Suns’ decision not as clear-cut as it appears
After years in the post-Steve Nash wilderness, something good happened this week to a Phoenix Suns franchise that desperately needed a bit of luck.
The Suns won the NBA’s draft lottery on Tuesday night in Chicago, giving the league’s worst team in 2017-18 (an ugly 6-35 finish got them there) the opportunity to select a franchisechanging piece to add to Devin Booker and a lot of young question marks.
The question now is who do they take next month?
Sometimes it’s a no-brainer (think Anthony Davis, Karl Anthony Towns, or Ben Simmons in recent years), occasionally nobody stands out and you roll the dice, but this year, there is real drama.
Deandre Ayton is a 7-foot-plus, athletic freak of nature who played just down the road in Tucson. He can score in a variety of ways and should develop as a defender, given his size, length and leaping ability. In the old NBA, where giants roamed and the interior game still mattered most, Ayton would have been the easy pick. But Phoenix recently hired Igor Kokoskov away from the Utah Jazz to be its new head coach. As fate would have it, Kokoskov helmed the Slovenian national team last summer, a team that featured point forward prodigy Luka Doncic and won the Euro Basket tournament. Few teenagers have looked spectacular in the Spanish ACB and Euro League, but the 6-foot-8 Doncic has dropped jaws all season long against competition second only to that of the NBA.
Kokoskov is one voice in the Phoenix war room, but he will know Doncic’s strengths and weaknesses inside and out and loves the kid.
“I can’t compare those two guys because I lived with Luka. I coached Luka,” Kokoskov told reporters prior to the lottery, via azcentral.com.
“I’ve watched highlights of the other kid (Ayton). I don’t ever run away from my opinion, but other guys have seen him play a lot more than me.”
Further complicating matters is the fact that Phoenix drafted Josh Jackson, another 6-foot-8 forward with some playmaking skills, fourth overall last June. It’s possible that Jackson could be a full-time small ball power forward alongside Doncic once he adds some weight, but the Suns could use a legitimate centre like Ayton, with Tyson Chandler nearing the end of the road and fellow high picks Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss still looking a long way from being useful NBAers on a good team.
Meanwhile, Sacramento’s in a great spot. The lottery’s other big winners jumped from seventhbest odds heading in to the second pick and can simply take the guy the Suns pass on. Replacing DeMarcus Cousins with Ayton would be great for the franchise. Or they could consider Duke’s polished producer Marvin Bagley III if Ayton is gone and they don’t want to gamble on Doncic transitioning well to the NBA. Rebuilding Sacramento will lose its pick next year because of a horrendous deal made a few years ago (unless the Kings win the lottery) with Philadelphia (the Celtics now own the pick), so it needs to hit a home run here. The odds of doing that now are far better than when the club looked like it would be selecting from the seventh spot.
In the winners and losers category, Atlanta moved up from fourth to third, Memphis dropped from two to four, Dallas fell from three to five — prompting an “of course,” tweet from Dirk Nowitzki — while Orlando (five to six) and Chicago (six to seven) each moved down one spot.
While Ayton and Doncic are seen as the potential franchise changers, the other high-lottery teams should have a number of talented big men (Bagley, Jaren Jackson Jr., Mo Bamba and Wendell Carter) to choose from, along with intriguing scorer Michael Porter Jr. (injured for nearly the entire season, but a potential Top 2 pick entering the year), scoring and assist machine Trae Young, a divisive prospect to be sure, or others.
Canadian R.J. Barrett is expected to be the clear No. 1 choice in 2019 after he spends a year at Duke.
EASTERN CONFERENCE INTRIGUE
The Boston Celtics continue to defy the odds despite the absences of Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. Boston won both games at home over Cleveland, despite a 42-point, triple-double from LeBron James in Game 2 on Tuesday night.
The Celtics play with a physicality that the Toronto Raptors lacked against LeBron and Co. and it is making a big difference. Moving forward, Toronto must add more big, tough competitors. It isn’t all about talent, length or athleticism. Having Al Horford helps quite a bit, too. The Raptors desperately wanted Horford (and his former teammate Paul Millsap when both played for Atlanta), but instead landed Serge Ibaka, who is nowhere close to being as impactful at this point. Atlanta foolishly lost both big men for nothing instead of making a deal. After signing as a free agent, Horford emerged as the first face of a new contender and has stabilized things for the Celtics in the absence of the team’s veteran stars. Horford is an ideal defensive leader, while Marcus Morris has done a nice job on James, despite the fourtime MVP’s individual stat-line.
“We’re doing whatever it takes,” Morris told reporters after Cavs coach Ty Lue said the team was “gooning the game up.”
“We go out there, we compete,” Horford said.
Unlike against the Raptors, the Cleveland supporting cast has been dreadful vs. Boston. Kevin Love and Kyle Korver have each only hit 30 per cent of their three-point attempts (compared to 35 and 56 per cent against Toronto), J.R. Smith has missed all seven of his outside shots after hitting a blistering and thoroughly ridiculous 10-of-13 against the Raptors.
Arizona centre Deandre Ayton, at more that seven feet tall, is arguably the best choice as the player the Phoenix Suns should build around.