Aaron Brooks

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: Ben Simmons suffered acute foot injury, will need surgery

TARRYTOWN, NEW YORK - AUGUST 07:  Ben Simmons of the Philadelphia 76ers poses for a portrait during the 2016 NBA Rookie Photoshoot at Madison Square Garden Training Center on August 7, 2016 in Tarrytown, New York. 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. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE  (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)
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Within hours of the Sixers’ No. 1 pick Ben Simmons going down with a foot injury that might derail his rookie season, the rumors about it being weight related started. Simmons needed to add weight coming it of LSU and had reportedly put on more than 30 pounds since the draft. Was that too much too quickly? Kendall Marshall was out in front of this:

The Sixers have moved to shoot this down, saying this was an acute fracture — something that happened suddenly, like from him stepping on another player’s foot — and was not stress related, as would happen with weight issues. More importantly, that also means surgery, reports Marc Stein of ESPN.

Surgery will mean Simmons will miss a majority — if not all — of the coming season, and you can be sure the Sixers will be cautious bringing him back (we saw that with Joel Embiid).

This is just deflating to a Sixers franchise that has had terrible luck with injuries the past couple of years. And yes, some around the league quietly see this as karma for all the tanking.

Celtics’ Terry Rozier says he wants all of Evan Turner’s minutes

Boston Celtics guard Terry Rozier shoots during NBA basketball training camp, Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2016, in Waltham, Mass. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
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There is a pecking order in the Celtics backcourt: Isaiah Thomas is the scoring/playmaking point guard, with Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart playing the more defensive backcourt teammate role next to him at different times.

Still, there are minutes to be had — Evan Turner is no longer in camp and the secondary playmaker. He is on another coast trying to become the other playmaker Portland needs.

Second-year player Terry Rozier wants those minutes.

Good. Celtics fans should like that their young player is saying this.

More importantly, reports out of Celtics training camp say Rozier is playing very well, using his speed to create shots for himself and others. It’s been a great change of pace for the Celtics, one Brad Stevens could put to use this season.

Rozier is going to be coming off the bench, but if he can do that and bring this energy and shot creation, he’s going to get plenty of run this season. And be another part of a strong young core in Boston that just keeps getting better.

51Q: Will a few veterans make 76ers good enough to justify ousting Sam Hinkie?

PHILADELPHIA, PA - DECEMBER 7: Jerry Colangelo (R) is introduced as special advisor to managing general partner and chairman of basketball operations for the Philadelphia 76ers by general manager Sam Hinkie (L) and owner Joshua Harris (M) on December 7, 2015 at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. 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 Mitchell Leff/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. Today:

Will a few veterans actually make the 76ers good enough to justify ousting Sam Hinkie?

The Philadelphia 76ers are going to lose a lot of games this season. They will be one of the worst teams in the NBA. Again.

Now that reality feels even worse. The loss of No. 1 pick Ben Simmons to a broken foot for at least part of the season was a punch to the gut for Sixers fans who finally had hope “the process” was about to start to pay off with wins and promise.

Take a step back from this latest in an entirely too long list of setbacks, and a key question remains:

Are the Sixers now on the right track?

As a corollary to that, would the Sixers be just as good if Sam Hinkie were still the man in charge? Or has the father/son combination of Jerry and Bryan Colangelo steered the ship in the right direction? Did this team need established veterans to both guide the young players and create a better locker room culture?

We know where Bryan Colangelo stands, look at what he said on The Vertical Podcast with Adrian Wojnarowski:

Really, factually, there was a losing culture. There was a losing mindset….

And I think more than anything the mindset needed to shift. The mindset needed to change. And that’s why we’ve been talking about winning and doing everything to promote winning, promote a culture of excellence, to promote better thought process in everything.

Apparently, that means bring in more veterans. This season Jerryd Bayless, Sergio Rodriguez, Gerald Henderson, and Elton Brand will be part of the mix with Joel Embiid, Nerlens Noel, Jahlil Okafor, Dario Saric, and, eventually, Simmons. Those veterans are there to change the mindset and make sure the team wins more than the 10 games it did last season.

What Colangelo now preaches is what a lot of executives around the league said while Hinkie was the guy with the hammer in Philly. Those other execs understood the tanking — every franchise is willing to suffer a bad season or two in order to get a high draft pick — but it was the sustained level and intensity of the tanking that disturbed people. It was the cold turning over of the back end of the roster searching for a diamond in the rough rather than bringing in guys to help win a few games. Where was the Kevin Garnett in Minnesota leader of a young core? If a team is that bad for that long, doesn’t it seep into the culture, the DNA of a franchise?

