Posts Tagged ‘Eric Bledsoe’

Suns fire Hornacek in wake of 2-19 skid

From NBA.com staff reports

The Suns have fired head coach Jeff Hornacek following Sunday’s 91-78 loss to Dallas. The news was first broken by Yahoo! Sports Adrian Wojnarowski and was confirmed by the team Monday morning.

The Suns issued a statement Monday that read: “The Phoenix Suns have relieved Jeff Hornacek of his duties as head coach following his two-plus seasons in the position, the club announced today.

The Suns plan to have an interim head coach in place by Tuesday.

Hornacek was named the 16th head coach in franchise history on May 28, 2013, returning to the team with whom he spent his first six professional seasons as a player. In two-plus seasons as head coach of the Suns, Hornacek’s teams compiled a 101-112 (.474) record, including a 14-35 (.286) mark this season. In Hornacek’s inaugural season of 2013-14 the Suns went 48-34 followed by a 39-43 record last season.”

Suns GM Ryan McDonough will address the move to the media following Monday morning’s shootaround.

Sunday’s loss, however, was Phoenix’s 19th defeat in 21 games, a nosedive that cost two assistant coaches their jobs shortly after Christmas.

Here’s more from Wojnarowski on the Suns’ late-night decision to change coaches:

General manager Ryan McDonough informed Hornacek of the decision upon the Suns’ return to Phoenix after a 91-78 loss to the Dallas Mavericks on Sunday night.

For the 14-35 Suns, the situation turned into an impossible task for Hornacek. A month ago, ownership fired Hornacek’s top two assistant coaches, leaving him with an inexperienced staff. The team also lost Eric Bledsoe to a season-ending knee injury and has been dealing with an unhappy Markieff Morris the entire season since his twin brother, Marcus, was traded in the offseason.

The Suns were missing four players, including their three top scorers in Hornacek’s final game as coach.

“We’re going to try to get things changed around,” Hornaceck said at the time. “We’re not quitting on anything. We’re just going to continue to work and try to implement a couple of different things and see if we can get it going. Whatever happens after that, you can’t get concerned about that.”

But Hornacek lasted little more than a month after the assistants’ dismissals, ending his Suns tenure at 101-112 in two-plus seasons.

Hornacek’s stint with the Suns, for whom he played from 1986 to 1992, started well enough with a 48-34 season in 2013-14. But they fell to 39 victories last season, and at 14-35 are on pace to finish with their worst record since they joined the NBA as an expansion franchise in 1968-69.

They have the NBA’s worst record since Dec. 20, ranking last in offensive rating (96.3 points per 100 possessions), defensive rating (111.0/100) and point differential (minus 14.7/100) over that span. The swoon was compounded by the loss of leading scorer Bledsoe, who is out for the season with a torn meniscus.

Wojnarowski reports that the interim coach is expected to be one of their two current assistant coaches: longtime NBA guard Earl Watson and former Developmental League coach Nate Bjorkgren, both of whom were elevated on the staff after the December shake-up.

Paul Coro of the Arizona Republic has more on what’s next for the team, both on the coaching front and overall:

The Suns will interview assistant coaches today before choosing an interim head coach. Corey Gaines, a former Phoenix Mercury head coach, was promoted from player devlopment assistant to assistant coach before this season. Earl Watson and Nate Bjorkgren, a former D-League head coach, were promoted to front-row assistants on Dec. 28 following the firings of assistant coaches Mike Longabardi and Jerry Sichting.

The Suns were expected to contend for a playoff spot this season but are headed for a sixth consecutive non-playoff season, the longest postseason drought in franchise history. The Suns have lost 14 consecutive road games, tying for the franchise’s second-longest streak, but have been a difficult situation for Hornacek since the offseason, when his contract’s team option year for 2016-17 was not exercised and the Markieff Morris saga began with a trade request following his twin’s trade to Detroit.

The Suns returned seven players from last season’s 39-43 team, which lost 10 of its last 11 games after injuries and three deadline trades took it out of playoff contention. Five players remain from Hornacek’s rookie head coaching season, when the Suns were a surprise success at 48-34.

Hornacek, 52, was 101-112 in his three seasons as Suns head coach. He is the NBA’s fourth head coach to be fired, joining Houston’s Kevin McHale, Brooklyn’s Lionel Hollins and Cleveland’s David Blatt.


VIDEO: Suns fall apart down stretch in Dallas

 

Irrelevant no more: Steady Celtics guard Thomas makes All-Star turn


VIDEO: Relive great moments from Isaiah Thomas’ solid 2015-16

By Ben Leibowitz, Special to NBA.com

To say Isaiah Thomas has come a long way in his NBA journey would be an understatement. The diminutive floor general, listed at a generous 5-foot-9, was consistently overlooked in the 2011 NBA Draft and wound up being that class’ “Mr. Irrelevant” for being selected with the final pick (No. 60 overall to the Sacramento Kings).

On Thursday, it was announced Thomas was voted an Eastern Conference All-Star for the first time in his career. He’ll also be the first player ever to ascend from the last pick in the NBA Draft to All-Star status, according to Marc D’Amico of Celtics.com.

That’s an incredible point of validation for Thomas, who was selected after fellow point guards Nolan Smith, Norris Cole, Charles Jenkins and Josh Selby. Those four guys have combined for 1.6 win shares, and Cole is the only one still in the NBA.

As for Thomas? He’s collected 29.2 win shares and counting — more than Klay Thompson and the 2011 Draft’s No. 1 overall pick, Kyrie Irving.

The Los Angeles Lakers bungled four shots at drafting Thomas in the second round of 2011, taking point guards Darius Morris and Andrew Goudelock and forwards Chukwudiebere Maduabum (who they traded to Denver) and Ater Majok. The latter two never suited up in an NBA game, while Morris and Goudelock combined for negative win shares. In short, the Lakers’ passing on Thomas in favor of those unheralded prospects was a complete and utter failure.

Interestingly, scouting reports didn’t even paint Thomas in an aggressively negative light. NBADraft.net pegged Thomas as a “crafty scorer” who possessed “good speed” and “excellent quickness.”

The negatives, as you might expect, focused almost exclusively on being vertically challenged.

“Very small, even for a point guard,” the report reads. “Ability to get inside will be largely negated by the size of NBA players,” was another note followed closely by, “Will struggle to matchup (sic) with NBA guards defensively.”

And, as Matthew Kamalsky wrote for DraftExpress in 2009, “One thing that scouts won’t be questioning is what Thomas can do when he puts the ball on the floor.” He went on to praise the youngster’s “absolutely outstanding first-step” and “excellent speed in transition.”

He also proved to be an assassin in the clutch. While suiting up for the University of Washington, Thomas hit a difficult step-back fadeaway at the buzzer to beat Arizona in the Pac-10 Tournament championship.

He possessed an impressive skill set and didn’t shy away from big moments, which you’d think NBA scouts would value. Somehow, Thomas tumbled down draft boards, but once he arrived in Sacramento, he made an immediate impact … and kept on improving.

Thomas averaged 11.5 points, 4.1 assists and 2.6 rebounds while sinking 37.9 percent of his 3-pointers as a rookie. His second season was much like his first and in his third season, he blossomed with averages of 20.3 points and 6.3 assists in 72 games (54 starts).

He left Sacramento as a free agent and landed with the Phoenix Suns via a sign-and-trade deal. In Arizona, his numbers took a dip as he filled a role as the sixth man behind Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic. But a trade deadline-day deal in 2015 Boston gave him a fresh opportunity that he ultimately parlayed into his first All-Star game.

