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Suns secure franchise player or two or none, but no starting-caliber point guard

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NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

Eight NBA players are guaranteed more than $150 million in salary. Seven – Russell Westbrook, James Harden, John Wall, Stephen Curry, Karl-Anthony Towns and LeBron James – were All-Stars last year, and another – Chris Paulabsolutely should have been.

The outlier: Devin Booker, whom the Suns gave a max contract extension projected to be worth $158 million over five years.

Booker has never been an All-Star nor deserved to be one. Phoenix has peaked at 24 wins with him. He ranked 502nd last season with a real plus-minus of -2.44, a personal best.

On the other hand, the Suns are paying for what Booker will do, not what he has done. He’s an extremely talented scorer with playmaking skills and the frame to impact games far more than he has. Importantly, he’s just 21.

Is Booker worthy of being a franchise player?

Maybe.

But Phoenix rushed to pay him like one this summer despite the uncertainty. The Suns could have waited, assessed Booker over the season and re-signed him as a restricted free agent summer. That might have hurt Booker’s feelings, or it might have driven him to compete harder next year. I think it would have been worth the downside of delaying. Booker’s value just isn’t clear enough to justify lavishing him with a full max contract now. To extend him this summer, Phoenix should have demanded some salary concessions.

The Suns had to take their other high-stakes gamble of the offseason, drafting Deandre Ayton No. 1. Ayton looked like a good choice, but top picks are so pivotal. It was extremely important to get this right.

Especially because Phoenix seems intent on escaping the bottom of the standings.

The Suns signed veteran Trevor Ariza to a one-year, $15 million contract and traded the No. 16 pick and the Heat’s unprotected 2021 pick for No. 10 pick Mikal Bridges, one of the draft’s most NBA-ready players. Ariza and Bridges join Josh Jackson and T.J. Warren as versatile forwards on the roster.

Phoenix also traded for its new starting power forward, Ryan Anderson. I liked that deal, considering Anderson reduced his 2019-20 salary guarantee to match outgoing Brandon Knight‘s. The Suns also upgraded prospects in the swap, going from Marquese Chriss to No. 46 pick De’Anthony Melton. Anderson has taken a lot of grief for his playoff shortcomings, but he was still a productive regular-season player last year.

The upcoming regular season is apparently a priority in Phoenix, where an eight-year playoff drought – longest in franchise history – runs. Owner Robert Sarver isn’t known for his patience.

But if the Suns are trying to make the playoffs, they were absolutely negligent at point guard. Their options: No. 31 pick Elie Okobo, Melton, Isaiah Canaan (signed to an unguaranteed minimum contract), Shaquille Harrison (who received a $50,000 guarantee this summer) and Booker playing out of position once he gets healthy. That’s not going to cut it in a loaded Western Conference.

Phoenix even seemed more concerned with getting another backup center than a starting point guard, executing two trades – dealing a second-rounder to the Nets to downgrade from Jared Dudley‘s salary to Darrell Arthur‘s then sending $1 million to the 76ers – to land Richaun Holmes.

With the $15 million and two first-round picks they used to get Ariza and Bridges, the Suns could have signed or traded for a solid point guard. Instead, that money and those picks went toward adding even more combo forwards.

How innovative will first-time head coach Igor Kokoskov be? I’m not sure Brad Stevens or Gregg Popovich could scheme their way through this point-guard void.

For so long, I wanted to give the Suns’ offseason an incomplete. But they’re starting training camp with this roster with apparently no trade imminent. It’s time to assess.

I don’t see how this roster works in the short term, and it’s a little less flexible and asset-rich in the long-term.

Offseason grade: D+

Watch Stephen Curry drain shots from center-court logo during warmups like it’s nothing

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In case you need any kind of reminder that Stephen Curry is a flat-out ridiculous shooter — particularly during warm-ups, well, you’re in luck.

Check out this pregame video of Curry knocking down shots from the center-court logo at Oracle like it’s nothing.

The man changes the game. Even in warmups.

James Harden being out clouds latest Rockets-Warriors clash

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ASSOCIATED PRESS — The Houston Rockets have had the Golden State Warriors’ number this season. However, when the teams meet on Saturday, the Rockets will have to play without the reigning NBA Most Valuable Player.

Houston guard James Harden is out due a cervical neck strain. Harden was bothered by soreness Thursday during the Rockets’ 111-106 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers. He was seen receiving treatment to the neck and right shoulder during the contest.

The Rockets have used different means to beat the two-time defending champs in their first two head-to-heads since Golden State prevailed in a seven-game conference finals last May.

Houston held a Stephen Curry-less Warriors team to 86 points — Golden State’s lowest output of the season — and just 42 percent shooting in a 107-86 home win in November.

The Rockets then turned Harden loose in the January rematch at Golden State, watching him pour in 44 points — including a game-winning 3-pointer — in a 135-134 overtime thriller.

