NBA season preview: Phoenix Suns

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Last Season: We could talk about the slow start, the impressive run in the season’s second half, or the eventual finish two games outside of the playoff picture. But all anyone in Phoenix will ultimately remember about the 2011-12 campaign is that it was the last time they would witness the on-court brilliance of Steve Nash while he was still a member of the Suns.

Key Departures: The face of the franchise and the team finally parted ways, after an eight-year run that gave fans more than their fair share of memorable moments. Nash’s departure certainly wasn’t unexpected, as the team had gone as far as it could with its former two-time MVP orchestrating the offense on every meaningful possession. But insult may have been added to Phoenix fans’ misery when Nash ended up in Los Angeles playing for the hated Lakers, whether it was the right move for the franchise or not.

Nash wasn’t the only cornerstone to leave. Grant Hill also ended up in L.A., albeit with the city’s far less-inflammatory version of an NBA team: the Clippers. Other departed players include Robin Lopez, a project whom the team decided to give up on, as well as deep bench players in Michael Redd, Josh Childress, Hakim Warrick, and Ronnie Price.

Channing Frye isn’t gone, but he’s out for at least the season after an enlarged heart condition was discovered during a routine training camp physical.

Key Additions: The Suns didn’t hesitate in replacing Nash, and did so by bringing back a familiar face. Goran Dragic returned to Phoenix in free agency, after being unceremoniously traded out of town by the same Suns franchise just two seasons before. Michael Beasley was acquired from Minnesota, as was Wesley Johnson. Luis Scola was picked up off the amnesty wire after Houston decided it wasn’t interested in competing any longer, the team added veteran big man Jermaine O’Neal, and grabbed point guard Kendall Marshall with the 13th overall pick in the 2012 NBA draft.

Three keys to the Suns season:

1) I know the pieces fit, ’cause I watched them fall away*: This must be Alvin Gentry’s mantra heading into a transitional season. The team’s head coach is now entering his fifth year in that role, although his contract is currently set to end once the year is finished. Gentry has seen the good and the bad with this Suns team — he’s made it through the star-studded Shaquille O’Neal years, has taken the team to the Western Conference Finals, and has barely missed the playoffs a couple of times.

Now that Nash is gone, Gentry will have to make the new pieces fit into a cohesive unit — a challenge to be sure, but not impossible given the talent on the roster. The staring five should be able to compete with all but the league’s elite on most nights, and finding the right rotations to keep the game close with the reserves is something that’s more than possible considering the veteran NBA leader’s skill set.

2) It’s all about chemistry: There are a lot of new faces on this Suns roster; it’s truly a team in transition. Jared Dudley is the longest tenured team member at this point, and he has the personality to help congeal his new teammates into a group that can be productive together on the basketball court. But essentially, these guys don’t know each other. Once you get past Dudley, Marcin Gortat, Shannon Brown, and Sebastian Telfair, it’s a whole new group of guys. You don’t just wake up one day knowing how to play with one another, and how quickly these players are able to come together will go a long way in determining their success this season.

3) Maximizing Marcin Gortat: Gortat can be a beast of a low post player, a strong pick-and-roll finisher, and a serviceable rim protector. But all of that depends on how he’s used. Last season, he flirted with All-Star numbers at the break thanks to a heavy dose of finishes out of the pick-and-roll with Steve Nash. Early on it doesn’t appear that Gortat will be afforded the same high volume of pick-and-roll opportunities that he received a season ago, so the team will need to find new ways to utilize his skill set and keep him engaged offensively.

The good news about Gortat is, if things aren’t going his way, or he feels he’s not getting the opportunities he should, he’ll let us know about it. He’s one of the most open and honest players in the game — not to the detriment of the team or in a complaining capacity, but simply from a standpoint of the facts as he sees them. So, either way — good times.

*It seemed fitting to quote lyrics from a Tool song in a Suns post at some point, since I met the band’s drummer — Danny Carey — in the team’s locker room during the Shaquille O’Neal era back in December of 2008. Better late than never.

What Suns fans should fear: This is completely dependent on your team-building philosophy. If you’re of the belief that a team needs to be blown up to try to rebuild through the draft, then your fear is that this team sneaks into the playoffs. If you simply want to see the team compete at the highest level, then you’re rooting for an eight seed, just to see what happens.

The good news for Suns fans is that there really are no worries with this year’s squad — there are certainly no championship aspirations, so just enjoy the ride, and hope for the best. Oh, and hope that whatever happens, it’s good enough for the franchise to sign Gentry to a new long-term contract.

Prediction: The Suns should compete on most nights, but the lack of depth should be problematic to the point that it will jeopardize the club’s ability to win on a consistent basis. Shooting for the eighth seed will be the priority, but it will be tough to get there given the level of talent on the competing teams in the Western Conference.

