On Aaron Brooks and life after Steve Nash in Phoenix

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Steve Nash has defined the Phoenix Suns franchise since the summer of 2004, but every passing day brings the Suns that much closer to parting with their only remaining star. Joe Johnson, Shawn Marion, and Amar’e Stoudemire have all come and gone, and the last great remnant of the Suns team that embarked on Seven Second or Less’ maiden voyage will likely be out of Phoenix by the end of the season. By this time next year, Nash will be almost 39 years old and an unrestricted free agent. As committed as he’s been to the Suns over the last half-decade or so, the man would be twiddling away the twilight of his career on a fringe playoff team if he elected to remain in Phoenix beyond the completion of his current deal.

With Nash no longer in the locker room, controlling the offense, and selling tickets, the Suns will have a lot of introspection to do. If Phoenix lets Nash’s contract expire without dealing him for assets of some kind, the team will be left with what’s functionally a blank slate in terms of roster construction. Marcin Gortat, Jared Dudley, Channing Frye, Hakim Warrick, and Josh Childress are all rotation-caliber players, but they lack the ability to collectively grant their team a post-Nash identity. The Suns will have options, but for the moment appear lacking in the ability to execute a rebuilding plan with any kind of expediency.

That said, the one unknown in Phoenix’s future that could potentially shift their long-term plans — if only slightly — is Aaron Brooks. The Suns already gave Brooks a qualifying offer back in June, giving them the right to either retain him for another season or match any offer sheets he gets as a restricted free agent. That should extend Brooks’ trial run in Phoenix, and give Alvin Gentry and his staff time to properly evaluate whether Brooks is able to act as some kind of Steve Nash surrogate in order to keep the current offensive system in place after the former MVP’s departure. That may not sound like much, but a capable initiator — armed within a team’s proven stylistic approach and given effective sets to work with — would at least give the Suns a very basic foundation.

Brooks is coming off of the most disappointing season of his professional career, but that’s true in part because his play had previously never garnered much expectation at all. The ’09-’10 season served as his public arrival; Brooks’ per-game averages shot up to 19.6 points and 5.3 assists per game, good enough to earn him the league’s kind-of-bogus Most Improved Player award. Brooks was able to live up to his solid per-minute projections from his first few seasons in the league, and play well for a winning team that barely missed the postseason.

Yet his latest campaign was a fair bit more disastrous, as Brooks combined injury, poor play, and a worse attitude in order to put up some incredibly underwhelming numbers . Houston traded Brooks to Phoenix mid-season for Goran Dragic, and a surface-level glance at that production and narrative would deem Brooks unworthy of starting responsibilities just about anywhere.

But Brooks is a better player than he let on last season in Houston, and he showed just enough in his 25 games as a Sun for us to wonder how extended playing time in Gentry’s system might bode for Brooks’ career. Don’t let his mere 9.6 points per game fool you; Brooks played limited minutes as a Sun, but he produced at a level virtually on-par with his offensive production in ’09-’10. That doesn’t make him an offensive star, but all signs point to him being a decent shot creator and a strong outside shooter in Phoenix for as long as they’ll have him.

Picking out the inconsistencies

A player who posts unremarkable points per game averages for two consecutive seasons to start his career, manages one season of almost 20 points per game, and subsequently falls back to Earth in the following year naturally garners some skepticism. Yet in Brooks’ case, his per-minute averages suggest he was capable of solid production in each of his four NBA seasons to date. It’s his minutes per game that have dictated the variance in his production, all the while his efficiency has stayed within a much smaller range. Brooks’ latest partial season in Houston was still a step down, but his uptick in Phoenix was enough of a return to normalcy to quell the thought of Brooks’ 2010 season being an aberration.

Instead, the real inconsistency appears to be Brooks’ randomly slashed three-point percentage. After starting out his career as an average shooter from the perimeter and improving that percentage in his second and third seasons, Brooks’ shooting from beyond the arc plummeted to .284 in his 34 games for Houston last season. Perhaps Brooks won’t consistently be able to shoot around 40 percent from three-point range as he did in ’09-’10, but there’s something to be said about Brooks’ best shooting season coinciding with his most consistent playing time.

The fluke in Brooks’ profile is this latest season, if only because his awful shooting percentages sandbagged what otherwise was a comparable statistical campaign. We can expect that shooting to return to a more acceptable mark in the year(s) to come, as he’ll likely settle in at slightly above the league average in three-point percentage.

Hope as a playmaker

Even in a golden age of point guards, Nash’s vision is unparalleled. In that regard, Brooks is a poor substitute; he sees the most obvious and immediate trees in the forest, but fails to see the forest itself for the trees. Passing is a simple action for Brooks rather than a mechanism through which an offense functions, a reality that warranted him a “shoot-first,” label.

