All summer the Phoenix Suns have been making moves with urgency in the form of splashy, big trades and at the same time mixing in the smaller roster shake-ups that have significance as well as substance. They are doing a good job balancing the concept of fielding a roster for next season while keeping a watchful eye (or two) on the future.
They have stripped the roster down and added what may amount to as many as nine new players at the start of training camp that is only a few weeks away.
Last night word leaked out that the Suns have been in talks with the Milwaukee Bucks to move recently acquired Caron Butler to the fringe Eastern Conference playoff contender for Ish Smith and Slava Kravtsov. Both of these new faces have low odds to be a part of the future of the team, let alone make the opening day roster. Right now the roster is at 17 contracted players.
The team did not re-sign Diante Garrett as he has left for an opportunity with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
That role of the third point guard on the roster might be filled in house with the team already having Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe, and Kendall Marshall under contract with Malcolm Lee and Archie Goodwin both capable of playing that role in spot duty. Dragic and Bledsoe could start together with Marshall getting the bulk of the minutes at back-up point guard, but the question becomes -- Do they have room for Smith now?
Ishmael Larry "Ish" Smith spent his first eight years playing in his backyard of North Carolina and since then has bounced around the basketball world from Houston to Memphis to Golden State to Orlando to Milwaukee and now to Phoenix in his most recent move.
Smith grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina which has been a hotbed for elite basketball talent for years.
From Chris Paul to James Worthy, David Thompson to John Wall, and Bob McAdoo to Jerry Stackhouse the city produces talent. When it came time for high school Smith traveled just 15 miles north-east to Central Cabarrus High School where he became the most decorated basketball player to go through their gym. As his high school career came to an end Smith made the decision to go to Wake Forest even with offers from nearly every school in the state and other high major programs.
Wake Forest was just two years removed from the Chris Paul Era and after his freshman year, glorified on and off the court coach Skip Prosser passed away, leaving the program in a tough situation.
Despite the emotional set-back Smith played four seasons at Wake Forest, just about 55 miles from his home in Charlotte.
Most known for his game-winner against Texas in the NCAA Tournament in 2010, Smith has displayed the ability to be a serviceable point guard at the NBA level as a starter, back-up, and third string option. In that tournament game he was able to create a shot off the bounce and hit a game-winner with 1.3 seconds remaining in the game. P.J. Tucker was not on that Texas team, but likely remembers that shot.
After that shot Wake Forest went on to get throttled by Elite Eight bound Kentucky ending his college career, and in-turn, his time in North Carolina playing basketball.
Cocooned at home in North Carolina Smith was able to put together a reputable career at the amateur level, but was left out of the conversation at the 2010 NBA Draft that saw six other point guards selected. That did not deter Smith as he took the unconventional route in the NBA as a journeyman traveling a total of 8,191 miles collectively since entering the NBA three years ago. For a kid who played eight years within 55 miles of his family, home, and comfortable surroundings, Smith has moved around a lot in three short years in the NBA trying to find a home.
Miles and numbers aside, Smith is landing in a situation where he can carve out a role on this team, but it will not be an easy task. The new regime is looking to be as athletic as possible, something Smith does not struggle with, and to a young team that is looking for someone (anyone) to step up there could be a spot on the roster here.
Last year the Suns seemed to want to bring along Garrett, but never dived fully into the rookie point guard as an investment. They already had two freshly signed and committed point guards in Dragic and Marshall so Garrett was the odd man out at times. He played in only 19 games, but was always jovial in the locker room willing to talk about Iowa State basketball, coach Fred Hoiberg, and his development as an NBA player.
To be frank, in his full year with the Suns Garrett was used more in 2013 NBA Pre-Draft workouts then on the court. He was willing to do whatever it took to make it at the NBA level. That all paid off with a year in Phoenix and now an opportunity with the Thunder. That leaves the minutes (or DNP's) open for another player to take advantage of.
Smith is not in an amiable situation with an opportunity, but one saddled with an up-hill battle to be a third or even forth point guard and tough practice player.
Cutting Smith is a 900K initial burden today and if they keep him on the roster this year his contract is only partially guaranteed. Is it worth having a fourth point guard on the roster? As Dave King reviewed here the team has options on players to cut, cap flexibility, and could do a number of things with all the moving parts.
All things considered Bledsoe will play the bulk of his minutes with Dragic in the same back-court making Smith the fourth point guard on the depth chart. The Suns are not trading for Smith to challenge the current rotation for major minutes, but to be another option at the position and someone who could instigate a competitive environment at practice. When given the opportunity to get on the court with other talented players he can be a facilitator and play-maker with the ball in his hands.
While he is not 55 miles from home cooking, Smith is in a position to earn a spot here on the roster and call Phoenix his home. We hardly new Butler before he was literally sent home to Milwaukee, will we get to know either Smith or Kravtsov?
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Eric Bledsoe was one of the hottest commodities on the NBA trade market over the last year, and it's not hard to see why when watching his highlights. Calling him explosive is a bit of an understatement. However, highlights only tell part of the story. I wanted to go deeper and get a better idea of who Eric Bledsoe really is as a player. To accomplish this, I watched roughly 500 of his 800 offensive possessions logged on MySynergySports. Let's break his game down.
