Three NBA teams that shock everyone next season.

Atlanta Hawks

Added: Bogdan Bogdanovic, Rajon Rondo, Danillo Gallinari, Onyeka Okongwu (Draft)

2020 was a disappointment for everyone one.  The Atlanta Hawks were a disappointment for me.  I had them as a sleeper team to make the playoffs out of the east.  They never found their groove last season.  The Hawks finished the season with a 20-47 record.

The Hawks went wild in the offseason adding serious depth around their two young stars Trae Young and John Collins.  Atlanta added proven champ Rajan Rondo, forward Danillo Galliinari and Bogdan Bogdanovic.  They also drafted uber-talented USC Trojan Onyeka Okongwu, a player that some had as a top 5 pick.   

Despite playing one of the fastest paces in the league (7th fastest) the Hawks offense was not efficient last season.  They ranked 25th in the league in offensive efficiency.  While Atlanta moved quickly they had some serious shooting issues ranking dead last in 3-pt percentage (33%).  The addition of Bogdanovic and Gallinari immediately addresses the issue, they shoot 37% and 38% respectively.  Early reports are saying that Gallinari will be coming off of the bench along with Rondo.  The Hawks bench was one of the worst in the league last year. That won’t be the case in 2021. 

Atlanta had defensive issues last season.  A full year of Clint Capela meaning the middle will help with the rim protection.  Having the stopper in the middle will allow the lengthy wings DeAndre Hunter and Cam Reddish to be more aggressive to create steals.  This team improved on every aspect that they lacked last season.  Hawks will make the playoffs and create problems for a lot of teams in the East. 

New Orleans Pelicans

Added: Eric Bledsoe, Steven Adams, Kira Lewis Jr (Draft)

The west is stacked and the Pelicans traded away Jrue Holiday.  There is no way this team gets better…wrong.  The Pelicans made headlines when they traded their All-Star guard to Milwaukee.  The thought from many is that the Pelicans are going to have another developmental year.  Most have ignored what the Pelicans added in the offseason.  

Eric Bledsoe is a veteran that should fill in the role as the #2 guard.  Bledsoe has a very similar skill set as Holiday.  Both players finished the season with a PER of 17,  both shoot the three around 35% and both are box score stuffers.  Holiday averaged 2 more assists per game, but it is likely that Bledsoe will see more time at the shooting guard position while Lonzo Ball will be at the point, where most of the distribution will occur. Bledsoe’s biggest attribute is coming from a winning organization that played great team defense.  A 2-time all NBA defensive player will help set the tone for a Pelicans team that was putrid on that end. 

Along with Bledsoe the Pelicans added a big man known for toughness and defense in Steven Adams. Adams will be a protector of Zion Williamson and does not need the ball on the offensive end. He will set screens for Lonzo Ball and allow him to work towards the rim utilizing the pick and roll.   Adams is the perfect fit for a team that needs toughness.

Adding two veterans to a team with the league’s most improved player Brandon Ingram and of course the “franchise” Zion Williamson makes this team an immediate threat for a playoff spot. Stan Van Gundy has the pedigree to lead a still very young team.  The mix of veterans and young rising stars ready to make an impact put them in position to make an impact. 

Phoenix Suns

Added: Chris Paul, Jae Crowder, Jalen Smith (Draft)

The Phoenix Suns made an impact in the 2020 Bubble.  The Suns came in with low expectations but left with the fanbase and the NBA excited for what next season will bring.  Devin Booker, DeAndre Ayton and Mikal Bridges are all 24 or younger and now have the leadership of future Hall of Famer Chris Paul.  

The Suns also picked up a solid swingman, Jae Crowder in free agency.  Crowder has played major minutes for playoff teams in his career.  Spending time with the Celtics, Jazz and recently the Heat.  Crowder is a locker room leader and defender that will bring toughness and playoff experience to a team that needed it to make a real run for the playoffs.  

