PHOENIX — No Kevin Durant and no Goran Dragic made Tuesday night’s game between the Suns and Thunder less than telling, but Phoenix nonetheless pulled out a 88-76 win at U.S. Airways...

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Time: 7 p.m. MST TV: Not on television The Oklahoma City Thunder don’t expect to play Kevin Durant on Tuesday as they visit the Phoenix Suns, according to beat writer Darnell Mayberry, but that...

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Two teams heading in opposite directions with pre-season pride on the line? Yeah, the Phoenix Suns (3-2) hosting the Oklahoma City Thunder (4-1) is clearly a "can't miss" event.

On paper these two teams should come together for a competitive game.

Every year there seems to be a rumor of the Suns and the Thunder doing business together from a rumored Steve Nash trade a few years ago, to James Harden discussions, and to Marcin Gortat rumors the past year and a half. These two teams are always in the rumor mill together and yet no triggers have been pulled.

In the mean time the Thunder have knocked around the Suns for 10 straight games.

This year both teams will have new dynamics on the court. The Thunder are incorporating their younger players into rotation minutes on the perimeter and the Suns are incorporating a brand new team.

Goran Dragic and Russell Westbrook will not play in the game tonight taking away some of the excitement, but allowing young players like Jeremy Lamb, Reggie Jackson, Archie Goodwin, and Kendall Marshall to get some floor time and earn a slot in the rotation.

Head-to-Head: Pre-Season Stats

Suns (3-2): 105.2 PPG 43.8 RPG 9.0 SPG 49.9% FG 36.3% 3PT

Thunder (4-1): 99.4 PPG 49.4 RPG 8.8 SPG 44.8% FG 29.9% 3PT

Hey, the Suns are the better team on paper! Through five games this pre-season the Suns are a better rebounding team, better shooting from the field and three, and causing more turnovers per game. The team has more energy and in this exhibition season have been playing well as a unit, outside of the past two games.

The Thunder are a little more restricted offensively with Russell Westbrook out of the line-up still, leaning more on defense, rebounding, and Kevin Durant.

Athletically the Suns match-up well with the Thunder in this setting. They can match them with athletes on the perimeter and in the paint getting up-and-down the floor scoring and causing havoc. With the pre-season winding down there might be more floor time for the reserves, but the Thunder reserves are young prospects auditioning for trades and free-agency, for teams like the Suns.

Head-to-Head Match-Up (pre-season)

Reggie Jackson: 14.2 PPG 6.2 APG 3.2 RPG 1.4 SPG 52.9 FG% (5 games)

Eric Bledsoe: 11.0 PPG 5.4 APG 2.8 RPG 3.0 SPG 47.1 FG% (5 games)

This pre-season has been a statement and coming out party for Jackson. He has started every game and is stepping his game up to show that he is a potential starting point guard in this league that is more than just athletic. He played well during the playoffs with a little trial by fire, but backing it up sometimes is tougher than proving that you can actually do it initially.

He and Bledsoe are in similar situations with being given the reigns of a team over night, with different circumstance.

Two of the more dynamic, athletic point guards in the league coming off the bench last year go head-to-head as starters. With Westbrook still rehabbing, he practiced with the team for the first time yesterday, Jackson becomes the teams primary play-maker on the perimeter opposite of Durant.

This has the potential to be a fun match-up this game and going forward as both teams will showcase very athletic, play-making back-courts this season with Westbrook-Jackson and Bledsoe-Dragic.

Bledsoe is coming out of Chris Paul (and John Wall's) shadow for the first time in his career. He has the opportunity to cast his own shadow now and see how it measures up with his former mentors and a fair shot at starting minutes. There is no question that "Baby LeBron" has the physical and athletic skills to be a play-maker like Jackson, now both come head-to-head as they try to prove themselves.

(Potential) Starting Line-Ups

PG - Eric Bledsoe v. Reggie Jackson

SG - Archie Goodwin v. Thabo Sefolosha

SF - P.J. Tucker v. Kevin Durant

PF - Markieff Morris v. Serge Ibaka

C - Marcin Gortat v. Hasheem Thabeet

Potential Suns Inactives: Goran Dragic (Ankle)

Potential Thunder Inactives: Russell Westbrook (Knee) & Kendrick Perkins

Key Match-Up

Archie Goodwin v. Jeremy Lamb

How do you like your young, athletic wing players? Are you partial to the long, raw, and aggressive type wearing purple and orange? What about the smooth, quality shooting, long type in blue and orange? Either way this match-up of a Suns fan favorite from the 2012 NBA Draft and who might be the steal of the 2013 NBA Draft could be a fun one if they see considerable floor time.

