Aron Baynes

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Suns improve, but to what end?

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NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

While coaching Marist, Jeff Bower hosted a middling recruit named Cameron Johnson. Bower was ahead of the curve. Bringing Johnson to the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference would’ve been a coup. Bigger programs eventually realized Johnson’s ability, and he bypassed Marist for the ACC (Pittsburgh then North Carolina).

Bower and Johnson reunited this summer. The Bower-employing Suns drafted Johnson No. 11 overall.

Delightful coincidence or distressing signal?

Since leaving Marist, Bower got hired by the Pistons, ran day-to-day operations in Detroit’s front office the entire San Van Gundy era, got fired by the Pistons, sat out a full season and got hired by Phoenix. It has been a long time since his initial meeting with Johnson.

Put another way: Johnson is old.

At 23, he’s one of the oldest lottery picks in the last 20 years. His 23-and-over company aside from Buddy Hield (No. 6 in 2016) is uninspiring. The others: Ekpe Udoh (No. 6 in 2010), Tyler Hansbrough (No. 13 in 2009), Al Thornton (No. 14 in 2007), Rafael Araújo (No. 8 in 2004), Melvin Ely (No. 12 in 2002), Fred Jones (No. 14 in 2002), Courtney Alexander (No. 13 in 2000).

Johnson is a polished shooter. There’s a chance he could fill a rotation role for Phoenix next season. But it’ll be a limited role. His upside appears low. His injury history is troubling.

Off all the ways the Suns misplaced their priorities and operated like novices this summer, drafting Johnson stands out.

Phoenix entered the draft with the No. 6 pick then traded down for No. 11 and Dario Saric. Saric is a fine player, but not someone – one year from free agency – who justifies watching prospects like Jarrett Culver and Coby White go off the board. Then, the Suns made the shocking reach for Johnson.

Unfortunately for Phoenix, that multi-blunder process doesn’t even cover everything that went wrong this summer. In James Jones’ first year as general manager, the Suns were determined to get their desired players and improve quickly. Missions accomplished. But Phoenix’s short-term upgrades came with too little consideration for value and where the team is in its ascent.

The big addition was Ricky Rubio – a solid starting point guard on a team that had no point guard. He’ll solidify so many disparate parts around him. But h didn’t come cheap at three years, $51 million.

A pair of draft-day trade agreements with the Pacers and Celtics helped clear cap room for Rubio. But Phoenix’s return was disappointing. The Suns traded up from No. 32 to No. 24, relinquished the Bucks’ 2020 first-rounder, unloaded T.J. Warren (three years, $35.25 million remaining) and took Aron Baynes (one year, $5,453,280 remaining). I at least like using the No. 24 pick on Ty Jerome.

That didn’t open enough cap space for Rubio, though. So, the Suns had to trade Josh Jackson, De’Anthony Melton and a second-rounder or two to the Grizzlies for Jevon Carter. None of those prospects – including 2017 No. 4 pick Jackson – are great. But Phoenix had to forfeit some upside in order to clear cap room.

The Suns used the full room exception on Frank Kaminsky (two years with a team option). Again, not great value.

Neither was re-signing Kelly Oubre for two years, $30 million. But at least that was justifiable, because Phoenix held him at a lower number and had his Bird Rights. Oubre is an interesting young player who fits the long-term vision the Suns should be prioritizing.

Phoenix didn’t completely ignore youth this summer. Cheick Diallo and undrafted Jalen Lecque have upside and signed deals that grant substantial team control. Still, they were low-priority moves.

It’s easy to see what happened in Phoenix. The Suns have missed the playoffs a franchise-worst nine straight years and got impatient. They want to win now.

Rubio will help. The other new role players will help. New coach Monty Williams will help.

But even with all its immediate improvements, Phoenix is highly unlikely to make the playoffs next season. Would going from 19 to 34 wins really feel that much better, especially considering the downgrade in lottery odds? I don’t think so.

The bigger picture hasn’t changed much. The Suns are building around Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton. Phoenix can still grow into a winner around those two.

I doubt it happens next season. And because of this summer’s moves, the Suns will have fewer resources to use when Booker and Ayton are actually ready to win.

