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Phoenix Suns fire coach Igor Kokoskov

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Following a 19-63 season where the man who hired him — GM Ryan McDonough — was already shown the door, there was a lot of speculation that coach Igor Kokoskov was next on the chopping block.

That happened Monday night, the Suns decided to move on from Kokoskov.

“After extensive evaluation, I determined it is best to move in a different direction with our head coaching position,” said Suns general manager James Jones in a statement. “I want to thank Igor for his work this past season and wish him the best with his future endeavors.”

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN added some detail.

The Suns recently hired Jeff Bower as their senior vice president of basketball operations. Bower gave Monty Williams his first head coaching job, hiring him to coach the Hornets back when Bower was the GM there.

Williams will have his second interview with the Lakers next week. Williams is rumored in some quarters to be the frontrunner for the Los Angeles job (he and Tyronn Lue will have second interviews coming), the Suns are starting this race from behind but do have a relationship there.

Kokoskov was the first European born person to be a head coach in the NBA. He was Luka Doncic‘s national team coach, but the Suns took Deandre Ayton No. 1 (reportedly at the urging of owner Robert Saver).

Kokoskov was handed a young roster that lacked a point guard or solid veteran leader, so it’s no surprise the Suns and Kokoskov got off to a slow start, going 4-18 and looking a mess. However, the team improved, Kelly Oubre Jr. was added, and the Suns went an improved 8-15 after the All-Star break, including wins against the Bucks and Warriors. Devin Booker improved, Deandre Ayton was growing, and the team showed improvement. That said, there were questions about Kokoskov’s rotations and communication with players.

Phoenix, with meddling owner Robert Sarver at the helm, is known for turnover and instability — whoever is hired next will be the team’s seventh head coach in eight years. This move just fits right in with the perception.

 

Report: Former Hornets, Pelicans GM Jeff Bower may get “high ranking” job with Suns

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The Suns have a couple nice young players — Devin Booker is legit (don’t believe the haters), Deandre Ayton has potential, Kelly Oubre Jr. appears a good fit, guys like T.J. Warren and Josh Jackson might have roles — but the team needs a direction and a better-rounded roster. After firing GM Ryan McDonough at an odd time, then replacing him with an odder combo of people, Suns owner Robert Sarver is looking for the guy to give his team that direction.

Jeff Bower may be that guy, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver has become focused on the candidacy of former Detroit and New Orleans general manager Jeff Bower to assume a high-ranking front-office role with the Suns, league sources told ESPN on Saturday.

Sarver has begun to inform other serious candidates that he’s retreating from them and moving toward a hiring that could be complete early next week, league sources told ESPN.

The idea is to have Bower guide James Jones, the current GM, who would keep his position and have trade power. Officially Bower would be a consultant, although he would have leverage.

This could be a good hire.

Bower has been around NBA front offices for decades and is well respected. Most recently he was the GM and day-to-day guy in Detroit under Stan Van Gundy (but Van Gundy had the hammer on deals and team direction). Before that, he was the Hornets GM where he made some wise draft picks — Chris Paul, David West, Baron Davis — but was squeezed by the odd ownership transfer there.

The biggest challenge for Bower if he gets the job? Keeping Sarver out of basketball operations. Saver has a reputation as a meddling owner who steps in over the basketball people to make calls on players and personnel. This is the owner who unleashed a bunch of goats in McDonough’s office without telling him (and those goats did what goats do, ate everything and defecated). Among the interesting tidbits along those lines is this note from Wojnarowski’s story.

Jones had sat in on interviews, along with Arizona Cardinals All-Pro receiver Larry Fitzgerald, league sources said.

Fitzgerald? Well, it’s a Sarver team. Bower would have his hands full.

Three Things to Know: Devin Booker tells fan he’s going for 50, then does it

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Devin Booker tells a courtside fan he’s going for 50, then does it… just ignore how the Suns keep losing. Devin Booker had 30 points in the first half against Washington, and told a fan sitting courtside “I’m going for 50.”