Lamb has not shot the ball well through five games (4-23) and has struggled offensively so far. He could be the teams designated shooter this season from the perimeter playing side-by-side with Durant creating a long wing combination.

Goodwin was taken a year later in the draft and 17 picks later, but has been impressive in his short time with the team. He is the youngest player in the NBA and sometimes plays like it. These two can combine for their share of highlights (or low-lights) with aggressive defensive plays and finishes out on the break.

Interesting Stat: 23.4

Nobody is playing major minutes this pre-season for the Suns. To date there are only three players that have averaged 20+ minutes a game in Gortat (20.0), Markieff (20.4), and the leader, Bledsoe (23.4) with all three being projected starters this season.

In contrast the Thunder have six players averaging at least 21+ minutes per game and have their rotation set going into the season.

Meaningless Stat: 56.25% (9/16)

So far this pre-season the Morrii are shooting 56.25% from three. Markieff is 2/2 and Marcus is 7/17 as the duo is shooting the ball well, sparse, and efficient from the three-point line. Through Markieff's career he has shot the ball in volume from three and it exposed his efficiency (34.1% career), but with this role he is playing more in the mid-range and limiting his three-point shooting. The closer you are to the rim the better the percentages are to make a basket. So far this pre-season, the Morrii are getting that.

One aspect of a re-build and a push for a younger, more dynamic team, is the potential loss of leadership and veteran influence on the roster. Young players need role models to an extent to see how things should be done and to tell them what they are doing is not right.

Jared Dudley had Steve Nash and Grant Hill to teach him how to be a professional when he first came to the Phoenix Suns, but who do the young players have here now?

The lack of veteran leadership is obvious and as red as the nose on Rudolph's face

Twenty-First Topic: How to use the veterans?

1. Breaking the Ice: How has the management team handled the balance of youth, potential, and veteran influence on the roster?

Jim Coughenour: Impressively. The team still has Frye and Dragic (and Tucker to a lesser degree), who can be emulated in terms of work ethic off the court and teach the tyros what it takes in terms of dedication and preparedness to succeed in the league. They even took divergent paths. Frye was a lottery pick that struggled and actually transmogrified his game through the development of a deadly three point shot to establish himself as a valuable rotation player in a stretch four role. He has added new wrinkles to his game each year past that, such as his improved interior defense. Dragic took the path of mid second rounder and struggled to get playing time behind a transcendent player before capitalizing on an opportunity in a new environment (Doesn't that sound similar to EB's possible career trajectory?) and solidifying himself as a starting point guard. P.J. bounced around the D-League before finally proving himself an NBA player through pertinacity and brutish intensity. Good role models. The goal was to go as young as possible and the Suns have done so while maintaining at least a modicum of venerable players.

Jacob Padilla: What Jim said.

Dave King: Pretty well, but not perfectly. There is no positive, outspoken influence on the roster to navigate through the tough times that are sure to come. Dragic and Frye are too quiet to inspire people and Gortat is too "out there" mentally (he's been that way since he was acquired). Caron Butler would have been a good influence this season. The Suns won't win a lot of games, but they needed an veteran that can steer them through the storm.

Kris Habbas: Veteran influence? All the veterans on the team are not traditional leaders like journeyman Shannon Brown, quiet Channing Frye, flamboyant Marcin Gortat, and timidly aggressive Goran Dragic are the most tenured NBA players on the roster, with world traveler P.J. Tucker as one of the elder statesmen in general.

Sean Sullivan: I think the team is certainly more focused on youth and potential than any veteran leadership to mold the young players at this point. The Suns are not in a win now mode, so they can get by with a team of young guys without a traditional locker room leader. If they were looking to compete in the post season, I may be a little worried, but for this season, I don't feel it's much of a concern whatsoever.

2. Does this team have any "veterans" in the truest sense of the word?

JP: See Jim's comment below.

DK: It's "Horny or bust" here. Hate to agree with Kris two questions in a row, but I don't have a choice because he's so right. If Hornacek is a really good mentor to the players, the team will be fine. If he isn't, then the team will fracture like they did under Gentry and Hunter last year.

