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.

After loss, Kevin Durant doesn’t sound like guy looking to bolt Oklahoma City

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 30:  Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder walks off the court after being defeated 96-88 by the Golden State Warriors in Game Seven of the Western Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at ORACLE Arena on May 30, 2016 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 Robert Reiners/Getty Images)
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The conventional wisdom around the NBA shifted some as the NBA playoffs wore on, moving from “Kevin Durant is definitely in play” to “Kevin Durant likely stays with the Thunder for at least a year” as the Thunder kept on winning and came close to knocking off the Golden State Warriors. Where is he going to go and have a better chance at a ring?

Of course, when asked directly about free agency after the game, Durant would have no part of it.

“I mean, we just lost like 30 minutes ago, so I haven’t even thought about it,” Durant said. “I’m just embracing my teammates and just reflecting on the season. I’ll think about that stuff, I don’t know when. But we just lost an hour ago, 30 minutes ago, so I don’t know.”

But some of the other things he said over the course of the night sounded like a guy who is going to stay put. At least for now. There was this comment reflecting back on the season:

“I’m just proud of what all we’ve been through this season. We stuck together and we sacrificed for each other. That’s just what makes this game so special.”

Notice the use of the word “we.” He used that word a lot in his postgame press conference.

He used that word more speaking to Sam Amick of the USA Today a little later in the evening.

“We all grew up,” Durant said. “I think more than anything, we embraced the moment. We stayed in the moment every game. I’m more proud because most of these guys haven’t played in this atmosphere before.

“From (fellow free-agent-to-be) Dion (Waiters) to Enes to Andre, Steven – this is his first time as a starter playing, in this type of atmosphere as one of the main guys,” Durant said. “(Veteran) Randy (Foye) never made it to the Western Conference Finals, and he played a lot. Anthony Morrow had never made it to the playoffs, so I was just proud of how everyone just stayed in the moment and enjoyed it. That’s what I’m most proud of.”

And then, the curious kicker.”I see bright things for this team,” he added. “And it’s great to be a part of it.”

Once Durant’s emotions have settled after the loss, he may look at his situation and decide he does want to test the waters of free agency. There are no certainties in the NBA.

However, the sense around the league is that Durant will sign a two-year, one-plus-one deal with the Thunder, where he gets max money next season then can opt out again after one year (the kind of deal LeBron James did last summer). The reason starts with money. Durant’s max salary next season (whether with the Thunder or another team) will start at around $28 million a year, but if he signs a new contract in 2017 — after another salary cap bump and he gets 10 years in the league, so the percentage of his max deal goes up — his max would  start in the $37 million a year range. There’s a risk with a one-year type deal, but it makes a lot of sense because he will make a lot more money and get to make one more run at a ring with Russell Westbrook and the developing cast in Oklahoma City.

We will see what Durant decides, but the smart bet is on him staying in OKC for at least one more season.

In-flight meeting helped spark Warriors rally from down 3-1

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 30:  Klay Thompson #11 of the Golden State Warriors hoists the Western Conference Championship Trophy after defeating the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game Seven of the Western Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at ORACLE Arena on May 30, 2016 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 Pool/Getty Images)
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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) A heart-to-heart was in order.

As the Golden State Warriors made the long, frustrating flight home from Oklahoma City last week suddenly facing elimination, Draymond Green gathered with a few fellow starters at a table in the front of the plane to discuss how to get the defending champions back to winning – and fast.

No other choice to avoid a premature end to this record-setting season.

“We just kept talking about what we needed to do and what we were going to do,” Green said.

Somehow, six days later, the Warriors had won Game 7 with a third straight victory against the Thunder after falling behind 3-1 in the best-of-seven series. And they are headed back to the NBA Finals for a rematch with LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, the title defense still very much within reach. Game 1 is Thursday night on Golden State’s Oracle Arena home floor.

“We never lost confidence, and every game just played with fearlessness and that confidence that we could get back to the Finals however we had to get it done,” MVP Stephen Curry said after his 36-point performance in Monday night’s 96-88 clincher of the Western Conference finals.

“I knew we were ready for the moment. We were a mature basketball team that tried our best not to listen to the noise outside when six, seven days ago, we’re down 3-1, everybody thought the wheels were falling off and it was kind of the end of our run,” Curry said. “But in that locker room, the talk was positive. It was, `Let’s figure this out, let’s go out and take it one game at a time and claw our way back into the series and see what happens.’ We followed that kind of mindset these last three games.”

