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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.

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.

2018 NBA Rookie of the Year Race

Written by Logan Karels (@Karels23)

Stats & Team Records

Donovan Mitchell and Ben Simmons — these are the two young players who were frontrunners for the honor of the Rookie of the Year (RotY) award. First, we will take a look at their regular season statistics.

Donovan Mitchell:  20.5 PPG |3.7 RPG | 3.7 APG | 1.5 SPG

Ben Simmons: 15.8 PPG|8.1 RPG |8.2 APG | 1.7 SPG 

Mitchell is obviously more of a scorer and shooter than Simmons is, but you have to look at what else Simmons does for the Sixers. As a point guard, he often brings up the ball and running parts of the offense, all while distributing and getting his teammates involved.

Simmons helped lead his team to a 52-30 record, taking the third seed in the Eastern Conference. On the other side, Mitchell led his team to a 48-34 record, taking the fifth seed in the West. It can be argued Mitchell had the more impressive season due to his team being in the tougher Western Conference. Not to discredit the Sixers spectacular turnaround from the previous year with an impressive 24-game improvement (from 28 games in 2016-17 to 52 last year). It would appear “Trusting the Process” has indeed worked out in their favor. It’s obvious they will continue their upward trajectory in the upcoming seasons with all the young talent on the roster. Before this year, Philadelphia would never have been thought of a landing spot for LeBron. However, after their turnaround season, things are looking up.

Player Comparisons

As great as Ben Simmons is; he has weaknesses — as all rookies do. Obviously, the most notable flaw would be his shooting ability. Mitchell certainly has the edge here despite Simmons’ raw higher field goal percentage. You have to take that with a grain of salt as most of Simmons’ shot attempts come from inside the paint while driving to the basket due to his weak shooting ability. Obviously, this translates to Simmons’ free throw shooting ability as well. It’s also below average: 56% compared to Mitchell’s 80.5% on the season. Mitchell is already drawing comparisons to Dwyane Wade which is an honor in itself, Wade being the future Hall-of-Famer he is. The only significant difference is that Mitchell is a stronger shooter than Wade was at that age. Of course, Mitchell has some serious work to do to live up to Wade’s reputation in the league.

Both of these rookies had outstanding seasons and many memorable moments it’s hard to pick the best ones. One could go on forever about how talented these two rookies really are. What Mitchell did to lead his team in his rookie season was an incredible thing to behold. The fact is that he was playing in the Western Conference as well. Simmons also helped to lead his team to the playoffs this year. Simmons was even drawing some comparisons as a “mini-LeBron” due to them being such a freight train in transition with nearly unparalleled court vision as playmakers.  That comparison is a quite a stretch since Simmons has only played 81 games while LeBron has played 1143 regular season games. We’ll revisit when Simmons has developed further and is in his prime. There may be some similarities in the future.

Some pundits thought there should have been a co-rookie of the year award just like Jason Kidd and Grant Hill in 1994-95.

Closing Thoughts

While Simmons won the Rookie of the Year award over Mitchell, Jayson Tatum deserves an honorable mention in the race for ROTY. Tatum really stepped up amidst a plethora of injuries that plagued the resilient Boston Celtic team led by Brad Stevens. With all this taken into account, I thought Mitchell should have won. What he has done to lead the team in the Western conference was tough and he deserves to be recognized for it. This doesn’t take away from Simmons’ season at all though. He still had a very impressive rookie campaign. It was great to watch all the leagues’ young rookies compete this year and will be even better watching them improve in the seasons to come. Given all the stats and accolades these two players accumulated during this past season, I believe that Mitchell should have won ROTY, but something was telling me that Simmons was going to be taking home the hardware instead.

Phoenix Suns 2018 Offseason Options

By Eric Saar (@Eric_Saar)

This is the most important offseason in Phoenix Suns franchise history.

While that is probably hyperbole, and there may have been other crucial off-seasons in Phoenix Suns history, the upcoming summer is pivotal to the health and direction of the franchise. The team is no doubt at a crossroads.

