The Suns won't waver despite early success, Bledsoe injury
Two days before the start of the new year, the Phoenix Suns went to Los Angeles and beat the Clippers by 19 points. They were 19-11 and authoring one of the league’s greatest surprise stories in recent memory. With a fast-paced offense and a stronger than expected defense, the Suns were a League Pass pleasure without the guilt.
But the win came at a cost when emerging star guard Eric Bledsoe went down with a knee injury. Bledsoe had surgery on Friday, the second time in 27 months he’s had a surgical procedure on his right knee for a meniscus tear. The team is hopeful that he’ll be back this season, but they’ve dropped four of six games since his injury. Goran Dragic’s strong play makes this somewhat easier to take, but without Bledsoe, they won’t be able to run their turbo-charged two point guard offense that has been so devastating.
The Suns were only eight-deep with Bledsoe and unless Ish Smith or veteran Leandro Barbosa is ready to take on a larger role, losing Bledsoe could have a disastrous effect on the rotation. The Suns have the assets and cap space to make a move, but first-year GM Ryan McDonough isn’t one to panic.
“It doesn’t really change the long-term plan,” McDonough told SB Nation. “If we can find a guy who’s younger, in their early to mid 20s that fits in well with the rest of our group and can help us in the short and long term, then we’ll do that. We’re not going to bring in veteran guys just for the sake of trading for them. That wouldn’t make any sense for us. We’re going to keep adding players that are similar in age to the rest of our group, and if they can help us now and in the future that’s great. If not, I think we have enough talent on the roster to win some games.”
That remains to be seen. They lost a pair of tight games to the Grizzlies, another in Chicago and on Saturday they dropped a heartbreaker to the Pistons. That dropped them into a tie with the Mavericks for the final playoff spot in the West, with the Nuggets closing fast and the Timberwolves and Grizzlies not far behind.
Still, the Suns play hard and they play together, which is a credit to first-year coach Jeff Hornacek and the players on hand, several of whom are holdovers from the previous era. Making the playoffs with this group would be a tremendous accomplishment, but again, McDonough’s not willing to sacrifice the bigger picture for short-term success.
“We’re going to do everything we can to make it, but at the same time we’re not going to compromise our future and do something crazy just to try to get one of the last seeds in the playoffs,” McDonough said. “That’s not the goal. We’re trying to build an organization that’s capable of winning championships in the future.”
This season was supposed to be simple. You had the contenders on one side, the tankers on the other and a whole bunch of meh in the middle. That dynamic would define the season with contenders willing to be buyers and tankers more than happy to serve as sellers at the trade deadline.
That was the plan anyway. But as we’ve found, plans are only as good as the players who can be out on the court. Injuries have impacted more than half the teams in the league. Consider the (partial) list of players who are out indefinitely or have missed significant time with injuries:
Brook Lopez, Deron Williams, Tyson Chandler, Rajon Rondo, Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler, Al Horford, Emeka Okafor, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Russell Westbrook, Danilo Gallinari, JaVale McGee, Chase Budinger, Chris Paul, Eric Bledsoe, Andre Iguodala, Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Omer Asik, Marc Gasol, Ryan Anderson, Jrue Holiday.
This has played havoc with the entire ecosystem of the NBA and caused a handful of teams to drastically reassess their position. Like the Toronto Raptors, who have assumed control of the dreadful Atlantic Division in large measure because none of their top five players have missed any time with injuries (knock on maplewood). Talk of dealing Kyle Lowry has cooled and the enticement of a meaningful playoff push for a franchise that reached the second round only once in its history has them thinking about the here and now.
Plans are only as good as the players who can be out on the court.
Conversely, the New Orleans Pelicans began the year with playoff aspirations, but they have been decimated by injuries and have reportedly put Eric Gordon on the block after losing Ryan Anderson and Jrue Holiday in the span of a week.