Yet Brooks’ skill as a set-up man surfaced a bit when he was asked to back up Nash. His mere 25 games in Phoenix provides a terribly small sample size, but in those contests Brooks posted easily the highest assist rate of his career (35.3% — on par with Jason Kidd, Andre Miller, and Tony Parker). His assists per minute didn’t just crank up as a product of the Suns’ fast pace; Brooks was legitimately making plays for his teammates more than ever, as he benefited from the perimeter shooting and offensive fluidity that makes the Suns such a marvel.

Rick Adelman’s offense can be a beautiful thing, but it doesn’t exactly empower the point guard. By using the high post as a focal point of the offense, Adelman took the ball out of Brooks’ hands in Houston and pigeon-holed him into a label he barely had a chance to earn. Next season could serve as a referendum on Brooks’ ability to create plays for others.

The bad news

There’s no getting around it: if Brooks is going to be a regular for Phoenix going forward, they’ll have to account for his defensive limitations; Brooks is undersized and lacks the defensive technique to properly make up for it. Starting from square one with a defensive liability isn’t ideal, but again, the Suns aren’t without a ton of assets at this point. Brooks is capable of becoming a decent contributor (if not a tradeable asset down the line) for Phoenix, and any new deal he signs would be under the more team-friendly limitations of the next collective bargaining agreement. The Suns could lock up a good offensive player for relatively cheap, and considering the limitations throughout the rest of a Nash-less roster, Phoenix can’t afford to be terribly picky.

Brooks isn’t a poor enough defender that his weakness can’t be hedged elsewhere in a potential lineup, meaning all Phoenix has to do is keep him in mind when selecting wing players to put on the floor with him and bigs to cover the space behind him. So long as the Suns are willing to begin reconstructing their team with that consideration in mind, Brooks could be a very affordable playmaking option with decent long-term returns.

Bucks’ Mike Budenholzer and Thunder’s Billy Donovan win Coach of Year from peers

Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer and Thunder coach Billy Donovan
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The Bucks (high) and Thunder (low) entered the season on near-opposite ends of the pressure spectrum. Despite their radically different situations, both teams have experienced success this season for a common reason:

They were well-coached.

National Basketball Coaches Association release:

Milwaukee Bucks Head Coach Mike Budenholzer and Oklahoma City Thunder Head Coach Billy Donovan are the 2020 recipients of the Michael H. Goldberg NBCA Coach of the Year Award, the National Basketball Coaches Association announced today.

The Michael H. Goldberg NBCA Coach of the Year Award recognizes the dedication, commitment and hard work of NBA Head Coaches and is presented annually to a Head Coach who helps guide his players to a higher level of performance on the court and shows outstanding service and dedication to the community off the court. It honors the spirit of Michael H. Goldberg, the esteemed long-time Executive Director of the NBCA, who set the standard for loyalty, integrity, love of the game, passionate representation and tireless promotion of NBA coaching. It is unique in that it is the only award voted upon by the winners’ peers, the Head Coaches of all 30 NBA teams. This year’s voting was based on games played from the start of the 2019-20 regular season through games played on March 11.

The depth of coaching excellence in the NBA is reflected in this year’s voting as 8 Head Coaches received votes. In addition to Budenholzer and Donovan, the following Coaches also received votes: Taylor Jenkins, Nate McMillan, Nick Nurse, Erik Spoelstra, Brad Stevens and Frank Vogel.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse was third in the race — and just one vote away from creating a three-way tie, sources said.

This is not the main Coach of the Year. That’s voted on by media and will be announced later. This in a new award created by coaches a few years ago.

Nurse remains favorite for the NBA’s recognized Coach of the Year. (He was our unanimous choice.) It’s surprising he didn’t win this award. But it’s also easy to see how fellow coaches would be reluctant to honor an up-and-comer who supplanted Dwane Casey, a coach beloved by his peers and who won this award while getting fired by the Raptors in 2018.

That shouldn’t take away from Budenholzer and Donovan, though. Both had strong seasons.

After turning the Bucks into an elite team last season – winning this award and the NBA’s official Coach of the Year – Budenholzer has Milwaukee looking even stronger this season. The Bucks’ defense is historically dominant, and their role players fit so well around Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Donovan got dealt a tricky hand – an all-time great point guard in Chris Paul who’s past his peak but still in his prime and a point guard of the future in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Donovan made it work while squeezing in another point guard in Dennis Schroder. Donovan’s versatility remains an asset for Oklahoma City.

Raptors rookie Terence Davis arrives to game with hole in mask

Raptors rookie Terence Davis
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The NBA – with threat of fine and suspension – reminded everyone inside the bubble to wear their masks.

Why issue that warning now?

Maybe because of Raptors rookie Terence Davis.

Davis arrived to Toronto’s win over the Lakers on Saturday with a hole in his mask.

