OKC Thunder Must Embrace Russell Westbrook as Lead Guy This Year

Once entered as contestants in the NBA‘s regression sweepstakes, the Oklahoma City Thunder have suddenly jolted back to life as likely Western Conference playoff contenders. 

And that’s because Russell Westbrook has channeled his previously polarizing reckless abandon into controlled brilliance in the midst of Kevin Durant‘s injury struggles.

Westbrook’s been so brilliant, in fact, that he’s now far and away the league’s most efficient scoring point guard, according to ESPN.com’s Tom Haberstroh:

“Truthfully, he is playing like the best player in the league, to me,” Kendrick Perkins told The Oklahoman‘s Darnell Mayberry. “I can’t really pinpoint somebody who’s playing better than him right now. He’s at a high level.”

But where did this sudden spike in efficiency come from? If it’s sustainable, how should the Thunder redefine Durant’s role in order to further accentuate Westbrook’s refined skill set?

With Oklahoma City 1.5 games behind the eighth-seeded New Orleans Pelicans heading into Friday night’s contest against the Los Angeles Lakers, it’s time to explore how Westbrook’s excellence will help the Thunder prosper and develop in new ways.

 

Flourishing in the Lane

For years, Westbrook dissenters have been clamoring for the Tasmanian Devil play-alike to jack fewer threes and focus on getting higher-percentage looks closer to the rim.

Finally, those prayers have been answered.

Last season, Westbrook shot 39 percent on drives, scoring an average of 4.3 points on 6.6 drives per night, according to NBA.com’s player tracking data. This season, his conversion rate has increased by a massive 9 percent to 48.1. As a result, Westbrook is scoring 7.3 points on 8.7 drives per night.

But truly appreciating Westbrook’s strides isn’t possible until you examine the stark contrast in his shooting heat maps, courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.

Here’s what Westbrook’s shooting distribution looked like during 2013-14:

And here’s where it stands through 12 games this season:

As you can see, Westbrook has been simply hell-bent on getting to the rim. While a higher volume of attempts would generally lend itself to a lower shooting percentage, Westbrook is actually drilling 61.3 percent of his attempts at the cup. That’s a 3.4 percent jump from last season.

Small sample size be damned, that production has thrust Westbrook into the NBA’s MVP conversation, as Bleacher Report’s Dan Favale recently explained:

Small sample sizes are in themselves colossal caveats. Westbrook’s 2014-15 display has yet to qualify him for the PER leaderboard, so its soaring status is both fluid and perhaps unsustainable.

But Westbrook is also 26 years old. Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan and James were between 24 and 28 when registering above-30 PERs. If there were ever a time for Westbrook’s individual efficiency standing to skyrocket, it’s now in the prime of his career, when he’s proved dynamic on both ends of the floor while expanding his offensive range.

Few players pack as much explosive punch into their first few steps as Westbrook, so it’s nice to see him finally maximizing his potential as a runaway freight train in the lane who isn’t content with settling.

 

Pull-Up Proficiency and Fewer 3s

For the time being, Westbrook has largely holstered his trademark three-point pistols in favor of a more efficient jump-shooting approach.

Here’s how Westbrook’s efficiency shakes out in relation to his shot distribution over the past two seasons: 

Quite a difference, right?

Not only have fewer three-point attempts bolstered Westbrook’s conversion rates, but his preferred style of play has put serious stress on primary defenders thanks to a lethal pull-up jumper.

Since he’s such a threat to blow past the opposition via quick dribble-drives, defenders have to provide some cushion in anticipation of a rack attack. Given his supreme change-of-pace capabilities, Westbrook has a few options.

First, he can lull defenders to sleep by sauntering down the floor and then quickly exploding below the free-throw line. Or, if he’s feeling really maniacal, Westbrook is able to put defenders on their heels as he glides down the court, create space due to the threat of penetration and then stop on a dime before launching a 15-foot jumper from the elbow.

 

What About Durant? 

Instead of focusing heavily on Westbrook’s flaws and Durant’s potential marginalizationas has been the case in the past—it’s time to look at the issue through a more nuanced viewfinder.

Durant has been continually banged up this season, with a sprained right ankle representing his most recent ailment. According to Yahoo Sports’ Marc J. Spears, the injury may hold Durant out of Friday’s contest against the Los Angeles Lakers (10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN):

In his place, Westbrook has assumed the alpha-dog role with aplomb.

