Time to stop sleeping on the Phoenix Suns

Golden State Warriors v Phoenix Suns
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LOS ANGELES — Last season, the Suns were the 64-win championship favorite in April, until they weren’t in May.

By the time predictions for this coming season rolled around in October, the Suns were almost an afterthought. Not bad, but barely discussed.

That was a mistake — watching the Suns in person, it quickly becomes clear this team is a title contender. This season. Again.

Just ask the Warriors, who fell to the Suns on Tuesday night, 134-105.

Phoenix has its superstar in Devin Booker, whose numbers from the first week of the season — 32.5 points per game while shooting 48% from 3 — show him taking a step forward from his All-NBA level a year ago. The Suns also have a high-level two-way center in Deandre Ayton, athleticism with shooting and defense on the wing in Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson, good depth off the bench, plus arguably the highest basketball IQ player in the game at this point in Chris Paul to tie it all together.

This year’s Suns remind anyone who watches them of the 64-win team we saw last season.

So why is every preseason prediction down on them?

Maybe it’s because the historic, embarrassing blowout that ended last season for the Suns is burned into our memory. The team’s 33-point destruction — at home in a conference semifinals Game 7 — at the hands of the Mavericks was even worse than the final score indicated.

The Suns remember that loss, too.

“[Booker] and Chris worked out a lot this summer…” coach Monty Williams said. “But I think we all still feel the pain of the way we went out. And that can drive you. It doesn’t mean you’re going to win it, but it certainly will motivate you to work on things you need to work on and address things you need to address.”

“I think it definitely motivates us,” Paul added.

Dallas Mavericks v Phoenix Suns - Game Seven
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“We also understand how important but unimportant these [regular-season] games are. You know what I mean? We understand it’s about building — 60-something wins last year don’t mean nothing. So right now we just try not to get too high, not get too low. Keep building.”

That building has started on the defensive end. It’s early, but the Suns have a top-five defense in the league to open the season. This follows the pattern of the past two years, when the Suns had top-10 defenses, and it’s not hard to see why. They have a strong perimeter defender in Bridges, athleticism all over the court, CP3 is still solid at his position and can create some steals, and there is a solid rim protector in Ayton backing him up.

Booker used to be the easy target for his defense, but he put in the work on that end. The best evidence is in his improvement in defensive estimated plus/minus (there is no great, public defensive statistic, but the EPM at Dunks & Threes is the one people in NBA front offices say may be the best of the lot). Booker was a minus defender most of his career by this stat, but steadily improved, and last season was +.03 — basically a neutral defender.

Or, ask Klay Thompson how Booker has improved as a defender — Thompson was 1-of-8 shooting against the Suns on Tuesday — and knew how to get under his skin and get Thompson ejected for the first time in his career.


Booker remains the spark on offense, putting up monster numbers to open the season.

“I think he’s not just a special player, but he’s an elite competitor,” Williams said of Booker. “I’ve never seen him back down from anyone, any situation. And that’s what impresses me just as much as the scoring and the defensive plays that he makes.”

The Suns’ offense overall is still a work in progress. The halfcourt offense was pedestrian the first couple of games but has improved, and the Suns play at one of the slowest paces in the league (as is traditional with Chris Paul teams). The ball is moving in the half court, the Suns are second in the league in assisted field goals, but they aren’t consistently finishing at a high level. Outside of Booker, the offense feels solid so far but not necessarily elite.

Maybe that’s the other reason we all slept on the Suns.

Every time we heard about Phoenix during the summer, it concerned the indiscretions of owner Robert Sarver (who will now sell the team). While much of the rest of the West upgraded rosters, the Suns stood pat and bet on internal growth. So far, that internal growth is only showing up in moments.

Williams wants his team now to focus on that growth, on building good habits over the course of the season now that will prevent a blowout loss in the playoffs. Williams is comfortable with the work his players put in over the summer, but it’s time for them to move on from last season’s pain.