Perhaps no team has straddled the line more than Phoenix. McDonough quickly tore down an old roster and replenished it with young players. He traded Caron Butler, Jared Dudley, Luis Scola and Marcin Gortat for a return that included Bledsoe, Miles Plumlee, Gerald Green, Slava Kravtsov and draft picks. Lots and lots of draft picks.
If things shake out in their favor, the Suns could have as many as four first rounders this year. Their own, plus picks from the Timberwolves (top-13 protected), Wizards (top-12 protected) and Pacers (lottery protected). There’s another on the way from the Lakers in 2015 that’s top-five protected.
The cupboard wasn’t completely bare. Among the holdovers that McDonough kept are the Morris twins -- Markieff and Marcus -- who have developed into solid rotation players. Dragic has played at an All-Star level. Channing Frye has been an invaluable floor-spacing big man and P.J. Tucker does all the little things. Those five, along with Bledsoe, Plumlee and Green have developed quickly into a strong foundation.
With two developing rookies already on the roster in Alex Len and Archie Goodwin, McDonough said it’s unlikely that they’ll use all four draft picks if he gets them, but he’s also not looking to give them away. In the absence of hitting the lottery, which looks like a long shot even without Bledsoe, McDonough’s preference is to trade up in the draft, or package them to acquire a star player.
The Suns will have ample cap space this summer and McDonough said they’ll pursue all the elite free agents. He’s also confident about retaining Bledsoe, who will be a restricted free agent this summer. Perhaps the most important development in Phoenix this season has been Hornacek, who has installed a system that’s given the Suns a much-needed identity.
“I feel like he should be coach of the year,” McDonough said. “Given all the negativity that surrounded the team last year and the extremely low expectations that we had placed on us coming into this year, I don’t think you can that anybody in the league has done a better job than Jeff has. He put in offensive and defensive systems that are very good and allow new players to figure it out pretty quickly and use guys interchangeably. That’s really tough to do. That can sometimes takes years. The fact that he was able to do it in a couple of months is extremely impressive.”
Everything the Suns have been able to accomplish this season has been impressive, as well as a bit surprising. The end goal hasn’t changed, even if the short term has been better than anyone envisioned.
OvertimeMore thoughts from the week that was
In the time that Rajon Rondo has been away from the Celtics they’ve lost the only pro coach he’s ever had, traded their two other franchise icons, and cycled through over a dozen other players. The only C’s who are still with the team since Rondo tore his ACL last January are Avery Bradley, Brandon Bass, Jeff Green and Jared Sullinger.
Yahoo’s Marc Spears broke the news that Rondo has targeted next Friday’s matchup with the Lakers as his return date. Rondo denied it before the start of the Celtics game with Golden State on Friday, but let’s assume that he’s on track because it couldn’t come at a better time for him or the Celtics. Number Nine has always thrived on the big stage and no matter how diminished both franchises are at the moment, the Lakers game is one of the few big moments on the Celtics calendar this season.
Jordan Crawford has played admirably as the team’s lead guard, but after a solid start to the season he’s resumed his erratic play. Crawford came into the weekend shooting less than 40 percent over his last 10 games, a stretch that saw the Celtics lose nine of ten. Crawford hasn’t even been close to the biggest concern. They’re making barely 30 percent of their 3-point shots during that stretch and their defense has been shredded to the tune of 108.4 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com.
For a team that had barely any margin for error even when they were playing well, the downtown has been disastrous. The Celtics have developed a maddening habit of either blowing big leads or getting blown out entirely. They’ve fallen behind Brooklyn and New York in the standings and are flirting with the Sixers for the basement in the woeful Atlantic Division.
The Celtics season will officially start when Rondo makes his return.
Of course this isn’t about winning games for the Celtics. Not too many of them anyway. But Rondo’s return will help answer a handful of nagging questions that have hovered over them since Danny Ainge began the rebuilding process.
