Suns drop to 0-2, search to explain offensive struggles

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In recent years, the Phoenix Suns have been known for, above all else, having an uptempo and elite offense. Win or lose, and no matter the season’s ultimate result, the team never struggled to score with Steve Nash running a descendant of Mike D’Antoni’s offense.

Through two games in this young season, however, offense has been a huge problem for the Suns, and the primary reason behind both of the team’s losses.

At least in Monday’s season opener against the Hornets, Phoenix was in it until the final possession. But in Wednesday’s loss to the Sixers, it wasn’t close. The Suns scored just 34 points in the first half, and opened the second half on the wrong side of a 19-0 run that lasted over six minutes and put the game in the win column for Philadelphia.

The Sixers led by as many as 34 points on the way to a 103-83 victory, one that dropped the Suns to 0-2 for the first time since the 1996-97 season.

It may not yet be time to panic for Phoenix, but the results of the first two games — especially offensively — are certainly cause for concern.

“We’re struggling mightily right now offensively,” Suns head coach Alvin Gentry said afterward. “It’s so hard for us to get a shot off and so hard for us to get into any kind of rhythm.”

As for what’s causing the team’s struggles, Gentry feels it’s a combination of things. But continually getting off to slow starts isn’t helping.

“What has happened is, we’ve had some good looks early on that haven’t gone in, and I think we’ve probably pressed a little bit,” Gentry said. “But we’ve been a good shooting team, we’ve been a good offensive team. We’ve got to try to get that back.”

Making adjustments on the fly is much more difficult this season thanks to the lockout and the compressed regular season schedule that the delay in a labor agreement ended up causing. With the demanding slate of games, Gentry knows that pushing his team extra-hard in practice isn’t necessarily the answer.

“The practice times are very limited,” Gentry said. “We come in here tomorrow, we can’t really have a hard practice. We’ve got two games the next two days, and three in four nights. It’s just one of those things where we have to be smart about it. We have to get better and we have to try to improve, but we also have to be smart — we can’t come in here and have a two and a half hour practice.”

Just how bad has the Suns offense been so far? Small sample size and all that, but through two games, Phoenix is 24th in offensive efficiency at 90.9 points per 100 possessions. And pace-wise, the Suns are tied for 25th at 90.8 possessions per game. Contrast that with even last season’s numbers, where Phoenix finished 8th in pace and 9th in offensive efficiency — in a year when the team finished out of the playoffs — and it’s clear there are serious issues.

I asked Nash what he was seeing out there as the reason for the team’s offensive struggles.

“I think it’s a combination of a lot of things,” Nash said. “A shortened training camp, a lack of familiarity, and also we’re just not real efficient yet. We’re not making shots, we’re not in sync, and some of it is, I think, a product of a shortened camp. Some of it is we’ve got to get a little tougher at times and not look around and hope things will get better. We’ve got to be a little more determined at times.”

In Wednesday’s game, Nash appeared to be more aggressive from the start, uncharacteristically taking matters into his own hands to try to get the team going offensively. But it didn’t go all that well; Nash finished the first quarter with four points, one assist, three turnovers, and two personal fouls, while shooting 2-of-7 from the field in about nine and a half minutes of action. He said in this particular instance, his heavier than usual offensive usage was a result of the way the defense was playing him.

“I think the way they were playing the pick and roll tonight it was important for me to make ’em pay a little bit,” Nash said. “There was some space and I was getting in the lane, but I wasn’t able to get it done tonight. I think that put a lot of pressure on our offense, because then we couldn’t loosen them up or break them down and create easy opportunities.”

Nash finished with one of his worst statistical games in recent memory, going 2-of-11 from the field with just one assist and six turnovers in just over 17 minutes.

The way the Suns are currently constructed, without any one player who can be relied upon to average 20-plus points per game on a regular basis, there’s certainly more of an onus on Nash to create easy opportunities for his teammates. But at some point, there’s only so much Nash can do. At the end of the day, guys have to start knocking down open shots.

In the opener against New Orleans, the Suns shot 5-of-25 from three-point land, but many of those were wide-open looks, so the team feels those shots will eventually start to fall. Against the Sixers, the looks were there too, but more in the mid-range variety: 50 of the Suns’ 80 field goal attempts were from 10 feet out or beyond. And Phoenix only connected on 30 percent of those attempts.

