ProBasketballTalk 2013-14 Preview: Phoenix Suns

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Last season: Believe it or not, the Suns actually had playoff aspirations when the regular season began. The front office believed that Michael Beasley would be different in Phoenix than he had been anywhere else, and mandated that he be given a chance to be a difference-maker in the lineup. Once it became clear that Beasley was a bust and that the team was headed nowhere but the draft lottery, the Suns parted ways with head coach Alvin Gentry in the middle of the year, and gave the interim tag to Lindsey Hunter.

That was essentially a disaster, as Hunter was directionless during his time in charge, and alienated veteran players while never gaining command of the locker room in the process.

The offseason saw Beasley bought out of his contract, GM Lance Blanks let go, and a new general manager in Ryan McDonough and a new head coach in Jeff Hornacek brought in to lead the rebuild back to respectability.

Signature highlight from last season: There were so many to choose from … OK, not so much. But what struck me when revisiting Suns highlights from last season were the three different times (plays 9, 8, and 2 in the clip below) that Goran Dragic found a teammate with a bounce pass through a defender’s legs for the finish.

Key player changes: The Suns began the rebuilding process by making some moves geared more toward the future than the present, but managed to pick up a nice asset on a rookie contract in Eric Bledsoe while doing so.

  • IN: Bledsoe came over in the deal that sent fan favorite and consummate teammate Jared Dudley to the Clippers. Miles Plumlee and Gerald Green were acquired from the Pacers in the deal that sent Luis Scola to Indiana. Slava Kravstov and Ish Smith were acquired from the Bucks by trading Caron Butler, who came over with Bledsoe in the deal with the Clippers. Malcolm Lee is on the roster as a result of the draft night trade Phoenix made to move up to be able to select Archie Goodwin. Alex Len is the other rookie in place, selected by the team with the fifth overall pick in this summer’s draft. It’s worth noting that the Suns have 16 guaranteed contracts in place at the moment, and will need to get down to 15 players before the season begins. Lee would appear to be the odd man out.
  • OUT: Beasley, Jermaine O’Neal, Wesley Johnson, Hamed Haddadi, Scola, and Dudley.

Keys to the Suns season:

1) Developing Eric Bledsoe: The explosive reserve guard who showed flashes of brilliance for the Clippers playing behind Chris Paul last season was coveted by many teams, but the Suns were the ones creative enough to come up with an enticing package (and involve a third team) in order to secure Bledsoe’s services.

Bledsoe is athletic and speedy, and on the defensive end he lives in the passing lanes. But he’s still raw offensively, and developing him into a consistent player on both ends of the floor should be the primary goal in Phoenix this season. It’s worth noting that Bledsoe is essentially in a contract year — the Suns can extend him a qualifying offer to make him a restricted free agent following the season, thus having the right to match any offer he may receive. Even a bad year is likely to net Bledsoe some pretty significant offers, so the Suns need to see what they have in him before committing cap space and huge dollars over the next several seasons.

2) Trade bait: The Suns are by no means done dealing considering their rebuilding situation, and the team has players in contract situations that will be appealing to other teams around the league, especially as the trade deadline approaches. Marcin Gortat and his expiring $7.7 million deal is at the top of that list, and even he knows it. Another interesting name, though, is Channing Frye, who is back after sitting out all of last season with a heart condition. If Frye returns to form as a high-percentage shooter from three-point distance, his ability to stretch the floor will be highly-coveted for his relatively low price. Frye is on the books for $6.4 million this season, and has a player option for $6.8 for the following season.

3) Building a foundation: The most important thing for the Suns to do this season is establish an identity and a direction under new head coach Jeff Hornacek. Once the wheels fell off a season ago, there was no leadership from either the front office or from the interim coach on the sidelines. McDonough appears to have a long-term plan in place from a management standpoint, now that needs to trickle down to the players on the floor. The holdovers from last year have responded extremely well to Hornacek thus far — his challenge will be to keep everyone focused and engaged on improvement over the long grind of the season, especially in the face of tallying few wins against so many losses.

Why you should watch: The Suns aim to play uptempo offensive basketball under Hornacek, and that should be a blast with Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe pushing the pace in the starting lineup.

Prediction: The oddsmakers have set the over/under for season wins in the 21-22 neighborhood, and that seems a bit on the low side given the guys in place and the effort we’ve seen thus far during the preseason. With that being said, there’s going to be a lot of losing in Phoenix, but if there’s good news surrounding that it’s the franchise having a plan in place and a head coach that seems well-suited to the challenge of rebuilding that lies ahead. As long as Hornacek keeps his players on the path of continual improvement as the season progresses, the year will ultimately be viewed as a success.

