What the Suns should do when the lockout ends

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This is the latest installment of PBT’s series of “What your team should do when the lockout ends.” Up next is the Phoenix Suns. You can also check out our thoughts on other NBA teams here as we work our way through all 30 squads.

Last season: Just one year removed from pushing the eventual champion Lakers to six games in the Western Conference Finals, the Suns took a few steps backward by finishing out the 2010-11 season in mid-April, with a record of 40-42 that wasn’t even good enough to get them back to the playoffs. The reasons for the decline are obvious, of course. But that doesn’t make the lost season any more palatable for Suns fans.

Amar’e Stoudemire was lost in free agency, after the team refused to give him the max deal that he was able to get from the Knicks. The team tried to fill the void left by Stoudemire’s departure with Hedo Turkoglu, Hakim Warrick, and Josh Childress. It was clear fairly early on that Turkoglu wasn’t going to provide enough help, so he was dealt in mid-December to the Magic for Vince Carter and Marcin Gortat. Gortat turned out to be a nice surprise, and Carter was serviceable at times. But the bigger issue was sending Jason Richardson to Orlando, because the Suns largely struggled to replace his consistent scoring on a game-by-game basis for the remainder of the year.

Changes since we last saw the Suns: The only official change to the Suns roster happened on draft night, though there are likely plenty more on the way once the lockout is resolved and the free agency period begins. Phoenix used its 13th overall pick in the draft to sign Markieff Morris, a big man who the Suns believe can provide immediate help on the defensive end of the floor. The Suns talked about his intangibles and toughness on draft night, and if the team’s brain trust is correct in that assessment, Morris could be a nice rebuilding piece for the future.

When the lockout ends, the Suns need to: Make some hard decisions, and stick with them.

The Suns’ best players, while still productive, are on the tail ends of their careers. Steve Nash is still one of the top point guards in the game, and if the Suns want to continue to compete, then they need to sign him beyond next season, when his contract is slated to run out. The team has been adamant about not wanting to trade Nash, and has said that they would only do so at his request. Nash himself has said multiple times that he wants to stay in Phoenix, and that things like stability and camaraderie are just as important to him at this stage of his career as the opportunity to win a championship.

If both player and team are on that same page, the Suns need to fortify their roster with capable complimentary talent that can help Nash and the Suns challenge with another run in the postseason. That means delaying the rebuilding process for a couple of years, and making some short-term decisions that would enable Phoenix to win now. The thing is, the Suns don’t have a lot of room for error here. They’ll need to guess right on their next wave of trades or free agent signings, and can’t afford to make yet another mid-season trade that changes the continuity of the team and provides little short-term hope for success.

As we mentioned, although there haven’t been any changes to the roster since the end of last season, you can bet that they’re coming. Vince Carter will be bought out of his contract, and likely won’t be back unless he is willing to take somewhere in the neighborhood of a minimum deal to stay in Phoenix. Aaron Brooks is a restricted free agent, and depending on how the new collective bargaining agreement is structured, it would be easy to see him begin the new season elsewhere. Mickael Pietrus struggled with injuries the latter part of the season, but even before then, he didn’t provide the team with anything more other than a quirky locker room personality, so he might be another player that the team will look to replace via trade.

If the team does indeed decide to keep Nash beyond next season, they’ll surely want to keep Grant Hill as well. Hill, even at this late stage of his career, has been the team’s best one-on-one defender, and is stellar at getting out on the break and finishing at the rim when the team is pushing the tempo, i.e., doing what it does best. Hill is a free agent right now though, so the decision on him — while certainly tied to the one on Nash — will need to be made sooner rather than later.

It all comes down to the decision to either play in the present or for the future for the Suns heading into next season. Keeping Nash and building around him for another chance to compete would certainly keep the fans happy, but on the flip side, he’s a huge asset that could bring back long-term value for the team if it does decide to go the rebuilding route. The team’s glue guy, Jared Dudley, concisely summed up the toughness of this decision in a recent interview with us.

