Posts Tagged ‘Eric Bledsoe’

5 restricted free agents worth chasing

Smaller guards Isaiah Thomas and Eric Bledsoe could get some looks this summer. (Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)

Despite their stature, Isaiah Thomas and Eric Bledsoe are big-time guards. (Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)

The unrestricted free agents are the ones that draw the most attention every summer, and for good reason. You pick your team and you go there. It’s all clean and simple.

It’s those restricted free agents that muddy the waters. The would-be new team has to overpay to get their attention and then the current team is put on the spot to match. Think the Pacers wouldn’t like to re-think that $58 million commitment they made to Roy Hibbert two summers ago when the Trail Blazers put them on the spot with an offer to their big man?

With that in mind, let’s take a look at the top five restricted free agents who’ll be available on July 1:

Eric Bledsoe, Guard, Phoenix Suns — After the Big Three of LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh, the 24-year-old shooting guard is the top player available in free agency, though he will come at a cost. He missed 39 games with injury, but averaged 17.7 points, 5.5 assists, 4.7 rebounds and 1.6 steals in the half season played and makes a great slashing backcourt combination with Goran Dragic. The Suns were 28-15 with him in the lineup and GM Ryan McDonough says the team will match any offer out there to keep him. Since Phoenix has plenty of salary cap space, he’ll be able to do it, even if McDonough has to grit his teeth.

Greg Monroe, Forward, Detroit Pistons – He might as well have spent the past four seasons pedaling on a stationary bicycle, getting nowhere fast with the Pistons. He’s a solid big man who gives you the feeling he might turn into an All-Star level performer with the right coaching on the right team. Since he arrived in Detroit, the Pistons added Andre Drummond and Josh Smith on their front line and there simply wasn’t room for all three in the rotation. With Joe Dumars — the GM who drafted him — gone, Drummond a foundation player and Smith perhaps untradeable (or is he?), it would seem the Pistons won’t want to lay out big money to keep him. If the Rockets strike out shooting for the big names, he’d be a good consolation prize. The New Orleans native might also fit nicely with the Pelicans, if they could find the salary space.

Chandler Parsons, Forward, Houston Rockets — Houston rolled the dice on the Parsons, choosing not to pick up his option in an attempt to clear the most salary cap space to pursue James, Anthony or Bosh. The 6-foot-9 leaper and shooter has been a high-energy gem since the Rockets plucked him in the second round in 2011. He can get to the basket, fill it up from behind the 3-point line and isn’t afraid to stick his nose in on defense. He won’t lead a team, but is a solid third option, exactly the role he’s been playing in Houston. If the Rockets get a name-brand star, he’d go to fourth option and that could make a pricey offer from another team too rich to match. There are a lot of teams where he could slide right into the lineup and really blossom.

Gordon Hayward, Forward, Utah Jazz – After four seasons, it’s pretty clear the Jazz aren’t completely convinced, as evidenced by not agreeing on a contract extension prior to last season. It seems Hayward thinks he should be paid as part of a 1-2 punch, but the truth is he’s probably more of a No. 3 type, just like Parsons. When he was put into the primary scorer role last season, his shooting numbers went down. He needs to land in a spot where he can play off his teammates, especially passers, and get back to being a very solid complementary part. Chances are, he wants to be paid a good bit more than the Jazz think he’s worth and therefore could be “gettable.” The trick will be not to overpay him by too much.

Isaiah Thomas, Guard, Sacramento Kings -- The 5-foot-9 dynamo put up 20.3 points, 6.3 assists and 1.3 steals last season. He’s a hard worker, but definitely a score-first point guard at a position that requires spreading the ball around. His biggest deficiency is on defense, where his lack of size makes him too easy for opponents to pick and exploit. The Kings go through point guards faster than pairs of basketball shoes and now they seem to be leaning heavily toward the new flavor of the month in Ray McCallum. His lack of stature will limit the size of the stack of big bills placed in front of him in an offer, but still could be enough to land him in a new home.

Five teams LeBron should, but won’t consider

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Pat Riley discusses the Big 3 staying in Miami

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Even before Pat Riley went all Clint Eastwood — Stay, “if you’ve got the guts” – during his entertaining Thursday news conference, my money was on LeBron James understanding that island hopping for titles on the backs of fans’ emotions isn’t a good look. And so he will ultimately keep gunning for not three, not four, not five … in sun-kissed South Florida.

Of course, Dan Gilbert never dreamed LeBron would dump his Cleveland Cavaliers, but he did. So until he says otherwise, there is always a chance The Chosen One will think his work is done here and seek a new hoops metropolis to conquer.

It certainly would be unprecedented, the most dominant player in the game packing his bags yet again, and this time after leading his last franchise to four consecutive Finals and two championships. Who in the history of the game has ever done that?

And yet, there’s something devilishly fascinating about that very prospect.

Could LeBron lift a third team to the NBA Finals? Could he win a third title? A fourth, a fifth?

And for which team would he play?

Forget the Knicks, that move would have to wait until the summer of 2015 when New York has cap space. The Lakers? Always a possibility, but how rewarding would it really be to hang a 17th championship banner in Staples Center all the while being Kobe Bryant‘s personal valet to a sixth ring and even him up with Michael Jordan?

I’ve got five teams — three in the East and two in the West — that LeBron could vault to instant contender. Three of the five franchises have never won an NBA title, and of the other two, neither has won one since 1983. So LeBron would be a sight for sore eyes, and a boon for business in any one of these locales.

I call this list, The Teams LeBron Should, But Won’t Consider.

His desire should be to stay in the Eastern Conference because it’s just a whole lot easier to get through the East than the brutally competitive West. Plus, with the Heat instantly weakened, the path to the East crown would truly be wide open. So here are my five:

1. Washington Wizards: The Wizards’ finances are in as good as shape as the Wizards’ backcourt with John Wall and Bradley Beal emerging as a dynamic duo. Washington needs to re-sign center Marcin Gortat to reproduce a front line with Nene. Add LeBron — who would come in as the elder statesman to the Wizards’ rising stars, so there’s no adjustment period as to who is the alpha dog (assuming Wall can handle it) like there was initially in Miami with Dwyane Wade – to this starting lineup and dare I call them Eastern Conference favorites.

2. Philadelphia 76ers: Don’t laugh. And, hey, if LeBron and Carmelo Anthony really want to team up, here’s their spot. There’s so little money on the books that Philly could sign both stars and still have enough left over to add some pretty good role players. These two could come in as the big brothers and lead one of the great youth movements of our time. Think about it, the Sixers already have Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams at point guard and 6-foot-11 Nerlens Noel is ready to roll after sitting out all of last season. With the third pick in next week’s Draft, they’ll add another high-caliber youngster, maybe Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker. Then there’s consummate pro Thaddeus Young. Sounding good isn’t it?

3. Toronto Raptors: General manager Masai Ujiri has already overseen a couple minor miracles in shedding the salaries of Rudy Gay and Andrea Bargnani, so what’s one more? The books still aren’t as clear as in Philly, but it can work. Re-signing Kyle Lowry might be out the window, but how about Greivis Vasquez, budding, young star DeMar DeRozan, LeBron, Patrick Patterson and Jonas Valanciunas? I’m pretty sure coach Dwane Casey would be good with it.