Like all teams, the Suns would like to get more points in the paint, and easier opportunities at the rim. Their opponents haven’t had any problems in that area, with the Sixers scoring 50 of their 103 points in the paint, and the Hornets getting 42 of their 85 there on Monday.

It’s impossible to ignore the Suns’ struggles on offense, especially considering that’s the last place you’d expect to find problems with a team that’s been so prolific in that area in recent years. Nash just hopes things turn around sooner rather than later.

“It’s shown over the two games we’re just struggling offensively to find a connectivity and a rhythm together,” he said. “All you can do is continue to work hard and find a way to be optimistic and positive, and hopefully the breakthrough will come soon.”

Blake Griffin enjoying resurgence a year after trade to Pistons

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DETROIT (AP) — Blake Griffin doesn’t need to jump over any cars to be a hit in the Motor City.

A year after arriving in Detroit with his career at a crossroads, a more earthbound Griffin is doing all he can to shake the Pistons out of their decade-long malaise.

“He does a little bit of everything for us. Probably one of our better pick-and-roll players, passers, scorers, leader by example, just so many things,” Detroit coach Dwane Casey said. “His basketball intellect, for me, is one that’s been the most impressive of our players. I didn’t know that about Blake, because when you think about him, you think about the high-flying dunker and the muscular guy in the post, but there’s a lot more to that than just his dunking and athleticism.”

A month shy of his 30th birthday, there are fewer above-the-rim highlights but Griffin’s first full season with Detroit has been one of his best. He’s averaging a career-high 26.3 points per game while making strides as a perimeter shooter, and he earned his first All-Star selection since 2015.

Most importantly, he’s been able to stay healthy, and although the Pistons still have a losing record, they’re in the playoff race, largely because of Griffin.

“As a player, you always believe in yourself,” Griffin said. “I knew I had another level to go to, and being healthy was part of that. … But the beginning of the year, my goal isn’t to only make the All-Star team. It’s much more than that.”

In July 2017, Griffin agreed to a $171 million, five-year deal with the Clippers, the team that drafted him with the first overall pick in 2009. Less than a year later, he was abruptly traded – from glitzy Los Angeles to a Detroit franchise that hasn’t won a playoff game since 2008. It was a risky move for the Pistons, given Griffin’s high salary and the fact that he has only three seasons with more than 67 games played. They gave up a first-round draft pick in the trade, and when they missed the playoffs anyway, that was the end of Stan Van Gundy’s tenure as coach and president of basketball operations.

For Griffin, it was an inauspicious start to the Detroit portion of his career, and there’s been frustration this season as well. The Pistons are 26-30, tied for the final postseason spot in the Eastern Conference. Even if they do make the playoffs, they don’t look like a team ready to make a run.

But for Griffin individually, the season has been a significant step forward. The man who once pulled off a two-handed dunk while jumping over the front of a car is a bit less of an athletic sensation in Detroit, but the blue-collar elements of his game are still plenty effective. The 6-foot-10, 250-pound Griffin can muscle his way to the basket and draw fouls, and he gives the Pistons another tough rebounder alongside Andre Drummond. Griffin is also leading the team in assists.

“I think for me, my job is to make his game as easy as possible on the offensive end. When I get him open, he usually makes the right plays,” Drummond said. “It’s a nightmare for teams. You’ve got to really pick your poison, who you really want to get going, and it’s scary when we both get it going.”

Griffin has expanded his offensive repertoire to include the 3-point shot in recent years. He has already made a career-high 134 3s this season, shooting a credible 37 percent from long distance.

“It helps a lot, especially in today’s NBA, with everybody spacing the floor a little bit more, and playing with a guy like Dre, who’s so effective inside,” Griffin said. “To be able to give him a little bit more space is a good thing. I always see guys working to expand their range, and when you do, you see them add years to their career.”

When Griffin joined the Clippers, he added some legitimacy and excitement to what had been one of the league’s most downtrodden franchises. Now the Pistons are a team that could use some buzz. The results recently have been mixed: Griffin has been terrific, but the team as a whole has remained mediocre.

But Detroit won four of five heading into the All-Star break, and if the Pistons do make the playoffs, they’ll have Griffin to thank.