Then he did.

At age 22, Phoenix’s Devin Booker has become the youngest player in NBA history with back-to-back 50 point games — after dropping 59 on the Jazz Monday, he turned around Wednesday night and had 50 more against the Wizards.

Only nine other players in NBA history have had consecutive 50-point games and it’s some impressive company: James Harden, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Bernard King, Antawn Jamison, Allen Iverson, Rick Barry, Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor.

Booker has three 50-point games in his career — and has become the first player in NBA history to lose his first three of those games.

The latest loss came because Washington’s Thomas Bryant hit the game-winner with 2.8 seconds left after taking the pass from a triple-teamed Bradley Beal.

The Suns are an objectively bad basketball team — even with Booker entertaining us — that has a bottom 10 offense and a defense that is even worse. There is some potential there with Booker, the addition of Kelly Oubre Jr. on the wing, plus Deandre Ayton putting up numbers in the paint and improving defensively. Other players such as T.J. Warren and Josh Jackson might fill roles on the team.

The Suns need more talent. And a direction/identity. The question is who is going to have the job of bringing in that talent and setting the course? Suns owner Robert Saver fired GM Ryan McDonough at an odd time in the calendar, then replaced him with the confusing duo of James Jones and Trevor Bukstein. The Suns are looking for a new GM — hopefully one that can manage the melding Sarver, although good luck with that — and what that ultimately means for the fate of coach Igor Kokoskov is unknown.

The only thing we know is Booker is putting on a heck of a show.

If he can average 35.2 points per game over the Suns’ final six (211 total points) he will pass Tom Chambers for the highest single-season scoring average in franchise history. It’s an entertaining thing for Suns fans to watch while ignoring the losses.

2) Thunder use a 24-0 third-quarter run to beat Pacers on a night Paul George drops 31. Indiana was the better team in this Wednesday night matchup, moving the ball, defending well, generally looking like more of a team…

Except for one 6:45 stretch of the third quarter. But that stretch was a 24-0 Oklahoma City run that defined the game.

The Pacers shot 0-of-14 in that stretch while the Thunder got 4-of-5 shooting inside from Steven Adams. Paul George had seven of his 31 on the night during the run.

The Thunder needed the win, having lost 4-of-5 coming in. The victory keeps them as the seven seed in the bunched-up West, just one game back of five-seed Utah. The Thunder are now three back of the four-seed Rockets and home court in the first round of the playoffs, but with seven games remaining OKC is not going to make up that ground.

What the Thunder need is to get some momentum and find their groove again — led by Paul George playing like an MVP again — heading into the playoffs. That third-quarter stretch helped with that.

3) Mike Conley makes history, becomes Grizzlies all-time leading scorer. Mike Conley is going to go down as the greatest Grizzly ever. Some day his jersey will hang in the rafters of the FedEx Forum.

On Wednesday night he made a little history. With a catch-and-shoot corner three in the second quarter, Conley scored his 11,687th point as a member of the Grizzlies moving him past Marc Gasol on Memphis’ all-time scoring list.

Conley is all over the Grizzlies’ record books. He is also the Memphis all-time leader in assists, three-pointers, steals, and games played. Only two other players lead a franchise in all those categories: LeBron James (Cavaliers) and Reggie Miller (Pacers).

Conley’s name is going to come up in a lot of trade discussion this summer and Memphis has gone all-in on a rebuild, but whatever happens he will forever be associated with the Grizzlies and that franchise.

Watch James Harden drop 41 points, 11 assists in win over Suns

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HOUSTON (AP) — James Harden had 41 points, 11 assists, and nine rebounds, and the Houston Rockets outlasted the Phoenix Suns to get a 108-102 win Friday night.

The Rockets had trouble putting away the Suns, who have won just 16 games this season, and trailed for much of the night as they struggled from long-range, making just 11 of 40 3-pointers.