USA vs. Spain notebook: Celtics fans should like what they see

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ANAHEIM, Calif. — After listening to how defections had left Team USA weak and vulnerable, the Americans came out with a chip on their shoulder Friday night, played strong defense, showed they have plenty of athleticism and skill, and handled Spain 90-81 in a game that was not really that close.

Here are some other notes from Friday night’s exhibition game at the Honda Center (usually the home of the NHL’s Ducks)

Donovan Mitchell, who led Team USA with 13 points, summed up the feelings of the guys who did make a commitment to USA Basketball this summer:

“Me, I’m 22, some guys are older and got to rest their bodies and I understand that… For me, I’ve never been part of USA Basketball and I’m honored to be here, I’m honored to have this privilege to go out and compete.”

Marcus Smart was in street clothes and did not play on Friday night. Thursday at team practice he took part in some shooting drills but not the scrimmages or anything with contact. He continues to try to come back from a calf injury and make the World Cup roster.

• Smart said during the broadcast Friday that he is “100 percent confident” he will be back on the court with the team.

• Good news for Celtics fans: Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown both played well within the team concept, cutting off the ball and attacking when they had the chance. There was a comfort level and confidence with their games that was good to see again.

Tatum, in particular, made good decisions with the ball all night long, found teammates as cutters when defenders came to him, and seemed to do an improved job playing through contact (something he worked on this summer, and if FIBA ball they let more contact go so he needs it).

Kemba Walker‘s hesitation moves are just unfair.

• The USA’s starters were Harrison Barnes, Khris Middleton, Donovan Mitchell, Mason Plumlee, Kemba Walker.

• To start the second half, Myles Turner got the nod over Plumlee at center. Just a hunch on my part, but Turner is going to have some breakout games for the USA in China.

• Speaking of Myles Turner, this was the Tweet of the night.

• Of the three centers on the roster, Brook Lopez got the fewest minutes by a considerable margin. Lopez is considered a lock to make the roster, this may have been coach Gregg Popovich and staff wanting to get a longer look at Plumlee and Turner in game action (especially against NBA bigs on the Spanish side in Marc Gasol and Juancho Hernangomez). Not sure all three USA centers make the final roster cut.

• Middleton was the best player on Team USA Friday night. He always seems to make the right decision with the ball in his hands.

• This is Southern California, and the Laker fans were out in force. The Honda Center echoed with “Kuuuz” chants every time Lakers’ forward Kyle Kuzma touched the ball.

• Kuzma is considered one of the guys on the bubble to make the team, but he had a strong game on the boards and finished with seven points and five rebounds.

• In the third quarter, the USA rebounder passed ahead to Kuzma in transition, who pushed it up the wing but pulled up and went to the corner because Marc Gasol was back in the paint. As he pulled it out Kuzma found Derrick White as a trailer on break and threw him a pass, White got into the lane and hit an easy floater. When that happened, Popovich stood up and pointed at Kuzma and then Pop pointed at his head, acknowledging and loving the smart play by the Laker.

That was a sign of a maturing of Kuzma’s game, something the Lakers will need this season — and why playing for Popovich this summer is so good for him.

• You can see why Daryl Morey and the Rockets like Serio Llull — the 2017 EuroLeague MVP just knows how to play the game and is well rounded. Houston has Llull’s rights and have tried to lure him to the NBA, but he’s been happy playing for Real Madrid and so far has decided to stay in Spain.

DeMar DeRozan — a gold medalist with Team USA in the Rio Olympics — was in the arena with his children watching the action. Remember he plays for Popovich and the Spurs now (and is a SoCal native).

• In the final minute of a decided game, Team USA had a sloppy offensive possession then lost guys in transition leading to a Marc Gasol three. Popovich called a timeout with 53.4 seconds left to let his team hear about it. There was no chill.

Andrew Wiggins reportedly had shoes, luggage burglarized in Los Angeles

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Like many NBA players, Andrew Wiggins is in Los Angeles this summer working out, practicing against other elite talent, and generally enjoying the summer in the unofficial off-season destination for NBA players.

Wiggins, however, got burglarized — including having his rented SUV stolen. TMZ had the story.

Former No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins was burglarized in Los Angeles … and TMZ Sports has learned the thieves made off with the NBA star’s shoes and luggage…

But, we’re told cops described the scene as “amateur hour” … because the burglars left jewelry and other valuables in the heist, and only took about $1,000 worth of the stuff instead.

We’re told the thieves stole a pair of Wiggins’ casual Nikes and his luggage — and also made off with his rental SUV Escalade. But, we’re told authorities were able to locate the vehicle a short time later.