4. Phoenix Suns: Imagine LeBron driving and then trying to decide if he should kick it out to Eric Bledsoe, Goran Dragic, Channing Frye or maybe Gerald Green. Imagine LeBron sprinting for fast-break dunks with a perimeter defense that includes himself and the dogged Bledsoe, and a team that stamped itself as one of the great hustling squads of last season. If we thought the old Steve Nash-Mike D’Antonio Suns teams were fun, whoa, this one could fly off the charts.

5. New Orleans Pelicans: There’s some work, not a ton, to be done on the payroll side, and there’s some tradable commodities despite multi-year deals in place (i.e. Tyreke Evans, Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon) and nothing should be viewed as impossible when it comes to pairing LeBron with Anthony Davis, right? Greatest inside-out duo since Kobe and Shaquille O’Neal? This pairing has devastation written all over it. New Orleans would never be the same.

However, we all know that no one backs down from a challenge issued by Clint Eastwood.

Morning Shootaround — April 18

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Lakers’ Gasol open to offers | Suns GM gives Bledsoe big vote of confidence | Irving still non-committal about Cleveland future | Wade says he’s in better shape than last year

No. 1: Lakers’ Gasol open to offers this summer — Much like the season the Los Angeles Lakers experienced themselves, big man Pau Gasol never seemed to find his rhythm on the court this season. Between injuries (including a bout of vertigo that effectively ended his season) to continued clashes with coach Mike D’Antoni, Gasol had a less-than memorable season in Lakerland. As he approaches free agency this summer, Gasol says he’s open to staying with the Lakers — mostly because of teammate Kobe Bryant — as well as moving on to other locales. Yahoo Sports’ Marc J. Spears has more:

Pau Gasol felt nostalgic in what he admitted might have been his last day with the Los Angeles Lakers on Thursday. He’s also excited about his impending free agency and is open to a reunion with former Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who now runs the New York Knicks’ front office.

“I’m happy for him and the position that he got,” Gasol said. “I’m always going to be a big fan and a friend. I would listen.”

Despite the struggle in recent years, Gasol seemed very much at peace during his postseason media briefing on Thursday. The main reason is because he can help decide his own future as a free agent this offseason.

“This year is a little different,” Gasol said. “Every time I said [he felt sentimental] is because I didn’t know if I was going to be traded. That has been kind of a theme for the last three years. But this year that possibility is out of the question. Now it’s because I will be in charge of my future, my destiny and I have to listen to the different possibilities that I will have on the table.”

Gasol said he would “listen closely” to the possibility of returning to the Lakers. The biggest reason he’d consider returning is to continue playing with Kobe Bryant.

Gasol, however, also said he had “misunderstandings” with D’Antoni the past two years and was uncertain if the status of the coach would affect his decision.

Jackson coached Gasol with the Lakers from 2007-10. Since being hired as the Knicks’ president, Jackson has signed former Lakers forward Lamar Odom to a contract and met with former Lakers forward Metta World Peace. The Knicks would be interested in Gasol in free agency, a source said.

Gasol, 33, made $19.3 million in the final year of his contract and isn’t expected to get anything close to the type of salary again. Joining the Knicks would likely come with a massive pay cut since the most they can offer – without a sign-and-trade deal – is the taxpayer’s midlevel exception, expected to be worth about $3.2 million.

With the Knicks expected to play Jackson’s triangle offense and more of a half-court, such a style of play could be attractive to Gasol. Gasol, however, also said he wanted to play on a championship-caliber team and the Knicks didn’t make the playoffs this season with Carmelo Anthony.

“I want to enjoy the moment and not be too stressed about it, even though at some point I’m going to have to make a decision,” said Gasol, who is improving from his recent bout with vertigo. “It will be exciting. I look at this as an opportunity. For the first, and maybe only time, I will be a free agent where I can choose. It’s exciting. It’s nothing that I’ve experienced in the NBA.”


VIDEO: Pau Gasol talks with the media during his Lakers exit interview

***

No. 2: Suns GM: ‘Waste of time’ for other teams to pursue Bledsoe — The Phoenix Suns won 48 games and came within a few days of clinching a playoff berth in a season in which few expected them to do more than trudge their way into the 2014 NBA Draft Lottery. With guards Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe leading the charge, the Suns captured the hearts of many and showed that a backcourt with two starting-caliber point guards could thrive in Arizona (if not elsewhere). Bledsoe is a free agent this summer and the Suns have every intention of keeping him around, it seems, based on the strong talk from GM Ryan McDonough. Adam Green of ArizonaSports.com has more on McDonough’s view on Bledsoe in Phoenix:

Bledsoe has been excellent when on the court, and at 24 still has room to improve. The Suns know this, and they’d like for that improvement to come with him wearing their jersey.

“That’s what we’re planning on doing,” Suns GM Ryan McDonough told Burns and Gambo on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM Wednesday when asked if the Bledsoe will be retained, be it via a contract he signs with the Suns or one that is signed with someone else but matched by the team. “I think Eric did a terrific job after he was frustrated with the injury.

“He came back and played extremely well for us down the stretch.”

Overall, Bledsoe has been every bit the player the Suns hoped they were getting when they pulled the trigger on the trade that brought him and Caron Butler to the Valley in exchange for Jared Dudley and a second-round pick.

“We view him as a core part of our team going forward,” the GM said. “I think there were some questions externally about how it would work with him and Goran going into the season, and we don’t have any doubts that those guys answered the questions and that they’re one of the premier backcourts in the NBA.”

As a restricted free agent, Bledsoe has the right to sign with any team he chooses. After that, though, the Suns have the right to match any offer sheet he signs in order to keep him.

Saying they’ll do that, though, will not necessarily dissuade another team from trying to woo him.

“He’s played well enough and is deserving enough of an extension where I think it would be a waste of time for another team to throw an offer at him and tie up their cap space while other free agents are going off the board,” McDonough said. “But you never know; it only takes one.

“We’ll see what happens. There’s also the chance that we try to work it out in advance and just not let it get to that point, where he has to get an offer and we match. Our preference would be just to to do an offer with Eric and his representatives.”


VIDEO: Eric Bledsoe talks with the media during his Suns exit interview

***

No. 3: Irving continues to hedge bets about Cleveland future — Since he was taken No. 1 overall by Cleveland in the 2011 Draft, Kyrie Irving has amassed a Rookie of the Year trophy, two All-Star berths and countless highlights for Cavaliers fans. His future with the Cavs remains the topic of interest most to fans and the team as Irving’s rookie deal will expire after next season, but he can sign an extension this summer. The latter topic is one that Irving continues to remain totally clear on, although he does sound like he’d stay in Cleveland. During yesterday’s exit interviews with the media, Irving talked about his view on staying in Ohio and more. Jodie Valade of The Plain Dealer was there and has more:

After the final buzzer sounded, after Kyrie Irving stuck around to hand out not just one pair of shoes, but several, at Fan Appreciation Night, the Cavaliers point guard at long last addressed the fact that he can sign a contract extension this summer.And he came the closest he has to announcing that he would like to remain in Cleveland.

“I’ve been a part of this and I want to continue to be a part of this,” he said. “We’re making strides in the right direction, especially in this organization. I want to be part of something special, and I want to be part of something special in Cleveland.

“I don’t have a definitive answer to that right now, but it’ll be something special. I can guarantee that.”

“It’s a big deal for me and my family if they do offer that. It would be exciting, and I’ll make the best decision for me and my family. That’s what it’s going to boil down to for myself.”

