Playoffs Notebook: Are the Suns contenders and other thoughts from around the NBA

Phoenix Suns v Los Angeles Clippers - Game Four
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While watching a second weekend of NBA playoffs — both in person and on television — I filled my notebook with thoughts from all eight series. Starting with the fact I still feel good about my pick of Boston in the East, but picking the Suns in the West… not so much.

• The first round has been a reminder that the playoffs often are less about how good your stars are and more about how glaring and exploitable your biggest weakness is. The Cavaliers, the Hawks, and the Timberwolves have gotten in trouble because of the places to attack in their rosters, the lack of depth their coaches can trust more than their stars.

• Along those lines, having watched the Suns in person for the last two games I’m having buyer’s remorse picking them to come out of the West (even if it was a “best of the bad options” pick). Devin Booker has been brilliant and Kevin Durant has been himself, and with that duo they can win any one game. But Chris Paul has looked old for stretches and Deandre Ayton is, well, Deandre Ayton. Monty Williams is still trying to figure out what rotations work and, despite some solid counting stats from Torrey Craig, nothing has worked consistently. The Suns are still dangerous, but their struggles against a shorthanded Clippers squad that often outworks them and plays with more cohesion speaks to inconsistency and a lack of depth. The Suns simply do not look like a Finals team.

• For the Cavaliers, there are holes but it’s also a little about the star — Donovan Mitchell was supposed to be the best player in this series but it has been Jalen Brunson and it’s not even close. Mitchell isn’t even the best player on his own team (Darius Garland was better on Sunday). Mitchell is averaging 22 points a game (down from 28.3) but his below-average 52 true shooting percentage (down from 61.4 in the regular season) is the real issue. Mitchell has played a slow game, pounding the ball while overlooking the defense, initiating the offense too slowly and relying too much on isolation and step-back 3s. He’s not attacking, he’s not breaking down defenses.

• The Cavaliers’ offense in general has been a mess, with their unimpressive 103.3 offensive rating on Sunday being the best of their three losses (they had a 115.5 offensive rating for the regular season, for comparison). Give the Knicks’ defense credit for some of that, but while J.B. Bickerstaff has talked about ball movement and second-side actions his shot creators dominate the ball and the offense is stagnant.

• On top of all that, the real advantage the Cavaliers were supposed to have was in the front court with Evan Mobley (third in Defensive Player of the Year voting with a growing offensive game) and former All-Star Jarrett Allen. But for most of this series, Mitchell Robinson has dominated them.

• Here’s what worries me about the Bucks (other than they are down 2-1 heading into Monday night, with Giannis Antetokounmpo expected to return): The Heat have a 124.3 offensive rating in this series. Just for comparison, the Kings led the NBA this season with a 119.4 offensive rating. The Bucks’ defense has looked lost and not championship ready.

• Denver looks like the front runners in the West for two reasons. The first is simple, they are healthy.

The second is they have figured out how to win the minutes Nikola Jokić is on the bench (their biggest issue for years). The Nuggets were +8 Sunday in those minutes and are +27 for the series. The Aaron Gordon at the five minutes has been solid. If Denver can sustain that next round — likely against Phoenix — they will be the team to beat in the West.

• Warriors fans will tell you they could be up 3-1 in this series if Andrew Wiggins had hit an open 3-pointer near the end of Game 1. Kings fans would say they could be going home up 3-1 if Harrison Barnes had hit a 3-pointer late on Sunday. Both are right, that’s just how close this series is.

• The Warriors know two things: 1) They have to win a game on the road this series; 2) They want no part of the randomness of a Game 7, especially in a place where the rabid fans pump up the Kings. Game 5 is their Game 7, expect the best these Warriors can give on Wednesday.

Will their best be enough? Before Sunday I would have said yes, but now I’m less convinced.

• Whatever happens the rest of this series, nobody sane is looking back at their “the Kings are the easiest path through the West” comments with any pride. This team is legit (and Lakers fans better be careful what they wish for).

• I understand the NBA wants four games a day on the weekend for television, but those early starts lead to some horrific shooting and decision making both days. We saw it clearly with the 76ers and Suns in the first halves on Saturday, and with the Knicks and Cavs on Sunday.

• Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins on their disaster of a first quarter Saturday night, where they looked rattled by the moment: “Hopefully our guys are learning from this. I mean, there’s no excuses. When you come in here on the road, we know we were walking into. We’ve just got to play better. That’s what it came down to. I thought we executed our coverages. well defensively, but when you’re missing shots, and we had turnovers, and they’re just thriving and transition, and you’re missing at that rate — I think we shot 12% or something like that in the first quarter — that puts you out behind the eight ball.”

