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Three Things to Know: Phoenix has a plan and it’s working — it’s time to take them seriously

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Phoenix had a plan and it’s working — it’s time to take them seriously. It’s been hard to figure out precisely what the plan was in Phoenix the past couple of years. Sure, they had Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton, but what were they putting around those two? Was there a grand design?

Last season the Suns signed Trevor Ariza only to trade him for Kelly Oubre Jr., then also traded Ryan Anderson to Miami for Tyler Johnson. This past summer they flipped the No. 6 pick in the draft — turned out to be Jarrett Culver — to the Timberwolves for the No. 11 pick and Dario Saric, then they used that pick on Cameron Johnson (a guy older than Booker and considered a reach). Phoenix sent their 2020 first-round pick to Boston for Aron Baynes to be a backup center. There were two objectively smart moves, picking up point guard Ricky Rubio as a free agent, and signing Monty Williams to be the coach. Then this season started with a punch to the gut — Ayton got suspended 25 games (pending an appeal) for taking a banned substance, a diuretic.

Turns out, the Suns’ plan was to put a team of competent NBA players around Booker, then simplify the offense and defense but execute it all cleanly.

It works.

Quite well, thank you very much.

Phoenix had already beaten the Clippers this season, then on Monday they got another statement win knocking Philadelphia from the ranks of the unbeaten with a 114-109 victory.

Phoenix is 5-2 on the young season with the fourth-best net rating in the NBA (third best if you filter out garbage time as Ben Falk does over at Cleaning the Glass). The Suns are legitimate and — while it’s early, we’re not even 1/10th of the way into the season — Phoenix looks like a playoff team.

Devin Booker looks every bit the All-Star guard, getting revenge on those that thought he was simply an empty calorie guy who could get numbers but not help a team win. He certainly helped the Suns win on Monday with maybe his best game — 40 points on 15-of-19 shooting, while picking apart a good defensive team in the Sixers (granted, one without Joel Embiid due to suspension).

Whether the Suns can sustain this level of play is up for debate — right now they are the only team ranked in the top 10 in offensive and defensive net rating. But even if they come back to earth some, GM James Jones deserves some credit for having a plan and pulling it off — a plan that has the Suns looking like a quality team.

Phoenix hasn’t been to the postseason since 2010 when Amar’e Stoudemire and Steve Nash were running the remnants of seven seconds or less for Alvin Gentry. That looks like it will change this season, Phoenix is back. Things are looking bright in the Valley of the Sun.

2) Brandon Ingram dropped 40, but Kyrie Irving had 39 and Nets out-duel Pelicans for the win. This is what the Pelicans have done all season long — play hard, but come up just short. The Pelicans are 1-6 on the young season, but with the net rating of a 3-4 team. They just keep losing close games.

Monday night that happened against Brooklyn. Brandon Ingram continued his hot start for New Orleans (not coincidentally, in a contract year) and scored a career-high 40 on 17-of-24 shooting, but it wasn’t enough against Brooklyn, where Kyrie Irving dropped 39 on the gray floor.

Caris LeVert added 23 points and all five starters (plus Garrett Temple off the bench) scored in double digits for Brooklyn.

It wasn’t a surprise that the Pelicans didn’t really get serious in contract extension talks with Ingram, he had missed the end of last season with a blood clot issue and that scares teams because it can be career-threatening (Ingram’s was different from, for example, Chris Bosh’s situation, Ingram’s clot was in his arm, but it’s still a concern). Plus, Ingram had been up and down in Los Angeles, and there remain questions about how well he’ll fit next to Zion Williamson.

Ingram, however, has put in the work — his footwork and handles are lightyears ahead of his lanky, awkward rookie season — and it shows. His game is more fluid now. He is averaging 25.9 points a game this season, shooting 48.6 percent on five threes a game, and is grabbing 7.1 boards a night. He is playing like an All-Star. He’s playing like a guy who will get paid next summer, one way or another.

3) Grizzlies and Ja Morant vs. the Knicks RJ Barrett: how much should teams play rookies? There has become an interesting dichotomy this season, a real debate about how to handle a star rookie player:

Should teams be already thinking load management and watching the minutes of a potentially elite young player on a bad team? Or do you throw the guy out there and let him learn by doing as much as he can racking up minutes?

In Memphis, the plan is to bring Ja Morant along slowly. The No. 2 pick out of Murray State — where he played a lot of minutes because they didn’t have a choice if they wanted to win — is averaging 28 minutes a night, and has played more than 30 just once in six games. Morant is starting, being allowed to make mistakes and learn, and in those limited minutes is still averaging 19.5 points and 5.5 assists per game, shooting 50 percent from three (on two attempts per game). He has a PER of 20.3, which is insanely good for a rookie. Morant is everything that was advertised, a freakish young athlete with a great feel for the game. A franchise cornerstone kind of player.

The Grizzlies don’t want to burn Morant out, here is what coach Tyler Jenkins said, via The Athletic.

“We want to, for lack of a better phrase, put some money in the bank moving forward with him,” Jenkins said. “I’ve always been a big believer that when you start playing in the mid-30s, you kinda wear down. Our rookies, including him, have never played 82 games in a season.”

That’s a smart, practical, long-term thinking approach.

Then there’s David Fizdale with the Knicks.