How will Rondo and Bradley function together as a fulltime backcourt? They were dynamite together at the end of the 2012 season, but then Bradley’s shoulders gave out in the postseason and the two have barely shared the court together. Bradley has had a solid season making 40 percent of his shots from beyond the arc, but he can be a restricted free agent and his value is still to be determined.
How will Rondo adjust to being the leading man on a younger, more athletic team? That’s a question that has long intrigued the Celtics. He and Jeff Green played less than 500 minutes together before Rondo got hurt and while results are far from conclusive, they had a nice chemistry in the open court.
Finally, there’s the very interesting question of how Rondo and Brad Stevens will work together. They’ve developed a strong rapport since Stevens arrived, but talking and playing are two entirely different things. If the Celtics move forward with Rondo, and all indications are that they will, they need answers to make a fully-informed decision.
It’s possible that a Rondo-led Celtics team could be just good enough to sneak through the flotsam of the Eastern Conference and make a playoff push. With the Hawks and Nets both on track to make the playoffs that would push them out of the lottery. (The Hawks have the right to swap first rounders with Brooklyn, leaving the C’s with the least favorable of the two selections). But unless they shore up their interior defense, that doesn’t seem to be too large a concern.
In many ways the Celtics season will officially start when Rondo makes his return. They hope to have a lot more clarity when it’s over.
Viewers GuideWhat we'll be watching this week
MONDAY Spurs at Pelicans
Ryan Anderson is out indefinitely with a spinal injury. Jrue Holiday has a stress fracture in his foot. At least Anthony Davis is still around. (Please don’t take our AD away.)
TUESDAY Thunder at Grizzlies
Acquiring Courtney Lee from the Celtics did more than give the Grizzlies’ anemic shooting a much-needed lift. It also effectively added the equivalent of a mid-level free agent for next season and beyond as Chris Herrington explains. For a team like Memphis, just getting into the playoffs is enough this season where they could be a classic spoiler. Who in their right mind would want to match up with that frontline?
WEDNESDAY Heat at Wizards
Speaking of getting into the playoffs, the Wizards are somewhere in the Eastern Conference postseason conversation, which is like being somewhere in the conversation to be President in 2016. Still, simply making the playoffs would be an important step for the development of John Wall and Bradley Beal, even if they get crushed in the second round by a team like Miami. Look at the Pacers, for example, who gained postseason experience while they were still in the embryonic stage.
THURSDAY Thunder at Rockets
Can we talk about the James Harden trade? Opinions on this deal have swung wildly over the last 14 months and they crested last spring in all sorts of hand-wringing when the Harden-less Thunder lost Russell Westbrook during their first round playoff series against the Rockets. And yet … you can’t examine this deal fully until all the pieces have been accounted for and hey, isn’t that Jeremy Lamb and Steven Adams playing rotation minutes on one of the most dynamic second units in the league? Why, yes it is, and with another first rounder still to come. We’ll never know if dealing Harden when they did cost the Thunder a shot at returning to the Finals last season, but we do feel better about our initial trade judgment that it set up OKC for the future. Maybe it was good for both sides?
FRIDAY Lakers at Celtics
It’s been 20 years since the Celtics and Lakers both finished with sub .500 records, but the league’s greatest rivalry only happens twice a year, so we might as well take note of it. This may be the only time we’ll see Nick Young and Jordan Crawford trading shots in such a hallowed confrontation.
SATURDAY Clippers at Pacers
One of the more underplayed developments this season has been the steady rise of the Clippers’ defense, which has vaulted into the top 10 in points allowed per 100 possessions. That’s a big reason why they’ve been able to survive the loss of Chris Paul so far. Now comes the real test: This matchup with the Pacers is the second game of a seven-game road trip.
SUNDAY Nuggets at Suns
The Suns have been a joy to watch, but you can’t help but wonder if that better-than-expected record will one day put them in Denver Nugget territory. That is, a good team with good players up and down the roster but no franchise player to rally around.
