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.

Giannis Antetokounmpo 29 points, 12 rebounds lead Bucks past Nuggets, 104-98

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MILWAUKEE (AP) — The Milwaukee Bucks have been plagued lately by sluggish first-half performances.

They got away with it again Monday night.

The Bucks fell behind by 17 points before rallying to down the Denver Nuggets 104-98. Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 29 points and Eric Bledsoe added 23, including two late 3-pointers.

Antetokounmpo added 12 rebounds for Milwaukee, which came from 22 down in the first half to beat the Chicago Bulls on Friday night. The Bucks also fell behind by double digits in the first quarter in a loss to Memphis on Wednesday.

“We’ve got to do a better job to try to set the tone,” Antetokounmpo said. “I think we did a better job this game, but we can do a lot better. I think our talent saves us. I feel like we are so talented that even when we are down 10, down 15, we can always get back into the game.”

The Bucks swept the two-game season series against the Nuggets for the first time since 2009-10.

Jamal Murray had 17 points, eight rebounds and a season-best nine assists for Denver, which has lost six of its last seven games.

“We still have confidence. We just aren’t winning games,” Murray said.

Nikola Jokic had 20 points, Gary Harris 14 and Malik Beasley chipped in with a season-high 12 points off the bench.

“I was really pleased with the fight and the competitive spirit. We gave ourselves a chance against a very good basketball team on the road,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “But there are no moral victories. We’ve got to start winning these games.”

The Bucks led 78-77 heading to fourth quarter. The teams exchanged leads until Milwaukee went on a late 8-0 run that featured a pair of 3-pointers by Bledsoe.

“I think Eric is in a really good place,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “He is understanding what we need in different moments.”

Denver pulled within two points with less than a minute left on Jokic’s 3 but Khris Middleton, who had been 0 for 7 from deep, answered with a 3-pointer to put the Bucks up 103-98 with 27 seconds left.

After trailing by 10 to start the third quarter, the Bucks grabbed the lead late in the period on a slam dunk by Antetokounmpo.

Denver used a 17-4 to start the second quarter to build a 17-point lead and held a 56-46 advantage at the half. Milwaukee closed the half on a 10-3 run.

The Nuggets led 29-25 after the first quarter, sparked by nine points from Gary Harris.

 

Joel Embiid has 33 points, 17 rebounds as 76ers beat Suns 119-114

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Joel Embiid scored 19 of his 33 points after halftime and added 17 rebounds to help the Philadelphia 76ers beat the Phoenix Suns 119-114 on Monday night.

Ben Simmons added 19 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists for Philadelphia, which won its third straight while improving to 9-0 at home, remaining the only team in the league unbeaten at home. The 76ers play five of their next six in Philadelphia.

Devin Booker had 37 points and eight assists for the Suns, who started a four-game road trip with their sixth loss in seven games. Phoenix, which fell to 3-13 overall and 0-7 on the road, has the worst record in the West and is one of three winless road teams in the NBA.

Strong first-half shooting helped Phoenix to a surprising 62-57 halftime lead. The 76ers took control in the third, going up for good on Embiid’s three-point play 3:45 into the quarter. They ended the period ahead 92-86 and led by as many as 12 early in the fourth on J.J. Redick‘s runner.

The Suns hung around and T.J. Warren‘s 3-pointer with 3:06 remaining cut it to 109-104. But Embiid’s follow layup with 58 seconds left made it 114-106 and was the clincher.

Rookie Deandre Ayton had 17 points and nine rebounds in his first matchup against fellow 7-footer Embiid.

Embiid scoffed at analysts’ comparisons of Ayton to him made on draft day, saying on Twitter: “Don’t compare Ayton to me either.I play DEFENSE.” The boisterous 76ers center then told ESPN in a preseason interview that Ayton was “about to get his (butt) kicked.”

To his credit, the Suns rookie responded to questions about Embiid by saying he would let his game do his talking.

And the 7-footer did just that in the first possession on Monday night, finishing Booker’s pass with an alley-oop dunk for an emphatic start to the game. Then, he forced Embiid into a turnover in the 76ers star’s first touch on offense.

But Embiid got the better from that point.

Four-time All-Star Jimmy Butler, in his fourth game with the 76ers after last week’s trade with Minnesota, had 16 points after hitting a 3-pointer as time expired in overtime to lead Philadelphia to a 122-119 win at Charlotte on Saturday.

Philadelphia native and Villanova product Mikal Bridges had 13 points in 23 minutes for Phoenix. The rookie was drafted 10th by the 76ers before being shipped to the Suns for the No. 16 pick, Zhaire Smith, and a 2021 first-round pick. Smith has yet to play due to a left foot injury and an allergic food reaction that will sideline him at least until January.

Kemba Walker drops 21 in fourth, 43 overall on Celtics to take down Boston 117-112

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Often when fans are chanting MVP for their favorite player, it’s laughable. The guy’s not close to the conversation.

Kemba Walker is in that conversation, maybe on the fringes of it but in the conversation. He deserves those chants.

And he got them, scoring 43 against Boston Tuesday night in the game after he scored 60 (in a loss to Philly). Walker was on fire. Again.

The Boston Celtics have issues, rebounding and otherwise, but for now let’s celebrate Walker.

New Hornets coach James Borego has brought Spurs-like spacing to the Charlotte offense, there’s no Dwight Howard clogging the lane either, and Walker is eating up that space and destroying teams. And if you lay back on him to take away the drives it will rain threes down on you.

Walker might be the most entertaining player in the NBA this season.

Josh Richardson fined $25,000 for throwing shoe into stands (video)

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Josh Richardson signed a four-year contract extension worth nearly $42 million — the most the Heat could offer him at the time — last year. He said he deliberated for weeks whether to sign or risk going for more in free agency, but ultimately, it was too much money for the former second-rounder to pass up.

In hindsight, it was a mistake. Richardson is an emerging star who would have drawn far more on the open market.

That extra money would have come in handy right now.

NBA release:

Miami Heat guard Josh Richardson has been fined $25,000 for throwing his shoe into the spectator stands, it was announced today by Kiki VanDeWeghe, Executive Vice President, Basketball Operations.

The incident, for which Richardson was assessed a technical foul and ejected from the game, occurred with 6:31 remaining in the fourth quarter of the Heat’s 113-97 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers on Nov. 18 at AmericanAirlines Arena.

Standard fine for throwing something into the stands. This situation just came with the added comedy of Richardson walking around with only one shoe.