The Suns had to give up Kelly Oubre and Ricky Rubio in order to acquire their new pieces.  The offense will have a different identity but the defense will be the biggest change in culture.  The offense will come through Booker and Ayton, the addition of veterans with experience will help them stay in control down the stretch of a tight game.  Teams can no longer key on just Booker.  Paul is reaching the later stages of his career but he showed what he can do for a team that doesn’t have near the talent that Phoenix has.  

Two things I learned from the NBA Bubble

Devin Booker is a future MVP

The Sun were a team I saw making a surprise run to the playoffs in my preseason write up.  I loved the addition of veterans with a young core that looked like they were going to take the next step. After a hot start to the season Phoenix struggled down the stretch and then the pandemic hit.  

Phoenix entered the bubble more as common courtesy rather than an actual contender for the final playoff spot. No one told Devin Booker that.  The former Kentucky Wildcat showed up to make a statement in front of the world and he did that. Averaging 27 ppg on 43% shooting, adding 6 apg and 5 rpg while leading the Suns to a 7-0 record.  Booker was already establishing himself as a great player during his time in Phoenix, but he was not yet known as a guy that can be a winner.  He has found his niche that has made him a leader of a team that most people had written off.  

The Suns are not going to make the playoffs despite his great run, but the expectations leading into next season will be extremely high for Booker.  The team will not be expected to win the west but if they don’t make the playoffs the world will look at him. He has welcomed the pressure of the franchise and is beginning to develop into the player that will be a serious problem for the league in the coming years.  Players like Karl Anthony Towns and John Wall are both guys that out of Kentucky were supposed to be game changers for the league but it is the lesser glorified Booker that has surpassed them not only in skill but in leadership.  He may not stay in Phoenix forever but he has already begun to make his mark on that city and that team.   This guy is forreal and will show it.

The Heat can take the East

The Bucks are the clear favorites in the East.  The loss of LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard in back to back years has been like removing a roadblock for the Greek Freak and company to get to their destination. The Raptors and the Celtics are the two teams that seemed like they would be the best candidates to pull off the upset over the new beasts of the east but I think the Miami Heat have shown the ability to take down the Bucks and they will do it by attacking their biggest weaknesses.

The Miami Heat are the best three point shooting team in the NBA, sitting at 38% as a team makes them a very dangerous matchup for a Bucks team that has huge issues protecting the exterior. The Heat have not been dominant in the bubble,  they actually lost to the Bucks without Jimmy Butler.  That game took a 32 point second half comeback and serious foul trouble from Heat #2 player Bam Adebayo.  Milwaukee will not have all the factors working for them again in a seven game series.  

The Heat took two out of three from the Bucks during the regular season and are led by the least intimidated player in the entire NBA and coach that has been there before.  This roster is thick with gritty talent and shooters.  They are the perfect foil for Milwaukee, you get by Milwaukee you have a shot to go to the finals.

Barkley > Draymond- Why is this even a conversation?

The Last Dance documentary has shined the light on a lot of under celebrated players from the 90’s.  Most notably in episode six they talked about the Phoenix Suns and Charles Barkley.  Today’s generation see Barkley as the outspoken analyst on TNT and other media outlets but it is very noticeably forgotten that the Round Mound of Rebound was actually one of the best NBA players not only of the 90’s but in the history of the game. 

Recently Barkley has been in a war of words with fellow outspoken power forward Draymond Green of the Golden State Warriors.  Green has cited that Barkley’s inability to win a championship puts him below the level of the Warriors star.  I am a believer in championships cementing the legacy of great players. It  is downright laughable for Green to believe that his legacy in the league will ever match Charles Barkley.  Green is a key cog in the machine the Golden State Warriors have built but by no means is he in the league of the Hall of Famer.  Barkley was a cornerstone of two different franchises.  The Sixers of the late 80’s and the Suns of the 90’s success was primarily built on the back of Barkley.    

Who had even heard of the Phoenix Suns before Barkley was traded there and led them to a losing effort against the prime Michael Jordan Bulls of the 90’s. The Suns had made it to one other finals in the 1975-1976 season and to this day haven’t made it since the time of Barkley and company.  It wasn’t until the Steve Nash and Amare Stoudamire Suns of the mid 2000’s that Phoenix was able to make any impact in the league.  Barkley is unquestionably the face of the entire organization and unless Devin Booker gets some help he will be the face for years to come.  