ESPN.com’s Royce Young recently touched on this:

Nobody is saying Westbrook is definitively better than Durant. Or at least they shouldn’t be. But the fact we’re willing to wonder, even if it’s with the quietest whisper, tells you how terrifyingly good Westbrook is, and thereby, how terrifyingly good the Thunder are. Think about that: The Thunder might have a player at least comparable to Kevin Durant.

While it’s easy to get swept away by the “1-2 punch” paradigm, Westbrook’s continued dominance may be the best possible thing for Durant at this point. 

So instead of shuddering at the thought of Westbrook hogging the ball and launching shots, it’s time to recognize that the feisty floor general can actually serve to take some much-needed pressure off the reigning MVP.

If we’ve learned anything from the past few years, it’s that health, come playoff time, can make or break title hopes.

As such, it would behoove Durant to slide into a pseudo-complementary scoring role a la Serge Ibaka and feed off of Westbrook’s playmaking abilities from the perimeter while head coach Scott Brooks bequeaths a few more rotational minutes to Perry Jones.

Trepidation regarding any sort of diminished role for Durant is understandable, of course.

However, with Westbrook, Ibaka and a burgeoning supporting cast including Jones, Anthony Morrow and Steven Adams, among others, there’s plenty of space for Durant to earn some added breathers while the Thunder carve out a playoff niche.

This imaginary divide between Durant and Westbrook has been painted as a war of attrition at times, but a rejuvenated Westbrook may be exactly what Oklahoma City needs in order to finally cross the championship threshold.

  

All statistics current as of Dec. 19 and courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com unless noted otherwise.

Read more NBA news on BleacherReport.com

View full post on Bleacher Report – NBA

UNC Basketball: Brice Johnson Must Follow Offensive Blueprint Set vs. Kentucky

With a few more Brice Johnsons on the court, North Carolina might have actually had a shot to knock off top-ranked Kentucky last Saturday.

But since none of the researchers in Chapel Hill have perfected cloning to that extent, the Tar Heels will have to settle for Johnson just replicating parts of that performance game after game.

The 6’9″ junior had his second straight impressive offensive performance in the 80-64 loss to Kentucky, scoring 15 points on 7-of-12 shooting to follow up a 19-point, 17-rebound effort in the previous game against East Carolina. It’s the first time this season Johnson has been able to string together two games with that kind of scoring output, and it’s what the Tar Heels need from him every night.

“I just have to help my team anyway I can,” Johnson told InsideCarolina.com. “I don’t want to be the guy that’s just sitting there on the bench and cheering them. I have to be one of the leaders on this team.”

Johnson is averaging 11.7 points and seven rebounds per game this season, shooting 51.2 percent from the field. He’s taken 84 shots, but 42 of those have come in three games (27 in the past two and 15 against Robert Morris on Nov. 16), showing how Johnson has come and gone with his aggressiveness.

One of those soft games came in the 60-55 home loss to Iowa, when Johnson played only 12 minutes and was 1-of-7 from the field.

A spindly 187 pounds when he got to UNC two years ago, Johnson has put in maximum effort to bulk up since then. He began this season at 228 pounds, enabling him to handle himself better against bigger opponents in the paint.

But that size increase hasn’t translated into much increased toughness, according to coach Roy Williams, who is still looking for Johnson (among others) to show more aggressiveness in the half court. On Saturday, Johnson had eight of UNC’s first 12 points, scoring 12 of his 15 before halftime, but when the game slowed down in the second half he made only one of five shots.

“Brice did hurt them in the first half, but most of that was in the open court,” Williams said in the postgame press conference.

In half-court sets, junior guard Marcus Paige tends to be the one trying to do everything to generate offense, and that hasn’t been successful many times this season. But when Johnson has stepped up and made the effort, it’s led to more balance and kept UNC from being a one-man team as it was most of 2013-14.

With Johnson getting bigger and fellow frontcourt starter Kennedy Meeks dropping 50 pounds to have better stamina and athleticism, UNC has the capability to control the boards. But if aggressive play inside doesn’t happen, those post players are doing more sitting around than forcing the action, so if Johnson takes more shots, he can carry that forward into better play grabbing rebounds on both ends.

 

Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.

