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What did we Learn from the Suns’ 2018-19 season?

In general, we learned that rebuilding is hard and veteran players matter. Having players that have been in the NBA for some time and have played in the playoffs is crucial to creating a winning basketball team. When you have a void of that, it will be tough to win. Thus, the Suns had their second-worst win total of 19 wins (only worse was the Suns inaugural season in the 1960s).

The average age of the Suns’ roster (minus the two-way guys who barely played) and minus Jimmer (30) and Jamal Crawford (39) is 22.9 years old. This team was basically a veteran college team. This doesn’t take into account Trevor Ariza (33), Tyson Chandler and Ryan Anderson (30) who started the year with the Suns and played mostly badly.

When you consider further that Troy Daniels (27) didn’t play much for most of the year and that Tyler Johnson (26) and Kelly Oubre (23), who are considered veterans, for the Suns’ roster at least (due to their playoff experience) were picked up via trade later in the year, this team is young (and didn’t get too many contributions from their vets). Of course, ageless-wonder Jamal Crawford has his flashes, especially his 51-point game in the season finale.

The Suns were also bitten by the injury bug (as most teams are), but when most of your team is unproven, losing a proven NBA-caliber player for any extended stretch really impacts the ability to stay competitive.

Devin Booker missed 18 games with various ailments, most notable that nagging hamstring injury. With Booker being by far the Suns’ best player, missing him for 22 percent of the season really hampered their win total. TJ Warren played even less than Booker, entering in only 43 games (barely half of the 82 games of the season). Seeing as he is probably the second-best player (debatable now with Oubre in the fold) that really hurt their competitiveness. Toward the end of the season (even after having top three lottery odds locked up – aka no incentive to tank) the Suns were missing their six best players (Booker, Warren, Oubre, Johnson, Ayton, Holmes). That’s basically a G-league team that’s left; especially when the good players left are mostly rookies or sophomores who as a general rule are notoriously raw and “bad”.

Enough of the tragedy the Suns experienced, let’s discuss the positives and breakdown what we learned about and from each player.

Devin Booker

He took another leap. Devin Armani Booker showed he could end up being one of the most prolific scorers the league has ever seen. He is constantly breaking records for “youngest to do this” etc including youngest to have back to back 50-point games. He had consecutive games of 59, 51 and 48 points and if not for a petty (but understandable hard double-team in the waning seconds of the game) it would have been three-straight 50-point games. We knew he could be a prolific scorer, but what we learned this year was what we surmised – that he could be more efficient. He was. Booker averaged 26.6 points per game (24.9 in 2017-18) which was good for 7th in the NBA this year (a tie with Toronto’s Kawhi Leonard) and better than Kevin Durant, Damian Lillard, Kemba Walker, Kyrie Irving, Donavan Mitchell and Russell Westbrook to name a few. But it was his efficiency that was impressive. His overall field goal percentage increased from 43.2 percent last year to 46.7 percent, sort of crossing the threshold to elite status. His effective field goal percentage also went up from 50.1 percent to 52.1 percent.

Booker also got his teammates more involved this year. Somewhat a product of “Point Book” (aka high volume/usage rate) when Booker isn’t really a point guard, but Booker’s assist percentage skyrocketed from 24.4 percent in 2017-18 to 34.1 percent; good for 11th in the league. His assists per game went from 4.7 to 6.8 (good for 14th in the league this year). This is all more impressive when you see the names Booker is next to when most of the names above him have significantly better teammates and are a good 5-7 years older in their primes while Booker is only 22 years old.

Detractors of Booker say his defense (along with the Suns’ lack of wins) negates his ability to win “real” recognition for his achievements this year or validating what we are seeing on the court. He definitely made a better effort in on-ball defense this year and you can see it when you watch the tape of this season. His off-ball help defense is still lacking – and it’s still to be seen whether more time in the league, getting stronger, or having better teammates/less offensive load on his shoulders will make a significant difference on that end.

He is the leader of the team and his max contract kicks in next season so, we’ll see what the Suns, James Jones and newcomer Jeff Bower can put around him this offseason to help jumpstart winning basketball in Phoenix once again.

DeAndre Ayton

Ayton was the number one pick and I think we can say with a high degree of confidence that Ayton isn’t a bust. He averaged 16.1 points per game on ridiculous efficiency (58.5% FG) and an effective field goal percentage of 58.5 percent which is good for 17th in the league (not among rookies — overall). Ayton was 12th in 2-point field goals in the league, 14th in rebounding (13th in offensive, 16th in defensive) just absolutely dominating everything around the rim. He has some of the best hands I’ve seen for a big man and has incredible touch around the basket.

He is already better as a rim protector than people thought he’d be at the end of his rookie campaign, though it started out pretty rough for the first few months on that end of the court for Ayton. He was tied for 35th in the league in blocks with 67.

He is a fluid athlete and the flashes we saw in this rookie year show how dominate he can be once he gets in the gym, works on his game and gets even stronger than he already is as a 7’1” 250-lb human. He has the right attitude to make it in this league as seen how he talked after the inevitable bad games and how he responded out on the court afterwards. The Suns got a good one despite Ayton decidedly coming in third in the rookie “standings” behind a duo of guard phenoms in Luka Doncic (Dallas Mavericks) and Trae Young (Atlanta Hawks).

Kelly Oubre Jr.

Kelly Oubre Jr. was certainly the best addition of the season for the Suns. Oubre brought a youthful, but experienced voice to the Suns and an indisputable energy that this struggling Suns team needed desperately. He has the combination of speed, athleticism, shooting, determination along with the ability to “go get a bucket” that fits so well with Booker and Ayton. He doesn’t “need” the ball to be successful, but can have it in his hands, run the offense and be successful as the primary ball handler. He rebounds, plays hard and has the perfect combination of boundless energy and positive attitude combined with the calm and undeterred focus of a battle-tested veteran that was lacking on this Suns’ roster. It certainly seems like Oubre wants to stay in the Valley of the Sun going forward. He is a restricted free agent and the Suns have the ability to match anything one of the other teams may offer him. But with the news that Oubre trademarked the term #ValleyBoyz it seems like he would come back. That would be fantastic for the culture and demeanor of this Suns team.  We learned about Oubre how great he would be for the culture and how great a fit he would be long-term around Booker and Ayton.