Through 47 games (44 starts), Thomas is averaging career bests in points, assists, rebounds, steals and free throw percentage. The Celtics (26-21) are No. 5 in the East thanks in large part to Thomas, who leads Boston with a 28.9 percent usage rate.

Individual and team accomplishments point to Thomas earning a nod. But the Washington product also stacks up quite well when compared to his peers.

Among NBA point guards, Thomas ranks tied for fifth in player efficiency rating behind Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul and Kyle Lowry. All four of those guys are All-Stars as well (sorry, Damian Lillard).

From being passed over 59 times in the 2011 Draft, to being traded by twice to making his first All-Star team, Thomas has had to silence doubters all along the way. For those who believed in him, this moment must be pretty sweet.

Ben Leibowitz is a writer for PointAfter, a sports data aggregation and visualization website that’s part of the Graphiq network. Visit PointAfter to get all the information about NBA PlayersNBA Historical Teams and dozens of other topics.

Morning shootaround — Jan. 17


VIDEO: The Fast Break — Jan. 16

NEWS OF THE MORNING
Should the Blazers break up their backcourt?| Isaiah Thomas has flourished since his trade from Phoenix, but Suns haven’t | Are the Wolves in the right hands? | Kobe cancels out Rio, speaks on other topics

No. 1:  Should Blazers trade CJ McCollum? — Just when it appears the Blazers have a solid young backcourt for the future, along comes a thought: Are they better off trading CJ McCollum? The thinking is both McCollum and Damian Lillard are smallish guards who collectively run into defensive matchup problems, and since both are scorers, the Blazers could trade one to shore up the front court. Here’s what John Canzano of the Oregonian wrote recently:

The Blazers remain $13 million below the salary floor, and are sitting just four games in the loss column out of the No. 8 spot in the playoffs. The Feb. 18 NBA Trade deadline is looming and for those holding out hope that Portland may try to alter its future by obtaining a front-line player at the deadline, there’s a move that could be made.

CJ McCollum (20.9 points per game) is putting together a nice bounce-back season. At $2.5 million annually he’s currently a terrific value. But anyone who has watched McCollum play when paired with Damian Lillard knows that you can’t play them successfully together on a team that will compete at the top of the Western Conference.

That’s the goal, right?

They can score together, but they’re a defensive disaster when paired. They’re both chuckers, too. And there’s no way that Olshey is trading Lillard, his prized draft pick. Further, the Blazers don’t want to get into a position beyond the 2016-17 season where they have to pay both Lillard and McCollum.

They’re not the “Splash Brothers.” We know that. But we don’t want them to become the “Cash Brothers.”

Even as Olshey has a man-crush on McCollum, and has privately said he wouldn’t dream of trading him, the general manager should be looking and listening when it comes to offers for the guard between now and Feb. 18.

Portland also has a potential first-round lottery pick as trade bait (but theoretically would have to wait until the draft to make that deal). And even as Olshey feels stuck on a refusal to part with any of his future draft picks, the Blazers general manager should be quietly shopping McCollum, gauging his trade value. If the return resulted in a front-line player who would start for multiple seasons and better complement Lillard, you’d have to consider making it.

To be clear, I’m not saying “McCollum must go,” here. I like his game. Just not as much as Olshey does. I’m saying, McCollum’s value isn’t going to be greater than it is in the next two seasons. It’s just not sustainable. Also, I’m saying that this season shouldn’t just be viewed as a throw away in which the Blazers roll out a the lowest-paid roster in the league and pretend that’s all there is to see.

***

No. 2: Isaiah Thomas has flourished since his trade from Phoenix; Suns haven’t —  It was a strange marriage and a strange breakup. The Suns signed Isaiah Thomas to a very team-friendly free agent contract over a year ago, which angered Goran Dragic, who felt threatened by another point guard on a team that already had Dragic and Eric Bledsoe. Both Bledsoe and Thomas got paid while Dragic at the time was awaiting free agency. Well, Thomas was traded to the Celtics and Dragic to Miami and of the two, Thomas is clearly having the better transition. Here’s Paul Coro of the Arizona Republic on Thomas and the team he left:

Celtics point guard Isaiah Thomas is keeping the book open on the trade history now that he has become the starting point guard that he wanted to be. Thomas is being called an All-Star candidate, averaging career highs in points per game (21.6) and assists per game (6.7) although his 3-point percentage (33.5) is at a career low.

Isaiah runs the show for a 21-19, eighth-place team in Boston. When he was traded from Phoenix, the Suns were a three-point-guard show for a 29-25, eighth-place team.

“When we recruited him, we pitched the sixth-man role to him and to be one of the top scorers in the league,” Suns General Manager Ryan McDonough said. “That was with (Eric) Bledsoe and (Goran) Dragic on the roster. We signed Isaiah before we ended up getting Bledsoe’s contract resolved. It’s one of those things that seemed better to him in July than it did maybe during the season.”

The Suns pursued LeBron James first in 2014 free agency. Once that door closed after a meeting with James’ agent, the Suns targeted Thomas as the best available free agent after Sacramento did not pursue re-signing him. Thomas’ four-year, $27 million contract (via a sign-and-trade for Oriakhi) was – and is – considered a strong value, especially with how rapidly the NBA salary cap will rise over the next two years.

Thomas averaged 15.2 points and 3.7 assists for the Suns in 25.7 minutes per game, nine fewer minutes than he played in Sacramento. Thomas said he was competing for a starting job from the start of 2014 Suns training camp and commented during the season that the Suns situation was not what he expected. After the trade, he said playing time was his only issue in Phoenix, where he made 39 percent of his 3-pointers.

***

No. 3: Are the Wolves in the right hands? — The Minnesota Timberwolves are a team built for the future; everyone knows this. But the present-day Wolves aren’t doing very well; we can all see that, too. The question then becomes: is the team being brought along properly? And is Sam Mitchell the right coach in their development? Mitchell is the interim coach this season and the Wolves haven’t made any guarantees about his future, which means the organization is taking a wait and see approach. Meanwhile, Mitchell spoke with Kent Youngblood of the Star Tribune, who offered up this report:

And so, despite a nine-game losing streak, Mitchell loves the team he has. And, after practice Saturday, Mitchell defended his work developing that Wolves young roster.

“Our three leading scorers are our young guys,” Mitchell said of Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns and Zach LaVine. That will be a blessing a year or two from now. It’s tough when they’re developing. But everything they’re going through is going to make them better.”

It’s clear Mitchell would like to still be the coach when the benefits of that development are reaped. He also knows that, as the Wolves losing streak has gotten longer — it reached nine Friday — the criticism has grown louder. But Mitchell — who went through a similar situation in Toronto — is confident he is the right man for the job of developing this young team.

“Explain to me how we’re blocking the young guys?” Mitchell said. “When Andrew Wiggins is a 20-point scorer, and there are only 20 of those in the league? Karl-Anthony Towns is doing something that no rookie has done in 20 years. Zach LaVine is in the process of learning a new position and is our third-leading scorer. And Shabazz Muhammad has made tremendous strides. Gorgui Dieng has made strides …

“Now tell me, how are we hurting them?”

Mitchell is a self-described old school coach. Again Friday he left many of his young players in the game in the fourth-quarter of a one-sided loss, hoping they’d learn from the experience. He has admitted being hard on LaVine, even allowing as his style hasn’t always been fair.

“Yes, I tell him that all the time,” Mitchell said. “I tell him, ‘It’s hard, Zach, and sometimes it’s unfair.’ But that’s the way young players learn.”