Perhaps, it was inadvertent. Accidental rips happen. But it’s hard to give Davis the benefit of the doubt after his social-media activity:

Undrafted, Davis has a lot of confidence in himself. He earned that in basketball. If the cut were deliberate, he ought to give more credence to actual coronavirus experts.

Masks are highly important for the general population. We often don’t know whether we have coronavirus. Testing is insufficient, especially of asymptomatic cases. So, everyone in the outside world should wear a mask to reduce the spread.

On the other hand, NBA players – like Davis – can reasonably know they don’t have coronavirus. The NBA’s program of daily testing and no close contact with anyone outside the bubble is designed to ensure a coronavirus-free bubble. That’s why five-on-five basketball games – an otherwise dangerous activity – can be played safely.

However, masks between games are an extra layer of protection. What if a player – intentionally or not – comes into too close of contact with someone outside the bubble who has coronavirus? Masks would limit the spread of coronavirus within the bubble.

All coronavirus precautions should be measured through a cost-benefit lens. Wearing an intact mask can be unpleasant, and it’s somewhat superfluous for NBA players inside the bubble. But the health of everyone inside the bubble plus all the money at stake makes it an easy call.

Wear the mask, and wear it correctly.

NBA’s bubble works so far, allows “great stage” for dramatic games

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — So far, so good.

The NBA’s bubble remains intact. The extraordinary health protocols put into place to try and save this season seem to be working. The mission shared by coaches and players to use their platform and continue the conversation about racial injustice is off to a strong start.

Through four days, here’s just some of what has happened at Walt Disney World: LeBron James had a game-winner for the Los Angeles Lakers, T.J. Warren put his name all over the Indiana record book with a 53-point outburst, Houston and Dallas combined for more than 300 points in a game, the defending champion Toronto Raptors came out flying and Joel Embiid had a 41-point, 21-rebound night — in a loss.

And don’t forget the symmetry: Rudy Gobert was the first player to test positive for coronavirus, so naturally, it made sense that the Utah center was the first player to score when the pandemic shutdown was officially over.

If that wasn’t enough, the quality of play is so good that it’s almost like the NBA hadn’t stopped playing for 4-1/2 months. Shooting percentages and scoring averages, through the first four days anyway, are basically right where they were when the season was suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic on March 11. And there has been a ton of down-to-the-wire drama, with eight of the 19 games played through Sunday decided by five points or less.

“In all honestly, it’s better than I was expecting … talking about all the teams in general,” San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said. “Everybody is much crisper. They look more in rhythm than I ever expected teams would be. Whether it’s the best team with the highest seed or other people like us who are just trying to get into the playoffs, everybody’s a lot sharper than I would have expected.”

If the season ended Sunday night, Popovich and the Spurs — whose playoff chances were in serious trouble when the season was stopped — would be in a play-in series for a chance at the No. 8 spot in the Western Conference. And in the Eastern Conference, there would be a first-round rematch from a year ago with the Raptors taking on the Orlando Magic; they’re both on five-game winning streaks, and the Magic are on the best scoring roll in the history of their franchise.

For as much as has been made about the difficulties of being in a bubble and away from families, friends and freedom of movement, turns out, there might be some advantages to this thing.

“Seriously, it’s a great stage to play,” Houston coach Mike D’Antoni said. “There’s not a lot of distractions. It’s the same court every night, so you get your shooting depth perception and all of that. It’s pure basketball. So, you see some of the talents these guys have are coming out.”

The numbers inside the bubble are ridiculous.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, the reigning MVP and probable winner of the award again this year, had 36 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists for Milwaukee in the Bucks’ first real game in the bubble. How did he follow that up? Try 36 points again, 18 rebounds and eight assists in the Bucks’ loss to Houston on Sunday night.

Portland’s Damian Lillard had 30 points and 16 assists in a loss to Boston on Sunday. Kyle Lowry had 33 points and 14 rebounds in Toronto’s win over the Lakers. Dallas’ Luka Doncic is averaging a triple-double in his two bubble games. The Rockets beat the Mavs 153-149 in overtime Friday and then tried 61 3-pointers to tie an NBA regulation-game record Sunday.

On top of all that, there’s the messaging — “Black Lives Matter” on the court, “Black Lives Matter” on the shirts that most players and coaches have worn as teams kneel together for the national anthems pregame, the way coaches like Popovich turn ordinary pregame questions into opportunities to educate about racism. He was asked Sunday if Marco Belinelli was playing; Popovich spent the next 3 minutes and 21 seconds to speak about how Black people in North Carolina were required to pass a literacy test to vote but white people were not.

And then he answered the question: “Marco Belinelli is out tonight,” Popovich said.

So far, so good.

On every level, pretty much, other than the news that arrived early Monday about Jonathan Isaac and how the Orlando forward tore the ACL in his left knee — an injury that would likely put all of next season, if it happens, into question for a big part of the Magic future.