A year ago, for instance, he skipped out on the Cavaliers’ Fan Appreciation Night shoe giveaway; this year, he tossed out several.

“This year was a constant learning year,” Irving said. “This was a learning year for me, strictly that. I learned a lot about myself, about being a better point guard from all aspects of the game and becoming a better leader. That, right there, is a work in progress. I’m a work in progress, and I’ve already admitted that.”

***

No. 4: Wade says knees in better shape than last yearThe Miami Heat spent the majority of the 2013-14 season hanging around the top of the Eastern Conference standings and briefly took the No. 1 spot there for a few weeks. But the Heat’s goal has always been getting ready for a fourth straight Finals run (and hopefully a third straight championship) and to do so, that often meant resting guard Dwyane Wade and his balky knees for the good of the long-term goal. Wade missed 28 games this season and hasn’t been a part of a Heat win since March 21, but as Miami readies for Game 1 of its series with the Charlotte Bobcats, Wade says his knees are in better shape than last year at this time. Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel has more on D-Wade and the Heat:

It has been a frustrating ride that saw Wade miss 28 games this season, mostly for a maintenance program for his balky knees.

And yet through it all, including being limited to a maximum of 24 minutes in each of his three games this past week, Wade believes he is in a better place than a year ago, when his knee issues had him out of the lineup just four games into the postseason.

“It’s a lot better than going into it last year,” he said, with the team given Thursday off before beginning playoff preparations Friday at AmericanAirlines Arena. “Now hopefully move on from that, and have a better first round health-wise than I did first round versus the Bucks last year, when I had to miss that game up in Milwaukee. So I look forward to Game 1 and hopefully not having any setbacks.”

“These were a good three games for me,” he said. “It’s better than going into the playoffs without playing. So I’m glad I was able to get a few games in with different teams, different styles, see how they guarded me a little differently.”

What he hasn’t had is much in the way of continuity with LeBron James, with James sitting out the final two games to rest up for what could be a fourth-consecutive two-month playoff grind, the Heat advancing to the NBA Finals in each of their first three Big Three seasons.

“I’m not worried about continuity with him at all,” Wade said. “The biggest thing is we both know what we need to do and we just have to do it. So we’ve played together for four years, so it’s enough continuity right there. So we’ll be fine.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Wizards star John Wall has a new slogan he writes on his shoes each game … Injured Nuggets forward Danilo Gallinari expects to be ready to go for training camp … The Patrick Beverley-Damian Lillard matchup is likely going to decide that first-round series … Celtics reserve center Joel Anthony will reportedly exercise his option for next season …. Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg and former Magic coach Stan Van Gundy are reportedly on the Timberwolves’ short list of coaches they’d pick to potentially replace Rick AdelmanAmar’e Stoudemire says the Knicks didn’t always buy into Mike Woodson‘s coaching … Ex-Pistons All-Star Grant Hill is reportedly not interested in pursuing a front-office post with Detroit …

ICYMI(s) of the Night: The NBA TV crew makes their predictions for the 2014 playoffs, which, if you haven’t heard, start Saturday …


VIDEO: NBA TV makes its predictions for the Western Conference playoffs


VIDEO: NBA TV makes its predictions for the Eastern Conference playoffs

Jeff Hornacek talks Suns’ 48-win season

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: The Suns’ Goran Dragic is a nominee for Kia Most Improved Player

DALLAS – The Phoenix Suns added their name to a very short list of teams to win 48 games and not make the playoffs. Their pleasantly stunning season has sparked increased debate about whether the NBA should look at ditching the conference model and put the 16 teams with the best record into the postseason.

Suns coach Jeff Hornacek vaulted to the top of the Coach of the Year discussion early on and, like his team, never faded. Phoenix was believed to be a team headed for major ping-pong balls come the lottery, a team constructed of journeymen and unproven parts expected to top out at around 25 victories.

The first-time head coach will have competition from Chicago’s Tom Thibodeau, Portland’s Terry Stotts, Charlotte’s Steve Clifford, Toronto’s Dwane Casey and San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich.

“Jeff is an awesome coach,” Suns point guard and team MVP Goran Dragic said. “He was a great player and he understands the game. As a coach, he sees things differently and he is always calm and gives us that extra confidence. He works hard with young players after practice and he gives us the strength to fight the whole season.”

Here’s how Hornacek views his rookie season on the bench:

Q: How did you manage to quickly establish a winning culture in a locker room with high turnover?

A: That’s the one thing going into this season we wanted them to do, just play hard, play together and for the most part they’ve done that. These guys care about each other, they’re a very close-knit team and that gives you an opportunity for success.

Q: How did Gerald Green, NBA.com’s choice as Most Improved Player, find success this season and bouncing in and out of the league?

A: Gerald is a guy who can get his shot off anywhere — and he does (laughs). He’s got great confidence in his shooting. He’s done a much better job of not just settling for the jump shot, but he’ll take it to the basket. If he gets a step and has a chance to jump, you know how good of an athlete he is, he usually gets the ball in the basket. He’s improved in terms of his consistency. It’s not where he’s jacking up 10 3s and making two of them. He realizes that if he’s not making them, he moves in and tries to take a different shot and that’s been big. I think that’s where a lot of his improvement’s come.

Q: It’s been said that you are the perfect coach for him and the system is a perfect fit. Do you agree with that?

A: He’s bought into what we’re trying to do, it kind of fits his style. We don’t mind running up and shooting quick 3s. I think his eyes light up when one of our point guards, Goran or Eric [Bledsoe], sprint down the court and he’s filling a lane. Guys have great confidence in him and they look for him now because they know he can get hot and make six, seven in a row. It’s a big part of what we do and he’s been great this year.

Q: You played for and coached under Hall of Fame Jazz coach Jerry Sloan. What aspects of his coaching style or philosophies did you incorporate into yours?

A: When we went into it I tried to take a little bit from all the coaches. With Jerry, it’s just go out there and try to play every play like it’s your last, that’s what Jerry always stressed and we’re constantly talking about that. We’re an inexperienced team in terms of playing games so those guys are learning on the fly of how to do that night in and night out, and then get to every play. You can’t have three or four plays that, ‘Oh I forgot,’ or ‘I spaced off’ or whatever it is because that’s going to be enough to cost you the game. Jerry was always on that: Play every play like it’s your last and we try to get that from our guys.

Q: Not sure if even you could have predicted the level of success the team had this season. What does it mean for the franchise when 20-something wins seemed to be the ceiling?

A: Well, the whole part of the rebuilding is you’re going to have steps. From a team that was supposed to win maybe 20 games, we thought if we can get to 30, 35, start establishing things, maybe next year make a push for the playoffs and the year after that get in the playoffs, the kind of stepping stones that you have to go through. Maybe we just skipped a rung. I think it’s great.

Q: Why were you able to skip a rung?

A: I don’t know. It’s always tough in the NBA, especially the way guys switch teams nowadays. The chemistry part is big. And our guys, we had 10 new guys, you never how that’s going to come together, they’ve gotten along pretty well. We emphasized in the beginning, you’re a bunch of new guys, you’re a lot of guys that have contracts that end this year or they end next year, so that’s always kind of a recipe for disaster when guys try to get individual, worried about their contracts. I told them stories about some of our guys from the past, that when you’re on a good team that’s when teams want you, that’s when they’ll pay bigger bucks if you’re on a good team. And so if we’re a good team, all that stuff will come, don’t worry about it, just play and try to win games and that’s what they’ve done. They’ve put it all aside and just played.