“It sounds good to trade the franchise player and try to get something back, but sometimes the stuff you get back isn’t that good and then you’re in for a long haul to try and get back up to the top,” he said.

And therein lies the dilemma for your 2011-12 Phoenix Suns.

James Harden and Russell Westbrook forming unprecedented MVP backcourt

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By rejecting the Thunder’s sub-max contract-extension offer seven years ago, James Harden set two superstar careers in motion.

When last teammates, Russell Westbrook and Harden complemented each other fairly well. Westbrook was a young star, prone to wild play. Harden was a backup who provided steadiness. Both were very good. Neither was great. They leaned on each other.

Separated, both blossomed into Most Valuable Players.

Westbrook advanced through stardom then really took off when Kevin Durant left Oklahoma City. Westbrook became an all-around marvel, averaging a triple-double with excellent clutch play in 2016-17. He won MVP, edging Harden in the closest vote of the last dozen years.

After multiple runner-up finishes, Harden snagged the award the next year. He led the Rockets with one of the best offensive seasons in NBA history then topped himself last year.

Now, Harden and Westbrook reunite in Houston. Barring a sudden drop, they’ll become the first teammates in NBA history who are both in-their-prime former MVP guards. The pairing offers incredible upside – but plenty of potential pitfalls.

Harden and Westbrook will become just the fourth duo to play together within three years of already having won MVP, joining:

  • Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant (2017 Warriors)
  • Moses Malone and Julius Erving (1983 and 1984 76ers)
  • Bill Russell and Bob Cousy (1959 and 1960 Celtics)

Those other top-end twosomes had more positional balance. Curry is a guard, Durant a forward. Malone was a center, Erving a forward. Russell was a center, Cousy a guard.

Harden and Westbrook will be just the third set of former MVP guards ever to play together. The other two:

  • Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash (2013 and 2014 Lakers)
  • Oscar Robertson and Bob Cousy (1970 Cincinnati Royals)

By the time he got to Los Angeles, Nash was rapidly declining out of stardom. Bryant missed nearly all of their second season together due to injury. Nash was washed up by that point, anyway. After six years of retirement, Cousy – who was coaching the Royals – returned to play seven games mostly as a publicity stunt.

Harden, 29, is definitely still in his prime. Westbrook remained in his prime last season. Though there’s risk the 30-year-old reliant on his athleticism falls off quickly, Westbrook should remain pretty darn good next season.

That creates a tough question for the Rockets: How do they deploy both stars?

Star guards generally provide their value by handling the ball. That’s why super teams have rarely stocked up on multiple guards. The fit is especially tricky because both Harden and Westbrook are lead guards. Westbrook has spent his whole NBA career at point guard. Harden has become so good at point guard under Mike D’Antoni, there’s no going back now.

Harden is better than Westbrook. But Harden’s superior shooting also makes him a far better off-ball player than Westbrook. When Westbrook is away from the ball, defenses will sag off him and clog spacing.

Will the Rockets take the ball from their best player to give it to their second-best player? That doesn’t seem ideal.

Westbrook can attack scrambled defenses rotating back to him when he gets the ball from Harden. But closeouts won’t be coming hard at Westbrook.

One of the disappointing developments of Harden’s time with Chris Paul was Harden not developing his off-ball game. Harden just doesn’t seem into whizzing around screens, pressuring defenses without the ball.

Harden also hasn’t shown much pace in starting his moves in isolation. He often pounds the ball until the shot clock gets low, neutralizing his teammates. That was a problem when Harden played with Paul. It’ll be an even bigger issue with Westbrook.

Maybe Westbrook’s attacking style will spread to Harden. The duo could be dangerous if attacking quickly. But there are questions about whether an up-tempo system would wear down Harden before the end of a deep playoff run.

Harden and Westbrook can stagger their minutes as much as possible. That’ll allow each time to have the offense catered to him. But that will still leave significant time they must share the court.

And that’s only offensively. The defensive issues are far worse.

