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How the Phoenix Suns could sign Lebron James. Yes, you heard that right.

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hi-res-c71e666a7980c4985b17632699fe712e_crop_northNobody will be surprised if Lebron decides he’s sick of carrying this older tired Cavaliers team on his back and packs his bags like he did with the 2014 Heat, but none of the destinations are perfect. The Sixers are an not an ideal fit with the non shooting, young Lebron-esque Ben Simmons running PG, the Rockets would likely need the Cavaliers help in a sign and trade, the Lakers would struggle to put enough firepower around him. None of these are deal breaker flaws enough to be ruled out, but none are perfect either.

The sleeper nobody is talking about? The Phoenix Suns.

Despite their decade long ineptitude and misery, if you look close enough you can see a team in a nearly identical situation as the 2014 Cavs. Devin Booker is at the same point of his career as Kyrie Irving was in 2014. One of the most gifted young scoring prospects in the game, but it hasn’t translated to wins as the man. Like the Cavs, the Suns won the #1 pick in the lottery. Aside from having the opportunity to draft Deandre Ayton or Luka Doncic, it also gives them the primo trade asset on the market. In 2014 there was a star who was on the way out of his team in Kevin Love, in 2018 deteriorating the Kawhi Leonard relationship with the Spurs makes him a potential target to be traded and the Suns #1 pick puts them at the front of the line if the Spurs decide to rebuild. 

If at Lebron’s beckoning the Suns traded the #1 pick for Kawhi, a big 3 of Booker, Kawhi and Lebron is immediately competitive with anyone’s in the league if Kawhi returns to borderline MVP form. The 21 year old Booker is just tapping into his potential and would be in the right situation to take his game to the next level on both ends benefitting from the attention Lebron and Kawhi receive. Unlike the Sixers, the fit is flawless with Booker’s off ball shooting, Kawhi’s defense, creating and shooting and Lebron’s playmaking.

The Suns would still need to complete the lineup with a PG and C, but they have the assets to do it. They have other draft picks to dangle such as the #16 pick this year from Miami, Milwaukee’s 2019 1st and Miami’s 2021 pick, along with interesting prospects like Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss. One option I would consider is expanding the Kawhi trade to get the Spurs to include Patty Mills. Mills would be a great fit at PG beside Lebron and should be expendable in San Antonio in a post Kawhi world with DeJounte Murray as their future at PG. With the Suns having the expirings contracts of of Tyson Chandler (possibly a player the they would want to keep as a veteran starting C), Jared Dudley, Troy Daniels, Alan Williams’ unguaranteed deal and the potential to stretch Brandon Knight, along with T.J. Warren’s 12 million per year extension and Bender and Chriss’ rookie contracts, I believe they have the flexibility to trade for a bigger package like Kawhi and Mills and still have the cap room to sign Lebron.

With a starting lineup such as Mills, Booker, Kawhi, Lebron, Chandler, the Suns would be ready to go. Kawhi and Booker is legitimate firepower beside Lebron and the team has quality spacing and fit. Off the bench the Suns would retain the high upside piece of Josh Jackson as 6th man and Bender and/or Chriss if they stay on the team. Bender could be the guy who emerges at the Suns C spot with his ability to spread the floor and defend pick and rolls. Veteran ring chasers could join the team and the Suns could shop its extra draft picks if not a prospect like Chriss, much like how Cleveland used extra 1sts and Dion Waiters to trade for Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith and Timofey Mozgov during Lebron’s first season back.

From a lifestyle standpoint Phoenix is also a warm weather city for Lebron to play his last act in, much like the retirees who go there. Free agents have often treated it as an enticing option, Tyson Chandler signed there, Eric Gordon tried to push his way there, they went to the wire with the Spurs for LaMarcus Aldridge. In the past they’ve signed players like Steve Nash or Penny Hardaway. The Suns also have a strong basketball history dating back to the 60s and are one of the most successful teams to never win a ring, allowing Lebron to leave an important legacy in another city if he goes all the way. If the talent is there such as having Kawhi and Booker there’s no reason why Phoenix the city and franchise couldn’t land the biggest fish in the pond in Lebron.

Perhaps the biggest downside is Phoenix plays in the West. Lebron would be forced to go head to head with powerhouses such as Golden State and Houston. In the East he has a greater opportunity to make a record amount of Finals appearances, and signing with Philadelphia would give him one less team he has to beat. Nonetheless it’s going all the way that matters and a Western finalist like Golden State or Houston will still wait for him in the Finals even if he signs in the East. In addition getting through the Celtics revamped roster with Irving and Gordon Hayward back and the development of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown is only going to get more difficult. Putting himself in the best situation possible could matter more than which conference he plays in. The other concern is whether Kawhi’s health is a guarantee if the Suns are risking trading a #1 pick for him. The Suns do have a longtime excellent reputation for conditioning and players recovering from injury, helping both Kawhi and Lebron to maintain his body going forward. 