In typical Jacob fashion, I went way overboard and wrote a ton of words. So I decided to break it down into two parts. In Part I, I'll be examining his play with the ball in his hands. In Part II, I'll be looking at his play in the open court and off the ball.
From 2004 to 2012, Suns fans were treated to one of the best pick-and-roll point guards of all time. Steve Nash was the master. It wasn't just his pinpoint pocket-passing that made him so great though (although it was beautiful to watch). What made him so special was the combination of the passing ability with his savvy and tremendous shooting touch from all over the court. The Suns pick-and-roll was so difficult to defend because there was no way you were going to be ale to take away the pocket pass to the big, the pass to the corner, the drive AND the pull-up jumper. Nash was a complete pick-and-roll point guard that could burn you any way he liked.
That's not Bledsoe. However, Bledsoe does like to run the pick-and-roll a lot. In fact, it was his most common play type at just under 31 percent of his possessions. He was decent but nothing spectacular at 0.75 points per possession.
When Bledsoe comes off the screen and has a clear lane to the basket, he can explode to the rim like few others.
Here, Bledsoe receives the ball on the wing and Lamar Odom comes to set the screen.
Neither Darrell Arthur nor Mike Conley jump out at Bledsoe and in fact, they get in each other's way. That's all Bledsoe needed as he turned the corner with an open lane. Conley has no shot at this point.
None of the other Memphis defenders commit to helping on Bledsoe and so he takes it all the way. Notice where he takes off from ...
... and notice where he lands. Explosion. Also two points and a glimpse of what Bledsoe can do in the pick-and-roll.
Bledsoe also shot a very respectable 39.7 percent from deep last year. His shot improved greatly from his first two seasons in the league. Bledsoe's shot is almost more of a set shot than an actual jumper, but if defenders go under and give him plenty of space, he can knock that shot down.
The defender is already playing way off Bledsoe to begin with, and when Turiaf comes to set the screen, his man stays with him. That means nobody is within three or four feet of Bledsoe.
Bledsoe takes the shot and knocks it down and the defender still isn't even close to in his face. It was a very limited sample size last year, but Bledsoe connected on four of his nine attempts from deep while running the pick-and-roll. If teams go under to cut off the drive, Bledsoe has the capability to make them pay.
That's the good. Unfortunately, there is plenty of bad as well. Bledsoe really doesn't have any sort of in-between game. He doesn't really have a pull-up jumper and his floater is far from reliable at this stage. He also doesn't have the patience or savvy of Nash and gets himself out of control too often. His drives are often reckless and his passes wild.
Here, Turiaf sets a screen for Bledsoe against our beloved Suns. As you can see, there isn't a whole lot of space for him to work with and all the Suns are in help position to guard against the drive.
Bledsoe fails to recognize this, ducks his head and drives anyway. Goran Dragic goes over the screen and chases him from behind, Jared Dudley drops down from the top of the key and Luis Scola steps up to surround Bledsoe and cut off the drive.
With so much pressure, Bledsoe loses control of the ball a little bit...
... and then loses control of his body as he tries to recover and slides out of bounds. This is the kind of reckless play we can expect from Bledsoe. With all the excitement of the highlights comes the bewilderment of lowlights like this one.
One thing you'll notice if you look closely at the screencaps above is that Bledsoe initiated all three of his pick-and-rolls from the wing rather than the top of the key. That is a trend I noticed in watching most of his pick-and-rolls. This is one reason a Dragic-Bledsoe backcourt could work very well together. With those two, the Suns can keep the floor spaced and initiate pick-and-rolls from all over the court rather than just at the top of the key.
At this stage Dragic is still the superior pick-and-roll ball-handler and should initiate the offense on the majority of plays. But when teams start to key in on Dragic, all he needs to do is swing it to Bledsoe an let him go to work from a different angle. It makes the Suns' offense more unpredictable and makes it more difficult to defend.
Bledsoe isn't a bad isolation player. It's not something you'd like to see him doing a whole lot but his 0.77 points per possession ranks 114th overall, which isn't too shabby. Here's an example of what he can do with a mismatch.
Bledsoe recognizes the mismatch and pulls the ball out to the corner to give himself some space.
Bledsoe has a major speed and quickness advantage, and he takes advantage of that to blow by his man. Because of the way the Clippers spaced the floor the help defender was too far away to stop him.
Bledsoe explodes to the rim and throws it down with authority.
That's what Bledsoe can do in isolation situations. He has a quickness and athleticism advantage over most of the guards he plays against, and that's even more true when he can force a switch and go up against a wing or a big. Unfortunately, he doesn't seem to use that advantage nearly enough and instead chooses to settle for jumpers, which definitely is not his strength. That's where the low percentage (37.7 percent form the field) comes from.
Bledsoe can be effective in isolation situations if the team can put him in the right spot on the court, keep the floor spaced and get him mismatches. But he's not a guy you want to give the ball to on a consistent basis and tell him to go get a bucket.
