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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.

Bradley Beal: Contract extension gives Wizards opportunity, me flexibility

Wizards guard Bradley Beal
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Bradley Beal, through word and action, has shown an incredibly strong commitment to the Wizards.

But is there an opening to pry him from Washington?

Beal on his contract extension, via “All The Smoke“:

It was definitely tough. I came down to damn near the deadline on my decision, because I kind of play devil’s advocate. The whole year, I’m weighing pros and cons of staying or leaving, signing and not signing. Do I wait and try to sign this summer? Or do I wait and try to get traded? Or do I wait and play my contract out? So, I had a bunch of options.

I secured two more years. I have two more years here. Well, three. And, so for me, it was like that puts me – to me, I don’t think I’m going to hit my prime until I’m – what? – 29, 28, 29, 30? And so I feel like – at the end of this extension, it puts me right there. And it so kind of puts me in the prime time of my basketball. And so it still gives me the flexibility with also giving my respects and loyalty to the organization that drafted me. So, I’m still giving you all an opportunity here to make it with work with John, to make it work with everybody. So, here we go. We’ve got a couple more years. And granted, I think my extension is the length of John’s contract, as well. So, this is the time we’ve got. We’re going to see what we can do, and we’re going to make it work.

Beal on the Nets being interested in trading for him, via Jackie MacMullan of ESPN:

“It’s not the first time I’ve heard this kind of talk,” Beal told ESPN. “It’s interesting. To me, I look at it as a sign of respect, that I’ve been doing good things and guys want to play with me.

“That’s an unbelievable feeling. When you hear that Kyrie [Irving] and KD [Kevin Durant] want you, s—, that’s amazing. At the same time, you don’t know how much there is to it, or how easy it would be to do. And I’ve put down roots in D.C. I’ve dedicated myself to this town, this community. I love it here, and it would feel great to know I could grind out winning here instead of jumping to another team.

“But I’d be naive to say that I don’t think about it when these stories come up.”

Beal, 26, is locked up two more seasons. Both he and John Wall have player options for 2022-23. Beal’s agent, Mark Bartelstein, declared: “There are no Beal Sweepstakes.”

Everything Beal has said and done about staying in Washington is far more concrete than anything he has indicated about leaving.

But…

It’s interesting how close he came to not signing his extension. It’s interesting he publicly admitted to thinking about trade interest from other teams.

To me, Beal sounds like Anthony Davis – after years of stating loyalty to the Pelicans – subtly hinting he was dissatisfied in New Orleans. The key: Davis requested a trade only after the Pelicans kept struggling to build around him.

Beal is giving the Wizards an opportunity. Maybe they can assemble a winner around him. But even if Wall gets healthy, that’s a tough job.

If Washington becomes successful in the next couple years, great. That’s easy. Beal seems to be looking for reasons to stay.

But if the Wizards keep losing the next couple years, other teams will definitely line up to acquire the star shooting guard. Many players in that situation have greased the wheels of their exit by saying they won’t re-sign or even outright requesting a trade.

We’ll see how Washington does. We’ll see what Beal does at that point.

Considering Beal previously said he’d finish his career with the Wizards if he can control it, these recent interviews leave the door cracked slightly – only slightly – more ajar for Beal to depart.

Report: NBA targeting July 31 to resume games

Raptors guard Kyle Lowry and Nets center Jarrett Allen
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Only one key question about the NBA’s resumption – Where? (Disney World) – had a fairly clear answer.

Who? Why? How?

Those all remain up in the air.

But we can now pinpoint: When?

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

July 31 is a Friday. So, that could begin a fun weekend of basketball.

But remember: Coronavirus can upend the best-laid plans. So, while feels like the resolution we’ve all been craving, it’s only a goal.

Still, it’s nice to have a date to look forward to.

Coronavirus exposes NBA’s late-season tanking wasteland

NBA lottery
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The Knicks won one game – one game! – in all of March 2019. So, they certainly proved their losing bona fides entering an April Fool’s Day matchup with the Bulls. But Chicago had a perfect counter: A starting lineup of Walt Lemon, Wayne Selden, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and Robin Lopez. The Bulls fell behind by 20 in the first quarter. Though New York gave 41 minutes to Damyean Dotson and used just three reserves (including Lance Thomas playing 31 minutes), it was too late.

The Knicks had been out-tanked.

***

These types of all-too-common ugly games are the subtext to the NBA’s coronavirus-crisis plans.

The league could resume by jumping straight into the playoffs or some enhanced postseason – either a play-in tournament or group stage – with 20-24 teams. All 30 teams returning has been discussed only as a cash grab. Continuing the regular season at all has been favored only as a ramp up to the playoffs.

But everyone finishing the regular season because it actually matters?

That’s a non-starter.

***

Sam Hinkie – who oversaw “The Process” with the 76ers – has become the face of tanking in the NBA. He took Philadelphia through an ambitious multi-year plan to lose a lot and reap the rewards.

In response, the NBA reformed its lottery. Now, there’s less incentive to finish with the league’s very-worst record.

But a team setting out to tank multiple seasons was incredibly rare.

The far more pervasive problem: Teams that enter a season trying to win, fail then pivot into tanking.

At that point, what is there to lose by, um, losing? Once out of the playoff race, the lure of a high draft pick is just too tempting. Even minor improvements in lottery odds come with the upside of a young franchise-changer. Additional wins carry minimal tangible value.

