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Rising Suns – Time to take Phoenix Seriously?

Rising Suns – Time to take Phoenix Seriously?

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For a team projected by many NBA analysts to finish last in the West, and join the race for the top places in next year’s draft, the Phoenix Suns obviously haven’t been paying attention to the preseason predictions.  I wrote back in October in my preview of the team that they would suck and finish in bottom 3 of Western Conference, but would at least be exciting to watch and play like a Suns team should with plenty of fastbreaks, athleticism and take a few scalps of winning teams along the way (oh and beat  the Lakers). So far I only got one thing wrong, they don’t suck.

Currently, over a quarter of the way into the season,  Phoenix lie 2nd in the Pacific Division, and 6th overall in the super competitive Western conference,  above teams like Golden State, Denver, Minnesota, Dallas and the LA Lakers. They are currently on a 5 game winning streak, with a record of 14-9.  I don’t think anyone could have predicted that scenario, and if it had been suggested back in summer, you would have been dismissed as being in the company of Michael Beasley for too long. Also, if Phoenix (obviously hypothetically speaking) were in the Eastern Conference, they would be the 3rd seed in playoffs.  Crazy stuff.  It also highlights that the East is basically a two team race, Indiana looking outstanding early on, and Miami being Miami.

So how have Phoenix achieved this in a short space of time? The answer lies mainly in two places, Head Coach Jeff Hornacek, and the twin point guard tandem of Goran Dragic & Eric Bledsoe. Hornacek arrived back in the summer to oversee what many thought as building a team for the future, whilst picking up losses and hoping for the balls to fall kindly for a high draft pick.
The first part of that has happened, as he along with his coaching staff have managed to get career best years out of 7 players on this roster, and gave them the confidence to go out on the court without fear of the opponent. The Morris Twins (Morrii?) are more consistent. PJ Tucker who is best known for his tenacious defensive stops, is ranked 5th in 3-Pt %age, notably from the corner. Miles Plumlee has shown his ability to block shots but importantly very effective on setting screens to allow Dragic and Bledsoe clear lanes to the hoop. This guy played only 50 minutes last season, but has looked a solid and shrewd acquisition by GM Ryan McDonough.

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Hornacek has the team playing fast, up-tempo basketball whilst maintaining a solid effort on defence.  The emphasis is on the team, not individuals, as he stressed back at training camp. Having nearly eight players scoring in double figures lends credence to this. He seems settled in his line-ups and rotations and comfortable with giving trust to the players, a big thing for coaches, in the crunch time of games. Look at Bledsoe taking the 3 to win the game over the Jazz as evidence. Having a former NBA player who was one of the league’s best shooters also helps. The Suns have reduced the long 2-pointers, whilst increasing the use and accuracy of the corner three, combined with being the top fast-break scoring team in the league, adds up to more efficient points production.

Bledsoe Game Winner
Which leads to the other part of the Suns surprising resurgence. The Dragic/Bledsoe backcourt has certainly clicked better than I thought. Looking at the stat sheets show both players averaging around 19ppg, and over 6apg, virtually mirroring each other. This harks back to the team ethic I mentioned above.  Both players are extremely comfortable driving to the basket, either at pace on the fast-break, or through the use of screens set by Plumlee and Markieff Morris to open the lanes. They are again, having career highs like many of their teammates and bear the burden of being the primary weapons on offense.
Watch the video below and you’ll see much of what I’ve spoken about on display in the game vs. the Kings in Phoenix.

Dragic Vs. Kings

Both players give the opposing team a nightmare to defend against.  Keeping a handle on those pair looking to drive at defences opens up baskets for Gerald Green, Frye and PJ Tucker from long range and easy high percentage looks for Plumlee and the Morrii. This keeps the points spread throughout the team, but Dragic & Bledsoe score the bulk as they are playing at such a high level this season. What it will remind NBA, and Phoenix fans, of a couple decades ago was the successful backcourt of Kevin Johnson and Jeff Hornacek, who was an All-star in Phoenix? If both players keep up this level, they may have an outside chance of being a coach’s pick of the showpiece in February, however looking at the high quality in the West; it may not be this year.