Offseason grade: D+

Kemba Walker, Myles Turner lead Team USA over Australia in World Cup tune-up

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MELBOURNE, Australia — With his team playing on a raised basketball court in a stadium normally used for soccer and cricket, U.S. coach Gregg Popovich said he felt like he was on a movie set.

“I kept looking behind me because I knew I was going to fall off the stage,” he said.

But once the game started, Popovich thought it all seemed normal. And if it had been a movie, Popovich surely would have liked the ending.

Kemba Walker scored 23 points, Myles Turner added 15 points and 14 rebounds, and the U.S. topped Australia 102-86 on Thursday before a crowd of 51,218 – billed as the largest crowd ever to watch a basketball game in Australia.

“We have guys that are just starting to play with each other,” said U.S. guard Donovan Mitchell, who had 13 points. “We got off to a little bit of a rough start in the first half, but the third quarter, we really picked it up defensively.”

Patty Mills and Chris Goulding scored 19 points each for Australia, which stayed with the Americans for about 2+ quarters before seeing chances slip away at Marvel Stadium – transformed into a make-shift basketball arena for two games against the Americans, tune-ups for both sides before the World Cup starts next week in China.

“It was an awesome opportunity,” Mills said. “I think basketball in this country has been waiting for something like this.”

After Australia briefly took the lead at 45-44 early in the second half, the Americans scored 13 unanswered points, including three straight 3-pointers by Turner, Harrison Barnes and Mitchell, to go up 57-45.

Walker was one the keys for the second-half resurgence for the Americans, scoring 21 of his 23 points after halftime.

“I’m one of the leaders of this team, so it’s important for me to set that tone,” the Celtics guard said.

The roof of Marvel Stadium was closed and the court was placed in the middle of the field surrounded by hundreds of white chairs, more than 20 rows deep, for fans who paid for floor seating.

Despite the huge crowd, Australian media reported that some fans were issued refunds because they bought tickets based on promotional materials depicting Stephen Curry and LeBron James – who were part of the U.S. player pool when the deal was struck last year to play these games. Neither Curry nor James is on the U.S. roster for the World Cup.

Australia was also without its biggest star, Ben Simmons, who has opted not to play in the World Cup. Still, the Boomers starting lineup included four NBA players: Mills, Aron Baynes, Joe Ingles and Matthew Dellavedova.

And the Aussies gave their crowd some thrills – like a run just before halftime that cut the U.S. lead to 44-43 after back-to-back 3-pointers by Goulding and six straight points by Mills.

The win was the 78th in a row in major international exhibitions and competition for the U.S. national team, a streak that started with the bronze medal game of the 2006 world championships. It encompasses gold-medal runs at the 2010 and 2014 World Cups, the Olympics in 2008, 2012 and 2016, and the FIBA Americas tournament in 2007.

TIP-INS

USA: Mitchell wrote “End Gun Violence” on his shoes before the game to remember the victims of the El Paso and Dayton mass shootings … Boston’s Marcus Smart, who is still working his way back from a calf injury that popped up about two weeks ago during training camp in Las Vegas, did not play. … It was the first meeting between the national teams since the Americans won 98-88 at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics on their way to a gold medal.

Australia: Actor Russell Crowe, who spends most of his time living in Australia, was part of the massive crowd. … In a sight that NBA fans are used to, Dellavedova dived on the floor for loose balls three times in the game’s first three minutes – including on the opening tap. … Mills gave Popovich, his longtime coach in San Antonio, a massive hug courtside just before the game started.

INJURY SCARE

Jayson Tatum got knocked over by a defender in the third quarter and tumbled backward somewhat awkwardly – the back of his head falling into Walker’s knee. Tatum was shaken up briefly but remained in the game.

UP NEXT

The teams meet again in Melbourne on Saturday.

Celtics suffer consequences of Kyrie Irving’s broken pledge

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NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

The Celtics 2019 offseason ended in October 2018.

Then, it began a short time later.

After a backward year in Boston, the dust has settled. Kyrie Irving and Al Horford are gone. Kemba Walker and Enes Kanter are there.

The Celtics will be fine. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown return and should keep growing. The major holes are filled.

But the busy summer leaves Boston with a much lower ceiling.

It was never supposed to be like this.

