51 Questions: Do the Phoenix Suns finally have a playoff formula?

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PBT is previewing the 2015-16 NBA season by tackling 51 big questions that we can’t wait to see answered once play tips off. We will answer one a day right up to the start of the season Oct. 27. Today’s question:

Do the Phoenix Suns finally have a playoff formula?

It has been five years since the Phoenix Suns made the playoffs, tying the franchise record for longest playoff drought. It’s the fourth longest active drought in the NBA (Timberwolves at 11, Kings at nine, and Pistons at six).

Think about it this way: The Magic, Sixers, and Jazz have been to the playoffs more recently than the Suns.

Phoenix hasn’t bottomed out on a rebuild, they’ve actually been pretty good — they surprised everyone and won 48 games two seasons ago, then had 39 wins last season when things went very wrong and injuries crushed the team after the All-Star break. However, in a deep Western Conference pretty good isn’t good enough.

Suns management and ownership wants that to change. They want back in the playoff dance. Now.

It’s why they went hard after LaMarcus Aldridge this summer, coming in a surprising second to a Spurs team that nobody was likely to catch in that chase.

This summer the Suns made other moves to address needs. They went out and got Tyson Chandler as a free agent. The first reaction was he was there to provide a shot blocking and defensive quarterbacking, two things the Suns sorely lacked. However, just as importantly, they needed a vocal locker room leader, a vacuum that was part of the problem in Phoenix’s implosion last season.

The Suns also needed shooting, they went out and got Mirza Teletovic and drafted Devin Booker.

It’s easy to think the Suns regressed because they lost a lot of talent since the last trade deadline — Goran Dragic, Isaiah Thomas, Gerald Green, Brandan Wright — but they believe the pieces they have now fit together better.

Phoenix believes it can make the playoffs; it thinks it finally has the right formula.

Maybe. They will be in the mix. But a four things have to happen to make that a reality.

First is Chandler has to lead a defensive renaissance on this team. Last season they were average, 17th in the NBA in defensive efficiency, but Chandler can help change that. First, he gives them defensive rebounding that they lacked. He gives them a quarterback that they needed to call things out and have everyone on the same page (reports of how he talks on defense are already pouring out of camp). And he helps protects the paint — that means Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight, and P.J. Tucker can pressure the ball more and take risks out on the perimeter knowing Chandler can erase some mistakes.

The second is an obvious one: Bledsoe and Knight need to be able to work well together. They are going to share playmaking duties, and both are going to spend time working off the ball, both need to be ready for that mental adjustment. We haven’t seen that much yet, we need to see how it works out.

Third, there needs to be shooting to space the floor. Bledsoe is a penetrator who is a career 32 percent from three, while Knight shot just 31.3 percent from three after being traded to the Suns (likely due to ankle injuries that required off-season surgery). Those two men will be running the pick-and-roll with Chandler, who sets a good pick, rolls hard and can finish, but doesn’t have shooting range. The Suns other two starters are likely P.J. Tucker, who is not a huge threat from three but shot a respectable 34.5 percent from there last season, and Markieff Morris, who is a career 32.8 percent from three.

If I’m an opposing defense, what’s to keep me from going under picks and packing the lane against the Suns? Phoenix needs Knight to return to the guy who is a career 36 percent from three, they need Morris to improve from the outside, and they need guys like Teletovic and Booker to play key minutes and space the floor at times.

Fourth, and finally, they need the potentially volatile mixture of an unhappy Morris and a coach in Jeff Hornacek in the last year of his contract not to combust. Everyone is saying all the right things at the start of camp, and this is why guys like Chandler and Ronnie Price were brought in, but there is the potential for things to go sideways, especially if some early losses pile up.

The biggest hurdle for the Suns in ending their playoff drought is they are in the Western Conference.

Even if all four of things mentioned above go right for them — if they run and hit more threes plus play better defense — this is likely a 45 win team (give or take a few, and probably take). The problem is that in the West that may not be enough. Barring injuries, there are likely seven lock playoff teams in the West — Spurs, Warriors, Clippers, Rockets, Thunder, Grizzlies, and Pelicans. That leaves the Suns battling teams such as the Jazz, Mavericks and maybe the Kings for that final playoff spot. It may take more than 45 wins, and things are going to have to break the Suns’ way to get there.