It’s Houston’s franchise-record 10th straight win over the Suns, and the Rockets have won 10 of their last 11 games overall.

They were up by 2 after two free throws by Harden with about four minutes to go. He hit his head on the court after being knocked down on a hard foul by Deandre Ayton about 90 seconds after that, but got up and made two more free throws.

Mikal Bridges missed a 3 for the Suns and Harden added a jumper on the other end to make it 102-96 with about two minutes remaining.

But Devin Booker made the next four points to get Phoenix within two points at 102-100 about a minute later.

Danuel House padded the lead with a 3-pointer after that, but Booker made a jump shot to cut it to 105-102.

A turnover by Harden gave the Suns the ball back. But Josh Jackson missed two free throws with 24.6 seconds left and Harden made one of two free throws with 11.1 seconds remaining to make it 106-102.

Booker missed a 3 and Harden made two more free throws to secure the victory.

Booker had 29 points for the Suns, who lost their second in a row.

Eric Gordon added 19 points and House had 18 for the Rockets on a night Chris Paul sat out to rest.

The Suns led by 2 to start the fourth and had a 3-point lead with about nine minutes left when Gordon made 3-pointers on consecutive possessions to put Houston up 92-89. Gordon had missed six of seven 3-point attempts before making those shots.

Phoenix made the next four points, with a 3 from Josh Jackson, to regain the lead before a 3 by Harden put Houston up 95-93 midway through the quarter.

The game was tied at 71 with about five minutes left in the third before Houston used a 5-2 run, capped by a 3 from Harden, to take a 76-73 lead. But Phoenix used a 5-2 spurt after that, highlighted by a soaring dunk from Richaun Holmes, to tie it back up a couple of minutes later.

A 7-2 run by the Suns later in the third put them on top 85-82. Kelly Oubre Jr. had a 3-pointer in that stretch and Holmes scored the other four points.

Kenneth Faried made one of two free throws after that cut the lead to 2 entering the fourth quarter.

 

NBA Power Rankings: Houston rockets up to second spot with nine-game win streak

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Houston has Rocketed up to No. 2 in the rankings (see what I did there?) and right now look like the biggest threat to Golden State. They haven’t knocked the Bucks out of the top spot, at least not yet.

Bucks small icon 1. Bucks (51-17, last week No. 1). The defense has slipped since the All-Star break — 110.1 net rating, 16th in the league — but the Bucks are still 8-3 in that stretch because their offense has gotten even better. Everyone in Milwaukee is looking ahead, the Bucks in the Giannis Antetokounmpo era have never won a playoff series, that will change in the first round this year. But the second round… on paper this team is a contender but will Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe perform on the biggest stages. Good benchmark Sunday vs. Philly.

Rockets small icon 2. Rockets (42-25, LW 6). Winners of nine in a row, the Rockets look like the second-best team in the NBA again. A team that may be a threat to the Warriors (as much as anyone). Not just because Chris Paul is playing well (although he is playing closer to last year’s version), or because Clint Capela is healthy and running the floor hard again, but because they are defending well for the first time this season. Since the All-Star break, Houston has a defensive net rating of 106.4, seventh best in the NBA (better than Utah in that stretch). Can they sustain it? If so, the Warriors will be looking over their shoulders.

Raptors small icon 3. Raptors (48-20, LW 2). Toronto didn’t pick up Marc Gasol expecting an eventual Serge Ibaka suspension, but it helps with Ibaka missing three games after throwing hands with Marquese Chriss. This is not a team making a strong playoff push (5-4 since the All-Star break) but it’s hard to read them because Kawhi Leonard has gotten a lot of rest and because their playoff position has been essentially set (the No. 2 seed) removing urgency in games. One thing to bet on, Pascal Siakam is going to win Most Improved Player.

