We aren’t talking about Joel Embiid. Before last season the Philadelphia 76ers before last season suffered through three consecutive seasons of fewer than 20 wins. The Suns have a combined 47 wins the past two, and have 18 now with 21 games remaining. While on track to be a little more respectable than the 2013-16 Sixers, Phoenix’s 18-44 is good (bad?) enough for the worst record.
There’s no way a team with Devin Booker, T.J. Warren, Tyson Chandler and the young Suns core would have been imagined 18-44. And yet, here we are: Suns fans who had that idea going into this season appeared to be dreaming something that was far-fetched.
Even after the acquisition of Elfrid Payton, the Suns are winless, but some guys are still putting up terrific numbers, and the young guys have shown heavy flashes of improvement. This bares the question: are the Suns up to something? Are they plotting a process? Will the expected top-5 pick in the 2018 draft and the summer of be the final stretch?
The Suns may be tanking. Blowing a double-digit lead to Portland on Saturday and giving their bench tons of crunch time minutes the last several games dating back to before All-Star Weekend.
Sam Hinkie, the former 76ers GM showed the possibility that he was avoiding wins during his time in Philadelphia, and now five seasons later, the team is seeing the benefits. Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid are already proven cornerstones of the process taking place in Philly; although other guys like Jahlil Okafor didn’t quite make the cut.
Regardless, the 76ers are 32-26 which is just three games behind third place in the Eastern Conference. That is also without last years top pick, Markelle Fultz.
So is it too soon to blame Ryan McDonough? Are the Suns following this trend? Although woeful now, will the young Suns current struggles reap benefits? The 76ers proved that top picks, while not always successful, can come through powerfully, and the Suns with three top-10 picks the past two seasons are hoping the same, and they are on track for the top pick in the Draft this summer as well.
From top pick to playoff contention, the Phoenix Suns are trying to do what the 76ers have proven can be successful.
TUALATIN — The Portland Trail Blazers returned from a two-game mini road trip with a pair of wins and a learning lesson.
“The rest of the way is not going to be easy, no matter who you’re playing,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts cautioned following practice Monday.
While Portland improved to 34-26 on the season, thanks to a dominant defensive effort against the Utah Jazz Friday followed by a late dose of “Lillard Time” against the Phoenix Suns on Saturday, the two-game swing was a reminder that wins aren’t a given regardless of the opponent as the playoff race ramps up.
“It’s easy to get up for Utah, Oklahoma City or Minnesota,” said Stotts, “but the reality is that it’s not going to be easy. We have to assume that every game is going to be a tough game and however it plays out is going to be tough.”
DAME DOES IT
Damian Lillard added yet another game-winner to his resume over the weekend, while continuing his prolific scoring streak straight into the Trail Blazers record books.
As he’s done each of the last two seasons, Portland’s All-Star guard is taking it upon himself to lead the Blazers on a post-All-Star push toward the playoffs.
“I think it’s just my mentality,” Lillard said Monday of his recent play. “Whatever I gotta do to get the team where we need to be, to continue to move up in the West and make our playoff run, I’m gonna do whatever I need to do.”
Lillard has topped 30 points five times in February, which includes three games of 40 or more and the fourth 50-point performance of his career, all while Portland has won five out of six games and moved into fifth place in the tight Western Conference standings.
Along with Anthony Davis (34.0) and James Harden (31.0), Lillard (32.0) is one of just three players in the West averaging better than 30 points in the month of February.
“It’s just, what are you willing to do to make sure this team gets done what we need to get done?” Lillard said. “My mentality every game is — even if it’s not popular, even if it’s ugly — whatever I gotta do to make sure our team gets it done I’m willing to do that. Even if I gotta be the bad guy … whatever I gotta do that’s what I’m gonna do.”
While Portland’s last three games have all provided the same outcome, each has taken a different path to victory.
The Blazers led big at home early against the Golden State Warriors, warding off a late comeback attempt by the defending champs for a 123-117 win prior to the All-Star break.
In Utah, Portland put the clamps down defensively over the final three quarters to run away with a 100-81 win over the Jazz.
While in Phoenix, the Blazers battled back from a 15-point fourth-quarter deficit as Lillard’s latest 0.9 game-winner gave Portland the 106-104 win.
