Portland Trail Blazers v Phoenix Suns

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.

Video Breakdown: How Kyle Lowry dismantles NBA defenses from 3-point range

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Toronto Raptors star Kyle Lowry is arguably the team’s best player thanks in large part to his increase in 3-point shooting ability this season. He’s just above 43 percent from deep this year, much better than his career average of 36 percent. Lowry has increased his 3-point percentage six points over last season, and he’s a big part of why the Raptors are so good on offense, and why they’re a contender in the Eastern Conference.

So how does he do it?

Watch the full video breakdown on Lowry’s 3-point shooting above, or read the text version of the article below.

Early Offense

I looked at a lot of tape of Lowry over the last 3 years and he hasn’t changed much on his shot mechanics. There’s no big change in his sweep or sway toward the basket when he shoots, and he still brings the ball up from his left side.

Part of his leap is be how quickly he’s getting his shots off and how many of his early offense field goal attempts come in the form of 3-pointers.

Lowry has bumped up how many 3-pointers he’s taken in the early offense, recorded here as between 24 and 15 seconds on the shot clock. Year-over-year he’s taken nearly eight percent more of his field goals as three pointers in this range.

This takes form on the court in a couple of ways, both in transition on the fast break and on quick 1 or 2 dribble pull ups off the pick-and-roll.

Transition

With the ball in secondary transition here, Lowry gets a quick screen from DeMarre Carroll to open him up for a 3-point bucket against the Hornets. And that’s still with 18 seconds left on the shot clock!

Pull-up and off-the-bounce jumpers

The other way Lowry scores quickly is off the dribble, with quick pick and rolls. Toronto is great at screen assists — picks leading to an immediate field goal — and have three players in the Top 50 and two in the Top 10 in setting them.

Here, the Celtics defender cuts off Lowry’s attack to the middle of the floor. The screener sets up to Lowry’s right, but then quickly flips it to his left. One dribble, and it’s an easy 3-pointer.

Here against Portland, the Raptors run a two screen setup with one wing and one post. The Blazers make the switch and try to blitz Lowry, but he stays resilient and sinks the bucket with what little space they allow him anyway.

Working with DeMar DeRozan

The other thing that’s been talked about a lot is the gravity of DeMar DeRozan, who himself is having a career year for the Raptors. While Lowry is making a ton of unassisted 3-pointers this year, the Raptors point guard does benefit from DeMar.

Part of that is how good they are in transition together.

Here you can see DeMar bringing the ball up the court with Lowry in front of him. He sets the screen, then fades to the arc. Three Utah Jazz are trying to stop DeRozan, and Lowry is left all alone.

When he’s not the primary ball handler on the break, Lowry will immediately get out to the wing. DeRozan has a way of finding him to get up quick Js.

Of course, in good old set plays the Raptors see this gravity effect as well.

Here Toronto is running another double screen with a guard and a post, but Lowry is one of the screeners. At this point, all three Heat players are guarding against DeRozan’s midrange jumper, leaving just enough daylight for Lowry.

Toronto is also third in the NBA in “hockey” or secondary assists, which means two or more passes leading to a made field goal.

On this baseline out of bounds play, again it’s DeRozan’s gravity that frees up Lowry. As the ball is inbounded, DeRozan sucks three warriors defenders with him, including Lowry’s. Meanwhile, Kyle is running down the baseline to get a bucket off a pass on the opposite side of the floor. All the raps have to do is rotate the ball.

So that’s a little bit on why Kyle Lowry has been so good. It’s been about shot selection, decisiveness, and some practice in addition to the effectiveness of his teammates.

It’s official: Steve Kerr will coach West in All-Star Game

OAKLAND, CA - JANUARY 16:  Head coach Steve Kerr of the Golden State Warriors stands on the side of the court during their game against the Cleveland Cavaliers at ORACLE Arena on January 16, 2017 in Oakland, California. 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 Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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Steve Kerr likes a good meal, and while he might like some time off more he can at least find good food in New Orleans.

Kerr will be heading there mid-February to coach the West in the All-Star Game (Feb. 19 on TNT). That because official Monday night when the Rockets lost — the Warriors will have the best record in the West of Feb. 5 (the cutoff date). Kerr coached the All-Star Game two years ago, but not last season because of an NBA rule saying the same coach can’t do it in consecutive years (it fell to Gregg Popovich).