  • Blossoming superstar Devin Booker is due for his max rookie extension
  • The Suns just hired the first NBA head coach born outside of North America
  • General Manager Ryan McDonough has filled the “war chest” with assets that put them in the top-tier of teams in the league
  • The environment of the NBA is ripe for an absolute frenzy of crazy trades and free agency signings as tons of teams are anxious for a change

The Suns have their franchise centerpiece in Booker. As the 13th overall pick in the 2015 draft, Booker’s salary was depressed more than his counterparts that were drafted above him. He made 4 million and change in his impressive first two years in the league and it set to make north of 5 million in the last two years of his rookie contract, according to Basketball Insiders’ Suns’ salary page. But that’s nothing compared to what he’ll make once he nets his max rookie extension that he is due for before the 2018 season begins in October. That would be a massive five-year deal worth an estimated $157 million.

He deserves it as he averaged 24.9 points, 4.7 assists, and 4.5 rebounds per game last year. The only other players in 2017-18 to hit those averages on the season were LeBron James, Giannis Atetokounmpo, James Harden, Damian Lillard, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry, and DeMarcus Cousins – The only difference is that all the other players but Booker were All-Stars this year. That’s impressive company. With the way that Booker has played, a massive contract extension is basically certain. The rising star is the leader of the team, their number one scoring option, both in general and in the clutch. He is the best player on the roster for the foreseeable future.

But that is only the foundation. Every team needs a superstar and Booker is it. But you need more to create a championship team – and that’s the goal, right?

It seems like Jackson could be another piece of the Suns’ core. His versatility around Booker is crucial to a switching and aggressive defense, while his secondary playmaking skills help make him a two-way player on the rise. His shot release is certainly better than expected during his rookie year. It shows promise, though the numbers are underwhelming. He shot 26.3 percent from behind the arc and 44.6 percent inside it on the year. He fits what you need around Booker. The rookie had vastly different numbers – and impact – in the two halves of the season. But there were flashes of his potential that can really excite a fanbase. One could envision a scenario where Jackson is a Defensive Player of the Year award winner and in a role that mirrors that of former All-Star and Finals MVP, Golden State Warriors’ Andre Iguodala (but a more playable and useful version closer to Iggy’s prime). That’s another piece.

But what else do you have?

The Frontcourt Players

Tyson Chandler is the elder statesman (and though he can have a good game) he’s not the future of the franchise at center and definitely more of a veteran presence. The feeling in Phoenix—and everywhere — is that Alex Len is gone over the summer, though with his streamlined game he would be a great addition to any team at the right price. Alan Williams came back from the leg injury and showed the beautiful floater and great rebounding we know and love about “Big Sauce”. However, even if Len is brought back none of these players are starter caliber centers in this league, so McDonough and his team have some work to do.

One conundrum on the table is the twin power forwards of Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender. Both players have been on a rollercoaster of development as throughout their rookie and sophomore seasons, we have seen incredible flashes as well as weird stretches, where they make mistakes and become “invisible” on the court, not making the impact necessary to keep consistent playing time. There doesn’t seem to be any consensus on these players. Depending on who you talk to, the pair are either versatile big men who have the potential to be All-Stars or players who barely impact the game and won’t ever improve. It sure seems like at least one of the pair won’t be on the team in two years.

Then there is Jared Dudley. Dudley used to play small as a guard in his first stint with the Suns but has transformed his game into a lethal stretch-four veteran, a perfect player to insert into playoff roster. However, Dudley’s value is also found in his presence in the locker room and in the ears of one of the youngest rosters in the league. Dudley is always ready to contribute as an elite three-point shooter, communicating on defense — and even with his athletic disadvantage – always in the right place, making the right play.

The Backcourt Players

We’ve already mentioned Booker and Jackson, so the next logical place is TJ Warren. The small forward contributed to the Suns last year with his throwback style as his floaters in the paint, off-ball cuts and put backs continued to devastate opposing defenses who by necessity were determined to focus their schemes on Devin Booker. Unfortunately, Warren has two specific flaws in his game (maybe three if you add in his lack of passing, but since he is in there to score, it’s somewhat understandable). His lack of a consistent three-point shot and his defense are his liabilities. The shot release seems like it can’t be smoothed out (unlike Jackson’s which seems to already be on its way, and Jackson is younger with less time in the league). Warren’s on-ball defense leaves a lot to be desired as he tries, but seems to take bad angles, setting up wrong and getting blown by. His ability to score at will at the NBA level against all but the best lockdown defenders will keep him in the league for quite some time, but with these flaws it seems like his ceiling is capped unless he can improve past the time players typically improve. At some point in your NBA career you just are who you are.

