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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.

Mark Cuban says no Mavericks player will wear No. 24 again in honor of Kobe

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Kobe Bryant never suited up for the Dallas Mavericks, but his impact on the NBA and Mark Cuban is undeniable.

As a tribute to Kobe — who died in a helicopter crash Sunday along with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others — the Mavericks’ owner announced that no player will wear No. 24 for the Mavericks again.

Kobe was a nemesis of the Mavericks — back in 2005 he scored 62 points on them in three quarters, outscoring the entire Mavericks’ team’s 61 points — but had earned the respect of their players. And owner. Cuban was part of a league-wide outpouring of both shock and love for Bryant upon the news of his untimely death.

Five Mavericks players have worn No. 24 before: Mark Aguirre (1982-1989), Jim Jackson (1993-1997), Hubert Davis (1998-2001), Pavel Podkolzin (2005-2006), and most recently Richard Jefferson (2015).

He will be the last.

Shaquille O’Neal says he’s ‘SICK’ over losing his brother, Kobe Bryant

Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal
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Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal will always be linked – as champions, as enemies and eventually as friends.

The historically great combination led the Lakers to a threepeat from 2000-2002. Their egos were too large for one team and, eventually, they broke up. But later in life, their bond – built through shared experiences – prevailed over distant grievances.

In the wake of Bryant’s tragic death, O’Neal shared his sorrow:

These photos span 17 years. Bryant and O’Neal went through so much together.

They were just settling into the next phase of their relationship – poking at each other while knowing an underlying affection existed. Disagreements had become more fun than biting.

It’s such a shame their ever-evolving relationship gets undercut so soon.

Michael Jordan: ‘Words can’t describe the pain I’m feeling. I loved Kobe’

Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan
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Kobe Bryant grew up idolizing Michael Jordan. Bryant styled his game after Jordan. Bryant even wanted to sign with Jordan’s Wizards. Though they never became teammates, Bryant still developed a brotherly relationship with Jordan.

In the wake of Bryant’s tragic death, Jordan shared a heartfelt message.

Bryant once said he wanted Jordan or Phil Jackson to present him at the Basketball Hall of Fame. It’s unbelievably sad Bryant’s impending induction will come posthumously. But Jordan would be such a fitting speaker about his brother.

Kobe Bryant, daughter die in helicopter crash

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Kobe Bryant, the legendary Laker star who was saluted by LeBron James on Saturday night, has died in a helicopter crash in Southern California.

The crash took place in Calabasas, an area about 30 miles northwest of the Staples Center, where Kobe starred as a player for more than a decade. It is not far from the Mamba Academy athletic training center where Kobe was both an owner and an active participant, and where he was reportedly headed to coach his daughter’s game.

The crash killed nine people, of which Kobe was one.

Kobe was 41. He and his wife Vanessa have four daughters. Kobe’s 13-year-old daughter Gianna was aboard the helicopter with Kobe (they were on their way to one of her basketball games, along with a fellow teammate of Gianna’s and her parent).

His death sent waves of sadness and shock around the NBA and beyond.

Bryant starred for 20 years in NBA

Kobe had a 20-year NBA career that will send him to the Hall of Fame (once he becomes eligible). He was a five-time NBA Champion, a 15-time All-NBA player, NBA MVP, two-time scoring champion, two-time Finals MVP, 18-time All-Star, a two-time Gold Medalist for Team USA, and a player who influenced a generation who came up after him. His work ethic was legendary and was part of what rubbed off on LeBron and many others.

He teamed with Shaquille O’Neal in a combustible partnership to lead the Lakers to NBA titles in 2000, 2001 and 2002. He later teamed with Pau Gasol to win two more titles in 2009 and 2010.

Bryant retired in 2016 after scoring 60 points in his final NBA game.

He stepped away from the game and focused on storytelling, which helped him win an Oscar in 2018 for the animated short “Dear Basketball.”

Kobe became synonymous with the Lakers and their brand — the loyalty Kobe generated with his fans was unmatched in the modern NBA.

Kobe’s death came just a day after LeBron passed him for third All-Time in NBA scoring.  LeBron talked about how he had grown up idolizing Kobe and the influence Kobe had on his life. Kobe’s last Tweet was about LeBron and, appropriately, the future of the game.

More details on the crash

From the AP story on his death:

Juan Bonilla of Calabasas said he was working on his roof Sunday morning when he heard a helicopter flying low nearby. He said he thought it was a sheriff’s helicopter on a training mission. He heard nothing amiss with the engine or rotors and said he did not see any mechanical issue with the chopper. It was foggy Sunday morning, but he said visibility didn’t seem to be low at the time of the crash.

Firefighters worked to douse flames that spread through about an acre (.40 hectares) of dry brush, said Art Marrujo, a dispatch supervisor with the Los Angeles County Fire Department.

Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Allen Kenitzer said the downed chopper was a Sikorsky S-76.

The National Transportation Safety Board sent a “go team” of investigators to the site. The NTSB typically issues a preliminary report within about 10 days that will give a rough summary of what investigators have learned. A ruling on the cause can take a year or more.

“They will look at man, machine and environment,” said Gary C. Robb, an aviation attorney in Kansas City who wrote a textbook on helicopter-crash litigation.

“They will look at the pilot – was there any indication of fatigue, any indication of a training issue?They’ll scour his or her record,” Robb said. “They will look at this helicopter from stem to stern. They will take the engine to the NTSB metallurgical laboratory outside Washington, D.C., and examine it to see if there was something that malfunctioned in flight.”

Investigators will also consider what role might have been played by weather, terrain, radio towers or bird strikes, he said.

Robb said he has handled many cases involving Sikorsky S-76 crashes and regards the machine as having a good reputation.

“It is generally regarded as a good helicopter with a good safety record,” he said, “but parts fail, parts break. Anything can happen.”