KH: With this roster the veterans that matter are Jeff Hornacek and Mark West with their years of experience on the court playing at a high level in the NBA. Those two are the veterans that will have the most influence and draw the most respect from the younger players on the roster that are vulnerable and malleable in their current stage in the game.

SS: Veteran players? I suppose Channing Frye, Goran Dragic, Marcin Gortat, and even Shannon Brown count. As for leaders though....probably not. The best chance the young players have is to model themselves after the direction and tutelage of Hornacek, who seems like a very down to earth coach who of course has tons of experience.

JC: ICMF. Frye is the elder statesman on the team in terms of age (30), NBA experience (this is his eighth season, nine if you include the season missed to the heart condition where he was still around the team in some capacity) and tenure (fifth year in the organization). He played with notable veterans such as Steve Nash, Grant Hill and Amar'e Stoudemire, who all had qualities worthy of imitating. From all accounts he is well liked and respected in NBA circles. While Frye isn't necessarily vocal, neither was Nash. I think lead by example personalities can be paragons in their own right and Channing fits the bill.

3. Players like Shannon Brown and Gerald Green do not necessarily fit into the future of the team so how should they be managed this season?

DK: At least Brown should be managed by trading him to someone. More than anything else, McDonough needs to continue his run of sending veterans to better environments for them (Dudley to Clips, Scola to Indy, Butler to hometown Milwaukee), starting with Brown. Brown already suffered through a DNP season and looks poised to have another. Green, on the other hand, should get lower priority at the moment, simply because I don't feel bad for him yet.

KH: With respect. Last year Lindsay Hunter had no respect for his veteran players moving them in and out of the rotation, to the bench, to starting, to DNP's on a whim. There was no direction and the players themselves were not treated as pawns in a game of checkers. Neither player, at this stage in their careers, should be on a losing team. While they are here though having the role of mentor for the younger players and getting court time early in the season is one way of easing the burden of being a part of a potential bottom five team this season.

SS: As needed. I see no reason to force minutes to either of them unless it benefits the team. To Green's credit though, he's seemed to play fairly decently overall in preseason, so maybe he'll prove to have some chemistry with the players that could prove beneficial. I really don't see much need for Brown at the moment though, and I wouldn't be surprised to see the Suns include him in a trade at some point ... It would probably be best for both parties.

JC: Shannon should be assigned the role of shot selection coach with Gerald as his assistant. If I remember correctly a "cannon" (affectionately named after the Brown Bomber) is an instance where a player exhausts noticeable energy to end up taking a markedly worse shot than when they initially received the ball. Yeah. I would let them "compete for playing time" on a completely unlevel playing field with the younger players and look to move them to a better situation if we can trick someone into taking them the opportunity presents itself.

JP: Stick them on the bench. Trade them if the opportunity arises. I really have no desire to see either one of them on the court for Phoenix. However, Archie Goodwin isn't ready and I'm not so sure force-feeding him minutes is the right decision. Therefore, one of them will get minutes early in the season. I disagree with Kris about them not belonging on a losing team; being on a losing team is exactly where they belong. They play a losing style of basketball. Green had his chance on a winning team last year.

4. Are Channing Frye and Marcin Gortat strictly assets or potential pieces for the future?

KH: Right now I am inclined to say assets. Frye has high value for the team going forward as a veteran shooter that can stretch the floor and add versatility to the team. If he can net the team a future asset of higher value than he currently is then you move Frye, but if not he is on a good contract and is a positive to the team. Gortat on the other hand has been traded for about a year and a half. The team couldn't capitalize on his quality play early on last season, then he fell into a tailspin, and now he has to remind the league of his value before they can get anything for him. Purely an asset, that has little to no positive value.

SS: Definitely assets. Gortat knows he's as good as traded as soon as the right deal comes along, and seems to be handling it well, at least in interviews. And as much as I love Frye (I was one of his staunchest supporters when he was being unfairly criticized for his pretty decent defense), he also doesn't fit the long-term direction of this team. I think Frye is more likely to finish the year a Sun than Gortat; because of how well he fits the offense, his history here, and his chemistry with Dragic, but I would be surprised if both of them aren't being aggressively shopped.

JC: Define future. Tomorrow is the future. I expect Gortat to be gone by the trade deadline. Frye may follow suit depending on his resilience in the first half of the season. Gortat is expiring. Frye has a player option. Since my hopeful time-line for a return to competitiveness is the 2015-16 season I don't see them as pieces in that puzzle. Actually, I'll be surprised if more than four players on the current roster are on the starting roster that season.

