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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+

Paul George scores 33 in Clippers debut, but it’s not enough to beat Pelicans

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Paul George expected to shoot well in his Clippers’ debut because his surgically repaired shoulders felt great.

It was the rest of his game – from ball handling to defense — that concerned him.

Jrue Holiday scored 36 points and stole the ball from George three times in the final minutes to lead the New Orleans Pelicans to a 132-127 victory over Los Angeles on Thursday night.

“I thought I was terrible,” said George, who was limited to 24 minutes by early foul trouble but still scored 33 points.

“That’s the best my shoulders have felt in a really long time, so I knew coming into tonight shooting wouldn’t be a problem,” George added. “Just playing basketball is what I’m lacking right now.”

George was playing for the first time since signing as a free agent with the Clippers because he’d been recovering from procedures in May on his right shoulder and June on his left.

“A lot of breakdowns happened because of my lack of being out there with those guys,” George said. “I’m here to win games and I didn’t get a win. … We had a chance to win tonight and a couple bad possessions in a row that we have down the stretch and we lose. That’s what I gauge good games and bad games on.”

Holiday, who had six steals in all, intercepted of Lou Williams‘ attempted bounce pass in the final seconds to seal the victory. The play capped off a night in which Holiday scored 12 in the final 4:20, including a pair of pivotal 3s.

“It felt good,: said Holiday, who hadn’t scored as many as 20 points in any of his previous eight games. It’s all about timing and rhythm. I felt like I got a little bit of that back tonight.”

Derrick Favors, in his first season with New Orleans, had 20 points and a career-best 20 rebounds in the first 20-20 game of his 10-year career.

“I’m starting to get comfortable now and just try to keep it going throughout the year,” Favors said. “It was a great game for me, a great game for the team, and we came out and played hard, but we just have to stay consistent.”

Frank Jackson added 23 points in a reserve role.

The Clippers played without Kawhi Leonard, who was being rested for the third time this season to ease stress on his sore knee after playing a night earlier in a loss at Houston. But the Pelicans were hardly sympathetic with starters Brandon Ingram (right knee) and Lonzo Ball (groin) sidelined, as well.

George’s 3 cut the Pelicans’ lead to 126-123 with 42 seconds left. But the Clippers left Jackson unguarded on the perimeter on the other end, and he took his time squaring up and connecting on his fourth 3 of the game to restore New Orleans’ six-point lead with 30 seconds left.

J.J. Reddick, who started and scored 19, hit two free throws with 11.4 seconds left to help wrap up just New Orleans’ third victory in 11 games this season.

Williams scored 31 points and Rodney McGruder 20 for the Clippers, who’ve dropped two straight.

 

Marcus Morris’ stepback three game-winner gives Knicks revenge in Kristaps Porzingis’ return

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The boos started during lay-up lines, grew deafening when he was introduced, and once the game got rolling “KP Sucks” chants echoed through Madison Square Garden.

Knicks fans wanted revenge on Kristaps Porzingis.

Marcus Morris — one of the guys New York spent all that cap space they got in the Porzingis trade on — gave it to them with a game-winning stepback three.

The Knicks beat the Mavericks 106-103.

Porzingis had 20 points on 7-of-17 shooting, plus 11 rebounds in his return to MSG. Not exactly a “you’re going to miss me” game to frustrate Knicks fans, but better than most of his games to start the season. After 20 months off, Porzingis is still shaking off the rust, and getting used to playing next to Luke Doncic (who had a triple-double of 33 points, 11 assists, and 10 rebounds). Still, he made some plays.

Morris had 20 for the Knicks leading a balanced attack. Julius Randle added 17.

From LeBron through Patrick Mahomes, everyone reacting to Carmelo Anthony return

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Carmelo Anthony is back in the NBA — he is signing with the Portland Trail Blazers.

While Anthony didn’t have a lot of love in NBA front offices, he remains wildly popular among other players and fans. Something obvious on NBA Twitter in the wake of the Anthony news breaking. Check out the reactions from other players.

It’s not just NBA players who were pumped about the return of ‘Melo.

There were also great fan and media reactions.

 

Portland reportedly signs Carmelo Anthony to non-guaranteed contract

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Off to an ugly 4-8 start this season — despite Damian Lillard tearing it up at an MVP level — the Portland Trail Blazers are desperate for any help in the frontcourt they can find, especially a four who can stretch the floor.

Enter Carmelo Anthony.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN broke the story.

He will join the team during its upcoming six-game road trip. Lillard is reportedly on board with this.

Portland visits Houston on Monday of that road trip — the last team that ‘Melo played for.

This is really a low-risk move by the Blazers thanks to the non-guaranteed contract. If it doesn’t work out, Portland just moves on.

Anthony has been searching for a path back into the NBA through most of last season — the Rockets let him go after just 10 games, deciding to part ways — and this past summer, with no takers until now. Two issues were holding teams back. First has been concern about his willingness to accept a role. ‘Melo is losing the race with Father Time and is no longer a top offensive option, yet he reportedly wanted to be treated like one — and get the touches of one. There were concerns he would be disruptive, something he (and the people around him) pushed back hard against.

The second issue was ‘Melo’s defense, which has gone from not good to dreadful. In an NBA where big men now have to cover more in space, Anthony has been exposed. And will be again.

Portland was in the right position to roll the dice on Anthony.

Portland has an elite backcourt led by Damian Lillard, who is averaging 30.5 points per game and carrying the offense. His backcourt partner CJ McCollum has struggled out of the gate, but Portland isn’t really worried about him finding his rhythm soon and getting back to being himself.

The frontcourt, however, has been a disaster. Jusuf Nurkic — their third-best player last season, and at points arguably their second-best — is out until likely after the All-Star break from a fractured leg that required surgery. The Blazers had hoped Zach Collins would take a step forward this season and fill that role both at the five and as a stretch four, but he is out four months following shoulder surgery. Pau Gasol was signed this summer but he has yet to step on the court and is battling a foot issue.

Hassan Whiteside was a big off-season signing, but he has played like he always has — sporadic effort and empty calorie stats. His inability to set a good pick has hurt the ability of Lillard and McCollum to find space. Beyond that, Anthony Tolliver and Skal Labissiere getting plenty of minutes.

In that context, adding Anthony to see if it can work out makes sense.

If not, the Blazers can just move on, but you know Anthony will be motivated to make this work.