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The Western Conference At The Deadline

When the clock hit 3 PM EST on Thursday, basketball fans around the globe groaned as another NBA trade deadline passed without the epic blockbusters that fill the RealGM Forums. Although the deadline lacked a true blockbuster, the trades that were made (and the ones that were left on the table) will undoubtedly shift the landscape of the Western Conference playoff picture and possibly the team that will be facing the Miami Heat or Indiana Pacers in the NBA Finals (It’s a lock, nobody is seriously questioning it).

The four most notable trades in the West came from the Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers.

The Warriors, who picked up Steve Blake from the Los Angeles Lakers, will look for him to provide the steady hand off the bench that they have been pursuing since Jarrett Jack left in the offseason. Blake’s addition isn’t going to drastically improve the team, but he is able to give the team quality backup point guard minutes behind Stephen Curry, given Jordan Crawford’s inability to play without Brad Stevens as his coach.

The Rockets moved little used backup point guard, Aaron Brooks, to the Denver Nuggets for Jordan Hamilton. After refusing to lower their insane asking price on Omer Asik, the Rockets decided to fill their lack of a stretch four with Hamilton. Despite Hamilton blatantly not being a power forward or an elite shooter (39 percent from the field and 35 percent from 3), the Rockets apparently believe he can become one when freed up as Dwight Howard draws attention in the post. The more important aspect to this trade is that it likely allows the Rockets to call-up D-League star, Isaiah Canaan.

The Spurs traded little used point guard Nando de Colo for Austin Daye. In one of the day’s most intriguing moves, the Spurs took on another reclamation project in the form of a 6’11 shooter who was once a top prospect coming out of high school. While Daye has struggled to earn minutes outside of his second season in the NBA (when he shot 40 percent from 3), he has tremendous length, can guard multiple positions, and San Antonio has shown interest in him. If that isn’t a sign of someone that will be playing meaningful playoff minutes in May, I am not sure what is.

The last deals of any consequence in the West were by the Clippers. They traded both Antawn Jamison and BJ Mullens for the rights to a Turkish player that probably is unaware he was traded, and a conditional second round draft pick that will likely never happen. These deals, while not interesting beyond the salary implications for the Clippers, do allow open roster spots on the team for buyout candidates. Look for Glen “Big Baby” Davis to join his old coach, Doc Rivers.

While each team above made a move – albeit small – at the trade deadline, the other five teams in contention, the Oklahoma City Thunder, Portland Trail Blazers, Phoenix Suns, Dallas Mavericks and Memphis Grizzlies all stood pat.

Although several teams are in desperate need of a big man (OKC, PDX, PHX), no one budged on Philly’s offer of two second round draft picks for Spencer Hawes.

Portland, who is without a second round draft pick until 2019, had a tremendous need for Hawes with Joel Freeland out for two months and LaMarcus Aldridge banged up.

The Thunder flirted with a deal for Knicks embattled shooting guard, Iman Shumpert, but backed off at the last moment.

As for the remaining needs, the slew of veterans that will likely be bought out this upcoming week will have to suffice. Fortunately for these teams, Glen Davis, Caron Butler, Danny Granger, Jason Terry, Emeka Okafor, Chris Kaman, Ben Gordon, Charlie Villanueva and Antawn Jamison are all buyout candidates.

Many NBA teams believe it is better to trade during the offseason so that players can get familiar with a system and their teammates, while others utilize the short second half of the season as a tryout for recently acquired players to see if they’re long-term fits. It appears that teams trading in the offseason are better off. For any fan grumbling over their team not making a blockbuster yesterday, here’s a stat you need to know: one; as in the number of Championship teams during the last 25 years to trade for a starter at the trade deadline (Rasheed Wallace to the Pistons in 2004). So while fans of the Rockets clamored for Rajon Rondo and Warriors' fans hoped for Kevin Love, just know that the odds of you winning the title with those guys was slim to none.

