NBA season preview: Phoenix Suns

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Last Season: We could talk about the slow start, the impressive run in the season’s second half, or the eventual finish two games outside of the playoff picture. But all anyone in Phoenix will ultimately remember about the 2011-12 campaign is that it was the last time they would witness the on-court brilliance of Steve Nash while he was still a member of the Suns.

Key Departures: The face of the franchise and the team finally parted ways, after an eight-year run that gave fans more than their fair share of memorable moments. Nash’s departure certainly wasn’t unexpected, as the team had gone as far as it could with its former two-time MVP orchestrating the offense on every meaningful possession. But insult may have been added to Phoenix fans’ misery when Nash ended up in Los Angeles playing for the hated Lakers, whether it was the right move for the franchise or not.

Nash wasn’t the only cornerstone to leave. Grant Hill also ended up in L.A., albeit with the city’s far less-inflammatory version of an NBA team: the Clippers. Other departed players include Robin Lopez, a project whom the team decided to give up on, as well as deep bench players in Michael Redd, Josh Childress, Hakim Warrick, and Ronnie Price.

Channing Frye isn’t gone, but he’s out for at least the season after an enlarged heart condition was discovered during a routine training camp physical.

Key Additions: The Suns didn’t hesitate in replacing Nash, and did so by bringing back a familiar face. Goran Dragic returned to Phoenix in free agency, after being unceremoniously traded out of town by the same Suns franchise just two seasons before. Michael Beasley was acquired from Minnesota, as was Wesley Johnson. Luis Scola was picked up off the amnesty wire after Houston decided it wasn’t interested in competing any longer, the team added veteran big man Jermaine O’Neal, and grabbed point guard Kendall Marshall with the 13th overall pick in the 2012 NBA draft.

Three keys to the Suns season:

1) I know the pieces fit, ’cause I watched them fall away*: This must be Alvin Gentry’s mantra heading into a transitional season. The team’s head coach is now entering his fifth year in that role, although his contract is currently set to end once the year is finished. Gentry has seen the good and the bad with this Suns team — he’s made it through the star-studded Shaquille O’Neal years, has taken the team to the Western Conference Finals, and has barely missed the playoffs a couple of times.

Now that Nash is gone, Gentry will have to make the new pieces fit into a cohesive unit — a challenge to be sure, but not impossible given the talent on the roster. The staring five should be able to compete with all but the league’s elite on most nights, and finding the right rotations to keep the game close with the reserves is something that’s more than possible considering the veteran NBA leader’s skill set.

2) It’s all about chemistry: There are a lot of new faces on this Suns roster; it’s truly a team in transition. Jared Dudley is the longest tenured team member at this point, and he has the personality to help congeal his new teammates into a group that can be productive together on the basketball court. But essentially, these guys don’t know each other. Once you get past Dudley, Marcin Gortat, Shannon Brown, and Sebastian Telfair, it’s a whole new group of guys. You don’t just wake up one day knowing how to play with one another, and how quickly these players are able to come together will go a long way in determining their success this season.

3) Maximizing Marcin Gortat: Gortat can be a beast of a low post player, a strong pick-and-roll finisher, and a serviceable rim protector. But all of that depends on how he’s used. Last season, he flirted with All-Star numbers at the break thanks to a heavy dose of finishes out of the pick-and-roll with Steve Nash. Early on it doesn’t appear that Gortat will be afforded the same high volume of pick-and-roll opportunities that he received a season ago, so the team will need to find new ways to utilize his skill set and keep him engaged offensively.

The good news about Gortat is, if things aren’t going his way, or he feels he’s not getting the opportunities he should, he’ll let us know about it. He’s one of the most open and honest players in the game — not to the detriment of the team or in a complaining capacity, but simply from a standpoint of the facts as he sees them. So, either way — good times.

*It seemed fitting to quote lyrics from a Tool song in a Suns post at some point, since I met the band’s drummer — Danny Carey — in the team’s locker room during the Shaquille O’Neal era back in December of 2008. Better late than never.