“You let it go for sure,” Williams said of last year’s playoff exit. “Because once the season starts, it’s a new deal. But the summer is hard. You live in that kind of hurt and whatever that is. It can motivate you to work your tail off even more than you already would have.

“But once the season starts, it’s like, OK, there’s new challenges. But I bet everybody that was in that locker room [who is] in our locker room now dealt with that. Thought about it all summer… Once you start the season, then you have new challenges and different teams that are coming into your head, but it can be a great motivator for some.”

Ayton put it more bluntly.

“I’m not talking about last year, only this year,” he said after his Suns beat the Clippers.

Four games into the season, the Suns sit at 3-1 (their only loss in the last seconds to red-hot Portland). Quietly, this team is motivated to prove last season’s ending was an anomaly. That one bad game is not a symptom of something bigger.

However, the real test can’t happen until the postseason. The Suns understand that and are building toward that moment.

Until then, sleep on the Suns at your own peril.

It’s not just Harden, Rockets reportedly eyeing VanVleet, Lopez, Brooks

New York Knicks v Toronto Raptors
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The Houston Rockets are done rebuilding, ownership and management want to shift gears to picking up some wins and making the playoffs. That means using their league-best $60 million in cap space to add difference-making veterans to the young core of Jalen Green, Alperen Şengün, Jabari Smith Jr. and whoever they draft at No. 4 (if they keep the pick).

And it’s not just James Harden they are going after, reports Jake Fischer at Yahoo Sports.

…sharp-shooting center Brook Lopez, is a veteran free agent on Houston’s radar, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

There will be no shortage of players on the market connected to the Rockets between now and the opening of free agency June 30… The Rockets, though, are prioritizing adding a proven table-setting point guard, then looking to acquire upgrades at the wing and center position, sources said. And for that, should Harden ultimately stick with the 76ers, Raptors point guard Fred VanVleet has often been linked to Houston as a secondary option who could perhaps slot into the team’s lead ball-handling role.

On the wing, the Rockets do hold an interest in sharpshooter Cam Johnson, sources said, although Brooklyn personnel has indicated the Nets’ plan to match any realistic offer sheet for the restricted free agent, who was part of the franchise’s return for Kevin Durant. Dillons Brooks, last seen as Memphis’ starting small forward, is another Rockets target, sources told Yahoo Sports, and appears to be a more realistic candidate to join Houston this summer.

There’s a lot to digest there.

Milwaukee is facing some hard decisions as their championship roster is getting old and expensive fast, with the restrictive new CBA’s second tax apron looming. As Fischer notes, the Bucks are expected to extend Khris Middleton, who is owed $40.4 million next season (player option), and Jrue Holiday is extension eligible soon. Lopez will demand a big salary, he finished second in Defensive Player of the Year voting and is a floor-spacing big who averaged 15.9 points per game last season. The Bucks would struggle to win without him, but at age 35 how will that contract age?

A lot of teams are eyeing Fred VanVleet and Toronto wants to keep him, he will have options. A lot of teams are watching Cam Johnson as a restricted free agent, but the Nets like him as part of their future and are not expected to let him walk. Dillon Brooks will not be back with the Grizzlies as a free agent, and for all the drama he is an elite on-ball defender and energy player who could help the Rockets.

Houston needs the James Harden domino to fall, then they can see what they have left to spend elsewhere. But one way or another, that will be a very different roster next season.

Three things to watch in Game 3, starting with who wins the fourth quarter


MIAMI — After looking flat in Game 1, the Heat got some rest, acclimated to the altitude, and looked like themselves in Game 2 — particularly in the fourth quarter. Miami had a game reminiscent of the Boston series, and when it was done the NBA Finals were tied 1-1.

Can Denver bounce back in Game 2? The Nuggets are facing adversity they have not seen yet this postseason — they were up 2-0 in every other series — and the question is how will they respond? That and how well will Miami shoot the 3-pointer?

Here are three things worth watching.

1) Who wins the fourth quarter?

While the Heat’s 48.6% 3-point shooting in Game 2 was at the heart of their win, the question shouldn’t be can they repeat it? Of course they can. It’s why they are still playing. They have seven games this postseason shooting 45+% from 3.