Happy Trade Deadline everyone! Only 124 more days until the NBA Draft!

Why The Suns Have Been One Of NBA's Biggest Surprises

Before the season began, would any of you have believed that the Phoenix Suns would be legitimately contending for a playoff spot as we near the All Star break? Following a disappointing 25-win season, in which both former general manager Lance Blanks and interim head coach Lindsey Hunter were let go, the Suns have managed to post an impressive 23-17 record, good for the eighth seed in the ever stacked Western Conference.

On October 25th, five days before the start of opening day for the Suns, Marcin Gortat along with their 2012 first round selection Kendall Marshall were dealt to the Washington Wizards for the expiring contract of Emeka Okafor and the Wizards’ top-12 protected first round pick in this years upcoming draft. Almost everyone, including the majority of the Suns fan base, saw this as one of many cellar dweller teams waving the white flag well before the season to tank and feast on the upcoming star studded draft class. While we were all left to think about how much of a laughing stock the Suns would be, they have developed a ‘us against the world’ identity as a team under the tutelage of rookie head coach Jeff Hornacek.

“Some of that is just the character of the guys involved, and maybe a little chip on their shoulders,” former Suns’ general manager Steve Kerr explains to 98.7 FM ArizonaSports.com, “it’s a combination of all that, and that’s the trick.”

Hornacek, along with first year general manager Ryan McDonough, have managed to construct a roster ready to compete today along with stockpiling multiple draft picks for this years draft class and in future years too.

Over the offseason, McDonough managed to deal misplaced veterans on the Suns to contenders and gave themselves a couple of young assets of their own. In less than two months as general manager, McDonough somehow managed to deal Jared Dudley to the Los Angeles Clippers in exchange for Caron Butler and the talented and blossoming Eric Bledsoe.  

A couple weeks later, McDonough traded talented veteran power forward Luis Scola to Indiana in exchange for journeyman Gerald Green, little known at the time Miles Plumlee, and another first round protected 2014 draft pick. Although this trade with the Pacers was a much less publicized move compared with the Bledsoe move, it was just as beneficial to the team’s success this year.

The combination of Bledsoe and Goran Dragic has been the biggest factor in the sudden renaissance season. While they have merely played 21 out of 40 games together, they have quickly become one of the most feared one-two backcourt punches in the Association. The slashing ability of either guard has helped open up wide-open looks for others around the arc. Just because both players like to slash and get to the rim, they are different types of players in many ways. Bledsoe is more of a guy that uses his body to get to the rim, while Dragic, a crafty lefty, relies more on his footwork and skills to get to the rim. These differences of both guards tend to throw their opponents off.

The additions of Gerald Green and Miles Plumlee from the Scola trade has added much needed depth and dimensions to the young dynamic Phoenix offense. As mentioned by Bill Simmons multiple times, Gerald Green can be categorized as a ‘heat check’ kind of player; the Jamal Crawfords and Jordan Crawfords stay on the court when hot and are left on the bench when not. Green was finally allowed to play in a system where he was given the green light to shoot and fit as a spot up shooter. Hornacek was able to save Green’s NBA career and help Green enjoy a breakout campaign in his seventh NBA season.

Miles Plumlee was able to comfortably fit into a 28-minute center role for the run and gun style of Hornacek ball. His deficiencies on the offensive end has not discouraged Hornacek from using Miles out there on the court. Plumlee knows his role well of rebounding and blocking shots, and to only take shots when they come to him.

The return of big man Channing Frye also has helped add a unique dimension of outside shooting that they had lacked last year. Sidelined the entire previous year due to open heart surgery, Frye has maximized his opportunities to produce as a dependent starting stretch four for bone bruising Miles Plumlee down low. Forty games into the season, Frye is averaging a healthy 12.4 points per game, while nailing a whooping 41 percent of his three point attempts at a 2.2 clip, at an average of 28 minutes played.