What Suns fans should fear: This is completely dependent on your team-building philosophy. If you’re of the belief that a team needs to be blown up to try to rebuild through the draft, then your fear is that this team sneaks into the playoffs. If you simply want to see the team compete at the highest level, then you’re rooting for an eight seed, just to see what happens.

The good news for Suns fans is that there really are no worries with this year’s squad — there are certainly no championship aspirations, so just enjoy the ride, and hope for the best. Oh, and hope that whatever happens, it’s good enough for the franchise to sign Gentry to a new long-term contract.

Prediction: The Suns should compete on most nights, but the lack of depth should be problematic to the point that it will jeopardize the club’s ability to win on a consistent basis. Shooting for the eighth seed will be the priority, but it will be tough to get there given the level of talent on the competing teams in the Western Conference.

Pacers’ Myles Turner says it’s “blatant disrespect” he didn’t make All-Defensive Team

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The NBA’s All-Defensive Teams were announced on Wednesday. When it came to the center position, Utah’s Rudy Gobert was named to the first team, and Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid the second team.

That left Indiana’s Myles Turner, the league’s leader in total blocked shots last season, off the list. He took to Twitter to vent about that.

His teammates and GM had his back.

The NBA puts players, and by extension voters (selected members of the media), in a box by the use of rigid positions for this award. In an increasingly positionless league, voters for the All-Defensive Teams have to choose two guards, two forwards, and one center for each of the First and Second teams. It’s unlike All-Star voting, for example, where two backcourt and three frontcourt players are chosen, which allows some flexibility. In the attempt to make the All-Defensive Teams (and, also, All-NBA Teams) look like the kind of lineups teams would put on the floor 25 years ago, voters are limited.

Because of that format, Turner got squeezed out. (Note: In an effort at transparency, that includes on my ballot for these awards.)

Two centers only. Gobert is the defending — and soon likely two-time — Defensive Player of the Year, and is the anchor of a great Utah defense. Embiid’s impact on the defensive end is critical for Philadelphia, something evident in the Sixers second-round playoff series against Toronto when he was +90 in a series the Sixers lost (voting took place before the playoffs, but Philadelphia’s defense was 5.8 points per 100 possessions better with Embiid during the season, Indiana was 1.2 better with Turner).

There were three deserving centers — Turner was fantastic this season, he made a huge leap and anchored the NBA’s third-best defense — but two spots and no flexibility. So when the music stopped, Turner was the guy standing without a chair. It sucks, but that’s the way it went.

Turner will use this as motivation for next year. Keep playing like he did last year and his time will come.

Cavs owner Dan Gilbert on Kyrie Irving trade: “We killed it in that trade”

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The Cleveland Cavaliers had no choice but to trade Kyrie Irving back in 2017. Irving asked to be moved, and if he hadn’t been there were threats of knee surgery that would have sidelined him much or all of the next season (he didn’t get that surgery, but then missed the 2018 NBA playoffs due to those knee issues).

The trade they took was with Boston: Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, a 2018 1st round draft pick (which became Collin Sexton) and eventually a 2020 2nd round pick. At the time that didn’t seem bad because we didn’t yet grasp the severity of Thomas’s hip surgery — but the Celtics did. Once Cleveland’s doctors got a look at Thomas the trade was put on hold until more compensation was added, which proved to be the second-round pick.

Looking back now, the Cavaliers didn’t fare well, with all due respect to Sexton (who made the All-Rookie second team). Although that’s to be expected, nobody gets equal value back when trading a superstar.

That’s not how Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert sees it, speaking to the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

“I don’t know, but I think Kyrie will leave Boston,” said Gilbert. “We could have ended up with nothing. Looking back after all the moves Koby made, we killed it in that trade.”

“Killed it?” I didn’t think the kind of stuff Gilbert must be on was legalized in Ohio yet.