Q: When did you first see signs that your team could be pretty good?

A: Early in the season we lost a couple of close games to San Antonio and Oklahoma City at their place and our guys; when you’re in a rebuilding mode a lot of times guys are talking about, ‘hey, that’s a moral victory. Hey look, we played well.’ Our guys were ticked off, they were mad about it. So, to me, as kind of a competitive player, I think, I took that as a sign that, hey, we could be OK this year because these guys care and they want to win.

Q: You paired two point guards, Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe, in the same backcourt. Why did you believe they could complement one another?

A: I just kind of envisioned it because I saw what Kevin Johnson and I went through way back in the day when you had two guards out there and we wanted to be an up-tempo team. We felt that the best way to do that is to have two guys you can outlet the ball to. We don’t need it in one guy’s hand when you can throw it to anybody. We just kind of, [general manager] Ryan McDonough, when we talked about if it could work, he said, ‘yeah I think it would be great getting them from one side to the other. Teams have to look at the mismatches. Someone’s going to have the advantage as good as those two guys are.

Executive of the Year: Ryan McDonough

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com


VIDEO: McDonough answers questions from fans

Architects and general contractors hear all the oohs and aahs. Demolition crews just try to get in and get out, completing their gnarly but necessary work without soiling the carpet.

Phoenix’s Ryan McDonough figured to be one of the latter, doing a lot more tear-down than build-up in his first full year as the Suns’ general manager. Only he axed and crowbarred his way to something pretty impressive, winding up as the choice here at Hang Time HQ as the NBA’s 2013-14 Executive of the Year.

Technically, none of us in the media votes for the EOY — that’s done by executives from the 30 teams. But McDonough would get points from anywhere for helping turn the Suns into one of the league’s happiest stories from start nearly to end. Don’t put too much stock in that flameout in the final week. The Suns nearly doubled last season’s victory total (they won only 25 then) and became only the second team to win 48 and miss the postseason since the NBA went to its 16-team format. Their record would have tied for third in the East.

This is a tale of the Suns rising in the West and the role McDonough played. In this year of (cough) “tanking” — more accurately described as avowed rebuilding — Phoenix was supposed to be bottom and center. McDonough made moves to clear the roster, open up salary-cap space and stockpile draft picks, rounding up a coaching staff fresh and upbeat enough to endure the losing without fraying.

Double their victories? Bah. Las Vegas oddsmakers pegged the Suns’ over/under at 21.5, a swoon from last season.

It didn’t take long for Phoenix to make the experts look silly. They won five of their first seven and were 17-10 by Christmas. They topped last year’s victory total before the end of January and were in sixth place a day after the All-Star break.

How did this all come together? Let us count the ways in which McDonough transformed-not-tanked:

  • He hired Jeff Hornacek as a rookie head coach, getting someone who, true, faced no pressure to win and brought a temperament suited to taking the expected lumps. But the former NBA shooting guard had played for and learned from some of the game’s most-innovative coaches — Jerry Sloan in Utah, John MacLeod and Cotton Fitzsimmons in Phoenix, Doug Moe in Philadelphia — synthesizing a strategy from them. Hornacek didn’t need to hitch himself to a franchise/superstar player, getting plenty of whole from the sum of Suns parts. His players feel ownership in the surprising results, while he hasn’t had to wrangle any massive egos.
  • Trading for Eric Bledsoe, though, was a big-time move, worthy of the most ambitious contender. McDonough liked Bledsoe’s rookie contract, sure, but he also liked the prospect of sticking him alongside Goran Dragic in the backcourt. That gave Phoenix maximum playmaking options and the tandem clicked — the Suns were 23-11 when the two started together.
  • Acquiring Bledsoe brought along veteran forward Caron Butler, who was so leery of suffering through a dreary season that he lobbied for and got a trade to … Milwaukee? Worked out OK for Butler eventually (he ended up in Oklahoma City), worked out better for the Suns, who got back backup guard Ish Smith. Smith has been a valuable and speedy reserve.
  • Let’s not forget the future first-round draft pick McDonough got for veteran Luis Scola, another fellow who preferred a backup role on a good team to a starting job with a projected loser. But wait, there was more: the Pacers also sent Gerald Green and Miles Plumlee to Phoenix. Plumlee has been a helpful big, but Green has been reborn — or sold his soul to ol’ Lucifer. The much-traveled wing with the rarely harnessed skills is a top contender to be voted 2013-14’s Most Improved Player.
  • Gifting center Marcin Gortat to Washington, along with Kendall Marshall, Shannon Brown and Malcolm Lee for injured Wizards big man Emeka Okafor and a future first-rounder. Everyone knew the prognosis for Okafor — out all season with a herniated disc in his neck — so nothing screamed “tank!” more than McDonough swapping healthy for hurt a few days before Opening Night. Washington has been thrilled with Gortat but you’d have to say he’s been valued there more than he’s been missed in Phoenix. Plumlee has plugged in fine and Gortat’s erasure — along with Jared Dudley‘s, a disappointment with the Clippers — has enabled the Suns to play faster.

McDonough didn’t have his fingerprints on all Phoenix improvements. Dragic is getting all-NBA attention, Markieff Morris earned himself a bunch of Sixth Man votes and Channing Frye might be Comeback Player of the Year if the league hadn’t replaced that with the MIP. All preceded McDonough in Phoenix.

But McDonough has served competing masters, positioning Phoenix well with picks and with money to woo free agents. Shouldn’t be long before our Exec of the Year puts down his crowbar and picks up a scalpel to tweak a team well past the tear-down stage.

The contenders:

Daryl Morey, Houston. Landing Dwight Howard, despite the once-glamorous Lakers’ advantages, was a biggie unto itself. But this darling of the analytics crowd has been wheeling and dealing creatively all along. The Rockets are a playoff handful for any opponent, any round, and might be set up best to take a real run at Carmelo Anthony should the Knicks scorer actually consider leaving New York.

Rod Higgins, Charlotte. Hiring Steve Clifford, another COY contender, was a move that smacked of the Bulls tapping Tom Thibodeau in 2010. Signing Al Jefferson proved to be a bigger win-win, dropping Big Al into the Bobcats’ culture to be a leader and an anchor, while eliciting the best performance of his career.

Neil Olshey, Portland. Did you know that Robin Lopez was going to have a breakthrough season? Or that Mo Williams would prove so effective off the bench behind Damian Lillard and Wesley Matthews? The biggest benefit of those Olshey moves was calming LaMarcus Aldridge, the All-Star power forward who no longer makes noise about exiting.

Danny Ferry, Atlanta. Letting Josh Smith walk while opting instead for Paul Millsap, at a much better value (two years, $19 million vs. Smith’s four years, $54 million), was a heist for Ferry. So was the easy decision to match Jeff Teague‘s offer sheet from Milwaukee at a reasonable price — four years, $32 million — for a full-service point guard without most of Brandon Jennings‘ (three years, $24 million) flaws. Ferry also hired Mike Budenholzer, Gregg Popovich’s former right-hand man with the Spurs.