***

The NBA has spent more effort fighting discussion of tanking than tanking itself.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver defines tanking by its most narrow terms – players and coaches actively trying to lose games. But tanking manifests in other ways.

General managers trade away quality players. Teams become beyond cautious with injuries. Raw young players get more playing time. Coaches experiment with odd lineups. A general malaise sets in as everyone sees the true goal.

That’s why I define tanking as anything a team does intended, at least in part, to improve draft position by losing.

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when each team begins tanking. But official elimination from the playoff race is a generous starting point. Most tanking teams adopt the approach even earlier.

***

When the season was halted, 259 regular-season games remained. Far too few of those will be missed.

From the same point last year through the end of the season, 47% of games included a team already eliminated from the playoff race.

It was even worse the prior season. In the same time frame, 50% of games included a team already eliminated from the playoff race.

At best, eliminated teams have already traded their draft picks and have no incentive to lose. Even then, those teams have shown minimal desire to win.

At worst, teams are aggressively chasing better draft position. In 2018, an owner reportedly berated his coach for winning. George Karl said he had a similar experience while coaching. Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has repeatedly trumpeted tanking. Travis Schlenk acknowledged the Warriors tanked to get Harrison Barnes. Bryan Colangelo admitted the Raptors tanked under his watch.

Fans – wisely – feel let down when their already-lousy team wins to hurt it’s draft position.

That’s an awful setup.

***

Every so often, the NBA is forced to confront its annual tanking epidemic.

After the Pelicans denied Anthony Davis‘ trade request and kept him past the trade 2019 deadline, they had a standoff. Davis wanted to play. The Pelicans wanted to sit him. They preferred to tank for a better draft pick and protect their superstar asset in a lost season. Eventually, the NBA threatened to fine New Orleans, and the sides struck an imperfect compromise.

The year before, the NBA warned the Bulls to stop resting healthy players.

But coronavirus has shined a much brighter spotlight on the problem

It’d be practically criminal to force bad teams to quarantine, live in an isolated environment, risk injury after a long layoff, risk contracting and spreading coronavirus… just for games they want to lose, anyway. Damian Lillard put voice to the issue, saying he wouldn’t play if the Trail Blazers can’t make the postseason this year. The already-eliminated Warriors have made clear they prefer just to be done.

It’s obviously far more tolerable to play these games in normal times.

But the NBA ought to reconsider a system that creates so many games of awful product.

***

I still believe a draft that rewards losing teams is good for the NBA. It’s important to engage every fan base. If fans of a bad team can’t enjoy wins, at least they’ll have hope.

But the league should strike a better balance.

I’ve advocated for a system that improves draft position with early losses and late wins. Most teams enter a season trying to win, and those that fail would get draft help. But teams – from the top down – would also be incentivized to remain competitive throughout the season. Intentionally losing early then winning late would be a nearly impossible needle to thread.

There’s plenty to sort out – how to value early losses vs. late wins, when to flip the switch, etc. I’m even open to including a Silver favorite – a play-in tournament (that also boosts draft position for teams that win).

But, please: Do something to reduce the large number of late-season tank games.

This situation shows how frivolous they are.

Report: 75 percent of NBA GMs voted for play-in tournament, 25 percent group stage

Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka
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NBA commissioner Adam Silver is in charge during his league’s coronavirus crisis.

Because he governs through inclusion.

Throughout his tenure, Silver has sought the opinions of varying factions within the league. Not only has that given Silver better perspective, it has fostered trust in him. He’s not about to dump that method now.

So, the NBA surveyed general managers about how to proceed – asking questions about continuing the regular season, 1-16 seeding, a group stage and a play-in tournament.

Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer:

Half of the league’s general managers voted to go straight to the playoffs and cancel the rest of the regular season, sources said. Just over half of the league voted to reseed the playoffs 1 to 16 without factoring in conference affiliation.

General managers were surveyed about a “playoffs-plus” format—either a play-in tournament between the bubble teams to determine the final seeds in the playoffs, or a World Cup–style group stage, which would replace the end of the regular season and the first round of the playoffs with a round-robin format. About 75 percent of teams voted in favor of a play-in tournament, sources said, while 25 percent of teams voted in favor of the group stage.

Teams with top seeds, such as the West-leading Lakers and East-leading Bucks, are in favor of a play-in tournament, not a group stage, multiple league sources say.

Remember: Self interest is rampant in these votes. Just because Silver is soliciting opinions from general managers doesn’t mean he’ll implement their choices. Owners carry more weight, and Silver is scheduled to meet with them today.

I’m surprised so many general managers supported a play-in tournament. Silver couldn’t get that off the ground in normal times.

But if the choice were a play-in tournament or group phase – with no other options – that could explain it. Coronavirus has also obviously changed the equation. And again, general managers aren’t the owners who would’ve been voting for it in first place.

It’s also interesting the Lakers and Bucks – who’d face a play-in winner – favor a play-in tournament. Yes, a play-in tournament allows the possibility of teams less accomplished so far than the Grizzlies and Magic claiming the No. 8 seed. But a play-in winner would gain momentum in advancing to the playoffs. There’s a tradeoff.

Perhaps, Los Angeles and Milwaukee just believe more than 16 teams will continue and really loathe the uncertainty of a group phase.

All of this could be about the play-in tournament could being a less-undesirable option than a group phase.