However, there is one other key factor in this series: The fourth quarter.

Through two NBA Finals games, the Denver Nuggets are +29 in the first three quarters but are -21 in the fourth.

Nuggets coach Michael Malone is no fan of the trend — and he had the stats to back himself up.

“If you really want to simplify the first two games, in the first three quarters we have dominated both games. The Miami Heat are dominating the fourth quarter,” Malone said, “They’re averaging 33 points a game in the fourth quarter, shooting over 60% from the field in the fourth quarter and over 50% from three.”

Malone was just getting started.

“I’ve got a great stat: I think quarters one through three after two games, we had around 19% of our possessions were [shots] at the end of the shot clock, last seven seconds,” Malone said. “In the fourth quarter of Game 1 and 2, that jumps from 19% to 32%.

“Which means we’re taking the ball out of the net, we’re walking it up, we’re playing against the zone and we’re getting caught playing in really late-clock situations, which is hurting our offense.”

Miami’s late-game dominance goes back to the regular season, when they had the second-best net rating in the clutch of any team in the league. It has continued through the playoffs, starting with against the Bulls in the play-in — when the Heat had to come back in the fourth just to be in the playoffs, — and has been a through line to the NBA Finals.

This is not going to be a series won in blowouts, there will be more games decided in the fourth quarter and the clutch. If Denver can’t figure out the final frame starting in Game 3, they will be in trouble this series.

2) Can Heat keep Nikola Jokić from being an assist machine

The Miami Heat need to make Jokić a scorer.

Erik Spoelstra hates that phrasing and Nikola Jokić says he’s just playing the game, not thinking about it that way. Fine. We’ll put it this way:

The Heat can’t allow Jokić to become an assist machine.

Phrase it any way you wish, but if Jokić is allowed to score and dish the Heat will not be able to keep up with the Nuggets offense. Put simply, if Jokić scores 35+ points but has around five assists, the Heat have a chance to win. But if he scores around 25 points but with 10+ assists, if Denver is raining down scoring from everywhere, Miami will not be able to keep up.

The Heat plan is a lot of Bam Adebayo and to keep giving Jokić different looks.

“He can go through two or three coverages and figure it out in a matter of, up and down, up and down,” Adebayo said, nodding his head up and down. “He’s already read the game, reading the game. So the biggest thing for us is switching up the coverages and having him see different looks.”

3) It’s all about the Heat shooting

It’s simple and reductive, but it’s been true thought the playoffs and continues into the Finals: When the Heat hit their 3-pointers at a 40%+ clip, they win. It was true in Game 2, and it’s how Miami can keep pace with Denver.

Game 2 was not some shooting aberration, the Heat can keep doing this and the Nuggets know it.

“They are shooting against Milwaukee 43%. They are shooting against Boston 40-something percent,” Jokić said. “They have good shooters, and that’s why they are so deadly and dangerous, because you cannot leave them open.
“Yes, the first game Max [Strus] and Caleb [Martin] didn’t shoot well. But we know they’re going to be better. We just need to don’t give them wide-open looks. They are two great shooters that at least they need to see somebody in front of them, not just a basket.”

That was the theme from Denver — get out and contest. Make it tougher. Use the Nuggets’ length and size advantage to challenge them. The problem is the Heat have shot incredibly well on contested 3s on the night their shots are falling, and with the comfort level their role players have at home it may not matter who is in their face.

Lakers question coming in August: Extend Anthony Davis, or wait?

2023 NBA Playoffs - Denver Nuggets v Los Angeles Lakers
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Anthony Davis had an incredible playoff run: 22.6 points and 14.1 rebounds a game while looking like the best defender in the league. It was a reminder of why he has a championship ring and what he is capable of when healthy.

Coming off that, should the Lakers offer him a contract extension?

Davis is under contract for $40.6 million next season, with an early termination option (essentially a player option) for the 2024-25 season for $43.2 million. Come August, the Lakers can offer Davis an extension of up to three years, $167 million (approximately, it would depend on the official salary cap numbers).