• Back to the first point of this entire post, the playoffs are about weaknesses, and Dillon Brooks shooting 3-of-13 on Saturday is a major weakness for the Grizzlies. Memphis needs him to stay on the court for his defense but if he’s shooting like that — and the Lakers dared him to take all the shots he wanted — he’s a liability. Jenkins will have to rethink things if the Lakers can sag off Brooks on offense like that.

• The once again shorthanded Clippers are going to be bounced from the playoffs in the first round on Tuesday (Norman Powell and company have fought valiantly the last two games, but without their stars they can only do so much). What does that mean for them this summer? Expect the Clippers essentially to run this roster back. Talking to several sources around the league, that is the expectation right now, they have both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George under contract for next season and they showed enough flashes to tease (Leonard looked like a top-10 player for the two games he could go this postseason). Leonard and George are extension eligible this offseason, which poses some interesting questions.

• Brooklyn is out of the playoffs and expect some serious roster changes there. They love Mikal Bridges and the word is they will match offers for Cameron Johnson, but that could mean Dorian Finney-Smith and Royce O'Neale are available. It’s something to watch this off-season.

Edwards, Brunson, Reaves reportedly among commitments to play for USA at World Cup

2023 NBA Playoffs - Cleveland Cavaliers v New York Knicks
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Steve Kerr will be coaching a roster filled with some of the most engaging young stars of the NBA at the World Cup this summer.

Names are starting to leak out of who has accepted invitations to play for USA Basketball this August and September, and it feels like a who’s who of the best young players in the league: Anthony Edwards, Jalen Brunson, Tyrese Haliburton, Mikal Bridges, Austin Reaves and Bobby Portis.

This is just the start of the roster, but it is a young and athletic group that can shoot, move the ball and play at pace — deep wells of athleticism have long been one of the USA’s biggest strengths in international competitions.

The World Cup will feature 32 teams around the globe in an almost three-week competition. The USA is in Group C with Greece and Giannis Antetokounmpo (assuming he plays), New Zealand (Steven Adams, if he plays) and Jordan.

The USA will be coached in this World Cup by Kerr, Erik Spoelstra of Miami, Tyronn Lue of the Los Angeles Clippers and Mark Few of Gonzaga. The USA will meet for a camp in Las Vegas and play Puerto Rico there as a tuneup before heading to Abu Dhabi and eventually on to the World Cup in the Philippines. The World Cup starts Aug. 25 and continues through Sept. 10, and the U.S. will play all of its games in Manila.

The World Cup is the primary qualifier for the 2024 Paris Olympics (the USA does not automatically qualify as the reigning gold medalist). USA Basketball President Grant Hill has said that playing in the World Cup is not a prerequisite for playing in the Olympics.

Phil Knight says he still wants to buy Trail Blazers, still waiting for team to be available

Phil Knight Legacy Tournament - Mens Championship: Duke v Purdue
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Phil Knight — not a man known for his patience — is waiting.

The Nike founder still wants the chance to buy the Portland Trail Blazers to ensure they stay in Portland, reports Rachel Bachman of the Wall Street Journal. However, the team remains unavailable. More than a year ago Knight and Dodgers co-owner Alan Smolinisky reportedly offered more than $2 billion to buy the Trail Blazers. Jody Allen, who currently runs the team on behalf of her late brother Paul Allen’s estate, said there is no plan to sell the team right now, and it could be years.

Knight continues to try and buy the team, the Journal reports.

So Knight and Smolinisky tried again, according to a person familiar with their plans. On numerous occasions, including earlier this year, they made it clear to Jody Allen that they still wanted to make a deal. They indicated that they realized the price had gone up and that they were willing to pay more than their initial offer, this person said. Again, Knight’s calls to Jody Allen were diverted to Kolde [Bert Kolde is the Executive Vice President of Sports Strategy at Vulcan Inc., which owns the Blazers and Seahawks], and nothing came of the brief discussions.

A few months ago, Smolinisky even sent a handwritten letter to Jody Allen seeking common ground and saying he and Knight would love to discuss the Blazers with her, according to a person familiar with the matter. In response, Smolinisky received an email from someone replying on Jody Allen’s behalf with a familiar message: Paul Allen’s sports teams aren’t on the market.

Paul Allen died of cancer in 2018 and some reports say his will requires the Trail Blazers — as well as the NFL’s Seahawks — must be sold within 10 years of that date, with the money from the sales going to a variety of charitable causes. We are halfway into that window.

