Associated Press

Russell Westbrook, Paul George lead Thunder past Suns for first win

Leave a comment

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — The Thunder didn’t care that Phoenix had just one win this season, was playing the second game of a back-to-back and was missing its leading scorer.

They just wanted to get a win.

Oklahoma City finally broke through for the first time in five tries this season. Paul George and Russell Westbrook each scored 23 points, and the Thunder beat the Suns 117-110 on Sunday.

“It feels special,” guard Dennis Schroder said. “I think we can build off of that win. We’re going to keep getting better. It was a good one tonight.”

Nerlens Noel had 20 points and 15 rebounds and Patrick Patterson added 17 points for the Thunder. Oklahoma City’s victory left the Cleveland Cavaliers, who fired coach Tyronn Lue on Sunday, as the league’s only winless team.

Thunder center Steven Adams did not play after experiencing tightness in his left calf during pregame warmups, and Noel started in his place. Coach Billy Donovan was pleased with the way Noel performed in his first start.

“He did a lot of really good things,” Donovan said. “He was really, really active. He was very active defensively. He scored some points on some lobs and some rolls and he got to the free-throw line. I was really, really impressed with his defense.”

Noel has started 159 of his 228 career games, so he was comfortable in the role.

“Just do this on a nightly basis, just being a professional, ready for whatever is thrown at me in this position,” he said. “Steven wasn’t able to go, so I just kept the same mindset of being able to be ready, no matter what. I knew if I was coming off the bench, if I was starting, I’d play the same way. That’s about it.”

Rookie Elie Okobo scored 18 points and No. 1 overall draft pick Deandre Ayton added 16 points and 11 rebounds for Phoenix. Devin Booker, who entered the day as the league’s ninth-best scorer at 27.8 points per game, sat out his second straight game with a left hamstring strain.

The Thunder led 62-48 at halftime after shooting 49 percent from the field. George scored 15 points before the break, while Westbrook made just two field goals. The Thunder blew a 14-point halftime lead against Boston on Thursday, so the threat of falling apart still was there.

Westbrook hit back-to-back layups to make it 82-65 in the third. George drained a shot from just beyond half court at the third-quarter buzzer to put Oklahoma City up 96-76.

“It’s one of the funnest basketball games I’ve played in since I’ve been here,” Noel said. “Guys just play so unselfish. This team is really built the right way. Guys just want to make winning plays, and everybody is going to excel when the play style is like that.”

Phoenix outscored the Thunder 34-21 in the fourth quarter.

“A lot of positives in the game,” Suns coach Igor Kokoskov said. “You’re not going to feel better – we lost the game. But effort was there. I think we tried, and we tried for 48 minutes.”

 

Suns secure franchise player or two or none, but no starting-caliber point guard

Getty Images
3 Comments

NBCSports.com’s 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.

Eight NBA players are guaranteed more than $150 million in salary. Seven – Russell Westbrook, James Harden, John Wall, Stephen Curry, Karl-Anthony Towns and LeBron James – were All-Stars last year, and another – Chris Paulabsolutely should have been.

The outlier: Devin Booker, whom the Suns gave a max contract extension projected to be worth $158 million over five years.

Booker has never been an All-Star nor deserved to be one. Phoenix has peaked at 24 wins with him. He ranked 502nd last season with a real plus-minus of -2.44, a personal best.

On the other hand, the Suns are paying for what Booker will do, not what he has done. He’s an extremely talented scorer with playmaking skills and the frame to impact games far more than he has. Importantly, he’s just 21.

Is Booker worthy of being a franchise player?

Maybe.

But Phoenix rushed to pay him like one this summer despite the uncertainty. The Suns could have waited, assessed Booker over the season and re-signed him as a restricted free agent summer. That might have hurt Booker’s feelings, or it might have driven him to compete harder next year. I think it would have been worth the downside of delaying. Booker’s value just isn’t clear enough to justify lavishing him with a full max contract now. To extend him this summer, Phoenix should have demanded some salary concessions.

The Suns had to take their other high-stakes gamble of the offseason, drafting Deandre Ayton No. 1. Ayton looked like a good choice, but top picks are so pivotal. It was extremely important to get this right.

Especially because Phoenix seems intent on escaping the bottom of the standings.

The Suns signed veteran Trevor Ariza to a one-year, $15 million contract and traded the No. 16 pick and the Heat’s unprotected 2021 pick for No. 10 pick Mikal Bridges, one of the draft’s most NBA-ready players. Ariza and Bridges join Josh Jackson and T.J. Warren as versatile forwards on the roster.