Read more College Basketball news on BleacherReport.com

View full post on Bleacher Report – College Basketball

Connecticut’s Amida Brimah Must Become Offensive Option Against Duke

Connecticut Huskies center Amida Brimah dropped 40 points and 12 rebounds on MEAC opponent Coppin State on Sunday. The 7’0″ native of Ghana went a perfect 13-of-13 from the field and shot an impressive 14-of-16 from the charity stripe.

This performance was a departure from what UConn fans have seen from the sophomore in his young career, but it was especially encouraging due to the fact that the defending NCAA champion Huskies will be taking on the No. 2 Duke Blue Devils on Thursday. To compete in that game, 4-3 Connecticut will need Brimah to establish himself as an offensive option against 9-0 Duke.

Brimah’s play this season has not been consistent, especially on the offensive end. In fact, in the five games leading up to his outpouring against Coppin State, he scored a total of 34 points. In his first six games of the season, he combined for just 13 free-throw attempts.

That all changed against Coppin State, as Brimah was a presence in the paint and was extremely aggressive, as indicated by his free-throw numbers.

Brimah has been particularly effective while working off penetration by his teammates, as he often is able to exploit the weak side and cut to the basket behind unknowing defenders. That has resulted in many high-percentage shots for the tall Ghanaian, who has converted 69.8 percentage of his field-goal attempts this season.

He has also shown an impressive touch from the free-throw line for a big man, shooting 75.9 percent from the charity stripe.

Taking a game-by-game look at Brimah’s statistical outputs this year, it’s important to note that he’s struggled against upper-echelon opponents and has excelled against weaker ones.

For instance, he scored 12 points in the season opener against Bryant, 14 points against Charleston and 14 points against Yale before his explosion last time out against Coppin State. Against Dayton and West Virginia, he put up just six points in each contest. His worst game of the season came against a top-10 Texas squad, scoring just four points on just 1-of-7 shooting.

Despite Brimah’s incredible length, which gives him an advantage on both ends of the floor, his lanky physique has given him a lot of trouble when he matches up against stronger, beefier opponents. These opponents have been able to control his ability to back down into the paint and have forced him to attempt mid-range jump shots instead of simply slamming the rock down low.

Duke center Jahlil Okafor will likely be Brimah’s toughest matchup of the season, as two of the nation’s top college basketball programs will square off on a neutral court at the Izod Center in East Rutherford, New Jersey, on Thursday.

Okafor, universally considered the best NBA prospect in college hoops, possesses polished moves and techniques on both ends of the court. At 270 pounds, he also has a bulk advantage that should give Brimah trouble on both ends of the interior.

However, if Brimah is able to establish an early presence on the offensive end, he will give the Huskies a fighting chance in what should be an uphill battle. He can do this in two ways.

First, the Huskies need pound the ball to him on the interior, where he can attack the rim and attempt to get Okafor in early foul trouble. This would cause Duke to go to its bench and limit Okafor from making a difference early in the game. While the Blue Devils have amazing depth, Okafor is their most talented player, and he would be on the bench rather than making plays on the court.

Second, the Huskies need find a way to attack the rim and find Brimah around the rim. This would allow them to convert easy opportunities and improve on their season field-goal percentage of 45 percent, which ranks 108th overall in the NCAA. With a roster that has struggled mightily to shoot the ball from the outside—29.5 percent—this will be especially crucial.

Okafor is coming off an impressive performance of his own, as he poured in 25 points and 20 rebounds in a win over Elon.

With both centers posting career games in their last contests, this game becomes even more intriguing. But for it to be somewhat competitive, Brimah needs to show up on the offensive end.

 

Dan Karpuc is Tradesports.com‘s director of content and the editor of TradesportsInsider.com.

Read more College Basketball news on BleacherReport.com

View full post on Bleacher Report – College Basketball

UNC Basketball: Ways Tar Heels Must Improve Before Conference Play

Not everything can be measured in wins and losses. Just because a team wins a ballgame doesn’t mean it did everything correctly, and vice versa.

With the North Carolina Tar Heels sitting at 6-2 and having already defeated two ranked foes, it would seem that things are going swimmingly. However, that is not completely true. There are many things the Tar Heels must work to improve before conference play begins next month.

The most pressing matter facing this team is its three-point shooting.

For two years now, this issue has been beaten into the ground. With Marcus Paige’s slow shooting start to the season, the problem is even more dire. Right now, lefty-turned-righty Nate Britt is the team’s top distance shooter at 6-of-17 from beyond the arc.

