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Three questions the Phoenix Suns must answer this season

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The NBC/ProBasketballTalk season previews will ask the questions each of the 30 NBA teams must answer to make their season a success. We are looking at one team a day until the start of the season, and it begins with a look back at the team’s offseason moves.

Last Season: 24-58, missed the playoffs for the seventh straight season

I know what you did last summer: In a quiet offseason, the Suns drafted Josh Jackson No. 4, re-signed Alan Williams, signed Alex Len to a qualifying offer and signed T.J. Warren to a contract extension.

THREE QUESTIONS THE SUNS MUST ANSWER:

1) Will Devin Booker and Josh Jackson justify Phoenix’s faith in them? Right off the bat, the Suns assured Booker and Jackson they wouldn’t be traded for Kyrie Irving. Booker and Jackson are valuable players, to be sure, but – especially evidenced by the package the Celtics surrendered – so is Irving.

To a degree it makes sense. Booker is under team control another three years, Jackson another five, and it’d likely take major financial sacrifice by either player to leave soon after that. Irving is locked up just two more seasons until unrestricted free agency. Not close to winning, Phoenix should prioritize the long-term, which means valuing younger, cheaper players like Booker and Jackson.

But Booker and Jackson aren’t even close to the caliber of Irving. Will get they ever get there? It’s far from certain.

Booker is a weak defender whose volume scoring comes at only moderate efficiency. Jackson was the No. 4 pick, and despite plenty of hype he could go higher, that looked about right to me. His jumper is unreliable, and he was old for a freshman.

Again, Booker and Jackson are very valuable. But that’s due in large part to their contract status and age. As they get older, their value will become more directly tied to their performance on the court.

The Suns, at least with Booker, were probably correct to bet on their current players, given the team’s distance from winning even if it had Irving. But for that bet to pay off, Booker must improve and Jackson must hit on the higher end of his projections.

There’s still time – see everything above – but the upcoming season is the opportunity at hand.

2) How patient will owner Robert Sarver be? The Suns have gone a franchise-long seven years without making the playoffs, and they’re unlikely to reach the postseason this year. How desperate is Sarver to return to the playoffs (or, maybe more accurately, return to earning playoff revenue)?

He seemingly signed off on this plan, even extending general manager Ryan McDonough this summer. But Sarver wouldn’t be the first owner with overly ambitious ideas of what his team can accomplish. Even if Sarver is completely realistic about this roster, living daily through losing is another thing.

Phoenix has a nice group of players on rookie-scale contracts: Devin Booker, Josh Jackson, T.J. Warren, Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender. Another high lottery pick in 2018 and maybe even 2019 and patience could put this rebuild over the top.

But if Sarver gets antsy, the plan could turn in a hurry.

3) What will T.J. Warren show? Warren is the litmus test for this team in a number of ways.

With a four-year, $47 million extension, Phoenix has more money tied into Warren than any other player. In the simplest terms, the more a team pays a player, the more important he plays well. But with so few moves to evaluate this offseason, McDonough could face greater scrutiny for the Warren deal.

Warren is good at weaving his way close to the basket and making close-range shots. But his shooting reliability ends before the 3-point arc, and he lacks all-around skill. He has also missed 42, 35 and 16 games in his three-year career.

The progression of Warren, a combo forward, will affect how Phoenix evaluates Jackson, Chriss and Bender. Which of those players are long-term pieces (and at which positions)? Warren is already paid like one, though it’s unclear whether he belongs or whom he can play with.

If the Suns have a chance of being surprisingly competitive this year, Warren could be the swing piece. Booker is in a league of his own. Eric Bledsoe, Jared Dudley and Tyson Chandler are the known quantities when healthy. Warren – older and more polished than Jackson, Chriss and Bender – is somewhat of a variable.

How Warren fares could say plenty about Phoenix’s season and long-term direction.

Thunder pick up Paul George in his return to Indiana

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Paul George made a winning return to Indiana, hitting the clinching free throws with 10.7 seconds left in the Oklahoma City Thunder’s 100-95 victory over the Pacers on Wednesday night.

Steven Adams had 23 points and 13 rebounds and Russell Westbrook finished with 10 points, 17 rebounds and 12 assists in his ninth triple-double this season. The Thunder have won two straight on the road.