Masai Ujiri, Toronto. Sometimes it’s addition by subtraction, moving Rudy Gay to Sacramento to get the bump every team apparently does when unloading the skilled forward. And sometimes it’s the move you don’t make at all: Dwane Casey had one of those “expiring contracts” that don’t have much allure among coaches, and the guy who hired him (Bryan Colangelo) got deleted last summer. But Casey’s defensive bent and calm, mature approach were given enough time to pay off in the Atlantic Division crown.

 

Morning Shootaround — April 15


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played April 14

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Bright future in Phoenix | Kupchak still non-committal on D’Antoni’s future | Report: Knicks to add Odom? | Lillard inks big shoe deal with adidas | Raptors celebrate milestone victory

No. 1: Suns inspired about future despite tough loss — In the history of the Phoenix Suns franchise, the team has recorded 47 or more wins 23 different times. But perhaps this time of hitting that number of wins has been more rewarding than any others in the past. While Phoenix’s playoff dream died last night with a loss to the Memphis Grizzlies, there’s no denying the Suns proved many experts (including those on this very web site) wrong all season long. Although the Suns will miss the playoffs for a record fourth straight season, there’s plenty of reason to look ahead in Arizona, writes Paul Coro of the Arizona Republic:

The franchise’s hard luck now lays claim to four of NBA history’s six winningest teams to not make the playoffs. A three-game losing streak in the final week leaves the Suns (47-34) out of the playoffs for a fourth consecutive season, the franchise’s longest postseason drought since 1971-75.

“If we had three All-Stars and don’t make the playoffs, then you go, ‘Oh, my goodness,’ but we had guys who proved they can play in this league and play at a high level,” Suns coach Jeff Hornacek said. “I thought we did the best we could.”

Memphis is the type of team that has given the Suns problems all season because it keeps them from their fastbreaking strengths with a physical, grinding method. The Suns went 3-13 this season against the NBA’s six slowest-paced teams, with Memphis being the slowest with a great half-court defense.

“It makes it tough on the executing part,” Hornacek said. “As a team, we’re not quite at that point where we can play in the half-court and execute plays over and over. Our strength is getting out in the open court.”

“It’s always tough when you finish the season and then you look back and you’re saying, ‘OK, the game against the Lakers (a 115-99 loss on at March 30), we should’ve won that, a game against Sacramento (lost twice in Sacramento),” Dragic said. “You have to take care of business home and away against those teams that are not so successful. It’s really tough when you have to play the last three games against San Antonio, Dallas and Memphis and we came out short.”

And as Coro points out in a separate story, Suns guard Eric Bledsoe has made a solid case for a long-term future in Phoenix, too:

The way Bledsoe has risen to the occasion over the past two weeks has shown the Suns and their fans — and, perhaps most importantly, Bledsoe — just how special he can be. Bledsoe is figuring out his stardom on the same timeline as the Suns and their fans.

He is only 24 years old, is in his first season as a starter, has lost 39 games to injury and is coming off knee surgery. He just posted his best three career scoring games in a span of nine nights when the pressure was on the most. Bledsoe came within an assist of his first triple-double, and within a free throw of three 30-point games.

And this is just the learning stage for him.

“His strength, his scoring, his defense, his facilitating stuff,” Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said. “I haven’t seen a point guard that strong at his size in a long time that can do all the things he can do. He’s a load to deal with.”

Bledsoe’s court vision was the first thing that surprised the Suns in the fall, and it only will improve, assuming his court acumen does. His perimeter shot already is turning around.

Coupled with his powerful driving ability, it has changed his career 43.1 shooting percentage into a 48.0 clip this season.

“When he needed to step up his game, he did,” Suns guard Goran Dragic said.

“The biggest thing we’re reminding him is to keep attacking,” said Suns coach Jeff Hornacek, who has teased Bledsoe about his conditioning, pointing out how often he walks the ball up. “If he can attack like a Monta Ellis does, he’s hard to stop. He gets through there, and he’s strong. I think he realizes he can become one of the best players in the league with hard work.

“He’s got that fire and drive.”

The Suns already knew they would match any July offer sheet that Bledsoe might sign in restricted free agency or even beat any team to it with the advantage of offering him an extra year with larger raises.

That might have been a mixed sell for an unproven player had he ended this season with no comeback or a shaky return from knee rehabilitation. To see the Bledsoe that has finished the season, it shows how advantageous it is to be a proactive front office that acquires a budding star in a trade rather than leaning on free agency.

“Hopefully, he’s capable of staying here another few years,” Suns power forward Channing Frye said. “That’d be nice. He’s just developing as a point guard. He was concerned about his turnovers, and I told him, ‘Dude, you’re passing. You’re ahead of the game.’ I’ve played with some of the best, and between him and Goran, I’m pretty excited about the future of the Phoenix Suns.”


VIDEO: Suns players react to Monday’s loss to the Grizzlies

***

No. 2: Kupchak quiet about D’Antoni’s future — Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni has one game left this season — a road game in San Antonio on Wednesday, the season’s final night. Could that also be the end of D’Antoni’s days as L.A.’s leader? The word out of the Lakers’ camp remains vague at best (last thing we heard from GM Mitch Kupchak was that Kobe Bryant wouldn’t have a say in D’Antoni’s coaching future). After last night’s victory in Salt Lake City over the Utah Jazz, Kupchak remains non-committal about D’Antoni, writes Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times:

Mitch Kupchak paused for several seconds. It wasn’t an easy question to answer.

What will be Mike D’Antoni’s fate?

Finally, the Lakers’ general manager spoke briefly about the Lakers’ coach.

“I’m not going to discuss Mike other than to say there is no timetable for any type of decision. So there’s really nothing to share,” Kupchak told The Times.

It represented a departure from his comments last month that D’Antoni was “doing a great job under the circumstances.”

That might still be true. The Lakers have lost a staggering 308 man-games to injury this season, making it hard to judge any coach.

But Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol aren’t fans of D’Antoni’s offense and most Lakers followers don’t support D’Antoni, even though he hasn’t had a healthy roster in his two seasons.

So there’s a lot to mull for the Lakers.

In D’Antoni’s favor, the Lakers owe him $4 million next season and are tired of paying people not to coach them. In the last 10 seasons, only Phil Jackson was not still owed money when he left the team.

Rudy Tomjanovich was paid $9 million when he abruptly resigned as the Lakers’ coach midway through the 2004-05 season. He was in the first season of a five-year, $30-million deal and later served as a consultant for the team.

The Lakers initially owed Mike Brown $7 million when they fired him five games into last season. They recouped about $2.5 million of that money, as per NBA rules, when Brown was hired to coach Cleveland this season.

The Lakers don’t want the reputation of a coaching turnstile.

D’Antoni declined to speculate on his job status Monday. Asked about his future, he said he was prepared for exit meetings with players Thursday and Friday. And he was eager for Easter.

He gave a typically self-deprecating answer when asked how he kept his sanity this season.

“What sanity?” he said.

***

No. 3: Report: Knicks, Odom nearing deal — The Knicks are out of the playoffs and have just two games left in their woebegone season. But it seems that new GM Phil Jackson isn’t about to wait until the offseason to start stirring up New York’s roster. According to Marc Stein of ESPN.com, Jackson is close to having a reunion with his former Sixth Man of the Year winner with the Los Angeles Lakers, Lamar Odom:

Phil Jackson and the New York Knicks are progressing toward a deal to sign veteran free agent Lamar Odom before the NBA regular season ends Wednesday, according to sources briefed on the situation.

