NBA Season Preview: Orlando Magic

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Thumbnail image for Jnelson_Dhoward.jpgLast season: 59-23, the second seed in the East. In the playoffs they Magic swept past the Bobcats and Hawks before running into the buzz saw that was the Celtics and losing in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Head Coach: Stan Van Gundy, one of the best going and probably funnier than his brother.

Key Departures: Matt Barnes, which will not be a big loss unless the Magic have to face him and the Lakers in the finals, and he comes with a chip on his shoulder.

Key Additions: The biggest move was bringing back JJ Redick, matching and offer from the Chicago Bulls. Redick is a great fit within the Magic system and the perfect counterweight on the days that Vince Carter goes Toronto Vince on the team.

Chris Duhon comes in as the primary backup for Jameer Nelson and is much better fit here than he was in the Mike D’Antoni system in New York. Duhon is a solid defender and hit 36.4 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes last season. It’s a good role for him.

Quentin Richardson replaces Barnes and is a better fit in this system — he is a fantastic spot-up shooter. More than half his shots came that way last season and he scored an impressive 1.15 points per shot attempt, and shot 42 percent from three. Van Gundy is going to love him.

Best case scenario: NBA champions. They are in the elite tier of the NBA, it’s only a matter of beating out the others also there — Miami, Boston and the Lakers. Oh, just that….

For that to happen: Orlando has to be better than last year — and last season they have the best regular season point differential in the league — and better than a couple years ago. The Lakers have gotten better, Boston has gotten better, the Heat will be the Heat. There is no easy path to the ring.

Specifically, the Magic need to be better on offense. The defense will again be at or near the top of the league. And last season the Magic were near the top of the league if offensive efficiency (depends on the way you measure it, Basketball-Reference has them fourth, Hoopdata second). But it didn’t feel consistent.

Dwight Howard shot 61.2 percent last year, an insanely high number, but he saw his touches in the offense go down (two fewer shots per game than the season before). Meanwhile, more shots went to an inconsistent core around him of Jameer Nelson, Vince Carter and Rashard Lewis. None of them were bad, but there were nights when the Magic offense just didn’t fire.

Howard again has to be the focus of the offense, and he spent the summer working with Hakeem Olajuwon to round out his game. Howard takes unfair criticism for not having a jumpshot, but he remains a very efficient scorer. He does have moves around the rim, and the ones he has he knocks down the shot.

Simply put, the Magic is Howard’s show. There will be nights Carter or Nelson can win the game, but the Magic offense has been more efficient when Howard gets touches. He needs more of them.

More likely the Magic will: Be right in the thick of things, but is that enough to get out of the East? Or past the Lakers? A lot will depend on health — of the Magic and other the other top teams — and seedings. Boston could blow off the end of the regular season again to get healthy, and if so the team that can avoid playing them the longest has the easier path.

The Magic may have the best roster to beat the Heat. Miami is insanely good at the two, three and four — if you beat them it will be by exploiting them at the point guard and center spots. I can see a playoff series where the Magic will run the Nelson/Howard pick-and-roll every time down, daring Bosh to help off Rashard Lewis or Wade off Redick. (Matt Barnes used to be the guy you helped off of, do that now and Richardson makes you pay.) Maybe the Heat can adjust, maybe they can just overwhelm, but don’t think they can just roll the Magic. That would be a great series.

The Magic did not make many roster changes, nor should they have (unless an amazing opportunity fell in their lap). They went to the finals two seasons ago. The second half of last season they were the best team in basketball, up until they ran into the playoff buzz saw that was the Celtics. This team is good, this team is on the edge of winning it all. You don’t mess with that much.

They Magic will be one of the best regular season teams in the league, no doubt. The question is will they hone their game enough during the season to take the next step in the playoffs

Prediction: 59 wins, again which will get them the two seed again (the Heat may be vulnerable in the playoffs, but they will be regular season beasts). Then Orlando’s real work starts.

