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Suns improve, but to what end?

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NBC Sports’ 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.

While coaching Marist, Jeff Bower hosted a middling recruit named Cameron Johnson. Bower was ahead of the curve. Bringing Johnson to the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference would’ve been a coup. Bigger programs eventually realized Johnson’s ability, and he bypassed Marist for the ACC (Pittsburgh then North Carolina).

Bower and Johnson reunited this summer. The Bower-employing Suns drafted Johnson No. 11 overall.

Delightful coincidence or distressing signal?

Since leaving Marist, Bower got hired by the Pistons, ran day-to-day operations in Detroit’s front office the entire San Van Gundy era, got fired by the Pistons, sat out a full season and got hired by Phoenix. It has been a long time since his initial meeting with Johnson.

Put another way: Johnson is old.

At 23, he’s one of the oldest lottery picks in the last 20 years. His 23-and-over company aside from Buddy Hield (No. 6 in 2016) is uninspiring. The others: Ekpe Udoh (No. 6 in 2010), Tyler Hansbrough (No. 13 in 2009), Al Thornton (No. 14 in 2007), Rafael Araújo (No. 8 in 2004), Melvin Ely (No. 12 in 2002), Fred Jones (No. 14 in 2002), Courtney Alexander (No. 13 in 2000).

Johnson is a polished shooter. There’s a chance he could fill a rotation role for Phoenix next season. But it’ll be a limited role. His upside appears low. His injury history is troubling.

Off all the ways the Suns misplaced their priorities and operated like novices this summer, drafting Johnson stands out.

Phoenix entered the draft with the No. 6 pick then traded down for No. 11 and Dario Saric. Saric is a fine player, but not someone – one year from free agency – who justifies watching prospects like Jarrett Culver and Coby White go off the board. Then, the Suns made the shocking reach for Johnson.

Unfortunately for Phoenix, that multi-blunder process doesn’t even cover everything that went wrong this summer. In James Jones’ first year as general manager, the Suns were determined to get their desired players and improve quickly. Missions accomplished. But Phoenix’s short-term upgrades came with too little consideration for value and where the team is in its ascent.

The big addition was Ricky Rubio – a solid starting point guard on a team that had no point guard. He’ll solidify so many disparate parts around him. But h didn’t come cheap at three years, $51 million.

A pair of draft-day trade agreements with the Pacers and Celtics helped clear cap room for Rubio. But Phoenix’s return was disappointing. The Suns traded up from No. 32 to No. 24, relinquished the Bucks’ 2020 first-rounder, unloaded T.J. Warren (three years, $35.25 million remaining) and took Aron Baynes (one year, $5,453,280 remaining). I at least like using the No. 24 pick on Ty Jerome.

That didn’t open enough cap space for Rubio, though. So, the Suns had to trade Josh Jackson, De’Anthony Melton and a second-rounder or two to the Grizzlies for Jevon Carter. None of those prospects – including 2017 No. 4 pick Jackson – are great. But Phoenix had to forfeit some upside in order to clear cap room.

The Suns used the full room exception on Frank Kaminsky (two years with a team option). Again, not great value.

Neither was re-signing Kelly Oubre for two years, $30 million. But at least that was justifiable, because Phoenix held him at a lower number and had his Bird Rights. Oubre is an interesting young player who fits the long-term vision the Suns should be prioritizing.

Phoenix didn’t completely ignore youth this summer. Cheick Diallo and undrafted Jalen Lecque have upside and signed deals that grant substantial team control. Still, they were low-priority moves.

It’s easy to see what happened in Phoenix. The Suns have missed the playoffs a franchise-worst nine straight years and got impatient. They want to win now.

Rubio will help. The other new role players will help. New coach Monty Williams will help.

But even with all its immediate improvements, Phoenix is highly unlikely to make the playoffs next season. Would going from 19 to 34 wins really feel that much better, especially considering the downgrade in lottery odds? I don’t think so.

The bigger picture hasn’t changed much. The Suns are building around Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton. Phoenix can still grow into a winner around those two.

I doubt it happens next season. And because of this summer’s moves, the Suns will have fewer resources to use when Booker and Ayton are actually ready to win.