This is a matter of semantics. Was it about as good a deal as GM Koby Altman was going to find at the time? Yes. Again, at the time we thought Thomas would return midway through the next season and be closer to the guy who was fifth in MVP voting the season before than the guy we ended up seeing (which is still a sad story, hopefully Thomas can get back to being a contributor next season somewhere). Crowder was in the rotation on a team that went back to the NBA Finals. Sexton showed some promise as a rookie, maybe not as much as some Cavaliers fans think but he can play.

But “killed it?” To quote the great Inigo Montoya, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Mike Budenholzer no fan of Drake’s free run on Toronto sideline

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Drake is the Mayor of Toronto.

Actually, he does fewer drugs than some former mayors of Toronto, and Drake was not elected, but he’s The Mayor in any meaningful way. The man can do whatever he wants.

Such as walk up and down the sidelines of a Raptors game with impunity, and give Nick Nurse a massage during the game.

Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer has much bigger things to worry about — such as were Eric Bledsoe misplaced his shot — but somehow during his conference call with the media on Wednesday, before a critical Game 5, Drake was the topic of discussion. Budenholzer is not a fan of Drake getting to patrol the sidelines. Via ESPN:

“I will say, again, I see [Drake talking to Raptors] in some timeouts, but I don’t know of any person that’s attending the game that isn’t a participant in the game a coach,  I’m sorry, a player or a coach, that has access to the court. I don’t know how much he’s on the court. It sounds like you guys are saying it’s more than I realize. There’s certainly no place for fans and, you know, whatever it is exactly that Drake is for the Toronto Raptors. You know, to be on the court, there’s boundaries and lines for a reason, and like I said, the league is usually pretty good at being on top of stuff like that.”

Drake responded on Instagram, first with a post that had a series of emojies, and then during an Instagram Live post where he liked a comment to his post where part of it was: “If you don’t want the opposing team to celebrate and dance, prevent them from scoring, winning, or achieving their objective.”

My guess is the league (and maybe the referees before Game 6 in Toronto) will reach out to Drake and tell him he can’t go Joe Biden on a coach during the game, and to stay near his seat. This is precisely the kind of distraction from the game that fans love to talk about and annoys the league office, which wants the focus on the court.

Personally, the more personality around the game, the better. It’s entertainment people, enjoy the show.

Knicks president Mills says Porzingis threatened to return to Europe if not traded in seven days

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If you thought the Knicks thrashing or Kristaps Porzingis on his way out the door was over, well, you haven’t been paying attention to the Knicks.

Team president Steve Mills was at a Knicks fan forum on Wednesday and was asked about the Kristaps Porzingis trade and dropped this bomb: Porzingis gave the Knicks the ultimatum of “trade me or I’m going back to Europe.”

“When he walked into our office, my office, and Scott [Perry, Knicks GM] was sitting there with me, and point blank said to us, ‘I don’t want to be here, I’m not going to re-sign with the Knicks, and I’ll give you seven days to try and trade me or I’m going back to Europe.'”

To be clear, Porzingis had to mean going back to Europe to work out and hang out, he could not have played professionally this season. European clubs honor commitments to NBA contracts — they will not sign and play a guy under an NBA contract — the same way the NBA does with European clubs (as well as China and all FIBA leagues).

Saying he wasn’t going to re-sign makes things clear for New York, it’s one of the reasons the NBA touted the “super-max” contract extensions because teams would find out earlier about player intentions. The Europe part, he could have signed there this summer, but the most a European team would pay him would still be more than $20 million less his likely next NBA contract (the top Europeans players make less than $3 million annually). But sure, go ahead and believe Porzingis would leave that money on the table.

For the Knicks brass, speaking in front of Knicks fans, this was the chance to make themselves look good — “see, we already had a good trade in place” — and thrash the guy they had been selling as the franchise savior a year before. It’s all about perception.

The Knicks have a lot of cap space this summer and their perception as a front office will hinge on what they do — or do not do — with it.

Porzingis landed in a good spot with Luka Doncic in Dallas, and the Mavericks will give Porzingis a max contract. Then it’s on him to earn it.