Nine-year veteran Eric Gordon finally chose his team, and he’s clicking with Rockets

AUBURN HILLS, MI - NOVEMBER 21: Eric Gordon #10 of the Houston Rockets tires to get a shot off against the Detroit Pistons at the Palace of Auburn Hills on November 21, 2016 in Auburn Hills, Michigan. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
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A New Orleans restricted free agent in 2012, Eric Gordon signed a max offer sheet with the Suns and infamously declared his heart to be in Phoenix.

New Orleans matched anyway.

“I knew it wasn’t going to happen,” Gordon said. “I knew they were going to bring me back all along.”

So why make those statements? Why alienate New Orleans fans?

“You just never know what a team might do or not,” Gordon said.

Gordon been around long enough now to know you never know, even when you’re certain you do. But this much he clearly believes: In his ninth NBA season and on the first team he picked, he’s happy with the Rockets.

Gordon was drafted onto the Donald Sterling, pre-Blake Griffin Clippers, who had made the playoffs just four times in the previous 32 years and had developed a reputation for cheapness and disarray. They went 19-63, 29-53 and 32-50 in Gordon’s three years in Los Angeles. Yet he says, “I enjoyed my time there.”

He was traded to New Orleans as the centerpiece of the Clippers’ package for Chris Paul, and he doesn’t look back on his time with the Hornets/Pelicans quite so fondly. “Nobody was on the same page over there,” Gordon said. “It was just different. We had the talent there, and things just didn’t work out.”

Gordon admits he sometimes wonders what would’ve happened if he had gone to the Suns. But they haven’t made the playoffs and are on their fourth coach since his offer sheet. “After looking back on it now, they had a lot of chaos and turmoil there, too,” Gordon said.

So, Houston is a welcome reprieve.

Gordon’s first unrestricted free agency yielded a four-year contract worth more than $52 million. He’s averaging 17.0 points per game, his highest mark in five years. He has been healthy after after missing 173 games in five years with New Orleans. And the Rockets are 15-7, on pace for what would easily be Gordon’s most successful season.

Playing with James Harden and for Mike D’Antoni – whose fondness for Gordon dates back to their gold-medal run with Team USA in the 2010 World Championship – has treated Gordon well. Houston is focused on offense, Gordon’s specialty, and its system accentuates his strengths.

Gordon leads the NBA with seven open 3-pointers per game, which he’s converting at 41.3% clip:

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Notice the other Rockets on that list: Ryan Anderson and Trevor Ariza. Benefitting from playing alongside Harden – an attention-tracker and willing passer – is not unique.

But Gordon does more than just rely on Harden to get him open shots. Since moving to the bench with Patrick Beverley healthy, Gordon has proven particularly valuable when Harden sits.

Houston scores 118.7 points per 100 possessions with Harden on the floor, per NBAwowy!. That mark obviously plummets without Harden, one of the NBA’s best offensive players.

Gordon has prevented it from falling too far, though.

He scores more points per 36 minutes (15.5 to 28.5) and does so with a higher true shooting percentage (56.0 to 62.5) from with Harden to without. He also handles more playmaking, increasing his assists per 36 minutes (2.4 to 4.1), though also, disproportionally, his turnovers per 36 minutes (1.5 to 3.6).

Still, Gordon’s effect on the Rockets’ offense without Harden is tremendously positive.

  • Houston’s offensive rating without Harden – with Gordon: 107.7
  • Houston’s offensive rating without Harden – without Gordon: 86.7

Propping up the Rockets’ Harden-less offense has made Gordon an early contender for Sixth Man of the Year. Here are the win-share leaders among eligible players:

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Given voting history, ranking eligible players by points per game is probably more predictive. It’s at least even more flattering to Gordon:

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Lakers guard Lou Williams deserves to be the early favorite for the award. I’m also quite high on Spurs guard Patty Mills.

But Gordon belongs solidly in the mix.