Tyler Johnson

With the addition of Tyler Johnson to the Suns, we got a peek at what a veteran point guard-led offense would look like – it would be spectacular. With a threshold of 50 minutes played together, Tyler Johnson was a part of the two best lineups for the Suns on the season at +13 and +12 (so was Booker, Ayton, and Oubre). The interchangeable pieces to fill out those lineups were Josh Jackson and Mikal Bridges. Go play with the lineup data on Basketball Reference. It’s pretty interesting.

Johnson isn’t a point guard or probably even part of the Suns’ future, while also being overpaid (there is a near 100 percent chance he opts-in to his $19+ million player option, as he should). However, he helps make the Suns go. He is unflappable, a steadying presence on offense and a gritty defender who knows where to be. As a 26-year-old who has been in the league for a while, he just isn’t going to make as many mistakes as younger players.

Mikal Bridges

The Dan Majerle hustle award winner really had a great rookie season. It seems evident that Bridges is – so far – the third piece as a part of the Suns future core alongside Booker and Ayton. He drained threes and played solid defense (even receiving a few votes in The Athletic’s anonymous NBA player poll as the “best defender” which is remarkable for a rookie). He also stole the ball – a lot. He had 129 steals in his rookie campaign (one less than LeBron James’ rookie year) and ends up 12th among rookies in steals since 2000-01. If you add in his three-point acumen, there are only four other players to match Bridges’ combination of 129 steals and 105 made threes in their rookie season all-time. The other rookies to do that were Stephen Curry, Mario Chalmers, Allen Iverson, and Kerry Kittles. That’s pretty amazing company for Bridges.

The most promising thing is how Bridges now projects for the rest of his career. Coming out in the draft a year ago the “best case” for Bridges was an elite “3-and-D” player. Well, he could achieve that by the end of his second year once he his able to work on his strength and not go through the struggles of being a rookie in the league. We saw some flashes of some other things Bridges could do on the court that could raise his career trajectory. He showed us some one and two-dribble pull-up jumpers as well as some great drives that utilized his length. We learned a lot about how long Bridges will stay in the league. He could have a long 15+ year career. Hopefully, in a Suns uniform for most, or all, of that time.

Josh Jackson

We learned a lot of interesting things about Josh Jackson. He can reign-in his shot selection and still be aggressive without being reckless. It’s looking as if his defense probably won’t be elite, but also probably won’t be miserable.

His three-point accuracy soared this year. Just taking the raw year-to-year numbers, his three-point accuracy improved from a horrendous 26 percent to a respectable 32 percent. If you saw the progression during the 2018-19 season, that number could jump to elite level next year and going forward. The hitch in his release is gone. Looking at the month-to-month splits and you can see the improvement.

He may not end up being a key part of the Suns’ future core, but it seems like he’ll stick in the league longer than it may have seemed as the percentage chance of him being a bust continues to go down.

T.J. Warren

Well, we learned two specific and opposing things about Warren in the 2018-19 season. Someone can be an absolute non-shooter and turn into a knockdown three-point shooter, seemingly overnight. The other is that despite improving in ways it seemed would never happen, Warren is probably not in the Suns’ long-term plans.

First, the positive. Warren re-worked his three-point shot and had career highs in three-point percentage of 42.8 percent (absolute elite level percentage-wise). The volume also went way up. Warren’s 77 made threes nearly caught his 79 threes combined his first four years in the league. With his free throw percentage also jumping from 75.7 percent to 81.5 percent, he also had a career-high effective field goal percentage (that takes into account the math involved in comparing threes, twos and free throws). Despite averaging fewer minutes per game, Warren’s assists, steals, and blocks improved a bit compared to last season.

Unfortunately, much of this great story is dampened by injury. In 2018-19, Warren played only 43 games, a low for his career (apart from the 40 games his rookie year). Warren just always seems to be banged up, and injuries seem to linger for him. It’s not a toughness issue either it seems, just very unfortunate. We’ll never really know how injured he was toward the end of the season as other injuries and jockeying for lottery position made it pointless to bring him back early (despite Warren being close to a three-point attempt bonus). However, as Warren was injured during the Suns’ great stretch of games where they did play well, Warren seems like the odd man out in the plethora of wings the Suns have (Bridges, Oubre, Jackson, most notably). He’ll always get buckets with his great touch around the basket and instinct for offensive rebounding and off-ball cutting, but it seems like this is the player he’s going to be for the rest of his career. The three-point improvement will mean the Suns can get more value in a trade, but it’s looking like he has played his last game for the Suns due to other Suns’ wings bringing more to the table.

Richaun Holmes

Holmes was a great find by the Suns’ front office “hiding” behind Joel Embiid in Philly. His energy is infectious, he always plays hard and, while a limited player on offense, he is the perfect backup center for NBA teams. He can still score, is athletic and big enough to play tough defense down in the paint and doesn’t give up or back down from a challenge.

If Holmes can work on his interior passing vision and skill while developing a jumpshot, he could be even more valuable. The Suns will probably look to lock up the unrestricted free agent who will get paid handsomely as he’ll, in all likelihood, double (or more) his career earnings thus far.

Jamal Crawford

We learned that “JCrossover” can still ball out sometimes, but on the court probably can’t contribute too much in terms of winning basketball at the age of 39. Certainly, any illusion of defense is gone. The good part is that most of Crawford’s value to this Suns’ team is off the court in terms of mentorship. Nearly every teammate kept discussing Crawford’s significant impact on them, not only as a player but as a person. With him dropping 51 points on the final game of the season, I could see the Suns’ re-upping Crawford on a vet minimum deal again after seeing the positive impact he had on the players.