Warriors small icon 4. Warriors (45-21, LW 3). For one game, against Denver on the night the Nuggets could have tied the Warriors with a win, we saw what the fully-functional Death Star can do. It was awe inspiring. Then the Warriors turned around and lost to the Suns. Expect to see Kevin Durant (ankle) and other key players rest down the stretch, and expect more erratic performances, but does anyone doubt they can play like the Death Star team four times in any seven game series?

Nuggets small icon 5. Nuggets (44-22, LW 4). Isaiah Thomas has struggled to fit in off the bench so far, which is why coach Mike Malone is shrinking his role and minutes (IT got a DNP-CD on Tuesday). Through nine games he’s averaging 8.6 points a night but is shooting 27.3% from three (where he takes 44% of his shot attempts), and even when he gets to the rim he’s only finishing 50% of his attempts. Monte Morris bounced back with a good game against the Warriors and coach Mike Malone will need to lean on him and not IT when the playoffs start.

Sixers small icon 6. 76ers (43-25, LW 5). Joel Embiid’s return Sunday had Philadelphia looking like a team that could come out of the East again — he had 33 and 12 in a key win over the Pacers, he anchored their defense and bullied the Pacers in the paint on offense. The Sixers need that Embiid to be a real threat. Big test Sunday at Milwaukee, a chance for both teams to make a statement they are contenders for the East crown.

Celtics small icon 7. Celtics (41-27, LW 11). They went a strong 3-1 on a West Coast road trip and looked like the team we expected coming into the season (don’t read into the loss to the Clippers, last games of a trip get mailed in sometimes). Much like it has been recently in the regular season, Boston’s chances in the playoffs will swing with how Gordon Hayward plays — when he scores in double digits off the bench, the Celtics become a much more dangerous team.

Thunder small icon 8. Thunder (41-26, LW 8). Russell Westbrook’s interaction with a fan in Utah got the NBA community finally talking about an issue that needed to be in the spotlight — there are too many fans crossing the line of what is said to players, and there is little the players can do about it. Westbrook got fined for it, but my guess is he’s good with that if it sparked a real discussion (which it did). The Thunder went 2-2 on their recent road trip and things do not get easier now, they have their next six games against playoff teams.

Blazers small icon 9. Trail Blazers (41-26, LW 7). Coach Terry Stotts shot down a question about the playoffs, saying he is not thinking about matchups or seeding yet, but Portland wants to climb up to the four seed and have home court in the first round (they are tied with Oklahoma City for that spot as of this writing). Portland is 25-9 at home this season and 16-17 on the road — if they are going to advance pat the first round playing at home would be a big boost.

Clippers small icon 10. Clippers (39-30, LW 12). Wins over Boston and Oklahoma City recently show why this Clipper team is going to be a tough out in the playoffs. Spend time around the Clippers and you sense a confidence amongst this team despite all the roster changes this season — they like each other, they joke around in the locker room, and on the floor they know who they are and they play hard. Lou Williams is making a push for Sixth Man of the Year with his play of late, but the loss to Portland shows just how much Danilo Gallinari’s shooting and ability to create looks matters to this team (he rested that game).

Spurs small icon 11. Spurs (39-29, LW 13). Winners of six in a row (they needed that after a brutal rodeo road trip) and the streak has solidified their playoff position. The Spurs have done it with good defense — 105.1 net rating in this stretch, sixth best in the NBA — and enough offense from DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge to make it all work (they combined for 61 Tuesday night to beat the Mavs).

Pacers small icon 12. Pacers (43-25, LW 9). The Pacers need to play better (they have lost 6-of-9) if they are going to hold on to home court in the first round. The Pacers are tied with Philly for the 3/4 seed with Boston just two games back, but Indy has a brutal schedule coming up — Oklahoma City at home Thursday then 6-of-7 on the road including the Nuggets, Clippers, Warriors, Thunder again, then Celtics. It’s going to be tough to find wins in there.

