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.

PBT Extra Player of the Week: Anthony Davis

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The New Orleans Pelicans look every bit the playoff team right now — at 23-20 they are the farthest they have been over .500 and fivethirtyeight.com lists them with an 82 percent chance to make the playoffs.

They wouldn’t be there without Anthony Davis, who has been brilliant all season but has turned it up in the past week, and that got him the NBC ProBasketballTalk Player of the Week award. In his last three games, Davis has averaged 43 points on 56.3% shooting, plus 14 rebounds a game, and the team. More importantly, the Pelicans have won every game, including knocking off Boston behind his 45 points a couple of days after he dropped 48 at Madison Square Garden.

Just to be clear on one other thing, the Pelicans are not trading Davis anytime soon. Because they’re not stupid.

Paul Pierce says he told Celtics not to show Isaiah Thomas tribute video

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Isaiah Thomas announced he was withdrawing his request for the Celtics to play a tribute for him Feb. 11, the same night Boston will retire Paul Pierce’s number.

That was a nice gesture that ended a dispute started by Pierce, who said he preferred not to share his night with Thomas. It made Thomas look magnanimous, and it prevented Pierce – even if he had a fair point – from continuing an unbecoming campaign that made him look petty.

Except, before Thomas’ announcement, Pierce revealed just how far he went to stop Thomas’ video.

Pierce, via Jackie MacMullan and Chris Forsberg of ESPN:

“Danny and I talked about it for 40 minutes,” Pierce explained to ESPN early Tuesday afternoon. “He told me, ‘This is what we have planned,’ and at the end of the conversation, he said, ‘If you don’t want us to do Isaiah, we won’t.’ So I told him, ‘I really don’t.’ So that was it.

“That’s how we left it.”

“(Thomas) had a shot to be honored,” Pierce said. “You came to Boston. Whether you are playing or not, you should have had your tribute then. I just don’t see how, if someone is having a jersey retirement, they’re going to be running other tributes for other players.

“Danny tried to sell me on it, but I told him, ‘He had a shot, Danny, and he punked you on it. He pretty much dictated everything.’ They let it happen because they felt sorry how (the trade to Cleveland) went down. It’s guilt. That’s what it is.”

Ainge said Tuesday night that Thomas intended all along to bow out of the video tribute once he learned of Pierce’s reservations.

If only Pierce kept quiet publicly a little longer, he could have avoided looking even pettier. Yet, he revealed his conversation with Celtics president Danny Ainge, so he we are.

That probably won’t matter to those close to Pierce, though. Though Rajon Rondo was most blunt, he wasn’t the only member of the Celtics’ 2008 title team to take Pierce’s side.

Tony Allen, via Jay King of MassLive:

“Yeah, I’m with Pierce, man. He didn’t put in more work than Pierce. Anybody disagree? OK. Paul Pierce put in big work, man. Why would they honor him on that same day, man?”

Kevin Garnett, as relayed by Pierce to ESPN:

“Everyone understood where I was coming from,” Pierce said. “KG was like, ‘Isaiah who? Hell no, you’re damn right you’re not sharing your night with him.'”

Was there nobody to in Pierce’s life to tell him just to let Thomas have his short video during pregame introductions?

Pierce got his wish. He just looks even pettier as a result.

Tension between players, referees about communication more than calls

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Tensions between NBA players and referees are at a higher level than seen in decades.

Players are frustrated — they feel the calls are inconsistent, and if they try to talk to a referee about it they get a technical fast. And technicals have come fast — D’Angelo Russell got one for applauding a call from the bench the other night. LeBron James was ejected for the first time ever this season. Draymond Green already has 11 technicals this season, not to mention getting fined for complaining about the officiating and saying it’s personal (something Chris Paul and DeMarcus Cousins have echoed). A referee even headbutted a player this season.

However, this is a two-way street — players seem to complain about virtually every call. Watch a game, and on how many drives to the basket does the shooter or defender throw their arms in the air and say something to the ref about the call/no call. How do you expect the referees to react? Officials feel players are disrespectful, and they are just trying to keep control of the game.

Sam Amick of the USA Today did a great job talking to representatives of both sides for a story.

“The No. 1 issue on their minds is officiating. And it’s only gotten worse over the years, (and) probably now is about as hot as it has been,” Michele Roberts, executive director of the NBA Players Association since 2014, told USA TODAY Sports….

“Players are intense and frustrated, and that’s to be expected,” Mark Denesuk, spokesman for the National Basketball Referees Association, told USA TODAY Sports. “I think the referees expect a certain amount of it, but I think there’s just been a decline in civility, a decline in respect, an increase in aggression.”

“I just really think that to the extent that there are officials who adopt that absolute ‘I’m not going to comment (with players during game action)’ rule, they should reconsider that,” Roberts said. “That drives my members fairly batty, too, because guys don’t think talking to the ref is necessarily going to change the call but they want to be able to say, ‘Ref, hey maybe you didn’t see it, but he hit me here, or he touched me there.’”

The players want to be able to lobby for future calls. They want an open line of communication. Carmelo Anthony said as much recently.

“The game has changed a lot since I came in 15 years ago, the players and the officials had that dialogue, whether it was good or whether it was bad, there was always a point where they would let you get a little steam off, and then would come to you and say that’s enough, let’s move on. And now, the trigger is too quick. You look at somebody wrong, you get a technical foul. You say one wrong thing, you get a technical foul. So I think that’s the difference from when I came in, the dialogue and communication and the relationship the players and officials [had] when I first came in and from now is a lot different.”

Those lines of communication need to be opened up again. Referees have to listen to players, and players need to be more respectful and less demonstrative when talking to an official.

It’s also easy to say that writing a story, or from the NBA offices in Manhattan, but when the players are emotional during a game (as they should be) calm conversations are harder to come by.

Hopefully, some of this can be worked out when the representatives of the players’ union and referee’s union sit down All-Star Weekend to talk. The NBA promoted long-time official Monty McCutchen — one of the better communicators among officials — to help move the league in this direction.

Hopefully, all this works, because the tensions are really starting to impact the game.

Jimmy Butler okay with last loss, “We need to humble our damn selves”

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The Minnesota Timberwolves had won five in a row, climbed up to third in the Western Conference (and third in our power rankings), and they had become everybody’s darlings. Jimmy Butler has pushed his way into the MVP conversation, and Karl-Anthony Towns is finally defending well. This is the team on the rise that we expected.

Then Minnesota lost to the Orlando Magic Tuesday night. Orlando is arguably the worst team in the NBA and Minnesota had no answer for Evan Fournier, who dropped 32.

Butler is okay with that. Sort of. He doesn’t like losing but told ESPN the Timberwolves needed to be brought back down to earth.

“We need to humble our damn selves,” Butler told reporters after the Timberwolves fell to the Orlando Magic 108-102 on Tuesday night. “I’m glad we lost. Came in here on our high horse, thinking we’re a really good team, and we haven’t done anything yet. Good for us, man.”

That’s a good lesson for a good young team. As Minnesota gets better and better there will be a target on their back nightly — it’s not an easy burden to carry. Ask the Warriors, Cavaliers or other elite teams past and present — you get the best shot of the other team every night, and that requires a level of focus to keep on winning. Minnesota was reminded of that Tuesday night.

This is all still a learning experience for the Timberwolves — as the playoffs will be. The franchise hasn’t been to the postseason since 2004, Towns and Andrew Wiggins have never been in a playoff game, and there will be adjustments. But if Minnesota has next as the Warriors fade, or if they are going to rise up and challenge Golden State, these are the lessons they need to take to heart.