Finally, the Morris twins is the other integral portion to help fuse the success that the Suns have produced. Still only 24 years old, both Markieff and Marcus grew up only knowing one way to play basketball, as one. It is not a coincidence that the twins have matching tattoos across their body. Just before the trade deadline last season, Markieff pleaded with the front office in order to unite both him and his brother Marcus. The front office conceded his wish and they were united once again. Having already won Western Conference Player of the Week this season, Markieff leads the bench in scoring at 12 points per game at a 47 percent field goal clip, seven percent higher than his career average. 

Similar to how Hornacek played when he was a fan favorite with Phoenix and Utah, he has constructed an efficient offensive scheme that has worked so far for them this season. Instead of settling for long twos, Hornacek has stuck with the high efficiency shot approach, close baskets near the rim or open three pointers. It is not a fluke that seven of the 15 players on the roster have a PER higher than the NBA average of 15, which has helped with their depth. Additionally, Hornachek has given each one of his rotation players a specific role for the team, which is by far the most effective tool that a coach can give to his team to win games and build team chemistry.

Coming as an assistant general manager from Boston, and as a disciple of Danny Ainge working in the Celtics front office for a decade, 33-year-old Ryan McDonough knows what it takes to excel.

“Ryan and I, when we talked about players, probably 99 percent of the time we agreed on what we were thinking,” Hornacek tells ESPNLA. “All the coaches that I talked to said that the biggest thing is, ‘when you get a shot, make sure that you and the general manager are on the same page."

As most of you know, one of the big keys to the success of making the Big Three work in Boston was how Danny Ainge and Doc Rivers were always communicating and knew each others thoughts thoroughly. Even in the end when Rivers left for Los Angeles, both he and Ainge always acted on good faith no matter the circumstance. Rivers did not want to stick around for the rebuilding mode of the Celtics and Ainge granted Rivers his wish.

Not too long ago, Phoenix Sun fans were calling for the head of Steven Nash when he bolted the desert and settled with the division foe Lakers. With how they have managed to stockpile picks, create cap flexibility, and maintain a competitive team out in the Western Conference, Suns great Nash is all but a distant memory to the fans now… 

Hard Part Of Suns' Rebuild Already Over

When Steve Nash came to the Phoenix Suns in 2004, he was a 30-year-old fringe All-Star coming off a disappointing season with the Dallas Mavericks. He wasn’t an MVP-caliber player until he played in Mike D’Antoni’s system. The genius was in its simplicity. D’Antoni went small, moving Shawn Marion to power forward and Amar’e Stoudemire to center. The Suns had four players on the perimeter and ran a lot of pick-and-rolls; they were almost impossible to stop. Playing in space made everyone better.

Nine years later, the same principles have once again made Phoenix one of the NBA’s biggest surprises. When the Suns acquired Bledsoe in the offseason, it didn’t make a huge splash. They didn’t give up much to get him -- Jared Dudley and a future second-round pick. Bledsoe had shown flashes of greatness with the Los Angeles Clippers, but he never got big minutes behind Chris Paul. After three seasons in the NBA, he was still a relatively unknown commodity.

Bledsoe has played only 15 games in a Suns' uniform, but the trade already looks like a massive heist. At the age of 24, he has been one of the best guards in the NBA. He is averaging 19 points, six rebounds, four assists and 1.5 steals a game on 48 percent shooting. His 20.95 PER is sixth among PG’s, one spot ahead of his former Kentucky teammate John Wall. Wall is a No. 1 overall pick who received an $80 million extension; Bledsoe has been every bit as good.

At 6’1, 190 with a 6’7 wingspan, Bledsoe is one of the most athletic guards in the league. He’s built like a football player; he would be an incredible RB or option QB. There aren’t many PG’s who can match-up with him physically. Bledsoe played off the ball at Kentucky, depressing his statistics for the good of the team. As a result, he slipped to the No. 18 pick in 2010. He came into the NBA with all the talent in the world; he just had to refine a few aspects of his game.