Jazz small icon 13. Jazz (37-29, LW 10). With the softest remaining schedule in the NBA, it should have been time for Utah to make its push up the Western standings and maybe even get home court in the first round. Instead, they have lost 3-of-4 (including to Memphis and New Orleans). More concerning, Julius Randle and Jonas Valanciunas have punished the Jazz in the paint. Utah is still in the playoffs as the eight seed, but their lack of focus against teams they should beat is going to have them starting the playoffs on the road.

Nets small icon 14. Nets (36-33, LW 15). Winners of four in a row, the last one against Detroit to keep them ahead of the Pistons and in the six seed. Spencer Dinwiddie had 19 against Detroit, continuing his run of good play — he is going to get some Sixth Man of the Year votes. But now the Pacers have seven in a row on the road and every one of their remaining games this season except one (Lakers) is against a team over .500.

Pistons small icon 15. Pistons (34-32, LW 14). Detroit has leaned a little too much on fourth-quarter comebacks lately, but they had won 8-of-9 before the loss to the Nets Monday. Still, because of the Nets’ schedule, expect the Pistons to finish the season as the six seed in the East. Give coach Dwane Casey credit for pulling this team together in his first season in Detroit, finding an offense that works, and getting this team into the postseason.

Kings small icon 16. Kings (33-33, LW 16). The Kings have had the most surprising season in the NBA, and that will mean Coach of the Year votes for Dave Joerger and Most Improved Player votes for De’Aaron Fox. Both well deserved (although neither are likely to win the award). However, the surprising season is not going to end with a playoff berth, the Kings are four out with 16 games to play. The key this offseason is to stick with the building plan and not to become impatient and make win-now moves.

Heat small icon 17. Heat (31-35, LW 21). Miami’s new starting lineup — Justise Winslow, Bam Adebayo, Josh Richardson, Dion Waiters, and Kelly Olynyk — has led the team to win 4-of-5 and hang on to the final playoff slot in the East. In the seven games they have started (91 total minutes) that lineup is +7.1 per 100 possessions, with a high powered offense leading the way. Miami has a tougher schedule than Orlando (one game back) and Charlotte (1.5 back) the rest of the way and will need more out of that lineup if the Heat are going to get an invite to the postseason dance.

18. Timberwolves (32-36, LW 20). Karl-Anthony Towns continues to be on a tear — in his last 10 games he’s averaging 32.9 points per game on 59.6 percent shooting overall, 48.3 percent from three (on 5.8 attempts a game), plus grabbing 12.8 boards a night. Is that going to be enough to get him an All-NBA center spot in a crowded field (Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic, Rudy Gobert, Anthony Davis) — if he does it’s worth a cool $32 million on his rookie contract extension that kicks in next season (thanks to the Rose rule).

Magic small icon 19. Magic (31-37, LW 17). Playoff teams take care of business against lesser opponents, which is why the Magic are in danger of missing the postseason after their big push to get back in it. Orlando has lost 3-of-4 including the the Cavaliers and Grizzlies. The Magic struggle in tight games, which is part of the problem. I’d say they have a soft section of the schedule ahead, but that doesn’t seem to matter to Orlando. They just need wins.

Pelicans small icon 20. Pelicans (30-40, LW 18). Jrue Holiday being out is a big blow, he has been playing at a near All-NBA level and off the court has become more of the face of the franchise (after the Anthony Davis situation). Rookie guard Frank Jackson has stepped up with some strong games in Holiday’s absence, which is about all there is to root for if you’re a Pelicans fan.

Hornets small icon 21. Hornets (30-37, LW 19). The vultures are circling. Needing to make a playoff push the Hornets have instead lost 7-of-9, and now the rumors about Kemba Walker being unhappy and wanting out are growing louder (I had heard from sources right after the trade deadline he was frustrated the team didn’t make a move. Charlotte plays Miami in Sunday, one of the teams they are battling with for the last playoff slot in the East, they need that win.