Maybe Robert Sarver gets his way and the playoff drought ends this season, it’s more likely than snow in Phoenix this winter. But I wouldn’t bet much on either happening.

Lakers’ Kentavious Caldwell-Pope will not travel with team for 25 days due to legal issue

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The Lakers’Kentavious Caldwell-Pope missed his new team’s first two games this season due to a suspension for a DUI case in Michigan.

But that was not all. Caldwell-Pope’s came with probation, and to get out of it early the Lakers’ forward has to go through an intensive rehab program — one that does not allow him to leave California with the team for 25 days. He did not play against the Cavaliers and that is just the first of multiple games he will miss, a story broken by Ramona Shelburne of ESPN.

Caldwell-Pope was originally cited for operating a vehicle while intoxicated but pleaded guilty in May to the lesser charge of allowing someone to operate his vehicle while under the influence, which carried a 12-month probation.

On Thursday, Caldwell-Pope had to return to California to begin an intensive program over the next 25 days that will result in some travel restrictions and could cause him to miss additional games but will end his probation early.

The Lakers are in a home heavy part of their schedule, and by my calculations KCP would only miss one or two games (for sure against Houston Dec. 20, then maybe against Golden State Dec. 22, but that is in California). The Lakers next road game after that is Dec. 31 in Houston again.

Caldwell-Pope signed a one-year, $18 million deal with the Lakers last offseason, and he has gone on to become one of the few reliable three-point shooters on the team, hitting 36.1 percent from beyond the arc, taking 6.1 shots from there a game. He’s been solid on defense and a player the Lakers’ need, although his overall efficiency is closer to average.

If the Lakers are successful with their big game hunting during free agency next summer, Caldwell-Pope will not return to the team. In a tight free agent market, he may once again not see offers near what he sees himself worth next summer. That said, his play in Los Angeles has been good. And now he will not have this legal issue hanging over his head during free agency.

LeBron James is good with televising All-Star team selections

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From the moment the NBA announced changes to the All-Star Game team selection format for this season, most NBA fans — as well as most media members I know — have wanted a live team selection show.

As a reminder, this year (as in past years) fans will vote for their favorite All-Stars, and those votes will be combined with media and player votes to name the five starters from each conference. Then the coaches will vote to select the teams.

What’s different is the top vote-getters from each conference — let’s be honest, it will be LeBron James in the East and Stephen Curry or Kevin Durant in the West — will be named captains and they will then pick their teams from the pool of other selected players. No East vs. West. If LeBron gets to choose first and he picks James Harden, then Harden is on that team. Curry can go second and select Giannis Antetokounmpo or whoever he wants from the starters pool, then the captains move into the reserves pool. Old-school playground style team picking.

Who wouldn’t tune it to watch that selection show?

The NBA officially has not decided yet if the selection process will be broadcast, but it probably won’t be. The reason is some player is not going to like being picked last (or next to last) and his agent will like it less. It gets political (would Curry have to choose Durant or Draymond Green first to keep his teammates happy?).

LeBron basically said Saturday why not televise it? From Nick Friedell of ESPN, when LeBron was asked if it would bother him to go against teammates in the All-Star Game:

“I hope not,” James said after Saturday’s shootaround. “We’re all grown men. It doesn’t stop their paycheck from coming. It won’t stop you from playing time once the season starts.”

And is he good with the pick order being made public or done live.

“It doesn’t matter to me,” James said. “It doesn’t matter. At the end of the day, if I’m rewarded to be a part of the All-Star Game again, that’s cool for me. It doesn’t matter. All that other stuff is extracurricular.”

That’s the right attitude, and whoever got picked last would say that publicly. But privately… who knows? Depends on the guy.

That selection show would be must-watch television. The NBA needs to broadcast this. But it won’t. Politics will win out.

Carmelo Anthony returns to face improved Knicks (but without Porzingis)

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NEW YORK (AP) — Carmelo Anthony is coming to Kristaps Porzingis‘ house.

Three months after the Knicks traded Anthony to Oklahoma City, their former All-Star is gone and quickly forgotten. Porzingis is playing nearly as well as Anthony ever did in New York and seems to enjoy unyielding support from both fans and the front office that Anthony never had.

Porzingis has something else Anthony doesn’t: a winning record.

The Knicks welcome Anthony back on Saturday, trying to extend their surprising start though perhaps without the new main man in Madison Square Garden.

