Suns GM Lance Blanks talks NBA Draft needs, says team will target perimeter players

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It’s not an understatement to say that the Phoenix Suns face one of the most critical summers in their franchise history. The numerous, difficult decisions that lie ahead may shape not only the way next season turns out, but the next several. And they will largely be made by second-year general manager Lance Blanks.

The organization as a whole seems to be revamping many of its internal operations — from increasing personnel relating to scouting and player development, to looking at its front-office evaluation process. The upcoming NBA Draft will be its first, if not most important test — the latter will come in free agency, of course, where Steve Nash, Grant Hill, and four others on the team’s roster are all unrestricted.

The Draft comes before the free agency period begins, however, so that’s what Blanks wanted to focus on during an informal lunch session with media members on Monday. Blanks was personable and open about the team’s needs during the Q and A portion of the afternoon that lasted a little more than 30 minutes, and began by acknowledging that the Suns need to get younger and better defensively, particularly at the wing positions.

“You look at our roster, we feel that this year, our perimeter is an area that we’d like to add a little youth,” Blanks said. “Whether it be the one (point guard), two (shooting guard) or the three (small forward). We want to inject some youth in that, and when you look at our roster and compare it to the draft, we feel like we’ll be able to do that in a big and impactful way.”

Two of those spots currently feature aging veterans Nash and Hill, and while both are capable of playing at an extremely high level when healthy, they would certainly benefit from having a reduced workload on a nightly basis.

If the talent level available at the wing positions isn’t where the team feels it needs to be by the time the Suns’ 13th pick in the first round comes, Blanks isn’t afraid to look at other options.

“It’s a little bit of both, and somewhat of a sliding scale,” Blanks said, when asked if he philosophically prefers to draft for need, or simply grab the best available player regardless of position. “If you’re at a point in the draft, and it’s not necessarily the player or the position you’re looking for, but the player is so good that it doesn’t matter, then you’d have to go that way. All things being equal, you go with what the need is for the team. You owe that to the fans, the organization, ownership, to your coach to fill that need. It is difficult to find players or have an opportunity to get players that can impact your roster, regardless of how you do it. So whenever there’s an opportunity to fill a need, you want to take advantage of it.”

The plan for the immediate future is for Blanks to attend the upcoming pre-draft camp in Chicago to see and talk to players, before hosting private workouts in Phoenix in the days leading up to the Draft. He expects the team to keep the pick at this point, but acknowledged that given the way last season ended, he’ll have to be open to all opportunities.

“I can tell you that it’s likely we’ll have our pick and keep it,” Blanks said. “Unless there is something unforeseen that I can’t see. With that being said … we didn’t make the playoffs. So we’re not in a position to say there’s nothing that we wouldn’t do. The goal, again, is getting back to being successful, and playing well into the spring. And in order to do that we’ve got to be willing to make change, which we are.”

The needs are many for this Suns team, and wholesale change to the roster before next season seems inevitable. And though free agency talk was set aside for the time being, it’s impossible for the team to assess where it goes from here without taking it into consideration.

DeMarcus Cousins ejected after elbowing Russell Westbrook in head

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DeMarcus Cousins‘ history of flagrant fouls certainly didn’t help him here, but if anyone elbows a guy in the head, he’s going to get tossed.

And that’s what Cousins did here.

Midway through the third quarter in New Orleans, Cousins blocked a putback attempt by Russell Westbrook, then grabbed the rebound. Westbrook tried to reach in across Cousins’ body for the steal, and Cousins cleared out space with his elbow — right to Westbrook’s head. Cousins walked around saying “no, no, no” afterward, and he likely thinks the officials had it out for him here because he was just getting a guy off him, but we go back to the original point — elbow a guy in the head, get tossed. The league is cracking down on blows above the neck. Westbrook did not leave the game.

The Pelicans went on to come from 19 down to win the game 114-107, behind 36 points and 15 boards from Anthony Davis.

Damn, Paul George with the in-game bounce pass alley-oop to Jerami Grant

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The game has been close (as of midway through the third quarter), but that didn’t stop Oklahoma City from putting on a show in New Orleans.

Paul George had the ball on a 2-on-0 fast break and decided to throw the playground bounce-pass alley-oop, which Jerami Grant got up and finished with authority. This could be one of the dunks of the year.

We’re going to see that highlight for a while.

Jusuf Nurkic’s agent says big man wants to stay in Portland this summer

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Last season, after his trade from frustrated backup big in Denver to new starter in Portland, there was a honeymoon — the Blazers went 14-6, their defense was better, and Nurkic was a big man setting big picks for quick guards in Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum.

