Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Already anointed, Devin Booker aims to become worthy of star status

1 Comment

DETROIT – Devin Booker spent his first two seasons burnishing one of the NBA’s best reputations.

The Suns made him their franchise player. LeBron James and Kevin Durant went out of their way to praise him. He became the youngest player ever to score 70 points in a game.

But there was a dirty little secret behind the curtain: Booker played awful defense.

“Having a heavy load on offense, I just tried to rest a little bit,” Booker said. “But you realize, if you want to be that player in this league, you have to play both sides of the ball.”

That player.

The leader. The one capable of carrying his team deep into the playoffs. The true star.

Despite his accolades, Booker isn’t yet that player. His Suns are just 8-15, on pace for their best record in his three seasons. But he has scored more points before turning 21 (a month ago) than everyone besides LeBron, Durant and Carmelo Anthony.

Booker is judged too harshly by his critics, too generously by his advocates. He’s flawed, to be sure, but don’t ignore his potential. Don’t paint the picture of a player who has already figured it out, either.

Evaluating individual players is a circular exercise. Players can be judged on their own, and their perceived production can each be plugged in to predict team success. But a player’s individual value can also be derived from his team’s output. If a team thrives or struggles, it’s worth examining how its players contribute to that result. Form new evaluations of each player, plug those in and re-predict team success. Then re-apportion the team’s results onto each player again. And on and on.

A good player – someone who contributes positively to winning – can play on a bad team. A bad player – someone who contributes negatively to winning – can play on a good team. A single player can do only so much.

But, at a certain point, a truly elite player should keep his team from the dregs of the league

Phoenix has gotten outscored by 8.4 points per 100 possessions with Booker on the floor. That’s obviously not all his fault. His teammates, frankly, are bad. But if Booker was all his supporters crack him up to be, wouldn’t he lift the Suns higher than he has?

Only a few players since 2000-01 (as far back as NBA.com’s data goes) have been All-Stars while their team was performing so poorly with them on the floor before the All-Star break:

image

Yao Ming and Kobe Bryant were over the hill and All-Stars only because of the fan vote. Zydrunas Ilgauskas, from the 17-65 Cavaliers who tanked to get LeBron in 2003, is the only All-Star chosen on the merits despite his team struggling so much.

Becoming an All-Star in this Western Conference – where Stephen Curry, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, Klay Thompson, Damian Lillard and Jimmy Butler are competing for four to six guard spots – is hard enough, anyway. But Booker holds no illusions about the hole in his case.

“I know that comes with winning,” Booker said.

Booker brings up the 60-win Hawks of a few years ago. Not only were Al Horford and Paul Millsap All-Stars, Atlanta’s team success vaulted Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver into their only All-Star appearances.

Booker isn’t shy about referencing other teams. Asked about his leadership, he pointed to the Warriors as a model he’d like to emulate. Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green all share various aspects.

But Phoenix has pinned so much of its future directly onto Booker.

The Suns told Booker they wouldn’t trade him, even when Kyrie Irving became available. Then, they dealt Eric Bledsoe, the team’s best and highest-paid player.

This is now Booker’s team.

“It’s a good pressure to have,” Booker said. “It’s a pressure that keeps you on your toes. It’s a pressure that I want. It’s a pressure that keeps you determined.”

Booker fits as first in command, because Phoenix gives more than a quarter of its minutes to players even younger than him – a smidge behind behind the Lakers, but nearly double anyone else. Not only is he older than Josh Jackson, Marquese Chriss, Dragan Bender and Derrick Jones Jr., Booker is also more advanced than slightly older starting point guard Tyler Ulis.

Ideally for the Suns, this young core – along with future first-round picks, including all Phoenix’s own plus two extra from the Heat – will blossom into a dangerous team.

Booker is trying to accelerate the process, and that starts with defense.

“He’s taking the challenge of trying to guard guys,” Phoenix interim coach Jay Triano said. “I think that was something, before, he just, ‘It was something I have to do.’ And now, he’s coming to the bench, if a guy has made two in a row and saying, ‘Put me on him. Let me guard him.'”

Like all Suns, Booker’s defensive effort has improved since Triano took over for Earl Watson just three games into the season. (How could it not?) Triano calls Booker’s defensive results under his newfound approach “excellent,” but that seems to be more positive reinforcement than anything. Booker is merely trending up from atrocious defender toward regularly bad defender. He’s more engaged off the ball, and he really locks in during clutch situations.

It’s a step in the right direction for Booker as he tries to improve his all-around game. Growth also include better distributing.

Despite a slight downtick in minutes, Booker is averaging a career-high 4.0 assists per game. But he has made an even larger jump in potential assists per game – 8.9, fourth among shooting guards (behind only James Harden, DeMar DeRozan and Jimmy Butler).

