The Phoenix Suns featured several surprising players last season in winning roughly twice the number of games forecast by most, but none blew away expectations more than former castoff Gerald Green.
Gerald Green is an incredibly talented athlete. He leaps, twists and runs the floor the way you and I walk outside to pick up the mail. It looks so easy when he performs physical feats that only an extremely tiny percentage of the world's people can.
Still, those amazing gifts never allowed Green to become a productive NBA player through his 7 seasons and 6 franchises until he found the combination to unlock them this past season with the Suns.
Green's flaws are plentiful:
And this game-winner:
The man doesn't lack confidence; that's for sure.
In this "summer of our discontent," let's remember that the flawed player we think is garbage today might send us into delirious delight with his achievements tomorrow, as Green did.
Wabi sabi is an ancient aesthetic philosophy rooted in Zen Buddhism, particularly the tea ceremony, a ritual of purity and simplicity in which masters prized bowls that were handmade and irregularly shaped, with uneven glaze, cracks, and a perverse beauty in their deliberate imperfection.
Gerald Green is an irregularly shaped bowl. His glaze is uneven. He's cracked. And he's perfect. Or at least, he was perfect for what the Suns needed last season. I won't go into his contract situation, or how he might figure into future Suns plans.
All I know is that Green gave us all a happy surprise last season, and I enjoyed the hell out of watching him play.
So, you wanted LeBron James? Or Kevin Love? Or Thad Young? Or a drama-free Bledsoe contract negotiation? Or...I could go on and on. It doesn't work that way. It's always a struggle, and always imperfect. Embrace that.
Now, time for a poll question.
Each summer, ESPN projects the top players at every position for the next season. It's good, clickable content to start conversations. But for some teams, it's a chance to lament the lack of respect people have for your team.
Those are the only five teams that failed to get a single player ranked in the Top 10 at his position - in terms of projected Wins Above Replacement Player (WARP) - this week by ESPN's Bradford Doolittle.
The other two - Suns and Sixers - have no such injury excuse.
That means 28 of the other 29 NBA teams have at least one player on their roster who is a bigger difference-maker, when healthy, than anyone on the Suns roster. Thank you, Philadelphia!
Likely, it's not that simple. The point guard position is incredi-deep while the shooting guard position has the aging Dwyane Wade at #2 overall and Dion Waiters at #5, for example. The Suns trio of Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe and Isaiah Thomas all made the "honorable mention" list at point guard, so at least they are in the top-20 discussion at the PG position.
But still. Not one Top 10 player at ANY position.
There's your Rodney Dangerfield moment, folks.
Here's an even bigger eye-opener: Outside of the Slash Triplets, not one Suns player even made the "Top 15" at his position according to these projections. That covers shooting guard, small forward, power forward and center. Remember, there's only 30 teams in this league.
This for a team that finished last year as arguably the best non-playoff team in NBA history, winning 48 games to tie the Golden State Warriors for the most non-playoff win total since the 16-team playoff format was introduced more than 30 years ago.
Honeymoon's over, dudes and dudettes.
The Suns roster sucks eggs. Again.
At least, according to ESPN's "WARP Projector":
The annual offseason position rankings offer a snapshot of the top players in the league by base position, according to the forecast quantity and quality of performance for the coming season. Players are ranked by wins above replacement player (WARP), an estimate of the number of wins a player adds to a team's bottom line above what would be expected of any easily acquired talent from outside the NBA. Players are measured for usage and efficiency on both ends of the floor, and these ratings are converted to an individual winning percentage. From there, WARP is calculated based on the player's winning percentage and forecast playing time for the coming season. Playing-time projections are based on recent seasons, health and role on the player's current team. Players are assigned a position according to where they appeared most often in their most recent NBA season, though subjective adjustments have been made for some players based on anticipated usage in 2014-15.
The underlying methodology of calculating the player efficiencies used in these rankings has changed since last year and now relies on real plus-minus methodology, with adjustments. Each player's offensive and defensive RPM is converted to efficiency ratings for each end of the floor. Those ratings are then evaluated for "direct" and "indirect" impact. Direct impact is composed of points scored and possessions used, as calculated from traditional box scores. Indirect impact uses RPM to evaluate how a player affects the possessions finished by his teammates while he's on the floor. RPM has been split in this manner for a couple of reasons. First, indirect impact has a higher season-to-season correlation and is less affected by player aging patterns. Also, splitting direct impact and indirect impact is useful for projecting how players will perform in new environments and in calculating team projections. For first-year NBA players, their SCHOENE projection is used as their WARP projection in these rankings.