Anthony said after a triple-overtime victory in Philadelphia on Friday that he expected a fun night in New York.

“I think it’ll be an appreciation. It’s not like I was there for a year or a season or two seasons. I spent a lot of time there, almost seven years there,” he said. “There was great times, there was bad times. Regardless, I always stuck with it. I always remained professional. I always came and did my job whether people liked that or not. Hopefully people recognize that.”

Unlike team management, Porzingis didn’t want his friend to leave.

But it sure looks like it was the best thing for him and the Knicks.

“Well obviously, I would love to have had him here to continue to learn from him,” Porzingis said. “But without him this year I’ve had more of an opportunity. I am featured more, which is normal.”

Porzingis is listed as questionable to play after he left the Knicks’ game in Brooklyn on Thursday in the third quarter with a sore left knee. New York held on after he left, improving to 15-13 with its third straight victory.

If Porzingis plays, count on the usual raucous ovation when he’s the final starter announced, the spot that previously belonged to Anthony.

And what of the reception for Anthony, who led the Knicks to three straight playoff appearances after arriving in 2011, led the league in scoring when they won 54 games and a division championship in 2013, and always made it clear that he loved New York and didn’t want to go?

“I don’t think he deserves to be booed, but you never know,” Knicks forward Lance Thomas said. “Regardless, he is going to bring his `A’ game and we’re going to bring ours as well.”

Former team president Phil Jackson longed to unload Anthony last season, but the Knicks weren’t sure what to expect when they finally did make a deal on the eve of training camp. He was their leading scorer and team leader, and coach Jeff Hornacek had already said Anthony would be in the starting lineup if he remained on the team.

But new president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry found a trade the next day and it’s been a good one for the Knicks. Enes Kanter is giving them 13.4 points and 10.3 rebounds a game as the starting center while providing positivity that for years rarely existed in the home locker room. Doug McDermott is bringing another 8.5 points a night off the bench.

Anthony is struggling right along with the Thunder, a top-25 scorer in NBA history potentially on his way to the worst season of his career. He went into Friday’s game averaging just 17.7 points on 40 percent shooting before scoring 24 points.

And after placing him with MVP Russell Westbrook and fellow All-Star Paul George for the NBA’s latest Big Three, the Thunder were under .500 before Friday’s victory.

“I didn’t know that to be honest,” Thomas said. “But regardless, (they) will figure it out. I am not worried about them. I am worried about the Knicks.”

There’s less reason to worry than in Anthony’s final years in New York. Jackson alternated between trying to win and trying to rebuild seemingly every season, and his insistence on running the triangle offense appeared out of touch in an era when NBA teams are pushing the pace. And his stance toward Anthony last season angered teammates who appreciated the veteran’s efforts on and off the court.

Mills and Perry took aim at the culture and signaled a desire to build behind Porzingis, whose average of 25.5 points would be even higher if not for a sprained ankle that forced him to leave one game after 2 1/2 minutes. He looks happy after he was so disillusioned by the atmosphere under Jackson that he blew off his exit meeting last spring.

And while the Knicks appear on the rise, Anthony is trying to keep the Thunder from getting down.

“For the most part what I like about it, guys are trying to figure it out,” he said earlier this week. “Guys are trying to make it work. Guys are trying to be unselfish and figure this thing out and we’re sticking with it.”

 

Report: Utah’s Rudy Gobert out month with knee sprain, bone bruise

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The basketball gods have not been kind to Rudy Gobert this season.

He missed 11 games earlier in the season with a bone bruise on his knee, and now he’s going to miss another month for much the same reason — teammate Derrick Favors fell into Gobert’s knee in the opening minutes in Boston Friday night and injured the same knee. From Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

The Jazz went 7-4 without Gobert the first time he was out, but did it with a changed game. Utah’s defense fell off, as expected when the man second in Defensive Player of the Year voting the season before is out. However, Favors moved over to center and provided more offensive options that opened up the floor for the Jazz, and also rookie Donovan Michell broke out as a playmaker and scorer. Utah had a top 10 offense in the games Gobert missed earlier in the season. (Favors left the Celtics game Friday with a “left eye laceration” according to the team but is expected to try to play Saturday.)

The Jazz are 14-15 on the season, sitting in the ninth seed and in the midst of a tight playoff race for the final slots in the West.