Offseason grade: D+

Knicks “Leon Rose era” reportedly to start Sunday as new team president takes over

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Can superagent Leon Rose do what star player Isiah Thomas, and star coach Phil Jackson, could not?

Can he overcome ownership and change the culture around the New York Knicks, turning one of the NBA’s marquee brands back into a winner?

We’ll find out starting Sunday, reports Marc Stein of the New York Times.

A foundation needs to be built in New York — and the pieces are there to do it. They have a couple of nice young players in RJ Barrett and Mitchell Robinson, plus New York has seven first-round picks in the next four years.

This is where the change in culture and foundation comes in — will the Knicks have the scouting, and the player development personnel, in place to take advantage of this? Sure, they need some luck with the ping-pong lottery balls, but can they find and develop guys down the board? Can they draft and develop a Brandon Clarke or Shai Gilgeous-Alexander or Donovan Mitchell or Bam Adebayo?

Can Rose instill a culture where players are brought in, challenged and developed, and grown into quality rotation players? They did that just over the Brooklyn Bridge: Young players such as Spencer Dinwiddie, Caris LeVert, and Jarrett Allen were developed into a team that made the playoffs last season, and will again this season. Brooklyn built a foundation that became a place stars such as Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant wanted to play.

It will start with a vision by Rose, then the hiring of a head coach and basketball staff that understands how to execute that vision. Without interference by ownership. Then Rose needs time to let the vision come to life, it will not be instant.

Is Rose up to that task? Will James Dolan give him the autonomy and time to do it right? We’ll find out, starting Sunday.

Kyle Lowry tried to drive through George Hill’s legs. That didn’t work. (VIDEO)

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Milwaukee’s George Hill, a physical 6’3″ defender, was up on Toronto’s Kyle Lowry out on the perimeter. Lowry, pinned, had no good options.

So, Lowry tried to go through Hill’s legs. Not dribble through and run around, Lowry tried to tunnel his way between Hill’s legs.

 

Lowry, at 6-foot even, is not going to pull that off. Maybe against Boban Marjanovic. Maybe.

At least Nick Nurse got a good laugh out of it. He needed it; the rest of the night didn’t go so well for Nurse, Lowry, and the Raptors.

Three Things to Know: Bulls’ Coby White is red hot — and the latest Jim Boylen controversy

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday during the NBA regular season we are here to help you break it all down. Here are three things you need to know from yesterday in the NBA.

1) Bulls’ Coby White is red hot — and latest Jim Boylen controversy. Will Jim Boylen be the coach of the Bulls next season? Current management — the Gar/Pax team — has his back and loves his old-school ways, but that duo has already lost some power (Gar Forman has seen his role reduced) and John Paxson is about to. A new GM (or whatever title) is coming in this summer — talks have started, and there was a lot of buzz about that around All-Star weekend — and you can bet that person will want a say in who coaches his team.

Bulls players are reportedly not Boylen fans. Bulls fans are with the players and there is a long list of grievances from his heavy-handed practices to the odd (read: poor) use of late-game timeouts.

Now add Coby White to that mix.

White, the rookie backup point guard for the Bulls, is on fire. He had consecutive 33-point games coming into Tuesday night, but White’s mentor and former AAU coach, Chris Paul, promised an end to this trend.

That’s not what happened. White dropped 35 on the Thunder, shooting 13-of-21 overall and 6-of-9 from three (in another Chicago loss).

The last Bulls rookie with three 30+ point games in a row? Some guy named Michael Jordan.

As noted by K.C. Johnson at NBC Sports Chicago, White and Zach LaVine have each scored 30-plus points in consecutive games, and the last Bulls’ teammates to do that were Bob Love and Chet Walker in 1969. Beyond the stats, White brings a level of dynamic play and energy to the Bulls nobody else on that roster seems able to.

For the last three games, White and LaVine have formed an electric offensive backcourt. Starting point guard Kris Dunn is out for the season. A lot of people are calling for White to get the call and start games.

So coach Boylen, is it time to make White the starter?

No. Boylen is going to keep White coming off the bench (and play his veterans, in general), rather than move White into the starting lineup.