As an example Mitchell offered Muhammad. The coaches were trying to get him to look for his teammates more, make the extra pass, play better defense. When he didn’t do that, his minutes took a tumble late in December. But, once Mitchell saw Muhammad making the effort, the minutes increased.

“I didn’t give him those minutes,” Mitchell said. “He earned them.”

But, as the losses mount, so does the pressure. Mitchell admitted Saturday that his team very much needed to experience a win, and soon, just to see some return on his players’ investment.

But he’s not going to change his approach. He said his experience in Toronto — where he won 33 and 27 games in his first two seasons before jumping to 47 wins and a division title in his third — gives him the confidence he’s doing the right thing.

“Two years from now, if we don’t do what we’re doing now, we’re never going to win, or compete, for playoff spots, or for the Western Conference or an NBA championship,” he said. “So my job is this. Even though it’s painful to do the right thing. And the right thing is to teach the young players — with the help of the veterans — how to play. And if I had not been through it before, maybe I’d panic. Maybe I’d be worried.”

***

No. 4: Kobe cancels himself out for Rio — Yes, Kobe Bryant does have a realistic grip on his basketball abilities at this point. Previously, Kobe openly wished he could be considered for a spot on the 2016 Olympic team, but with his struggles this season, he finally conceded that maybe taking a spot from a more deserving player wouldn’t be the best idea, even if he could pull it off. Remember, Olympics chief Jerry Colangelo didn’t promise Kobe a spot – only Paul George is virtually guaranteed one — but would consider it out of respect for what Kobe has done for international basketball. Anyway, Kobe some about this and other topics before playing in Utah. Here’s some of the Q and A:

 

Q: Lot of memories with the Jazz team. Do you have any memories with this Jazz crowd here in this arena?

Kobe: [Laughing] Yeah, a little bit. Yeah. Yeah. They were really, really tough on me, man. More so than the other crowds. They were tough. Signs when I’m shooting a free throw to literally just yelling it in my ear. Taking the ball out. They pissed me off so much. It was like ’08 in the playoffs where I just kind of erupted after a play, talking back to the crowd because they just kept driving me. With that said, it’s fond memories truly because it was like that’s what sports should be. That kind of bantering and that kind of competition or whatever. I’ve always loved playing here because of that.

Q: A man that is so driven like yourself, if you can, as you think about life after basketball, have you thought about ownership, coaching, broadcasting? Have you had a chance to just let it soak in and say what about life – because you’re still a young man – but after basketball that will keep you motivated and focused?

Kobe: Yeah, those are tough questions for athletes, I think. I’ve been kind of searching for what that was going to be for years now – 15 or 16 years – kind have been searching for that next passion and I’ve been very fortunate enough to find it to the point where it keeps me up at night. Constantly working, studying, and trying to get better at it, and I’m really looking forward to moving into that next phase. Ownership is in terms of being there day-to-day or coaching and things of that sort don’t interest me. I just don’t have a passion for it. Or broadcasting for that matter, I just don’t have a passion for it.

Q: Speaking of the future, the other day you said it was Draymond’s and Steph’s time to pursue championships and gold medals. That you’ve had your turn. Have you closed the door on pursuing the Olympics this summer or is that something you’re still considering?

Kobe: I think it’s their time. I think it’s their time. It’s funny; during a game in Golden State, it was a break in a play or whatever. Leandro Barbosa, who I’ve known for a very long time, comes up to me and goes, ‘Hey, I’ll see you in Rio.’ I just turned around and go, ‘Nah.’ [Laughs] He said, ‘Come on, man, it’s Rio.’ I said, ‘Nah, I think it’s the young guy’s turn to go play and perform.’

I’ve been fortunate enough to win two gold medals. I’ve had my moment. I think it’s important for them to go ahead and play. I’ll watch from afar, support from afar. If they want me to come down and speak to the guys, I will. That’s about it. I think as beautiful as it would be to play for our country, when I say my last game is going to be my last game I’m going to retire, then that’s it. It’s not like I’m going to walk off the stage and then but… I’m going to come right back for a minute. [Laughs] ‘Hold on one second.’

I think it’s pretty sweet to have the final game in a Laker uniform and to support the players from afar.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Suppose the moves made by Sam Hinkie eventually help rebuild the Sixers? How will he be viewed? … After a show start, Amir Johnson is starting to finally fit in with the CelticsLeBron James, whose company dropped Johnny Manziel, says the QB needs to turn things aroundCody Zeller at center? It might work. He has played better with the Hornets missing Al JeffersonJared Dudley says the Bucks were smart to trade him.

Blogtable: What’s ailing the Suns?

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes across the globe to weigh in on the most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.


BLOGTABLE: What’s wrong with Phoenix? | Thoughts on a game at Fenway? | Tougher to officiate in MLB or NBA?



VIDEOGameTime’s experts dig in on why Phoenix is struggling

> Things are getting ugly in Phoenix, where the Suns have lost nine in a row and have fallen out of the playoff picture. Who’s to blame here? The owner? The GM? The millennials?

David Aldridge, TNT analyst: Yes. It’s a franchise-wide collapse at all levels. Clearly, everyone in Phoenix went all-in after the surprise 48-win season two years ago, but the moves GM Ryan McDonough made — maxing out Eric Bledsoe, extending the Morris twins, trading Goran Dragic for Brandon Knight, signing Tyson Chandler  haven’t worked, and coach Jeff Hornacek hasn’t reached the players that he does have. (Though I get the Chandler move; the Suns were trying to lure LaMarcus Aldridge by having a center in tow, and it almost worked. Almost.) There are still some good players on the roster in Knight, T.J. Warren and Devin Booker, and I still haven’t given up on Alex Len. But until the Suns move Markieff Morris, they can’t move forward.

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: Owners are responsible in a buck-stops-here way, whether they embrace it or not. But owners gonna own – the stuff we’re talking about with the Suns mostly is on GM Ryan McDonough. It’s his job to both navigate whatever his owner’s peccadilloes might be while overseeing the basketball operation in a much smarter and disciplined way than Phoenix has shown. If you trade a twin and the one left behind squeals as if they’re conjoined, you move the other one — fast. You don’t fire assistant coaches during a season as any sort of solution. You don’t build your team around a cluster of point guards, none of whom brings much coach-on-the-floor authority to the court. Most of all, you don’t squander the built-in advantages the franchise long has enjoyed and the reputation it built as a “destination” market for NBA players.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: That fact that Robert Sarver blamed millennials was, I think, his latest way of saying, “Look at me! I’m your answer.” The owner is rash, impulsive and wants a champagne team on a beer budget. The move to sign Tyson Chandler as a free agent lure for LaMarcus Aldridge was just plain foolish. Now three seasons in, general manager Ryan McDonough’s analytics-driven building plan has done nothing but player checkers with the roster and now leaving coach Jeff Hornacek dangling. Together they’ve turned Phoenix into a, well, desert.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.comI thought the millennials are to blame for everything. And the media. In this specific situation, though, it’s the millennials, the media, the front office and the players. Jeff Horncek is on the hook as well because any coach should get credit when things go right and blame when things go wrong, but the problems in Phoenix are more about the roster that was put together and some of the players. That means you, Markieff Morris. It’s amazing to think how the world could have been different if the Suns turned out to be more than unexpected contenders for LaMarcus Aldridge.

