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Preview: Suns run into red hot Trail Blazers

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Portland, winners of 14 of their last 21 games, faces this Suns team on the verge of another mega slide.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Phoenix Suns Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

What: Phoenix Suns host the Portland Trail Blazers

When: 7:00 p.m. AZ

Where: Talking Stick Resort Arena

Watch: Fox Sports Arizona

Listen: 98.7 FM


Probable starters:

Suns - De’Anthony Melton, Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, Kelly Oubre Jr., Dragan Bender

Trail Blazers - Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Maurice Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu, Jusuf Nurkic

Suns

OffRtg - 103.9 (28th), DefRtg - 112.7 (28th), NetRtg = minus-8.7 (28th)

First off, it’s likely Booker will be without his top secondary scorers (Ayton and Warren) due to separate ankle injuries, so he’s going to have to carry a massive load tonight. Really, it will give me flashbacks to last season if that’s the case. Booker has gotten used to a plus-30 usage rate over the past year or so, but he will truly be in a position where he might have to do everything for the Suns to even stay close against this resurgent Trail Blazers team.

Speaking of Warren missing tonight’s game, the opportunity has risen for Oubre Jr. to be inserted into Phoenix’s starting lineup for the first time. These slow starts have been painful to watch over the past few weeks, and Oubre Jr. seems like the most logical solution to this problem in place of Warren. If Oubre Jr. thrives in the No. 2 role behind Booker, head coach Igor Kokoskov needs to stick with it even when Warren returns because they have a huge decision to make this offseason.

After dealing Trevor Ariza for Oubre Jr., which is seeming like a heist right now, Phoenix will have his restricted rights with a cap hold of $9.6 million. With the way he’s been playing in a Suns uniform, the former Kansas Jayhawk has put himself in line for a big payday.

The multi-million dollar question for Vice President of Basketball Operations James Jones is what happens if an overzealous team comes to bat and offers Oubre Jr. a poison pill type of contract? The Suns would be wise to put a cap on both Oubre Jr. and Richaun Holmes at a combined $20 million per year (ex: Oubre Jr. — 4-year, $60 million offer sheet; Holmes — 2-year, $10 million). If it gets past that point, Jones would be wise to pass unless there’s more roster retooling incoming we aren’t expecting this offseason.

Ideally, Oubre Jr. would move into a starter role, while Warren slides back in as a microwave scoring sixth man — the new jumbo-sized version of Lou Williams. Just take a gander at how these two have stacked up head-to-head per 36 minutes since Oubre Jr. joined the Suns’ rotation on Dec. 19:

Warren: 18.2 points, 4.2 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.6 steals, and 0.5 blocks on 44.2/39.5/76.7 shooting splits; 53.2 true shooting percentage and 21.3 usage rate

Oubre Jr.: 19.8 points, 5.6 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 1.3 steals, and 1.4 blocks on 45.8/36.8/72.1 shooting splits; 57.1 true shooting percentage and 22.6 usage rate

Poll

Which wing fits better long-term next to Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton?

This poll is closed

  • 53%
    T.J. Warren
    (276 votes)
  • 46%
    Kelly Oubre Jr.
    (237 votes)
513 votes total Vote Now

Now, let’s bounce over to the improved play out of Dragan Bender this week. Somehow, in back-to-back starts, Bender put together double-double performances versus Karl-Anthony Towns’ Minnesota Timberwolves. Bender looked way more comfortable running the floor as a center than playing as a stretch four. However, Kokoskov said after their postgame press conference Tuesday that Bender is a power forward so he might be stuck in a limited role once Ayton and Holmes return.

Phoenix declined Bender’s fourth-year team option leading into this season, so he isn’t viewed as part of their young core anymore. Even though he’s looked way better lately, it might not really matter in the end. Renouncing Bender was a cap space move, which is telling for the No. 4 overall pick in 2016.

Who knows how Bender does after this season, or even the rest of this one, but I don’t see him returning to the Suns for 2019-20. My prediction is Bender ends up on a contender in need of cheap frontcourt bench help. Teams like Golden State and San Antonio make plenty of sense to me, so this Bender case study will be an example many continue to follow even after he enters unrestricted free agency close to six months from now.

Trail Blazers

OffRtg - 111.5 (8th), DefRtg - 109.3 (16th), NetRtg = 2.2 (T10th)

For the Portland section today, I wanted to focus on the long-term ramifications of keeping Lillard and McCollum together plus them needing to maybe be a buyer at this year’s trade deadline.

It really seems like GM Neil Olshey has locked himself into the Lillard/McCollum duo until he’s fired, so he will continue to retool around those two trying to build a title contender. The thing is, they are kind of stuck for the next two years until albatross contracts like Evan Turner and Meyers Leonard clear off their books. That makes this upcoming deadline two weeks from now even more interesting from Portland’s point of view.

They have a solid front line set with Nurkic and Zach Collins, but nothing else is really appealing on their roster outside of that. Sticking out like a sore thumb on their roster right now is the lack of wing depth. If a win-now wing becomes available, the Trail Blazers should definitely be inquiring.

What names on the available wing list even fit alongside Lillard, McCollum, Nurkic, and Collins in Portland? No, please don’t say Carmelo Anthony — even though that would be pretty cool for nostalgia reasons — but trade targets such as Kent Bazemore (Atlanta Hawks) and James Johnson (Miami Heat) check plenty of boxes they should be looking for on the open market.

The Trail Blazers aren’t really a title contender, especially with the juggernauts out in the Western Conference currently, but they need to at least try to move the needle this season to show Lillard and their fanbase. Winners of 14 of their last 21 games, which is an awesome success rate with the nightly gauntlet in this conference, Portland just needs to somehow stay patient while making the right baby step type of moves along the way.

If they don’t succeed within the next two or so years, though, maybe it’s time to blow it up there like we are seeing with Memphis.

Heads up, Suns fans, Lillard has the opportunity to be an unrestricted free agent in 2021, if he declines a possible super-max offer and Phoenix somehow still has a major hole at the point guard position.

Prediction

Warren has already been ruled out of Thursday’s contest, plus Ayton and Holmes are questionable, so we could be in line to see a vintage Booker performance where he isn’t surrounded by much talent. In order for the Suns to win, let alone keep this one close against one of the Western Conference’s most consistent teams, they will need Booker to go off for 30-40 points while role players step up in a massive way.

Alongside Booker, the Suns’ three young wings in Mikal Bridges, Oubre Jr., and Jackson will play pivotal sidekick roles helping balance scoring workload and defensive versatility. The thing is, will this even be enough? Jackson just had one of his best all-around games of the season versus Minnesota, yet it came in a 27-point loss.

Lillard and Co. will be very motivated after a tough loss in Oklahoma City where they faltered late. Portland’s guards always tend to have their way against Phoenix, so this could get ugly especially if names like Jake Layman and Evan Turner continue to have random career-nights versus the current bottom feeder in the Western Conference.

Even though the Suns have Booker, this probably will be over early with no real consistent scoring help paired next to him as Warren and Ayton are banged up. Blazers win by 20 or more, but the real question is will Phoenix continue to show fight when the going gets tough when they’re shorthanded.

Trail Blazers 127, Suns 105