Sources told ESPN.com that the Knicks are on course, barring an unforeseen snag, to formally sign Odom this week in a move that would put him on their roster immediately and, more importantly, include a team option for next season.

Structuring the deal this way, after a tumultuous 12 months for one of Jackson’s favorite players when they worked together with the Los Angeles Lakers, would give the Knicks two months before free agency begins July 1 to get the 34-year-old into their program and start working with him.

The Knicks, sources say, would want to use the extra time to see if they can get Odom to the point, physically and mentally, where the talented but enigmatic lefty is worthy of a roster spot next season.

Still recovering from a back injury that curtailed his recent stint in the Spanish League after just two games, Odom is not believed to be healthy enough to play in the Knicks’ season finale Wednesday night in Toronto even if he signs Wednesday.

Sources say this is viewed as a long-range play for the Knicks, who are banking on the notion that Jackson — in his new role as New York’s team president — can provide the guidance to get Odom’s career back on track.

***

No. 4: Lillard inks huge deal with adidasIf you had any doubts that small-market superstars can’t get the kind of shoe-endorsement deals stars in cities like New York, Chicago and L.A. get, think again. Much like Kevin Durant of the Oklahoma City Thunder and his lucrative deal with Nike, Portland Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard has signed the third-richest shoe deal in the league. CSNNW.com’s Chris Haynes has more on Lillard’s new agreement with adidas:

Portland Trail Blazers Damian Lillard and adidas have finalized a deal that makes it the third richest shoe endorsement deal in history, a source informed CSNNW.com.

The deal, according to another source, is an eight-year contract that has the potential to stretch out to 10 years if he reaches certain incentive clauses. We’ve confirmed Lillard’s new contract is slightly less than that of Derrick Rose.

“adidas has been great to me over my first two seasons,” Lillard said in the adidas release. “I’ve had the opportunity to wear a lot of great product, help design special versions of shoes, be a part of TV commercials and travel the world with the brand. I’m excited for what the future holds for me and adidas.”

CSNNW.com reported a few weeks ago that the deal was on the cusp of being finalized. The deal was actually signed in Los Angeles on April. 1 prior to the Trail Blazers defeating the Los Angeles Lakers 124-112 that evening.

Due to Lillard reaching certain performance incentive clauses in his adidas rookie shoe deal, he was able to opt out at the end of the season to pursue a long-term, prosperous contract with adidas, Nike or other major competitors. Instead of waiting, Lillard’s representatives gave adidas an exclusive 30-day window to renegotiate before checking out other offers. That 30 days was up on April. 1.

USA Today reported the deal is finalized.

.***

No. 5: DeRozan rests as Raptors set wins markThe Toronto Raptors, by any measure, have had a great season. If you measure what they’ve done on just wins and losses, though, they’ve had a season for the team record books. Last night’s drubbing of the Milwaukee Bucks lifted Toronto to its 48th win, the most in franchise history, and it was done while All-Star and go-to guy DeMar DeRozan took a well-deserved break before the playoffs get rolling. Doug Smith of the Toronto Star has more on the win:

Even with DeMar DeRozan reduced to a mere spectator enjoying a night of rest, the Raptors claimed their franchise-record-setting 48th win of the year, dumping the Milwaukee Bucks 110-100 at the Air Canada Centre in the penultimate game of the regular season.

“Guys came out with a total focus. We lost it there a little bit in the second half, but the start of the game, our guys were locked in, attention to detail was there on both ends of the floor,” said Casey.

DeRozan’s greatest impact on the game was his short speech thanking the fans for the just-completed home season as the banner recognizing the team’s division title was unfurled in an understated, quick ceremony.

“It definitely felt good to share it with (the fans) because they played a major part in it as well,” he said. “I’ve been here through the struggles and the tough times and our fans were still right there with us on this journey.”

And there is no certainty that DeRozan will play Wednesday when the Raptors wrap up the season in New York.

“We’ll see what we decide on that,” said Casey. “Amir’s had time off, Kyle’s had time off, he’s the only guy with big minutes that hadn’t had time off. I could just see a pep in Kyle’s step since he’s had his rest, so we’ll see how it goes.”

Amir Johnson, still working his way back from ankle woes, looked better Monday than he did Sunday in Detroit, chipping in 10 points and five rebounds in 29 minutes as Casey eases him back slightly.

He was proud to be part of the historic win.

“I think it’s awesome,” he said. “We set many franchise records and we are just going to keep pushing and see what’s next for us. We’re always looking for the next thing.”

Lowry and Johnson left to a prolonged ovation from the fans with less than 40 seconds to go.


VIDEO: Toronto raises its Atlantic Division championship banner before Monday’s game vs. Milwaukee

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Knicks forward Amar’e Stoudemire may play in Jerusalem once his contract runs out in 2015 … The Bucks secured the top odds in the 2014 NBA Draft Lottery last night … Does Damian Lillard‘s new deal with adidas mean the shoe giant has forgotten about Derrick Rose? … Former first-round pick Arnett Moultrie is trying to make an NBA impact before it is too late … The Lakers and Suns may look to make pass at Luol Deng in free agency this summer … George Hill had an interesting little chat with Indianapolis Colts punter Pat McAfee on the Indianapolis Star‘s website …

ICYMI(s) of the Night: Trey Burke has had a pretty solid rookie season, but this move that Jordan Farmar put on him in the backcourt is sure to stick with him for a while. On a more positive note, we had two fantastic full-court dimes that lead to and-ones — one from the master (Kevin Love) of such plays and another from a pretty solid passer in his own right (Andre Miller)


VIDEO: Jordan Farmar breaks Trey Burke’s ankles in the backcourt


VIDEO: Kevin Love throws a full-court pass to Corey Brewer for the layup


VIDEO: Andre Miller throws a great full-court dime to Bradley Beal

Suns’ Cinderella season on the brink

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: The Suns are trying their best to make a frantic playoff charge

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Can the Phoenix Suns summon the energy to rise once more? Or will their improbable postseason hopes finally set?

Elimination day has arrived for the league’s season-long surprise team in Game 81. Phoenix (47-33) must beat the the Memphis Grizzlies (48-32) at home tonight (10 p.m. ET, League Pass) or the book will close on its Cinderella season, and the Grizzlies will clinch the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

It will take a Herculian effort. The Suns are picking themselves up from consecutive gut-punch road losses Friday and Saturday at San Antonio and Dallas in which they lost double-digits leads in both. Team MVP Goran Dragic is playing on a badly sprained left ankle. And then there’s this: Memphis, the antithesis of Phoenix’s fastbreaking style, is the lone Western Conference team the Suns have not defeated this season; they’re 0-3. The two teams last met on Jan. 10.

“We are still going to fight until the end,” Dragic said following Saturday’s 101-98 loss at Dallas in which Phoenix lost a 13-point third-quarter lead. “We have two games left and hopefully we can win the next game against Memphis and if so, anything is possible.”

If Phoenix wins tonight, it will move into a dead heat in the standings with Memphis, but will still need help to get into the playoffs. The Suns play at Sacramento on Wednesday (10:30 p.m. ET, League Pass) and will likely know by tipoff or shortly thereafter if the game holds meaning. They’ll need to have Dallas to win at Memphis (8 p.m. ET, ESPN), where the Grizzlies have won 13 in a row.