Shaun Powell, NBA.comThere was nobody to blame a few seasons ago when the Suns won 48 games, but nothing good has happened since, especially the moves made by GM Ryan McDonough. He and the Suns loaded up on point guards, took a project center in the lottery, beefed with the Morris Twins, fell out of favor with Goran Dragic, overpaid for an old Tyson Chandler and can’t stop the bleeding now. There’s plenty of season left to get right, but this team seems headed in reverse.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: Hindsight doesn’t look too kindly on the moves the Suns have made in the last year. They got only a late first-round pick in exchange for Isaiah Thomas, a terrific offensive player who’s on a very sensible, long-term contract. On the same day, they downgraded from Goran Dragic to Brandon Knight, to whom they had to give a new contract (which pays him about twice as much as Thomas) this past summer. In that same trade, they sent Philadelphia a fantastic asset (the Lakers pick). Then this summer, they gave Tyson Chandler (who’s been a disappointment) a contract that’s going to pay him $13.6 million when he’s 36 years old. All that points at GM Ryan McDonough, but success and failure in this league start at the top and from all accounts, Robert Sarver has had his hands in most or all of the decisions that have been made.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: Let’s do the right thing and spread the blame around to all involved. Robert Sarver dumping the Suns’ problems on millennials, and Markieff Morris in particular, is no way to bridge the generational culture gap that exists in Phoenix right now. The fact is the Suns have swung and missed a few times in the Draft and in free agency. No crime there, it happens to the best franchises. It’s how you handle adversity, from the top down, that tells the real story. And the Suns, starting with Sarver, are handling things horribly. There’s no need to vent, publicly, about your team (full of millennials in a league full of millennials, mind you) being spoiled and whiny and unwilling to roll with a program that hasn’t even produced so much as a single trip to the playoffs. And no, cutting a practice short so the team can go bowling, or any other forced team-bonding tricks will fix what ails this team.

Ian Thomsen, NBA.com: The coach, GM and owner are always responsible. At the same time, the Suns are going through the inevitable decline that awaits every good team after the great players (Steve Nash et al) are gone. It is – unless you can convince the likes of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to sign on as free agents – the unalterable fact of NBA life that franchises must hit bottom for an extended time before rising up again. It happens everywhere, like a law of gravity, and it makes everyone look bad.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blogSuns owner Robert Sarver’s statements about social media made him an easy Twitter target, but that doesn’t mean that he was wrong about the dangers of social media. At the same time, that doesn’t have anything to do with a basketball team. After all, there are a lot of millennials on the Golden State Warriors’ roster (heck, even their interim coach is one) and they seem to be doing just fine. The real problem in Phoenix is that their team just isn’t very good. They doubled-down on a strategy that was more of a novelty than anything, and once they accumulated four point guards they basically were wed to the idea. I like the idea of zagging while everyone else is zigging, but at some point you stray so far from the rest of the group that there’s nowhere else to go.

Morning shootaround — Jan. 6


VIDEO: Highlights from games played Jan. 5

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Dragic: Suns ‘always changing something’ | Curry annoyed by shin injury | Hoiberg, Bulls praise Butler’s play | McCollum’s star turn | Davis doesn’t mind criticism from Gentry

No. 1: Dragic questions loyalty of Suns’ front office — Goran Dragic has been in the NBA for eight seasons and spent roughly half of that time as a member of the Phoenix Suns. Although he’s currently on the Miami Heat and spearheading the attack of one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference, he can look back at his most recent stint in Arizona (2012-15) and see how Phoenix has gone from potential upstart team to one of the league’s worst squads. In an interview with Yahoo Sports’ Michael Lee, Dragic claims that the Suns were too willing to tinker with a core that seemed primed for success:

Dragic is too concerned with his own adjustments in helping Miami regain a spot among the Eastern Conference elite to be overly consumed with the situation in Phoenix. But he has his own theory for why a franchise that seemed so promising is suddenly foundering, based on his own experience with the Suns.

“It feels like they’re always changing something,” Dragic told Yahoo Sports. “They’re not like Miami, San Antonio, those teams that are really loyal when they find something.”

Dragic still has fond memories of his time in Phoenix – six seasons spread out over two stints – and is especially grateful for the opportunity the Suns provided after he chose to return for his second run with the team. They put the ball in his hands and allowed him to use his jet-ski speed and creative improvisations to earn third-team All-NBA honors during a surprising 48-win season in 2013-14 that now looks more like a mirage with the passing of time.

While claiming “no regrets” about his Suns tenure, Dragic remains disappointed by the ending, which he claims was the result of too much tinkering – primarily at point guard, a position the 6-foot-3 Slovenian had already proven he could handle. Dragic made it work after the team traded for point guard Eric Bledsoe in July 2013 and helped the Suns emerge as that overachieving darling. But Dragic was pushed away further from the ball – and inevitably, the team – the following season, when the Suns added another ball-dominant guard, Isaiah Thomas, in July.

“Me and Bledsoe, we built really great chemistry together, we played well and the whole team did. Everybody expected that we’re going to get some big guys that we thought we needed, but they did another move, they bring in a point guard and it was tough,” Dragic told Yahoo. “I was a little bit frustrated. It was tough, especially for me, because I was playing off the ball all the time, and I was guarding [small forwards]. That was tough for me, but they did what they did.”

The Suns don’t have the NBA’s worst record this season, but they have arguably been the worst team in the league over the past two weeks. Phoenix has lost nine straight games, including a home defeat to Philadelphia and an embarrassing road loss to the Kobe-less Los Angeles Lakers. During the free fall, Markieff Morris was suspended two games for throwing a towel at coach Jeff Hornacek; two of Hornacek’s top assistants were dismissed; and Bledsoe – the team’s best player – sustained a season-ending knee injury.

And on Friday, amid all of that turmoil, the Suns will welcome back Dragic, who noticed the fissures in the structure and got out before the unseemly collapse.

“I always believe when you find some pieces that you leave those pieces [alone]. But then you upgrade the other positions. Like San Antonio is doing. They always have the Big Three, but then it’s a good team. They always find another player at another position, so they’re always good. But that’s not my call,” Dragic told Yahoo, with an uncomfortable chuckle. “I was just there to play basketball. I tried to do my job.”

The Suns used dealing Dragic as a chance to again remake the roster as they got rid of Thomas and used a valuable trade chip – a top-three-protected pick from the Los Angeles Lakers – to acquire Brandon Knight at the deadline. They later split up the Morris twins, dealing Marcus to Detroit to clear cap space in a failed attempt to land LaMarcus Aldridge in free agency. And the addition of Tyson Chandler has not yielded much. Dragic is sympathetic to the plight of his former teammates.

“I wish them all the best,” Dragic told Yahoo. “I already went through the season with only [25] wins … and it’s not pretty. Most of the guys, we’re really competitive and you want to win a lot of games. And when you get to that mix where you don’t win [in] like 10 games in a row, that’s really tough. That’s really tough. Everything is worse. In your personal life. Everything. I always say I’m hurting sometimes, have a lot of injuries. But if you win a game, I feel great. But if you lose the game, those injuries, they come up. I don’t know how to explain it, winning is such a unique thing.”

Dragic sought that “unique thing” in Miami, where Pat Riley has built a franchise that has been stable and consistently good over the past two decades, with only four non-playoff seasons during his reign with the organization.

“That’s why I didn’t hesitate to sign in free agency, because they are always on top,” Dragic told Yahoo. “They are always looking at that big picture to win a championship. I still remember that year with the Suns, when we made the [conference finals in 2010]. That was one of the best moments in my career and I want to feel that again, to be in the playoffs and to be a contender.”

*** (more…)

Why Suns have fallen on hard times


VIDEO: The Phoenix Suns shook up their coaching roster

By Ben Leibowitz, Special to NBA.com

The Phoenix Suns hit a new low point on Boxing Day (Dec. 26) by losing to the hapless Philadelphia 76ers, 111-104. It marked Phoenix’s fourth straight loss, and Philly’s second win of the season.

