Plans have changed for Suns and Raptors

At 20-12, the Phoenix Suns’ run with fast but simple, fundamental, unselfish play under Jeff Hornacek can be a model for the NBA, writes Sam Smith of Similarly, the Toronto Raptors have won 10 of their last 14 games and appear playoff bound for

It seemed like the Phoenix Suns and Toronto Raptors had the plans. New management in both places, get rid of your top scorers — the Suns losing six of their top seven with Marcin Gortat, Luis Scola, Jared Dudley, Shannon Brown Michael Beasley and Jermaine O’Neal and the Raptors five of their top eight with Andrea Bargnani, Rudy Gay, Alan Anderson, Ed Davis and Jose Calderon — and get into potentially the best draft in a decade to supplement your young core.

Like Woody Allen said, “If you want to make God laugh, tell Him about your plans.”

Often they end up being changed, as they seem to be with the Raptors and the Suns, the latter at the United Center Tuesday and arguably the surprise team in the NBA. The Trail Blazers rank in that category as well with a stunning 26-8 record and one game out of first in the Western Conference. But they’ve got All-Stars with LaMarcus Aldridge and the reigning Rookie of the year in Damian Lillard. If anything, they were an underachieving team last season with 33 wins. The Suns were last in the West with 25 wins last season and deservedly so. So they loaded up with starters including a guy who never played for the Pacers, one of the Plumlees; a veteran of six international leagues; a guy coming back from a heart ailment; and Chris Paul’s backup. They kept Goran Dragic, most famous for his expression when Derrick Rose dunked over him. They also brought in a 33-year-old general manager who was Danny Ainge’s assistant and a former player who never had been a head coach. How could that not work?

But the Suns are 20-12. It only gets you seventh in the Western Conference, so they still could miss the playoffs. But their run with fast but simple, fundamental, unselfish play under Jeff Hornacek can be a model for the NBA.

“We’re not the most talented guys, so they have to play (hard and unselfish),” Hornacek told the Arizona Republic.

Could Hornacek have been the Bulls coach? Yes, if they’d hired the Elmhurst native who played for Lyons Township High School and Iowa State after interviewing him. Hornacek was a good shooting second round pick, a more athletic Steve Kerr, chosen also in the second round by the Suns and who went on to a 14-year NBA career as a deft shooter. He played for the Jazz’ Finals teams against the Bulls as what was supposed to be that elusive shooter the Jazz needed to complement Karl Malone and John Stockton. They’d gone through Darrell Griffith and Jeff Malone and came closest with Hornacek. Hornacek was one of the game’s top three point shooters and retired in 2000. He was a part-time shooting coach with the Jazz when the Bulls were looking to replace Scott Skiles and interim Jim Boylan. Hornacek still wasn’t sure about going back on the road fulltime, so he remained in Phoenix and the Bulls hired Vinny Del Negro. Hornacek joined the Jazz staff in 2011 after Jerry Sloan and Phil Johnson left.

Hornacek came in this season predicting a return to the Suns fast paced game. And it’s occurred with a two point guard backcourt of Dragic and Eric Bledsoe, who has been out lately with a knee problem. It’s not unlike when the Suns acquired Kevin Johnson to go along with Hornacek and doubled their win total. They lead the league in fast break points (the Bulls are 28th), push the ball, take good shots and move the ball quickly. They are in the top 10 in the NBA in scoring, shooting, three-point shooting and steals. Hornacek was coach of the month for a 10-3 December to match the one player of the month award he received in his career. And their lottery pick from 2013, Alex Len, hasn’t even played yet. And they potentially have four first round picks this season and two next in what is supposed to be two of the top drafts in years. And it’s 70 degree there Monday. Unfair.

Meanwhile, Miami finally stopped the Atlantic Division leading Raptors. Though it was in the last minute Sunday as the Raptors now have won just 10 of their last 14. They hired a new president and general manager and coach Dwane Casey was in his final season. And they were poised to get into the lottery to select Canada native Andrew Wiggins, who is at Kansas. But along the way to the bottom they floated to the top of their division with the East’s toughest schedule and rank among the top five in the league in fourth quarter scoring. Heck of a way to blow management’s plan. The assumption now is Casey gets a new deal and the playoffs for the first time in six years.

