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.

PBT Podcast: Breaking down the MVP race, other NBA mid-season awards

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Patience is not the NBA community’s strong suit — we were talking MVP race the first week of the season.

Now, however, it’s time. Teams are more than halfway through the season and we have seen enough games, we have enough data to start discussing who is the frontrunners for all of the league’s end-of-season awards.

Is it James Harden or Giannis Antetokounmpo for MVP?

Can anyone challenge Luka Doncic for Rookie of the Year?

It’s a deep field for Coach of the Year, but is Mike Budenholzer the front-runner and can Doc Rivers, Dave Joerger or someone else catch him?

Kurt Helin and Dan Feldman of NBC Sports talk about their picks at this point of the season and who is in the running long term.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out the NBC Sports Podcast homepage and archive at Art19.

We want your questions for future podcasts, and your comments, so please email us at PBTpodcast@gmail.com.

Thunder coach Billy Donovan: Andre Roberson ‘not anywhere near playing’

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When Andre Roberson – who ruptured his patellar tendon last January then suffered a setback in October – suffered another setback in November, the Thunder said he’d miss at least six weeks.

That was more than six weeks ago.

Maddie Lee of The Oklahoman:

What a disappointing year for Roberson. He just can’t get healthy.

Even already possessing the NBA’s best defense, Roberson would help the Thunder. He’s a lockdown perimeter defender. Paul George has stepped up defensively, but a George-Roberson wing pairing would scare the daylights out of opposing offenses.

That said, Roberson is a tricky fit due to his dismal shooting. He’d disrupt Oklahoma City’s offensive spacing. The Thunder would need time to adjust, and if Roberson isn’t close to returning, there might not be time to establish chemistry before the playoffs.

George, Terrance Ferguson, Alex Abrines and Hamidou Diallo have been fine on the wing in Roberson’s absence. Continuing to rely on that group sans Roberson doesn’t maximize Oklahoma City’s production, but at least it’s a simple and workable solution.

Rumor: Grizzlies could trade Marc Gasol before he opts out and leaves next summer

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The Grizzlies have been unwavering in their desire to keep Marc Gasol. Likewise, Gasol has consistently pledged loyalty to Memphis.

But with the Grizzlies (19-24) slipping to 14th in the West and Gasol holding a $25,595,700 player option for next season, maybe both sides are approaching a breaking point.

Marc Stein of The New York Times:

I doubt Gasol, who’ll turn 34 this month, would draw a higher salary in free agency than his $25,595,700 player option. But maybe he could get a multi-year deal that provides more overall compensation than he’d get opting in then testing free agency at age 35.

He also might value getting to a better team.

Gasol has sometimes sounded impatient with Memphis getting younger. He was clearly proud of the team’s veteran core.

The Grizzlies appeared intent on winning as much as possible with Gasol and Mike Conley rather than rebuilding. So, there seemed to be enough overlap in vision between the organization and Gasol.

But Memphis also just hit on its 2018 lottery pick, drafting Jaren Jackson Jr. No. 4. Jackson could be the Grizzlies’ next franchise player and convince them to shift gears. A core led by Jackson and whatever assets are acquired for Gasol could have a nice future. Ditto if Memphis also trades Conley, who’d make less sense on the team sans Gasol.

Remaining competitive with Gasol and Conley isn’t the worst place to be. The Grizzlies already have a major future building block in Jackson. They can groom him while winning enough to keep fans entertained. But that plan would fall apart if Gasol opts out and leaves.

So, being proactive could make sense.

The first step should be assessing Gasol’s commitment to Memphis. If he already knows he wants to leave next summer, I doubt he’d mind getting traded elsewhere now. An honest conversation about the future could serve everyone well.

Jusuf Nurkic on Iman Shumpert, who tried to confront Trail Blazers center postgame: ‘I’m not worried about a guy who’s going into retirement soon’

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Kings guard Iman Shumpert had plenty to say during Sacramento’s win over the Trail Blazers last night.

He apparently had even more to get off his chest afterward.

Shumpert looked unhappy with Jusuf Nurkic‘s hard screen early in the game:

Then, Shumpert got into it with Portland coach Terry Stotts:

Shumpert even found beef wit the Trail Blazers’ security staff.

Jamie Hudson of NBC Sports Northwest:

Shumpert admitted he fed off of Portland’s team security, which had spoken with the Kings guard as the game became tense.

“He was a little passionate and you become part of the game… I’ll take whatever energy you give me. I was having a tough time shooting the ball and you know, he talked to me enough I made the next three. That’s what we needed at the moment… After that we rolled,” Shumpert said.

After the game, Shumpert went toward – but not into – the Trail Blazers’ locker room.

James Ham of NBC Sports California:

According to Shumpert, he wasn’t looking for a fight, just a discussion with Portland’s center about a few plays that took place during the game.

“Some stuff just needs to be between me and him,” Shumpert said. “A conversation between two men. At the end of the day, this league is a bunch of men. A bunch of great men off the court. Some stuff happened that we needed to have a conversation about.”

Hudson:

Outside of the locker room after the game, the Blazers team security told Shumpert that Nurkic was still showering and he would not be able to come out of the locker room and speak to him at that moment.

Nurkic, via Ham:

“I just said what I said. I’m not worried about him,” Nurkic said of the 28-year-old Shumpert. “I’m not worried about a guy who’s going into retirement soon.”

Shumpert is too young to be hearing about retirement. That is soooo disrespectful by Nurkic.

Though I believe Shumpert was genuinely trying to end the tension (by putting his foot down, of course), Nurkic only escalated it. Good thing they didn’t meet face-to-face after the game.

But they’ll cross paths again. Maybe Shumpert was heated just last night. Like all of us, NBA players go through moods. Or maybe this will be a lasting grudge.

We might next learn more April 10, when the Kings and Trail Blazers meet in their season finales.