Adding injury to insult, point guard Eric Bledsoe suffered a meniscus tear in his left knee after eight minutes of action. He underwent successful surgery, and although initial reports indicated he’d be out approximately six weeks, the Suns officially announced Tuesday that Bledsoe will miss the remainder of the season.

Of course, Bledsoe’s injury is just the latest black mark on Phoenix’s laundry list of problems — issues that began to surface long before its star was felled to the sidelines. The frustrations prompted the organization’s front office to sever ties with assistant coaches Jerry Sichting and Mike Longabardi. Coach Jeff Hornacek, who led the team to an entirely unexpected 48-34 record in his first season, remains on the hot seat as his Suns are 13 games under .500 combined in the two seasons since.

So, what happened? How did the franchise go from Western Conference upstart to hitting rock bottom?

The Markieff conundrum

While in pursuit of free-agent power forward LaMarcus Aldridge during the offseason – who was reportedly deciding between Phoenix and San Antonio – the Suns opted to trade Marcus Morris, Reggie Bullock and Danny Granger to the Detroit Pistons. The salary dump freed up cap space necessary to chase the former Texas Longhorn, but Aldridge ultimately decided to sign with the Spurs. That move prompted a tailspin in the desert. Up-and-coming power forward Markieff Morris was incensed at the organization for trading his twin brother, Marcus. He even tweeted that his basketball future would not include the colors purple and orange.

Morris eventually backtracked from the tone he struck throughout the summer on Suns media day, saying, “I want to be here,” per AZCentral’s Paul Coro.

With that, it seemed the Morris drama had ended, but he still needed to prove his worth on the court. Through the early stages of 2015-16, the former Kansas Jayhawk has failed miserably to do so.

Morris’ player efficiency rating has tanked all the way down to the single digits – a career-worst 9.2. That PER ranks Morris No. 280 out of 324 qualified players, one slot ahead of teammate P.J. Tucker (Phoenix’s starting small forward).

After evolving into a reliable offensive option who could knock down tough shots from a variety of distances, Morris has regressed dramatically as a scorer.

Unless he’s taking shots at the rim, Morris hasn’t even been able to crack 35 percent shooting from any distance. He’s shooting a woeful 37.9 percent overall, the worst mark of his career.

On top of the ghastly production, Morris was recently suspended two games by the Suns for throwing a towel in the direction of Hornacek. Though the towel toss was deemed “conduct detrimental to the team,” you could argue the poor shooting from Morris has been just as damaging throughout the campaign.

It appears from the outside that the best course of action for both parties is to part ways via trade. At this point, however, Morris’ trade value has diminished to the point where Phoenix would be lucky to get any sort of worthwhile return.

Chandler an ill fit

One of the splashy moves Phoenix made this offseason was signing former Kia Defensive Player of the Year Tyson Chandler to a four-year, $52 million deal. For a team with a lengthy track record of not possessing reliable rim protection, this was a step in the right direction.

Unfortunately, Chandler has been a shell of his former self.

In a truly incredible development, Phoenix’s opponents have been far superior offensively when Chandler plays. They score a whopping 13.1 points more per 100 possessions when the 7-foot-1 skyscraper is playing.

And if Chandler isn’t a net positive on defense, there’s virtually no reason for Hornacek to give him added minutes as Chandler has been a non-factor on offense.

Phoenix’s offense is better across the board when Chandler sits. From effective field goal percentage to offensive rating, the Suns are superior scorers without Chandler. They even boast a better rebound rate without him.

Historically, the big man has been a valuable pick-and-roll partner — diving to the hoop off screens and slamming home alley-oops. But without the proper spacing in Phoenix’s offense, defenses simply collapse to prevent those lobs.

In short, Chandler has fit like a square peg in a round hole thus far – a terrible development, because he’ll have three years and approximately $40 million left on his contract after 2015-16.

Bledsoe’s health an issue, too

Bledsoe being ruled out for the remainder of the season is a huge blow to the Suns’ hopes. Although Phoenix was likely going nowhere this season with or without Bledsoe, losing his two-way, on-court impact still stings.

In addition to ranking within the top 10 among all point guards by PER, Bledsoe was one of just four players in the league to average at least 20 points, six assists, four rebounds and two steals per contest.

By a multitude of measures, Bledsoe was building a rep as one of the best floor generals in the league.

Given that Bledsoe already underwent a meniscus surgery on his other knee back in 2014, the Suns have to be concerned about his future. If health problems continue to plague Bledsoe, Phoenix will have much bigger concerns than fixing team chemistry in 2015-16.

Ben Leibowitz is a writer for PointAfter, a sports data aggregation and visualization website that’s part of the Graphiq network. Visit PointAfter to get all the information about NBA Players, NBA Historical Teams and dozens of other topics.

Morning Shootaround — Dec. 28


VIDEO: Fast Break from Dec. 27

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Suns in disarray | James grumbling about Cavaliers’ lack of rhythm | The decline of Dwight Howard | A warm reception for Kobe in Boston?

No. 1: Suns in disarray — One loss to the lowly and previously one-win Philadelphia 76ers destabilized things in the Valley of the Sun. And the hits just keep on coming. The news that point guard Eric Bledsoe would need surgery to repair a torn meniscus and would be out indefinitely was followed by the reported firing of two assistant coaches (Mike Longabardi and Jerry Sicthting) in an effort to shake up Jeff Hornacek‘s staff. And Hornacek, who took a towel to the face from Markeiff Morris last week, is also reportedly on the hot seat. Just two years ago Hornacek had the Suns were on the edge of the playoff picture in the Western Conference and now it all appears to be on the verge of coming apart, as Marc Stein of ESPN.com reports:

Sources told ESPN.com on Sunday night that the Suns are promoting longtime NBA guard Earl Watson and former NBA D-League head coach Nate Bjorkgren to the bench to work closer to Hornacek and will dismiss veteran assistants Mike Longabardi, who was heading up Phoenix’s defense, and Jerry Sichting.

Earlier Sunday, ESPN.com first reported that the Suns’ 5-15 nosedive, including a home loss Saturday night to the 2-30 Philadelphia 76ers, had put Hornacek’s job security under immediate threat.

It is believed that the Suns are taking this measure instead to give Hornacek, who is held in high esteem by owner Robert Sarver, another chance to turn the club around.

But that figures to be difficult after the harsh news Sunday that star guard Eric Bledsoe is out indefinitely and will require knee surgery Tuesday to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee.

Sources told ESPN.com that the Suns, despite the organization’s well-known fondness for Hornacek, have been forced to contemplate a coaching change far sooner than they hoped because of a slide that has dropped them to 12-20 and 11th in the Western Conference. There is also a growing fear within the organization that the team is no longer responding to its head coach.

Phoenix began the season with playoff aspirations after posting records of 48-34 and 39-43 in Hornacek’s first two seasons and the offseason signing of center Tyson Chandler.

But the Suns have dropped 15 of 20 games since opening 7-5, seemingly bottoming out in Saturday night’s home loss to the Sixers as Bledsoe also exited with his knee injury in the second quarter.

Adding to the sting of the Philadelphia loss: It was the first game on the Sixers’ bench for former Suns coach Mike D’Antoni, who was hired recently by new Philadelphia chairman of basketball operations and former Suns owner Jerry Colangelo to serve as associate head coach to Sixers coach Brett Brown.

“Obviously, it’s probably a low point for us,” Hornacek told reporters after the game. “Now the confidence is lacking.”