Brandon Knight is the next best player on the backcourt depth chart. Both he and Warren are best fitted for the sixth-man role for different reasons. We haven’t seen Knight for quite some time as he was sidelined with an injury during the entire 2017-18 season and he may have improved during his absence. However, Phoenix can’t go into the season with him as their best point guard if they have designs on a playoff berth in 2019. At the moment, the backup shooting guard is Troy Daniels. He is a shooter who tries to do everything else, but just seems limited. He is valuable, but replaceable with someone who also brings veteran savvy, defense, or playmaking or a combo of those skills — though the player will almost certainly not be as knockdown a shooter as Daniels. The other potential guys on the fringe of the roster are Tyler Ulis, Davon Reed, Shaq Harrison and Isaiah Canaan. We’ll see who actually makes the roster out of training camp of these players. A lot of it will come down to what happens in the NBA draft and free agency.

The NBA Draft

The Phoenix Suns have the number one pick in the NBA draft for the first time in franchise history. Unfortunately, it isn’t in a draft such as the LeBron James or Anthony Davis drafts where there was a clear-cut player who that first team could select and know they got the right guy. This year there are two such players, making the decision-making process all that more crucial and stress-inducing.

There is a lot that could be said about these players vying for the honor of being selected as the best basketball prospect for an entire year and the comments below are in no-way exhaustive. There is almost no way for whoever Phoenix picks at number one to “bust” (this isn’t Anthony Bennett and the 2013 draft). Whoever they pick will be good to great and McDonough and his staff will build a roster around the core from there.

DeAndre Ayton

DeAndre Ayton played at the University of Arizona and showed his physical dominance and versatility. His shot release is already quick and smooth and there are still some aspects of his mechanics that could be improved to get him to the level of a good shooter – and not JUST for a big man. His footwork is pretty elite, and that is such an important part of being a leading center in the NBA. His body and athleticism are not just good, they can help set him apart even by NBA standards and he hadn’t even lifted a weight until a few months before his college career began in his one year at Arizona. He can defend on the perimeter and supposedly wasn’t used correctly at UofA so he could be a defensive presence at the NBA level. All of this is incredible as Ayton has yet to turn 20 years old, having already earned the Karl Malone award, among a plethora of other awards during his brief college career.

In terms of comparisons, he could be Dwight Howard with a jumpshot and better lateral quickness (though almost certainly not going to challenge Howard’s three-peat Defensive Player of the Year reign from 2009 to 2011) In his pre-draft media session with the Suns, Ayton said he models his game after Kevin Garnett and Hakeem Olajuwon. Some have said he could be David Robinson.

If Ayton even gets close to any of these comps the pick is worth it (yes, even if any other top end picks finish their careers as better players). Ayton is potentially the perfect center for where the NBA is at.

Luka Doncic

Then there is Luka Doncic. The Slovenian superstar still has eight more months of being 19 years old and has these accolades under his belt:

  • Euroleague MVP (youngest in history)
  • Euroleague Final Four MVP
  • Spanish MVP
  • Euroleague Rising Star
  • Euroleague Champion (as best player)
  • Euroleague 1st team
  • Eurobasket 1st team

He is a sharpshooter, has played against men for years (as opposed to teenagers in college), has incredible passing ability and vision, and is 6’8” and therefore a good rebounder (which should translate as a wing which he will be in the NBA) and is elite at running the pick and roll (the main offensive set in the NBA). He has a passion and fire for the game that is hard to find.

According to Basketball Reference, Doncic averaged 6.6 assists per 36 minutes in Euroleague play (adjusted because Euroleague has shorter games, 36 minutes is about what starters play in the NBA per game). The amazing part is that overseas scorekeepers are supposedly significantly more stingy handing out assists than in the NBA, so with slightly more minutes per game, longer games to gain momentum and better players around him (maybe a lower usage rate), it’s reasonable for Doncic to average eight or nine assists per game in the NBA in a year or two. That would put him in the top three in assists among all NBA players per game in 2017-18 (Russell Westbrook led the league with 10.3 per game).

As I’ve said on the podcast, if you add him to Booker and Jackson, the Phoenix Suns won’t have a bad offensive possession for the next decade. His comparisons are difficult because he seems to be in a different stratosphere than any other international prospect. Some have said he’s the best international player since Dirk Nowitzki. Some say he’s like Steve Nash.

