Three questions the Phoenix Suns must answer this season

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The NBC/ProBasketballTalk season previews will ask the questions each of the 30 NBA teams must answer to make their season a success. We are looking at one team a day until the start of the season, and it begins with a look back at the team’s offseason moves.

Last Season: 24-58, missed the playoffs for the seventh straight season

I know what you did last summer: In a quiet offseason, the Suns drafted Josh Jackson No. 4, re-signed Alan Williams, signed Alex Len to a qualifying offer and signed T.J. Warren to a contract extension.

THREE QUESTIONS THE SUNS MUST ANSWER:

1) Will Devin Booker and Josh Jackson justify Phoenix’s faith in them? Right off the bat, the Suns assured Booker and Jackson they wouldn’t be traded for Kyrie Irving. Booker and Jackson are valuable players, to be sure, but – especially evidenced by the package the Celtics surrendered – so is Irving.

To a degree it makes sense. Booker is under team control another three years, Jackson another five, and it’d likely take major financial sacrifice by either player to leave soon after that. Irving is locked up just two more seasons until unrestricted free agency. Not close to winning, Phoenix should prioritize the long-term, which means valuing younger, cheaper players like Booker and Jackson.

But Booker and Jackson aren’t even close to the caliber of Irving. Will get they ever get there? It’s far from certain.

Booker is a weak defender whose volume scoring comes at only moderate efficiency. Jackson was the No. 4 pick, and despite plenty of hype he could go higher, that looked about right to me. His jumper is unreliable, and he was old for a freshman.

Again, Booker and Jackson are very valuable. But that’s due in large part to their contract status and age. As they get older, their value will become more directly tied to their performance on the court.

The Suns, at least with Booker, were probably correct to bet on their current players, given the team’s distance from winning even if it had Irving. But for that bet to pay off, Booker must improve and Jackson must hit on the higher end of his projections.

There’s still time – see everything above – but the upcoming season is the opportunity at hand.

2) How patient will owner Robert Sarver be? The Suns have gone a franchise-long seven years without making the playoffs, and they’re unlikely to reach the postseason this year. How desperate is Sarver to return to the playoffs (or, maybe more accurately, return to earning playoff revenue)?

He seemingly signed off on this plan, even extending general manager Ryan McDonough this summer. But Sarver wouldn’t be the first owner with overly ambitious ideas of what his team can accomplish. Even if Sarver is completely realistic about this roster, living daily through losing is another thing.

Phoenix has a nice group of players on rookie-scale contracts: Devin Booker, Josh Jackson, T.J. Warren, Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender. Another high lottery pick in 2018 and maybe even 2019 and patience could put this rebuild over the top.

But if Sarver gets antsy, the plan could turn in a hurry.

3) What will T.J. Warren show? Warren is the litmus test for this team in a number of ways.

With a four-year, $47 million extension, Phoenix has more money tied into Warren than any other player. In the simplest terms, the more a team pays a player, the more important he plays well. But with so few moves to evaluate this offseason, McDonough could face greater scrutiny for the Warren deal.

Warren is good at weaving his way close to the basket and making close-range shots. But his shooting reliability ends before the 3-point arc, and he lacks all-around skill. He has also missed 42, 35 and 16 games in his three-year career.

The progression of Warren, a combo forward, will affect how Phoenix evaluates Jackson, Chriss and Bender. Which of those players are long-term pieces (and at which positions)? Warren is already paid like one, though it’s unclear whether he belongs or whom he can play with.

If the Suns have a chance of being surprisingly competitive this year, Warren could be the swing piece. Booker is in a league of his own. Eric Bledsoe, Jared Dudley and Tyson Chandler are the known quantities when healthy. Warren – older and more polished than Jackson, Chriss and Bender – is somewhat of a variable.

How Warren fares could say plenty about Phoenix’s season and long-term direction.

PBT Podcast: Timberwolves without KAT, get Luka some help

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Minnesota has stumbled out of the gate this season, and now they will be without Karl-Anthony Towns for around a month with a calf strain. Just how much trouble are the Timberwolves in?

Corey Robinson from NBC Sports and myself discuss that and then get into Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s Team USA vs. Team World matchup — does Evan Fournier get the world team in trouble? Who guards whom?

From there, it’s time for Corey’s Jukebox and some New Orleans jazz for Zion Williamson. Some Mavericks’ talk follows that — Dallas has put a big load on the shoulders of Luka Doncic, and while he’s playing like an MVP it’s a long-term concern for the Mavericks and their fans.

You can always watch the video of some of the podcast above, or listen to the entire podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google Play, or anywhere else you get your podcasts.

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

LeBron calls out reporters for asking him about Kyrie Irving but not Jerry Jones

Indiana Pacers v Los Angeles Lakers
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Within days of Kyrie Irving being suspended by the Nets in the wake of a Tweet promoting an antisemitic film (and his initial refusal to apologize for it), Irving’s former teammate LeBron James was asked about it. He had to deal with the controversy, saying, “I don’t condone any hate to any kind. To any race.”