Troy Daniels

We’ve really known it his whole career, but man can Daniels shoot the ball! Daniels even showed a little better defensive positioning and effort this year along with a little dribbling and driving improvement. Daniels will basically be in the NBA for as long as he wants with that impressive shooting stroke, but his contracts will be pretty close to the minimum unless those flashes we saw become more consistent. This one is a toss-up in terms of him being on the Suns or not in October. It will depend on trades and what the free agency landscape looks like for Daniels.

DeAnthony Melton and Elie Okobo

The rookie season was certainly a roller-coaster for Melton and his fellow rookie point guard Elie Okobo. Both went from times starting to having stretches of DNP-CDs (did not participate – coach’s decision). Melton is seemingly more athletic and longer and definitely better at defense, but Okobo seems a bit more polished, is a better passer and certainly a better shooter. Unfortunately, neither are near good enough to start in the NBA as of yet, as the mid-season addition of veteran Tyler Johnson (who isn’t even quite a point guard… and yet… results) showed. With just seeing them on the court and not knowing them personally or lockerroom interactions, I would keep Melton (just because it is easier to teach to his deficiencies than Okobo’s, making Melton’s future ceiling easier to hit). If they can hold on to both for their sophomore seasons, even better.

Ray Spaulding

Spaulding didn’t play much this year but certainly seems like an NBA player (and not someone who will wash out of the league). He’ll need to put on more weight (i.e. get stronger) to bang with the bigs down in the paint, but he has some great touch around the basket on offense and projects to be a prototypical mobile big so essential in the modern game.

Jimmer Fredette

In one sense (being in the NBA realm), you’ve gotta feel bad for Fredette. He has a great college career, some time in the league and then washes out to overseas leagues. He plays well over there and reinvents himself then makes it back over – then shoots ZERO percent on threes in his short time with the Suns. I don’t envision the Suns bringing him back for the second (non-guaranteed) year, but I hope he gets his chance either with the Suns or with one of the other 29 teams.

Igor Kokoskov

Igor Kokoskov had an interesting year. He had tons of experience as an NBA assistant coach, but being the boss is a whole different ballgame. It’s all on you, regardless of the factors that are out of your control. The Suns only won 19 games and that’s not great. However, Kokoskov is good at player development and that’s what we saw. Jackson, Warren, Booker, Ayton and others all improved in key areas. Kokoskov definitely had problems he’ll need to improve on as a coach, but the Suns should keep Igor around at least one more year for a couple of reasons. The Suns didn’t have the talent to let a coach really do his thing (the lack of point guard which Igor is especially good at utilizing was especially problematic). Igor did not really let the offense bog down as it has the past five-plus years despite the lack of NBA starter ball-handlers (minus Booker). Also, consistency is so important, and the culture seems to be shifting with James Jones, Igor, Crawford, Oubre, etc so it seems like it would be a mistake to let the head coach go at this juncture. Also, the Suns really worked to rehab their image around the league and did so seemingly by helping players get to desired destinations through dead money on their books. Tyson Chandler, Austin Rivers, Trevor Ariza, Wayne Ellington, which could come into play this offseason.

The future is bright if you look at the silver linings!

Smooth as Jazz

Written by Logan Karels

In the heart of Western Conference, there is a team that isn’t a powerhouse but sure seems like a dark horse team — the Utah Jazz. Classic jazz music is certainly smooth, and this team certainly fits that label. Utah wasn’t forced to make any drastic changes this offseason, as their two best players, Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert, are on the upswing at 22 and 26-years-old respectively.

As a franchise that seemingly looked to be on a downturn and in a rebuild after losing franchise player Gordon Hayward in free agency, last season sure was a surprise. Having two core players as your franchise cornerstones, so young in age — who both haven’t reached their prime but are also productive — is the envy of every small market team in the league.

The Jazz had arguably the steal of the draft, picking their young star Mitchell at the 13th overall pick. Mitchell had a great rookie campaign averaging 20.5 points, 3.7 rebounds, 3.7 assists, and 1.5 steals. This young man has been compared to Dwyane Wade in just his first year of playing NBA basketball. There is absolutely no doubt he is an elite athlete and a special talent. Standing at 6’3” and 210 pounds, he has a 6’10” wingspan making him a formidable guard in today’s game — even more so if he starts making improvements on defense. He is built similarly to Wade, who has just an inch and about 15 pounds on the young Jazz star, so it is easy to see why Mitchell drew the comparisons along with the similar intensity and playing style. Wade was an elite athlete and very explosive in his prime, and we have yet to see what the young Jazz star’s prime will bring.

Arguably the team’s MVP is defensive juggernaut Rudy Gobert. This young star already has quite an impressive resume — NBA blocks leader in 2017, two-time NBA All-Defensive first team, All-NBA second team, capped off with a Defensive Player of the Year award in 2018. Gobert is the team’s most important player right now at 26, at least until Mitchell continues further down his development trajectory. It simply cannot be overstated enough how good it is for a franchise to have their two best players this young. Gobert is a defensive juggernaut and leads the way on the floor defensively. He stands tall and long at 7’1” with a historically long wingspan of 7’9”. The reigning Defensive Player of the Year acts as an anchor and essentially generates a no-fly zone around the rim. As one of the league’s premier shot-blockers, the rest of his team can channel players driving at the rim toward Gobert as he waits for them in the paint with his massive reach and defensive capability. The Jazz are one of the NBA’s top defensive teams and Gobert plays a massive role in that.

