Three things to know: Chris Paul, Suns make case they are best in West


The NBA season has less than six weeks to go, and we will be here each weekday with the NBC Sports daily roundup Three Things to Know — everything you might have missed in the Association, every key moment from the night before in one place.

1) Chris Paul, Suns make case they are best in West

Some Phoenix fans are frustrated. They see their team having the best season since Steve Nash and Mike D’Antoni revolutionized the game, and they feel disrespected. Those fans focus on stories about how Chris Paul could leave after the season or how other teams out West want to be on the Suns’ side of the playoff bracket because they are seen as an easier target.

Welcome to life atop the NBA, Suns fans. Gone are the plucky underdogs everyone loved in the bubble. Life on top of the league is often a discussion of what weaknesses could trip a team up in the second round of the playoffs and beyond, and often less on how well you’re playing during the doldrums of the season. Consider it a sign you’ve arrived.

A bit of advice: Savor this season. Don’t get caught looking to future seasons or focused on a discussion of goats from the past. Enjoy what you have, read the numerous positive stories about your team, and live in the moment.

Savor wins like the one against Utah on Wednesday, a showdown of the West’s top two teams on national television.

What is Chris Paul’s secret in transforming the Suns’ offense? Clearly, it’s the Space Jam Secret Stuff.

Also, it’s something as simple as balance.

Chris Paul brought balance to Monty Williams’ “five-point” Suns’ offense and to Devin Booker‘s game. You can see CP3’s influence in Phoenix — the slower pace and very deliberate halfcourt offense, the high IQ use of the high pick-and-roll — but Phoenix maintains the selfless Spursian touches Williams brought with him to the Valley of the Sun. CP3 is just better at orchestrating that offense because he is a threat to score (something Ricky Rubio was not a season ago) and because he takes some of that play creation pressure off All-Star Devin Booker, who is taking more spot-up or one-dribble shots and can pick his spots to run the offense.

Phoenix has a +7.1 net rating when Paul and Booker share the floor. Paul still dominates the ball, but the defenses focusing on him gives Booker just a sliver of extra space, and that’s all he needs to get a bucket.

With that duo leading the way, they take fewer shots at the rim than last season but replace them with threes — and they knock down those shots at a higher rate — giving the offense a boost. While the Suns are taking more mid-range shots, too, Paul and Booker are two players so dangerous from their spots in that range it’s a good look.

The Suns are where they are because Mikal Bridges has grown into a prototypical modern NBA wing player (and when he was having an off night against Utah Wednesday, Williams could go to Cam Johnson and get solid play), and Deandre Ayton has become a forceful presence in the paint on both ends of the court. Jae Crowder has brought veteran intensity and shooting, and CP3 and Dario Saric have shown real chemistry at points. The Suns are deep with players Williams can trust, and that gives him versatility late in games to go with the hot hand or matchups that work.

The Suns are a top 10 offense and defense in the NBA this season — one of the statistical markers of a contender. Yet, because of CP3’s playoff history and the fact Booker, Ayton, Bridges, and the rest of the young Suns are untested in the postseason, they will be seen as a target. We all know what Damian Lillard, Luka Doncic, LeBron James, and Kawhi Leonard can do in the playoffs, and other teams fear them for good reason. These Suns have to earn that level of respect, and it can’t be done in April this season.

Don’t focus on that right now, however. Just savor the wins as they come.

2) Kevin Durant returns, scores 17, Nets cruise to win

Nobody knows when Brooklyn’s three stars will get healthy, get on the court at the same time, and potentially form Voltron then overpower the league.

What we know is the Nets, with two-thirds of their stars, still win a lot of games, as Brooklyn did easily over New Orleans on Wednesday. The news in this game was Kevin Durant’s return — he came off the bench, scored 17 points on 5-of-5 shooting, and looked closer than maybe expected to getting his form back after missing 23 games with a hamstring injury.

It wasn’t all KD in this one, the Nets did a good job protecting the rim against Zion Williamson (he shot 4-of-12), and Blake Griffin did this.

Brooklyn is back on top in the East, and that matters this season — there are three elite teams in the East (Nets, 76ers, Bucks) and the top seed only has to face one of them in the playoffs, not both.

New Orleans needs to find some wins fast to make the play-in games.

3) Dunk of the Night: Kyle Anderson off the glass to Ja Morant

While you were ignoring Memphis, they have quietly gone 26-23 on the season, they have won 5-of-6, they have a top-10 defense and one of the game’s elite young playmakers in Ja Morant.

Oh, and the Grizzlies can do this.