One could make the case that happened in Philadelphia. That’s why Okafor was getting in fights, why Embiid wasn’t listening to staff and on down the line. Young players were developing bad habits, and while Brett Brown did all anyone could ask of a coach to turn that around, it takes a player or players to set the tone. Veterans can do that, although it takes the right veterans (ask the Lakers how it goes when Nick Young is the only veteran actually hanging out with a young core of players while better examples keep mostly to themselves).

The question remains, would things be that much different in Philly if Hinkie were in charge? In terms of perception, maybe, but in terms of wins? In terms of direction?

Any success the Colangelos have will be built on the foundation of Hinkie and his process. They may not think of him as a “basketball guy” but the Colangelos owe Hinkie — he took the slings and arrows while compiling a treasure chest of picks other teams covet. The Colangelos are certainly more transparent, or at least give that impression by meeting more with the media and selling their vision. The Colangelos certainly have better relationships with agents and other teams than Hinkie, who was not beloved. It was certainly Joshua Harris and the Philadelphia owners — likely with a push from Adam Silver (although he denies it) — who grew weary of the losing and wanted to make the change.

But all of that is very different from saying this year’s Sixers will win a lot more games because Hinkie was pushed out the door.

Hinkie is now living the good life in Palo Alto, California, with his family. He’s relaxing (as much as he relaxes). At some point he will get another shot, he will be brought in as an assistant GM somewhere if he wants it.  And like anyone who does any job, he likely learned a lot about how to do it better through his struggles.

Do the veterans and maybe a couple of wins justify ousting Hinkie? The question is largely moot — the deed is done. Hinkie is gone in Philly.

But he shouldn’t be forgotten — this is his roster as much as anyone’s. Whether you like how it was put together or not.

Report: Clippers owner Ballmer will spend “whatever it takes” to keep Blake Griffin, Chris Paul

Los Angeles Clippers' Blake Griffin, center, responds to reporters while Chris Paul, left, and DeAndre Jordan laugh during the team's NBA basketball media day, Monday, Sept. 26, 2016, in Playa Vista, Calif. (AP Photo/Ryan Kang)
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Is this the season the Clippers break through? They have been one of the eight best teams — usually one of the top five — for several years now, but that has not been enough to get them past the second round of the playoffs. A combination of injuries and running into superior teams has gotten in their way.

This season they will start as the fourth-best team in the league according to most NBA power rankings (including ProBasketballTalk’s), but they will still be third best in the West. If things play out according to that script, it would mean another second-round exit.

The difference is next summer Chris Paul and Blake Griffin can be — and almost certainly will be — free agents (both have early termination options). If there is another second-round flame-out, can the Clippers keep them?

Owner Steve Ballmer is committed to spend whatever it takes to keep them in Clipper red, white, and blue, reports Ramona Shelburne of ESPN.

Most importantly, according to Clippers insiders, is his commitment to keeping both Griffin and Paul long term no matter what it costs.

Do both want to stay? That’s impossible to predict nine months out. But it’s hard to imagine either finding as good of a set up as they have in Los Angeles. Both have firmly planted roots in L.A., with deep ties to the business and entertainment worlds.

Take a moment to step back and realize just how much Ballmer has changed the Clippers’ culture in three years from what Donald Sterling would have done. If Sterling still owned the team we’d be asking if he would open his pocketbook to spend to keep his two big stars in the same summer, and even if he was would that be enough or would both players be looking just to get away.

Now it’s harder to make a case that either wants out — and that includes the idea that Griffin will bolt to go home to Oklahoma City and play for the Thunder next to Russell Westbrook. Few players have taken advantage of the Los Angeles lifestyle and opportunities as Griffin, who is an executive producer of one television show making a pilot and has worked on a career as a comic.

As for the inevitable Griffin/CP3 trade rumors, take them with a whole box of kosher salt.

As for the idea that they’d make a blockbuster trade, consider this: The only way the Clippers get a decent return is if Paul and/or Griffin agreed to waive their player option for next season, or guaranteed they’d re-sign long term in the city they were traded. There’s no compelling reason for either of them to do that after the infusion of television rights’ money spikes the salary cap up more than $100 million next summer.

Griffin and Paul will be free agents next summer. Whether they stay in Los Angeles or leave will depend in part on how this season goes and the prospects for them and the Clippers after this season. It’s possible they leave.

But with Ballmer willing to open up his bloated checkbook, it’s much easier to make the case they both stay put.