***

No. 2: James grumbling about Cavaliers’ lack of rhythm — Back-to-back losses has a way of raising the dander of LeBron James in the way little else can. As the leader of the superstar band in Cleveland, James never shies away from delivering critical analysis about his own crew. And after losing to the Golden State Warriors on Christmas and the Portland Trail Blazers a day later, LeBron vented his frustrations about his team’s lack of rhythm. Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com has more:

The Cavs still lead the East at 19-9, but they’ve had a bad week, with problems deeper than perhaps their 2-2 record would indicate.

You could chalk it up to the knuckleball effect, which is, after trying to hit a pitcher who throws knuckleballs, it can take a big leaguer days to catch up to 95 mph fastballs again.

The Cavs hosted the 76ers – who won their second game this season – last Sunday. They haven’t played well since, needing to hold on for dear life at home against a Knicks team sans Carmelo Anthony and then suffering through consecutive porous shooting performances in these two losses.

Cleveland followed up its 89-83 loss to the defending-champion Warriors – in which the Cavs shot 31.6 percent – with a 28-of-77 clunker against the Blazers.

James is shooting 14-of-39 in his last two, with the 4-of-13 effort for 12 points he turned in Saturday night.

“Offensively we’re just in a funk right now,” James said. “We just got to find our rhythm.”

There’s that word again, rhythm.

James used it after the Cavs lost to the Warriors, when he said “it’s going to take some time to get back into rhythm, and all of us, not just the players, but everyone, to get back in rhythm.”

wrote in Oakland Christmas night to monitor this – James calling for Blatt to bring clarity to the Cavs’ rotations.

Last Sunday (when the Cavs faced the knuckleballer 76ers) was Kyrie Irving’s first game back. Iman Shumpert returned, too, after missing a game with a groin injury. The next game, against the Knicks, was Mo Williams’ first after two absences because of a thumb injury.

With all these players at Blatt’s disposal, the Cavs look discombobulated. No one disputes it and both James and Blatt said it’s to be expected, to a certain extent. And Irving didn’t even play against the Blazers, per the team’s decision to protect his surgically repaired knee from the rigors of games on consecutive nights this early in his comeback.

But Blatt said he spoke with his coaches after the loss Saturday about the impact the changing lineups was having on the team, and James had already taken it a couple steps further after the Warriors game, mentioning the lack of rhythm and continuity because of the uncertainty in Cleveland’s rotations.

Now, consider what James said about this very same topic on Saturday:

“For the first eight weeks we had built chemistry, we knew who was playing, we knew who wasn’t playing,” James said. “We had rotations, coach had rotations down, so we got to get back to that. We have no rhythm. Guys are, we have some guys who don’t know if they’re going to play, or if they are going to play, and it’s hurting our rhythm a little bit.”

***

No. 3: The decline of Dwight Howard The slow, physical erosion of the body and skills of one of the league’s best big men is real. Dwight Howard, the man formerly known as “Superman” to an entire generation of NBA fans, is no more. So says TNT and NBA TV analyst Chris Webber, who lived through a similar fade during his star-studded career after he crossed over from young physical freak to mere mortal. Gary Washburn of the Boston Globe explains:

The decline of Dwight Howard is one of the NBA’s most compelling developments. The onetime self-proclaimed “Superman” was for years a physical freak, the model of how a center was built and how a center defended.

Now 30, Howard is slowing down, bothered by years of back and knee issues. He doesn’t have the offensive effectiveness of past years and his durability has waned. So, what happens when physically gifted players lose a step, are no longer able to soar as they once did or defend above the rim?

Former NBA star and current NBA TV analyst Chris Webber, who was a superb athlete coming out of Michigan two decades ago and played until he was 34, offered his thoughts on Howard.

“I wouldn’t just say this for Dwight, I’d say this for all players, me personally, I learned it from Karl Malone. You cannot stay in this game without skill,” Webber said. “Because after five years in this league you will no longer be the most athletic at your position. It’s impossible. That’s including injuries. You have to have more skill, you have to create value for those times you’re on the court.”

Webber said there are ways to compensate for a decline in athleticism by using intelligence.

“You have to maybe help defensively a little bit earlier since you can’t go up and get the blocked shot,” he said. “Some guys start taking charges or some guys just get out [farther] on the floor since they can’t move laterally anymore, maybe develop an 8-foot jump shot. You can learn how to make a move without dribbling because now you can’t just dribble by everybody anymore.

“You have to think the game through and just be that much more efficient. You won’t get the number of looks you have anymore. Mentally, you have to change and hopefully your skill set will allow that. If not, the game will pass you by.”

Perhaps the biggest adjustment for any NBA player is the deterioration of physical skills. For some it’s sudden, for others it’s gradual. The result is never easy to digest.

“It’s especially tough, for me going to Philly, a place that had a different [playing] style, that means you have to learn all over again,” Webber said. “If you’re Tim[Duncan], he’s one of the greatest players to have ever played this game, but because he’s allowed to age in a system.

“Let’s say with a Dwight Howard, his numbers are still incredible but you need a system around him that allows him to do that and those not just be wasted numbers. That can be wasted numbers on a team that doesn’t suit his system.”

The Rockets are one of the league’s more confounding teams, with a record hovering near .500 after reaching the West finals last season.

“Houston is the most disappointing team that we have in the league, more disappointing than the Philadelphia 76ers, and I don’t know if anybody can thrive in that system,” Webber said. “I definitely know it’s tough to age when the system does not include your age in the system.

“If I’m [Howard], I’m trying to offensive rebound a little bit more. If I’m him, I’m running right down the middle of the lane on a secondary break, posting up in the middle, and turning for a jump hook because you’re going to foul me. I’m going to put myself in positions where you have to get me the ball, and when I get the ball I’d be stupid to pass it back out. There’s ways, and he’s one of the best big men in the game still. He should be the second-most-targeted player on that team.”

***

No. 4: A warm reception for Kobe in Boston? The farewell tour for Kobe Bryant has had some interesting stops, to say the least. And nowhere is a fading Los Angeles Lakers’ legend loathed more than in Boston, where Kobe will visit for a final time (as a player) this week. But instead of a vicious chorus of boos, might Kobe be in for a much warmer reception from the Celtics loyalists? Mike Bresnahan of The Los Angeles Times sets the stage:

It’s only Monday but already worth asking in a horribly mundane Lakers season: How will Kobe Bryant be received by fans Wednesday in his last game in Boston?

With Philadelphia out of the way, it could be the most attractive road game left on his farewell tour.

The setup started a few days ago, when Bryant revealed he listened daily to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'” for two years because he wanted to remember the depth of the Lakers’ embarrassment in the 2008 NBA Finals.

Fans couldn’t stop singing it after the Celtics‘ 39-point Game 6 victory, so Bryant couldn’t stop listening to it.

He found his revenge two years later in the NBA Finals. Will Celtics fans be salty?

Lakers Coach Byron Scott, who battled Boston in three memorable NBA Finals in the 1980s, predicted a warm reaction.

“As much as the Celtics hate us and we hate them, I think the Celtics fans are some of the most knowledgeable fans in the world. I think they’ll give him the same type of respect that he deserves and that he’s been given everywhere else,” Scott said.

Perhaps a precedent was set when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar played his last game in Boston in 1988. Abdul-Jabbar, 41 at the time, was given a framed slab of the Garden’s parquet floor by Celtics legend Red Auerbach.

Abdul-Jabbar also received a one-minute, 35-second standing ovation from Celtics fans that night. Scott was there as Abdul-Jabbar’s teammate.