This is the same Steve Kerr that over the weekend called the way the players’ treated their All-Star votes was a “mockery.” He was right. Enough players took it seriously that the final selections were very good (the players had Russell Westbrook and James Harden ahead of Stephen Curry, for example), but players cast votes for 283 different players. To be All-Star starters. The 10 best players in the game. There were a lot of joke votes in there, such as the ones for Ben Simmons (who has yet to step on a court this season). There was a vote for Mo Williams. You get the idea.

Kerr likely will be matching wits — if you can call rolling the ball out there for the All-Star game that — with Dwane Casey of the Raptors. Tyronn Lue of the Cavaliers coached last year, so he gets a weekend off. Toronto is currently second in the East and have been there most of the season, although Boston is just 1.5 games back and Atlanta 2.5 back. It’s possible by Super Bowl Sunday that order changes and another coach gets to go have gumbo in New Orleans.

After another loss, LeBron James reiterates call to bring in more roster help

Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James pauses during overtime in the team's NBA basketball game against the San Antonio Spurs, Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017, in Cleveland. The Spurs won 118-115. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
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Monday morning at shootaround in New Orleans, LeBron James played down the Cavaliers having lost four-of-six talking about the “process” and the “marathon” NBA season. He was keeping his eyes on the big picture, where the Cavaliers remain clear and away the team to beat in the East.

A few hours later his Cavaliers lost to the Pelicans. Without Anthony Davis. And the Cavs game up 124 points in the process.

After that, LeBron was once again saying the Cavaliers need some roster help. Via Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal.

“We’re not better than last year, from a personnel standpoint … we’re a top-heavy team,” James said, adding a few minutes later, “I just hope that we’re not satisfied as an organization. I just hope we not satisfied. How hard it was to do that s—. I just hope we’re not satisfied….

“I don’t got no time to waste,” he said. “I’ll be 33 in the winter and I ain’t got time to waste. That’s what I’m talking about. … When I feel like physically and mentally, me personally, can’t compete for a championship no more or I feel like I can’t do it, then I won’t have this problem. But until that happens, and it don’t seem like no time soon…”

LeBron has been clear before he wants the team to add a playmaking backup point guard, where right now Kay Felder and DeAndre Liggins are being asked to play (which is why Kyrie Irving played 42 minutes against the Pelicans). Remember the Cavaliers decided not to pay Matthew Dellavedova last summer because Mo Williams was going to be their more affordable veteran reserve, then the day before training camp started Williams decided to retire (although the Cavaliers kept him on the roster and his salary has become quite the pawn).

It’s easy for LeBron to say “get another playmaker,” it’s another thing entirely for GM David Griffin to do it. The Cavaliers already have the highest payroll in the NBA and Dan Gilbert’s check with taxes this season will be north of $130 million.

The bigger issue is Cleveland has nothing of value to trade. After the Kyle Korver deal, Cleveland doesn’t have a first-round pick to move until 2021. The roster is also barren of guys the Cavaliers can move who will net anything of value — for example, Felder and  Liggins aren’t going to get a playmaker. The Cavs could offer up Iman Shumpert, but he’s starting right now (until J.R. Smith‘s return) and playing fairly well. And Shumpert may not be enough.

More likely, I expect the Cavaliers are hoping to find someone on the waiver wire after the trade deadline (or maybe before) that can help them. But help them how much remains to be seen.

LeBron may not like it, but he probably is going to have to make due with the guys he’s got in the locker room now. The Korver trade was probably the Cavs one big play.

Three things we learned Monday: Can Warriors, Cavaliers, Rockets all lose on one night? Yes.

Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) reacts during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the New Orleans Pelicans Monday, Jan. 23, 2017, in New Orleans. The Pelicans won 124-122.(AP Photo/Jonathan Bachman)
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Monday morning, a new edition of the PBT NBA Power Rankings come out. Monday night, four of the top five teams in the rankings lose. So, we’re feeling very smart. The only exception was the Spurs, who won despite Kawhi Leonard sitting out with a sore hand. Here’s what happened with the other upsets on a strange Monday in the NBA.