For more on Luka take a listen to my podcast with David Pick who knows and has covered Doncic for years.

To reiterate, either player would be a welcome talent influx to the Suns’ franchise that had been sorely lacking young, upcoming stars (that began to be mitigated when Booker was drafted). There is no right answer. Head coach Igor Kokoskov was brought in for player development, but has a history as the head coach of the Slovenian national team last summer, helping Doncic and his team win the championship. Suns’ owner Robert Sarver is a University of Arizona alum and has connections there, will he want a UofA guy at number one? Will McDonough and crew get the go-ahead to go off the board with Marvin Bagley, Mohamed Bamba, or Jaren Jackson Jr.? Doubtful.

With all of this, only time will tell.

Then the question is what to do with the rest of the picks in the draft?

Other than the first overall pick Phoenix owns:

  • #16 (via HEAT/Goran Dragic trade)
  • #31 (their own)
  • #59 (via Raptors/P.J. Tucker trade)

Because the Suns have one of the youngest rosters in the league already and will be adding the number one draft selection (a 19-year-old) to that, it stands to reason – if they can – they will try to either consolidate the picks to trade up for one young player or package some assets and these later picks for an established veteran in the league.

Free Agency

Let’s get this out of the way, there is probably a combined 3 percent chance that either LeBron James (because one of his best friends James Jones is Phoenix’s Vice President of Basketball Operations) or Kawhi Leonard join the Phoenix Suns this offseason. Also, don’t even think Chris Paul, Paul George or Kyrie Irving are coming to the valley of the sun. Just get it out of your head right now.

The Suns’ franchise needs to focus on manageable steps to bring them closer to contending for the Larry O’Brien trophy come June. That means a young core of promising players surrounded by a handful of veterans who can still contribute.

But who should they sign and/or trade? The direction of the next five years of Suns basketball rests on McDonough making those decisions in July.

If you go with Doncic through the draft, then the obvious next step that has been floated out there is grabbing Clint Capela from the Houston Rockets in restricted free agency (Here is the report that the Suns are “enamored” with him). Phoenix would need to throw a max contract (remember all “max” contracts are different and based on years played, etc) at the Swiss defensive stalwart, though Houston would probably match the offer sheet. The caveat is if LeBron James or another star joins Chris Paul and James Harden in Houston, then they wouldn’t feasibly have enough cap space to match, giving Suns a great up and coming defensive anchor.

If you go with Ayton, then you have your center for the next decade. At that point, you hope he can improve on defense and be a top-ten center in the NBA. Then you need a point guard – though Booker as the primary and Jackson as the secondary ball-handler isn’t terrible. What Phoenix doesn’t want to end up is with any of Brandon Knight, Elfrid Payton, Shaq Harrison, Isaiah Canaan or Tyler Ulis as the starting point guard – it just won’t cut it in the Suns’ stated mission to be aggressive in free agency and to stop “tanking”.

The expensive option is to really through all your chips in and grab a star point guard. It would really propel the team to the playoffs giving Booker, Jackson, Bender, and Ayton a chance to get experience while being successful. In a trade, Phoenix could go after Damian Lillard (Portland Trailblazers), John Wall (Washington Wizards), or Kyle Lowry (Toronto Raptors). A less expensive option is Kemba Walker (Charlotte Hornets). I’m not going to try and speculate what these trades would be as the trade market is all over the place for stars the last year or two. The issue is that all these are score-first guards – though they certainly can pass well – this would somewhat limit Booker’s effectiveness by taking the ball out of his hands for many possessions per game.

Probably the best option would be nabbing unrestricted free agent (UFA) Avery Bradley. It would keep the ball in Booker’s hands enough (along with Jackson and Bradley) and wouldn’t cost as much. The best aspect would be the defense he would bring. Bradley would be able to defend the best wing player on the opposing team and then Booker/Jackson/Bradley trio would be able to pretty much switch anything.

Some other players the Suns should take a look at as veterans include Marcus Smart (Boston Celtics’ RFA), Danny Green who has a player option (San Antonio Spurs’ PO), Ian Clark (New Orleans Pelicans’ UFA), and Fred Van Fleet (Toronto Raptors UFA).

Also, some bigs to go after (if they go Doncic) could be restricted free agent (RFA) Jabari Parker along with Derrick Favors (UFA). Just some ideas for McDonough and Suns’ management.