The rust, whatever there was for most players, seems gone. Playoffs are just two weeks away, and momentum already seems to be building.

“I think it’s only going to get better,” D’Antoni said. “I think the playoffs are going to be terrific. And it’s a great setting.”

Three Things to Know: Haven’t we learned by now not to bet against the Spurs?

San Antonio playoffs
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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack — especially with games spread out every day in the bubble — so every weekday during the NBA restart we are here to help you break it all down. Here are three things you need to know from yesterday in the NBA.

1) As Pelicans and Trail Blazers stumble, shorthanded Spurs win again to become nine seed in West.

You’d think we’d all have learned by now not to bet against the San Antonio Spurs?

The Spurs have made the playoffs for 22 straight seasons, a legendary run that was coming to an end this year (with Tim Duncan coaching from the bench rather than draining wing bank shots). The Spurs entered the bubble shorthanded and undersized. San Antonio was four games back of eighth-seed Memphis and having to leap both New Orleans and Portland, plus the Spurs were without LaMarcus Aldridge, their best big man.

Count them out at your own risk.

After beating Memphis Sunday behind 21 and 10 from Dejounte Murray, the Spurs are currently the ninth seed in the West — if the season ended today, San Antonio is in the playoffs and would face Memphis in a play-in series.

The Spurs have gone to a four-guard starting lineup — Murray, Derrick White, Lonnie Walker IV, DeMar DeRozan, with Jakob Poeltl as the big — and that lineup is messing with teams. On defense, they switch everything 1-4 and bank on Poeltl to protect the rim. On offense they run and play at pace — they have moved away from leading scorer DeRozan for a more balanced, egalitarian offense.

“We need to play with pace. We don’t have one-on-one players,” coach Gregg Popovich said after a recent win. “We don’t give the ball to a player and say, ‘beat your guy and go score.’ That’s not the kind of players we have on the team. We’ve got to do it as a group. We’ve got to have movement and pace goes along with that.”

The bench behind that starting five — Patty Mills, Rudy Gay, and Drew Eubanks — follows the same premise.

It works — and it’s fun to watch.

The teams that were the favorites to earn the ninth seed are stumbling. New Orleans is 0-2 and has been a mess — Zion Williamson is playing 15 minutes a night, they struggle to defend the paint, and in the bubble their offense has been atrocious. Portland’s offense has been impressive with Jusuf Nurkic — even if Damian Lillard is passing up game-tying threes — but their defense has been as bad as the offense is good, and the result is a 1-1 record with a tough schedule ahead. (The Kings are 0-2 and shorthanded, and while the Suns are 2-0 they were so far back to start they were never in this race.)

Like every year, here come the Spurs, putting a makeshift lineup out there and looking like a team that has a shot at making the postseason. Again.

You’d think we’d all have learned by now not to bet against the Spurs…

2) Orlando’s Jonathan Isaac tears ACL

This sucks.

Jonathan Isaac had been having a breakout season — and looking like an All-Defensive Team player — until a left knee bone bruise sidelined him in January. The break in play caused by the coronavirus let him return for the restart, and now this?

Driving to the basket Sunday — late in a blowout game where he was still in to help build up his conditioning — Isaac tried to plant on that left knee and it buckled under him. It was a non-contact injury that looked bad when it happened. He was taken off the court in a wheelchair.

Later the word came from the Magic, Isaac had a torn left ACL. He’s obviously done for this restart and likely will miss all of next season as well.

Isaac had made more news in Orlando for his decision to stand for the national anthem, explaining his decision was based on religious grounds. On the court, he was seen as a cornerstone of what Orlando wants to build.

This is a punch to the gut for Orlando.

3) Giannis Antetokounmpo looks like MVP with 36 points, but Rockets’ former MVPs take the win

This game was the ultimate clash of styles: The big and long Milwaukee Bucks who dare teams to take above-the-break threes, against the small-ball Houston Rockets.

This game was a reminder why Houston is going to be so much trouble in a playoff series — teams have yet figured out how to play against them. For the first couple of games of a playoff series the Rockets could surprise teams, and that may be enough.

Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 36 points, had 18 rebounds and eight assists on the night, but it wasn’t enough. The Rockets took 61 threes (hitting 21, 34.4%), Russell Westbrook scored 31, and Houston got the win 120-116.

Milwaukee led by six in the final minutes and by one with 16.5 seconds left, but in the clutch all night Westbrook was able to drive and draw fouls. James Harden had 24 points, but it was Westbrook’s play at the end that was the difference. Well, that and some defense by Harden and P.J. Tucker that led to Danuel House stealing an Antetokounmpo and sealing the win with free throws.

The Rockets are rested and fresh, and the small-ball game is still finding teams not exactly sure how to deal with them. Will that work in a seven-game series remains to be seen, but this is such a fun experiment to watch.