Suns drop to 0-2, search to explain offensive struggles

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In recent years, the Phoenix Suns have been known for, above all else, having an uptempo and elite offense. Win or lose, and no matter the season’s ultimate result, the team never struggled to score with Steve Nash running a descendant of Mike D’Antoni’s offense.

Through two games in this young season, however, offense has been a huge problem for the Suns, and the primary reason behind both of the team’s losses.

At least in Monday’s season opener against the Hornets, Phoenix was in it until the final possession. But in Wednesday’s loss to the Sixers, it wasn’t close. The Suns scored just 34 points in the first half, and opened the second half on the wrong side of a 19-0 run that lasted over six minutes and put the game in the win column for Philadelphia.

The Sixers led by as many as 34 points on the way to a 103-83 victory, one that dropped the Suns to 0-2 for the first time since the 1996-97 season.

It may not yet be time to panic for Phoenix, but the results of the first two games — especially offensively — are certainly cause for concern.

“We’re struggling mightily right now offensively,” Suns head coach Alvin Gentry said afterward. “It’s so hard for us to get a shot off and so hard for us to get into any kind of rhythm.”

As for what’s causing the team’s struggles, Gentry feels it’s a combination of things. But continually getting off to slow starts isn’t helping.

“What has happened is, we’ve had some good looks early on that haven’t gone in, and I think we’ve probably pressed a little bit,” Gentry said. “But we’ve been a good shooting team, we’ve been a good offensive team. We’ve got to try to get that back.”

Making adjustments on the fly is much more difficult this season thanks to the lockout and the compressed regular season schedule that the delay in a labor agreement ended up causing. With the demanding slate of games, Gentry knows that pushing his team extra-hard in practice isn’t necessarily the answer.

“The practice times are very limited,” Gentry said. “We come in here tomorrow, we can’t really have a hard practice. We’ve got two games the next two days, and three in four nights. It’s just one of those things where we have to be smart about it. We have to get better and we have to try to improve, but we also have to be smart — we can’t come in here and have a two and a half hour practice.”

Just how bad has the Suns offense been so far? Small sample size and all that, but through two games, Phoenix is 24th in offensive efficiency at 90.9 points per 100 possessions. And pace-wise, the Suns are tied for 25th at 90.8 possessions per game. Contrast that with even last season’s numbers, where Phoenix finished 8th in pace and 9th in offensive efficiency — in a year when the team finished out of the playoffs — and it’s clear there are serious issues.

I asked Nash what he was seeing out there as the reason for the team’s offensive struggles.

“I think it’s a combination of a lot of things,” Nash said. “A shortened training camp, a lack of familiarity, and also we’re just not real efficient yet. We’re not making shots, we’re not in sync, and some of it is, I think, a product of a shortened camp. Some of it is we’ve got to get a little tougher at times and not look around and hope things will get better. We’ve got to be a little more determined at times.”

In Wednesday’s game, Nash appeared to be more aggressive from the start, uncharacteristically taking matters into his own hands to try to get the team going offensively. But it didn’t go all that well; Nash finished the first quarter with four points, one assist, three turnovers, and two personal fouls, while shooting 2-of-7 from the field in about nine and a half minutes of action. He said in this particular instance, his heavier than usual offensive usage was a result of the way the defense was playing him.

“I think the way they were playing the pick and roll tonight it was important for me to make ’em pay a little bit,” Nash said. “There was some space and I was getting in the lane, but I wasn’t able to get it done tonight. I think that put a lot of pressure on our offense, because then we couldn’t loosen them up or break them down and create easy opportunities.”

Nash finished with one of his worst statistical games in recent memory, going 2-of-11 from the field with just one assist and six turnovers in just over 17 minutes.

The way the Suns are currently constructed, without any one player who can be relied upon to average 20-plus points per game on a regular basis, there’s certainly more of an onus on Nash to create easy opportunities for his teammates. But at some point, there’s only so much Nash can do. At the end of the day, guys have to start knocking down open shots.

In the opener against New Orleans, the Suns shot 5-of-25 from three-point land, but many of those were wide-open looks, so the team feels those shots will eventually start to fall. Against the Sixers, the looks were there too, but more in the mid-range variety: 50 of the Suns’ 80 field goal attempts were from 10 feet out or beyond. And Phoenix only connected on 30 percent of those attempts.