Utah had the luxury of consistency of a roster from year to year, and that continuity helps elevate a team to prominence. Great role players are always needed on any team that has championship aspirations. The Jazz do not come up short in that respect at all. Joe Ingles has emerged as another of the team’s best players and leading scorer. Ingles was one of the top three-point shooters in the NBA last season at 45 percent. Ricky Rubio runs the pick and roll with Gobert and also runs the offense, which opens Mitchell up to focus more on scoring. Basketball veterans Rubio and Ingles help the team’s young players greatly, both of whom played professional basketball overseas before their NBA careers even began. Veteran leadership is a must have on any aspiring championship NBA team. Speaking of veterans, earlier this season the Jazz acquired former player Kyle Korver. Korver has been one of the best three-point shooters in the game during his entire career. He is fifth all-time in the NBA in three-pointers made (just recently getting passed by former MVP and sharpshooting flamethrower Stephen Curry). Outside shooting is a great asset to have when you can pair it with a slasher/penetrator like Mitchell can be.

Gobert and Derrick Favors share similar playing styles, both being essentially traditional big men. Another key piece to Utah’s success is Jae Crowder, who, like Gobert, is an extremely talented defensive player, and he can also shoot the three. A notable acquisition for the team during the NBA draft was Grayson Allen, who was a talented player for Coach K at Duke, playing all four years behind the legendary coach. He plays extremely hard on defense and is yet another talented young player on the Jazz roster. The roster is jam-packed full of players who are both long and athletic. The quarter season acquisition of Kyle Korver was a great decision by Utah. Korver is one of the greatest three-point shooters ever, and his return to the Jazz, a former team of his, was a warm welcome indeed.

During last season, head coach Quin Snyder experimented with different lineups, plugging in different players here and there. He finally found a starting lineup that worked and had great rotational players as well. The Jazz haven’t looked back since. They finished the season strong and went into the playoffs and upset the Oklahoma City Thunder led by reigning MVP Russell Westbrook. Quin Snyder is without a doubt one of the NBA’s top coaches — he played for and was virtually groomed by the legendary Duke men’s basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski. After his playing days, he returned to Duke and finished his MBA and JD, while serving as one of Coach K’s assistants. Coaching behind such a renowned coach like Coach K is something that few aspiring NBA coaches can hope to experience. Having won the Coach of the Year award during his time in the D-League, it’s not hard to see why he was at least mentioned by some last year for the same honor in the NBA.

This season is not starting out too well for Utah, as the Western Conference has continued to get stronger, year after year. Good things are on the horizon for the Jazz however, if they continue to groom their stars. Led by head coach Quin Snyder, and star players Gobert and Mitchell, another strong season is in store for Utah if they can turn things around after their mediocre start. Things were looking to take a turn for the worse for Utah fans when Gordon Hayward left for Boston. Perhaps with all the young talent they currently possess, karma will turn around and they will be in the running for a big name free agent in the next couple years. They have certainly earned a spot on future free agent’s map of possible destinations.

Superteams: Good or Bad for the NBA?

Written by Logan Karels (@Karels23)

Superteams. A superteam is a term thrown around in the sports world quite often in this era of basketball.

So, what exactly defines a superteam? A superteam is when a professional sports team has multiple all-star (or all-star caliber) players on the same team. Historically, superteams have always existed in the NBA. Parity in sports is common terminology brought up regularly by fans around the water cooler. The dynastic Golden State Warriors are no exception in the NBA.

The truth is — the league has consistently remained the same. Every year, come postseason time, only a handful of teams have a shot at winning the NBA championship. The remaining teams in the league simply are not on that same level as the top teams.

Let’s take a look at what are considered some of the best teams (superteams) in the history of the NBA.

Obviously, the Chicago Bulls superteam is automatically in the discussion. Led by Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, one of the most fearsome duos the league has ever seen, this team was considered to be the best of all time. In the 90’s, The duo led the Bulls to six titles in eight years, including two three-peats (losing in the Eastern Conference Finals twice in between when Jordan went to go play baseball).

The current Golden State Warriors superteam has had a dominant stretch in the last several years including a record-breaking 73-9 regular season. What is most impressive is the three championships in four years (and if Draymond doesn’t get suspended during the 2016 Finals probably would be going for their fifth straight title this upcoming season). If they keep up their level of greatness they have a chance to dethrone the Jordan-Bulls dynasty off the all-time rankings.

The 2013-era HEAT led by LeBron and Wade were also very dominant during their time as teammates, winning an extraordinary 27 games consecutively during the regular season, along with Chris Bosh and their supporting cast. They won consecutive titles and lost in the finals on the years bookending their repeat championships.

It’s worth mentioning history’s past great superteams that newer NBA fans may not entirely know of. The “Showtime Lakers” with Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and James Worthy. The original Celtics super team led by Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish. An even older Celtics superteam yet were led by the legendary Bill Russell, with Bob Cousy and Sam Jones.

Parity in Professional Sports

Parity refers to the equality of the league, meaning that in a perfect world, the best 30+ players would be evenly distributed to teams in the league- making the league much more competitive and interesting. Historically, parity within the NBA has remained a constant. Each era had the respective teams who dominated the rest of the league. Each season, very similar to today’s league, only a select few teams have a real chance to win the NBA championship.

The NFL differs highly from the NBA in terms of parity. The Superbowl favorites often change every season. Staying consistent in the postseason, making the conference finals, and advancing to the title game proves extremely challenging. In basketball- you have 5 players who are the main impact on the game — whereas in football you have 11 different players on both sides of the ball, offense and defense. Counting special teams and substitutions throughout the game, there are many players that teams must rely on in high pressure game situations. For instance, in the NBA teams “shorten” their in-game rotations and substitution patterns. In the NFL, there are too many positions and it just isn’t realistic.

In the NBA, a player like LeBron or Michael Jordan, one individual player can have a massive impact on a game. On the football field, it is difficult for a specific player to have such an impact on the game outside of a quarterback with a few exceptions. One such exception is a player like Khalil Mack, the Bears’ defensive star that just came over from the Raiders. He alone has changed the Bears defense entirely to one of the top defenses in the league. Even so, they are far from considered one of the best teams in the league, and even in the NFC North. When you get a player with that kind of skill level who is leading an NBA team —  that team is almost guaranteed to be one of the best, if not the best teams in the league.