1) Anthony Davis sits, Pelicans still beat slumping Cavaliers, and LeBron James is ticked.
At shootaround on Monday, LeBron James said he wasn’t too concerned about the Cavaliers having lost four-of-six because he was about the process and his team improving over the course of the marathon season. He thought they were on the right track overall.

A few hours later his Cavaliers lost to the Pelicans. Without Anthony Davis. And after the game, LeBron was back to calling for some roster help. Via Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal.

“We’re not better than last year, from a personnel standpoint … we’re a top-heavy team,” James said, adding a few minutes later, “I just hope that we’re not satisfied as an organization. I just hope we not satisfied. How hard it was to do that s—. I just hope we’re not satisfied….

“I don’t got no time to waste,” he said. “I’ll be 33 in the winter and I ain’t got time to waste. That’s what I’m talking about. … When I feel like physically and mentally, me personally, can’t compete for a championship no more or I feel like I can’t do it, then I won’t have this problem. But until that happens, and it don’t seem like no time soon…”

The issue with the Cavaliers Monday was defense — New Orleans hung 124 on them, shot 41 percent from three, Terrence Jones had 36 points on 18 shots, Jrue Holiday finished with 33 points and 10 assists. Jones was getting it done on both ends.

The Cavaliers may need another playmaker thinking ahead to the playoffs and Finals, but Monday night they just needed to defend better, and they let a New Orleans team without its best player get too many shots at the rim. As for that playmaker, it’s not going to be that easy to get one — Cleveland’s trade cupboard is bare. After landing Kyle Korver, the Cavs don’t have a first-round pick to move until 2021, and most of the players they have they would willingly trade — Kay Felder or DeAndre Liggins, for example — aren’t going to get Cleveland a playmaker. The Cavs could dangle Iman Shumpert, but he’s starting right now (until J.R. Smith‘s return) and playing fairly well. And Shumpert may not be enough. I expect the Cavaliers are hoping to find someone on the waiver wire after the trade deadline (or maybe before) that can help them.

LeBron may not like it, but he may need to make it work with the guys in the locker room now.

2) Warriors take a vacation, end up on Waiters Island and pay the price in loss to Heat. The Warriors had won seven in a row — beating Cleveland, OKC, and Houston along the way — and they came into Miami looking for a little relaxation, some good Cuban food, and an easy win. Golden State took Miami (winners of three in a row themselves) a little lightly, let the Heat hang around and then…

Dion Waiters happened.

If you haven’t been watching a lot of Miami this year, Dion Waiters is still the guy you remember — he can put up points, but don’t expect him to do it efficiently. Especially if he has to create his own shot. Waiters is shooting 40.3 percent for the season with a 47.8 true shooting percentage (the league average is around 52).

But there are a couple of games a year when his poor choice midrange jumpers fall, and Monday night was one. Waiters shot 13-of-20 overall, many on difficult shots, which included 4-of-6 from the midrange and 6-of-8 from three. He finished with 33 points, but it was the pull-up three with the game on the line that was the big one and the game winner.

This was a night the Warriors just could not get the three ball to fall, shooting 8-of-30 (26.7 percent) from deep. Combine that with a suddenly confident Heat team playing better and you get a Warriors loss.

3) Rockets defense has no answers for Giannis Antetokounmpo, so Bucks get win. Houston’s defense has been decent this season — they are ranked 15th in the NBA overall, and in the month of December it was sixth best in the league (when the Rockets went 15-2). Yes, Mike D’Antoni’s team is playing some defense.

Except not Monday night. The Bucks shot 58.8 percent as a team, and 11-of-23 from beyond the arc, dropping 127 on the Rockets and getting the win. Antetokounmpo had 31 points on 18 shots (nine of his points came in the final five minutes), while Jabari Parker added 24 points.

Turnovers also were an issue for the Rockets, with one-in-five trips down the court ending in one — including some bad live-ball turnovers that helped the Bucks at key points in the game.

Houston is not 3-5 in its last eight. Fortunately for them the Clippers are banged up and stumbling worse, so the Rockets will likely be able to hold on to the three seed. Just don’t dream of catching the Spurs (now three games up on Houston), especially if the Rockets don’t get this slump turned around soon.

• Bonus thing that made us laugh: Joakim Noah with worst free throw you may ever see. The best part of this video is how he knows it’s bad the second it leaves his hand.