Victor Oladipo led the Pacers with 19 points and Bojan Bogdanovic scored 15. Indiana had a chance to tie the score after getting the ball back with 15.2 seconds left, but George got a steal then hit a couple free throws.

The Pacers’ winning streak ended at four.

But the highly anticipated matchup between George and Oladipo, the key components in last summer’s blockbuster trade, didn’t go as expected.

George was booed loudly during introductions and every time he touched the ball. Fans only cheered for George when he was called for a foul or made a mistake and it seemed to take a toll on the four-time All-Star. He finished 12 points on 3-of-14 shooting, had two rebounds and four turnovers.

Oladipo, the reigning Eastern Conference player of the week, didn’t have a typical night either. He was 9 of 26 with five rebounds and six assists.

The result: Both teams struggled.

Indiana led 27-22 after one but gave the lead right back by allowing Oklahoma City to start the second quarter on a 9-0 spurt.

After the Pacers answered with a 9-0 run, the Thunder closed the half on a 9-3 spurt to make it 51-46.

The trend continued in the second half.

Indiana charged back to take a 63-59 lead before the Thunder used an 11-2 run to pull out to a 73-69 lead going into the fourth.

Oklahoma City extended the lead to 92-81 with 5:16 to go but only scored six points the rest of the way. That was just enough to hold on.

TIP-INS

Thunder: Oklahoma City is 4-10 on the road. … Oklahoma City got its first series split with the Pacers since 2012-13. … Oklahoma City had 17 offensive rebounds and was 13 of 29 on 3-pointers.

Pacers: Thaddeus Young had 11 points, 10 rebounds and seven steals. … Made 11 3s but fell to 14-3 when making 10 or more 3-pointers in a game this season. … Center Myles Turner had three blocks, his 12th game this season with three or more. … Former Colts coach Tony Dungy attended the game. He’s in town for Thursday night’s NFL game between the Colts and Broncos.

ALL-STAR DAY

The Pacers got a win before they even took the floor.

A little less than three hours before tip, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver announced Indiana would host the 2021 All-Star Game. It will be the first time the Pacers have hosted the marquee event since 1985.

The move comes seven months after Larry Bird hand-delivered the formal proposal at the league’s New York headquarters in an IndyCar.

UP NEXT

Thunder: Faces Philadelphia on Friday, trying to improve to 17-1 in the series since moving to Oklahoma City.

Pacers: Host Detroit on Friday, seeking a seventh straight home win in the series.

 

Rockets’ Clint Capela on Warriors: ‘I expect to beat them’

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During the 2014-15 season, Rockets star James Harden said the Warriors “ain’t even that good.”

Golden State went on to reach the last three NBA Finals, twice beating Houston in the playoffs, and win two championships.

The Rockets have since re-tooled around Harden, Chris Paul and several quality role players and are in first place. Houston looks like the biggest threat to the Warriors in the Western Conference.

Rockets center Clint Capela on the Warriors, via Dave Schilling of Bleacher Report:

“I expect to beat them,” Capela says.

That’s a fine sentiment. Saying it publicly is another matter. Not even Harden did that a couple years ago. He was recorded during a pregame team huddle.

There’s a fine line between self-fulfilling confidence and providing bulletin-board material to the opponent. There’s already some animosity between the teams stemming from the Stephen Curry-Harden MVP race in 2015, and it has bubbled since. No matter how harmless Capela’s remark might have been intended to be, it’ll be met contentiously in the Bay Area.

PBT Extra Player of the Week: Victor Oladipo

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Oklahoma City traded for Victor Oladipo out of Orlando to be their third scorer, behind Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. It didn’t exactly work out that way, Durant bolted town and when Westbrook went off Oladipo was looking for a place to fit in.

That place turned out to be the Pacers.

Oladipo has been playing like an All-Star this season with Indiana, and last week he was key in snapping Cleveland’s 13 game win streak, then turned around and dropped 47 points on Denver. For the week he averaged 35.7 points a game, shot 45.7 percent from three, plus grabbed 7.7 rebounds per game.

That will get you named the PBT Extra Player of the Week.

Watch Pacers fan boo Paul George during introductions (video)

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Paul George – who told the Pacers he’d leave in free agency, prompting them to trade him to the Thunder – expected boos in his return to Indiana.

Pacers fans delivered.

They’ve also booed him every time he has touched the ball, which will certainly persist.