What makes a Superteam?

What exactly qualifies a team as a Superteam? For most people, it is multiple all-star caliber or superstar-caliber players on the same team. Looking at the current Golden State Warriors roster — Steph Curry and Kevin Durant — with three MVP awards between them can dominate the game anywhere at any given night, regardless of the team they are playing. Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and Demarcus Cousins are all-stars as well. Golden State also has arguably two of the best shooters of all time in Curry and Thompson. The league has never before seen a team that can bolster a lineup (eventually) of five all-stars.

Many try to make the argument that the blame solely lies on LeBron for the superteam phenomenon we have seen in recent years. This is probably a misconception, as there were superteams before “The Heatles” came along in 2010. The whole reason LeBron left his hometown team for Miami is so he could get more reliable help to beat the Boston Celtics’ big three of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen, which could be considered a big 4 when adding Rajon Rondo’s impact on the game. It’s extremely difficult to find a championship roster without two or more future Hall of Famers on the leagues’ superteams of the past. The glaring reason for this is: it’s near impossible to win a title by yourself. Every great team has its star player, of course, but one thing they all have in common is other stars and great supporting casts.

Effects on the NBA

The topic has been the root of debate for NBA fans around the country and globally. Many say that superteams are ruining the league and that is not true in my opinion. If it was, the league would have been ruined ages ago due to all the superteams in the NBA since Dr. James Naismith invented this wonderous game.

In truth, superteams actually benefit the NBA. The Warriors have gained an insane amount of popularity and attention when they play. The NBA is thriving financially in part due to this, another reason why superteams- even like the Warriors — only spell good things for the NBA. The first rounds of the playoffs weren’t great overall, but the Finals itself has been breaking previous viewership records. Every player and team in the league wants nothing more than to beat Golden State, the best current team. This bolsters the competition and makes for highly entertaining games.

Superteams force the rest of the league to work harder to get better and improve their skills. When a team like the Warriors gets remarkably far ahead of the rest of the league in terms of skill, the pressure is on all those other teams to advance, whether that would be signing players through free agency, trading, or just working hard every day to improve. Other teams need to increase their risk profile and “swing for the fences” as it were to compete with Golden State. It will be very exciting to see which franchise can put together a roster good enough to compete with the Warriors- like the Rockets almost did last season.

The Los Angeles Clippers: An NBA experiment

This upcoming season’s Los Angeles Clippers’ roster is quite interesting to say the least. It’s a unique enigma.

“Lob City” is no more- with Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan all having moved on to different teams. Many have pointed out the fact they have no real star- which is very true. When was the last time a team had this significant a lack of talent variation? What does that even mean? It means that the organization has no superstars, but contains a deeper than average team. Most of the players are closer to the same talent and impact level than any team you can think of. This roster consists of many solid role players, but no real star player to lead. We’ll see what that means for the Clippers this season with the absolutely stacked Western Conference including the seismic shift of LeBron changing conferences and joining the legendary Los Angeles Lakers across the hall. 

Harkening back to 2004

The first team that comes to mind when you think of a “flat” roster is the 2004 Detroit Pistons- though they did win the championship that year. The premise is still similar: they did not have a star or superstar level type player either. One could make the argument for Chauncey Billups being their star/leader, but he wasn’t a superstar caliber player.

That starting five was a very solid lineup:

  • Chauncey Billups
  • Rip Hamilton
  • Tayshaun Prince
  • Rasheed Wallace
  • Ben Wallace

Detroit was a heavy underdog in the series against LA, but overcame the odds. The team is comparable to the Clippers roster. Some of the better-known players on the roster would include Lou Williams, Avery Bradley, Patrick Beverley, Luc Mbah a Moute, and Danilo Gallinari to name a few. Despite losing their star player and defensive anchor in DeAndre Jordan, The Clippers can make a push toward the playoffs. No one is going to be expecting much from this squad- which makes for the perfect recipe for success-  and therefore there is no pressure on them to succeed. The Clippers roster is also quite deep and features a number of players who will be solid rotational guys and give a great boost off the bench.

Roster Expectations and Analysis

The Clippers’ lack of star power will certainly pose a problem later on in the postseason, but their significantly superior depth will help them win games during the doldrums of the regular season. The roster shockingly has a combined zero all-star appearances for such a veteran team.  However, they get on the board with a handful of defensive first and second team appearances thanks to Patrick Beverley and Avery Bradley.

Luc Mbah a Moute, who is another great defender, can add a scoring boost off the bench and helps round out their forward rotation with “professional scorers” Tobias Harris and Danilo Gallinari. The defensive side of the ball will indeed be one of the teams’ strengths thanks in part to these three defensive standouts leading the way and setting an example for their teammates. Boban Marjanovic is a giant of a man, and will also help with defense by clogging the lane and disrupting opposing players’ drives to the baskets.

Lou Williams has earned the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award twice in his career- one being this past season- and the team will look to him to lead them in the scoring department after his strong campaign. Probably, Williams (and many other players in the rotation) are in the range of the 40th best players in the league or thereabouts (but no better), which is just going to make things all the more interesting.

Solar Insights Editor-in-Chief Eric Saar and ESPN’s Kevin Pelton discuss the Clipper roster

For full podcast (near end of audio): click here

This team is built for the regular season and rosters like this do not come around too often. Most of that is due to the shift in culture in the NBA lately. These days you NEED to have 2-3 All-Stars to even compete for the title it seems. The premise of the Clippers roster is good in theory, but having such a plethora of veteran NBA players can help raise the floor for a team like this. They have a high basketball IQ and will be calm in certain types of situations that may arise in high-pressure games.  Fewer mistakes will be made because of their experience. On the flip side, their lack of a true superstar will definitely lower their ceiling. Teams need a superstar to lead them throughout the season and in critical postseason games. These superstars take all the defensive attention and try to lead the team to victory.

