Eric Bledsoe

ProBasketballTalk 2013-14 Preview: Phoenix Suns

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Last season: Believe it or not, the Suns actually had playoff aspirations when the regular season began. The front office believed that Michael Beasley would be different in Phoenix than he had been anywhere else, and mandated that he be given a chance to be a difference-maker in the lineup. Once it became clear that Beasley was a bust and that the team was headed nowhere but the draft lottery, the Suns parted ways with head coach Alvin Gentry in the middle of the year, and gave the interim tag to Lindsey Hunter.

That was essentially a disaster, as Hunter was directionless during his time in charge, and alienated veteran players while never gaining command of the locker room in the process.

The offseason saw Beasley bought out of his contract, GM Lance Blanks let go, and a new general manager in Ryan McDonough and a new head coach in Jeff Hornacek brought in to lead the rebuild back to respectability.

Signature highlight from last season: There were so many to choose from … OK, not so much. But what struck me when revisiting Suns highlights from last season were the three different times (plays 9, 8, and 2 in the clip below) that Goran Dragic found a teammate with a bounce pass through a defender’s legs for the finish.

Key player changes: The Suns began the rebuilding process by making some moves geared more toward the future than the present, but managed to pick up a nice asset on a rookie contract in Eric Bledsoe while doing so.

  • IN: Bledsoe came over in the deal that sent fan favorite and consummate teammate Jared Dudley to the Clippers. Miles Plumlee and Gerald Green were acquired from the Pacers in the deal that sent Luis Scola to Indiana. Slava Kravstov and Ish Smith were acquired from the Bucks by trading Caron Butler, who came over with Bledsoe in the deal with the Clippers. Malcolm Lee is on the roster as a result of the draft night trade Phoenix made to move up to be able to select Archie Goodwin. Alex Len is the other rookie in place, selected by the team with the fifth overall pick in this summer’s draft. It’s worth noting that the Suns have 16 guaranteed contracts in place at the moment, and will need to get down to 15 players before the season begins. Lee would appear to be the odd man out.
  • OUT: Beasley, Jermaine O’Neal, Wesley Johnson, Hamed Haddadi, Scola, and Dudley.

Keys to the Suns season:

1) Developing Eric Bledsoe: The explosive reserve guard who showed flashes of brilliance for the Clippers playing behind Chris Paul last season was coveted by many teams, but the Suns were the ones creative enough to come up with an enticing package (and involve a third team) in order to secure Bledsoe’s services.

Bledsoe is athletic and speedy, and on the defensive end he lives in the passing lanes. But he’s still raw offensively, and developing him into a consistent player on both ends of the floor should be the primary goal in Phoenix this season. It’s worth noting that Bledsoe is essentially in a contract year — the Suns can extend him a qualifying offer to make him a restricted free agent following the season, thus having the right to match any offer he may receive. Even a bad year is likely to net Bledsoe some pretty significant offers, so the Suns need to see what they have in him before committing cap space and huge dollars over the next several seasons.

2) Trade bait: The Suns are by no means done dealing considering their rebuilding situation, and the team has players in contract situations that will be appealing to other teams around the league, especially as the trade deadline approaches. Marcin Gortat and his expiring $7.7 million deal is at the top of that list, and even he knows it. Another interesting name, though, is Channing Frye, who is back after sitting out all of last season with a heart condition. If Frye returns to form as a high-percentage shooter from three-point distance, his ability to stretch the floor will be highly-coveted for his relatively low price. Frye is on the books for $6.4 million this season, and has a player option for $6.8 for the following season.

3) Building a foundation: The most important thing for the Suns to do this season is establish an identity and a direction under new head coach Jeff Hornacek. Once the wheels fell off a season ago, there was no leadership from either the front office or from the interim coach on the sidelines. McDonough appears to have a long-term plan in place from a management standpoint, now that needs to trickle down to the players on the floor. The holdovers from last year have responded extremely well to Hornacek thus far — his challenge will be to keep everyone focused and engaged on improvement over the long grind of the season, especially in the face of tallying few wins against so many losses.

Why you should watch: The Suns aim to play uptempo offensive basketball under Hornacek, and that should be a blast with Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe pushing the pace in the starting lineup.