Whether it be a close game against a top team in the West, blowing out a division rival by double digits or battling back late against a conference cellar dweller, the Blazers have provided proof of late-game improvement to string together three straight wins.
“I think just our urgency, our focus and the desire has been different,” Lillard said. “We’ve just been on the same page with the details, the small stuff we need to do to be able to close out games and pull out wins.”
This day was never supposed to happen, remember? The Kings were never going to Seattle, their fans were never going to forgive anyone affiliated with the group that tried to poach Sacramento’s NBA franchise, and besides, no one wants to play in dumpy KeyArena anyway.
Right. So here they come.
The Golden State Warriors will host the Kings on Oct. 6 in a preseason game at – you guessed it – KeyArena. All that is left is for the parties to sign and submit the contract, which according to multiple league sources, is a mere formality. This is happening.
The Kings are game. The Warriors really want to do this. Kevin Durant, who made his debut with the SuperSonics a decade ago during their final season in the Pacific Northwest, undoubtedly has been consulted and presumably has no objection. And while a segment of Kings fans are unforgiving, and many Sonics fans are gnashing their teeth and still agonizing about what they lost and what might have been – this is absolutely irresistible.
The NBA, remember, is all about entertainment. League executives thrive on dynamic personalities and high drama, though Mark Cuban and the Dallas Mavericks scandal is not exactly what they want dominating the news cycle. Think of Kings-Warriors then as Showtime north, because long before KD, Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Bogdan Bogdanovic, De’Aaron Fox or Willie Cauley-Stein will so much as put a toe on Seattle turf, the conversation figures to command the stage for the remainder of the season and throughout the long, hot Sacramento summer.
How did all this come to be? This one’s a slam dunk. One need not search far and wide to uncover the brains behind the move: Rick Welts. For the Warriors president, a marketing genius and child of the NBA entertainment-driven culture, this traces to his roots. He grew up in Seattle, worked for the Sonics from 1979-89 alongside his sister, Nancy, and in another connective-tissue element, lives with his family in Carmichael.
By scheduling an NBA game in Seattle for the first time since the Sonics became the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2008, he is delivering an assist to his hometown, pushing for a reconciliation and re-introduction, along with an opportunity to re-ignite the intensely passionate, understandably tortured discussion about bringing back the Sonics, via expansion or (gulp) relocation.
“I’m sure we will have conflicted feelings,” said Adam Brown, co-producer of the 2009 award-winning “Sonicsgate” documentary. “There is a lot of baggage regarding the whole saga. But overall, if we can remove some of the emotion, this is a step in the right direction. Anything that involves NBA participation here is a positive thing. Durant coming back to a city where he won Rookie of the Year … the fans will totally welcome him back. Klay Thompson went to Washington State, and the Warriors play that up-and-down brand of basketball that we loved when we had Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp.”
Brown, as surprised by the news as everyone, had a confession to make: He is a closet Kings fans.
“I watch a lot of Kings basketball,” he said with a laugh, “and I really like their youth movement. I have Bogdanovic and Cauley-Stein on my fantasy team. I had George Hill, too, but I want to see more of their nice young core. And no hard feelings. Sacramento got to keep their team, and I’m glad they did because we know how heartbreaking it is to lose a team. A lot of us felt bad about that (attempted relocation).”
This is less about the Kings, in many respects. Because they hosted a game with the Warriors last preseason, they owed Golden State one this year – with date and location chosen by their neighbors to the west. And keep in mind that Dave Joerger and his squad will be mere visitors, in the city for about 48 hours and then flying out. They are not staying. They are coming home. They are not the aggrieved party, remember.
While Kings traveling security officials might try to ban Chris Hansen from KeyArena, as sort of a payback for his dirty-tricks campaign amid the sale from the Maloofs to principal owner Vivek Ranadive for $535 million, Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer sprinted back to California and bought the Clippers, so no worries there. He won’t be a target for an egg or tomato toss.
“I have mixed feelings about this,” said Mike Tavares, co-founder of Crown Downtown, a grass-roots movement that worked to prevent the relocation. “It’s a little weird. But I actually look forward to flying to Seattle, watching a game, and meeting up with Adam (Brown) and Jason Reid, all the guys we went up against when we were trying to keep our team. I would wish them the best and hope this helps them get the Sonics back. But I will also remind them. ‘Hey, you’re watching my team.’ ”
PHOENIX – One of the best things about the Spurs’ 48-point romp over the Suns on Wednesday night was that they never let up.