Why such a split between his actual assists and potential assists? The simple and partially correct answer: His teammates miss too many shots. But Booker also doesn’t tilt the defense to create efficient opportunities for his teammates quite like an elite playmaker would.

As usual with Booker, context matters, but it doesn’t completely absolve him.

Same with his scoring. He averaged 22.1 points per game last year and his averaging 23.0 this year, shiny numbers that mostly explain his plaudits.

Efficiency matters, too, though. For his usage percentage (28.9), his true shooting percentage (56.8) is only middling. But it’s above league average for the first time, and he’s just 21. Only Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, LeBron and Durant have matched Booker’s usage and true shooting percentages in their age-21 season or younger.

Booker is a good scorer, period – and a special one for his age. His 70-point game against the Celtics last season is the crowning achievement of his career so far, unmatched by any active player and not neared ever by anyone so young.

It also heaped loads of attention on him, as a blowout loss to the Pistons on Wednesday perfectly displayed. Booker scored 22 points on 7-of-8 shooting, but Detroit aggressively trapped him throughout the game, and he committed seven turnovers.

Booker returns to Boston, the site of his 70-pointer, tomorrow knowing defenses have treated him differently ever since that game.

“You can’t be a secret forever,” Booker said. “I remember all the open looks I got when I first started playing as a rookie. I haven’t seen one of those since.”

The Suns’ lackluster supporting cast makes it simpler for Booker to remain the center of attention, but that’s not the only culprit. His hype keeps outpacing his production.

Booker is just trying to put his head down and keep up.

Trade to/buyout from Hawks clears way for Carmelo Anthony to join Rockets

Associated Press
1 Comment

There were a few things that were a given back on July 1 heading into free agency: Kevin Durant would re-sign with the Warriors, Chris Paul was going to stay in Houston, the Washington Wizards would find a way to make their bad locker room chemistry worse

And Carmelo Anthony would end up in Houston.

Every source I have talked to through free agency and at Summer Leagues saw ‘Melo as a Rocket as all but inevitable. Anthony’s people have not exactly been subtle about their efforts.

Thursday’s three-team trade that sends Anthony to Atlanta — where he will be bought out at full price, no discount — clears the way for him to become a Rocket. After Anthony clears waivers, the deal will get done.

Is that a good move for the Rockets is another question.

Anthony and coach Mike D’Antoni had their problems in New York. Both say they are past those now, but when issues flare up again, will the history? And issues will flare up.

With James Harden and CP3, the Rockets offense is built on efficiency — there may be a lot of isolations, but they get threes and shots at the rim with a team of guys willing to move the ball for a better shot. That’s not Anthony. He can still get buckets, and he shot 35.7 percent from three last season, but Anthony is not a guy who moves the ball or is efficient anymore (40.4 percent shooting overall last season). He relies heavily on post up and isolations ( 32.5 percent of Anthony’s possessions last season), and he’s still reasonably efficient on those. But he’s a ball stopper, something Harden and Paul are not for all their isolation plays.

Defensively he is nowhere near Phoenix-bound Trevor Ariza or Clippers-bound Luc Mbah-a-Moute. Anthony will get targeted on switches and played off the floor at the end of games and in the playoffs. James Ennis is a better option for the Rockets in many lineups.

If Anthony can accept a sixth man role, he could really help the Rockets. However, after the Thunder were eliminated from the playoffs last year, Anthony was asked about doing that for OKC and literally laughed the question off. Maybe playing with Harden and CP3 on a contender changes things, but I will see it when I believe it.

Anthony is going to be a Rocket next season. How well that works is something to watch.

 

 

Report: Thunder trading Carmelo Anthony, first-rounder to Hawks for Dennis Schroder

AP Photo/Rick Bowmer
4 Comments

The Thunder were going to cut loose Carmelo Anthony.

The Hawks were determined to trade Dennis Schroder.

The 76ers needed a stretch four after Nemanja Bjelica backed out of his deal.

Hence…

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Chris Vivlamore of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

Royce Young of ESPN:

The Thunder save money in this trade next year by going from Anthony to Schroder. But they could have saved far more simply by stretching Anthony themselves.

Stretching Anthony would have meant a cap hit of $9,309,380 each of the next three seasons. Instead, Oklahoma City will pay Schroder $15.5 million each of the next three seasons.

Why increase that financial burden?

Schroder is an intriguing backup to Russell Westbrook and just 24. Even if he’s overpaid and facing the prospect of felony battery charge, he can play. Anthony’s stretched cap hit can’t. Raymond Felton provided steady backup-point guard minutes last season and re-signed, but he’s 34. Oklahoma City can’t rely on him forever.