Like all teams, the Suns would like to get more points in the paint, and easier opportunities at the rim. Their opponents haven’t had any problems in that area, with the Sixers scoring 50 of their 103 points in the paint, and the Hornets getting 42 of their 85 there on Monday.

It’s impossible to ignore the Suns’ struggles on offense, especially considering that’s the last place you’d expect to find problems with a team that’s been so prolific in that area in recent years. Nash just hopes things turn around sooner rather than later.

“It’s shown over the two games we’re just struggling offensively to find a connectivity and a rhythm together,” he said. “All you can do is continue to work hard and find a way to be optimistic and positive, and hopefully the breakthrough will come soon.”

Report: Mikhail Prokhorov ‘warmed’ to selling controlling stake of Nets

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Mikhail Prokhorov bought 80% of the Nets in 2010. A couple years ago, he tried to sell his stake, but decided to keep it. Then, he bought 100% of the franchise and its arena. After last season, he said he was selling 49% of the team.

Now?

Josh Kosman and Brian Lewis of the New York Post:

Brooklyn Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov, while focused on selling a minority stake in the franchise, has warmed recently to the possibility of offering a controlling slice of the team, sources close to the situation said.

The change of heart comes after the initial reaction to the minority stake sale was weak — and with interest in the Houston Rockets sale heating up, one source said.

The Rockets’ sale could shake out potential Nets buyers, and Prokhorov selling a controlling stake could also help. It’d cost more money than the 49% he’s offering now, but people with the money to buy an NBA team tend to value control.

This might be a good time to sell for Prokhorov, who lost a ton of money as the team paid major luxury tax for an all-in championship pursuit that flopped spectacularly. The NBA’s popularity is rising, and the league is reaping huge revenue from its national-TV contracts.

However, he shouldn’t assume the Rockets’ sale price will predict the Nets’. Buyers might prefer a good team with James Harden and Chris Paul to a bad one short on young talent after years of mismanagement. At least Brooklyn’s payroll is now tolerably low.

The big loser here: Leslie Alexander, who’s trying to sell the Rockets. The supply of NBA teams now available might have just doubled, and unless there’s no overlap in demand for those franchises, that can only drive down Alexander’s eventual sale price.

Report: Clippers paid $3.2 million – second-most ever – for draft pick (Jawun Evans)

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The Warriors set a record by paying $3.5 million for a draft pick, buying the Bulls’ No. 38 pick and using it on Jordan Bell this year.

That eclipsed the $3 million spent by each the Thunder in 2010 (to the Hawks for the No. 31 pick, Tibor Pleiss) and Nets in 2016 (to move up 13 spots for Isaiah Whiteside).

So did the Clippers’ purchase of the No. 39 pick (Jawun Evans) from the 76ers this year.

Eric Pincus of Basketball Insiders:

The Clippers also paid the Bucks $2 million for the No. 48 pick (Sindarius Thornwell).

I rated Evans a low first-rounder due to his speed and drive-and-kick game, so getting him in the second round is good value. I’m not as keen on Thornwell, who’s already 22 and built so much of his success at South Carolina on being more physical than younger opponents.

But the more swings the Clippers take on young players, the more likely they are to find long-term contributors. More power to owner Steve Ballmer for greenlighting this expenditure.

Importantly, as players acquired through the draft, Evans and Thornwell will count for the luxury tax at their actual salaries. Players signed otherwise, even if their actual salaries are lower, count at at least the two-years-experience minimum.

Under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, teams can spend $5.1 million in cash this season. That amount will increase (or decrease) in proportion with the salary cap in coming years. So, expect the previous record for draft-pick purchase price – $3 million – to fall again and again.

There’s just more leeway now for the NBA’s haves to separate themselves from the have-nots.

Jeannie Buss says she didn’t understand why Lakers signed Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov

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Last summer, the Lakers signed Luol Deng (four years, $72 million) and Timofey Mozgov (four years, $64 million) to contracts that immediately looked like liabilities.