The ListNBA players in some made up category
Now that Andrew Bynum is a free agent, there are several contending teams that will vie for his services. Whether he can get into shape and help come playoff time is another matter. For every missing piece of a championship puzzle, there’s a Troy Murphy who languishes at the end of the bench. With a little help from the SBN crew, here are five notable veteran in-season pickups:
1. Brian Williams, aka Bison Dele, Chicago: The Bulls signed the enigmatic big man late in the 1997 season and he served an invaluable role as the first big man off the bench for the champs. He changed his name after the season and signed a big free agent deal with the Pistons. With five years left on his contract, Dele left the game and traveled the world. He went missing in 2002.
2. Peja Stojakovic, Dallas: The Mavs picked up Stojakovic in 2011 after he was waived by the Raptors and he went on to play rotation minutes during the regular season and playoffs, making 38 percent of his 3-pointers in the postseason. He retired after helping the Mavs beat Miami in the Finals.
3. Chris Andersen, Miami: Oddly, he’s the only player on this list who stayed beyond the hired-gun phase. Bird plugged a big hole in the middle and registered an .815 True Shooting percentage during the postseason and signed a two-year deal in the offseason.
4. P.J. Brown, Sam Cassell, Boston: P.J. Brown was out of the league when the Celtics came calling and like the Birdman he was an invaluable reserve for a championship team. Sam Cassell was supposed to be Rajon Rondo insurance, but he struggled with his shot and was benched for a while in favor of Eddie House. Still, Sam I Am had his moments. Both retired after the 2008 season.
5. Glenn Robinson, San Antonio: After washing out with the Sixers, Big Dog Robinson was traded to the Hornets for Jamal Mashburn and Rodney Rogers at the deadline and waived. Robinson averaged 10 points a game in only nine regular season contests and saw spot duty during the postseason. He retired with a championship ring, capping a disappointing career on an unlikely high note.
ICYMIor In Case You Missed It
Ricky O’Donnell bids a sad farewell to Luol Deng in Chicago.
Tom Ziller’s thoughts on “clutch” include a takedown of Frank Deford’s dew-eyed romanticism, and it includes a Nassim Taleb shoutout, so you know it’s great.
I spent three days with the Pacers to try to understand how they were able to rekindle their love affair with their own fans.
Another gem in an enjoyable series from Doug Eberhardt who explains how big men control the paint.
Say WhatRamblings of NBA players, coaches and GMs
"He may not be there when you call him but he's there when you need him." -- Kevin Garnett on why he refers to Joe Johnson as Joe Jesus.
Reaction: That makes almost zero sense, which means KG is feeling good about things these days. A few nights later he turned in a vintage fourth quarter performance, including a game-sealing steal against the Warriors and followed that up with a double-overtime win over Miami. The Nets just might pull this thing off, after all.
"He has a great basketball IQ, one of the highest on the team. Kyle (Lowry) would debate you on that, like he does everything else." -- Raptors coach Dwane Casey on Chuck Hayes.
Reaction: If it’s safe to gently make fun of Lowry than these truly are the best of times in Toronto.
"We can't have two guys sitting at the end of the bench that play good minutes just sitting there and not getting up during timeouts. We all need to be in this together. That kind of (ticks) me off. We're supposed to be a team." -- Kevin Love, who was referring to Dante Cunningham and JJ Barea.
Reaction: The Kevin Love opt-out watch (he can can escape the final year of his contract after next season) has been on for some time, but as the Wolves continue to slide away toward mediocrity it’s feeling like deju vu all over again in Minnesota. People may expect him to want to go to the Lakers, but that assumes the Wolves won’t deal him before he gets the chance to decide.
This Week in GIFsfurther explanation unnecessary
Stay weird, Nuggets in-game entertainment.
The latest Blake Griffin victim
Take your seat next to Mozgov, Kris.
Love makes the world go 'round
JVG and Pop, melting hearts everywhere.
Chris Kaman's headshots through the years. Guh.