Phoenix also traded for its new starting power forward, Ryan Anderson. I liked that deal, considering Anderson reduced his 2019-20 salary guarantee to match outgoing Brandon Knight‘s. The Suns also upgraded prospects in the swap, going from Marquese Chriss to No. 46 pick De’Anthony Melton. Anderson has taken a lot of grief for his playoff shortcomings, but he was still a productive regular-season player last year.

The upcoming regular season is apparently a priority in Phoenix, where an eight-year playoff drought – longest in franchise history – runs. Owner Robert Sarver isn’t known for his patience.

But if the Suns are trying to make the playoffs, they were absolutely negligent at point guard. Their options: No. 31 pick Elie Okobo, Melton, Isaiah Canaan (signed to an unguaranteed minimum contract), Shaquille Harrison (who received a $50,000 guarantee this summer) and Booker playing out of position once he gets healthy. That’s not going to cut it in a loaded Western Conference.

Phoenix even seemed more concerned with getting another backup center than a starting point guard, executing two trades – dealing a second-rounder to the Nets to downgrade from Jared Dudley‘s salary to Darrell Arthur‘s then sending $1 million to the 76ers – to land Richaun Holmes.

With the $15 million and two first-round picks they used to get Ariza and Bridges, the Suns could have signed or traded for a solid point guard. Instead, that money and those picks went toward adding even more combo forwards.

How innovative will first-time head coach Igor Kokoskov be? I’m not sure Brad Stevens or Gregg Popovich could scheme their way through this point-guard void.

For so long, I wanted to give the Suns’ offseason an incomplete. But they’re starting training camp with this roster with apparently no trade imminent. It’s time to assess.

I don’t see how this roster works in the short term, and it’s a little less flexible and asset-rich in the long-term.

Offseason grade: D+

Rumor: Suns have tried to trade for Damian Lillard, Kemba Walker, other point guards

Getty Images
9 Comments

While you can make sense of the Suns’ trade for Ryan Anderson — if you believe De'Anthony Melton can turn into a quality NBA rotation guard, although the jury is still out on that — the deal sent Brandon Knight to the Rockets and left a burning question for the Suns:

Who is going to play point guard on this team next season?

The Suns spent this summer trying to construct a trade that would answer that question with a star player, but fell short, according to the well connected John Gambadoro of Arizona Sports 98.7 in Phoenix.

That shouldn’t be a surprise — that the Suns tried and that they were shot down.

Right now the Suns have Shaquille Harrison and rookie Elie Okobo at the point. Harrison played 23 games for the Suns last season and showed a great work ethic and some real potential, he was solid when he was in for them. Okobo, out of France, was the 31st pick in last June’s draft and showed flashes at Summer League but has a lot of adjusting to do, and his game needs to mature, to really fit at the NBA level.

Neither of those are particularly good options. The Suns could put the ball in the hands of Devin Booker as their primary playmaker, and while he can get buckets he is not a true playmaking point guard and floor general. Those results have been mixed, at best.

Look for the Suns to make a trade and/or scour the waiver wire during camp, looking for someone who can give them quality minutes at the point. Because outside of the one slot the Suns have an interesting starting five — Booker, Trevor Ariza, Ryan Anderson, Deandre Ayton, with Josh Jackson and Mikail Bridges coming off the bench.

Report: Trevor Ariza leaving Rockets for one-year, $15 million contract with Suns

AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin
4 Comments

Trevor Ariza played a supporting role on the Rockets, who had the NBA’s best record last season.

Now, he’s going to become the highest-paid player on the Suns, who had the NBA’s worst record last season.

Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports:

Phoenix has a bright future with Devin Booker and No. 1 pick Deandre Ayton. The Suns even traded up on draft night for small forward Mikal Bridges, one of the most polished rookies in this class-.

But that wasn’t enough for Phoenix, which has missed the playoffs the last eight seasons. That long of a drought can push teams into shortcuts when patience should take priority. Maybe that came from direct pressure from owner Robert Sarver. Maybe general manager Ryan McDonough just felt he needed to make a splash to save his job.

Ariza, 33, will help the Suns next season. Enough to make the playoffs? Doubtful. Enough to worsen their draft pick? Probable.

Even as a win-now move, this was odd. Phoenix needs a point guard. Second-round pick Elie Okobo probably isn’t ready. Brandon Knight hasn’t been good and healthy in years. And now most of the Suns’ cap space is gone.