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.

Draymond Green tells Kyrie Irving: ‘I know your moves’ (video)

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Only Draymond Green can endearingly brag about his defensive intelligence while admitting getting fooled on a play.

In the Warriors’ blowout win over the Cavaliers last night, Green guarded Kyrie Irving and anticipated the Cleveland guard would go one way. After Irving went the other way to score, the two shared a moment during a stoppage.

“I know your  moves,” Green said.

“I know,” replied Irving, whose vast offensive repertoire allowed him to find an unexpected counter.

Thaddeus Young shakes backboard with dunk on Terrence Jones (video)

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Terrence Jones isn’t much of a rim protector.

Thaddeus Young took advantage.

This ferocious jam helped the Pacers beat the Pelicans, 98-85.

Rudy Gobert block secures Utah’s win over Phoenix (VIDEO)

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At the season’s midway point, Rudy Gobert is probably the leader frontrunner in the Defensive Player of the Year race. Kawhi Leonard will have a say, and there is a lot of basketball yet to play, but Gobert anchors the NBA’s best defense and he is a force in the paint.

Just ask the Phoenix Suns.

Down three with 13 seconds left Monday night, the Suns wanted a three to tie, but when that was not easily open Eric Bledsoe decided to drive for two (then the Suns would foul and extend the game), he was cut off so Bledsoe dished to rookie Marquese Chriss, who went in for the layup — and found the long arms of Gobert. Blocked shot and game over.

Utah is for real, folks.

Three Things We Learned, Cavaliers/Warriors edition: What can we take away from Monday to NBA Finals?

OAKLAND, CA - JANUARY 16:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers holds his face after being fouled by Draymond Green #23 of the Golden State Warriors at ORACLE Arena on January 16, 2017 in Oakland, California. 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 Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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The NBA goes big on Martin Luther King Jr. day — as they should — but if you missed the action because you were busy counting to 100,000 for no reason, we’ve got you covered with the key takeaways from the biggest game on the schedule.

And we’re doubling our usual three things we learned to six for a day.

Six things from Warriors’ thrashing of Cavaliers that could play out in NBA Finals.
 Nothing that happens in the regular season guarantees anything come the NBA playoffs, let alone the Finals. Last season’s 73-win Warriors were just the latest in a long line of teams to prove that. Which means we need to be careful reading much into Golden State’s thrashing of Cleveland on Martin Luther King Jr. day. The Finals are a little less than six months away — both of these teams will be different by then (the Cavaliers hope to have a healthy J.R. Smith and Kevin Love by then, for example).  Remember, in January one year ago the Warriors thrashed the Cavaliers on national television, and how did the following Finals turn out?

However, when these teams meet some strategies are tested, little things in the game that we could see — or teams will need to at least account for — come the Finals meeting we all expect. Here are six things from Monday’s game that could well play out in June in the NBA Finals.

1) In the four straight wins the Cavaliers had in this series prior to Monday, they were very aggressive in defending Stephen Curry — they trapped him off picks, were physical, tried to pressure him into decisions to give up the ball, then when Curry tried to make the playground passes that worked against other teams the Cavaliers help defenders made steals and were off in transition the other way. All of that made Curry passive — remember the guy floating on the perimeter taking just 11 shots on Christmas Day?

On Monday night Curry took that pressure in stride, attacked Kyrie Irving from the opening tip (remember Curry’s first possession he blew right by him), used his handles to create space, used his gravity to draw defenders to him, then he whipped smart passes around the floor. In the first half, Curry had 10 assists and zero turnovers. For the game Curry had 20 shots. If he can match that, or even come close, in the Finals, the Cavs are going to struggle to slow this offense down. Like every mortal team has.

2) In January 2016 the Warriors thrashed the Cavaliers on national television, and that was a critical step in the Cavaliers deciding they needed to let David Blatt go, hire Tyronn Lue, and make changes that put them on Golden State’s level. With Monday’s loss, one thing that was evident was the depth of playmaking options the Warriors have and how that can be difficult to guard. Cleveland has two playmakers right now, Kyrie Irving and LeBron James. Cavs’ GM David Griffin has talked about wanting to add playmakers, LeBron has called for a backup point guard, but it’s clear whatever position they could use to add another playmaker or two heading into the trade deadline.

3) Can Kevin Durant guard LeBron? Chris Haynes of ESPN with an interesting stat:

The Cavaliers were on the last night of a six-game, 12-day road trip — they were not at their best. LeBron clearly wasn’t. However, if KD can even do a reasonable job on LeBron — or can switch on to him without getting torched — the Warriors will be a lot more comfortable and have more options on defense.

4) How did Warriors handle Kyle Korver? They went right at him and made him play defense, which has never been a strong suit (to put it kindly). The Warriors have enough playmakers that whoever Korver was guarding just went at him, and it worked — particularly during the stretch that saw the Warriors first push their lead north of 20. Korver didn’t have a great shooting night, by June he likely is far more comfortable, but if the Warriors can expose him on the other end it will be hard to keep Korver on the court for extended periods.

5) When JaVale McGee checked in for the Warriors, Tyronn Lue countered with Channing Frye. JaVale is not a strong defender, doesn’t step out away from the basket if he can help it, and the Cavs saw an advantage. JaVale’s offense covered that in this game scoring inside, but it’s something to watch.

6) DeAndre Liggins is a good defender, but he’s more focused on-ball than off, and in the fourth quarter Klay Thompson torched him a few times making Liggins chase him off screens away from the ball. You can be sure Steve Kerr noticed and filed that away.