Suns Rumors

Community Shootaround: Western Conference Seeding

As we detailed on Friday when we discussed the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference, there will be an opportunity for teams to move up – or down – in the standings when play resumes on July 30.

With eight “seeding games” on tap, teams are unlikely to make up five- or six-game deficits on the clubs ahead of them in the standings, but there’s a strong likelihood of a shake-up in instances where teams are only separated by a game or two.

That’s even more true in the Western Conference than it is in the East, albeit not necessarily at the very top of the standings, where the 49-14 Lakers hold a fairly comfortable lead on the 44-20 Clippers. The Lakers’ magic number to clinch the conference is just three, so they’re a safe bet to hang onto the No. 1 seed.

After that though, there’s some congestion in the standings. The Clippers’ lead on the Nuggets (43-22) is just 1.5 games. Denver holds an identical lead over the Jazz (41-23). Utah, meanwhile, is just a couple losses away from slipping down to the No. 6 seed, as the Thunder (40-24) and Rockets (40-24) are right on their heels. The 40-27 Mavericks round out this group of six teams, a game-and-a-half behind OKC and Houston and just 5.5 games behind the second-seeded Clippers.

A number of those six clubs bunched up in the middle of the Western Conference playoff picture will face one another when play resumes. For instance, the Thunder – who have the potential to move up or down a couple spots in the standings – will open the restart against the Jazz and Nuggets and eventually finish their season against the Clippers. The Clips will face the Mavericks and Nuggets in addition to OKC. Dallas opens its eight seeding games by playing the Rockets.

Given the strength of competition in the West, seeding could be paramount in the postseason. The Nuggets, for example, could conceivably face the Jazz, Thunder, Rockets, or Mavs in the first round and would likely prefer some opponents to others in that group. The Jazz, currently at No. 4, could be motivated to avoid the No. 6 Rockets in the first round, since they’ve been eliminated by Houston in each of the previous two postseasons.

At the bottom of the playoff picture, the No. 8 Grizzlies (32-33) have essentially no chance to move up, since they’re seven games back of Dallas. But they’ll be looking to increase their lead over the Trail Blazers, Pelicans, Kings, Spurs, and Suns — if they can finish with more than a four-game lead on all those clubs, they’ll avoid a play-in tournament. If the Nos. 8 and 9 seeds finish within four games of one another, a play-in tournament will be necessary to determine that final playoff spot.

A newly-healthy Blazers squad will be a major threat to the Grizzlies, as will a Pelicans team that faces one of the league’s weakest schedules over the course of the eight seeding games.

What do you think? Do you think we’ll see much movement in the Western Conference’s top eight? Will the Grizzlies be knocked out by one of the challengers behind them in the standings? What do you expect the West’s top eight seeds to look like by the time the playoffs begin?

Head to the comment section below to weigh in with your predictions!

Pacific Notes: Ayton, Oubre, Warriors, Lakers

The Suns are excited about the progress of Deandre Ayton during their early workouts in Orlando, writes Duane Rankin of The Arizona Republic. The second-year center was dealing with an injured ankle when the shutdown began, but he’s fully healthy now and feels ready to make a greater impact.

“I feel like I’m in my, damn, I don’t know, third or fourth year, and I know what I’m doing now,” Ayton said. “It’s not really me being told what to do. It’s me understanding and finding what’s available and being a playmaker. (Devin Booker) and Coach (Monty Williams) seen it so we just collaborate our differences and make things happen. Whatever is best for the team.”

There’s more from the Pacific Division:

  • The Suns haven’t given up hope that Kelly Oubre can play in Orlando, Rankin adds in the same story. Oubre has a knee issue and there have been reports that he will opt out of the restart, but general manager James Jones said this week that Oubre may be ready before the season ends. “Kelly’s doing fine,” Williams said Saturday. “He’s rehabbing. He does a little bit of court work, but for the most part, he’s on the side rehabbing and trying to get himself in tip-top (shape). He’s in good shape, but he’s not in the type of game shape that he wants to be in.”
  • Despite their historic five-year run, the Warriors‘ stars still feel like they have something to prove, Damion Lee said this week on the Runnin’ Plays podcast (hat tip to Kerith Burke of NBC Sports). “Steph (Curry) revolutionized the game,” Lee said. “But if you look at him, Klay (Thompson), Draymond (Green), a lot of guys on this team, we’re all guys that have a chip (on our shoulders).” He explained that all three players had doubters when they came into the league.
  • Dwight Howard and Danny Green both missed the Lakers’ practice Saturday for testing-related reasons, tweets Tania Ganguli of The Los Angeles Times. Howard was required to take an extra COVID-19 test because he didn’t travel to Orlando with the team, while Green had an error in his last test.
  • Two Kings players who tested positive for the virus have recorded two straight negative tests and have been cleared to join the team, tweets James Ham of NBC Sports. Coach Luke Walton refused to confirm their identities, but Buddy Hield was spotted getting on a plane today, according to Jason Jones of The Athletic (Twitter link).