“He’s thinking the game. He’s a couple steps ahead,” Casey said. “I’ve had a lot of great forwards, power forwards, and he’s right up there with the best, whether it’s Dirk (Nowitzki), (Kevin) Garnett, Detlef Schrempf – just a lot of great players that I’ve been around. He’s right in that category.”

 

Hawks GM: “If we stayed at 3, we would have taken Luka (Doncic)”

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It was the Draft day trade that shook the NBA last June.

In a deal made agreed to before the picks were made, the Atlanta Hawks traded Luka Doncic, taken No. 3, to Dallas for Trae Young (taken fifth), and the Hawks got the Mavericks 2019 first-round pick (top five protected). It forever linked Doncic and Young in the minds of fans (fair or not).

Doncic has gone on to become a historically good rookie — averaging 20.7 points and 7.2 rebounds per game, he is the Mavs best player, is the runaway Rookie of the Year, and is already a star (who fans almost voted into the All-Star Game) — which has led to a lot of criticism for Atlanta in some quarters for not keeping the pick and Doncic. That despite the fact Young has played well after a slow start (20 points per game with 35.9 percent shooting from three in his last 20 games) and the Hawks got another pick in the deal.

On the Woj Pod with Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN, Hawks GM Travis Schlenk said that the team would have drafted Doncic if they kept the pick (hat tip Real GM).

“Not a lot of people know this…if we stayed at 3, we would have taken Luka. We had worked with his agent, he did a physical with us that morning in New York…but then Dallas came in an hour or so before the draft. I told them all along that it would take another lottery pick for us to slide back, and that’s when the conversations got started.”

Interestingly, Schlenk added that the team’s analytics department, projecting into next season, played a big role in the deal getting done.

“Our analytics staff was predicting Dallas to finish 8th this year,” added Schlenk.

As of right now (and before the lottery shakes things up), the Mavericks are projected to pick ninth. If that remains, Dallas has a 20.2 percent chance to jump into the top four with the new lottery odds. Otherwise, the pick will go to Atlanta.

Despite Doncic’s play, it’s too early to fully judge the trade. How good will Young become? How high is Doncic’s ceiling? What happens with the future first-round pick, and who will the Hawks get with it?

For a rebuilding team like the Hawks, a second lottery pick to move back a couple of spots can make sense — so long as the guy your trading doesn’t become a superstar. Doncic may become that. Atlanta was higher on Young than many teams, and he has rewarded that faith of late, but how good will he ultimately be? It’s not quite a Sam Bowie pick, but some fans may ultimately see it that way if Doncic’s star continues to rise. However, as Schlenk explained, there were logical reasons to make the trade.

One last look back: Best dunks of All-Star Weekend (VIDEO)

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Defense? That’s one thing that rarely makes an appearance All-Star weekend.

Combine that with the game’s best athletes and what you get are three days of insane dunks.

The NBA put this together, the best dunks of All-Star weekend in Charlotte. Enjoy.

Wizards’ Bradley Beal: ‘Recruiting process is really going alright…I’m trying’

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LeBron James went out of his way to say he was not recruiting guys on his free-agent heavy All-Star Team.

Bradley Beal had no such hesitation, he tried to recruit guys, as he told Chase Huges of NBC Sports Washington.

“The recruiting process is really going alright. It’s going alright. I’m trying,” Beal said. “This is new for me. I’m definitely getting some ears and seeing what guys are looking for.”

Beal was too smart to name names — that would have brought a fine from the league — but he said some guys asked if he was happy where he was, while other guys he talked to about the possibilities in Washington.

The problem is while the Wizards will have some cap space after trading Otto Porter and Markieff Morris (and assuming they don’t pick up the option on Jabari Parker) but they will be nowhere near the max cap space needed to land the elite free agents at the All-Star Game (Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, etc.). Even the second-tier All-Star free agents such as Khris Middleton will get max offers. Same with players who just missed the game, such as Tobias Harris.

If the Wizards renounce free agents they can get to $9 million in cap space, stretch and waive Ian Mahinmi and they can get to $18 million. That’s the top end. Meaning the Wizards will have room to make moves for good rotation players, but with John Wall‘s supermax extension kicking in at $38 million next season flexibility is limited. Genuine upgrades will be hard to come by.

Predicting what Washington GM Ernie Grunfeld will do next summer is a fool’s errand, but Beal is doing his part to try and bring more talent into Washington.