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What their play is doing though is getting them noticed around the league. Other players notice these things and may think to themselves “I’d like to play with those two”, and also be impressed with how Hornacek runs the plays. Certainly with the brand of basketball they are playing right now, Phoenix is a much more attractive destination than it was four months ago. With their great cap flexibility next year, they are also in a position to match any offer made for Bledsoe, who does have suitors around the league. Along with multiple first round picks in next year’s draft, I’d fancy the Suns on landing a big player in the near future via a trade, possibly bundling some of these picks in a deal. As it stands, they would have none inside the draft’s top ten.

It remains to be seen if they can keep their form up over an 82 game season, it is early days but the signs are encouraging that this exciting, young team can become a force again in the West. Making the playoffs alone would be an incredible achievement, but let’s walk before we can run first.

Phoenix Suns Season Preview

Nearly six months on from their second worst season in franchise history, the Phoenix Suns are preparing to begin a new campaign, and the beginning of a new era in the organisation.

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Last season’s team was bad for many reasons, and not just the playing personnel.  A lack of clear direction and identity was all too obvious to onlookers. Steve Nash had been shipped to our hated rivals in LA for draft picks and Grant Hill joined him in the city with the Clippers via free agency. These two guys had been a huge presence in the organisation, Nash being a two time MVP and playing his best basketball years in Phoenix, the most famous and best loved Sun since Sir Charles himself. Grant Hill, despite his more limited offensive production, had been the team’s best defender and a leader on the court as well and in the locker room.

So the front office decided Michael Beasley (stop laughing) would be the right signing and the type of guy to lead the franchise back to playoff contention. Goran Dragic signed on for a second stint, who would prove to be one of the few bright spots in a dreadful season that saw Alvin Gentry lose his job and Lindsay Hunter take the reins for remainder of the season, ensuring just 25 wins

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“So guys, can Michael Beasley really lead this team?”

All this led to big changes. General Manager Lance Blanks was fired, and Boston’s Assistant GM Ryan McDonough, who had been courted by a few franchises prior to Phoenix, was installed to run the show and begin the rebuilding of the franchise. Lindsay Hunter was not retained as Head Coach leading to the popular former Suns shooting guard Jeff Hornacek arriving from Utah.

The Suns roster was a mismatch of players: veterans and pros that don’t belong on losing teams. Hornacek spoke of getting back to the style that he first played in Phoenix under the late Cotton Fitzsimmons in the 80’s. Fastbreaks and high scoring, the exciting brand of basketball that the franchise was always known for, but adopting some of the hard defensive systems he learned at the Jazz from Coach Jerry Sloan. For this Phoenix had to get younger, beginning with the NBA Draft in June.

In a surprise to some, Alex Len was selected with the 5th pick, overlooking some of the more ‘sexy picks’ in Ben McLemore and Nerlens Noel. Len had undergone ankle surgery for a stress fracture, and later revealed he would have a similar op on the other ankle as a preventive measure. Archie Goodwin was selected at 29; the 19 year old Kentucky guard was seen as a sleeper in the draft and a youngster with a high upside, very athletic with an ability to get to the basket, although a streaky jump shooter.

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During the offseason a number of players were traded, and released. Solid swingman Jared Dudley was traded to the Clips, in exchange for exciting PG Eric Bledsoe and Caron Butler (who was later traded to the Bucks for Ish Smith and centre Slava Kravtsov). The key to the Butler deal to the Bucks was freeing up 5 mil in cap space, which enabled them to waive Michael Beasley who contributions in less than a year in Phoenix amounted to a gun charge, possession of marijuana and an alleged sexual assault. (He did have one outstanding game versus the Lakers though). Luis Scola was shifted to the Pacers (great move for him) with Miles Plumlee, Gerald Green and a 1st round ‘14 draft pick going back to Phoenix. Jermaine O’Neal signed with the Golden State Warriors, and Wesley Johnson with the Lakers as a free agents.