“I keep getting this question and I’m just going to answer it one more time,” Boylen said. “Coby’s in a good place. We’re going to keep him in a good place. Let’s let Coby keep playing and lets let him keep developing.”

Don’t change what’s working is a good philosophy.

If it’s actually working. Which, in the big picture, is the real question in Chicago.

John Paxson will remain the Bulls president and he fully buys into Boylen’s style. Normally that would mean Boylen is safe, but the ground is shifting in Chicago with front office changes coming. How much they change remains to be seen, but any GM coming needs to have new ideas and bring change — otherwise what’s the point of bringing him in — and that will include on the coaching front. The ground is shifting in Chicago, and that makes it difficult for Boylen to remain standing.

2) Zion Williamson comes to Los Angeles but LeBron James steals the show, drops season-high 40. Zion Williamson made his debut against LeBron and the Lakers — and he did some very Zion things. Like dunk.

And show off the kind of hops where he can grab a rebound away from Dwight Howard.

Despite that, Tuesday night was the LeBron James show — the MVP candidate got whatever he wanted. Wherever he wanted. The results was a season-high 40 points (and a 118-109 Laker win).

Los Angeles has won six in a row and is in control atop the West.

New Orleans is now four-games behind Memphis in the loss column in the chase for the eighth seed — and the right to face the Lakers in the first round of the playoffs.

3) Bucks remind everyone they own the East. The Milwaukee Bucks have been the clear best team in the East — rather, the best team in all of basketball — this season. It’s not up for debate. The calendar hasn’t even flipped to March yet and the Bucks have 50 wins.

If you want more evidence, take a look at the Bucks schedule. Last Saturday, Milwaukee dismantled Philadelphia (largely without Ben Simmons, but still).

Then on Tuesday night, on the second night of a back-to-back (and the team’s third game in four days), Milwaukee went into Toronto and took care of a red-hot Raptors team. It was a balanced attack. Giannis Antetokounmpo had 19 points and 19 rebounds (plus eight assists), Khris Middleton had 22 points, Eric Bledsoe had 17, and Brook Lopez had 15 as the NBA-leading Bucks won their fifth straight and 18th of 20.

Antetokounmpo said yes, he was motivated by the fact Toronto is where the Bucks lost in the playoffs last season — you have to love that attitude.

We keep talking ourselves into teams that will challenge the Bucks in the East — right now the Celtics are trendy on that list — but then you watch the Bucks play and realize it is them and then a big gap to everyone else.

Lakers, Dion Waiters reportedly to talk March 2

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It has always been easy to connect the dots that would bring Dion Waiters to the Lakers. Waiters’ former agent is Rob Pelinka, who is now the Lakers’ GM. Waiters’ current agent is Rich Paul, who reps both LeBron James and Anthony Davis. That gets your foot in the door.

After Memphis bought out Waiters, it was rumored he and the Lakers would talk. That is now set to happen on March 2, next week, something Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports reported Tuesday night on TNT during the Lakers win against New Orleans.

The Lakers have been active in the buyout market — they signed Markieff Morris, who made his debut for the team Tuesday night — looking to add playmaking and shooting. Waiters can shoot — 37.7 percent from three last season and 38.6 percent on catch-and-shoot threes — but is not much of a playmaker (he can put the ball on the floor but only to create for himself). The Lakers need to decide if he’s a fit, they have Avery Bradley and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope at the two-guard spot already. Waiters has played a fair amount at the point in Miami, but he’s not the kind of playmaker the Lakers are seeking to go with Rajon Rondo.

Waiters clashed with coaches and management in Miami, but with a strong, LeBron-led locker room culture the Lakers aren’t worried about that impact.

Waiters is available because Miami used his salary to balance out the money in the Justise Winslow to Memphis/Andre Iguodala trade. Memphis did not want a distraction, plus they are deep at the two-guard spot with the just extended Dillon Brooks, De'Anthony Melton, and Grayson Allen. So the Grizzlies waived Waiters, as was expected.

The only question is does he upgrade the Lakers roster?

What we do know is he has the connections to at least get in the building and make his case.