Overall if they traded for Kawhi, Phoenix has many of the elements that caused Lebron to go to Cleveland in 2014. He would be rebooting with a younger pair of stars without the playoff miles on them Wade and Bosh had in 2014 or Love has now. If the pieces come together it could be a great spot for him.

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Written by jr.

May 24, 2018 at 5:32 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Who should go 1st: Deandre Ayton vs Luka Doncic

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636585582598847525-lukaThe Phoenix Suns have the top pick and most mock drafts have Deandre Ayton and Luka Doncic leading the way. 

The case for/against Deandre Ayton

Ayton is one of the most physically gifted center prospects in decades and resembles David Robinson. He is an athletic, chiseled 7’1 with the mobility to defend perimeter switches as is required in the modern game. He is almost a generational center prospect. With his physical tools, offensive skills and numbers, if he had the defensive production of college Joel Embiid or Anthony Davis to match his size and athleticism he would be perfect. Could you make the case that *if* his defensive stats are situationally and coaching driven, he could have that generational big in him? What would his defensive stats look like if he chose Kentucky?

Unfortunately though, we can only go on what he did and his defensive stats are a major red flag. A list of star centers the last 10 years includes Joel Embiid, Karl-Anthony Towns, DeMarcus Cousins, Andre Drummond, Deandre Jordan, Al Horford, Joakim Noah, Roy Hibbert, Brook Lopez. Of that group, Ayton has the lowest blocks per 40 in his college draft year. He only has a higher stl/40 than Jordan, a player hardly known for his college production. The low steals indicate you can’t just blame his blocks on being used in a perimeter defending, steals-friendly way. Ben Simmons for example had a very low block rate but elite steal rate for a big in college indicating his style of play on defense was responsible.

How bad is it? Drummond fell to 9th because teams were terrified of his lackadaisical intensity and he still managed 1.2 steals and 3.8 blks per 40, blowing away Ayton’s 0.7 steals and 2.3 blocks. In his draft year Meyers Leonard averaged 0.6 steals and 2.4 blks per 40.

Blocks and steals aren’t the most reliable way to measure defense, but those who’ve looked closer have suggested Ayton was indeed a poor defender in college and struggled with maintaining intensity.

Ultimately, being good at defense at a lower level is one of the best predictors of being good at defense later, provided the tools are there. The same instincts, toughness and commitment intangibles are as critical there. Andrew Wiggins is an example of a player who had the physical tools but not the production or intangibles on defense in college and it ended up predicting similar frustrations in the NBA.

On offense alone there is a lot to like about Ayton with the potential to have a long range shot in the NBA, although his passing numbers are also below average for the above all-star centers. However defensive stats can also be predictor of offensive success as they can be a sign of on court intelligence, motor and toughness all of which are needed on offense.

For overall production how high Ayton’s season ranks depends on which stats you favor. His scoring of 24 pts per 36 on .65 TS% is tremendous. He is tied with Jaren Jackson for highest WS/48 (.259 WS/48) of the top 10 NCAA prospects on Jonathan Givony’s post lottery mock. His 10.9 BPM however ranks 6th of those prospects behind Jaren Jackson, Jr. (15.4), Wendell Carter, Jr. (13.5), Mikal Bridges (13.2), Trae Young (11.7), Mohamed Bamba (11.2). The more you include the non-scoring stats rebounding, assists, steals and blocks the worse Ayton compares. His BPM therefore trails some of the most elite center prospects of this generation in Anthony Davis (18.7), Karl-Anthony Towns (17.3), Joel Embiid (14.9). Ayton had a good season, he did not have a dominant season.

The case for/against Luka Doncic

Doncic’s physical tools are not as impressive as Ayton’s. He does not appear to have elite explosiveness to blow by defenders and his game can resemble Joe Ingles visually as much as a future MVP winner. Another problem with Doncic is the total lack of European star guards since Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker decades ago. With minimal predecessors it’s difficult to make a statistical projection or to know how important the athleticism jump will be for him.