Not All Suns Players On NBA Campus Yet

  • Not all of the Suns players are at the NBA’s campus yet, but Monty Williams declined on Thursday to identify the players arriving at a later date, writes Duane Rankin of The Arizona Republic. Phoenix’s head coach did say it was good to get back on a practice court. “It’s not weird when we get into the gym,” Williams said of the unusual circumstances. “It’s just when we leave the gym and you have to put your mask on and the coaches have had their mask on the whole practice. So you can imagine the huffing and puffing that goes on with us older coaches.”

Jones Has Not Ruled Out An Oubre Return For Restart

  • During a media call on Monday, Suns general manager James Jones did not rule out the prospect of Kelly Oubre Jr. to join his teammates for the league’s Orlando restart, according to Duane Rankin of the Arizona Republic. Oubre, the team’s starting small forward, underwent an arthroscopic surgery on his right knee for a torn meniscus on March 3 and is reportedly expected to remain sidelined through the summer.
  • Oubre, who will be an unrestricted free agent in the 2021/22 season, could be an appealing trade target for the Warriors, according to Anthony Slater of The Athletic. Slater assesses the Suns forward’s fit with Golden State. The contracts would line up nicely: Oubre is owed $14.2MM in 2020/21, and the Warriors have a $17.2MM trade exception on their books as a result of their Andre Iguodala trade last summer.

Knicks Notes: Booker, Draft, Wesley, Mini-Camp

Suns guard Devin Booker may be the player to watch as the Knicks try to trade for an unhappy star, writes Marc Berman of The New York Post. Booker is a former client of new team president Leon Rose, and as a Kentucky alumnus, he has a close relationship with newly hired executive VP William Wesley. Booker had plenty of good things to say about Rose when he became part of New York’s front office.

“I think he’ll do unbelievable,’’ Booker said. “One of the most genuine guys I know. One of the most honest guys I know. So I’m happy for him in his new position. I think the Knicks are in really good hands.’’

Berman suggests the Suns’ lack of success may eventually cause Booker to want to move on. They haven’t come close to making the playoffs in any of his five seasons.

There’s more from New York:

  • Finding a shooter will be a priority in the draft, Berman adds in the same piece. The Knicks own three of the top 38 picks and will be looking for a 3-point threat after shooting just 33% from beyond the arc this season. Berman notes that LaMelo Ball remains the team’s first choice among point guards, but he hasn’t been an effective long-distance shooter. If they draft him, the Knicks are hoping he can develop that part of his game, just like his brother Lonzo has.
  • Wesley has exerted influence over owner James Dolan for the past 15 years and was responsible for at least one disastrous decision, Berman states in a separate story. Wesley reportedly convinced Dolan to hire Steve Mills to replace Glen Grunwald as general manager in 2013 after a 54-28 season. The Knicks haven’t made the playoffs since that move.
  • Steve Popper of Newsday questions whether the Knicks should bother with a planned mini-camp in Chicago for the eight teams that weren’t invited to Orlando. The team wants to bring players together for workouts, but sees no benefit to a combined effort with seven other franchises while the coronavirus continues to spread, Popper writes. New York also has a coaching search to concentrate on and would prefer to hold private sessions so the new coach can begin to teach his system to the players.

Suns Front Office, Not Booker, To Blame If Phoenix Misses Playoffs

  • Suns All-Star Devin Booker deserves to shoulder little blame should Phoenix miss the playoffs in the NBA’s season restart, according to Duane Rankin of the Arizona Republic. Rankin posits that, with Booker having elevated his play this season, the front office deserves much of the blame for his surrounding teammates. Center Deandre Ayton, drafted ahead of All-Stars Luka Doncic and Trae Young in 2018, has been putting up solid counting statistics this season, but has yet to live up to his billing as a No. 1 pick.

Cameron Payne Signs With Suns

7:18pm: The Suns have officially signed Payne, per Gina Mizell, most recently of The Athletic (Twitter link).

6:20pm: Well-traveled point guard Cameron Payne, a current free agent most recently with the Cavaliers during the 2018/2019, has agreed to a two-year contract with the Suns, per Shams Charania of Stadium and The Athletic (Twitter link).

Since being drafted at the bottom of the 2015 lottery with the No. 14 pick out of Murray State by the Thunder, Payne has logged time – primarily as a backup – with Oklahoma City, the Bulls and the Cavaliers. He holds averages of 6.0 PPG (he is connecting on just 39.7% of his looks from the field but a decent 77.5% from the charity stripe), 1.8 RPG, and 2.5 APG.

The 26-39 Suns, led by All-Star Devin Booker, will be joining the NBA’s season restart in Orlando. The 6’3″ Payne can help the team shore up their guard depth as an end-of-bench/practice addition at either position.

No corresponding move is required, as the Suns have an open spot on their 15-man roster.

NBA’s Transaction Window Closes On Tuesday Night

The NBA’s week-long transaction window, which opened last Tuesday at noon eastern time, will close tonight at 11:59 pm ET, as ESPN’s Bobby Marks tweets.

A number of teams have taken advantage of the opportunity to sign, claim, and waive players within the last seven days, including the Thunder, who agreed to a new long-term deal with two-way player Luguentz Dort, the Knicks, who claimed Theo Pinson and Jared Harper while waiving Allonzo Trier, and many others. We’ll have a full recap of the week’s transactions on Wednesday morning.