Durant one tough cover

-- It’s early Jordanesque now for Kevin Durant, and he showed Saturday he can do it with 48 points in that win over the Timberwolves, 32 in the second half. I sense sometimes he’s like the big kid in the park who doesn’t shoot because he doesn’t want the other kids to give up and go home. But now without Russell Westbrook, Kevin Martin, James Harden and Jeff Green he has to score. While the other team pretty much is only guarding him, like Portland and Brooklyn did in recent games and he had some trouble getting off late shots. But Durant is the game’s most unguaradable. … How about Kendrick Perkins fouling Kevin Love on a three in that game with a two-point lead and 2.2 seconds left. Love, shockingly, missed all three. But more amazing the way the Thunder can win without Westbrook is that they can win despite playing Perkins, the game’s most useless big man. Which is something when Aaron Gray still is in the NBA. … Turns out it probably wasn’t automatic that Love would make those two free throws he didn’t get against Dallas last week when the NBA had to apologize to the Timberwolves for them not getting that last second foul call on Love. Sometimes it’s tough to make those late free throws for even the best. … Interim coaches rarely ever make things better. So the Knicks ought to hold onto Mike Woodson. But this ongoing series of late game mental breakdowns, the most recent with J.R. Smith throwing up a quick three that cost a chance to go overtime against Houston, displays an amazing lack of preparation. And Ron Artest isn’t even playing. This is what happens when you take short term chances on talent over character. Even as the Knicks have excused and supported Smith, he tried to embarrass the organization last week with a social media message accusing them of “betrayal” for releasing his brother, Chris, who was a controversial roster addition to open the season as players said Chris was not NBA caliber but given a chance and put on the roster as a favor to J.R. But, you know. The Knicks, actually, are playing very well of late with Iman Shumpert learning the season has started. They should have swept the Texas triangle of games. Imagine if they also thought the game.

Sixers win four straight out West

-- Sometimes it’s just embarrassing to have to play Western Conference teams if you are from the Eastern Conference. You figure the 76ers don’t want to go home—well, weather issues as well—now with four straight wins on their Western trip concluding in Portland Saturday night. Looks like another “tanking” team didn’t get the memo. The center of this run has been one of those most underrated guys, the 76ers’ Thaddeus Young, who has scored at least 25 points in six of the last seven games and averaged 26.7 on this Western trip. It is possible they don’t have the NBA cable package out there and don’t know he’s left handed. If most improved is purely making yourself better, it may be Young. He made eight three-pointers combined in the last three seasons. He’s made 14 in the last seven games and is shooting 41 percent on threes this season after 12.5 percent last season. He’s got two years left after this at almost $10 million per season and his name will come up regularly in trade rumors given the 76ers’ rebuilding program. … So will Spencer Hawes’. The 76ers’ free agent center is averaging career highs in points and rebounds, but he likely won’t be going back to where he was drafted in Sacramento. He was unwelcome there last week and not just because the 76ers won there. The Seattle native lobbied for the Kings to relocate to Seattle. "I won't make any qualms about where I stand," Hawes told the Sacramento Bee. "I want to see my hometown get a franchise. There is confliction, but I'm not going to beat around the bush about what my stance is." Regarding relocation or confliction, apparently. … The Celtics opened their Western trip Sunday with a blowout loss in Oklahoma City starting a week on to Denver, the Clippers, Golden State and Portland. There goes the Atlantic. What stands out most watching the Celtics is with a mismatched roster and so much opportunity for someone to stand out, Jeff Green remains almost anonymous in his play. … Gary Neal’s, “I earned my money, why don’t you try it,” to Larry Sanders as reported after the Bucks Saturday home loss to the Suns was a classic. The guess is Neal didn’t have many of those sessions in the Spurs locker room last season. But you do have a team in Milwaukee that is going to have a high draft pick. They just may be the idol of fans everywhere.

NBA news and notes

-- It would be understandable the way the Cavs are playing to drop trade pretexts about making the playoffs after a Saturday loss to the Nets—a streaking 2-0 in the New Year—who now start Shaun Livingston at point guard with Deron Williams off the ball and Paul Pierce at power forward…Tim Duncan got his 779th double/double of his career in Saturday’s blowout of the Clippers without Chris Paul (yes, tough without an All Star point guard). Karl Malone is the all-time leader with 814. Olden Polynice, having played more than 1,000 games, is believed to be the leader in triple-singles. … The Kings—yes, the Kings—talked pregame about not overlooking the lesser teams and of course ended up being swept for the season with a home loss Saturday to the Bobcats. Players griping among each other and at officials has become epidemic and coach Mike Malone, who has had a reputation for strong defense, said afterward to reporters, “It’s just a broken record. I can’t defend for our guys. At some point we have to be embarrassed being ranked 29th in almost every defensive category. It’s got to bother guys and right now and I don’t know how much it does.” Psst. Don’t tell anyone. But he may want to take a look at DeMarcus Cousins. … Though he hasn’t gotten as much attention with the backcourt shooting and the addition of Andre Iguodala and his game winning shots of late, David Lee has come on strong for the Warriors after averaging 13.5 in their 13-12 start. Since then, he’s averaging 23.6 points and 10.5 rebounds with the Warriors blowing through the Eastern Conference and heading to the top four in the Western Conference. Said Dwyane Wade on Stephen Curry after the Warriors, undefeated on their Eastern trip, won in Miami: "They have a shot to come out of the Western Conference because of his ability to pass with both hands and shoot. That's a very good team over there. Mark Jackson has done a very good job, but Stephen Curry makes them special."… The Warriors have moved into a tie for fourth with the Clippers, who’ll now likely will take a fall without Chris Paul, out for an estimated six weeks with a shoulder injury. Both are 23-13 while the Warriors are 18-6 when Iguodala plays. … Sounds like a balance of power trade coming between the Grizzlies and Celtics with Courtney Lee and Jerryd Bayless, both being traded for the fourth time. Boston gets off two more years salary while the Grizzlies get a good three-point shooter again. Finally. … And then there’s these last few weeks of urgent rumor about Andrew Bynum as it remains to be seen which team gets the right to release him and save money. This last labor agreement is making it much more difficult and uncertain to make trades.