Like with Nash, the key has been putting Bledsoe in space. Phoenix plays 4-out basketball for all 48 minutes, with Channing Frye (39 percent from three), Marcus Morris (44 percent) and Markieff Morris (35 percent) stretching the floor from the power forward position. While none of the three are nearly the defender Marion was, they can all move the ball and be active. The Suns' big men get out in transition and create driving lanes in the halfcourt. It makes life easy for the guards.

With a new management team in place this off-season, Phoenix cleaned house. Of their top 10 scorers from last season, only three -- Goran Dragic, Markieff Morris and P.J. Tucker -- are still around. The idea was to rebuild and secure a top pick in the 2014 draft, but it also gave Jeff Hornacek a chance to install players who could fit his system. Play in enough space and continuity isn’t as important. The Suns clicked immediately, blowing out Portland on Opening Night.

Everything in Phoenix starts with the pick-and-roll, initiated by either Bledsoe or Dragic. Miles Plumlee, the roll man, may have been their best find of the summer. As a 24-year-old rookie, the eldest Plumlee played only 55 minutes for the Indiana Pacers. In his senior season at Duke, he averaged six points and seven rebounds a game. Nevertheless, at 6’11, 250 with a 40’ max vertical, Plumlee is the perfect in Phoenix. He runs, jumps and dunks, drawing attention in the paint.

When Bledsoe turns the corner off a pick, something is open. Either he has the room to step into an open three-pointer or he has a lane to the basket. If everyone else stays home on their man, he can draw both defenders and throw a lob to Plumlee. If the defense sends help, he hits one of his shooters stretched out across the three-point line. Basketball is a simple game when done correctly. Bledsoe has learned how to play under control and make the game easy on himself.

Phoenix has an offensive rating of 107.8, the sixth best mark in the league. Bledsoe is passing the most important test for a primary option -- making his teammates better. Coming into the season, the Suns were widely considered one of the least talented teams in the NBA. So far, the top-8 players in their rotation all have a PER of at least 13; they have six guys over 15 and two guys (Bledsoe and Dragic) at 21. If this keeps up, Hornacek has to be in the COY discussion.

With so many good teams in the Western Conference, it’s hard to say where the Suns go from here. They might be tempted to sell off a few pieces and move back into the lottery, since they are at least two years ahead of schedule. Presumably, the only untouchable piece is Bledsoe. Phoenix has five first-round picks in the next two years -- most notably the Los Angeles Lakers' pick in 2015, which only has Top-5 protections. New GM Ryan McDonough has a ton of flexibility.

Either way, the most difficult part of their rebuilding effort is already over. The Suns have an identity -- they are a spread pick-and-roll team that pushes the tempo, with an elite triggerman running the attack. If they sign Frye to an extension, sliding in pieces to upgrade the rest of the line-up is straight-forward. At center, they are counting on Alex Len, the No. 5 pick in the draft. He has the speed and finishing ability to roll to the rim and the size and skill to post-up.

To become an elite team, they will need to upgrade at the wings, where they have the undersized Dragic (6’4 200) and the over his head Tucker (6’5 220). One possibility is Archie Goodwin, the No. 30 pick out of Kentucky. Like Bledsoe, Goodwin is an elite athlete who came into the league with a few holes in his game. If he can become a better shooter and decision-maker, he could be an excellent player. With all their cap room and picks, the Suns will find someone.

That’s the beauty of 4-out basketball, which we saw at its highest level during the NBA Finals. When you play in enough space, an average player can be good, a good player can be great and a great player can be a superstar. Nash made the All-Star team in six of his first seven seasons in Phoenix, from the ages of 30-36. Bledsoe isn’t as good a shooter or playmaker, but he’s only 24 and he’s a far better rebounder and defensive player. The future in Phoenix is bright.

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