Here’s what happens when this week’s transaction window closes:

  • Teams can no longer sign a player to a contract (unless he’s a substitute player).
  • Teams can no longer convert a two-way player to their standard roster.
  • Luxury tax penalties are calculated based on team payrolls as of June 30.

I wouldn’t expect a huge flurry of last-minute moves today, but it’s worth noting that a few teams still have roster spots available, including the Suns, Trail Blazers, Hornets (two), Warriors (two), and Timberwolves. Some – but not all – of those clubs have luxury-tax concerns.

For the 22 teams headed to Orlando to participate in the NBA’s restart, there’s one exception to the roster freeze. Starting on July 1, teams will still be able to sign a substitute player to replace a player who voluntarily opts out, contracts COVID-19, or is ruled out due to being at higher risk of serious coronavirus symptoms.

So far, six players have opted out of the restart — they’ll be ineligible to return this season, but eligible to be replaced by substitute players. In most cases, those players’ teams have already lined up those substitutes and will be able to sign them as of noon ET on Sunday.

J.R. Smith will replace Avery Bradley for the Lakers; Jerian Grant will replace Davis Bertans for the Wizards; Jaylen Adams will replace Trevor Ariza for the Trail Blazers; Justin Anderson will replace Wilson Chandler for the Nets; and Trey Burke will replace Willie Cauley-Stein for the Mavericks. Brooklyn still needs to line up a second substitute player for DeAndre Jordan.

This form of substitute-player transaction is permitted through August 14. After that, teams can still sign a replacement for a player who contracts COVID-19, but the substitute must have no more than three years of NBA service, ruling out a number of veterans.

Pelicans-Jazz Begins NBA Restart On July 30

The Pelicans and rookie star Zion Williamson will face the Jazz on July 30 at 6:30 p.m. ET in the first game of the NBA’s restart, the league announced on Friday.

There will be 88 “seeding” games from July 30 to August 14 prior to the postseason.

The Clippers will square off against the Lakers in the second game on July 30 at 9 p.m. ET. The first two games will be broadcast by TNT.

It will get very busy the next day with six games scheduled, highlighted by Celtics vs. Bucks and Rockets vs. Mavericks. There will be a maximum of seven games per day, with start times ranging from 12-9 p.m.

At the conclusion of the seeding games, the seven teams in each conference with the highest combined winning percentages across regular-season games and seeding games will be the first through seventh seeds for the conference playoffs.  If the team with the eighth-best combined winning percentage (regular-season games and seeding games) in a conference is more than four games ahead of the team with the ninth-best combined winning percentage in the same conference, then the team with the eighth-best winning percentage would be the No. 8 seed.

If the team with the eighth-best combined winning percentage in a conference is four games or fewer ahead of the team with the ninth-best combined winning percentage in the same conference, then those two teams would compete in a play-in tournament to determine the No. 8 playoff seed in the conference.  The play-in tournament will be double elimination for the eighth-place team and single elimination for the ninth-place team.

Much of the intrigue regarding the seeding games concerns the final Western Conference spot. The Grizzlies, currently eighth, hold a 3 1/2-game lead over the Trail Blazers, Pelicans and Kings, a four-game lead over the Spurs and a six-game advantage on the Suns.

Memphis will face the Blazers, Spurs, Pelicans, Jazz, Thunder, Raptors, Celtics and Bucks during the seeding round. Among the Grizzlies’ pursuers, the Pelicans appear to have the weakest schedule. After opening against the Jazz, they’ll face the Clippers, Grizzlies, Kings (twice), Wizards, Spurs and Magic.

The Nets and Magic need only to hold off the Wizards in the East to claim the final two spots in their conference. Washington trails Brooklyn by six games and Orlando by 5 1/2 games.

The breakdown of each team’s seeding schedule can be found here. The day-by-day schedule and national TV schedule can be found here.

Teams Bracing For COVID-19 Cases; Two Suns Test Positive

With the second phase of the NBA’s return-to-play plan getting underway today, mandatory coronavirus testing will begin for players on teams who will be part of the Orlando restart this summer, and those clubs are bracing for a “significant” number of positive tests, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski (via Twitter).

Full training camps won’t officially begin until July 11, after teams have reported to Orlando. Players who take part in group workouts at that time will have tested negative for COVID-19 at least twice upon arriving at Walt Disney World. During the two weeks before teams travel to Orlando, those clubs will look to identify and quarantine any players who have contracted the virus to ensure that they don’t bring it with them into the bubble.

According to Wojnarowski, one Western Conference playoff team had four positive coronavirus tests within the past few weeks. Meanwhile, Duane Rankin of The Arizona Republic reports that two Suns players have tested positive, prompting the team to temporarily shut down voluntary workouts at its Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum practice facility.

While an increasing number of positive tests in the coming days will likely prompt questions about the NBA’s restart plan, the league remains hopeful that by the time teams are ready to travel to Orlando around July 7, any affected players will either be fully recovered or will remain quarantined as they recover.