It’s comforting that six made threes is already twice as many as he connected on all of last season, but Britt being the top percentage shooter is reason to fret.

This was never going to be a roster full of bombers. That’s not its skill set. Nevertheless, opponents are already crowding the paint against Carolina because there is little reason to stay honest on the outside. The poor three-point shooting has thus trickled down and made open two-point jump shots harder to come by.

UNC is shooting 44.9 percent from the floor, 117th in the country, and it’s no accident.

The main reason North Carolina has stayed afloat has been rebounding on the offensive glass. Second-chance points have made up the difference, but that board domination has not translated to the other end of the court.

While UNC has grabbed a whopping 135 offensive rebounds this year, eighth best in the nation, it has allowed opponents to grab 128 of their own, one of the worst figures in all of college basketball at 343rd in the country.

The reasons why this is happening aren’t immediately clear.

If it’s simply effort, that is good news but alarming all the same. Effort is easily fixable but should not be a concern of a Roy Williams-coached club.

If the rebounding is caused by poor technique, that is more difficult to correct, especially since the coaching staff hasn’t been able to change things thus far.

With the Kentucky Wildcats next on the agenda, this is the worst time to be struggling with cleaning up the defensive glass. UK is perhaps the only team in the country that matches UNC in both its struggles to shoot from the outside as well as its dominance on the offensive boards.

The other possibility is that these players are being used incorrectly. Roy Williams has always liked to have his teams run up and down the court, generating more possessions than the average team.

This style of play makes a team susceptible to giving up easy baskets off its own mistakes. It’s also fair to say that being encouraged to get out and run off any opponent shot makes defending the glass a bit harder than it should be.

Looking back at UNC from the past few seasons, this last point may have the most validity.

That same style of play could be a leading cause of current foul trouble and turnover abundance as well as lead to more issues down the road simply because this roster isn’t one fit to run. With dominant big men down low, heavy forward rotations and little guard depth, the 2014-15 Tar Heels may be the most ill-fitting collection of talent for this system that Williams has ever had.

The coach has no reason to completely alter what has made him a Hall of Famer, but it may be time to slow things down a bit and see how the team fares.

There is certainly the size and length here to play great defense all around if everyone isn’t so concerned with scoring in seven seconds or less on the opposite end.

Read more College Basketball news on BleacherReport.com

View full post on Bleacher Report – College Basketball

Syracuse Basketball: Ways Orange Must Improve Before Conference Play

The Syracuse basketball team is off to an uncharacteristic start this season. The Orange (5-3) have lost back-to-back games and have several tough games remaining before ACC play begins. Included in the nonconference schedule is a trip to Villanova, which is currently ranked seventh in both polls.

Based on the way Syracuse has played lately, games that could once have been considered gimmes are no longer easy wins. If the Orange want to be competitive in conference play this year, they have to make the most of the remaining nonconference contests.

Let’s have a look at a few areas the Orange must focus on ahead of the start of ACC play.

 

3-Point Shooting

Anyone who has been watching Syracuse play this year knows three-point shooting has been a problem for Syracuse. Considering Trevor Cooney was the only returning three-point threat, it was expected the Orange would struggle a bit from deep.

But no one expected the Orange to be this bad. Of 351 teams, Syracuse (shooting 21.1 percent from three this year) ranks 350th in the nation. Yes, only one team (fellow ACC member Florida State) has been worse than the Orange from the land of plenty early on this season.

How can the Orange improve their terrible early shooting? One way is just to keep shooting. It seems highly unlikely a team will shoot 20 percent from deep for an entire season. Eventually, some shots have to start falling.

But other than that, the Orange could tweak the way they look for their shots from deep. We’ve mentioned in the past how the Orange could borrow from the Golden State Warriors playbook and use the “elevator doors” play.

If Rakeem Christmas and Chris McCullough are the screeners, they can help Cooney get a good look at the top of the key. And if multiple defenders close out on Cooney, he could look for either Christmas or McCullough rolling toward the rim. 

In addition, the Orange could alter their spacing on the floor. When either Christmas or McCullough posts up, generally Cooney is on the opposite side of the floor. This allows opponents to more easily double-team because they don’t have to worry about the inside player kicking it out to a shooter.