Another potential trade that fans seem to be split on is adding Kevin Love via trade (which would supposedly be possible if LeBron left Cleveland). The reason adding Love is advisable is that adding someone that can go for 20/10 a game, rebound well and is versatile would help the Suns improve before the Suns’ core hits their prime.

It’s also important to note that elite free agents don’t join mediocre teams. Those specific players survey the terrain of the league and see which players have young, improving players and a quality, balanced roster around them. Those players want to think they are the missing piece to a championship contender. You can only get there if you acquire the talent. Look at the Philadelphia 76ers. Previously, no one on the level of LeBron James would even be linked to the 76ers. But with blossoming stars Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid in the fold and led by Brett Brown, they are in the conversation. Until the Suns start winning, top-flight free agents won’t be attracted to the valley of the sun – and you need those players to be a championship contender.

Whichever way the Suns go this offseason, they will have an intriguing young core on the rise, ready to try and make the next push to the playoffs.

It certainly is an important summer for the Phoenix Suns.

The Point Forward in the Modern NBA

Ryan Stivers (@ryanMstives)

What is a point-forward? The term has cropped up in recent years among NBA discussions. Traditionally, the term describes a big-man (at least someone taller that “transcended” the label of “guard”) who ran the offense for the team getting his teammates involved as the primary ball-handler. Now, the concept of a big-man playing the point guard position is nothing new, Magic Johnson stood a full 6’9” and ran the offense for the famous showtime Lakers. Oscar Robertson was 6’5” and averaged a triple-double for a season; even Penny Hardaway stood a shocking 6’7”. But despite all of these guards being as big as they were, they were just that, true guards. None of them fell into the category of a “point forward.” So, height and size aside, what is it that makes a true Point Forward and not only that, what makes a great one? For the purposes of this article, it needs to be tossed out that anyone considered a true Oscar have all already been discussed.

As for a point of reference in this argument, each of the four selected typically plays the forward position but at one point or the other in their career run the offense through their use of ball-handling or offensive output. Each of the four was ranked using metrics such as Player Efficiency Rating (PER), assists per game (APG), turnovers per game (TOV), and points per game (PPG) throughout their career. Each category was then ranked one through four for each player and an average score was taken for the ranking of the category. Not the most mathematically nuanced, but combined with the eye-test, it can help us rank these players.
Let’s go:

#4

Ben Simmons
PER – 17.1
APG – 7.2
TOV – 4.0
PPG – 16.3

To start with and not to be unfair to him, Simmons has the smallest sample size of the four players. After having spent his “rookie” season on the bench for the Sixers, the 21-year-old is making a splash, running the offense in Philly. It doesn’t hurt a bit that he has Joel Embiid to help hold down the paint or guys like Robert Covington and JJ Redick to stretch the floor, but what is most intriguing and exciting to watch with Ben is his passing. Through a career total of 42 games, his average of 7.2 assists a game ranks him first among all current rookies with only Lonzo Ball even close at 7.1 (and he’s only played 36 games for the Los Angeles Lakers).

So what is Ben Simmons’ ceiling? Where is his weakness? If his time at LSU (and so far in the league) is any indication, then the only handicap in his game would be his jumpshot. While his field goal percentage at the rim is fine (43.6 percent), he seems to have no confidence in his jumper — for good reason. Between three and ten feet from the basket Simmons is shooting 32.3 percent, and it gets worse. From ten to 16 feet out (known as mid-range) he is shooting 19.8 percent — not good. His three-point shot is practically non-existent. Ben’s game is still young and working its way through The Process but that certainly hasn’t stopped him from showing flashes of greatness.

#3

Giannis Antetokounmpo
PER – 19.8
AST – 3.7
TOV – 2.4
PTS – 16.4/28.2 (2017-2018)

Let’s get one thing out of the way right now, Giannis is a freak, in every sense of the phrase, word or what have you. Every game Giannis is like a baby deer learning how to walk and going from that walk to an outright sprint in four seconds. His eye-test is through the roof to where most people agree he could win an MVP before he turns 25. His points per game are included above only because of how high it is this season compared to his first four years; two of which he was listed as the starting SG/PG —
Giannis has done it all. This is a 6’11” terror who is listed on BasketballReference.com as playable at every head coach to design a perfect player and then develop him into a Hall-of-Famer (except for his shooting, which was bad, but is steadily improving). For his first three years, jumpshot. Through last season and this year he has increased his volume as well as his accuracy to an insane 54.6 field goal percentage (obviously a lot of those are layups/dunks using his incredible 7’ wingspan and massive hands). He is even attempting 1.6 threes a game (with not great accuracy, but it’s improving). Much like with Simmons, Giannis’ upward potential relies entirely on his ability to build up his jumpshot — and he has already made TWO All-Star games!