Before last season, Kyrie Irving vowed to re-sign. This wasn’t just an impulsive moment at a pep rally. Irving made a whole commercial about the Celtics retiring his number.

Boston looked like an emerging power – the Warriors’ most-likely successor, maybe as soon as last season. The Celtics were talented, young and deep. Irving’s commitment seemed to answer one of the few questions facing the team.

Instead, Boston unraveled. Irving and other Celtics repeatedly found problems with each other. Everyone seemed miserable. A disappointing second-round loss was almost a relief. At least it was over.

In what was once supposed to be a simple offseason for Boston, Irving bolted for the Nets. Horford followed through the exit, to the 76ers. The Celtics replaced those two with Walker and Kanter via free agency.

Irving is better and younger than Walker. Particularly, Irving has proven his deep-playoff bona fides. Though Walker didn’t get those opportunities with the mediocre Hornets, the smaller guard probably can’t step up against tighter defenses the same way.

Kanter is good at what he does inside. But good teams can expose him defensively.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Boston matched its 49 wins from last season. The Celtics’ chemistry should improve significantly, and they’ll play hard in the regular season. But there’s a long way to getting back on the championship-contention path.

Boston will even face challenges with smaller short-term goals. The Celtics lost a couple solid role players in Marcus Morris (signed with Knicks) and Aron Baynes (traded to Suns). Boston also sent Terry Rozier to the Hornets in a double sign-and-trade for Walker. Though Rozier didn’t help the Celtics much last season, they still essentially got nil for a player with some value.*

*Boston had enough cap space to sign Walker outright. Charlotte needed a sign-and-trade to add Rozier.

The Celtics maintained and replenished frontcourt depth with Daniel Theis ($5 million guaranteed this season, $5 million unguaranteed the following season) and Vincent Poirier (two years, $5,125,000).

Boston did well to leave draft night with No. 14 pick Romeo Langford, No. 22 pick Grant Williams, No. 33 pick Carsen Edwards, No. 51 pick Tremont Waters, a future Bucks first-rounder (from Phoenix) and Baynes unloaded. The Celtics also signed undrafted Tacko Fall, whose 7-foot-6 frame at least draws intrigue.

Maybe one of those rookies blossoms. Maybe Gordon Hayward gets back in a groove as he gains distance from his injury. Maybe a future first-rounder from the Grizzlies lands high in a lottery.

There are ways for Boston to build a title contender.

But that seems far more distant than when the Celtics were envisioning an Irving-Anthony Davis pairing. It seems more distant than even when Boston was hoping to keep Horford.

Many teams would love to settle for Walker and Kanter, but the Celtics were in such great shape. They definitely had to settle. Where I’m from, that’s no Plan A.

Offseason grade: C-

Report: Suns signing Cheick Diallo to two-year contract

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The Suns went old in the draft, picking 23-year-old Cameron Johnson at No. 11.

Phoenix will go younger in free agency with 22-year-old Cheick Diallo.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Barring another move, the Suns have only the minimum available. Diallo will get $1,678,854 next season and $1,824,003 the following season.

The No. 33 pick in the 2016 draft, Diallo worked his way into the low end of the rotation during his three years with the Pelicans. He’s a hustle big, committed rebounder and athletic player. But at 6-foot-9 and 220 pounds, he’s not strong enough to bang with most centers. His skill level is low for power forward.

Phoenix will stick him behind Deandre Ayton, Dario Saric, Aron Baynes and Frank Kaminsky in the frontcourt. Diallo might receive situation minutes, but he must develop further to hold staying power.

Report: Celtics re-signing Daniel Theis (two years, $10M), signing Vincent Poirier (minimum)

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After losing Al Horford to the 76ers and trading Aron Baynes to the Suns, the Celtics badly need bigs.

Enes Kanter is a nice start, but not enough.

Re-enter Daniel Theis and enter Vincent Poirier.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Brian Robb of Boston Sports Journal:

The Celtics will keep Theis at his low cap hold then exceed the cap to re-sign him through the Early Bird Exception. So, this won’t interfere with their cap room to land Kemba Walker.

Boston signed Theis out of Germany to a minimum contract in 2017. He developed into a solid rotation player and will get rewarded for it.

If the Celtics get the same from Poirier – a French interior-focused center – they’ll be quite pleased.