JP: Gortat is definitely an asset. His time in Phoenix is nearing its end, and it's time both parties move on; at least by the trade deadline once Alex Len has had some time to get stronger and make the adjustment to the NBA game. Frye, on the other hand, I view like I viewed Dudley and still view Dragic. As good players, they are definitely assets. But they also have ties to the organization and community, and they still provide on-court value as well. If the right deal presents itself (as it did with Dudley and Bledsoe), go ahead and make the move. But there's no reason to trade him just to trade him. He can provide value to the team either way.

DK: Gortat is strictly an asset, but I think Frye is the kind of you keep around. While Gortat should be traded for something, anything, this season before he walks next summer for nothing, Channing Frye should only be traded if it makes the Suns get better. Frye should only go in a "Dudley deal" while Gortat should go in a "Scola/Butler" deal. The Dudley deal was a net positive (Bledsoe), while the others were only to get younger.

5. What is the impact (negative or positive) from not having a traditional, veteran, voice in the locker-room for this roster?

SS: Like I stated above, I think it would be worrisome if this team were trying to compete. A veteran presence is essential for keeping the team focused and together through the peaks and valleys. However, the players realize where this team is at, and their expectations are just as tempered as ours (though they would never admit it). This team is playing with house money this season. I think they can afford to let things fall into place organically and see what happens. If it somehow proves to be an issue this season they can always address it in the off season. No rush.

JC: Very hard to determine through qualitative analysis. The first season of the Thunder's existence in OKC the team had two 20 year old phenoms in Durant (one year) and Westbrook (rookie). The veterans on that team included Chucky Atkins, Desmond Mason, Malik Rose, Robert Swift and Earl Watson. I'm not sure their combined tutelage was vital in the development of the young nucleus. Since the Suns can aspire to duplicate that type of success, maybe mentoring is more of an extrinsic benefit than a vital component. Of course examples of rudderless rosters may argue the counterpoint here... The Suns don't have players that need babysitting (e.g. DeMarcus Cousins) in my estimation. I'm inclined to say that the current leadership situation is tenable and probably won't have a deleterious impact.

JP: This roster is going to see a lot of change over the next two years, so I don't think how it looks right now matters all that much. I think Jeff Hornacek, Goran Dragic, Channing Frye and P.J. Tucker are enough as lead-by-example types (at least the players) to help the young guys grow and develop the right way.

DK: I mentioned it above, and it's not good to be missing a steadying, rallying voice in the locker room. Someone needs to take the heat this season when the team stumbles, falls and bruises their way to 55-60 losses. Someone needs to keep these guys in a positive frame of mind no matter what. So far, that's missing. And that just means that 5 game losing streaks become 10 game losing streaks.

KH: I feel it is a positive and a test. The young players have a chance to grasp this team by the horns and establish their leadership style early on. Make this their team. That is the test for Bledsoe, Len, and to a smaller extent Goodwin as they are a vision of the future for the team. Having no established leader means things can come together organically, the right way, and give this team a true voice that earned this role.

BONUS: Should the Suns have gone full on Philadelphia 76ers this year and gutted their roster of any NBA players?

(Kwame Brown and Jason Richardson are 10 & 12 year veterans respectively, but you know what we mean...)

SS: I think what the Suns did this off-season was nothing short of brilliant...and I wouldn't have changed a thing (ok, I probably would have drafted McLemore and I wouldn't have exercised the team option on Brown...but still). I think the Suns have done an outstanding job overall of acquiring assets and giving themselves maximum cap flexibility going forward, and they still have a few cards to play with Gortat and possibly even Dragic, Frye, or even Bledsoe to get even more (not saying I think they will trade all those players, but that they have the option to do so if the right deal comes along).

JC: Different situation. Philadelphia needed to get worse because they might have still finished 10th or 11th in the weaker Easter Conference with Holiday on the roster. A #7 pick wasn't helping a putrid roster go anywhere. Instead they got Nerlens Noel, a pick that should fall somewhere between 9-15 in the stacked 2014 draft and effectively moved up several spots to likely give themselves the best odds at the #1 overall pick. If the Suns could have traded Gortat and Dragic for the same package (2013 #6 and 2014 top five protected) I'd have pulled the trigger. I believe the Suns are still in for more roster attrition, though. McMiracle seems like a rather shrewd fellow, so I can't imagine he doesn't realize the value of a top five pick in next year's draft. Any deal he makes this season (barring some supernatural coup) will be to get worse short term, not better.