Should the Lakers? ESPN’s Brian Windhorst reported on Get Up that locking Davis up so he can’t test free agency in 2024 will be a priority and they will extend him. However, on Sedano and Kap on ESPNLA, ESPN’s Lakers beat writer Dave McMenamin was more cautious. (Hat tip Real GM.)

“Certainly, the Lakers’ thinking ever since they acquired Anthony Davis is that it’s an Anthony Davis, LeBron James combo deal. With LeBron James only under contract for sure for another year with a player option the following year., and with him openly contemplating retirement at this stage of his career… But you just don’t do it. You play out this year with him. You see where things stand with him and LeBron. Obviously, then you risk the second year he has left, he can opt-out and leave as a free agent…

“You hope Anthony Davis stays healthy and you get the best out of him next year. But I don’t think they’re going to be in a position to be interested in a long-term extension for him this summer.”

At its core, this comes down to LeBron James and his future. If he retires, leaves, or in whatever way is not on the Lakers after the summer of 2024, as great as Davis can be, he is not the No. 1 option the Lakers would want to rebuild around. At that point, the Lakers would want to move on, although trading Davis (or completing a sign-and-trade) would be the Lakers’ preferred option, bringing back pick and young players to help jumpstart whatever comes next.

If LeBron is still a Laker in 2024-25, the Lakers would want Davis on the roster.

It’s not an easy decision for the Lakers, but with an increasingly strict CBA looming, it’s understandable if the Lakers want to wait and see how this season plays out before committing to Davis.

James Harden reportedly ‘torn’ over Philadelphia vs. Houston

2023 NBA Playoffs - Boston Celtics v Philadelphia 76ers
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Reports of James Harden strongly considering a Houston reunion have grown stronger throughout the season, with reporting on it here at NBC Sports and across the NBA media universe.

But would Harden really leave a contending team in Philadelphia to go to a rebuilding Houston team? He appears torn on his decision, Shams Charania of The Athletic said on The Ryen Russillo Podcast (hat tip Real GM).

“We’re less than a month out from free agency starting. I really think he’s torn with the prospect of staying in Philadelphia or moving on to Houston potentially and returning back to his home. That’s where his roots are and his family there of course. They’ve got upwards of $60 million [in cap space]. They can make even more money available. Close to $70 million in cap space. They’re going to have a ton of money and I think this is a team in Houston where I do believe they are going to be aggressive in the marketplace…

“My sense right now is this is someone that is torn. I think whichever way it goes, it’s going to be relatively close. That’s why as we get closer to July 1, June 30th, those conversations that he’s going to have, as he becomes a free agent, with Nick Nurse [the new 76ers coach] and with Daryl Morey, what their vision is for him, what their vision is for that team, what that offer ultimately is going to be versus comparing it to whatever Houston comes with on June 30th or July 1, those are all very important factors. This is a guy that you would assume would sit down with both teams. Philadelphia is going to have a window earlier, potentially going in and scheduling meetings. This is a situation now where we’re going to see which way it lands.”

Both league sources NBC Sports has spoken with and other media members traveling with the NBA Finals — Harden has been a topic of conversation over meals — think Houston is the frontrunner. There is almost an expectation in league circles that Harden will be a Rocket next season, though nobody feels anything is decided.

Is that the right move for the Rockets? They have an interesting young core with whoever they draft at No.4 plus Jalen Green, Alperen Şengün, Kevin Porter Jr., Jabari Smith Jr., Tari Eason and others, but it’s not got a group ready to win a lot of games on the NBA level yet. The Rockets have been through three years of a rebuild and the reports are ownership wants to start seeing wins and a playoffs trip. Harden gets them closer to that now, but at what cost to building a long-term winner and culture?

The ball is in Harden’s court. The only real questions are, has he decided, and how much would the Rockets offer? (The max is four years, $201 million, but do they want to pay him $50 million a season for four years with where his skills are currently and are trending?)