NBA Season Preview: Phoenix Suns

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Last season: 54-28, as they returned to the style that the roster was built for — seven seconds or less. Well, really, it was more like 12 seconds or less as they utilized a lot of secondary options in the transition and drag screens, but the philosophy was the same. The rode that style to the best offense in the league last year, and rode that (and the bench) all the way to the Western Conference finals. A good season.

Head Coach: Alvin Gentry, who showed a lot of veteran coach savvy last year. He understood that the team needed to run against with this roster, so they did. He understood that he had a bench that could be special and he used them well, built them into a unit that won a few playoff games themselves.

Key Departures: Amar’e Stoudemire, half of the best pick-and-roll duo in the game, was not offered a five-year, fully guaranteed contract by the Suns. This may be what you will see under the new CBA — on long-term deals, after three year teams will have an opt-out or inexpensive buyout of a player — but it is not part of the current deal. New York came in with the full five guaranteed and now Stoudemire is going to save basketball in New York.

Leandro Barbosa went out in the Turkoglu deal, but that was not big loss with Nash as the starting point and Goran Dragic is the clear number two. Lou Amundson was allowed to leave and they will miss him, not a lot of energy/rebound/dirty work guys like that around.

Also gone is Steve Kerr, who came in a few years back and tried to convert this roster into a Spurs-style team (trading Shawn Marion for Shaquille O’Neal among other moves), which backfired. Miserably. But to Kerr’s credit he recognized his mistakes and changed course, rebuilt the team again in a running mold. Not a lot of GMs are willing to admit they were wrong and make changes like that.

Key Additions: Hedo Turkoglu comes in but it seems an expensive and odd fit. He theoretically can take some of the load off of Steve Nash because he is a good pick and roll ball handler. He was in Orlando during their run to the finals two seasons ago, but last year in Toronto as the pick-and-roll ball handler he shot just 36.1 percent and the team scored just 0.77 points per possession, and he turned the ball over 18.8 percent of the time. You do not really want to take the ball out of Nash’s hands for that. If he can return to form and remain a good spot up shooter, he can have value. But the drop off as a number two man from Stoudemire to Turkoglu is dramatic.

One of my favorite pickups this summer was the Suns getting Josh Childress back from Greece, at a reasonable five years, $34 million. He’s been overseas for two years and I think a lot of people forgot just how good he is (he was in the running for sixth man of the year before he left). The only question now is now many small forwards the Suns can have on the roster — Grant Hill, Turkoglu, Childress and Jared Dudley.

Hakim Warrick was brought in at an inflated four years, $17 million, but he is athletic and shout fit well with the system. Gani Lawal was drafted.

Former agent Lon Babby is now your head of basketball operations, with Cleveland assistant GM Lance Banks given the head job. However, most of the roster moves were made before these guys came on board (although Turkoglu and Childress were Babby clients, so…). Their fingerprints are not really on this team yet.

Best case scenario: A return to the Western Conference finals and another shot at the Lakers.

For that to happen: The more diversified offense is going to have to work, Turkoglu has to step up, age cannot catch up with this team and somebody has to play a little defense and rebound.

The Suns are now without the unstoppable force that was the Nash/Stoudemire pick and roll. Now you’re going to get a lot more Robin Lopez setting the pick — which he did well with in a limited role last season.

Around them will be the one thing the Suns have in abundance — guys who can shoot the rock. Everyone on this roster can score, and that diversity of attack is what the Suns will count on now that they can’t just fall back on Nash and Stoudemire. They will to a degree (although how late-game situations play out will be interesting). This team is going to put points up because everyone out there can knock it down and there will be open looks in transition. And even at 37, you can expect Nash will still get them the rock. Plus Goran Dragic has become Nash in Waiting with his stepped up play.

At some point, age is going to catch up with Steve Nash and Grant Hill, but for now they remain on the Ponce De Leon plan. Expect good seasons out of them.

The question will be how well with the Suns defend — they were 19th in the league last season in defensive efficiency and they added guys like Turkoglu who is not a great defender and will get major minutes. Stoudemire and Amundson were also their best rebounders, so the Suns will be vulnerable on the boards. And really good running teams start it with defense and rebounding. As a team, the Suns need to find a way to defend and board or every game will be a shootout.