#2

Kevin Durant
PER – 25.2
AST – 3.9
TOV – 3.2
PTS – 27.1

This may be an unconventional pick for this discussion but it needs to be argued. Durant began his career with the (now long-gone, RIP) Seattle Sonics where he played the shooting guard. To refresh, Earl Watson, Luke Ridnour, and Delonte West were the three point guards for the Sonics that season and for some reason head coach P.J. Carlesimo believed playing the true seven-footer (he is, don’t even deny it) in an off-ball role would benefit this team. In hindsight, it didn’t really help the team, but it did help Durant.

Durant started out hot in his rookie season averaging 20.3 points per game on 43.0 percent from the field and a below-average 28.8 percent from deep. Once moving to OKC and playing with high-usage players like Westbrook and Harden, he wasn’t able to really show what he could do with the ball in his hands. Coincidentally, it wasn’t until he came to play in Golden State that his usage rate as the primary handler really became a thing. Playing alongside one of the greatest shooting point guards (do you need to ask?) in the history of basketball as well as an accurate shooting guard (Thompson) with probably the quickest release of all-time, occasionally, Durant was able to flourish in a more primary role while the others either rested or played off-ball. Durant would probably be mad he comes in second again, but still, coming in at number two on this list isn’t so bad.

#1

LeBron James
PER – 27.6
AST – 7.1
TOV – 3.4
PTS – 27.1

If positionless basketball is just now taking on, then somewhere around 2007-08 is when this OG of all positions invented it. There’s a reason he’s known as The King, The Chosen One and The Akron Hammer. His ‘07 season was the mountaintop of “drag every single one of you to defend the Eastern Conference no matter what I have to do” (seriously, look at the rest of that roster). During that season, LeBron averaged 30 points a game on an excellent 48.8 field goal percentage, while shooting 31.5 percent from behind the arc. His points were a career-high that season while his assists were 7.4 a game, tied for fourth-highest of his career. This was a season in which his roster consisted of Shannon Brown, Larry Hughes and Delonte West (dude has taken a beating this article – clearly he was not a great point guard).

LeBron began his fifteen-year career as a shooting guard and eventually evolved into the primary ball handler/offensive threat on every team he has played on. Currently, he is averaging 8.6 assists a game which is a near career-high through the better part of the last two decades. He is a freight train in transition, unstoppable in the post, with the incredible vision to break down your defense if you dare bring a double-team. The King has transcended what it means to be a big man running the offense and for that, he has to be the true winner in this contest.

The 2017-18 Knicks are the Epitome of New York

New York. The Big Apple. The city founded in 1624 by Dutch immigrants who initially named the city New Amsterdam before the English took it over forty years later.

The city of dreams and street corners filled with gyros, pizza, and falafel. A city that quite literally welcomed those with no option and no hope into their harbor, into their island with nothing more than a statue and a statement of, “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” The greatest city in the world was built upon the staple and belief that “immigrants built us, they made us who we are.”

It is only fitting now that after twenty years of fading in and out of the public spotlight that the Knicks are once again on the precipice of relevance. Even more fitting, it’s on the backs of a Frenchmen, a Turk and a Unicorn built in a Latvian laboratory.

When looking at the cultural importance of the city of New York, people should never forget that this city gave the world everything from the Beastie Boys to Velvet Underground to Patti Smith, the Talking Heads, the Notorious B.I.G. and everything in between. This was a city that Jay-Z once referred to as the “concrete jungle where dreams are made of,” a place of refuge for those searching for something greater. The concept of “If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere” was born upon the winding maze that built that city.

There is a claim to New York being the Mecca of basketball, the home of some of the greatest basketball players of all time. Among the list of these players they tout – Kareem, Cousy, Tiny Archibald, Lamar Odom and Stephon Marbury among a litany of others hailing from the city and state.