While the car was found, his shoes and luggage have not been, and there have yet to be any arrests. As anyone who has been burglarized can tell you (*raises hand*) the items stolen are rarely recovered and returned, that stuff tends to be in the wind.

With Jimmy Butler gone, Minnesota heads into this season trying to highlight Karl-Anthony Towns and find a second star to go next to him (they went hard after D'Angelo Russell this summer but did not get him). Wiggins has not been that guy as the Timberwolves had hoped, but with his massive max contract that still has four years remaining Wiggins is nearly impossible to trade. That leaves Ryan Saunders with the task of finding out how to get as much as he can out of Wiggins nightly.

USA shows it still has plenty of talent, athleticism, in 90-81 exhibition win against Spain

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ANAHEIM, Calif. — For the past month, whenever anyone mentioned USA Basketball, the talk was about who decided not to suit up this summer — James Harden, Anthony Davis, etc. Everyone wanted to talk about who Team USA did not have and how much trouble the team was in.

It’s time to move on from that topic.

The United States doesn’t just have the most talented players in the world, it has the deepest talent pool. And it’s not even close.

That was on full display Friday night — this version of Team USA still had more than enough talent and skill to comfortably handle Spain, one of the world’s better squads and a medal contender at the upcoming World Cup in China.

The United States picked up a 90-81 confidence-boosting win in its first test, an exhibition game it led by double digits most of the way. After the game, Spanish coach Sergio Scariolo reminded everyone the USA was the “best team in the tournament” and that he wanted to measure his team against this squad now as a learning experience.

The USA will now head to Australia — with 14 players, not making any roster cuts (they need to eventually get to 12) — for a series of exhibition games. From there it’s on to China for the World Cup, with the American’s first game coming Sept. 1 against the Czech Republic.

For a young USA team, Friday night’s exhibition was another step along the learning curve. Especially playing against a Spanish team that has played together for years and executes a deep offense at a high level.

“There were a lot of situations we learned from this evening,” USA coach Gregg Popovich said. “The win or the loss is pretty unimportant at this point. It’s about getting better, coming together, learning to execute…

“I was most pleased with us defensively, I thought we did a good job as a new group, communicating with each other. I thought we rebounded well, we haven’t done that well, to date, consistently, I thought we had a good effort on the boards from everybody tonight.”

The USA came out and attacked as well, pushing the ball in transition and getting to the rim whenever they could. Team USA took just 19 threes (hitting 10), but when the Spanish players closed out on the shorter international three-point line the Americans put the ball on the floor and went hard to the rim. Guys cut off the ball as the defense rotated, and that led to some nice plays.

The USA was led by Donovan Mitchell, who had 13 points on 5-of-10 shooting. However, the best player on the floor for the Americans was the Bucks’ All-Star Khris Middleton, who had 12 points on 5-of-7 shooting, three quality assists, played strong defense, and always seemed to make the right decision. Kemba Walker showed off some impressive hesitation moves on his way to 11 points.

“Everybody on this team can score,” Mitchell said. “But we have guys willing to sacrifice to be a defensive player, to rebound, to take charges, to make the little plays. Maybe not play as many minutes but lead from the bench.”

Team USA came opened the game playing with urgency, and using their athleticism both on defense and in transition, something Spain could not match. The Americans also just knocked down their shots. The USA shot 5-of-8 from three and 55.6 percent overall in the first quarter Friday night, while Spain started 2-of-9 from three. The result was a 31-20 lead after one frame, and the USA kept that lead in double digits most of the way.

Spain was led by Marc Gasol‘s 19 points on 13 shots, as well as Ricky Rubio, who had 16 points on 4-of-13 shooting.

A couple of times in the fourth quarter Spain cut the lead to eight, but each time Team USA responded with a run to push the league back to the mid-teens. The fact they handled the adversity well is a good sign for the USA.

“We have a group of guys that are willing to learn, willing to listen to each other and lock in,” Donovan Mitchell said. “It’s easy to come in and say ‘it’s my show’ but we have a lot of guys willing to sacrifice for each other, and you want to be on a team like that.”

Team USA had plenty of highlights in first half against Spain

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ANAHEIM — Concerns? What concerns about Team USA?

The Americans came out in their first real test, an exhibition against a good Spanish team, and showed their athleticism and depth. The USA led 54-41 at the half, with Khris Middleton (10 points, 4-of-4 shooting, a couple nice assists) and Kemba Walker (nine points on 3-of-3 shooting) leading the way.

The Americans put their athleticism on display, pressuring on defense then getting out and running, and that led to some impressive highlights.

Ricky Rubio led Spain with 14 points on 4-of-7 shooting.