So the Suns are just not a very talented team. They're aren't even a kinda talented team, outside of point guard. Most every NBA team can field a better shooting guard, a better small forward, a better power forward or a better center. And a third of them can field a better point guard.
How did the Suns win 48 games then?
They did it through teamwork and coaching and unselfishness. And by leveling the playing field by playing their best players without regard to traditional position. But because of Bledsoe's injury, Dragic still ended up playing the majority of his minutes at point guard along with Bledsoe. Bledsoe's 2014-15 projection was downgraded due to injury and low minutes in prior years, while Isaiah Thomas was likely downgraded because of his projected role as a backup.
But what of the other positions?
ESPN named 15 other shooting guards ahead of Gerald Green, likely because his minutes are projected to decline with the presence of the Three Amigos.
They named 15 other small forwards ahead of P.J. Tucker. He may not be the most talented starter in the game, but I'd go to war with P.J. (just not in a car on a Friday night).
They named 15 other centers ahead of Miles Plumlee. That's not a total stretch. Moving on.
What has me scratching my head the most is that they named 15 other power forwards ahead of Markieff Morris, a candidate for Sixth Man of the Year with more than 13 points and 6 rebounds a game on just 26 minutes a night. If it makes you feel any better, Taj Gibson didn't make Top 15 either.
Here's how the other teams fared:
Given these rankings, will any of these Phoenix Suns become a Top 10 player at his position in the next year?
I would argue that Goran Dragic deserves a Top 10 point guard ranking right now and that he's only being held back by a projection of fewer minutes (and therefore lesser impact) in 2014-15 being part of the Triplets. But I would also argue that so far Dragic's career year is just that - a career year. He's more likely to decline slightly in 2014-15 as rise even higher.
Will 29 year old Gerald Green rise to Top 10 status when he can't even crack the Top 15 after a career year? Probably not. Same goes for P.J. Tucker. And Miles Plumlee.
Nay, the two players most likely to rise to Top 10 at their position in future years are Markieff Morris and Eric Bledsoe.
Bledsoe is already a Top 10 point guard - he was just held back by injuries and limited minutes in prior years. One more year of starting will make him a shoe-in.
Markieff Morris is entering a contract year and has been working on expanding his game to become a threat as a stretch four. If he can become a threat out there AND keep his post game alive (which was also a one-year wonder so far), then Morris can become a Top 10 Power Forward in the NBA.
So that's Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe and Markieff Morris who could become Top 10 Players at their position in 2014-15.
What else do those three have in common?
All could be free agents (Morris restricted) in the summer of 2015, if Bledsoe doesn't sign a long-term deal in the next 39 days.
Speaking of Bledsoe, he spent some of this summer working with kids and youth basketball camps. He also participated as a celebrity coach of a Birmingham basketball team made up of non-professional locals who beat the touring Ball Up All-Stars this summer for the first time in 4 years.
This Ball Up tour is a showcase for street ball talent to make a name for themselves and maybe even make some cash along with it.
While the Dragon was not the decisive factor in the game, his Dragonshake got the crowd going and helped Slovenia edge over the current second-best team in Europe (minus Jonas Valanciunas, but we'll gloss over that)
Starting the game, there was little between the two teams. both defenses were focused and shots on both sides clanged off the rim. But with a few made threes, Slovenia got it's first sizable lead with 16:10 about 8 minutes into the second period. The lead could have been higher since Lithuania was really off in their attempts but so was Slovenia. After the first period the score was 16:13, Goran Dragic was, I am sorry to say a non-factor, guarded closely and not able to make an impact and he only scored two points in the period to complement his two personal fouls.
Second period pretty much resembled the first, Slovenia holding on to a small lead throughout, extending it to 7 points with a little over 3 minutes left to play in the half. A few missed shots aside and a great block by Uroš Slokar on Lithuania's main offensive weapon, Mantas Kalnietis, just served to help them keep the lead at 7 going into the break. It was 42:35: and our Dragon's flame did seem a bit damp (no wonder, the weather here is almost monsoon-like).