Beyond giving the NBA some all-time greats, this is a city that boasts the legendary Rucker Park – the pinnacle of all streetballers. This is a court so well known that players who were of the NBA caliber honed their skills here while hustling in games but never going to the League. Joe “The Destroyer” Hammond set a single-game record here with 82 points in a single game, he was so well-known, he had the Lakers knocking on his door to play for them but turned them down because he made more money playing street ball. Joe is just the tip of the iceberg though. This is a city that gave the world Earl “the Goat” Manigault and Pee Wee Kirkland, two players who by all accounts were better than many of their NBA contemporaries, but due to their various troubles, never quite got to where they could have made it.

Despite all of these legends and tales of greatness, nothing stands out for New York basketball quite like the Knicks teams of the early nineties. If basketball were to be defined in this small fraction of time (’91-’95) it would be defined with three things:

  1. Jordan
  2. Balls-to-the-wall defense.
  3. The three-point revolution.

Now, all three of these had a major impact on how the game was beginning to evolve, but none of them quite encapsulated the changes the NBA was undergoing as well as the Knicks during this era.

This New York team had Oakley and Ewing, one of the best down low, “Just try and drive” combinations to ever exist in basketball. Although, certainly aided by the lack of hand-checking rules instituted by the league after their time had passed. They had the underdog story in John Starks’ career of going from bagging groceries in college to starting guard for the Knicks. This is a city — a team — built upon being the greatest you could possibly become. A quest to fulfill your potential.

All of this is what makes this 2018 team so special. This is not a team that was designed to win. By all accounts, this team should be trying to lose (with as much grace as possible). Hornacek is in a place to take a very unlikely and almost rag-tag “Big Three” on a run in the Eastern Conference that no basketball fan was expecting.

The current Knicks roster gravitates around three men whom for all intents and purposes were believed to be expendable, the types of characters who were booed when drafted (Kristaps Porzingis number four overall in 2015), traded for better propositions, (Kanter, traded after two seasons with Utah to OKC) and Frank Ntilikina, the man who had three selections at the same position ahead of him in his draft.

These three misfits were banded together to try and revive a franchise that had gone dormant with the Melo Years. The Knicks have not been to a playoff series since 2013 and before that hadn’t made it out of the first round since 2000.

So what makes this group so special? What makes them so “New York?” Why are these three more special than those who preceded or those that shall succeed them? It isn’t the flashiness of their style of play, it isn’t the fact that they were heralded as the greatest of their generation in their drafts or even as those that would change a game. No, they all carried something beyond that, something greater than themselves.

Enes Kanter is a 25-year-old Turkish nationalist born in Switzerland. Despite his attempts at playing college basketball and denial by the NCAA for “too much” compensation by his national team, Kanter was still selected third overall in 2011 by the Utah Jazz. Kanter, hailing from Turkish parents, has been very outspoken against President Erdogan, and his rule over Turkey. Enes has caused so much controversy against the dictator that his own family has had to disown his political views. They also implored him to change his last name because of his antagonistic stance towards Erdogan. He caused so much controversy that in 2017, his passport was revoked by Turkey and he was stranded in Romania until the U.S. helped get him back to the states.

If speaking out against a government regime and how much you disagree with a political view isn’t American, then who knows what truly is anymore.

None of these three Knicks are without controversy, on his draft day, Kristaps was selected with the number four overall pick and was promptly booed by every member of the crowd. He was an entirely unknown being tossed into the teeth of the New York media alongside long-time hero Carmelo Anthony.

Even poor Frank was met with question marks, as most fans would have preferred the Knicks to have taken Malik Monk or Dennis Smith Jr.

So maybe that’s what makes these three so fantastic, it has to be the disrespect, this feeling of “well you’re not New York, you don’t get us.”

If Scorsese and Brando taught all of us anything, it is that New York will always be the hardest and most critical place in all of the U.S. of A. It is a city that was built upon the backs of those dreaming for a greater life than what they had been given; striving for the greatness they knew existed inside of them all along.

It is only fitting that now, some 20 years later, after the Knicks last major run that three immigrants from three entirely different situations would lead them toward the path of excitement and resurgence. Even if they don’t make the playoffs; even if this car careens off of the road and into the proverbial ditch, three foreign guys saving the Knicks and basketball in New York, well that is just the most New York thing we could imagine.

NBA Trade Season Primer

We are in the doldrums of the season when some teams have found their rhythm, some have collapsed, players are tired and contenders lose random games to cellar-dwellers. However, as we aren’t yet to the NBA trade deadline… that means it’s NBA trade season!