This season the honeymoon is over, things have been up and down, but far from time to say the marriage should end, as he is a free agent next summer. Nurkic is the only real starting center on the roster (even if coach Terry Stotts left him on the bench in the fourth quarter in favor of Ed Davis a few games back). Nurkic is averaging 14.6 points and 7.2 rebounds a game, and the Blazers’ defense is 1.5 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court. However, his effort level has been up and down, and his shot is off, with a true shooting percentage of just 49.4, and he is shooting just 56.6 percent in the restricted area.

Nurkic wants to stay in Portland, his agent told Ben Golliver in a story at Sports Illustrated (that story is worth the read for the Nurkic origin story, which is amazing).

“I feel like the Blazers are very happy with Jusuf and Jusuf is very happy there,” Tesch, the agent, told The Crossover by telephone this week. “We had some [extension] talks but we decided to play it out this year and engage in talks again in July. He has already proven that he can help the team. There is a fit for Jusuf in Portland and he’s looking to stay there long-term.”

The two sides talked extension before the season, but Portland understandably wanted to make sure there was more to this relationship than just a honeymoon. It gave Nurkic a chance to drive up his asking price.

Portland and Nurkic likely will find a long-term deal next summer because it just makes sense for both sides. There are not a lot of teams with max free agent money next summer (4-6, I was told by an insider), or a lot of money to spend in general, and both DeAndre Jordan and DeMarcus would be centers on the market who rank ahead of Nurkic. Portland will offer more than other free agent destinations, if not as much as Nurkic dreamed of, and they will find common ground.

But there is a lot of season to play out before then. The Blazers feel like a team that should be better than its record so far, and Nurkic is part of that untapped potential. If things change, that’s good for Nurkic — and the Blazers.

Celtics look to push win streak to 16 vs. Mavs

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DALLAS (AP) — The Boston Celtics aren’t yet halfway to the NBA record for consecutive victories, a mark the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers still hold, but at 15 in a row, they are in rare territory.

Since 1946-47, there have only been 35 instances of a 15-game win streak or longer. And of all the legendary Celtics teams, this squad already holds the franchise’s fifth-longest win streak. A victory Monday night against the Dallas Mavericks, who are an NBA-worst 3-14 overall and 2-8 at American Airlines Center, would tie the 1964-65 Boston team’s 16-game win streak.

If the Celtics (15-2) get the win, they would climb closer to the 1959-60 team’s 18-game win streak, and then comes the club mark of 19 in a row accomplished by the 2008-09 team.

This version of the Celtics has to be considered the most unexpected to string together so many wins. The team has a slew of new players, starting with guard Kyrie Irving, and Boston lost another prized newcomer, forward Gordon Hayward, in the season opener.

After starting 0-2, Boston hasn’t lost. Yet, it’s not exactly as if the Celtics are steamrolling the league. For the Mavericks, who are coming off snapping the Milwaukee Bucks’ four-game win streak Saturday, the fact that Boston has actually had to rally to get a handful of its wins must be seen as an opportunity to steal a decision.

In fact, four of the Celtics’ victories during the streak have come after Boston trailed by 16 points, including a 110-109 win against the Atlanta Hawks on Saturday.

“Most of us have never been on a winning streak like this,” Irving said following the win over Atlanta. “I don’t know if we even know how to pay attention to all the hoopla that goes on in terms of the excitement of it. I just think that every single game we take it as a challenge.”

Irving has been accepting that challenge with tremendous success after asking to be traded away from Cleveland, where he won one title with LeBron James and lost twice in the NBA Finals to the Golden State Warriors.

He closed out those same Warriors last week, scoring 11 of the last 15 points in the final 4:21. The clutch play has Irving already being talked about as an MVP candidate.

“He’s so good in those moments that you want to give him the appropriate amount of room,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens told the Boston Globe about Irving. “Maybe it’s finding a matchup. Maybe it’s creating a two-man game with Al (Horford).”

Irving will be a major test for Mavs rookie point guard Dennis Smith Jr., who has displayed some tremendous flashes while also showing he is a green 19-year-old with one season of college ball under his belt.

Dallas, one of the league’s lowest-scoring offensive teams, is relying heavily on Smith and Harrison Barnes to carry the load. Dirk Nowitzki, 39, has dropped off significantly, averaging just 10.3 points a game, his lowest output since his rookie season in 1998-99.

Unlike the Celtics, Dallas has lost its share of games by being unable to close out games late. On Saturday, the Mavericks won a rare game going away, blitzing the Bucks with a franchise-tying 19 3-pointers. Guard Wesley Matthews said he thinks all the hard work is starting to pay off.

The history-chasing Celtics will put that claim to test.

“We can actually see everything that we’ve been trying to do come together, and hopefully that just carries the momentum into the off day where everybody’s feeling good,” Matthews said after Dallas’ victory. “We’ve got another tough battle Monday against Boston, who is the hottest team in the league right now, but it’s another opportunity for us.”