-- Dennis Rodman actually recruited several NBA players to go to North Korea with him for his “diplomacy” basketball. Though if the government does decide to imprison you, there is no U.S. embassy to contact. Dribble at your own risk. But it also was interesting to find out that former Bull Craig Hodges was going but also that Hodges is the coach of the Halifax Rainmen. Who knew? They are in Nova Scotia in the National Basketball League of Canada. They were formerly part of the Premier Basketball League, another minor league that has a Chicago team playing in Markham and one playing in Bloomington. … One team to watch for moves is the Pistons, who were blown out at home Sunday by a Memphis team without Marc Gasol and Tony Allen. They are 6-12 at home with five straight home losses and that big front line with Josh Smith at small forward a mess. With GM Joe Dumars on the last season of his deal the local view was the Pistons had to make the playoffs. The return of Chauncey Billups also has been a disappointment as the Pistons are worst in the league in being outscored in fourth quarters. The Cavs’ only win in the last 10 was when the Magic blew a 10-point lead at home in the last minute and lost in overtime. See, that’s why coaches don’t take their starters out too soon. … John Wall is having a nice season averaging almost 20 points and nine assists. There’s talk he should be an All-Star. But Wall has never played a game in the NBA on a team with a winning record. The Wizards have not been above .500 since October 2009…It didn’t make the highlight shows because there were no highlights anymore, at least on one end. The Spurs and Tim Duncan hosted the Nets and Kevin Garnett New Year’s Eve: Combined 29 All-Star games, 17 all-defensive teams, 14 all-NBA first team, almost 50,000 career points. Duncan had 15 points on seven of 11 shooting in the Spurs blowout win in 24 minutes. Garnett played 17 minutes and was zero for five shooting with three rebounds and second to Paul Pierce in minus in the plus/minus chart when he was on the floor. Duncan and Garnett have contracts for one season after this. … The Mavs have lost their last three at home with Sunday’s loss to the Knicks. And coming into that game Dirk Nowitzki declared: “The way we let those (home) games slip away I don’t think we’re a playoff team.” Dallas is now eighth in the West, resting on the precipice with expiring contracts for Vince Carter, Shawn Marion and a buyout for Samuel Dalembert of that question about whether the bottom of the playoffs is more important to them than the draft.

-- Too bad for good guy Brian Shaw, taunted by fans in Denver with chants of "Go back to Indiana" and "Bring back George Karl." Shaw had suspended guard Andre Miller after Miller yelled at him for being left out of a game. The Nuggets had lost eight straight before beating Memphis Friday and then embarrassing the Lakers Sunday night with 137 points. But the Nuggets basically have lost the league’s best home court advantage as they are 8-8 at home. It was ironic the win came against Memphis, which also is below .500 and also changed coaches after a high level season as well. Memphis has been without center Marc Gasol, and Denver has been without JaVale McGee and Danilo Gallinari. But both teams have tried to change playing philosophies to accommodate new coaches and management, the Nuggets going to a slower, more physical and disciplined game as they’ve gone from No. 1 in the league in fast break points to 15th. And the Grizzlies trying to go faster from their bump and grind game, which they have returned to in large part. But it also is the price of coaching changes. It may sound good at times, though not in those cases after last season. But there are always new philosophies and demands and it will be difficult for either team to make the playoffs this season as a result. … LaMarcus Aldridge moved past Bulls basketball operations director Jim Paxson (John’s brother) into fifth place on the Trailblazers all-time scoring list. … The rumors of a dump of Pau Gasol to Cleveland for Andrew Bynum continues in the ugliness for Gasol in Los Angeles. After all, here’s a player without whom the Lakers couldn’t have won those two championships in 2009 and 2010. But Gasol never has been embraced by the fans in Los Angles, who are accustomed to more flamboyant center play. Then last week local media reports quoting anonymous team sources claimed Gasol declined to play with a respiratory infection when he could play. Coach Mike D’Antoni defended him. But despite comments otherwise, Gasol is said to want out of Los Angeles. To Cleveland? Despite all this, Gasol has remained professional and respectful in his relationships with the media and public. … This is contract guarantee for the season week. Then 10-day contracts begin. The Heat is expected to release Roger Mason Jr., who supposedly was going to sign with the Bulls last summer before being contacted by Miami. The Heat could be waiting for Bynum. … Kendall-mania? Probably not, but former Suns lottery pick Kendall Marshall came out of the D-League to start for the point guardless Lakers and get 20 points and 15 assists, the first Laker with those numbers in a decade. Said D’Antoni: "I’m not making a comparison, but Jeremy Lin did the exact same thing. The first time he (Lin) went out in Boston it was awful, and I’m thinking, ‘Oh my gosh.’ Then, obviously it happened to him. It does happen to guys. He (Marshall) has great vision, he sees everything. He just played the way you’re supposed to play at point guard." Marshall had nine points and 17 assists in Sunday’s loss to Denver.