In this time, speculations are thrown around. Players’ agents and teams alike, leak rumors to boost trade value, while teams are just trying to grind out wins on brutal road back-to-backs, dealing with illnesses, injuries, fatigue, travel and winter weather.

There are some things to keep in mind in this whirlwind of speculation, reports, and the like.

Know terms and how the process works

First of all, know that, in all probability, the big deals won’t happen until those final 20 minutes before the trade deadline, which is February 23rd 3:00 pm ET this year (right after the All-Star break on February 17-19 in New Orleans, Louisiana). There may be some smaller deals that go down in the days prior to the trade deadline, but as the desperation increases as the deadline draws nearer, both sides of negotiations can benefit, so it doesn’t do anyone much good to engage in serious trade talks earlier.

But that won’t stop fans from speculating and trying to rig up ESPN’s trade machine to spit out a trade that nets their favorite team two All-Stars in exchange for a bloated, old contract or two!

Related: there is a significant difference between getting a trade to work in the trade machine and for it to work in real life. Think of trade machine as the bare minimum. It just lets you know if that particular swap is possible or legal, and says nothing if it is probable.

It is important to inject some nuance when you hear reporting around trades and educate yourself so you don’t get your hopes up… or get too depressed when you hear your team may trade for a player that you despise.

For instance, every general manager (GM) or president of basketball operations of every single of the 30 teams HAS to be open to hearing a trade proposal from another GM. It’s just a bad idea to not listen. If they don’t listen, they could miss out on a big opportunity, which would be devastating, especially if that information got leaked outside the organization.

On the flipside, just because something is being reported, doesn’t mean it’s credible – check the source. Ask yourself, is this reporter reliable? Oftentimes, even if you’ve established a reporter as a trustworthy source, they can hear a rumor and pass it along after confirming it and it could quite easily end up being nothing.

If you hear a player “linked” to a team, it could be an agent just leaking that information to up the price on his client in a bidding war. It may not even be blatant lying, just a GM picked up the phone, listened to a pitch on a trade from another GM, then he decided to turn it down, until more information surfaces, they can say that player was linked to that team.

Additionally, understand that many of the trades that happen are ones that were unreported counter-offers to other trades proposals. Also, simply, many of the actual trades that get completed, were just not leaked… which is one factor as to why they got done.

There is a difference between a player being shopped, available, off-limits and actually off-limits.

If a player is being shopped, a GM is calling around saying, “What do you think of this player, is there some scenario where you would trade for him?”

Making a player available means the GM is open to hearing reasonable trade offers for a player. This is normally true for most role players, and not announced too much.

Each team (except for a couple bad ones) have a player or two who are “untouchable” and wouldn’t be traded… or at least that’s how it’s postured. There are really only a handful of players that are truly untouchable with a GM willing to part with anyone in any lower talent tier for one of these elite players at a moments notice. At the top, these transcendently-talented players have slightly different skill sets, and them being on one team versus another is due to personal preference, circumstances, and fit. They won’t change teams as superstars are practically never traded for each other.

Understand your biases

When discussing trades, know that people generally tend to overvalue “their” players and the role they have on the team and undervalue the other players. Players’ value can fluctuate over the course of a season, and aren’t static from team to team (for instance, a high-character veteran on a young team is more highly valued than that same player on a championship contender). Obviously an oversimplification, but the point still stands. Value is relative in the NBA.

How trades work

Really, trades in the NBA are all about relative value, where each franchise is in the hierarchy, and talent evaluation and forecasting. It’s all about finding a win-win arrangement otherwise it’s difficult to get a deal done (unless you’re working with the Kings or the Knicks then try whatever you want).

To create a trade scenario that might actually work you have to take into account many factors. For instance, what assets does “my” team have that the other team’s GM would want? Is the team a contender and needs veteran players? Do you have any? Things like that. Look for the fit.

Typically an NBA team is in one of four phases:

  1. Contender who needs to keep their core while adding role players, and keeping their tax bill down
  2. Sub-contender who needs another fringe star to take them to the next level
  3. Team on the rise who needs time to mature talent, find identity (they want flexibility and assets)
  4. Team who is rebuilding who typically wants players on rookie contracts and lots and lots of draft picks

Just some things to think about as trade season heats up.

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