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Thursday, January 23, 2020

Are the Phoenix Suns for real? NBA takeaways, two weeks in

For a franchise maligned as being run poorly, Phoenix sure seems like one that has been run well in the past year or so.

By: New York Times | Published: November 6, 2019 3:33:52 pm
Phoenix Suns have started the season at 5-2. (Source: AP)

By Sopan Deb

The Golden State Warriors are about one injury away from heading down to the local YMCA to find someone to fill a roster spot, and yet they managed to beat the Portland Trail Blazers on Monday night. I am this close to calling up Warriors coach Steve Kerr to ask if I can get some run.

The Phoenix Suns — yes, those Suns — have started the season at 5-2.

James Harden is averaging 36.6 points a game, the best in the league and almost 5 points ahead of Kyrie Irving, the next player on the scoring list. All that’s well and good until you consider that he’s shooting 25% from deep and that his Houston Rockets are barely an above-average offensive team.

It’s been a weird NBA season so far — and as is always the case, many of the strange trends you see in the first several games end up reversing themselves. Last year, the Detroit Pistons started off 4-2, leading some to wonder if Blake Griffin really was the answer to the franchise’s basketball issues. The Pistons finished at .500.

Weird is not the same as exciting, mind you. There have been too many injuries to key players. Several contenders are off to underwhelming starts (hello, Utah and Portland), while some teams that were supposed to take a step forward have started off terribly (goodbye, Sacramento and Chicago). Much of the NBA isn’t crisp right now. There have been a lot of ugly games, made so in part by teams’ adjusting to the new emphasis on calling traveling and to coaches’ challenges.

Here are a few things that have caught my eye after the first two weeks of the season.

House of the Rising Suns

Against the undefeated Philadelphia 76ers on Monday night, Aron Baynes, whom the Suns acquired from the Boston Celtics in a salary dump, scored or assisted on Phoenix’s first four possessions. He finished with 15 points, seven rebounds and six assists, as well as a great block near the end of the game to help preserve a lead. Ricky Rubio scored 21 points and added 10 assists. And of course, Devin Booker dominated, scoring 40 points at will to hand Philadelphia its first loss. Granted, Joel Embiid didn’t play, but still.

For a franchise maligned as being run poorly, Phoenix sure seems like one that has been run well in the past year or so. Baynes and Rubio were sneakily smart acquisitions for a team needing veteran leadership. Both are solid defenders who don’t make many mistakes on the court.

Trading Trevor Ariza last year for Kelly Oubre Jr. has paid off in spades: After seven games, Oubre’s averages for points, rebounds and shooting percentage put him on pace for career highs. And the Suns are doing all this without Deandre Ayton, who is serving a 25-game suspension after testing positive for a banned diuretic. (Ayton has had a solid career and is on his way to being a star. But, on some level, he will always be compared to Luka Doncic, who was drafted two spots behind him. Doncic looks to be a generational player, Ayton a mere mortal.)

And Booker is a bona fide star. He always has been. He’s just never been in a stable system in the NBA. Booker is more committed on defense than ever before. Props to Monty Williams, the new coach who has the Suns performing like an elite defensive team — something that would have been unthinkable a year ago.

Is this sustainable? For one thing, Booker and Baynes are not going to shoot approximately 50% from deep for the rest of the season. But the defense is real. And that might be good enough to get the Suns into the playoffs.

Isaiah Thomas and the power of persistence

There are few players in the league more suited for a redemption arc than Isaiah Thomas, who has been in the NBA’s no man’s land since he was unexpectedly traded to Cleveland from the Celtics after carrying Boston to the Eastern Conference finals in 2017.

Now he’s averaging 14.5 points and seven assists in only 22 minutes a game for the struggling Washington Wizards. On Monday night, Washington moved him into the starting lineup — and thumped the Pistons for the team’s second win of the season. Much of the world has forgotten just how good Thomas was in 2017, because, after the trade by Boston, he bounced from Cleveland to Los Angeles and then to Denver.

Being a sports fan in 2019 means falling victim to recency bias — and recently Thomas looked as if his career was over. He couldn’t crack the guard-heavy rotation of the Nuggets, and expectations were low when he signed a one-year minimum deal with the Wizards.

But one thing Thomas has never lacked — as is evident from his motivational social media posts — is confidence, the unwavering belief that the Thomas who averaged almost 30 points a game with Boston in 2016-17 is still in there somewhere. That confidence is part of the explanation for how someone who is 5 feet 9 inches tall makes it in the NBA.

The Wizards are not going to be very good this season, but Thomas is looking like an unexpected bright spot.

What to make of Andre Drummond?

I’ve always believed, in the face of much mockery from my peers, that Andre Drummond is going to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. He’s only 26 years old and has already averaged double-doubles in six seasons. He is also likely to go down as one of the league’s best rebounders ever.

This season, Drummond’s numbers are even more eye-popping: He’s averaging 21.3 points a game, along with a ridiculous 19.4 rebounds, and shooting 56% from the field. He has grabbed at least 20 rebounds in five of Detroit’s eight games. He has improved his ball-handling and has developed a reliable hook shot.

Normally, you’d see those numbers and think that this was a Most Valuable Player Award season in the making. But with Drummond, that’s not the case. The Pistons are 3-5 in a weak conference. It should be noted that, because of injury, Drummond hasn’t had Griffin playing next to him. The rest of Detroit’s roster isn’t very good, but some of the losses (against Washington and Chicago, for example) came in games the team should have won.

The perception of Drummond for years has been — unfairly, I’ve always thought — that his stats are empty, that he’s an accumulator, which is why he has appeared in only eight playoff games in seven seasons. But I’m beginning to reconsider. This season, the Pistons have been outscored by almost five points when Drummond is on the floor. Since entering the league in 2012, Drummond has had only two seasons in the positive range for this measurement, last season being one of them.

Detroit’s offense has produced more without Drummond on the floor, according to the NBA’s tracking numbers. Though the stats represent only eight games, that’s not something you typically say about franchise players.

There are many reasons these numbers may paint a skewed picture. And it’s true that without Griffin, Detroit doesn’t have any other top-shelf talent. But there have been enough of these types of numbers in Drummond’s career that it’s difficult to assess his true value on a team. He seems to improve every season, but his teams do not.

Will he eventually be a Hall of Famer? Yes. I still believe that. But can he be the top or second-best player on a championship team? I’m not so sure.

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