If Cooney is on the same side of the floor as the post player, however, teams will be less willing to double the post in fear of leaving Cooney open. And having Cooney closer to the post player with the ball makes it easier to pass out of the post, because the inside player doesn’t have to pass as far across the floor.

If the Orange use some different plays and floor spacing, it can help create more open shots. And if they use their spacing to discourage double-teams, it will make things easier inside, which is where they’ve had the most success this season.

Speaking of which…

 

Offensive Philosophy

We know the Orange have struggled to shoot so far this season. When they have had success on offense, it has come inside with Christmas and McCullough. The two Orange big men are the team’s top two scorers, with Christmas averaging 16.9 points per game and McCullough scoring 14.4 per. 

You would think that since the Orange have two talented post players, they would run their offense through them, right? So far, that hasn’t really been the case.

According to Hoop-Math, Syracuse shoots 67.2 percent on shots at the rim. Considering McCullough and Christmas are the leading scorers, that makes sense. However, only 38.3 percent of Syracuse’s shots come at the rim.

Until the shooting issues are figured out, the Orange should run their offense through the post as often as they can. It is difficult sometimes, because opponents can freely double-team since there isn’t much of a shooting threat.

But if Cooney is on the same side of the floor as we discussed earlier, that could change things.

In addition, Kaleb Joseph is still finding his way as a college point guard. He’s had trouble getting the Orange into their offense at times, and sometimes he can’t get the ball in the post when he needs to. That has, in part, led to his turning the ball over 3.3 times per game.

Orange fans were spoiled by Tyler Ennis’ steady play last year, but Joseph is more of what a normal freshman point guard looks like. As he continues to gain experience, he should find it easier to execute the offense.

In the meantime, Michael Gbinije can be used at point guard if Joseph struggles. That was the case in the most recent game against St. John’s, in which Gbinije played 37 minutes and Joseph only 19.

Gbinije provides more experience, and if he plays small forward on defense and point guard on offense, it can create some matchup problems for the opponent.

As is normally the case, Syracuse’s defense can keep it in just about any game. It has been the offense that has held the Orange back so far this season.

Once ACC play gets going, the defenses and opposing players will get better. If the Orange can work on improving their offense, they will be able to compete in the gauntlet that is the ACC.

Read more College Basketball news on BleacherReport.com

View full post on Bleacher Report – College Basketball

Kansas Basketball: Jayhawks Must Get Freshmen More Involved to Take Next Step

Sometimes you just have to let the kids play.

Kansas earned an impressive come-from-behind win over Florida after being down 15 at halftime, and it was mainly the underclassmen who fueled the rally. If Bill Self learned anything from this, it’s that the younger players on the roster have to be allowed to play their game.

Sophomore Wayne Selden was the true star of the day, totaling 21 points while showing the aggressiveness the team needs on the offensive end. However, freshmen Cliff Alexander and Devonte Graham were huge as well, especially in the second half.

Add these two young stars to Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk and Kelly Oubre, and this class can be a game-changer. The key for the Jayhawks this year will be to actually take advantage of the talent in front of them.

To the surprise of many, the freshman averaging the most minutes so far this season is Mykhailiuk, the 17-year-old Ukrainian who wasn’t even rated as a recruit on ESPN.com. While he is raw on the court and arguably too passive at times, he generally avoids mistakes, which is likely what allows him to stay in the game.

However, it’s important to remember that mistakes in November and December are not as bad as ones in March. Freshmen are going to have their problems both physically and mentally, but this is the time to learn from them.

Through the first seven games, the highly touted group of players has had an incredibly short leash, and it is limiting what the Jayhawks can do.

Self even admitted he considered benching Alexander against Florida due to poor play early.

“We were not very pleased with Cliff the first half,” the head coach explained after the game. “I thought about…I said, ‘I don’t know if I’ll play him the second half.’ It’s as upset as I was with (his) alertness and focus. The second half, he was great. We try hard, but our focus is not good at all.”

The forward finished with 12 points and 10 rebounds for his first career double-double, aggressively going to the rim and earning trips to the free-throw line. 

This same strategy was seen in Graham, who totaled nine points on one field-goal attempt. The guard went 9-of-10 from the charity stripe and also helped out with three assists and three steals.

Bleacher Report’s C.J. Moore was impressed by the effort, saying, ”KU getting big minutes from Devonte‘ Graham. Hustling his ass off. Making smart plays.”