Prediction: The oddsmakers have set the over/under for season wins in the 21-22 neighborhood, and that seems a bit on the low side given the guys in place and the effort we’ve seen thus far during the preseason. With that being said, there’s going to be a lot of losing in Phoenix, but if there’s good news surrounding that it’s the franchise having a plan in place and a head coach that seems well-suited to the challenge of rebuilding that lies ahead. As long as Hornacek keeps his players on the path of continual improvement as the season progresses, the year will ultimately be viewed as a success.

Raptors hold on in overtime, even series with Heat

TORONTO, ON - MAY 03:  Kyle Lowry #7 of the Toronto Raptors hits a half-court buzzer beater to tie Game One and send it into overtime during the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Miami Heat during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at the Air Canada Centre on May 3, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  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 Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
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It wasn’t pretty, but the Toronto Raptors came away with a win and salvaged a tied series in their first two home games. For the second consecutive game, they went to overtime with the Miami Heat, only this time, it was the Heat that came up cold at the end, and Toronto prevailed, 96-92.

From an efficiency standpoint, Kyle Lowry wasn’t much better than he’s been thus far in the postseason, shooting just 7-for-22 from the field, but he hit two key jumpers in the final minutes of regulation that extended Toronto’s lead, forcing Miami to play from behind and tying the game on threes from Dwyane Wade and Goran Dragic.

But it was Jonas Valanciunas who proved most effective late for Toronto. He finished with 15 points and 12 rebounds, and for long stretches, the only reliable offense for the Raptors was dumping the ball in to him. Valanciunas bailed the Raptors out late with a rebound and tip-in to break an 80-80 tie after DeMar DeRozan (who shot a forgettable 9-for-24 on the night) missed two consecutive free throws.

The Heat failed to score in the first three minutes of overtime, and their continued penchant for turning the ball over did them in several times down the stretch as they failed to execute.

A bright spot for Miami was Dragic, who scored 20 points on 8-for-12 shooting despite receiving eight stitches to his lower lip after catching an elbow in the first half.

Splitting the first two home games isn’t ideal for the Raptors, but they had every opportunity to go down 2-0 after controlling most of the first three quarters and managed to prevail. Plus, Lowry’s late-fourth-quarter heroics could be enough to get him going again.

Damian Lillard gets tested by Warriors, looks for rebound

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 03:  Damian Lillard #0 of the Portland Trail Blazers stands on the court during their game against the Golden State Warriors in Game Two of the Western Conference Semifinals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs on May 3, 2016 at Oracle Arena 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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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) First it was a chest cold, then it was a fourth-quarter dry spell. The start of Damian Lillard‘s playoff series against the Golden State Warriors has been rough.

And as Lillard goes, often the rest of the Trail Blazers follow.

Portland is down 2-0 in its Western Conference semifinal series against the defending NBA champions. And it certainly won’t get much easier when the series shifts north Saturday – even though presumptive league MVP Stephen Curry is unlikely to return from a knee injury.

But Lillard and his team have a history of stepping up after getting knocked down. In fact, that’s been the theme of their whole season.

“I know the kind of guys I’m running with. Besides that, we’ve answered the call all season long. We’ve been in bad positions time and time again, and we’ve never shied away. We’ve never not answered the call. I don’t see why this time it would be any different,” he said.

Lillard, who averaged 25.1 points and 6.8 assists during the regular season, scored 25 points in the Blazers’ 110-99 loss in Game 2 on Tuesday night, including 17 points in the third quarter. But the Warriors held him scoreless (0-for-3 from the field) in the crucial final period when they came from behind to win, outscoring Portland 34-12. Portland only scored six points over the last 5:21.

With a day off on Wednesday, Lillard let the loss digest.

“After the game I was pretty frustrated by not being able to finish that game. Yesterday I didn’t even want to see a basketball,” he said. “I wasn’t even gonna watch the playoff game until I heard Cleveland was hitting a bunch of 3s. So I wanted to see for myself, but I didn’t even want to have nothing to do with basketball after that game.”

In the series opener, Lillard started cold but eventually scored 30 points in a 118-106 loss. The Oakland native admitted later to battling a cold afterward. On Thursday, he said he was healthy.

Lillard made a playoff splash in 2014 when his buzzer-beating 3-pointer against the Rockets sent the Blazers into the second round for the first time in 14 years.