Grizzlies small icon 22. Grizzlies (28-40, LW 24). Memphis’ first-round pick this year is top 8 protected, and considering it’s a softer draft (and the Grizzlies are just starting their rebuild) they wouldn’t mind letting Boston have it this year (and keeping it in the future). That means winning more now, and the Grizzlies have done just that, with victories in 5-of-7 (thanks to the best defense in the league in that stretch, a 100.3 net rating). Currently, they have the seventh-worst record in the league (85.8% chance they keep the pick) but keep winning and the odds Boston gets it climb fast.

Wizards small icon 23. Wizards (28-39, LW 23). Washington’s playoff chances are not dead — it is 3.5 games out of the final playoff spot (Miami) but they have a 10% chance of making up that ground and getting in, according to fivethirtyeight.com. That makes Wednesday’s game against Orlando and Friday against Charlotte critical — all three of those teams are in the same playoff chase, a couple of wins there and the Wizards chances get much more realistic. Lose both and they can book the hotel in Cabo for mid-April.

Lakers small icon 24. Lakers (31-36, LW 22). Luke Walton is going to take the fall for this Lakers’ season, which is not completely fair because the roster he was given to work with by management was flawed and needed perfect health and some breaks to make the playoffs. That didn’t happen (Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball are shut down for the season now). The question becomes, where do the Lakers get their next coach? Who can they get that LeBron James will respect and buy into? There is not an obvious upgrade just sitting on the open market, but this will be the first big test for management in a summer it has to nail.

Hawks small icon 25. Hawks (23-45, LW 25). Here’s what should have Atlanta fans pumped about the future: In their last 10 games, the Hawks are +5.9 points per 100 when Trae Young and John Collins are on the court together. That pair is the cornerstone of the future for the Hawks, and it’s looking promising. In the loss to the Nets last weekend, Young had his first triple-double and Collins added 33 points and 20 rebounds in the game. The Hawks are going to take a step forward next season, just watch.

Mavericks small icon 26. Mavericks (27-40, LW 26). The long season seems to be catching up with Luka Doncic. In his last five games he’s still averaging 20.4 points per game, but he’s shooting just 27.8% from three and 37.5% overall. Against San Antonio Tuesday he had his worst game of the season, 5-of-18 shooting, 1-of-7 from three, and even 1-of-9 from the free throw line. What you had to like is the frustrated Doncic went in and worked on his game immediately after that showing, vowing it would not happen again.

Suns small icon 27. Suns (16-52, LW 29). The Suns are not taking for Zion — they have won 5-of-7 and that includes beating the Warriors and the Bucks. The biggest key is that Kelly Oubre has been a fit, and averaged 18.9 points a game since put in the starting lineup, providing another shot creation and scoring option for Phoenix.

Bulls small icon 28. Bulls (19-50, LW 27). What has Zach LaVine done to step up his game this season? Get to the rim. Before his injury (his three seasons in Minnesota) LaVine took 33% to 35% of his shots at the rim, but this season that is up to 49% (stats via Cleaning the Glass). He can get to the rim whenever he wants and is finishing a solid 61% of those shots. He’s taking fewer midrangers also and has found a steady stroke from three (although he should get and take more corner threes, he’s deadly there).

Cavaliers small icon 29. Cavaliers (17-51, LW 28). Collin Sexton was not the instant star some of the other guys in the last draft have been, but he has steadily improved throughout the season. Last week he broke Kyrie Irving’s franchise record for triple-doubles as a rookie. He’s got work to do, particularly on the defensive end, but he’s taking steps in the right direction.

Knicks small icon 30. Knicks (13-55, LW 30). Zion Williamson will return from injury to play in the ACC Tournament and then the NCAA Tournament for Duke. While have been fans and pundits calling for him to shut it down, it speaks to his makeup and desire that he wants to play and wants to win with his teammates, not just sit back and wait until he gets paid. With him, and particularly how Zion improves their defense, the Blue Devils have a real shot to win it all. What… you want to talk about the Knicks? Come on.