51 Questions: Do the Phoenix Suns finally have a playoff formula?

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PBT is previewing the 2015-16 NBA season by tackling 51 big questions that we can’t wait to see answered once play tips off. We will answer one a day right up to the start of the season Oct. 27. Today’s question:

Do the Phoenix Suns finally have a playoff formula?

It has been five years since the Phoenix Suns made the playoffs, tying the franchise record for longest playoff drought. It’s the fourth longest active drought in the NBA (Timberwolves at 11, Kings at nine, and Pistons at six).

Think about it this way: The Magic, Sixers, and Jazz have been to the playoffs more recently than the Suns.

Phoenix hasn’t bottomed out on a rebuild, they’ve actually been pretty good — they surprised everyone and won 48 games two seasons ago, then had 39 wins last season when things went very wrong and injuries crushed the team after the All-Star break. However, in a deep Western Conference pretty good isn’t good enough.

Suns management and ownership wants that to change. They want back in the playoff dance. Now.

It’s why they went hard after LaMarcus Aldridge this summer, coming in a surprising second to a Spurs team that nobody was likely to catch in that chase.

This summer the Suns made other moves to address needs. They went out and got Tyson Chandler as a free agent. The first reaction was he was there to provide a shot blocking and defensive quarterbacking, two things the Suns sorely lacked. However, just as importantly, they needed a vocal locker room leader, a vacuum that was part of the problem in Phoenix’s implosion last season.

The Suns also needed shooting, they went out and got Mirza Teletovic and drafted Devin Booker.

It’s easy to think the Suns regressed because they lost a lot of talent since the last trade deadline — Goran Dragic, Isaiah Thomas, Gerald Green, Brandan Wright — but they believe the pieces they have now fit together better.

Phoenix believes it can make the playoffs; it thinks it finally has the right formula.

Maybe. They will be in the mix. But a four things have to happen to make that a reality.

First is Chandler has to lead a defensive renaissance on this team. Last season they were average, 17th in the NBA in defensive efficiency, but Chandler can help change that. First, he gives them defensive rebounding that they lacked. He gives them a quarterback that they needed to call things out and have everyone on the same page (reports of how he talks on defense are already pouring out of camp). And he helps protects the paint — that means Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight, and P.J. Tucker can pressure the ball more and take risks out on the perimeter knowing Chandler can erase some mistakes.

The second is an obvious one: Bledsoe and Knight need to be able to work well together. They are going to share playmaking duties, and both are going to spend time working off the ball, both need to be ready for that mental adjustment. We haven’t seen that much yet, we need to see how it works out.

Third, there needs to be shooting to space the floor. Bledsoe is a penetrator who is a career 32 percent from three, while Knight shot just 31.3 percent from three after being traded to the Suns (likely due to ankle injuries that required off-season surgery). Those two men will be running the pick-and-roll with Chandler, who sets a good pick, rolls hard and can finish, but doesn’t have shooting range. The Suns other two starters are likely P.J. Tucker, who is not a huge threat from three but shot a respectable 34.5 percent from there last season, and Markieff Morris, who is a career 32.8 percent from three.

If I’m an opposing defense, what’s to keep me from going under picks and packing the lane against the Suns? Phoenix needs Knight to return to the guy who is a career 36 percent from three, they need Morris to improve from the outside, and they need guys like Teletovic and Booker to play key minutes and space the floor at times.

Fourth, and finally, they need the potentially volatile mixture of an unhappy Morris and a coach in Jeff Hornacek in the last year of his contract not to combust. Everyone is saying all the right things at the start of camp, and this is why guys like Chandler and Ronnie Price were brought in, but there is the potential for things to go sideways, especially if some early losses pile up.

The biggest hurdle for the Suns in ending their playoff drought is they are in the Western Conference.