Dragic is actually a phenomenal isolation player according to Synergy. He's ranked 20th overall and scores 0.97 points per possession. He only isolated on 11 more plays than Bledsoe did last year despite playing a lot more, so it's not something he looks to do a lot. But adding another exciting ball-handler in Bledsoe should both take some pressure off Dragic and give him more opportunities to attack.
During the Suns magical run to the 2010 Western Conference Finals, the second unit emerged as one of the team's biggest strengths. Leading that charge from the bench was a pair of dynamic guards in a younger Dragic and Leandro Barbosa. Bledsoe lacks the natural scoring ability that made Barbosa the Sixth Man of the Year as a Sun, but he does offer a similar speedy and athletic presence and is much more of a pest defensively.
This backcourt might be under-sized, but there's potential for these two to mesh very well offensively.
Stay tuned to the Bright Side for Part II, coming soon!
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While Caron Butler would have provided a good locker room presence - for both the players and the media - his spot in the rotation was always unneeded. A rebuilding team should not play a late-career veteran on his last breath of NBA value. It's not good for the vet (as we know with Luis Scola last season), not good for the kids who need room to grow and ultimately not good for future draft pick position.
Vets win games, even if it's only a few of them. And when a team is in dogfight with Philadelphia, among others, for the best draft selection next spring, every loss counts.
But I, for one, will miss the chance to speak to Caron throughout the season.
Oh Caron, we hardly knew ye.
After being acquired along with Eric Bledsoe from the Clippers, Butler attended his introductory press conference in mid-July speaking of looking forward to a new chapter in his life as a needed veteran on a young team. New GM Ryan McDonough spoke of wanting Butler for years, and being thrilled at finally handing him.
Right after that, Butler moved to the Valley to enroll his kid in school by the beginning of the term. He entrenched himself, went "all in". The thought of Butler as a Phoenix Sun for the entire season began to sink in to Suns fans.
Just two weeks ago, Butler was the centerpiece of the Suns Jersey Reveal Fashion Show. Afterward, he was eloquent and full of promise for the upcoming Suns season. Soon after that, he did interviews on wanting to mentor Michael Beasley back to the land of the NBA.
And then boom. On a sleepy, boring Wednesday night, Butler was gone. Reportedly at his request, and to a city he wanted to go.
No word on whether Butler put in his trade request immediately after having to wear the sleeved jersey.
No word on whether Beasley contacted Butler after his proclamation of mentorship, after which Butler realized what an uphill battle it would be.
It appears that something changed.
But then again, the declining 33-year-old Butler never did make sense for this team. He ate up cap space, and promised to choke down 30 precious minutes a night that could go to a younger player.
Now Butler is in Milwaukee.
It means the Suns are back to having about $6 million in cap space, just like they were at the beginning of the summer.
Still a very good deal for the Suns, assuming Bledsoe plays well enough to earn Dudley's minutes. The latter two have no future with the Suns unless there's a rash of injuries during voluntary pickup games next month. Otherwise, they are toast.
Kravtsov, 25, was the backup C for Detroit last season in a limited role. He was traded to Milwaukee just a month ago in the Jennings/Knight trade as salary filler, who immediately slotted him for release from his contract. Milwaukee was loaded in the front court, so there was no room at the inn for the Ukrainian. The Suns already have Gortat, Len and Plumlee wanting C minutes, so Kravtsov faces elimination here too. Ironically, now Detroit is short on big men and has since been looking at guys like Jason Collins.
Ish Smith is a journeyman who won't crack a PG rotation already overloaded with Dragic, Bledsoe, Marshall and even Diante Garrett.
But again, the Suns have their cap space back. The same space they used to get Bledsoe in the first place. With punitive luxury tax damages threatening many of league's teams next spring, cap space is a very nice thing to have.
Well, the Suns now have 17 players under guaranteed contracts for the upcoming season.
In the small picture, decisions still loom on Channing Frye (heart) and Michael Beasley (brain). Frye is still waiting for results on his latest tests, but since he hasn't started working out yet it appears unlikely he will play this season.
Maybe the extra cap space will make releasing Beasley and his $6 million contract this season more palatable. It's always been best for the Suns to release Beasley after September 1 to apply (and pay) his entire 2013-14 salary as quickly as possible, leaving only $3 million eating space in the future. With plenty of cap space now (about $6 million, counting Beasley's money), the Suns have the flexibility to eat that $6 million his season without hurting their trade opportunities.
The Suns also are unlikely to blink an eye if they need to release any or all of Malcolm Lee (884K), Kravtsov (1.5 mil) or Ish Smith (900K) to get down to 15 players by the regular season.
In the big picture, the Suns are still positioned to make a larger move for better individual talent. Whether that happens in September or October, February (trade deadline), June (Draft) or even July is up to McDonough finding the right deal(s).
He's shown he can tear down pretty well. At some point, he will build the Suns back up. So far, it appears that the build up will be conveniently timed to bear fruit AFTER the vaunted 2014 Draft.