JP: The amount of blatant tanking going on in Philadelphia is laughable. I feel bad for Thaddeus Young for having to play on that team. And for what? A few more ping pong balls that doesn't assure them of anything with the lottery system in place? No, I'm perfectly happy with the way the Suns have gone about their business. The Suns managed to hold onto a few players that could be part of the next playoff team or at least be used to acquire the players that will be part of that team, while also adding in rookies that will form the team's core moving forward. And it appears as if they'll be in position to add more highly talented rookies to that core next year, even without getting rid of all the good ones they already had.

DK: Absolutely not. I wrote about this last night so look at the 'On Noel, tanking and the Suns' article for my views. The Sixers are laughing at the basketball gods and will almost certainly pay for it. The worst record has a better chance at the 4th pick than the 1st.

KH: How entertaining would a line-up of Marshall, Goodwin, Tucker, Markieff, and Len look with a few middling veterans coming off the bench? Yeah, the Suns are doing it right.

Bright Siders, what do you think?

Today, the Sixers head coach Brett Brown said that rookie center Nerlens Noel, the #6 pick in this year's draft for whom the Sixers traded an All-Star to get, would likely not play at all for the Philly boys this season.

That Noel would miss the season is not real news, as no less than five teams passed on Noel and the sixth, New Orleans, only drafted him in order to trade his rights (and their somewhat-protected 2014 #1 pick) for All-Star Jrue Holiday. Noel was considered the consensus #1 overall pick based entirely on talent, so the fact that he was passed up by five teams suggests as much.


No team has been more brazen with their plan to tank this season than the Sixers. Their coach was hired only two weeks short of a record "late hire", second only to the naming of Alvin Gentry to coach the Clippers late in 2000. Gentry accepted the Clippers job just weeks after taking an assistant job with San Antonio.

Brett Brown, formerly an assistant with San Antonio, took the job and immediately began setting low expectations for the Sixers this season.

Now, they are not even going to try to play their top draft pick this season, planning instead to enter next season with one second-year lottery pick (Michael Carter-Williams), and three high-picked rookies - Noel, plus their own and New Orleans' pick in 2014.

Sounds to me like two straight years of 60+ losses if not five or more.

There's tanking right, and tanking wrong

To me, the Sixers are doing it wrong. Well, they will certainly lose a lot of games, but so did Charlotte (7 wins in 66 games) after the lockout and New Jersey (12 wins in 2010) before then. Charlotte never did get the #1 pick for their troubles, and neither did New Jersey. In fact, only 4 teams with the worst record have ever won the #1 overall pick since the lottery began.

The team with the worst record has a better chance at a pick between 4 and 6 (35.8%) than the #1 overall (25%). Charlotte got the #2 pick for being worst in 2011-12, and the #4 pick for being second-worst in 2012-13. Minnesota got only #2 overall for finishing a league-worst 17-65 in 2011. The New Jersey Nets only got the third pick in 2010 after their stellar 12-70 season.

Losing pays, but losing the most - and in spectacular fashion - almost always loses. Might as well finish with the second or third worst record and just watch the balls bounce the way they bounce.

Enter the Phoenix Suns

We all know the Suns will struggle this season. The first inkling was hiring a rookie GM and a rookie coach (actually, the very first inkling was having the least young talent in the league). The second was drafting two of the youngest, highest potential prospects in the draft when they were available. The third was trading good (though aging) veterans for youth this summer, most of whom not even guaranteed to make the rotation on one of the worst teams in the league.

The latest inkling is the realization that no GM would go out of his way to pair two combo guards in the starting lineup for the future. You do it for today, for here and now during the evaluation phase. But you don't conceive of this plan from scratch. Still, the pairing may work out the way KJ and Hornacek did. Likelier though, is a realization at some point they are better apart from each other.

The Suns will be bad. Real bad. But while Philly sits one of their rookies all season, the Suns will play theirs. The Suns are focusing on character and mission, if not immediate talent. The Sixers are just playing out the string. They all know it, and they are getting blasted in record fashion even in the preseason.

The Phoenix Suns are taking the path of Orlando and Cleveland, who are building a foundation and competitive drive while losing. Which path is Philly taking? Charlotte's?

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