In the case of the Trail Blazers, it would be wise to wait until the new national broadcast rights deal — which is expected to double, at least, the league’s television revenue — is locked in, raising the franchise value. Values have already gone up, with the Phoenix Suns being valued at $4 billion when Mat Ishbia bought them last December.

In the short term, the Trail Blazers and their fans are focused on the NBA Draft, where they have the No. 3 pick but are reportedly open to trading that for the right veteran to put next to Damian Lillard.

Coaching updates from around NBA: Stotts to Bucks, Young paid to stay with Suns

2021 NBA Playoffs - Portland Trail Blazers v Denver Nuggets
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In the 24 hours since the last time we put together a list of coaching updates from around the NBA a lot of things transpired, some expected, some not.

Here’s an update on the NBA coaching carousel.

• As was rumored to be coming, former Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts will join Adrian Griffin’s staff with the Milwaukee Bucks. This is a smart hire, putting an experienced coach known for creative offense next to the rookie coach on a contending team. With the Bucks getting older and more expensive quickly — 35-year-old Brook Lopez is a free agent this summer — the Bucks don’t have time for a rookie coach to figure things out on the job.

• Kevin Young will stay in Phoenix on Frank Vogel’s staff after new owner Mat Ishbia made him the highest-paid assistant in the league at $2 million a year, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN. Devin Booker reportedly backed Young to get the head coaching job, although how hard Booker pushed is up for debate. Keeping Young on staff — likely in an offensive coordinator role — next to the defensive-minded Vogel could be a good fit.

• Former Hornets coach James Borrego was in the mix for several jobs but has settled in New Orleans, where he will be on Willie Green’s staff. This team is stacked with offensive talent — Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram, CJ McCollum — if they can just stay on the court.

• There is now just one head coaching vacancy open around the league, the Toronto Raptors, and they are entering the final interview stages, reports Josh Lewenberg of TSN. Among the finalists for the job are Kings assistant coach Jordi Fernandez and highly-respected European coach Sergio Scariolo (the head coach of the Spanish national team and Virtus Bologna of the Italian league).

• The makeover of the Celtics coaching staff could go even deeper than expected because Ben Sullivan, Mike Moser and Garrett Jackson are all leaving Boston to join Ime Udoka‘s staff in Houston, reports Michael Scotto of Hoopshype.

• Former Pacers player Shayne Whittington is now a part of Rick Carlisle’s coaching staff in Indiana.

Hawks’ Trae Young plans to shoot more 3s… is that a good thing?

Boston Celtics v Atlanta Hawks - Game Six
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Quin Snyder wants his teams to shoot 3-pointers. A lot of them. In his final season as coach of the Utah Jazz, they took 10 more 3-pointers a game than his new Atlanta Hawks team did last season after he took over.

Trae Young has heard his coach and is ready to get up more than the 6.3 attempts a game he took last season.

That’s a good thing… but only if they are “good shots.” It’s good only if Young hits more than the 33.5% he shot from 3 last season.

While he has a reputation as a 3-point marksman, Young is a career 35.1% shooter from 3 and has been below that 35% number in three of his five NBA seasons. (Also concerning for the Hawks and Young’s fit with Dejonte Murray, he shot just 20% on the less than one catch-and-shoot 3 he took a game last season.)

Young has had better years, he shot 38.2% in 2021-22 and he is an offensive force as a creator capable of doing that again. That is the Young Snyder needs.

He also needs Young to buy into his system of ball and player movement more. Last season, 45% of Young’s shots came after he had at least seven dribbles — he pounded the ball into the ground and jacked up a shot without getting teammates involved far too often (77.9% of his shots came after at least three dribbles). Young shot 33.3% on the 3s he took after those seven dribbles, and less than that percentage on 3-pointers taken after three dribbles or more, which were the majority of his attempts.

This coming season will be an important one for Young, who has proven he is an All-Star who can put up numbers and drive an offense — he’s made an All-NBA team for a reason. The question facing him is whether he will fit into a team system that balances multiple shot creators, off-ball movement, willing passers and selflessness — what you can see in the two teams playing in the NBA Finals. Snyder will call pick-and-rolls, he wants his team to hunt mismatches at times, but there has to be more of a flow to what is happening. There can’t be many shots after seven dribbles (and that’s not touching on the defensive concerns around Young).

The Hawks will evolve over the next couple of seasons under Snyder. Where Young fits in that will be something to watch.

But we will see more 3-pointers.