks is capable of becoming a decent contributor (if not a tradeable asset down the line) for Phoenix, and any new deal he signs would be under the more team-friendly limitations of the next collective bargaining agreement. The Suns could lock up a good offensive player for relatively cheap, and considering the limitations throughout the rest of a Nash-less roster, Phoenix can’t afford to be terribly picky.

Brooks isn’t a poor enough defender that his weakness can’t be hedged elsewhere in a potential lineup, meaning all Phoenix has to do is keep him in mind when selecting wing players to put on the floor with him and bigs to cover the space behind him. So long as the Suns are willing to begin reconstructing their team with that consideration in mind, Brooks could be a very affordable playmaking option with decent long-term returns.

Report: Pacers offered Paul George for Kyrie Irving

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The Cavaliers think they were close to trading for Paul George, a text message away from completing a three-team trade with the Pacers and Nuggets that would have sent Kevin Love to Denver.

But Cleveland could’ve ensured itself George, whom Indiana ultimately dealt to the Thunder. All the Cavs had to do was send Kyrie Irving to the Pacers.

Brian Windhorst and Zach Lowe of ESPN on The Lowe Post podcast:

  • Windhorst: “I know that around the draft and in the Paul George talks, the Cavs were not willing to make Kyrie Irving available for Paul George.”
  • Lowe: “We can say on this podcast: The Pacers offered Paul George for Kyrie Irving. That’s a thing that happened, according to people that we’ve talked to.”
  • Windhorst: “Multiple times.”

Even if the Cavaliers knew of Irving’s unhappiness – maybe they did, or at least should have – while George was still in Indiana, this would have been a bad trade for them.

Irving is locked up for two more years, and George is on an expiring contract. That simply makes Irving more valuable than George, who – like LeBron James – could have walked in a year. George is ineligible for a reasonable contract extension, and there’s so much buzz about him joining the Lakers.

Now, if the Cavs were more on top of Irving’s trade request when George were still available, maybe they would have more aggressively tried to bridge the gap. Perhaps, Indiana could have sent another player or draft pick.

But Cleveland shouldn’t be kicking itself over not dealing Irving for George straight up.

Report: LeBron James eager for Kyrie Irving to be traded

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LeBron James reportedly wants to fight Kyrie Irving over the guard’s trade request.

But sometimes, people continue to work with those whom they dislike. LeBron partnered with Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert again and again, after all.

Might LeBron realize keeping Irving is Cleveland’s best chance to win another title? Could LeBron put personal feelings aside in that pursuit?

Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com:

Irving has asked for a trade and James is eager to see him off.

This might explain why the Cavs appear so gung-ho about moving Irving. LeBron usually gets what he wants in Cleveland, especially in a contract year.

It’s not too late for LeBron and Irving to reconcile until a trade is completed, but with LeBron welcoming Derrick Rose, they just move further from that possibility.

Damian Lillard says players who want to leave team owe teammates, fans truth

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Damian Lillard was making the rounds on a media tour Monday, and at virtually each and every stop he was asked about Kyrie Irving and Carmelo Anthony. We told you about Lillard’s recruiting pitch to Anthony.

One of his stops was with one of my favorite radio shows,  Bill Reiter’s Reiter Than You on CBS Radio. Lillard talked about what players owe teammates when they try to push their way out of town.

“You owe your teammates first because those are the guys that you spend the most time around that you have relationships with, more so than anybody else,” Lillard said. “And also the fans because they are part of your team. They’re the people that come and cheer for you and support you as much as anybody. So I think they’re the two groups of people that you owe the truth. They deserve to know the truth in where you stand and what your plans are.”

Hard to argue with that.

Of course, honesty can lead to some bad blood. If Kyrie Irving went to his teammates and the fans in Cleveland and said, “Look, LeBron James is leaving in a year, and I don’t want to be the guy holding the bag, so I’m forcing my way out while I can” how would that go over? It’s the truth — or maybe the largest part of the truth, there is never just one thing — but it would rub a lot of people the wrong way. And Irving would get roasted in the media (more than he is already).

It sounds good to be honest, and a lot of guys try, but they have talked themselves into that narrative before they sell it everywhere else. Everything is spin, to a degree.

Watch Stephen Curry make fun of Klay Thompson’s 360 dunk fail in China

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By now we have all seen Golden State Warriors shooting guard Klay Thompson brick that dunk attempt in China, right?

Here is the link to the video if you haven’t seen it.

Well, teammate Stephen Curry was also in China this week and decided to do a little mocking of Thompson’s missed dunk for the crowd.

It was all in good fun, and of course we all know about the Warriors team culture. Glad that Curry and Thompson can jab at each other like this.