Lithuania got going early into the third period, but not before Gogi faked the socks of a Donatas Montiejunas. A Dragonshake to behold, and you can see how rare a move like that is in Europe by the collective gasp of the crowd. Teams were trading buckets, but this was still a defensive effort first and foremost. 8 unanswered points by Lithuania later, Zdovc was forced to call a time-out, which resulted in an immediate made three to stop the bleeding. Slovenia held on to lead 54:53 going into the fourth quarter.
Lithuania scored first in the fourth, but Slovenia rallied and answered with an 7-point run. Time-out called by the Lithuianian coach was followed by a made three by Domen Lorbek to push the score to 64:57. The game was give-and-go form then on, teams trading buckets (two step-backs by Gogi included) and getting quite physical in a few cases, I guess nobody told the player it was supposed to be a friendly match, but it never went past a few heated arguments. Lithuania managed to tie the score at 71 with a little over two minutes left in the game on a series of made threes (what else, it's their primary weapon as Jonas Valanciunas did not play). Both teams fumbled their next attack, but with a minute left Jaka Klobucar hit a dagger three that would seal the victory despite the fact that Lithuania had a shot to tie it with a few seconds left. Final score was 74:72 against the reigning European vice-champions minus Valanciunas, but we'll take it.
Summary of the summary
This was the first game without distinct ups and downs from the Slovenian team, the defense worked much better and offensively, everyone was involved, even if we'd have preferred if the Dragon was a bit more involved.
Speak of the devil, Goran finished the game with 10 points on 5/10 shooting that included 0/4 from behind the arc (as kajkejti has correctly stipulated, he was not far enough behind the arc), 4 assists, 2 rebounds, 1 steal and three turnovers in a little over 22 minutes of play which was limited due to early foul trouble.
This was the last home game for Slovenia as today they are scheduled to fly to the Canary Islands for a last warm-up game against team USA. If playing against some of the best the NBA has to offer is not a good last test, I don't know what is. And yeah, we know we don't stand a chance, but how often do the Slovenian fans get to see a match-up like that. I ask you.
It's been a frustrating summer at times.
For months, the Suns have wanted to acquire Kevin Love but they never could put together a package to top all other offers. Neither did the Golden State Warriors for that matter, even IF they had included Klay Thompson after all.
The Minnesota Timberwolves were at the right place at the right time, and for the first time in as long as I can remember they came out ahead in the deal. The Wolves turned a sure thing loser (Kevin Love walking in a year) into the last two #1 overall picks, Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett, and one of the better power forwards in the NBA in Thad Young.
Rarely does a team come out arguably better than they started. The Denver Nuggets did it with Carmelo Anthony a few years ago, but I tend to think this deal is better for the selling team than that one was. Time will tell though.
Where does that leave the Suns?
It leaves the Suns on the side of the road wondering what the hell happened this summer. The Suns came into the summer with big plans to go after the league's best free agents and trade targets.
So far, nothing.
And to their ultimate chagrin, I think, news got out yesterday afternoon that the Suns made a last-ditch effort to try to pry Minny's eyes off their Cavalier booty.
This report stinks to me. Stinks of old news. I could be wrong, but I'd be floored if the day transpired as it was posed on the internets - that the Suns, for the first time all summer, walked into a board room and collectively decided, "Hey maybe Minnesota might want Eric Bledsoe for Love! Let's try that. How much time is left on the Wiggins 3-day clock?"
That's a lot of BS to me.
First of all, the Suns have wanted Love for months. Every single player on the Suns' roster has been discussed, I can assure you. There's no way the Suns ever told Minny that Bledsoe was off the table.
Of course, back then and even now, the Suns cannot "offer" Bledsoe in trade without Bledsoe pre-agreeing to go. The Suns cannot just call someone up and offer Bledsoe to them and work out the details. Bledsoe must agree to go, and he must agree to a new contract before that.
So this report feels wrong to me.
But regardless, the Suns have struck out on the big fish. Struck out big time.
Here's to another 39 days before the preseason and training camp actually start. Let's hope something happens in a positive way to turn this frustrating summer around.