The Thunder might have viewed Schroder as worth the difference between his salary and Anthony’s stretched cap hit, and there’s some logic to that. But if Oklahoma City tries to flip Schroder down the road, potential trade partners will evaluate his full salary.

Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot isn’t nothing, either. The 23-year-old former first-rounder is a project with 3-and-D potential.

On the other hand, the Thunder also surrender a potential first-round pick in the deal. And with Westbrook, Paul George and Steven Adams locked into lucrative contracts, the upcoming season isn’t the only one Oklahoma City must worry about the repeater luxury tax. Schroder’s future salary could become extremely burdensome.

In a pure basketball sense, this trade could make sense for the Thunder. Anthony didn’t fit, and Schroder brings more talent and has a clearer role. Luwawu-Cabarrot has upside. A lottery-protected pick could warrant going from Anthony to Schroder and Luwawu-Cabarrot, though that’s far from certainly worth it.

But I especially wonder about the long-term financial cost. Will Schroder’s salary the following couple years eventually lead ownership to cut costs and shed better players? If Clay Bennett’s willingness to pay extends beyond the following season, more power to him.

And more power to Anthony, who gets all his money and free agency. Expect him to sign with the Rockets once Atlanta waives him.

The Hawks – nowhere near the luxury tax, let alone the repeater tax – could handle waiving Anthony more easily than the Thunder could have. They get a nice draft pick for their trouble – and to unload Schroder.

Schroder was a leftover from the previous Atlanta regime, and Travis Schlenk is ready to build around Trae Young at point guard. Jeremy Lin is the stopgap veteran backup. There was no place for Schroder.

Justin Anderson only adds to the Hawks’ return. It might be getting late quick for the 24-year-old, but he’s strong and athletic. If he improves his shot, he could be a very helpful 3-and-D player. There’s such a premium on wings, it’s well worth betting on developing him – especially for a rebuilding team like Atlanta.

The 76ers have shifted into winning mode, and Mike Muscala should help. He’s a good 3-point shooter for a big and capable of defending inside and out. Philadelphia adds no long-term cost, as Muscala is entering the final year of his contract with a $5 million salary.

The 76ers also clear a roster spot in the 2-for-1 swap, which could lead to last year’s second-rounder, Jonah Bolden, signing.

Report: Lakers eager to use LeBron James at center flanked by top four young players

Ethan Miller/Getty Images
3 Comments

Why did the Lakers, after securing LeBron James, sign Rajon Rondo and Lance Stephenson? Their explanation leaves plenty to be desired.

What will the Lakers do with Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma now that none of those four are being traded for Kawhi Leonard? Their plan there is far more intriguing.

Eric Pincus of Bleacher Report:

“We may not see this on day one, but the coaching staff is eager to see our version of the [Warriors’] Death Lineup with Lonzo [Ball], Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram, [Kyle] Kuzma and LeBron,” a second Lakers executive said.

LeBron at center is a dangerous weapon. The Cavaliers showed it more during the 2017 playoffs – to positive effect.

But LeBron isn’t Draymond Green, who makes Golden State’s Death/Hamptons Five Lineup function. Green possesses a unique combination of rim protection and – through his ball-handling and especially passing – ability to get into offense quickly. LeBron isn’t as good at protecting the paint, and though he’s lethal in transition when he wants to be, he’ll be fighting years of slow-down habits.

I also wonder how much LeBron embraces the physical toll of playing center. The Lakers have only JaVale McGee, Ivica Zubac and Mo Wagner at the position. Are they banking on LeBron playing there a significant amount during the regular season?

LeBron would likely accept the role more enthusiastically in the playoffs. But Ball, Hart, Ingram and Kuzma will be tested – at least initially – by the heightened level of play. I’d be wary of overly relying on that lineup.

But this is the best way for the Lakers to get talent on the floor and overcome spacing concerns. I’m absolutely excited to see it in action. Whatever concerns I have about it are only multiplied with other potential Lakers lineups.

Report: Nuggets lottery pick Michael Porter Jr. undergoes another back surgery

Getty Images
5 Comments

Michael Porter Jr. underwent back surgery in November, missed nearly his entire freshman season at Missouri then slipped to No. 14 in the draft amid injury concerns.

The Nuggets have been noncommittal about their plans for Porter, but they’ve given an eyebrow-raising update.

Nuggets release:

Michael Porter Jr. has undergone surgery of the lumbar spine at The Carrell Clinic in Dallas, Tex. The Procedure was performed by Dr. Andrew Dossett. There is no timetable for his return to basketball participation.

Porter is a talented forward with the length and skill to make a major impact as a scorer.

But, as this latest surgery underscores, drafting him carried terrifying risk. Denver will have to bear that for a while.