At worst, Deng and Mozgov would help the Lakers win just enough to lose their top-three protected 2017 first-round pick – which would have triggered also sending out an unprotected 2019 first-rounder – then settle in as huge overpays. At best, Deng and Mozgov would provide a little veteran leadership while the team still loses enough to keep its pick… then settle in as huge overpays.

The Lakers got the best-case scenario, which was still pretty awful.

They had to attach D'Angelo Russell just to dump Mozgov’s deal on the Nets. Even if he no longer fit long-term with Lonzo Ball, Russell could’ve fit another asset if he weren’t necessary as a sweetener in a Mozgov trade. Deng remains on the books as impediment to adding free agents (like Paul George and LeBron James) next summer.

Who’s to blame?

Jeanie Buss was the Lakers’ president and owner. Jim Buss, another owner, ran the front office with Mitch Kupchak.

Bill Oram of The Orange County Register:

Within the walls of the Lakers headquarters, Jeanie’s grand corner office had begun to feel like a cell. She could not make sense of the strategy employed by her brother and Kupchak. They had cycled through four coaches in five seasons and under their watch the Lakers won a combined 63 games in three full seasons. Last summer, they spent $136 million of precious cap space on veterans Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov, who made little sense for the direction of the team.

“I just didn’t understand what the thought process was,” she said, “whether our philosophies were so far apart that I couldn’t recognize what they were doing, or they couldn’t explain it well.”

No. Nope, nope, nope. I don’t want to hear it.

Jeanie empowered Jim and his silly timeline, which made it inevitable he place self-preservation over the Lakers’ best long-term interests. That’s why he looked for a quick fix with Mozgov and Deng, who’s still hanging over the Lakers’ plans.

She deserves scrutiny for allowing such a toxic environment that yielded predictably bad results (even if family ties clouded her judgment).

That said, she also deserves credit for learning from her mistake. She fired Jim and Kupchak – admittedly too late, but she still did it – and hired Magic Johnson. There’s no guarantee Johnson will direct the Lakers back to prominence, but he clearly has a better working relationship with Jeanie than Jim did and, so far (in a small sample), looks more competent in the job.

Reports: Heat pessimistic about/uninterested in trading for Kyrie Irving

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Kyrie Irving, in requesting a trade from the Cavaliers, reportedly listed the Heat among his preferred destinations. Though Irving – without a no-trade clause and locked up for two more years – holds only minimal sway, teams would logically offer more for him if they believe he’d re-sign.

Will Miami trade for Irving?

Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald:

And while the possibility certainly cannot be ruled out, the Heat does not have considerable optimism about being able to strike a deal, multiple league sources said.

One Eastern Conference official who spoke to the Heat said Miami considers itself something of a long shot.

Tim Reynolds, the reputable Associated Press Heat and NBA writer, said on Steve Shapiro’s Sports Xtra on WSVN-7 that he does not believe Miami is interested in acquiring Irving.

Like the Kings, though to a far lesser extent, the Heat might not be interested because they know they stand no little of landing Irving.

Goran Dragic would almost certainly have to go to Cleveland in a deal, supplanted by Irving in Miami. Dragic would upgrade the Cavs at point guard over Derrick Rose and Jose Calderon, but at 31, Dragic would also significantly shorten Cleveland’s window.

The Heat would have to send much more. It’s just not clear what.

The Cavaliers, with Tristan Thompson, might not have much interest in centers Hassan Whiteside and Bam Adebayo. Justise Winslow‘s weak 3-point shooting makes him a tough fit with LeBron James, and Winslow’s shoulder injury last season damages his stock anywhere. Tyler Johnson and Josh Richardson are helpful contributors, but Johnson’s salary skyrockets north of $19 million each of the following two seasons, and Richardson will hit free agency (and get a raise) after this season. James Johnson, Dion Waiters and Kelly Olynyk – who all signed this summer – can’t be traded until Dec. 15. (I’m not sure which prospect is funnier, Waiters returning to Cleveland or playing with Irving in Miami.) The Heat also owe the Suns two future first-round picks – one top-seven protected in 2018 and unprotected in 2019, the other unprotected in 2021.

It’s difficult, maybe impossible, for Miami to assemble a suitable trade package given those constraints.

At least the Heat would keep open the possibility of LeBron returning if they don’t trade for Irving.