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.

Bulls claim PG Kay Felder off waivers

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The Bulls’ point-guard position is a quagmire.

Kris Dunn and Cameron Payne are both injured (and not necessarily good). Jerian Grant is maybe an adequate backup pressed into starting. Ryan Arcidiacono is on a two-way contract.

Enter Kay Felder.

Bulls release:

The Chicago Bulls announced today that the team has waived forward Jarell Eddie and center Diamond Stone, and claimed guard Kay Felder off waivers.

Felder was waived by the Hawks, who acquired him in a salary-dump trade from the Cavaliers. Cleveland drafted Felder No. 54 last year, but ran out of roster spots this year.

Felder is only a moderate prospect. He impressed in the D-League, but at 5-foot-9, he has significant limitations. (His size also makes him incredibly fun to watch when he gets rolling.)

For Chicago, he’s a quite-noteworthy addition.

LeBron James: ‘I still got Pandora with commercials’

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Dwyane Wade revealed last year that LeBron James refuses to use his phone internationally unless he’s on Wi-Fi.

LeBron’s friend and new Cavaliers teammate again brought up that claim, and LeBron confirmed – then went even further about his own cheapness.

LeBron in a joint interview with Wade on ESPN:

No. I’m not doing that. I’m not turning on data roaming. I’m not buying no apps. I still got Pandora with commercials.

LeBron – he’s just like us!

As funny as that line is, keep watching to see LeBron hilariously explain how his hairline affects his interviews.

PBT Extra: LeBron as MVP and other NBA postseason award predictions

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Last year, Russell Westbrook had a historic season on his way to the MVP award, with James Harden and Kawhi Leonard right on his heels. But heading into this season, the dynamic for MVP — and many of the NBA awards — feels very different and wide open.

In this latest PBT Extra, I lay out my preseason predictions for every award — LeBron James for MVP, Ben Simmons for Rookie of the Year, and on down the list. There are a few leaps and surprises in there (predicting Most Improved or Sixth Man before the season is a crap shoot, so why not gamble).

Now the predictions season is over, let’s get on to the games.

Jazz: Dante Exum undergoing surgery after shoulder injury

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Jazz point guard Dante Exum hurt his shoulder in a preseason game – an injury that immediately looked like it could be season-ending.

Though Utah doesn’t outright say Exum is done for the year, this doesn’t engender much hope.

Jazz release:

The following is a medical update on Utah Jazz guard Danté Exum who suffered a separated left shoulder on October 6 vs. Phoenix.

After further evaluation, Exum (6-6, 190, Australia) has elected to undergo surgery to stabilize the AC joint of his left shoulder. The surgery is scheduled to take place Tuesday, October 24 in Los Angeles. Further updates will be provided when appropriate.

Exum (obviously) didn’t receive a contract extension before today’s deadline, so he’ll become a free agent next summer. After one full missed season already and two years of limited effectiveness, it’s not even clear Utah will extend Exum a qualifying offer to make him a restricted free agent. The former No. 5 pick almost certainly won’t meet the starter criteria, which means his qualifying offer would be worth $4,333,931 (down from $6,619,903 based on his draft slot).

The Jazz will start Ricky Rubio, and Raul Neto will be the primary point guard behind him. Wings Rodney Hood, Alec Burks, Donovan Mitchell and Joe Ingles can all share facilitating duties.

Utah will probably be just fine without Exum this season, which speaks to his marginal place long-term.