Happy days are here again! My Scrabble Friend and I went on a run this week thanks to the Phoenix Suns, who have gone undefeated against the spread this year. We have bet and will continue to bet the Suns until Vegas throws out a scare line like Pho (+2) @ OKC, at which point we will sigh deeply, say a prayer to the God of Repeated Mistakes, and keep betting the Suns.
The Suns, by any measure besides championship banners, are one of the most successful franchises in NBA history. They missed the playoffs just seven times from 1975-76 through 2009-10, with 19 50-win seasons in that span. But they’ve missed the playoffs three straight years now. Last season, the first of the post–Steve Nash era, might rank as the most depressing in the modern history of the team. Phoenix has since acquired Eric Bledsoe and Caron Butler in a three-team sign-and-trade that Phoenix hatched with Milwaukee and the Clippers, but they still figure to be among the dregs of the league as a new regime enters an earnest rebuild.
The Suns, like several others in this crazy summer of coaching hires, settled on a first-time head coach to helm that rebuild — Jeff Hornacek, the sweet-shooting combo guard who played a crucial role on the 1980s Suns and 1990s Jazz. Hornacek got the head job in Phoenix after a half-decade as an assistant in Utah, where he began as Andrei Kirilenko’s shooting coach. He spoke one-on-one with Grantland in Las Vegas this week about the challenges ahead.
Ryan McDonough, the team’s new GM, says you blew him away in the interview process with your preparation — your knowledge of the team’s roster, and your plans for how the team should play, especially on offense. So: What’s that offense going to look like after a year of struggling to find an identity without Nash?
It’s been quite the offseason for the Los Angeles Clippers. By re-signing Chris Paul, snatching Doc Rivers away from the Celtics, turning Eric Bledsoe’s potential and Caron Butler’s contract into J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley, and retaining Matt Barnes, the Clips have been remolded as a true Western Conference power.
Paul’s presence on the roster essentially guarantees Los Angeles a top-flight offense and should alleviate any cause for concern related to the dreary and unimaginative system Rivers’s Celtics used for the last few years. Over the past six seasons, Paul’s teams have scored 109.7 points per 100 possessions with him on the court — good enough to place in the top four in efficiency in any of those seasons. Paul already has wonderful chemistry with Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan in the pick-and-roll, and the dead-eye shooting of Redick (39.0 percent from beyond the arc in his career) and Dudley (40.5 percent) should make that trio even more dangerous by manufacturing more room for Paul and the Clippers’ bigs to operate in the middle of the floor.
The concerns for this Clippers team will come on the defensive end. Griffin, Jordan, and backup center Ryan Hollins are the only players on the current roster taller than 6-foot-7. None of them could be described as a game-changing defender at this point in his career, or even a consistently above-average one. Griffin and Jordan each improved last season, but both still struggled to defend pick-and-rolls and were often a half-step slow or late when called on to rotate behind the play. Any good defensive coach will tell you those half-steps cumulatively make up the difference between a top defense and a middling one, and after a strong start to the season, the Clippers defense could only be described as middling.
Back from a glorious international wedding, I'm ready to give my jet-laggy thoughts on a whirlwind second day of free agency — a day refreshingly free of the tanking taint. Most of the teams who made moves Tuesday did so in an attempt to actually get better at NBA basketball next season. We saw borderline playoff teams (Minnesota, Washington) stock up on players they like, and the incumbent Western Conference finalists reupped with key present and future cogs at fair-market deals. Heck, even Phoenix, which probably should be tanking, helped its 2013-14 cause by swapping Jared Dudley for a roughly equivalent player (Caron Butler) and a prized young asset in Eric Bledsoe. Only the Bucks took a clear step back in completing the epic transformation of Tobias Harris into J.J. Redick and then into zero human beings who will play for the Bucks next season.
Some quick-hitting thoughts on those moves:
The Clippers, Suns, and Bucks strike a three-team trade centered on Eric Bledsoe and a signed-and-traded J.J. Redick
A very solid deal for the Clips, who have known for a long time — at least a year — that they would have to trade Bledsoe in the event the NBA’s resident slumlord owner somehow convinced Chris Paul to ink a long-term deal. The Clips have acquired two very nice role players at fair prices — contracts that are easy to move in case it ever becomes necessary. They’ve got only seven players under contract now (including Reggie Bullock, their first-round pick), but those seven players alone have enough to form a top-three offense. The Clips already had a top-five outfit on that end, but it was uncreative and faced occasional spacing issues — little flaws that don’t show up in the big regular-season picture, but can become fatal against an elite playoff defense geared toward stopping a single opponent.
It's the most wonderful time of the year. NBA free-agency season is officially got under way. Consider this a clearinghouse for all the rumors floating around. Loose lips may sink ships destroy cap space, but they also sure as hell make for interesting reading.