In past games, this duo has been a bit invisible on the offensive end while also making mental errors on defense. While there were still a few lapses on various possessions, the second half featured players competing with more confidence and intelligence.

They showed that they are capable of great things if given the opportunity.

Sam Vecenie of CBS Sports called for this strategy going into the second half Friday night and turned out to be right:

Even if the Jayhawks weren’t able to complete their comeback, a loss at this stage of the season would’ve been worth getting these types of performances from their young players if it leads to more success in the future.

This brings us to Oubre, who was once again limited with two points in eight minutes against the Gators. ESPN’s Jeff Goodman (subscription required) recently examined the wing’s lack of production and discovered he has seen the fewest minutes of any top-10 recruit in the past decade.

Although this unfortunately doesn’t seem likely to be changing anytime soon, Self recently admitted the freshman has performed well in practice:

If this is the case, he has to be given a chance to really show what he can do in a game, and that doesn’t mean two-minute bursts before being benched. He needs the freedom to compete and eventually gain some confidence and learn how to be productive.

Anyone who has ever seen Oubre plays knows he is capable of big things. At 6’7″, he can use his size and athleticism to finish at or above the rim while also having the ability to launch threes with a smooth stroke. At his best, he could be an almost unguardable offensive player at this level.

The problem is he won’t reach his potential when the only thing he’s currently guarding is the water cooler.

Obviously, Kansas has been involved in a number of close games against top competition, and the coaching staff wants to use players it can trust. However, things do not get too much easier for the rest of the year, especially in the ridiculously deep Big 12.

Like the other youngsters, Oubre has to be given a chance to show what he can do on the court in order for the Jayhawks to reach their expectations. Regardless of age, these are some of the most talented players in the nation, and they are the ones capable of carrying the squad to a conference title and beyond.

Graham and Alexander already rank first and second on the team, respectively, in overall offensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com (subscription required). More involvement would likely only be a good thing.

Duke and Kentucky have already embraced the idea of using freshmen as go-to options, just as Kansas did a year ago with Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid. The current class might be less polished, but that comes with time.

The second half against Florida showed how good this team can be when things are going well. In reality, the group is just scratching the surface of its potential.

 

Follow Rob Goldberg on Twitter for the latest breaking news and analysis.

Follow TheRobGoldberg on Twitter

Read more College Basketball news on BleacherReport.com

View full post on Bleacher Report – College Basketball

Virginia Basketball: Trap Games Cavaliers Must Watch out for in 2014-15

The University of Virginia Cavaliers have gotten off to one of the best starts in recent school history this season. The Hoos improved to 8-0 with Wednesday’s win at the University of Maryland in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. In a game during which the Terrapins were poised for an upset, UVA never trailed. 

Unfortunately for the Cavaliers, two starters—leading scorer Justin Anderson and forward Darion Atkins—were injured and are questionable for Saturday’s tilt at VCU, per Norm Wood of the Daily Press. Remember, the Rams defeated the Hoos in Charlottesville last season.

After Saturday’s game at Richmond, the Cavaliers will be off 12 days for exams before home dates with Cleveland State, Harvard and Davidson. Then UVA opens up ACC play.

Will UVA be undefeated when 2015 rolls around?

Unless the Cavs stumble and avoid trap games, they stand a good chance of getting to Miami on January 3 with a perfect record.

Speaking of trap games, here are four potential trap games for Virginia in 2014-15.

Begin Slideshow

View full post on Bleacher Report – College Basketball

David West: Players must speak out on issues

David West believes in the civic responsibility of addressing issues.

      
 

 

View full post on USATODAY – NBA Top Stories

Hollins must crack Nets’ glass ceiling

Lionel Hollins has dealt with chemistry and upside issues in his first year in Brooklyn.

      
 

 

View full post on USATODAY – NBA Top Stories

Phoenix Suns: Why the Team Must Consider Trading Goran Dragic

The Phoenix Suns are attempting an intriguing experiment by giving three point guards significant play time. Through the signing of Isaiah Thomas and the re-signing of Eric Bledsoe last offseason, Phoenix placed two 1-men alongside Goran Dragic to form one of the most formidable backcourt rotations in the NBA.

This experiment is seemingly working thus far, as the Suns are 11-8 and all three floor generals are performing exceptionally. However, this trio is destined to split following the conclusion of the current campaign.