Memphis is expected to get Jaren Jackson Jr. back around the end of the month; they will be a tough out for someone in the playoffs. This is a good team nobody is talking about.

Brad Stevens confirms Joe Mazzulla will return as Celtics coach


Despite the sting of losing to the No. 8 seed Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals, don’t expect sweeping changes in Boston. Not to the Celtics’ coaching staff and not to the roster.

Celtics president of basketball operations Brad Steven made that clear in his end-of-season press conference. It starts with bringing back Joe Mazzulla, which was expected after he was given a multi-year contract extension during the season. Stevens was asked if Mazzulla was the right person to lead the Celtics after an uneven season (hat tip NBC Sports Boston).

“Yeah, I think he is,” Stevens said. “I thought he did a really good job with this group. Everybody’s going to overreact to the best players and coaches after every game. That’s always the way it is. We know that going in, so we have to be able to judge things on the whole.

“He’s a terrific leader, he’ll only get better at anything that he can learn from this year, because he’s constantly trying to learn. And he’s accountable. Those leadership qualities are hard to find. I know they’re easy to talk about, but when you can show all those through the expectations and the microscope that he was under, that’s hard to do. Our players, our staff, everybody around him believe(s) in him, and we’ve got to do our best to support him going forward.”

The expectation is that veteran coaches — ideally at least one person with NBA head coaching experience — will be added to Mazzulla’s staff to help with the maturation process of the young coach. But he will be back.

Stevens also was asked about Jaylen Brown, who is eligible for a supermax extension of around $295 million over five years (his making All-NBA made him eligible for 35% of the salary cap). Stevens was limited in what he could say due to (archaic) tampering rules.

“I’ve had nothing but great conversations with Jaylen, but we can’t talk about all that stuff,” Stevens said. “I’m not allowed to talk about the contract details, let alone the extension because it’s not of that time yet right now. His window is between July 1 and October or whatever it is.

“But I can say without a doubt that we want Jaylen to be here. He’s a big part of us. We believe in him. I’m thankful for him. I’m really thankful for when those guys (Jayson Tatum and Brown) have success, they come back to work. And when they get beat, they own it and come back to work. I know that’s what they’re about, and that’s hard to find. Kinda like what I talked about with leadership earlier. Those qualities aren’t for everyone. Jaylen had a great year, All-NBA year and he’s a big part of us moving forward in our eyes.”

Despite Brown’s struggles against the Heat, it’s a no-brainer for the Celtics to retain the 26-year-old All-NBA player entering his prime. They should offer him the full supermax, and his public comments made it sound like that’s what he expects. Mess around in negotiations and try to get Brown to take less than the full max and then the threat of Brown leaving becomes more real. Only one player has ever rejected a supermax extension: Kawhi Leonard when he was trying to force a trade. (If Boston puts the full 35% max on the table and Brown rejects it, then the game changes and they have to trade him this summer, but don’t bet on him walking away from more than a quarter of a billion dollars).

There will be changes on the Celtics roster, but expect Brown and Mazzulla to return.

Purdue’s Zach Edey headlines list of players to withdraw from NBA Draft

Fairleigh Dickinson v Purdue
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The winner of the 2023 John R. Wooden Award and the Naismith College Player of the Year Award is headed back for another year in the college ranks. And it’s the right move.

Zach Edey headlines the list of 181 players who withdrew their names from the NBA Draft, and he is headed back to Purdue for another season. He confirmed it on Twitter in his own way.

Edey averaged 22.3 points a game on 60.7% shooting and 12.9 rebounds a game last season for the Boilermakers, and his measurements at the NBA Draft Combine were hard to ignore — 7-3¼ barefoot, with a 7-10½ wingspan. However, his lack of elite athleticism, questions about his ability to defend in space, and an old-school, near-the-basket game are not natural fits with where the NBA is trending. He was expected to get picked in the back half of the second round (meaning no guaranteed contract), if at all.

With that, he made the right decision to return to college. If the Toronto native can arrange a new student visa that allows him to better capitalize on NIL money, a return to Purdue is likely the right financial decision as well.

Here are some of the biggest names among the 181 who withdrew from the NBA Draft (via Jonathan Givony of ESPN), with all projected to go after No. 40 or later:

Trey Alexander (Creighton)
Reece Beekman (Virginia)
Adem Bona (UCLA)
Jalen Bridges (Baylor)
Tristan da Silva (Colorado)
Zach Edey (Purdue)
Coleman Hawkins (Illinois)
DaRon Holmes (Dayton)
Josiah-Jordan James (Tennessee)
Dillon Jones (Weber State)
Judah Mintz (Syracuse)
Dillon Mitchell (Texas)
Terrence Shannon (Illinois)

The NBA Draft takes place on June 22.