More likely the Suns will: Be entertaining but not as good, and struggle to make the playoffs. Simply put, talent wins games and the Suns lot some with the Stoudemire departure.

Last season the Suns offense was good enough to overcome the defense, and the bench could win them games. This season, the defense and rebounding will likely be a bigger anchor on a good, but not quite as good, offense. Turkoglu will be spotty. Hill and Nash will need a couple nights off.

So long as Steve Nash is on the team the Suns will be entertaining and dangerous. But to get back to where they need to be just too many things have to go perfect again, and that’s hard to expect.

Prediction: 44-38, fighting for (and maybe missing out on) one of the last playoff spots in the West.

Celtics: Romeo Langford out rest of playoffs after wrist surgery

Celtics guard Romeo Langford
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The Celtics don’t have quite enough dependable players to fill a playoff rotation. So, beyond its core, Boston has juggled deep-bench minutes throughout the postseason.

One of those options – Romeo Langford – will no longer be available.

Celtics release:

Celtics guard Romeo Langford this morning underwent successful surgery to repair the scapholunate ligament in his right wrist. He will miss the remainder of the 2019-20 NBA season.

A rookie, Langford also suffered a right-hand injury last season at Indiana. A pattern? Probably not. But it’s another interruption in the 20-year-old’s development.

For Boston’s playoff hopes, this is a minor setback – one made even smaller by Gordon Hayward returning (and staying). Though more of a forward, Hayward clears the way for Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart to handle more guard minutes, a few of which could have gone to Langford.

Adam Silver: It’s on U.S. government whether American companies, like NBA, operate in China

NBA commissioner Adam Silver
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Politicians have repeatedly criticized the NBA for its involvement in China.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver is defending his league.

Sopan Deb of The New York Times:

Senators have power to affect the United State’s foreign policy, including where American companies are permitted to operate. The NBA shouldn’t face unique scrutiny for acting like a business, seeking to maximize profit, within legal parameters.

Silver is generally right: There is value in exposing American values to countries with authoritarian regimes. Basketball can be a good vehicle for doing so. Those connections can inspire change for the better.

But the league has repeatedly failed to uphold American values it espouses in its dealings in China. That warrants criticism and leaves Silver’s response quite lacking.

Adam Silver: Next NBA season will likely start in 2021

NBA commissioner Adam Silver
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The NBA said next season would begin on Christmas at the earliest.

But get it straight: That’s a best-case scenario.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver, via CNN:

My best guess is that – even though, as you said, it will be the 2020-21 season – is that season won’t start until 21. We said a week or so ago that the earliest we’d start is Christmas of this year, but the more I’m learning – even listening to Dr. Fauci this morning – I continue to believe that we’re going to be better off getting into January. The goal for us next season is to play a standard season – the other part of your question – 82-game season and playoffs. And further, the goal would be to play games in home arenas in front of fans. But there’s still a lot that we need to learn in terms of rapid testing, for example. Would that be a means of getting fans into our buildings?

February seems like a reasonable expectation. But so much is changing with our handling of coronavirus. Predictions are weak at this stage.

Of course, the NBA wants to play a full 82-game season with fans at arenas. That’s how to most directly maximize revenue.

But when will it be safe for fans to attend games? How long will owners and players be content to wait while making practically no revenue? At some point, will it be better to play games and draw some revenue?

Assuming next season begins on a date the NBA doesn’t want to use as its start date going forward, how will the league get its annual calendar back on track if not reducing the schedule length? Fewer off days? Shorter offseason?

Like with many things, coronavirus creates many difficult complications.

The time Shaquille O’Neal slapped Kobe Bryant

Lakers stars Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal
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Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant fighting is stuff of legend in their highly productive (three championships!) and oftentumultuous relationship.

Now, that incident during the 1999 lockout is getting detailed like never before.