“It wasn’t a standing ovation for [his] 20 years, but it was a standing ovation when he decided to retire,” Scott said, developing a one-liner. “Maybe that’s because he was whooping them so much.”

Fans cheered Bryant loudly in Philadelphia, Washington, Detroit and Toronto. They weren’t so kind in San Antonio, but he has another game there before bowing out.

He had not announced his retirement when the Lakers played in New York last month. Other notable road games for him include Sacramento on Jan. 7 and San Antonio on Feb. 6.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The Los Angeles Clippers needed Paul Pierce to turn back the clock with Blake Griffin out for two weeks … Globetrotters legend Meadowlark Lemon, 83, diesBradley Beal is expected to resume basketball activities this week for the Washington Wizards … The Golden State Warriors will get a first-hand look at the new and improved Sacramento Kings tonight … The future remains bright for Glenn Robinson III in Indiana …

Bledsoe to have surgery Tuesday

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — The Phoenix Suns announced late Sunday that point guard Eric Bledsoe will have surgery on Tuesday to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee. The damage was suffered in the Suns’ loss to the Philadelphia 76ers on Saturday, adding injury to insult.

This is the third torn meniscus that Bledsoe has suffered in his six-year career, but the other two were on the meniscus in his right knee. In Oct. 2011, Bledsoe had surgery to repair the meniscus and missed almost four months. In Jan. 2014, a piece of the meniscus was removed and he only missed about two months. The Suns haven’t announced a timeframe for his recovery at this point.

Saturday’s loss was seemingly rock bottom for the Suns, who have lost six of their last seven games, playing rather awful on both ends of the floor. Head coach Jeff Hornacek is reportedly on the hot seat, 10 of their next 13 games are against teams currently over .500, and 11 of their next 17 are on the road.

They still have Brandon Knight to run the offense, but they will miss Bledsoe’s defense on the ball. They’ve allowed 107.1 points per 100 possessions (a rate which would rank 28th in the league) with Knight on the floor and Bledsoe on the bench.

Report: Suns’ Hornacek on hot seat

A 7-5 start through the season’s first four weeks apparently hasn’t bought the Phoenix Suns or their head coach, Jeff Hornacek, much rhythm now that Phoenix has fallen in the West standings. A bad 24 hours that started Saturday with a loss to lowly Philadelphia at home and a sprained left knee suffered by guard Eric Bledsoe turned worse with ESPN.com’s report that Hornacek’s job could be in jeopardy. As reported by Marc Stein:

Sources told ESPN.com that the Suns have been forced to contemplate a coaching change far sooner than they hoped because of a slide that has dropped them to 12-20 and 11th in the Western Conference, with fears growing within the organization that the team is no longer responding to Hornacek.

Phoenix began the season with playoff aspirations after posting records of 48-34 and 39-43 in Hornacek’s first two seasons and the marquee offseason signing of center Tyson Chandler. But the Suns have dropped 15 of 20 games since opening up at 7-5, seemingly bottoming out in Saturday night’s home loss to the Sixers in which star guard Eric Bledsoe also exited with a sprained left knee in the second quarter.

The Arizona Republic reported Sunday that Bledsoe is expected to miss “extended time” because of the injury, with results of an MRI exam forthcoming.

“Obviously it’s probably a low point for us,” Hornacek told reporters after the [Sixers loss]. “Now the confidence is lacking.”

It was Philadelphia’s first road win since last March, as well as the first game of a two-game suspension for Suns forward Markieff Morris, who threw a towel in Hornacek’s direction after being pulled from a home loss Wednesday to 12-18 Denver. Morris has been angling for a trade since the offseason.

“Pretty embarrassing, point blank, period,” Suns forward P.J. Tucker told the Arizona Republic on Saturday night. “If something doesn’t change quick, it could get really ugly, really fast.”

This is the final guaranteed season on Hornacek’s original four-year contract. Questions about his future with the club have been in circulation in coaching circles since the Suns elected not to pick up their team option on Hornacek for 2016-17 entering this season.

Morning shootaround — Nov. 1

NEWS OF THE MORNING


VIDEO: The Fast Break, Oct. 31

Curry re-inventing NBA highlights | Failure to launch in Houston | Melo owes Dudley thank-you note | No holdout hangover for Cavs’ Thompson

No. 1: Curry re-inventing NBA highlights — Perhaps the second biggest knock against the NBA among casual and non-fans – the first being the fallacious need to only see the final five minutes of any game to know what happened – is that the highlight reel of any given night’s action is merely a montage of dunk after dunk after dunk. It’s never been all that accurate, but Golden State’s Stephen Curry has been putting the lie to it like never before. The Warriors point guard can and regularly does dazzle in a dozen ways without ever getting above the rim, from his long-distance splashes to ridiculous blind passes that can turn a series of quick-cut throw-downs into a CSPAN snooze-fest. After Curry lit up the New Orleans Pelicans for 53 points Saturday, our own Fran Blinebury wrote about Curry’s continued ascendancy. And Ethan Sherwood Strauss’ recapped Curry’s early-season domination:

“How far was I off?” Curry, now done with his phone, wanted to know how his 118 points through the first three games stacked up next to Wilt Chamberlain’s record through three. When told it was 156 points, Curry recoiled, “Oh God!” So yes, there are limits to what this guy can do. It’s just not clear we’ve found those limits yet. This is true maybe for the third season in a row. Curry is the rare NBA player who wasn’t expected to become a superstar until the day he became one. [Anthony] Davis? LeBron James? Kevin Durant? They were anointed prior to greatness. Curry has rudely jumped the line. And as he embraces the new reality, he’s only improving, it seems.

“He’s getting to the hole a lot better,” [teammate Draymond] Green assessed. “He can choose the spots when to go, he’s turning the corner like crazy, getting to the hole.” With each game, Curry develops a keener sense of how defenses react to his 3-pointer. The headline after this particular outing might be “53 points” or “28 points in the quarter.”

For much of the second half, Curry also devastated the Pelicans with his passing. If you require attention from half court forward, that attention can be leveraged in many ways. Curry is finding the ways.

To hear him tell it, the recent explosion isn’t about being ranked fifth among MVP candidates by NBA GMs, or what Ty Lawson said, or what Kyrie Irving said, or even what Alvin Gentry said when the current Pelicans coach and former Warriors assistant called Davis and James the league’s two best players.

When asked about his motivation, Curry, ever the optimist, says, “Take advantage of the opportunity.” He continues, “People think we weren’t supposed to be the champs last year, I wasn’t supposed to be MVP, whatever. But I want to go out and play well and be better than I was last year.”

The improvement is somehow starting to perpetuate. Rhetorical savant Green, between pregnant pauses, says it best: “You know it’s one thing to play like it. It’s one thing to score like it. It’s one thing to have a season like he had last year. But you get that mindset and everybody know? And see it?” His face contorts, as though moved by sympathy for the victims. “It’s tough. And I tell him, ‘You acting like it.’ That’s dangerous.”

***

No. 2: Failure to launch in Houston — Missing key pieces through the preseason was a strong indicator that the Houston Rockets might not get the sort of lift-off their talents and past experiences suggested for this 2015-16 season. But getting pummeled the way they did by the Nuggets and the Warriors went beyond even tamped-down expectations, and had Houston’s players and coaches working hard and thinking harder in practice Saturday to find solutions before their game Sunday at Miami, as reported by Jonathan Feigen:

The Rockets would not make excuses, or even cite reasons for their stumbling start to the season. With the bulk of their rotation out for the majority of the preseason, they were not ready for the start of the regular season. But why they have crashed no longer was the point.