Still, they need a star to lead them. It would be awesome to see some others teams try this out with a completely solid roster from top to bottom- but led by one star- and with all the rotational guys producing significantly in one aspect or another.  It all about players embracing their role and how much money there is to spread around.

This Clippers team is going to surprise some people with their play in the upcoming season. Even though the Western Conference is going to be tough — as usual — this Clippers roster has the potential to push through and possibly even earn themselves a postseason berth. One of the bright spots for the team will be their defensive prowess, especially on the perimeter. Led by Bradley, Beverley and Mbah a Moute, the three will work to set an example for their fellow teammates to get everyone more involved and ultimately improve on the defensive side of the ball. Lou Williams has the potential to lead on the other side of the ball, however. He is certainly a talented scorer and has displayed it at certain times throughout his career. Overall, this Clippers team is pretty well rounded and stuffed with solid players who will provide great production in their time on the court. One thing is for sure- Clippers fans should be excited to see how this roster emerges and performs against the tougher teams of the league.

2017 Trade Season Suns-Specific Thoughts


It’s trade season, which means Suns’ fans want to get rid of anyone on the roster old enough to rent a car. But what should we think about this team? How do we approach trade season?

If you missed my earlier article on understanding the NBA trade season, click the link to check it out and become a more educated NBA fan.

Here we’ll discuss the landscape of this Suns team and how they should proceed with the trade deadline creeping up on us this Thursday (February 23rd at 3:00 pm ET).

Makeup of the Team

Coach Earl Watson’s 2016-2017 Suns’ squad can easily be separated into three distinct age groups:

  • The young’ens- Dragan Bender (19), Derrick Jones Jr. (20), Marquese Chriss (20), Devin Booker (20), Tyler Ulis (21), TJ Warren (23), Alex Len (23), Alan Williams (24)
  • The in-betweeners- Brandon Knight (25), Eric Bledsoe (27)
  • The grizzled vets- P.J. Tucker (31), Jared Dudley (31), Leandro Barbosa (34) and Tyson Chandler (34)

Note: I’m not counting Ronnie Price, who is basically just a coach.

Hmm, I wonder why they are losing? Especially, when their veterans weren’t even really ever close to a top player on any team they’ve been on. It’s certainly difficult to win in the NBA when, not too long ago, 36 percent of your team couldn’t legally drink and only 3 players have more than 6 years of NBA experience under their belt (Dudley, Barbosa, Chandler).

How to rebuild

That just means that this team is in the midst of a rebuild. Every team (maybe the Spurs excluded) goes through this period. The way to get out of a perpetual rebuild is to draft carefully (and get lucky), as well as mold your youngsters into either a part of your core or valuable assets to trade — if they don’t wind up fitting your style of play or timeline.

It’s my philosophy that young teams need veterans to teach them how to play basketball – the right way – teaching them how to win. Helping them understand how to love and embrace the grind and have the proper outlook on playing a professional sport. While the physical maturity of these young players is pretty straight forward, the mental portion of their development is not. It’s an oversimplification to say, “just throw them out there and they’ll get better” throwing out any semblance of nuance, precision or context.

Yes, playing time is a way to get used to the speed and physicality of the pro game, but especially in their rookie year, a lot of the maturity is getting comfortable playing basketball as a career. It’s the travel, handling THAT much money, being yelled at, becoming responsible, and on the court understanding your role and your responsibilities. Those are taught in practice and not wholly while the bright lights are shining.

What is likely to happen and not happen

Fan favorites Jared Dudley and Leandro Barbosa will probably not be moved (unless they need to be included in a big trade) because general manager Ryan McDonough JUST brought in these prototypical vet presences this offseason to help coach Watson instill his famed “family” culture in the lockeroom.

In the time between the departure of Steve Nash and the emergence of Devin Booker, multiple Dan Majerle hustle-award-winner P.J. Tucker came from overseas to be the heart and soul of several Suns teams. He always got rebounds he shouldn’t have been able to nab, dove for loose balls, developed his shot and vocally led this team. Unfortunately, with T.J. Warren right there on the depth chart, Tucker eating into his minutes, combined with the fact that Warren has the higher ceiling, and that Tucker’s skill set and contract make him the perfect addition to a contender, the chances are high that Tucker will be dealt by the time the trade deadline rolls around.

The same is sort of true of Tyson Chandler. He was brought in for two reasons.

One, he was signed to hopefully seal the LaMarcus Aldridge free agency decision in the summer of 2015. Secondly, he was here in Phoenix to mentor Alex Len in particular, but the entire Suns as well (as one of the only two current Suns’ players to win a title – along with Barbosa who won his ring in 2015 with Golden State).

Chandler can still rebound with the best of them. His 11.4 boards per game put him in a tie for 8th in rebounds, while playing less minutes per game than anyone ahead of him, and his fourth-highest mark in this department during his 16-year career. He can still play decent interior defense and can be the vocal leader and defensive anchor for a team that actually has playoff or championship aspirations.

Both objectives have sort of been accomplished. The Chandler signing nearly sealed the Aldridge free agency, but sometimes you just can’t really compete with the San Antonio Spurs pedigree. Also, he has mentored Len, who is certainly blooming and has that “tap-out” rebounding skill DOWN PAT. Chandler will be a great addition to a team and the Suns will see what they can get back for him – paving the way for Len to bloom even further. The flash we saw from Alan Williams makes this all even easier. We’ll always have Chandler’s thrilling put-back slams to remember him by.

The other player that has been paraded around the league as available to be dealt is Brandon Knight. However, rumors are that he certainly isn’t coveted, but we’ll see when teams get desperate on Thursday. He is currently one of the worst players in the real plus-minus metric that tracks how well a team does when a player is on the floor versus on the bench. It is certainly an eyebrow-raising stat, but not a nail in the coffin for his career.