“We’ve got to stay positive,” said guard Eric Bledsoe, who has put up 59 points, 15 assists, 15 rebounds, but also 14 turnovers in the last two games. “There’s still life out there. These two teams, Memphis and Dallas have to play each other, so we have to take our next two games real serious.”

Dragic sprained his ankle last Wednesday night at New Orleans, stayed in the game and played 39 minutes. He missed Friday’s game against the Spurs and returned Saturday at Dallas, heavily taped, and logged more than 40 minutes. His availability tonight could be in jeopardy.

“It’s not a good situation for me, not good timing,” Dragic said Saturday. “I twisted my ankle against New Orleans, played the whole game and after the game it swelled a lot. It’s tough. I mean, no excuses, a lot of NBA players have to go through those pains, so I have to try to help my teammates as much as I can.”

The Grizzlies, 35-15 since Jan. 1 after starting 13-17, can wrap up a fourth consecutive playoff berth with a victory tonight. That would set up Wednesday’s home game against the Mavericks, who locked up a playoff berth with Saturday’s win over Phoenix, as a fight for the seventh seed, with a remote chance at the sixth seed.

Golden State needs one more win to clinch the sixth seed and can do so tonight at home against Minnesota (10:30 p.m., ET, NBA TV).

The No. 8 seed will face the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs in the opening round. The No. 7 seed will likely face the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Los Angeles Clippers have an outside chance of securing the No. 2 seed.

Ellis delivers Dallas back to the playoffs

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Mavs knock off Suns to clinch playoff spot

DALLAS – Even as he’s reshaped his reputation through 80 games playing alongside a legend and for an offensive innovator, Monta Ellis at 7:35 p.m. Central Time on Saturday night still stood 48 minutes away from getting back into the playoffs.

Nearly three hours later, moments after a late collapse in which he missed two free throws in the final 20 seconds was narrowly averted, Ellis, smiling and surrounded by cameras and notepads, said his season-high-tying 37 points on 15-for-23 shooting, plus five assists against the equally desperate Phoenix Suns, was nothing personal.

It was all about the team, he said.

“This is nothing for me personally,” Ellis said. “I do everything for my teammates, I do everything for my organization that I play for and I leave it all on the court. That’s all.”

In an interview back in 2012, Ellis, wanting to emphasize that he is a complete player and not just a flinger, famously said “Monta have it all.” On Saturday night, with his team begging for it, he did it all.

He logged 43 minutes, 28 seconds of the 101-98 victory and every tick of the second half simply because coach Rick Carlisle couldn’t afford to take his headstrong gunner and virtuoso playmaker out of the game. When the NBA’s 10th all-time leading scorer, Dirk Nowitzki, couldn’t find a rhythm early — he scored 21 of his 23 points in the second half — Ellis attacked and never stopped.

He had 14 at halftime, the reason — with center Brandan Wright – why the Suns’ lead wasn’t bigger than 57-46. He scored 11 points in the third quarter, his back-to-back 3-pointers in transition slicing the Suns’ 11-point bulge down five. Then came 12 more in the fourth plus a strip of Channing Frye and a breakaway layup for a 94-89 Dallas lead with 4:03 to go.

“It was tough, man,” said Suns guard Eric Bledsoe, who went toe-to-toe with Ellis for 29 points on 11-for-15 shooting and six assists, but with 19 seconds to go was blocked at the rim by Wright on a potential game-tying drive. “Monta is one of the premiere scorers in this league when he gets it going like that.”

Not personal? Ellis’ teammates weren’t buying it. This entire season has been personal.

“He’s missed the playoffs a whole lot, and I know he wanted it and you could tell he wanted it,” Devin Harris said. “You could tell he was engaged from the start. I’m just happy for him.”

Ellis is going back to the playoffs for just the third time in his career, and Dallas is going back after a one-year hiatus that interrupted a streak of 12 consecutive postseason appearances. For Ellis, this time is different. He’s happy. He’s counted upon.

“At the time we needed him most, he stepped up and played his biggest game of the year,” Carlisle said. “We had to play him the entire second half; we couldn’t get him out.”

Last season with Milwaukee, Ellis was miserable and has said so. So miserable he left $11 million on the table to get out. The Bucks backed into the eighth seed at 38-44 and were a first-round mop job for the Miami Heat. In 2006-07, Ellis was a second-year free-wheeler on a Warriors team that streaked into the playoffs as an eighth seed, upset the No. 1 Mavs in the first round and quickly bowed out to Utah in the second round.

This season Ellis, averaging 19.0 points on just 15.5 shot attempts, has won more games on the 49-32 Mavs than in any previous season. The irony is that in the stiff Western Conference, it will be good for only the seventh or eighth seed and a first-round playoff date against either Oklahoma City or San Antonio. When the Warriors won 48 games in 2007-08, the previous high in Ellis’ career, they failed to make the playoffs.

On Saturday night, it didn’t seem to make much difference to Ellis if Dallas had been locking up the top seed or that he needed to be near-perfect on his home floor just to secure the elusive playoff berth on the penultimate game of the regular season.

Ultimately, the season might still come to an end in short order once the playoffs begin next weekend. Dallas, which relies so heavily on old, but reliable legs — Nowtizki (35), Shawn Marion (35), and Vince Carter (37) — and their 28-year-old former chucker, has lost nine a row to the Spurs. Until taking two from Oklahoma City in the last six weeks, Dallas had lost 11 in a row to the Thunder, including the 2012 first-round sweep.

For now, Ellis was content to soak in this moment, his steely performance and what it meant for a franchise whose fans had practically come to take the postseason as a birthright to be a playoff team again.

“Ah man, it’s lovely,” Ellis said. “We set this goal at the beginning of training camp. Everybody doubted us and for us to come and be here in the playoffs, and then add our goal to get 50 wins, we got one more game to do that and get ready for the playoffs.”

Bledsoe plans to rejoin Suns within days

OAKLAND – Injured guard Eric Bledsoe said he expects to return to the Suns lineup on Monday against the Clippers or Wednesday against the Cavaliers at the latest, a critical roster addition for Phoenix that adds another layer of intrigue to the Western Conference playoff race.

Whether Bledsoe can go from missing nine weeks with a knee injury that required surgery to having close to the same impact he had in the first 24 games before he was hurt — 18 points and 5.8 assists while shooting 48.6 percent — now becomes one of the storylines of the season’s final quarter. The Suns, at 36-26, are the team success story of the league and are tied with the Grizzlies for eighth place in the West, a game behind No. 7 Dallas and five ahead of No. 10 Minnesota. Whether Bledsoe struggles to regain his rhythm or quickly assimilates could tilt the standings.

While the Suns said they expect a return Wednesday at home against the Cavaliers, Bledsoe has not ruled out Monday against the Clippers, his former team, in Los Angeles. The decision, he said Sunday before the Suns lost to the Warriors at Oracle Arena, will probably come Monday afternoon.

Eric Bledsoe

Eric Bledsoe has been out since Jan. 2 with a right knee injury.

“I can definitely look forward to it, see how I’m feeling at shootaround or whatever to see how it goes,” Bledsoe said. “If it’s there, I’ll go.”