Instead, Dwight Howard said the Rockets needed to be humbled and have been. James Harden said he needed more work and then worked overtime. Ty Lawson cited pace and pushed it through a practice that even Kevin McHale called “great.”

The problems, and probably their cause, had been obvious. The search for solutions had them pointing to attitude and execution.

“We got to lock in and get to business,” Harden said. “No more cooling around. We’re too cool, walking around cool. Even myself, as a leader. I just have to pick up my mojo a little bit.”

Whether attitude adjustment, extra work or mojo elevation will be enough to turn things around, with a back-to-back beginning Sunday in Miami, is less clear. But if the Rockets needed to learn the hard way, as Howard, contends, they have gotten hard lessons part out of the way quickly.

“There’s only one way, that’s up,” Howard said after the Rockets opened the season with consecutive 20-point losses. “We got to keep fighting, trust each other and things will change. The two losses are something we needed. We needed a wake-up call. We needed to humble ourselves, come in every day at practice, forget what happened last season, any accolades that we won in the past. It doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is this moment.”

The formula to turn things around is not complicated. The Rockets have done too many things badly to correct them all in one practice, but focused on playing with more pace, spacing and ball movement offensively and on closing off the paint defensively.

“We had a great practice,” McHale said. “We watched film. Guys moved the ball, moved their bodies. But we’ve had some good practices. We haven’t had any carry over to the games. At a certain point, you are either going to get it and play up to your potential or we’re going to get waxed by 20 again.

“This is a no-mercy league. Nobody cares if you’re hurt or whatever. You didn’t have enough guys for training camp. No one cares about that stuff. They care about trying to kick your tail that night. We had (ours) handed to us the last two games.”

***


VIDEO: Anthony dominates Wizards on Saturday

No. 3: Melo owes Dudley thank-you note — There was talk of payback and revenge in the New York Knicks’ post-victory locker room in Washington Saturday, with Carmelo Anthony‘s big game against the Wizards seemingly motivated by some barbs tossed his way by Washington’s newly added forward Jared Dudley. “Overrated” was the one-word summary of Dudley’s comments, yet Anthony was anything but that in lighting up the Wizards for 37 points, seven rebounds and four assists. Of course that’s what Dudley had been talking about – Anthony’s inconsistency not at getting buckets but in boosting the play of his teammates by using his overall game. Key boards and dimes were part of the veteran New York forward’s repertoire in this one, reported Newsday’s Al Iannazzone, basically validating what Dudley had said:

Carmelo Anthony rediscovered the shooting rhythm he had been looking for, and the sight of Jared Dudley helped him find it.

Over the summer, the Wizards forward called Anthony the most overrated player in the NBA. He later retracted it and apologized, but Anthony heard about it and said he circled this game on the calendar.

Anthony played brilliantly and scored 37 points to lead the Knicks to a hard-fought 117-110 road win Saturday night, spoiling the Wizards’ home opener at Verizon Center.

“It becomes competitive at that point. You just want to go out there and show what you are made out of,” Anthony said. “[This] is one of those nights. It had nothing really to do with him, but this was a game that I circled on my calendar. I’ll see him three more times.”

At the morning shootaround, Anthony made it sound as if it would be a little while before he got his stroke back. He entered the game 14-for-43 from the field and missed his first two shots Saturday night.

But he made his next eight attempts and finished 11-for-18 from the field and 4-for-5 from three-point range. He hit a huge jumper over Dudley with 1:35 to go that gave the Knicks (2-1) the lead for good.

Anthony, who had seven rebounds and four assists, iced the game with four free throws in the last 20.4 seconds.

“There was a composure and a poise to everything that he did,” Derek Fisher said. “He got the shots that he wanted when he wanted them. He also made plays to make other people better.”

***

No. 4: No holdout hangover for Cavs’ Thompson — Even though Tristan Thompson got his business done in time to preserve the consecutive-games-played streak of which he is justifiably proud, it seemed almost certain that his contract holdout through much of the preseason would lead to a slow start off the Cleveland Cavaliers’ bench. That has not, however, been the case. In fact, through Cleveland’s first three games, Thompson not only was doing the same things – rebounding, defending, hustling – he did so well in The Finals to boost his offseason price tag to $82 million, he arrived late but in shape and had added a new wrinkle in rim protection. Folks at The Q vividly saw that Friday against Miami, as Marla Ridenour of Ohio.com chronicled:

In the fourth quarter of the Cavaliers’ 102-92 victory in Friday’s home opener at Quicken Loans Arena, the Cavs’ sixth man was incensed that the Heat’s Dwyane Wade had just “crammed it” on him. Thompson said he was determined to get even and didn’t care who would pay.

So when [Chris] Bosh took a pass from Goran Dragic and drove the lane for what looked to be a left-handed slam, Thompson launched and blocked the shot with his right hand. The post-play celebration of the monstrous rejection included a mini-salute from LeBron James.

Those who wondered how long it would take Thompson to get back in the flow after his training camp holdout ended on Oct. 22, just five days before the season opener, might have been saluting as well.

Thompson finished with a season-high 13 points on 6-of-9 shooting with nine rebounds and one assist in 26 minutes.

That was his only blocked shot, but it showed the emphasis Thompson is putting on that part of his game, especially when center Timofey Mozgov is not on the court.

“Going into the playoffs last year they were saying we don’t have rim protectors outside of Moz,” Thompson said after the game. “I took that challenge upon myself going into this season, if Moz isn’t in I’m still rim-protecting. Let the guards know it’s OK if they get beat off the dribble because I’ll meet them at the rim.”

Thompson ended his holdout by signing a five-year, $82 million contract and he didn’t need long to shake off the rust. But the Cavs expected that from Thompson, who ran his string of consecutive games played to 291, second-longest in the league behind the Los Angeles Clippers’ DeAndre Jordan (324).

“He’s one guy that never gets out of shape. We know how durable he is,” James said, knocking on the blond wood of his locker. “It’s like counting, counting, counting how many games continuous he’s played.

“When you have someone who knows the system … he’s learned the offense really fast. He’s one of our best defenders and he plays above the rim. We love it.”

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: In two games and a little more than 24 hours, Phoenix’s backcourt of Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight got the better of Portland guards Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, boding well overall for the Suns. … Josh Smith didn’t have any problem when DeMarcus Cousins recently said he hated the L.A. Clippers. Smith hates all his opponents. … Speaking of Cousins, the Sacramento big man is listed as day-to-day while dealing with a sore right Achilles tendon. But that might not adversely affect his newfound knack for launching 3-pointers, a trend our Scott Howard-Cooper noted. … As his former running mate LeBron James copes with some physical nods to Father Time, Miami’s Dwyane Wade spoke about aging and adaption in a piece by our Steve Aschburner. … In one more NBA.com staff ICYMI, NBA.com’s Shaun Powell looks at Kent Bazemore and the shoes of DeMarre Carroll that the Atlanta Hawks would like to see him fill. … Many from the NBA’s coaching fraternity – Gregg Popovich, Rick Carlisle, Doc Rivers, George Karl, Mike Malone, Fred Hoiberg, Tom Thibodeau and others – paid their respects Saturday at a funeral service for Minnesota’s Flip Saunders. Earlier in the week, MinnPost.com’s Britt Robson shared personal thoughts on Saunders that you might have missed in the outpouring of grief and memories. … You can’t exactly clip-and-save digital content, but you might want to print out the 2015 D League draft board that featured Jeff Ayres and Jimmer Fredette. Then again, you might not. … James put Halloween to extra-good use, partying like it was “Nineteen-ninety-nine.” …