Even if all four of things mentioned above go right for them — if they run and hit more threes plus play better defense — this is likely a 45 win team (give or take a few, and probably take). The problem is that in the West that may not be enough. Barring injuries, there are likely seven lock playoff teams in the West — Spurs, Warriors, Clippers, Rockets, Thunder, Grizzlies, and Pelicans. That leaves the Suns battling teams such as the Jazz, Mavericks and maybe the Kings for that final playoff spot. It may take more than 45 wins, and things are going to have to break the Suns’ way to get there.

Maybe Robert Sarver gets his way and the playoff drought ends this season, it’s more likely than snow in Phoenix this winter. But I wouldn’t bet much on either happening.

Watch Joel Embiid’s game-winning dunk lead 76ers past Cavaliers 98-97

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — The shots weren’t falling for the Philadelphia 76ers, so they clamped down on defense.

Joel Embiid scored 27 points, including the go-ahead dunk with 13.2 seconds remaining, and Philadelphia held Cleveland without a point for the final 3 1/2 minutes in a 98-97 win over the Cavaliers on Tuesday night.

Josh Richardson added 17 points and Ben Simmons had 15 for Philadelphia, which won despite missing 30 of 38 3-point attempts. Tobias Harris missed all 11 of his 3-point tries.

“You better guard if you’re not going to make shots,” 76ers coach Brett Brown said. “We knew if we were going to do anything, we had to play defense – and defense we played.”

Jordan Clarkson and Kevin Love each had 20 points to pace Cleveland. Collin Sexton added 18 points and Tristan Thompson had 17 points and 12 rebounds for the Cavaliers.

The Cavaliers trailed for most of the contest, but took advantage of Philadelphia’s poor shooting in the fourth quarter, going up by as many as five points on three occasions.

“We gave them life and were in a fistfight,” Brown said. “You can just feel it. We had a chance to discourage them and we didn’t. Certainly a hard-fought game and we’re lucky to get away with it.”

Cleveland led 97-92 with 3:34 remaining after Sexton’s driving layup, but the Cavaliers wouldn’t score again. Harris pulled Philadelphia within 97-94 with a follow layup and then hit a 17-footer on the ensuing possession to make it a one-point game with 1:42 left.

Cleveland had chances to build the lead after that, but Love missed a close-range shot before a shot-clock violation on the Cavaliers’ next possession.

“I think our defense was pretty OK,” Embiid said. “We just didn’t make shots.”

The 76ers were having their own trouble scoring with Richardson and Embiid failing to convert on consecutive possessions.

After a timeout with 26.6 seconds left, Brown called a high-percentage play with Harris finding Embiid close to the basket. Embiid slammed it home to give the 76ers their first lead, 98-97, since early in the fourth quarter.

“It was a great play-call by coach and we did the rest,” Embiid said.

Cleveland had a chance to win it, but Love’s 3-point attempt from the top of the key rimmed out.

“Kevin is a great shooter, not a good shooter,” Cleveland coach John Beilein said. “He took his time but just didn’t nail it. It’s one of many looks I’ll take at that time.”

 

Warriors two-way guard Damion Lee breaks bone in right hand

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SAN FRANCISCO (AP) Yet another member of the Golden State Warriors is injured, with two-way guard Damion Lee now out because of a broken right hand.

The injury occurred during Golden State’s 122-108 home loss to the Jazz on Monday night. Lee underwent an MRI exam Tuesday morning that revealed a nondisplaced fracture of the fourth metacarpal. The team said he will be reevaluated in two weeks.

“Hopefully just a few weeks,” coach Steve Kerr said before the team flew to Los Angeles, where the Warriors play the Lakers on Wednesday night.

Lee joins a long list of injured players on the depleted Warriors, who are 2-9 following five straight trips to the NBA Finals.

Stephen Curry had surgery on his broken left hand, which he injured Oct. 30, and will need another procedure next month to have pins removed. He said Monday that he expects to be playing again come spring.

The two-time MVP joins Klay Thompson, who is recovering from a July 2 surgery on a torn ACL in his left knee suffered during Game 6 of the NBA Finals. Thompson could miss the entire season.