Whether it happens Monday or Wednesday, coach Jeff Hornacek said Bledsoe will come off the bench “the first few games.” After that, Hornacek added, “I would guess at some point he might be back in that starting lineup because when he and Goran [Dragic] were in there we were pretty good.” But Hornacek publicly left open the possibility, however unlikely, that Gerald Green could remain a starter.

Bledsoe hurt his right knee Jan. 2 and underwent surgery to repair cartilage on Jan. 10. The Suns are 17-15 since then, plus 3-3 when he missed six other games with a bruised shin.

“It’s been tough to sit there and watch for two months now,” Bledsoe said. “It’s definitely been tough. But at the same time, it’s been exciting to watch. The guys go out there and fight every night.”

Stars rose up as key players went down

A lot of the credit for the Suns' success goes to Goran Dragic. (Barry Gossage/NBAE/Getty Images)

A lot of the credit for the Suns’ success goes to Goran Dragic. (Barry Gossage/NBAE/Getty Images)

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – One injury to the wrong player can be devastating to a team’s aspirations. See the Thunder during last year’s playoffs once Russell Westbrook went down.

The Lakers weren’t winning the title this season with or without Kobe Bryant, but they certainly aren’t dragging up the rear in the Western Conference with him.

But this post isn’t about sob stories. This season’s injury stories, three in particular — OK, four, keep reading — are about inspiration and not desperation, about three young stars (no, four!) rising to the occasion and pushing their teams when the receding tide could have drowned the whole thing in the deep blue sea of lost seasons.

Kevin Durant, Kevin Love and Blake Griffin made history in February, along with LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, as the first quintet to average 30 points or more in any month going back to 1962. Durant, Love and Griffin rose to extraordinary heights as their teams lacked a key component due to injury, and in Love’s case two.

In good conscious we could not limit this discussion to three. Yes, the Spurs were terrific without Tony Parker after the All-Star break, but that’s just the Spurs being the Spurs. And Portland did a fine job recently without LaMarcus Aldridge. No. 4 is the Phoenix Suns’ non-All-Star point guard Goran Dragic, who was playing fabulously before backcourt mate Eric Bledsoe went down with a knee injury, and he’s been downright nasty ever since.

How Dragic isn’t in the MVP discussion even as a footnote is criminal. A team destined for 25 wins already has 35 and is in the heat of the ferocious West playoff chase, and Dragic is the reason why. The West coaches couldn’t give The Dragon his due. It’s the least we can do.

So here’s how the three superstars — and Goran — did it:

Love’s Quest

The skinny: First, let’s not kid ourselves. The Timberwolves are nowhere near out of the woods. Their inability to win close games during the first couple months of the season and overall inconsistent play sabotaged their hopes of finally contending for a playoff spot. Then injuries dropped their second- and third-leading scorers, 3-point-bombing shooting guard Kevin Martin (on Feb. 7) and low-post monster center Nikola Pekovic (on Jan. 27), respectively. Stick a fork in ‘em? Not exactly.

What happened?: Love went nuts. In February, he averaged 34.0 ppg, a franchise record for any month. He grabbed 14.1 rebounds to lead the league. He became the first player since Moses Malone in March 1982 to average 34 and 14 in one month. Without Pekovic, who missed 13 games, and Martin in the lineup, the Wolves went 4-3. Whole again, the they’re 2-0 in March to get back over .500 at 30-29 just when it seemed like they were sunk.

The outlook: It might not be sunshine and daffodils, but the storm clouds are parting. Minnesota enters Wednesday’s home game against stumbling New York 4.5 games out of the eighth and final playoff spot. It’s a lot of ground to make up, but the Wolves have an upcoming schedule that should make them salivate: the Knicks, Detroit, Toronto and Milwaukee at home, then at Charlotte and back home for Sacramento before things turn decidedly tougher against West foes. Take care of the six in front of them and who knows?

Banking on Blake

The skinny: The Clippers were 23-12 even though they hadn’t played terrific basketball adjusting to new coach Doc Rivers and meshing in new players. But my oh my, what would they do now without point guard and floor leader Chris Paul? On Jan. 3 at Dallas, Paul went down in a heap and came up with a separated right shoulder. The prognosis was negative: four to six weeks. He missed 18 games.

What happened: Griffin when nuts. In Paul’s absence, the power forward from Oklahoma averaged 27.5 ppg on 55.4 percent shooting. He grabbed 8.2 rebounds and dished out 4.4 assists. He became a vocal leader on the floor, taking over a role that Paul had dominated, a development that should aid the evolution of this team. The Clippers emerged from their CP3-less stretch with 12 wins and six losses to get to 35-18. They maintained position to seize a top four seed. Griffin didn’t miss a beat once Paul returned on Feb. 9, averaging 30.0 ppg and 10.7 rpg for the entire month.

The outlook: The Clippers are 7-2 since Paul’s return and have won five in a row to get to 42-20. They’re in a virtual tie with Houston for the No. 3 seed. The schedule plays out pretty favorably throughout March, and if L.A. continues to come together and avoids any more injuries, they could make a serious run over the next three to four weeks.

Overserved on KD

The Skinny: The Thunder were rolling along and put a Christmas Day whipping on the Knicks behind a triple-double from Russell Westbrook. Then came the stunning news that he needed a third surgery on his troublesome right knee. OKC had just racked up 21 wins in 25 games with Westbrook, and now this. OKC announced he would be out all the way through the All-Star break. Now the question was whether the Thunder could hold onto a top-four seed?

What happened: Durant went nuts. In 27 games without his sidekick, Durant racked up 35.0 ppg on 52.7 percent shooting overall and 39.9 percent from beyond the arc, plus 7.5 rpg and 6.3 apg. He was so good as OKC won 20 of those games and took over the top spot in the West that he was widely considered the clubhouse leader for the MVP trophy. And why not? At 43-12 when Westbrook made his return on Feb. 20, nobody was doing it better.

The outlook: A return to the NBA Finals. The team is built for it barring anything else going wrong with Westbrook’s right knee. His triple-double in 20 minutes Tuesday night revealed an explosive player at his best. He’s regaining his shooting touch and continues to talk of being a smarter player after having sat out all but two of 11 playoff games last season and a large chunk of games this season. Any notion that Westbrook somehow detracts from Durant should finally be dead and buried.

Fire-breathing Dragic

The skinny: Remember when the Suns traded Marcin Gortat to Washington like a week before the season started and everybody rolled their eyes at the obvious tank job taking place? Recent times have gotten a bit ragged for Dragic and his mostly unknown teammates, castoffs from other clubs, but nothing can take away the effort that’s propelled them to a 35-25 record and the eighth seed in the hotly contested West. And to be there with Bledsoe out with a knee injury since Dec. 30 is beyond amazing.

What happened: Dragic went nuts. Since Bledsoe left the lineup, Dragic has averaged 22.3 ppg on 52.9 percent shooting overall and 46.3 percent from deep. He’s become one of the game’s premiere rim attackers, either running the break or capable of getting to the basket coming off screens seemingly at will. He takes a licking and keeps on ticking. Without him, the Suns would be where we all thought they’d be: deep in lottery position.

The outlook: Bledsoe is practicing and could be back soon to give this club a real boost headed into the final 20 games. The Suns’ playoff hopes are on life support, but if they can survive the next three games against Oklahoma City, Golden State and the Clippers, they’ve got a favorable 11-game stretch through the end of March that includes eight East teams (none against Indiana or Miami), plus the Lakers. The Orange can still crush this.