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.

Celtics reportedly near 10-day contract with big man Greg Monroe

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When Aron Baynes went out with a twisted ankle against Philadelphia, it was quickly clear how much they missed the big man in certain matchups — they need his size against the Joel Embiid‘s of the world. The MRI came back clean and while Baynes is out Saturday against the Hornets but could return Sunday for the Celtics.

Boston is still thinking about adding some big man insurance, some experience, and some depth for the stretch run in the form of Greg Monroe, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic. The deal is not yet inked, however.

This likely gets done.

There is some familiarity here, Monroe played an efficient 26 games with Boston last season. He averaged 10.2 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 2.3 assists a game, with a PER of 23, going about 19 minutes a night. This season he signed with Toronto, where he played 38 games off the bench but was traded to the Brooklyn Nets who waived him.

Paul George has spoken to Kawhi Leonard about free agency experience

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Paul George was forcing his way out of Indiana and his people were making it clear — he was going to be a Laker. Any other team that traded for him it was going to be a rental. But Oklahoma City jumped in and rolled the dice they could win him over, and they put together the best package (Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis). It paid off. After a season in Oklahoma City, George re-signed with the Thunder last summer and did not even meet with the Lakers. This season George is having an MVP-level season.

Kawhi Leonard‘s relationship with the Spurs organization had deteriorated last season and he pushed last summer to be traded, with his camp wanting him to come to Los Angeles (although the Clippers were always rumored as the more likely destination). But Toronto jumped in and rolled the dice they could win him over in a year (he’s a free agent in July), and they put together the best trade package (DeMar DeRozan was at the heart of it).

Sound familiar? With the Thunder in Toronto (and beating the Raptors) George was asked if he and Leonard had spoken about free agency, and he said they had, but George was not about to drop any details.

There are all sorts of rumors and speculation floating around the league about Leonard, with some recent buzz his camp is still pushing for Los Angeles (but are divided on which team). The Clippers are making their presence felt around him and I had heard from sources, dating back to last Summer League, it was the more likely destination of the LA teams (Leonard is not a fan of drama, and LeBron James‘ Lakers know drama better than TNT). There are also rumors that a deep playoff run could keep Leonard in Toronto, with an organization that has bent over backward to accommodate him and keep him healthy with time off to rest that quad tendon.

The fact is, nobody knows what Leonard is thinking. Leonard doesn’t talk, and when he does he doesn’t say anything. He isn’t on social media and doesn’t look at it. He is less concerned with his brand and image than any star in the league. The team of advisors around him is not experienced or predictable.

After the Raptors’ season ends, whenever that is, he will make a decision. How much whatever George told Leonard plays into that, we’ll likely never know. It’s not like Leonard is talking about it.

Paul George scores 28 as Thunder beat Raptors 116-109

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TORONTO (AP) — Paul George scored 28 points, Russell Westbrook had 18 points, 13 assists and 12 rebounds, and the Oklahoma City Thunder beat the Toronto Raptors 116-109 on Friday night.

Dennis Schroder came off the bench to score 26 points and Jerami Grant had 19 as the Thunder snapped a four-game losing streak and avenged Wednesday’s 123-114 home defeat to Toronto.

The Thunder made 20 of 43 shots from 3-point range. Oklahoma City made a season-high 22 3-pointers against the Lakers on Jan. 17.

Kawhi Leonard scored 37 points and Pascal Siakam had 25 for the Raptors, who played without All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry.

Lowry missed his second straight game because of a sprained right ankle. Coach Nick Nurse said there’s no structural damage to Lowry’s ankle, but soreness remains following a collision with New York’s Mitchell Robinson on Monday. Nurse said Lowry is expected to return next week.

Danny Green scored 19 points and Serge Ibaka had 11 but Toronto couldn’t hold a double-digit lead in the third quarter for the second straight game. The Raptors gave away a 20-point lead before recovering to win in overtime Wednesday, but weren’t able to match that on their home court.

Oklahoma City trailed by 10 points to start the second half, and was down 13 with 5:23 to go in the third before rallying. Westbrook gave the visitors the lead for the first time since early in the first quarter on a layup with 1:18 left in the period, putting them up 80-79. The Thunder closed the third with a 20-4 run to take an 83-80 lead into the fourth.

Leonard cut the gap to 93-91 on a free throw with 7:33 to play but George hit 3-pointers on either side of a fast-break layup by Grant, giving Oklahoma City a 101-91 edge with 6:21 left.

The Thunder missed eight of their first 10 shots of the game. Toronto was 5 of 6 from 3-point range in the first, with Green making all three of his attempts, and the Raptors led 29-22 after one.

Leonard scored nine points in the second and Green had six as Toronto led 58-48 at halftime.

 

James Harden ties career best with 61, Rockets beat Spurs 111-105

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HOUSTON (AP) — James Harden matched his career high with 61 points, including 27 in the first quarter, to lead the Houston Rockets to a 111-105 victory over the San Antonio Spurs on Friday night.

Harden hit three straight 3-pointers to give the Rockets a 103-100 lead and scored all of Houston’s points in a 13-2 run late in the fourth quarter.

Harden topped the 50-point mark for the eighth time this season, compared with 10 such performances from the rest of the league combined. He matched his career-best total set earlier this season against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden.

The NBA’s leading scorer surpassed the 30-point mark in the second quarter and the 40-point mark with 9 minutes remaining in the third.

Before Harden’s late surge, the Spurs led by six points with 4 minutes left in the game. The Spurs had overcome a 15-point halftime deficit to tie the game at 81 entering the fourth quarter.

Harden was 7 of 10 from the field in the first quarter, including 3 of 4 from the 3-point line, and also went 10 for 12 from the free throw line. His 27 points in the period were the second-most in franchise history, trailing only Vernon Maxwell’s 30 in 1991.

Harden finished 9 of 13 from 3, 19 of 34 from the field and 14 of 17 from the free throw line.

Houston has won 13 of its last 15 games and eight of its last nine at home.

Bryn Forbes led San Antonio with 20 points, while Derrick White added 18 and DeMar DeRozan had 16.

Houston led 36-24 at the end of the first quarter and 62-47 at halftime.