But he was the lone starter left with the Blazers this season after the departures of LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, Robin Lopez and Wesley Matthews. Some expected the Blazers to only win about two dozen games.

Lillard tends to rise when he’s the underdog, however. Led by Lillard and backcourt teammate CJ McCollum, a first-year starter, the Blazers overcame a 2-10 stretch in November to wind up the fifth seed in the West.

A two-time All-Star, Lillard was snubbed this year. How did he respond? By dropping 51 points, including nine 3-pointers, in a 137-105 victory over – wait for it – the Golden State Warriors. Lillard shot over Curry at will in that Feb. 19 victory, one of just nine losses for the Warriors in a record-setting 73-win season.

Knowing the Blazers are capable will be key Saturday night.

“We’ll have bounce. We came back after 0-2 against the Clippers (in the opening round) and came with a lot of energy in Game 3. We know how important Game 3 is,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. “Having energy, having bounce, at the Moda Center, with our crowd? That’s the least of our concerns.”

Lillard also struggled in the opening two games against the Clippers in the first round. Portland came back to win the next four to win the series, but the Clippers were hurt when their top two scorers, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, were knocked out with injuries.

The Warriors also get credit for Lillard’s struggles after making defensive adjustments on both Lillard and McCollum, particularly the play of Festus Ezeli.

“They are so explosive and they run really good stuff, I mean, it’s hard to guard. You have to cover a lot of floor against Portland, and I thought between Festus and Draymond (Green), those guys did a great job of protecting the feed and moving and handling the pick-and-roll on top,” said Warriors coach Steve Kerr.

Lillard said the Blazers would learn from it.

“It hurts to go back in the locker room after you play so well for so long and you come back in there with the L. But it is a part of growth,” he said. “The entire season has been growth for us.”

Erik Spoelstra calls Frank Vogel’s firing “disturbing”

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 28:  Head coach Erik Spoelstra of the Miami Heat reacts as he coaches in the first half against the Indiana Pacers during Game Four of the Eastern Conference Finals of the 2013 NBA Playoffs at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on May 28, 2013 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  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 Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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One thing that’s a constant in the NBA: coaches always stick up for each other. That’s what happened on Thursday, when Pacers president Larry Bird announced that he was letting Frank Vogel go. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, who coached against Vogel in three memorable playoff series during the big three era, was unhappy to hear the news of Vogel’s fate and lamented the state of coaching, which has very little job security.

Via Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel:

“I think it’s really disturbing, actually. I’ve only been a head coach for eight years. So what am I, the second-longest-tenured?” Spoelstra asked, with Casey in his sixth season as Toronto coach and only Gregg Popovich, in his 20th season with the San Antonio Spurs, on the bench longer. “That’s a sad state of where the coaching profession is right now and stability of organizations.”

Spoelstra and Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle are the second longest-tenured coaches in the league, behind only Gregg Popovich. Already this offseason, there have been five coaching changes in addition to Vogel’s: Luke Walton replaced Byron Scott with the Lakers, Tom Thibodeau replaced Sam Mitchell with the Timberwolves, Scott Brooks replaced Randy Wittman in Washington, and the Rockets and Kings jobs are still unfilled. The Knicks job could potentially turn over as well, if Phil Jackson opts not to bring back Kurt Rambis.

This is on top of five coaches who were fired during the season: Kevin McHale in Houston, Derek Fisher in New York, Jeff Hornacek in Phoenix, Lionel Hollins in Brooklyn and David Blatt in Cleveland. That’s a third of the league since the 2015-16 season began. Spoelstra is right about the instability, but that’s part of the business.

Photos: Bucks unveil interior of new arena

BOSTON, MA - FEBRUARY 25:  Jabari Parker #12 of the Milwaukee Bucks runs down court during the third quarter against the Boston Celtics at TD Garden on February 25, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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The Milwaukee Bucks are set to open their new arena in time for the start of the 2018-19 season, and now they’ve unveiled the first renderings of the inside of the building. They’re pretty nice.

Here’s the court:

There will also be several public bars out in the concourse:

It’s decidedly more modern than the aging BMO Harris Bradley Center, although that building is one of the most fun atmospheres in the league to watch a game in. Hopefully the new place can recapture that vibe.