This past week saw Marcin Gortat, Malcolm Lee, Shannon Brown and Kendall Marshall traded to Washington in exchange for Emeka Okafor and a 1st round pick for next year’s draft. Gortat didn’t belong on a team intent on rebuilding. At 29, he belonged on a team making the playoffs and good luck to him in Washington, it’s a move that is good for both teams. Okafor’s contract is expiring, as was Gortat’s, and if he gets fit enough to play this season, could be traded or Phoenix could see the benefit of saving the further cap space next summer. The real prize was receiving another 1st round draft pick, and the shedding 4 players.

The roster has gotten much younger, faster and athletic, although far more inexperienced.  Miles Plumlee will now be trusted as the starting centre (Frye is not fully up to speed yet after 16 months out with an enlarged heart), with rookie Len earning his minutes from the bench. Plumlee has only played in the region of 50 minutes of NBA game time in his career, but Hornacek has stated he is the player he has been pleasantly surprised by the most in preseason. Markieff Morris should be the starter at PF, he can rebound well and hit shots all the way back to the 3pt line, but can be wildly inconsistent and picks up fouls too easily. His twin, Marcus, is a better shooter although not as physical and will fight it out with PJ Tucker for the SF spot. PJ showed last season he is the team’s best defender, and will provide more in effort and tenacity than in scoring.
Gerald Green will fill between the SF and SG spots, he showed a couple seasons back for the Nets that he could shoot but needs to be kept on a leash otherwise he will be the next Shannon Brown but with even worse shot selection. Archie Goodwin will see limited time to begin the season, as the backcourt is where the Suns have their only two stars.

 

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The early talk from Jeff Hornacek is Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe will form the new backcourt tandem for Phoenix, sharing the ball handling duties. Neither are great shooters but they both like to push the ball in an up-tempo offense (remember they played behind Steve Nash and Chris Paul as backups), and have excellent passing abilities as well as driving to the hoop themselves. For Bledsoe this is a huge season. He finally has the starting spot on an NBA team, and has the opportunity to make himself the franchise player for the Suns future. I’d expect him to be tied down with a contract extension soon; otherwise the market will set his price as a restricted free agent next summer. His shot blocking ability as a guard at just 6’ 1” is remarkable. He has quick hands as well, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him leading guards in blocks and being close to his former teammate Paul in the steals category. Dragic was excellent last season after the All-star break, averaging 9.5 assists per game and 16 points per game on an awful team. If he carries on that type of form, McDonough may have a tough decision on his hands. Trade him while value is high, or keep him if a partnership with Bledsoe looks like a winner and the young team shows progress.

It’s certain that Phoenix will be in the bottom 3 teams in the West next season. They will suck, that’s not in doubt. There is no outside shooting threat, unless Frye or Green has a hot streak. The interior defence is also questionable now Gortat has departed. However they will be at least playing what the head coach describes as ‘Phoenix Suns basketball’, high tempo, exciting at times to watch, and will get the odd good win against bigger teams (and the Lakers).  This year gives Hornacek a chance to identify which young guys can play in this league and develop, and also the players that can’t. This season is about the building blocks for the future of the organisation.  Get them in place and add to it. Having four first round draft picks for next year is a very good start, coupled with a good chunk of salary cap space, Phoenix have an excellent chance to grow providing they draft well and continue to make good moves as shown by the new GM this offseason.

Player development, not tanking.

Not yet anyway…..It’s only October.

*Waves back

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The Lakeshow is over. The Tankshow begins.