In recording the third biggest win in franchise history in terms of margin of victory, the Spurs enjoyed a 38-point halftime lead and a 47-point advantage after three quarters en route to a 129-81 victory. But despite those insurmountable cushions, the Spurs never eased back – no matter who was on the court – much to the delight of coach Gregg Popovich.
“It’s not like we’re Golden State or something,” he said. “We’ve got a lot to learn. We’ve got to keep trying to play our best basketball for 48 minutes.”
Danny Green agreed.
“We were thinking just stay focused, don’t take your foot off the gas and let them back in,” he said. “Every team is dangerous in this league, and we didn’t want to give them any light, any confidence. We did what we were supposed to do.”
And that includes in garbage time, which in this case amounted to the entire fourth quarter. Playing every minute of the final frame, rookie guard Derrick White scored a season-high 10 points on 3 of 5, including 3 of 3 from 3-point range, as the Spurs outscored the Suns 32-31 in the period
“We focused on not giving in, not getting too comfortable, continuing to play defense,” said LaMarcus Aldridge, who led the Spurs with 23 points to go along with 13 rebounds for his 21st double-double of the season.
Scientists have studied this for decades, but I feel like we have yet to reach a conclusive answer: is it better to lose a tightly contested game, one decided by a handful of possessions or maybe one or two good shots, or is there something to the idea of a blowout, time spent just watching your team get steamrolled for two and a half hours? This is an open question.
For the Raptors, the losses have been relatively few and far between. They begin this week 36-16, with a firm grasp on second place in the East. In fact, this week they’ve actually found some new ways to win — see the dying second against the Timberwolves last Tuesday. That was something to see, let me tell you.
When they have lost though, it’s often been of the frustratingly close loss variety, rather than the deflating blowout. And so our minds turn back to this question. Is it better to be in almost every game and lose down the stretch, or to just throw your hands up after the first quarter and admit defeat? It feels like Toronto has had its share of lopsided affairs in history, but on the other hand watching the Raps fritter away that game against Washington doesn’t do us any good either. Will we ever get an answer?
Let’s see what the Power Rankings say this week.
Let’s kick things off with Jose De Leon over at ESPN:
4. Toronto Raptors (Last Week: 4)
The Raptors, currently the No. 2 seed in the East, have a big home matchup against the top-seeded Celtics on Tuesday. In their only other meeting of the season, DeMar DeRozan missed two potential go-ahead shots in the final 20 seconds of the game, and neither team had more than a five-point lead in the fourth quarter.
Some big time analysis from ESPN again this week. Yes these are things that happened, thank you.
(Next we’d ordinarily get to Kenny Ducey at Sports Illustrated, but apparently the Super Bowl has thrown the space time continuum out of wack and we’re still waiting for more Power Rankings.)
So then, a nation turns to Dr. John Schuhmann to deliver the diagnosis at NBA.com:
3. Toronto Raptors (Last Week: 4)
Though the Raptors have been a little inconsistent themselves over the last few weeks, the Warriors’ defensive slippage has left Toronto as the only team that ranks in the top five on both ends of the floor. The offense (118 points scored per 100 possessions) has been better than the defense as they’ve won four of their last five games. The only game in that stretch that they lost in the one (at Washington on Thursday) that they played without Fred VanVleet, who has averaged 16 points off the bench in the other four. With the Cavs continuing to flounder, the two best teams in the East will meet (for the first time since early November) in Toronto on Tuesday, though it’s not clear if Kyrie Irving (bruised quad) will be available for the Celtics.
Et tu, Schuhmann? I think the inconsistency thing is a tad overblown. If anything, the Raptors win and lose and consistent ways. The fold-job versus the Wizards shouldn’t have surprised us as much as it did, and the return of VanVleet should be seen as the necessary salve it was. Now, we look to Tuesday.
And oh yeah, we finally get to CBS Sports, and the totally in-the-know writings of Chris Barnewell:
2. Toronto Raptors (Last Week: 6)
Toronto has been great this season, and it would be surprising to see the Raptors make a move. However, the log jam at the center spot still needs to be cleared out, and Jonas Valanciunas feels like the odd man out.
Boy, these guys really get it, you know?
Now, on to the poll (while I can still keep a straight face).