Harden is a lousy defender at everything other than guarding post-ups. Westbrook is sometimes active and often reckless defensively. His reliability on that end is low.

P.J. Tucker and Clint Capela can cover for some miscues in front of them. But that’s a big ask, especially with Eric Gordon playing in three-guard lineups.

D’Antoni has never looked especially interested in defense. It’s hard to see who will address the inevitable problems, if they’re even solvable.

But the Rockets get a major talent boost with Westbrook. He’s better and more durable than Paul. The upgrade is evident with the picks surrendered and extra year of salary absorbed by Houston.

That’s what the Rockets are betting on – MVP-level talent, no matter how it comes.

Report: After two-year, $21 million deal falls apart, Knicks signing Reggie Bullock for less than room exception

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Reggie Bullock agreed to a two-year, $21 million contract with the Knicks.

He’ll get far less.

A health issue became apparent before the original deal was finalized. So, New York used nearly all its remaining cap space on Marcus Morris, who got a one-year, $15 million contract.

That left only the $4,767,000 room exception available for Bullock.

And he won’t get even get all that.

Ian Begley of SNY:

Marc Berman of the New York Post:

That’s a tough turn for Bullock. Less than the room exception and a team option – man. I wonder how much more, if any, Bullock got than his minimum ($2,028,594).

But David Bauman sure sounds pleased with the process. If his agent isn’t slamming the Knicks, Bullock hopefully also feels treated fairly.

This significant drop in salary sure signals major health concerns.

Giannis Antetokounmpo has rough go of hitting baseball off tee with New York Yankees (video)

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NEW YORK (AP) In hoops, Giannis Antetokounmpo is court royalty. But in baseball, he’s a complete rookie.

In fact, the 24-year-old from Greece said he’d never even touched a baseball before he did so Monday night at Yankee Stadium.

The reigning NBA MVP was shocked.

“It was really heavy,” Antetokounmpo told The Associated Press. “I thought it would be lighter.”

The Milwaukee Bucks star went on to take a few swings in the batting cage beneath the stands before the Yankees faced the Tampa Bay Rays. The 6-foot-11 Antetokounmpo got some coaching, with limited results – he swung and missed once with the ball on a tee, and made light contact on two other tries.

“I would be a terrible baseball player,” he said.

The “Greek Freak” was in the Bronx with his three brothers to promote his new signature sneaker and signed a pair for a fan – Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia.

Antetokounmpo watched the Yankees take batting practice, which reinforced his notion that he wasn’t destined for the diamond.

“I saw Aaron Judge hitting the ball into the stands. That’s amazing. You’ve got to be really strong to do that,” he said.

More AP MLB: https://apnews.com/MLB and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

NBA 2K20 ratings released, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard earn 97s to lead way

NBA 2K20
Via 2K Sports
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How do NBA players measure respect? There are a few ways, with the size of the paycheck being at the top of the list. Awards and accolades fit in there.

However, few things rile guys up like their NBA 2K rankings. Most play the game, and their ranking (out of 100) is seen as a measure of status among fellow players and fans.

2K Sports unveiled the top rankings for NBA 2K20 in a live-streamed show on Monday night, and LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard got the top honors. Here’s the top 20:

1. LeBron James 97
2. Kawhi Leonard 97
3. Giannis Antetokounmpo 96
4. Kevin Durant 96
5. James Harden 96
6. Stephen Curry 96
7. Anthony Davis 94
8. Paul George 93
9. Damian Lillard 92
10. Joel Embiid 91
11. Kyrie Irving 91
12. Nikola Jokic 90
13. Russell Westbrook 90
14. Klay Thompson 89
15. Karl-Anthony Towns 89
16. Jimmy Butler 88
17. Kemba Walker 88
18. Donovan Mitchell 88
19. Rudy Gobert 88
20. Blake Griffin 88

The highest-rated rookie: Of course it was Zion Williamson (81).

Anthony Davis is on the cover of NBA 2K20, which will be released on Sept. 6. Sorry, you’ve got to wait until then to play it, but here is an early teaser video.