At the end of his press conference Wednesday night after the Lakers beat the Trail Blazers, LeBron scolded the assembled press for not asking him about the 1957 photo that surfaced of Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones outside North Little Rock High School while white students protested the integration of the school when they had been quick to ask about Irving.

“When I watched Kyrie talk, and he says, `I know who I am, but I want to keep the same energy when we’re talking about my people and the things they’ve been through,’ and that Jerry Jones photo is one of those moments that our people, Black people, have been through in America. And I feel like as a Black man, as a Black athlete, someone with power and with a platform, when we do something wrong or something that people don’t agree with, it’s on every single tabloid, every single news coverage. It’s on the bottom ticker. It’s asked about every single day.

“But it seems like to me that the whole Jerry Jones situation, the photo, and I know it was years and years ago, and we all make mistakes, I get it. It seems like it’s just been buried under, like, `Oh, it happened. OK. We just move on.’ And I was just kind of disappointed that I haven’t received that question from you guys.”

Irving and LeBron were teammates in Cleveland and won a ring together, there was a direct connection (plus Irving had been linked to the Lakers in trade rumors over the summer).

However, there was a connection between LeBron and the Cowboys as well. LeBron was for many years a very public Cowboys fan (despite growing up in Browns territory). It came up as recently as October, when LeBron was on Instagram Live promoting his HBO show with Maverick Carter “The Shop” and he said he had stopped rooting for the Cowboys in the wake of Colin Kaepernick’s peaceful protests, “There’s just a lot of things that were going on when guys were kneeling. Guys were having freedom of speech and wanting to do it in a very peaceful manner…. The organization was like, ‘If you do that around here, then you will never play for this franchise again.’ I just didn’t think that was appropriate.”

When asked about the photo, Jones said he was a curious 14-year-old who was watching and didn’t understand the magnitude of the moment or situation.

Watch Russell Westbrook drain two buzzer-beaters against Blazers

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The Portland Trail Blazers had to know it was not their night when Russell Westbrook knocked down a buzzer-beating step-back 3-pointer just before the half.

Westbrook wasn’t done, he had one more buzzer-beater in him at the end of the third.

Westbrook wasn’t the only guy in the building draining half-courters — for the second-straight game a Laker fan knocked down a half-court shot, this time to win $25,000.

It was a good night all around for the Lakers and their fans at home against the shorthanded Trail Blazers. They got 31 points from LeBron James, plus 27 points and 12 boards from Anthony Davis. Austin Reaves added in 22, and the Lakers took control in the third and cruised in for a needed win.

NBA plans for 2023-24 include in-season tournament (if approved)

2022 NBA Finals - NBA Commissioner Adam Silver Press Conference
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The NBA is planning for the inaugural version of its in-season tournament – should it become reality – to begin early next season, according to a memo sent to teams.

If the tournament is approved, 80 regular-season games for each team would be announced in August, with two more games set to be scheduled depending on which eight teams make the tournament’s knockout stage. Those games would be added in-season to the schedule.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has pushed for the past several years for the in-season event to be added. Talks have gone on about it since at least 2016, and in 2019 the league even created a proposal in which teams would play eight divisional games in the group stage, followed by quarterfinals for the top eight clubs and then semifinals and finals at a neutral site in December.

That evidently remains the footprint. Teams, in Wednesday’s memo, were told to plan for tournament quarterfinal games in early December 2023 – again, the caveat being that the event has yet to be approved.

“It’s something that I remain excited about,” Silver said in September. “I think it continues to be an opportunity within the current footprint of our season to create some more meaningful games, games of consequence, during an otherwise long regular season. … I think fans might really ultimately enjoy another competition during the season, some sort of cup competition. Certainly not rising to the level of the Larry O’Brien Trophy, yet something else significant to play for.”

Silver has often compared the notion of an in-season tournament to what is commonly seen in European soccer.

“It’s all about fan interest,” Denver coach Michael Malone said Wednesday night. “I know they do this a lot in soccer around the world, these in-season tournaments. I don’t know how it’s going to work, the details of it. But if it’s good for the game and the league supports it, obviously all 30 teams and all 30 head coaches will be on board as well. ”

The scheduling process for next season starts with teams telling the league what dates their home arena is available. The NBA wants that list by Dec. 9; the process continues for the next several months.

Wednesday’s memo included clarity on several key dates for the 2023-24 season. Training camps will begin on Tuesday, Oct. 3 for most teams, except those participating in overseas preseason games; they can open camp on Saturday, Sept. 30.

The season begins Oct. 24 and ends April 14, 2024. The play-in tournament will be April 16-19, 2024, and that means that season’s playoffs would begin on April 20.