The reason? Dragic will be an unrestricted free agent next summer and is open to leaving Phoenix.

Therefore, it is important for the Suns to start searching for potential trade options. Management must do so because Dragic will likely leave in search of a bigger role and the team can receive significant value in return.

With the presence of three starting-quality point guards on Phoenix’s roster, head coach Jeff Hornacek has been assigned the tough task of properly distributing minutes for each 1-man. Unfortunately for Dragic, this has led to a decrease in play time compared to last season, as his minutes have dropped from 35.1 to 31.1 per game.

Dragic‘s usage rate (i.e. the percentage of plays he’s involved in while on the floor) has also diminished, falling from 24.5 to 22.1 percent. As of this moment, he is not only trailing Bledsoe and Thomas in this statistic, but he’s behind small forward Gerald Green and power forward Markieff Morris as well.

As a result, this has caused a drop in his overall output. The 28-year-old is currently averaging 15.5 points and 3.2 assists—a noteworthy reduction from the 20.3 points and 5.9 assists he put forth last year.

Clearly, Dragic‘s role with the Suns has taken a hit.

If Phoenix were a top team with a chance to win the title, the odds of him staying would probably lean in it’s favor.

But in the heavily stacked West, the Suns are a low playoff seed at best. The squad is currently sitting in eighth and will likely hover around that zone for the remainder of the year.

Essentially, Dragic—who is the reigning Most Improved Player—is filling a smaller role on a middle-of-the-pack team. Should a better ballclub come along and provide an opportunity to play in an increased role, it is likely the point guard will accept the offer.

And Dragic will receive lucrative offers. According to Sean Deveney of Sporting News, the Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Lakers are expected to serve as two of the many options from which the 1-man will get to choose:

Among those options, according to sources, would be Houston — the team Dragic left in order to sign with Phoenix in 2012. The Rockets are well-stocked with point guards, but nearly all, including starter Patrick Beverley, can become free agents next summer.

The Lakers also figure to be a potential landing spot for Dragic, a source said — though, to be clear, the Lakers have only about $36 million committed next season with needs at just about every position, and thus are expected to pursue multiple big-name free agents.

While the Lakers are a mess, it is the Rockets that can potentially draw significant interest from the floor general. Not only is Houston currently competing among the best teams in the West (and therefore the league), but the 28-year-old actually suited up for the ballclub from 2011 to 2012.

Barring any changes in Dragic‘s current role with Phoenix, all signs point to him leaving via free agency next summer.

Consequently, the Suns would be wise to begin exploring the trade market.

It’s illogical for Phoenix not to examine this option, as Dragic is a top-tier talent who can net a lot of value in an exchange.

The Suns are not without weaknesses. Specifically, the roster needs an upgrade at center, as current 5-men Alex Len and Miles Plumlee are failing to perform up to par down low.

Through 19 games this season, Len and Plumlee are combining to put forth a lowly 10.8 points per night. Based on stats from RealGM.com, 18 centers in the league score more points per game on their own. Evidently, buckets from Phoenix’s bigs are few and far between.

In addition, according to TeamRankings.com, the Suns are currently allowing opponents to score 45.5 points in the paint per contest. This places them 25th overall in the NBA. While Len and Plumlee are not the only ones to blame for this, they certainly play a role in Phoenix’s defensive struggles.

It is clear the Suns can use a new big. By offering Dragic to a team willing to exchange a productive center, the franchise can easily fix its low post issue while keeping its excellent point guard situation in tact.

Of course, Phoenix can consider other deals involving different types of athletes as well. Whether the club looks for a center, a wing player, draft picks or a combination of the three, one thing is obvious: giving up Dragic will bring in outstanding value.

The Suns can only benefit by trading the six-year veteran. Bledsoe and Thomas would continue to impress in the backcourt, and the team would obtain pieces that could aid its winning efforts in the future.

Quite frankly, the only way Phoenix fails is if Dragic stays for the year and ultimately walks away in 2015. It is still fairly early in the season, but it is important for the Suns to at least consider placing the 1-man on the trading block.

 

Unless otherwise noted, all stats are courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.

Josh Haar is an NBA Contributor for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JHaarNBA.  

Read more NBA news on BleacherReport.com

View full post on Bleacher Report – NBA

Next Page »