It might not be the stardom the Clippers predicted when they drafted him No. 7 or New Orleans envisioned when it twice acquired him, but at least Gordon is happily contributing to a winner. After so much controversy – both invited (his Suns saga) and uninvited (being part of the Chris Paul trade) – he sounds happy in Houston.

“You just try to stride it out with whatever team you’re on. So, you know, it’s been a unique situation,” Gordon said. “But here, it’s been good.”

Kyle Lowry to critical DeMar DeRozan: ‘Every shot you shoot is a bad shot, analytic-wise’ (video)

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Your reminder that Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are the best together.

DeRozan was asked about Lowry’s long 3-pointers after the Raptors’ win over the Timberwolves last night.

  • DeRozan: “”Them shots be lucky. … To me, it’s a bad shot.”
  • Lowry (off camera): “Every shot you shoot is a bad shot, analytic-wise.”

That’s not quite what the analytics say, but I won’t let the facts get in the way of a superb diss.

Gregg Popovich pins Spurs’ effort problems on players: ‘I don’t remember playing tonight’ (video)

San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich gives instructions against the Detroit Pistons in the first half of a preseason NBA basketball game in Auburn Hills, Mich., Monday, Oct. 10, 2016. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
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The Spurs fell behind by 18 and eventually lost to the Bulls, 95-91, last night – which begged the question:

Does San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich bear any responsibility for his team’s lack of early intensity?

Jabari Young of the San Antonio Express-News:

Popovich:

I don’t remember playing tonight. I didn’t play. Guys get a lot of money to be ready to play. No Knute Rockne speeches. It’s your job. If you’re a plumber and you don’t do your job, you don’t get any work. I don’t think a plumber needs a pep talk. If a doctor botches operations, he’s not a doctor anymore. If you’re a basketball player, you come ready. It’s called maturity. It’s your job.

Like it or not, motivation is part of an NBA coach’s job.

But that’s also precisely what Popovich is doing.

His credentials dwarf any other coach’s. He can play to his own ego and absolve himself of responsibility – and players will seek to please him. His years of success have earned him the ability to motivate this way, a method no other coach could use without alienating his team.

Donatas Motiejunas signing four-year, $35 million contract with Rockets

DENVER, CO - MARCH 07:  Donatas Motiejunas #20 of the Houston Rockets is helped to his feet by teammates James Harden #13 and Patrick Beverley #2 of the Houston Rockets at Pepsi Center on March 7, 2015 in Denver, Colorado. The Rockets defeated the Nuggets 114-100. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
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Once the Rockets let Donatas Motiejunas back into free agency, this was only a matter of time.

Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports:

This sounds remarkably similar to the salaries and incentives set in the original offer sheet from the Nets. But remember, the Rockets didn’t match some of those bonuses that Brooklyn would have been bound to.

So, why not hold Motiejunas to what became a four-year, $31 million offer sheet once matched? Houston got something in return – a later trigger date on guaranteeing Motiejunas’ 2017-18 salary. Originally, that decision had to be made March 1 – which would’ve meant dropping Motiejunas from the team this season to prevent his salary from counting next season. Now, the Rockets can make that call in July, after this season is complete.

The following two Julys, Houston will also have a choice on guaranteeing Motiejunas’ upcoming salary or dropping him.

Essentially, Motiejunas is signing the most lucrative Hinkie Special in NBA history. If he plays well and stays healthy, the Rockets have Motiejunas at an affordable rate. If he struggles or his back injuries flare up, they can drop him with little to no penalty.

After they backed themselves into this corner, Motiejunas and his agent, B.J. Armstrong, didn’t do so bad. Considering the similarity between this contract and the Nets’ original offer sheet, it seems Houston helped Armstrong save face after a bungled free agency (which is easier to accept when you’re adding a talented reserve to a formidable team).

But for how little is guaranteed and how much control the Rockets hold over the next four years, wouldn’t Motiejunas have been better off accepting the $4,433,683 qualifying offer?