In competitive sports, it’s instilled that winning is paramount and failure is not acceptable. Fans don’t want to pay good money to see poor teams, they want champions, winners or at least a team or club they can be proud of. Growing up we watch sporting icons who inspire and light up their respective professions, raising the bar of excellence and sporting achievement. Take the ’92 Dream Team. Every player (Ok maybe Christian Laettner aside) was a cut above the rest, and had one thing in common: They hated to lose. It didn’t sit well with them.  They strived to be at the pinnacle of basketball and most certainly achieved this during their careers.

How would they react if the message from front office was, “Look guys, we need a shot at the draft, we are making moves to get as close to the number one slot as possible, and this team will be going in that direction.” Yes you could argue players of such caliber wouldn’t be in a bad team.

Well take a look at the Lakers. Kobe Bryant is a bona fide superstar, on a team which seems to be setting up for a ‘Tanking’ run at the 2014 lottery. Their roster is weak on talent, and depth. It has an ageing star in Kobe, coming off one of the worst types of injuries an NBA player can have. Pau Gasol as a big man who feels under appreciated. At point guard, Steve Nash is pushing 40 years of age, and in a declining state of physical condition to run the show in Lala Land. Throw in a strong dislike by Lakers fans of coach Mike D’Antoni and his lack of defense on show in games, they are a team at a crossroads. Do they hit the reset button, or try to rebuild whilst remaining competitive?

Firstly, they have no real tradeable assets aside from Gasol, and even then at 33 with a $20 mil final year of his deal remaining, not many teams want to swallow that.  Metta World Peace has left for the Big Apple to add some steel to the Knicks, Dwight “Loyalty” Howard had jetted off to Houston to recover form and fitness and add another piece to a talented team, leaving the team short of a few pieces. In their current state, they in all likelihood miss the playoffs, so a losing season is pretty much a banker. Question marks will be over Bryant and how well he can recover from injury to lead the team. In his absence the leadership will fall on Nash, having successfully played some of his best basketball under D’Antoni in Phoenix during the ‘Seven seconds or less’ era, to take charge of the players that will be relied upon to deliver wins in LA.

This has the Lakers looking at the other available option, in ‘tanking’, to gain a favourable spot in the highly billed 2014 NBA Draft. I can’t see players like Kobe, Gasol & Nash comfortable with that option, but it may be the Lakers best hope at turning it around for the longer term. Teams like OKC, Indiana & Golden State have built sensibly over past few seasons, adding assets and good draft picks. Teams like Orlando and Phoenix are adopting similar models. They know they are in no position to contend for playoffs, so why make a run at scraping 8th spot and ruining a chance at a great draft prospect for sake of a first round exit. So their front office and coaches are investing time in scouting and ensuring they get maximum value in trades and picks. This is the strategy the Lakers should be looking at, instead of quick, band-aid fixes.

Rumours have them making a run at Carmelo Anthony or even Lebron in free agency to revitalise them, and have them as a Western Conference superpower within the next couple years. However in this time Kobe will be older, and no telling if his body holds up. All the while they continue to pay top dollar contracts. Yes they may be box office on television, but the same will happen again leaving them to reboot or reload without tearing roster apart. The tough Western Conference is more competitive than the East, many teams either at beginning of rebuild phase or in the middle of their development are, it would seem, ahead of the Lakers and have a clear definition of where their franchises are heading.

As of now, there is no clear idea of what is happening in for those in Gold & Purple. They have no clear forward plan that can be seen from the outside, I’m sure Lakers fans will have fingers crossed Mitch Kupchak & Jim Buss have one, although it’s hard to see what their next moves will be. It’s looking like a long way back, especially now the Clippers are the power in LA.

 

 

NBA2K13 FREE for PS3!

I’ve had a look on the PSN store and discovered NBA2K13 is FREE to download for PS+ subscribers. (Sorry 360 owners). I’ve played every version since ’07 and year on year keeps getting better. Being available for free is an absolute steal so fire away and get playing.

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