The best we can do though, looks very promising. I see two routes to compare him statistically. The first is to compare him to non all-star European guards. Three examples are Ricky Rubio, Nicolas Batum and Goran Dragic. Here is their per 40 stats in the Euroleague their draft year and the age they turned that year:

09 Rubio (19 years old) – 7.2 pts, 8.4 ast, 7.2 reb, 5.4 stls, .444 TS% 10.6 PER

Rubio played very few minutes that season, so a better comparison may be his 2010 stats when he’s a year older:

10 Rubio (20 years old) – 12.9 pts, 7.8 ast, 5.6 reb, 2.7 stl, .562 TS%, 17.7 PER (7th on the roster for qualified players)

08 Batum (20 years old) – 12.8 pts, 5.2 reb, 4.1 ast, 2.2 stl, .526 TS%, 12.8 PER (6th on the roster for qualified players)

08 Dragic (22 years old) – 14.3 pts, 4.5 ast, 4.2 reb, .544 TS%, 13.2 PER (3rd on the roster for qualified players)

Now here is Doncic:

18 Doncic (19 years old ) – 24.8 pts, 7.6 reb, 6.7 ast, 1.7 stl, .612 TS%, 22.9 PER (1st on the roster in PER)

Needless to say Doncic is on another planet here statistically and the other three guards went on to be very good. It’s hard not to look at that and be high on Doncic’s floor.

Another sign for Doncic is the performance of prospects at other positions. Here are some per 40 performances by recent breakout European bigs at lower levels in Kristaps Porzingis, Nikola Jokic, Clint Capela and Rudy Gobert (I have never been able to get a hold of Giannis Antetokounmpo’s numbers):

15 Kristaps Porzingis (20 years old, ACB) 19.8 pts, 8.9 reb, 1.8 blk, 1.6 stl, .555 TS%, 19.2 PER (2nd on roster)

14 Nikola Jokic (19 years old, Adriatic league) – 18.3 pts, 10.3 reb, 3.3 ast, .569 TS%, 21.2 PER (2nd on roster)

14 Clint Capela (20 years old, French Pro A) – 14.1 pts, 12.6 reb, 2.3 ast, 2.8 blk, 1.5 stl, .636 TS%, 23.8 PER (1st on roster)

13 Rudy Gobert (21 years old, French Pro A) – 14.9 pts, 9.5 reb, 3.1 blk, 1.2 stl, .734 TS%, 21.0 PER (1st on roster)

Once again it’s easy to see that Doncic is the most impressive here. The Euroleague is miles ahead of the Adriatic and French Pro A for competition level and his stats for his age are equally good if not better. The Euroleague is both better than the ACB and Doncic’s stats are hands down better than Porzingis. 

Furthermore all these players seem to relatively resemble their 19-20 year old selves statistically, with the development in their games making up for the jump in competition to the NBA. If they don’t it’s because they’re even better than their European stats like Porzingis. With that in mind Doncic sitting on a 25, 8, 7 and 2 statline at a higher level than any of them is highly promising. He would have to fall a lot farther than any of the above players from his European stats to not be an all-star.

The NBA in recent years has made the mistake of ignoring numbers for European prospects in favor of taking the tools-iest players. Some of the highest picks have been projects without impressive stats such as Mario Hezonja, Frank Ntilikina and Dragan Bender. The results of players like Jokic, Capela and Gobert in comparison would suggest it’s of the utmost importance to look for players who are leading the way on their teams in Europe and not their team’s 9th or 10th men. For the same reason it would be a mistake to not treat Doncic’s numbers as critical to predicting his success. European leagues are closer to the NBA in competition level, physical maturity, rules and the lifestyle of living professionally instead of in college. It is logical to think it predicts better than hit or miss NCAA stats.

The modern star

Part of Ayton’s appeal is “unicorn” status with the potential to be all of a shotblocker, pick and roll defender and to shoot 3s. However Doncic’s game is also at the heart of the current game. His size, shooting and playmaking makes the MVP favorite James Harden one of his closest overall comparisons. Champions in recent years have been built around Stephen Curry and Kyrie Irving, two high volume 3pt shooting, pick and roll ballhandling guards. Ultimately there is a path for both styles of play to join the modern revolution.

At this stage while I understand the appeal of Ayton, the numbers with Doncic appear to be too strong to ignore in my opinion. Ayton has tremendous upside if he does have a David Robinson in him, but there’s also a chance what Doncic is doing to the Euroleague statistically for an 18/19 year old is a sign he’s a phenom and the next great thing, a freakish accomplishment like the basketball version of a young Wayne Gretzky torching the record books. This phenom route may have the highest upside of all.

Written by jr.

May 18, 2018 at 4:51 pm

Posted in Uncategorized