Lakers rumored to prefer sign-and-trade options for D’Angelo Russell, eye Fred VanVleet

2023 Play-In Tournament - Chicago Bulls v Toronto Raptors
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D'Angelo Russell helped the Lakers turn their season around after the All-Star break. He provided needed shot creation at the point, averaged 17.4 points per game while shooting 41.4% from 3, and generally fit nicely on the court. However, his limitations — particularly on the defensive end — were exposed in the playoffs, especially by the Nuggets in the Western Conference Finals.

Russell is an unrestricted free agent and the Lakers are faced with choices: Re-sign him, let him walk, or maybe find a sign-and-trade that can bring back a player who is a better fit for a Lakers roster with championship aspirations next season. The Lakers would ideally like the sign-and-trade option, suggests Jovan Buha of The Athletic.

My read on the situation is that the Lakers would prefer to use D’Angelo Russell in a sign-and-trade, but I’m not sure the market is there.

Landing Kyrie Irving for Russell is shaping up to be a pipe dream, especially with Dallas unlikely to help Los Angeles out. Fred VanVleet, a Klutch client, looms as a possibility, but adding him would require Toronto to agree to terms with Russell (or take on the Beasley and Bamba contracts).

Forget about a Kyrie Irving sign-and-trade with the Lakers for Russell, that appears off the table (unless the Lakers add so many sweeteners Dallas can’t say no… and didn’t the Lakers just gut their roster for a guard in Russell Westbrook?)

Dan Woike of the Los Angeles Times adds this.

Fred VanVleet’s name has been mentioned since even before he joined Klutch Sports, though the Lakers could again be in a position where they’d be forced to part with one or more draft picks in a deal. Russell’s postseason struggles were probably a little overblown after a disastrous Western Conference finals, but expect the Lakers to look at upgrade options. There’s still a chance Russell returns on a good deal and the Lakers actually get the continuity they’ve spoken about building.

VanVleet has a $22.8 million player option he is widely expected to opt out of seeking more money and years. He averaged 19.3 points and 7.2 assists a game last season, is a respectable defender, and is a former All-Star and NBA champion.

The questions start with, what are Toronto’s plans? They have yet to hire a new head coach after firing Nick Nurse, and there isn’t a sense of whether they will try to re-sign VanVleet, extend Pascal Siakam and run it back, break the entire thing up, or travel a middle ground reworking the roster. Dreams of a sign-and-trade only work if the Raptors play along. And, if the Raptors come around to consider a sign-and-trade for VanVleet, do they want Russell in that deal? Plus, the Lakers likely have to throw in the last first-round pick they can trade to get Toronto even to consider it.

All of which is to say, it’s a long shot VanVleet is a Laker. Not impossible, but not likely.

The smart money is on the Lakers re-signing Russell and considering trade options at next February’s deadline or next summer, if they feel it’s time to move on.

Celtics’ Payton Pritchard reportedly wants a trade this summer

2023 NBA Playoffs - Boston Celtics v Miami Heat
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Payton Pritchard saw his role as a reserve guard with the Celtics shrink this season, which may have had less to do with the changeover to Joe Mazzulla as coach and more to do with the addition of Sixth Man of the Year Malcolm Brogdon.

Either way, Pritchard doesn’t like it and wants to be traded this offseason, reports Jay King and Jared Weiss of The Athletic (in a must-read breakdown of the Celtics’ season and where they ultimately fell short.

With the new onerous CBA rules looming after next season, the front office will likely have to decide in the next 12 months whether it can afford its expensive veteran depth. Payton Pritchard has made it clear he hopes to be traded this summer, according to multiple team sources, so will the Celtics move him if they trade one of their core guards?

Pritchard may not get his wish for the financial reasons mentioned by King and Weiss — Boston has some hard decisions to make coming up. For next season, the Celtics are already $4 million into the luxury tax with 12 people on the roster, and that is without re-signing Grant Williams (if they can) or thinking about the super-max contract Jaylen Brown is about to sign that will kick in for the 2024-25 season. With the draconian threat of the second “lead” tax apron looming in a year, the Celtics must trim salary. One way to do that this summer is to trade one of Marcus Smart, Derrick White or Malcolm Brogdon, which is what is widely expected to happen around the league.

With one of those three gone, minutes open up for Pritchard, who has a team option for $4 million next season. That’s a great value contract the Celtics likely want to keep.

Meaning Pritchard may not get his wish to be sent out of Boston, but if he ends up staying, he should see more run next season.