Report: Timberwolves active in trying to land Paul George or Jimmy Butler

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Minnesota is one of the NBA’s best positioned up-and-coming teams. They have a franchise cornerstone in Karl-Anthony Towns, a quality No. 2 in Andrew Wiggins, maybe like Zach LaVine can blossom into an All-Star, and players such as Gorgui Dieng and Nemanja Bjelica could be part of the picture. Maybe Ricky Rubio, too, although he’s further along his career arc. A lot of people look at this team and think around 2020, when the Warriors fade (or break apart), the Timberwolves can step up to elite.

Tom Thibodeau is apparently not willing to be that patient — he’s looking to get in the Paul George/Jimmy Butler talks, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of the Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

Thibodeau helped develop Butler in Chicago and they have a great relationship, he certainly makes the Timberwolves better next season. Same with George, although he’s a rental who almost certainly bolts after the coming season

My question to the Timberwolves: Why?

What was wrong with the building trajectory they are on? I get it, they haven’t been to the playoffs since 2004, a ton of money was just sunk into upgrades at the Target Center, and the owner is not getting younger. Those are all non-basketball reasons to screw up what the basketball side is doing right. It’s the mistake of poor franchises to let that happen.

Could the Timberwolves use a point guard of the future, more depth on the wings and better defenders all around? You bet. But they don’t need to rush the development program either. If Minnesota can land Butler only giving up Rubio and a protected future first or something, sure, but the Bulls continue to ask a very high price for a deal.

Outside of personal feelings, why would the Timberwolves do that?

Report: LaMarcus Aldridge unhappy playing for Spurs

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The Spurs trading LaMarcus Aldridge – they’re reportedly shopping him – could open enough cap space to sign Chris Paul.

But that isn’t the only reason San Antonio is trying to move Aldridge.

Sam Amick of USA Today:

According to a person with knowledge of the Spurs forward’s situation, it’s the 31-year-old’s unhappiness in San Antonio that is the driving force behind the Spurs’ trade talks on Thursday. The five-time All-Star, according to the person, is hopeful that San Antonio can find a better fit for his talents.

Rumors about the Spurs trading Aldridge emerged early in the season, as he was reportedly unhappy about Kawhi Leonard getting the spotlight. When Aldridge signed with San Antonio, it seemed Leonard could do the heavy lifting as the team’s best player and Aldridge could get outsized credit as the leading scorer. But Leonard has emerged as the go-to offensive player, pushing Aldridge into a supporting role both in reality and reputation. Gregg Popovich calling out Aldridge publicly during the playoffs surely didn’t improve relations.

Aldridge turns 32 this summer and will likely become a free agent after next season. Wanting to leave the Spurs – held up as the NBA’s best culture – will raise additional red flags.

San Antonio might not get as much as it hopes in a trade for Aldridge. If Chris Paul is coming, the Spurs wouldn’t need as much for Aldridge. But they won’t know about Paul until July.

San Antonio also values building a roster of players who’ve, as Popovich puts it, “gotten over themselves.” If that’s not Aldridge, the Spurs might not want to keep him around.

There are numerous factors to weigh and incomplete information, but this is the twisting road San Antonio is navigating.

Here’s Knicks’ reported asking price from Celtics in Kristaps Porzingis trade

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Knicks president Phil Jackson’s asking price for Kristaps Porzingis is reportedly “massive.”

Just what does that mean?

Frank Isola of the New York Daily News:

According to a Knicks source, Jackson is asking for the third overall pick in Thursday’s draft as well as next year’s Brooklyn pick along with Jaylen Brown and Jae Crowder. This version of the deal would not include Boston taking on Joakim Noah‘s contract.

All the Knicks fans who threatened to relinquish their fandom if the team traded Porzingis – most would love this deal.

Would the Celtics? I doubt it.

The question is whether there’s a middle ground between what New York wants and what Boston would do. It’s possible Jackson won’t budge and is just shopping Porzingis on the off chance someone accepts outlandish requests like these and to teach Porzingis a lesson for skipping his exit meeting.

Report: First-round draft prospect says Phil Jackson fell asleep during his workout

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Like I said, there are better reasons to criticize Phil Jackson than him saying his priority was the Knicks and that he had discussed trading Kristaps Porzingis.

Jay Williams of ESPN:

A top-15 draft pick told me the other day, because we were involved in this out of this conversation about Phil Jackson and the Knicks, and he said, “Phil Jackson was falling in and out of sleep in my workout.”

Yes. “Falling in and out of sleep at my workout.” This is what this guy told me.

Especially given Jackson’s salary and reputation for not being a diligent worker, this story is too good to check out.