Knight is a good player, but oftentimes seems to squander a possession when the Suns can least afford it. He has been on the trading block as it seems Phoenix may finally be past the years-long era of the two (or three) point guard system as Eric Bledsoe and Devin Booker return the Suns to a traditional backcourt. Knight is playing a decent sixth-man role, but probably wants to be starting – he just can’t and shouldn’t in Phoenix. He’ll find his niche on some team and flourish there. His value is waning, and while on the one hand his skill set is valuable, the tape and the numbers don’t lie. But if McDonough was able to get a first-round pick out of a sandbagging Markieff Morris, he can probably do okay with a smart, hard-working player with the skill set that Knight possesses.

Bledsoe and Len

It’s frustrating to hear others discuss Bledsoe on the same level as any of those previous players like Tucker, Chandler, Knight. He’s better than them. None of them were/ever will be a top three player on a championship team – but Bledsoe definitely could. It doesn’t matter if he “doesn’t fit their timeline” There isn’t some caveat in the NBA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement saying that a team is only eligible to win a championship if their 3 best players are all within 4 years of each other, or something like that. Roles change. For a few years, one player is the best while the other two support him, then another player steps up, while another takes a step back. It’s how the NBA works.

If Bledsoe is dealt as the odd-man out of this Suns’ core, he should bring back more than these other players, which is a testament to the wonderful job (in general) GM Ryan McDonough has done as Bledsoe was traded to Phoenix for practically nothing (and actually if you think about it, Jared Dudley is back with Phoenix, so Bledsoe was basically acquired for a second-rounder).

The rest of the players are in the aforementioned young’ens group and are also all on their rookie contracts, so, unless they are filler for some trade that nets the Suns a superstar, they should all be staying in the Valley of the Sun for the time being.

Alex Len is the closest to his rookie contract being up as he is a restricted free agent this upcoming summer. That means that if anyone offers him a contract, the Suns have the ability to match it. With his increasingly aggressive, fluid, and impressive play and the way the salary cap is booming, I’d say he’ll stay in Phoenix.

So, let’s see what happens as the Suns’ trade season heats up.

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Durant Doesn’t Make the Warriors Invincible – Just Reveals Different Problems

Recently, you’ve probably heard the term “smallball” in reference to the NBA. Particularly with Golden State’s recent success — culminating in a record-setting 73-win season — the NBA’s “smallball” revolution has become a talking point in basketball circles as an integral part of their success.

You heard how hard it was for opposing defenses to account for the ethereal shooting of the all-star backcourt of Klay Thompson – and oh by the way  — the reigning MVP Stephen Curry, a generationally superb shooting talent, potentially the best of all time. Alongside Harrison Barnes and substituting former All-star Andre Iguodala for Andrew Bogut, the fearsome “Death Lineup” was born.

Simply put, the versatility on both sides of the ball that having interchangeable positions (i.e. positionless basketball) afforded the Warriors made them practically unstoppable.

Don’t believe me and think it was all anecdotal? Look at the numbers.

Death Lineup Domination

Golden State’s starting lineup was more than respectable at +13.2 points per 100 possessions, but nothing compared to the Death Lineup’s absolutely ridiculous +44.4 points per 100 possessions during the regular season. The Golden State Death Lineup was the third-most utilized rotation over the course of the season, often used to finish off opponents in close games – which were few and far between. The second-most common lineup was injury-related and inserted Brandon Rush in at small forward (Iguodala had missed 17 games, while Barnes missed 16 and came off the bench in seven others).

Clearly, it worked. That lineup would be inserted at times during a game and then – it’s over. Last season if the Warriors got up by 15 points or more, they practically didn’t lose. In fact, that streak even went back 114 games in such instances. If a team let them get up by 15 points, which became a frequent occurrence, they might as well have called the game.

The primary reason the “Death Lineup” works is because of Draymond Green. Despite being 6-7, he’s 230 pounds and is able to defend and rebound with centers taller and larger than he is. Green’s aggressiveness and physicality are why he would be slotted in at the center position as opposed to the slightly taller 6-8 Barnes (who must also be given some credit for defending outside his position occasionally). As the center, Green is also able to drift a bit and play free safety, if you will, since his opponent usually can’t shoot a reliable jumper. That gives Green the ability to help double-team a superstar like LeBron James, or help out at the rim in case an opposing player breaks free of his perimeter defender. Draymond Green is an exceptional type of stretch 4/5, embodying occasional shooting, lateral quickness and physicality on defense — with his playmaking just being the cherry on top. Green is what made Golden State’s famed and feared “Death Lineup” work. That innate flexibility you gain when a collection of your players can switch on defense primarily between the 3, 4 and 5 spots is crucial. Golden State had that with Barnes at the 3, Iguodala at the 4 and Green at the 5. Switch everything!

That’s the beauty and devastation of the Death Lineup — its versatility. Because of Golden State’s defensive aggressiveness and intrinsic physical profiles, they don’t lose any speed or physicality when they switch the pick-and-roll. This helps the Warriors subvert the first couple actions of their opponent’s offense, causing them to panic and make bad decisions or shoot contested shots – the ideal goal of defense at the NBA level.

Enter Kevin Durant.

Enter the former rookie of the year, former MVP, the franchise-altering player with seven all-star games under his belt and more to come. Adding those and a countless assortment of other accolades to his name to an already historic franchise and you have a fearsome squad.

Their starting lineup is probably going to be Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Zaza Pachulia. Their version of the Death Lineup would simply be replacing Pachulia with Iguodala in a squad that will make the opposition want to leave the arena and get back on the plane.

The Death Lineup that the Warriors roll out there will have five playmakers – that’s SO RARE – including three players with elite range and efficiency from deep for their careers – making them nearly impossible to guard (Curry- 44.4%, Thompson- 45.0%, Durant- 38%).