RJ Barrett is averaging 37.1 minutes a game and is putting up counting stats — 18.3 points per game, 6.1 rebounds, he’s shooting 35.7 percent from three, and he’s also learning in a trial-by-fire kind of way. He’s just in the fire a lot more, which is how things have been done in the past in the NBA — and former players are good with that.

Hopefully so. But this approach also comes with more risk. The Knicks seem to have a wing in Barrett who can be a central part of whatever is ultimately built in New York — whatever other players come in via the draft and free agency — and they should be thinking about Barrett three years from now. Barrett can grow —  he struggled at points in Summer League, but he’s showing he learned from those experiences. That’s a very good sign.

So long as he doesn’t burn out. Or physically wear down (which makes a potential injury more likely).

Different players can handle different workloads, and they learn differently — there is no one-size-fits-all plan. However, David Fizdale seems to be taking an old-school approach in New York, whereas the Grizzlies seem to be more modern in their thinking about the long term.

We’ll see which philosophy pays off in the long run.

Former Celtic Guerschon Yabusele fined for not looking at flag during Chinese national anthem

Guerschon Yabusele
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Guerschon Yabusele washed out with the Celtics.

So, now the former first-rounder is playing in China – and running into trouble.

The Chinese Basketball Association fined him for not looking at the flag during the national anthem:

Though Yabusele is French, this comes amid heightened tension between the NBA and China. Most Americans will probably find it ridiculous that looking at the flag during the national anthem is required in authoritarian China.

Meanwhile, let’s ostracize anyone who dares not to stand for the Star Spangled Banner.

Portland reportedly applies for disabled player exception after Rodney Hood injury

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Rodney Hood‘s season coming to an end because of a ruptured Achilles was a real blow to Portland — he had become a critical part of their rotation. That has led to a lot of speculation about already shorthanded Portland jumping into the trade market soon looking for someone to absorb those minutes, as well as hitting the buyout market hard next February.

Portland is now looking for a little more money to spend to bring someone in, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

The “disabled player exemption” allows a team over some space to go after a replacement for a player lost due to injury. This is a fairly standard process and likely will be approved. Portland can use that money on a free agent (Iman Shumpert is available again) or someone bought out by another team.

Portland is 10-16 on the season, set back in part due to injuries to the front line. The Blazers knew Jusuf Nurkic would miss most of the season, and he was vital to them, but they were counting on Zach Collins to step up and absorb those minutes. Then he needed shoulder surgery. Portland eventually turned to Carmelo Anthony to help along the frontline, and he has performed well enough for them to guarantee his contract for the season.

Portland is going to be active, both looking at free agents and on the trade market. Just don’t expect a Kevin Love deal (he may want it but his contract makes that nearly impossible).

Rumor: Dwight Howard and Chris Paul stated intent to join Mavericks until Howard backed out

Chris Paul and Dwight Howard
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The Mavericks went from winning the 2011 NBA championship to missing the playoffs within two years.

Somewhat by choice.

Of course, they wanted to remain competitive. But they were willing to accept a lower floor to maintain financial flexibility. They let key players – most notably Tyson Chandler – leave in order to chase bigger stars.

Dallas was repeatedly linked to Chris Paul and Dwight Howard, who could’ve become free agents in 2012 but opted in. They finally hit the market in 2013, but once again spurned the Mavericks. Paul re-signed with the Clippers, and Howard left the Lakers for the Rockets.

Marc J. Spears of The Undefeated:

I really think that they, Chris and Dwight, basically wink, wink said they were going to Dallas, from what I’ve heard, and that Dwight backed out.

Word on the street. But we hear a lot of stories. That’s one story I’ve heard.

This is the peril of making arrangements in underground free agency. They’re unbinding. That was especially true with Howard, who waffled through the Dwightmare with the Magic. The Mavericks might have proceeded in the smartest way, but it backfired. Dallas is only now re-emerging upward with Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis.

This also creates a fun “what if?” How good would Dallas have been? Paul remained elite, but Howard and Dirk Nowitzki were slipping. Where would the Clippers have gone with Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan but without Paul? Would they still have held the credibility required to lure Kawhi Leonard and Paul George last summer? Where would Houston have turned without Howard as the star to pair with James Harden?

Serge Ibaka says he nearly goaltended Kawhi Leonard’s iconic shot: ‘I would’ve retired’

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Kawhi Leonard hit one of the biggest shots in NBA history – a buzzer-beater that bounced, bounced, bounced, bounced in during Game 7 of last year’s second-round Raptors-76ers series and propelled Toronto toward an eventual title.

Raptors forward Serge Ibaka, via Josh Lewenberg of TSN:

“I didn’t think it was going in. I was under the basket trying to go for the offensive rebound. The ball was bouncing and one time I was so close to going [for it]. Thank God I didn’t because it could have been goaltending. That would’ve been bad. I would’ve retired. If that had happened I would have retired.”

In hindsight, that would’ve been catastrophic. It would have been been bad at the time, too – but only so bad.

The Bucks, Toronto’s opponent in the Eastern Conference finals, looked better than the Raptors. The Western Conference-winning Warriors were widely viewed as invincible. Few would have thought Ibaka’s goaltend would’ve cost Toronto a championship.

Thankfully for him and the Raptors, we now know better.