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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 he 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+

Mark Cuban’s plan for a restart, “I don’t think we can go the old tried and true way”

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Wild, fanciful ideas for restarting the NBA that would never fly in a typical year — 1-16 seeding, or maybe a soccer World Cup-style group stage — are getting an airing this season because everything is on the table. As the NBA moves closer to a restart plan, countless ideas are being floated.

Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has his own plan.

Shocking, I know. But it’s interesting.

“What I proposed is that we extend the playoff format to 10 teams from each conference, and play at least five games prior to going into playoffs,” Cuban said laying out is plan to NBC’s Mike Tirico on “Lunch Talk Live.” And if we do that, every team in the Eastern Conference would have a chance to make the playoffs, and all but two in the Western Conference would do it [Ed. note: Golden State and Minnesota].

“Then, what I would do, once we got 10 and 10, I would reseed them, and 17 would play 20, and 18 would play 19, in a one-game series. The winner then would take on the eighth-place seed in a five-game series, while the No. 1 seed in each conference would get a bye. Then you go ahead normally from there.

“That gives us a chance to have more meaningful games, it gives almost every team a chance when we come back for whatever is left of our regular season. I think we’ve got to change it up some, I don’t think we can go the old tried and true way.”

Cuban later added, speaking to ESPN’s Tim MacMahon, that he wants to see all 30 teams come to Orlando for regular season games, building excitement for the NBA’s return in every market. This dream, however, seems a long shot, and Damian Lillard spoke for a lot of players when he said he’s not playing if there is not a path to the playoffs for Portland.

Cuban’s point that this is the year to try something different, not to play it safe, has real validity. This season is already upside down due to the corona

Cuban’s plan is a long shot, but is it any longer a shot than any of the other ones out there?

 

Wizards’ Bradley Beal: Thunder considered trading James Harden for me on draft day 2012

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The first three picks of the 2012 NBA Draft, which was held in June:

1. New Orleans Hornets (now Pelicans): Anthony Davis

2. Charlotte Bobcats (now Hornets): Michael Kidd-Gilchrist

3. Washington Wizards: Bradley Beal

That August, the Thunder reportedly offered to trade James Harden to Washington for Beal. Washington reportedly rejected the offer due to Harden’s desire for a max contract extension (which Wizards owner Ted Leonsis denied). The Rockets were more than willing to pay Harden, and Oklahoma City dealt him to Houston that October.

Apparently, Washington had a chance to land Harden earlier that offseason.

Beal on “All The Smoke:”

We’re sitting in the draft room. Sure enough, my agent is tapping me. He’s like, “It’s possible you might go to OKC.” I said, “Damn, how am I going to go there? I ain’t even worked out for OKC.” I only worked out for three teams – Washington, Cleveland and Charlotte.

So, the deal was to trade James to Washington, right? OKC gets the third pick. It was either the second or third pick. They were going to trade up to 2 or 3, get me, trade James to Washington.

I would have been in OKC with KD and Russ.

That was a last-minute decision. It was almost done.

I can’t tell whether Beal is also revealing a Harden-to-Charlotte offer or just got mixed up on which teams held the Nos. 2 and 3 picks. Obviously, if Beal was the main prize to the Thunder, they would’ve cared only minimally whether they got him with the No. 2 or No. 3 pick. So, there might have been trade talks with Charlotte, too.

But I’m not convinced Oklahoma City valued Beal that way.

The Thunder were a championship contender. They had just lost in the 2012 NBA Finals to the Heat. Oklahoma City couldn’t have depended on a rookie Beal to contribute on that level.

That’s why – in addition to picks/young player acquired from the Rockets for Harden – the Thunder also got Kevin Martin. The veteran Martin was much better than Beal in 2012-13. (Ironically, the open title window was also a strong argument for just keeping Harden, whatever his contract status).

But the 2012-13 season didn’t go as planned for Oklahoma City. Russell Westbrook got hurt early in the playoffs, and the Thunder lost to the Grizzlies in the second round. Martin left for a lucrative contract with the Timberwolves the following summer.

Even with the long runway Kevin Durant and Westbrook provided, Oklahoma City never got back to the Finals. Beal could have grown into a third star whose shooting complemented the duo. The Thunder might have won a championship with this trade (or, again, just keeping Harden).

The Wizards almost certainly would have won more. Harden has perennially gotten the Rockets to the playoff. (They’ve gone further in years he has had more help.) Beal hasn’t singlehandedly carried Washington like that.

So, this is an interesting “what if?” – if you take it at face value.

Beal’s agent warning him of a trade possibility means something. But we don’t know which other pieces were involved.

The Thunder didn’t trade Harden until just before the rookie-scale-extension deadline, suggesting they wanted to give themselves time to extend him themselves before taking the drastic step of trading him. Would Beal have been enough of a return to give up in June (or even August) on keeping Harden? Maybe. Harden didn’t fully blossom until reaching Houston. But I’m skeptical. At minimum, Harden had already established himself as young and good. Beal was young, promising and under greater team control. There’s significant value in the certainty of a player being at least a near-star, and Harden – not Beal – had that.

Even in hindsight, we’re still revisiting the situation with only limited information.

Report: NBA games could resume in August, not July

Bucks center Brook Lopez and Raptors center Marc Gasol
Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images
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A week ago, the NBA was looking to resume games in July at Disney World.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

In fact, there’s a possibility the first games played in Orlando could be in August, not July, sources said.

It’s good the NBA is being flexible on a start date. The coronavirus presents so much uncertainty.

The league is approaching its most lucrative time – the playoffs. The NBA should make every effort to play the postseason, whenever that can be done safely.

Everyone can figure out next season later, especially because there’s a willingness to delay the start.

Report: Pistons searching for new general manager

Pistons executive Ed Stefanski
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The Pistons hired Ed Stefanski as a senior advisor to owner Tom Gores in 2018. Among Stefanski’s duties: Assist in the ongoing search for a new head of basketball operations. But it quickly became clear Stefanski would just run the front office himself.

Now, two years later, Detroit is finally getting around to that general-manager search.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

The Detroit Pistons are opening a search to hire a general manager to work with senior advisor Ed Stefanski, sources tell ESPN.

Stefanski will be working with Pistons and Palace Sports Vice Chairman Arn Tellem on the process to hire a GM, sources said.

Rod Beard of The Detroit News:

If Stefanski is still running the front office, a new general manager would be the No. 2 – equivalent to assistant general manager on many teams.

After taking over an inflexible roster left by Stan Van Gundy, Stefanski couldn’t do much. Stefanski’s big move was trading Andre Drummond to the Cavaliers just before the trade deadline. That positioned Detroit to have major cap space next offseason, but it’s unclear how much will actually materialize. The salary cap could drop due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Pistons must determine whether they’re still building around Blake Griffin, the 31-year-old due $36,810,996 and $38,957,028 the next two years. Last season, he returned to stardom and carried Detroit into the playoffs. This season, he missed most of the year due to injury.

If they’re trying to win now with Griffin, the Pistons are short on quality complementary players. If Detroit is ready to rebuild, its pool of young talent – Luke Kennard, Sekou Doumbouya, Bruce Brown, impending free agent Christian Wood, its own first-round pick – is hardly assured of success.

After years of being stuck on a path charted under the Van Gundy regime, the Pistons can soon pick a new course. This is the time get the front office up to full staffing.