Basically, they are replacing Barnes (who is a fine player and will get his chance to shine in Dallas) with a taller, heavier player who is a better shooter, playmaker, rebounder and leader. What an upgrade! Just imagine how easy of a time Durant will have with the “gravity” that the unparalleled shooting of Curry and Thompson will have on a defense causing it to crumple like a house of cards – inside a tornado – inside a black hole. It will also make life easier for the Splash Brothers having Durant in the corner or on the wing to kick out to as a release value instead of Barnes.

And on defense, Green can continue to battle down low with the centers, Iguodala can take the best scoring option in the frontcourt, leaving Durant to absolutely overwhelm the remaining (and worst) opposing wing player, play as much help defense as he wants, and save his energy for offense.

Seriously, pretty much one of the three scoring powerhouses is very likely to “go off” each game – maybe even more than one. That’s to say nothing of Green continuing to take advantage as a playmaker and scorer of whichever sub-average defender opposing coaches are coerced into putting on him.

The chances are quite robust that this group could boast the record for both game and season-long splits in net rating by season’s end.

Yet — every team has its Achilles heel. Every team.

Problems for the old Death Lineup

Things changed in the playoffs as the Death Lineup became more necessary and was the most-used lineup, with the starting lineup as a very close second. The Bogut injury during the Finals seems to have pushed the Death Lineup over the starting lineup in terms of frequency of usage. Interestingly, over the entire course of the playoffs, the Death Lineup was -4.3 points per 100 possessions compared to the starting lineup which finished at +6.1 points per 100 possessions.

Part of this was due to the quality of the opponents in the playoffs, Curry being injured during their series against both the Houston Rockets and the Portland Trailblazers where the Death Lineup would have dominated and padded their overall playoff stats. The Oklahoma City Thunder were able to overcome Death thanks to their athleticism and length, causing it to not be as effective. The Cavaliers were able to overcome it, basically, based on the sheer determination and talent of James and some other players coming up big in key moments. No matter how much you switch, when James wants to drive and get to the lane, he’s going to. With the Green suspension, Bogut injury and Curry not at full-strength, the Warriors couldn’t hold on to a 3-1 lead as Kyrie Irving delivered big throughout the Finals.

One major liability of the Death Lineup was rebounding. During the season, in terms of offensive and defensive rebounding percentage, they were -1.4 percent worse in both categories per 100 possessions. The starting lineup with a legitimate center was +0.6 in both categories.

For example, the Warriors were going to have trouble in the rebounding department when they faced the number one offensive rebounding team in the 2015-16 regular season. In their matchup with the Thunder (31.1 offensive rebounding percentage), the bigs (Adams and Ibaka) averaged 3.1 and 2.1 offensive rebounds per game — a step up from their averages of 2.7 and 1.8 respectively. Enes Kanter was on his way to doing the same if his horrendous defense hadn’t kept him off the court too much (since these numbers are on a per-game basis). However, the rebounding differential isn’t enough of a deterrent to avoid going small in key spots.

While rebounding seemingly won’t be as much of a problem for the new-look Death Lineup (as the long “6-10” Durant over the course of his career, averages 2.4 more rebounds per game than Barnes), there will be several other issues.

Again favorites, but with different questions

With the new-look Warriors, the hype is real (which is saying something), though they are still reeling from the trophy being clutched from their grasp after a 3-1 lead. In 2015-16, the Warriors relied on their depth to keep fourth quarter leads as the starters laughed and relaxed on the bench. That is no longer going to be a strength to start the year. Harrison Barnes, Andrew Bogut, Leandro Barbosa, Festus Ezeli, Marreese Speights and Brandon Rush are all gone. That’s a lot of depth.

Of course Kevin Durant, along with the ancient and ring-chasing David West and Zaza Pachulia are the main additions and some draft picks. The bench will not be as strong or reliable as it was last year, and only time will tell if that will significantly impact the Warriors come April. It shouldn’t affect them much in the regular season as they play many inferior opponents where their superior talent will overwhelm. They should be on track for near 70 wins again.

However, they may need to at times stagger Durant and Iguodala with Curry and Thompson (or some combination) so that the second unit has more playmaking and scoring than just Shaun Livingston.

Another potential issue is chemistry. There seem to be two nuances to chemistry. A more apt term for one side of the coin is cohesion and the question is: will the second unit be able to have enough to be effective. The other, more popular, side is egos. Two MVPs still in their primes – along with two other current all-stars – on the same roster, in fact, in the same lineup. The tension comes as there is only one ball. Is there enough shots? Whose team is it? Even though the players probably don’t care much these questions, they will be swirling, especially if the team falters.

Durant picked Golden State, so he thinks they can make it work. All signs even point to them making it work. But this is the NBA and nothing is certain. For instance, didn’t you think it was a no-brainer and merely a mental exercise prior to June that the Warriors would win the championship?

While the addition of Kevin Durant to the Warriors and how that will play out is one of the most interesting stories of 2016-17, it certainly isn’t a given that it will go well. The severe lack of experienced AND athletic depth is concerning, there are several high-profile players on the same team which can cause issues, and until it works out – it hasn’t.

Introducing Solar Insights

Hello everyone!

My name is Eric Saar and after graduating with honors from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication and working as a sportswriter for both FanSided and Basketball Insiders, I’m currently freelancing and have created this site to give my thoughts and analysis on trends around the National Basketball Association with a particular focus on the Phoenix Suns.

This site is my attempt to continue to hone my research, analysis, and prediction skills in the whole NBA realm. Some of you know me and hopefully, you’ll continue to follow my work. For those of you who don’t, I hope you enjoy what you read and hear. To get a feel for my perspective on basketball, check out my Twitter feed at @Eric_Saar.

Check out my articles that will be posted both about the Phoenix Suns specifically, and also some about the NBA in general. The podcast will have a variety of NBA writers stop by and we’ll discuss the topics of the day (pardon the audio quality for the first few episodes).

I really hope you love the site and please spread the word!

Thanks and have a great day!

 

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