Jeff Pearlman’s “Three-Ring Circus: Kobe, Shaq, Phil, and the Crazy Years of the Lakers Dynasty,” via ESPN:

On one particular day, both O’Neal and Bryant arrived at Southwest College, ready to play. It was the first week of January, not long after the Kobe-is-the-next-Jordan piece ran in L.A. Magazine. Some other Lakers were in attendance, as was Olden Polynice, the veteran center who’d spent the preceding four and a half seasons with Sacramento. He was hoping the Lakers would sign him to a free agent contract, and had been told that Mitch Kupchak, the team’s general manager, was planning on showing up. Though they’d battled for years, Polynice and O’Neal enjoyed a friendly relationship. “All I wanted to do was go there and play with Shaq,” Polynice recalled. “The Lakers were my favorite team as a boy. It would have been a dream. I wanted to show Mitch I was serious.”

The players straggled in, loosened up, stretched, shot some jumpers. They proceeded to divide into teams — some guys over here, some guys over there. O’Neal and Polynice — dueling 7-footers — were on different sides. “Kobe was on my squad,” Polynice recalled. “Opposite Shaq.”

It was just another run, until it was no longer just another run. As he was prone to do in pickup, O’Neal called a series of iffy fouls whenever he missed a shot.

Miss.

“Foul!”

Miss.

“Foul!”

“I’m tired of this s—,” Bryant finally said. “Just play.”

“One more comment like that,” O’Neal snapped, “and I slap the s— out of you.”

A few possessions later, Bryant drove toward the rim, leaned into O’Neal’s body, and scooped the ball beneath his raised arm and into the hoop. It was a pretty move, but nothing otherworldly.

“F— you!” he screamed at O’Neal. “This is my team! My motherf—ing team!”

It felt edgy. Everything stopped. “He wasn’t talking about the pickup team,” Polynice recalled. “He was talking about the Lakers.”

O’Neal wasn’t having it. “No, motherf—er!” he screamed. “This is my team!”

“F— you!” Bryant replied. “Seriously — f— you! You’re not a leader. You’re nothing!”

What did he just say?

“I will get your ass traded,” O’Neal said. “Not a problem.”

Several of the participants stepped in to separate the two, and the game eventually continued. But it no longer felt even slightly relaxed or friendly. “We probably went up and down the court two more times,” Polynice said. “Kobe goes to the basket, scores, screams at Shaq, ‘Yeah, motherf—er! That s— ain’t gonna stop me!'”

O’Neal grabbed the ball in order to freeze action.

“Say another motherf—ing word,” he said, staring directly at Bryant.

“Aw, f— you,” Bryant said. “You don’t kn–”

Smack!

O’Neal slapped Bryant across the face. Hard.

“His hands are huge,” said Blount, who was playing in the game. “The noise was loud.”

Here is Polynice’s recollection: “Then Shaq swung again at Kobe, but he missed. S—! I run over and grab Shaq, because I’m big enough to do so. And Shaq keeps swinging, but everything’s missing because I have his arms. I’m grabbing on to Shaq, holding on for dear life, yelling, ‘Somebody grab Kobe! Seriously — somebody grab him!’ Because I’m holding Shaq and Kobe’s taking swings at him. At one point Shaq gets an arm loose and he pops me in the head. Seriously, no good deed goes unpunished. And I’m telling you, if Shaq gets loose he would have killed Kobe Bryant. I am not exaggerating. It was along the lines of an I-want-to-kill-you-right-now punch. He wanted to end Kobe’s life in that moment.”

Bryant was undeterred. “You’re soft!” he barked. “Is that all you’ve got? You’re soft!” Blount begged Bryant to stop talking. “You’re not helping,” he said. “Just shut up.” The altercation was finally broken up when Jerome Crawford, O’Neal’s bodyguard, walked onto the floor and calmed his friend down. O’Neal was furious. “You can’t touch him in practice,” he wrote of Bryant. “He’s acting like Jordan, where some players thought you couldn’t touch Mike. Whenever somebody ripped Kobe, he’d call a foul. After a while, I’m like, ‘Listen, man, you don’t have to start calling that punk s—.'” As he walked from the court, Polynice looked at a shaken Kupchak and said, loudly, “You should sign me just for that.”

This book sounds good. Even the extended excerpt is compelling. What a closing line from Olden Polynice.

Bryant said that fight brought O’Neal’s respect. Of course, they still had their differences. But they won through their squabbling. That commitment to team success and the success itself have endured.