I am not here to knock Draymond Green.  He is the perfect example of the progression of the point-forward position in today’s NBA.  Barkley however was carrying teams with lesser talent for years.  No matter who was on the court Barkley found success.  His career PER was 24.6 and destroyed Green who hasn’t had a season PER above 19.  We have seen what happens when Green becomes the focal point of a team.  He is not the scorer, rebounder or leader that Barkley was.  Draymond Green is an overachiever in the NBA.  He has done great things in the league, his defense is better than Barkleys.  That is the lone aspect about his game that you can argue is better.  That is it.  Someone tell me something that he does better.    It is actually very funny that Drayond believes that he is on the level of an NBA hall of famer.  Imagine if Green didn’t play along with some of the best players in the entire league. Would he even be talked about?  

Barkley played with some talent in his prime.  Kevin Johnson was very good for a small amount of time.  Dan Majerle was a three time all star, but he was never a premium level player.  Who did he play with on the level of  Steph Curry, Klay Thompson or Kevin Durant? Green could never take a team as far as Barkley did.  He could never be the #1 option. 

NBA Trade Candidates- Where should Terry Rozier go?

Jimmy Butler is finally out of Minnesota, as he heads to the Sixers to create perhaps the biggest 3 the NBA has seen since Lebron and Bosh took their talents to South Beach what is going to happen to the other big names on the trade market. Terry Rozier has been rumored to be on the move as the Celtics don’t seem to have a place for him . Kyrie is cemented as the starter, as he enters free agency the Celtics will be forced to open up the check book, Marcus Smart just signed a 4-year, $52 million contract.  With no money for Rozier they Celtics and Danny Ainge will look to try get what he can for the talented point guard.

Unlikely but intriguing: Indiana Pacers

The Celtics wouldn’t likely be in the business of making a fellow Eastern Conference contender better but if the shoe fits sometimes you have to put it on.  The Pacers have a lot of young talent a well as role players they could move in order to make this work.  If the Pacers were to send Cory Joseph and either Thaddeus Young or Dom Sabonis to the Celtics for Rozier both teams would win.

The Celtics would have veteran backup that doesn’t need to play big minutes in Joseph and provide better depth in the front court.  Both Young and Sabonis would be able to fill a need that the Celtics have, which is established depth behind Al Horford.

The Pacers would be able to pair Oladipo with Rozier and create a dynamic guard tandom that can play on both end of the floor.  This deal would be great for both parties but unlikely with both of them contending.

Makes Sense: Orlando Magic

The Orlando Magic are pretty set on big men.  Mo Bamba, Aaron Gordon, Nikola Vucevic and Johnathon Isaac are the cornerstones of the organization.  With a litany of bigs to build around the Magic have a need for points and leadership at the guard position. DJ Augustin has been a solid NBA player for a number of years but is simply a ball control point guard that will limit mistakes but not make the big plays.  Rozier would walk into Orlando and immediately be the best guard on the roster.  He can initiate offense at a high level and be a perfect fit to work along side Aaron Gordon.

Rozier could be in attack mode the entire game, fitting the perfect style of new Head Coach Steve Clifford.  The Magic have young pieces as well as vets that could intrigue Ainge to make a move.

Makes to much sense: Phoenix Suns

The Suns have been in rebuild mode since Steve Nash parted ways with the organization. Devin Booker and DeAndre Ayton are the pieces to build around, adding a hard noised defender with the ability to run a proficient offense could be just the ticket that the Suns need.  Booker has been working the point a lot during the 2018 season which is not ideal for a shotmaker of his caliber.

Bringing in Rozier would give them two guards that can compete every night forcing opposing defenses to utilize their best defender on one while the other can be freed up. Rozier running the pick-and-roll with the explosive Deandre Ayton would also be an exciting form of offense for Phoenix, were they to acquire the Celtic guard.