Kevon Looney, who is dealing with a nerve issue that has kept him out since a brief appearance in the season opener, is going through more extensive workouts but is still not ready to return, while guard Jacob Evans III is still dealing with a strained inner thigh muscle and also will miss Wednesday’s game. Kerr said he is likely still at least a couple of weeks from playing again.

Backup center Omari Spellman was listed as doubtful to face the Lakers because of a sprained left ankle and already sat out Monday’s loss to the Jazz.

Kerr, who took over coaching the Warriors in 2014-15 and immediately won an NBA championship, has never had this short a bench with so few healthy bodies to mix and match rotations.

“We’ll just see how it plays out,” Kerr said. “We’ll figure out who’s ready to go and we’ll go from there. It’s challenging. It’s been kind of the theme so far. It’s not exactly ideal but it’s the reality. You don’t spend a whole lot of time lamenting anything. You just keep going.”

Bulls big man Cristiano Felicio out 4-8 weeks with broken wrist

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This is not going to impact the Bulls’ rotations — Cristiano Felicio has yet to touch the court for the Bulls this season — but it’s a setback for a player trying to prove he belongs in the NBA.

Felicio fractured his wrist during the Bulls practice Monday and will be out at least a month, reports K.C. Johnson of NBC Sports Chicago.

Cristiano Felicio, who has yet to land on the active roster this season, broke his right wrist after falling in Monday’s practice, according to coach Jim Boylen. The Bulls’ coach said Felicio will miss four to eight weeks with the injury.

“We had the X-ray. It did not show up on the X-ray. Then we had the CT scan and it showed up on the CT scan,” Boylen said. “We’re going to do an MRI (Wednesday) just to let them give us a little more certainty on maybe how much separation there is in there and how much time it will be.”

The Bulls gambled on Felicio a couple of years ago and signed him to a four-year, $32 million contract. That roll of the dice has come up snake eyes so far, with Felicio playing a limited role the first two seasons — and this season no role at all.

It is expected the Bulls will try to use Felicio’s salary in any trade packages they put together closer to the deadline, this injury would not impact that.

Asked about getting stabbed in back, Chris Paul says trade from Rockets

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Chris Paul has gotten traded three times in his career.

New Orleans sent him to the Clippers – but only after David Stern nixed a deal with the Lakers – in 2011. In 2017, Paul engineered a trade to the Rockets by opting in. Then, in an unprecedented star swap, Houston dealt Paul to the Thunder for Russell Westbrook last summer.

Paul recently discussed trades with comedian Kevin Hart.

Hart:

Why is it always such a crazy time when it comes to these trades and whether they’re happening. You’ve been part of some big conversations. Is it at a point where it’s just business, or is it becoming personal?

Paul:

Every situation is different. But the team is going to do whatever they want to do. They’ll tell you one thing and do a smooth nother thing.

Hart:

That’s the business side.

Paul:

Exactly.

Hart:

Do you feel like there’s been times where, “Damn, that’s a little eye-opening. I got stabbed in the back”?

Paul:

Absolutely. This last situation was one of them. The GM there in Houston, he don’t owe me nothing. You know what I mean? He may tell me one thing but do another thing. But you just understand that that’s what it is.

Rockets general manager Daryl Morey is an easy target right now. Many people around the NBA resent him tweeting support for Hong Kong protesters (who are trying to maintain and expand their freedoms) and costing the league significant revenue in China.

But, in this case, Morey brought it upon himself. He said in June he wouldn’t trade Paul then did so, anyway.

Maybe that was to protect Paul’s feelings if he stayed in Houston. In that case, Morey could tell Paul he believed in him all along. There’d be no way to know Morey was fibbing. Now that Paul is gone, Paul being upset is someone else’s problem. It’s a common tactic by executives.

Paul reportedly requested a trade from the Rockets, but he denied it. I don’t necessarily believe Paul. There was plenty of evidence of tension between him and Harden. It’d be pretty conniving to request a trade then throw Morey under the bus for making the trade.

But Paul’s denial of a trade request is on the record. So is Morey’s declaration that he wouldn’t trade Paul.

Morey must own that.