This Year's Model
The Subject: Tyreke Evans
The Players: The Pelicans, the Kings, the Pistons, the Hawks, Tyreke Evans's business manager, that guy who was hoping Tyreke Evans would invest in his Korean BBQ taco truck
The Gist: This seems like seller's market hysteria to me. The Pelicans reportedly offered Evans a four-year deal between $40 million and $48 million. Tyreke Evans, Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon, Greivis Vasquez, and Austin Rivers. Keeping Austin is an obvious decision, but someone else has to go. Eric Gordon has shown nothing but Pelican passion and Greivis is named "Greivis," so I guess that means amnesty Jrue. In the meantime, the Pelicans' interest in Evans has sparked a little bit of a bidding war, with Detroit, Atlanta, and Evans's current/former team, the Kings, all wining and dining the combo guard.
I guess when you have someone who plays crunch time in bullet time, it's not really crunch time, is it? When you have someone capable of scoring eight of your final 10 points, you don't really have to worry that your half-court offense is entirely reliant on moments of individual brilliance from your stars, rather than finding open looks for players through passing and off-the-ball movement. There's something magical about the Clippers (and I don't mean that in the sun-dappled, wheat-field-blowing way ... I mean that in the down-market Vegas lounge act way). You watch them, and it just doesn't make any sense. You could tell me they had the best or worst offensive efficiency in the league (it's closer to the former), and I'd believe you. But when you have Chris Paul in the fourth quarter, magic goes out the window. It stops making sense. Maybe you don't want to need him — if the Clippers had done better than 2-of-15 from behind the arc, or hadn't fouled the Grizzlies back into the game, they might not have required his legendary crunch-time services — but it's nice to know he's there, just in case.
With the basketball part of my brain switched off yesterday, it wasn’t until this morning that I caught the Sporting News report that the Los Angeles Clippers were interested in a trade for Kevin Garnett. The initial reaction, as someone who works 50 yards from Staples Center and has long held a fascination with KG, was, of course, “OH MY GOD, DO THAT.” With some time to consider it, the basketball fan in me has pretty much come to agree.
The report claims that talks had already taken place between the teams, which ESPN’s Chris Broussard has reported is not the case. Supposedly, there are those with the Clippers who are worried about the two remaining years on KG’s deal after this season ends.
That seems like a legitimate concern. By the time this contract runs out, Garnett will be 39 years old, and it’s fair to say that this season has been his worst in the past 15 years. With Chris Paul’s new contract on the horizon and Blake Griffin’s kicking in next season, adding more than $11.5 million of Kevin Garnett in 2014 comes with its risks.
When the Houston Rockets pried Omer Asik away from the Bulls with an aggressive offer sheet, the most pressing question (after "Who?" and "Him?") was if he could maintain his effectiveness with greater playing time. As a backup center in Chicago, the towering Turk had spent only 15 minutes on the floor per game. But in that limited sample, there were intriguing indicators that he could be a valuable big man. He was an elite rebounder — averaging more than 17 boards per 48 minutes — and his defensive rating was 92, which meant he surrendered fewer points per possession than Dwight Howard's career-best.
Now, Asik is considered a "surprise," despite being a very similar player to the one we saw as a reserve on the Bulls. In truth, he's gotten better. His rebounding rate is slightly up, his free throw shooting has improved, and he's committing fewer fouls (a consequence of needing to stay on the floor, one category in which he's slipped is shot-blocking). Asik has become more comfortable on offense and is now supplementing those wounded-circus-bear reverse layup attempts with new tricks, such as a cutting catch-and-kick to the corner after rolling off a bone-melting pick at the top of the key. In general, he's proved that his success in Chicago could be replicated on a larger scale, even if some of that success was bolstered by playing alongside Joakim Noah and the Bulls' army of smothering wraiths.
This is immense. Eric Bledsoe streaking down the court, locking eyes with Blake Griffin like they were about to reenact the kiss scene from The Notebook, going way beyond telegraphing a pass to some sort of I don't know, sky-writing of a pass, and then NOPE! DeAndre! Flush! I hope people start doing this to Blake in real life. I want to spot Blake at Yard House, stare DEEP into his eyes, start walking toward him with a napkin and a pen, and then BOOM ask the waitress for her autograph.
With the Lakers, Clippers and Kings hosting a whopping 28 home games in 28 days from March 11 through April 7 — all happening at Staples Center, which is only a wind-aided Andy Lee punt from Grantland's headquarters — we couldn't resist attending these 28 games and writing about as many of them as possible. For previous 28 Days Later dispatches, click here.
The thought came about halfway through the first quarter last night. The Clippers had hit their first six shots, and after another massive DeAndre Jordan dunk made it 17-8, Atlanta was forced to call timeout. For those six minutes, Chris Paul and his bunch were the Clippers that people had imagined when the season began. It was high-flying, shot-making, thrill-inducing basketball, and all I could think as both teams moved to their benches was that somehow, some way, I’d become bored with the most entertaining team in the NBA.