The Suns are not afraid to take on big contracts so signing Rozier long term wouldn’t be a problem for the rebuilding franchise. A piece like Trevor Ariza could be intriguing to move.  Ariza on the Celtics could can add toughness on both ends of the floor as well.  Win/win for both teams.

Should do it: San Antonio Spurs

Losing Dejounte Murray was a big deal to begin the season. The third year guard was set to take the place of long time great Tony Parker. A torn ACL ended his season and put the Spurs guard options behind DeMar DeRozan very limited. Young guards Derrick White and Bryn Forbes have filled the role admirably but are not difference makers.  Both would be served better playing a bench role or spot start during rest days.

The Spurs are not a team that likes to make changes in season.  Adding a player like Rozier along with the veterans and rising stars can make a huge impact on a team that has played above expectations so far.  Rozier is a grinder that would be worth a flyer for the right cost.

Rozier is a star in the making if given the chance.  With the leadership in place for San Antonio the transition from Boston to San Antonio would be seamless.  This move would put the Spurs in a better place, making them a legit playoff contender.

 

 

Devin Booker- The League’s Next Star

The Phoenix Suns have been the definition of disfunction over the last decade.  Nine seasons in a row with zero playoff appearances.  They haven’t won more then 24 games in the last three seasons. The years of Charles Barley, Kevin Johnson and Steve Nash have become a distant memory, a mirage of greatness in the the Phoenix desert.  But suddenly you see civilization, water, food and air conditioning!  Brought to you by the leagues newest star Devin Booker.

Over their first three NBA seasons:

Steph Curry Devin Booker
PPG 16.3 PPG 19.8
RPG 3.93 RPG 3.3
APG 5.6 APG 3.5

Devin Booker was drafted by the Suns out of Kentucky in 2015.  There was small fanfare to his pick at number 13.  Booker seemed like a solid role player that could be a piece to help an NBA team.  Booker quickly proved to be more then just a role player. Shooting 40% and averaging over 20 points a game in his sophomore season Booker became the quiet leader of a Suns team that had been lacking a star.  Not since Steve Nash’s final season in 2012 has there been a player that was putting Phoenix on the map. Booker took the role and ran with it during troubling times.

2017 was a season to forget for the Suns. Eric Bledsoe took to twitter proclaiming he no longer wanted to play in Phoenix last season causing issues in the locker room.  The problems in the locker room continued into the front office as the Suns fired Earl Watson just three games into the season.  With Watson gone the Suns decided to move on from their troubled guard Bledsoe.  Moving Bledsoe to the Bucks weakened the roster but signaled a change in the culture.  The Suns went into tank mode.  But losing sometimes has its advantages in professional sports.

Phoenix selected Deandre Ayton out of the University of Arizona with the first overall pick in the 2018 draft. Adding Ayton has given the Suns a player to build along side Booker.  The presence of an inside force will allow freedom for Booker to work against one-on-one matchups. Adding sharpshooting veterans Jamal Crawford, Ryan Anderson and Trevor Ariza will provide the leadership for the team and guidance for a young emerging star.  The addition also puts Josh Jackson and TJ Warren to move to the bench creating tough matchups for second units.

Phoenix showed their commitment to Booker in the offseason signing him to a five-year, $158 million maximum contract extension over the summer.  Booker is now locked up for the future.  The pieces are being put into place around him with with Deandre Ayton, Josh Jackson, TJ Warren and Mikal Bridges.  The Suns will not be great this season but people will see the greatness of the next big star in the league.  Booker opened up the season showing the ability of an elite player, finishing with 35 points and 19 in the fourth quarter with the game still on the line. Booker’s 35 was the most by a Suns player in an opening day night game since Kevin Johnson put up 35 in 1993.

Phoenix got the win on opening night against a fellow rebuilding team in the Dallas Mavericks.  If Booker can avoid injury and play a full season the league will see a rise in every statistic.  Booker will take the next step in his career, remember he is just turning 22 at the end of October.  The next great star is in Phoenix and his name is Devin Booker.