More than a month later, that game still weighs heavily on the mind of Curry, who countered Harden with 35 points of his own that night.

“They just made one more shot,” he noted to reporters after the Warriors Thursday win over the Sacramento Kings. “We understand how talented they are, how well James has been playing. It’s going to be a dogfight … a defensive test for us.”

At the time of Curry’s statement, the extent of Harden’s injury had not been made public. The NBA’s leading scorer at 36.5 points per game, Harden was bothered by a left shoulder strain prior to the All-Star break but didn’t miss any contests. He has played in 55 of Houston’s 58 games as he missed three games early in the season due to a hamstring injury.

In the overtime win at Oakland, Harden complemented his 44 points with 10 rebounds and 15 assists for a triple-double.

While there was no triple-double against the Lakers, Harden did extend his streak of games with 30 or more points to 32.

The Rockets lost their second in a row and fell to 33-25, a full 12 games below where they stood at this point last season. It’s gotten some analysts grumbling about the club’s style of play and reliance on Harden.

Houston coach Mike D’Antoni labeled such talk “absurd” before the Thursday game.

“I don’t know if they watched last year,” he said of the naysayers. “Nobody else can do what he does. … If you’re a ball-stopper, usually you’re inefficient. He’s very efficient. So when the ball stops, it’s a good thing.”

The Rockets earned the home-court advantage over Golden State in last year’s playoffs by finishing seven games ahead of the Warriors during the regular season.

That almost surely won’t be the case should they meet again this postseason. The Warriors (42-16), with the best record in the West, have a nine-game advantage over Houston, currently in the No. 5 seed.

Golden State won for the 17th time in its past 19 games by surviving a late rally from the Kings on Thursday in a 125-123 home decision. Curry finished with 36 points, making 10 of his 16 3-point attempts.

Harden (276) and Curry (246) enter the game ranked first and second, respectively, in the NBA in 3-pointers made.

Harden also led the league last season with what was then a career-best 265.

Curry got the better of his rival in 3-pointers in last year’s playoff showdown, however, making 27 of 75 (36 percent) while Harden was harassed into 19 of 78 (24.4 percent).

Curry saved his best for last in the series, going 7 of 15 on 3-point tries in a 27-point effort in Golden State’s 101-92 win at Houston in Game 7. Harden went just 2-for-13 from long range on his 32-point night.

 

James Harden fined $25,000 for calling referee Scott Foster ‘rude and arrogant’

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“Scott Foster, man. I never really talk about officiating or anything like that, but just rude and arrogant. I mean, you aren’t able to talk to him throughout the course of the game, and it’s like, how do you build that relationship with officials? And it’s not even that call [Harden’s sixth foul, ending his night]. It’s just who he is on that floor.”

Houston’s James Harden knew the fine was coming before he even uttered those words following the Rockets loss to the Lakers Thursday night, in which Foster called two offensive fouls on Harden, one that limited his minutes early and another that set him up to eventually foul him out of the game.

Harden got what was expected on Saturday, the NBA fined him $25,000 for “public criticism of the officiating.”

Harden wasn’t alone in his frustration. Chris Paul fouled out and picked up a technical, and coach Mike D’Antoni picked up a technical as well.

For the game, Foster called 12 fouls on the Rockets and six on the Lakers. This season in games Foster has officiated, the Rockets are 1-1.

The Rockets are not the only team to have frustrations with Foster, he has a reputation around the league for a short fuse that doesn’t let you question calls. LeBron James‘ Heat teams and others have felt how Harden does.

Lakers’ Lonzo Ball could be out longer due to bone bruise in ankle

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Lonzo Ball has missed the last 11 Laker games. In that time the team is 4-7 with a bottom 10 offense and defense, and they have been outscored by 9.4 points per 100 possessions. Granted, LeBron James was out for a number of those games as well, but even LeBron is talking about how much Ball is missed in the rotation.

The Lakers could be missing him a while longer.

While we are starting to approach the ballpark return date projected for Ball’s Grade 3 ankle sprain, he could miss more time due to a bone bruise in the ankle, reports Tania Ganguli of the Los Angeles Times.

Ball moved quickly through the early stages of his rehab. He used crutches for about a week and wore a protective boot on his left ankle for less time than that.

Ball began running on an underwater treadmill two weeks ago and last week he began work on an antigravity treadmill, but was limited because of the bone bruise.

Ball injured his ankle back on January 19 and it looked bad when it happened.

The Lakers could use him as they make a push down the stretch to get into the playoffs — the Laker defense is 3.4 points per 100 possessions better when Ball is on the court this season. The Lakers, 29-29, enter Saturday as the 10th seed in the West, three games back of the Clippers in the eighth seed and final playoff spot. The Sacramento Kings are also between the Lakers and the postseason — to get in the Lakers are going to need to go on a LeBron-led run. Ball would help with that, but it may be a little while longer before we see him on the court.