In the airplane sit-down, Klay Thompson was clear he could only focus as far ahead as winning Game 5 before shifting to think about how to win another one on the Thunder’s court. Golden State’s most steady player this postseason, he hit an NBA-postseason record 11 3-pointers for 41 points in a thrilling 108-101 Game 6 comeback, then another six on Monday night on the way to 21 points.

Even after two embarrassing, lopsided road losses at Oklahoma City that put the Warriors in a big hole, Green counted on them finding a way to come back. He believed it would happen, “Because once we figured something out, we can get it rolling.”

Those two defeats were by 52 combined points.

“We were not just down 3-1, we had gotten blown out two straight games,” coach Steve Kerr said. “So obviously everything started with Game 5, kind of rediscovering ourselves and our style. Then Game 6 was kind of magical. What Klay did that night, basically putting us on his shoulders and allowing us to have this opportunity tonight at home, it’s a pretty remarkable comeback and it shows a lot about our guys and their will and their grit.”

Green is the one who made it clear to Kerr the Warriors wanted to go for the regular-season wins record rather than resting down the stretch, and they topped the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls’ 72-wins mark.

This time, the animated, emotional swingman helped Golden State become the 10th team to win a postseason series after falling behind 3-1, and it did it against Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the powerful Thunder.

“I think everybody will look at 73 wins and say, `Wow, this team never hit any adversity,’ but there is adversity in every season. It all comes in different forms,” said Green, who had 11 points, nine rebounds, four assists and two blocks. “But when you’re talking down 3-1, and everything’s on the line, that makes it 10 times worse. So it’s definitely the biggest thing that this team has had to overcome, and it took a great, tremendous effort and fight to overcome it.”

The Warriors now must figure out a way to pull off four more wins against James and the Cavs, who will be eager to change their fortunes following that 4-2 Finals defeat last June when Golden State captured its first championship in 40 years.

Kerr made the spot-on decision to move Andre Iguodala into the starting lineup for Game 7 to defend Durant, just as the Coach of the Year did during the NBA Finals last year when Iguodala earned Finals MVP honors.

“To have our back against the wall and do it three straight games is tough,” Iguodala said. “I’ll probably forget about it tomorrow morning because we really want to get another one. But it was good for us to have to battle like that. Hopefully it carries over and we can continue with that intensity we’ve had the last three games.”

Reserve center Marreese Speights offered his postgame insight on Twitter.

“Y’all never seen a 73 win team .. Y’all never seen a player win unanimous mvp… Hahha this story not over!! (hash)history (hash)believe.”

Watch all 17 three pointers from Warriors Game 7 victory over Thunder

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“They beat us from the three-point line the last two games, we beat them from everywhere else,” Kevin Durant said after Game 7.

He’s right. For most of seven games the Oklahoma City Thunder owned play inside the arc — their length and athleticism gave the Warriors tremendous trouble. But the Warriors had the three ball as the equalizer — or, it turns out, slightly more than the equalizer. Golden State shot their way to a series win by knocking down threes the last two games. Often contested, well-defended threes.

Above check out the 17 threes the Warriors nailed in Game 7 (on 37 attempts, or 45.9 percent shooting). There’s a lot of Stephen Curry (7) and Klay Thompson (6) in those highlights.

Here’s the NBA Finals schedule, clear your schedule accordingly

San Antonio Spurs v Miami Heat - Game 7
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The Cleveland Cavaliers vs. the Golden State Warriors. A rematch of the highest-rated NBA Finals since the Jordan era, which you know makes the suits at ABC/ESPN/Disney happy. But it’s also good for fans, these are the best teams from each conference, and it should be an interesting matchup.

The NBA has moved away from the Sunday/Tuesday/Thursday pattern of games the NBA Finals has followed for years. Below is the schedule for this year’s Finals, all times are Eastern, and all the games will be broadcast on ABC.

Game 1 – June 2 (Thursday) at Golden State  9:00PM

Game 2 – June 5 (Sunday) at Golden State 8:00PM

Game 3 – June  8 (Wednesday) at Cleveland  9:00 PM

Game 4 –Fri  June 10 (Friday) at Cleveland 9:00PM

Game 5 * — Mon  June 13 (Monday) at Golden State 9:00PM

Game 6 *  — Thu  June 16 (Thursday) at Cleveland 9:00 PM

Game 7 * —  June 19 (Sunday) at Golden State 8:00 PM

* means if necessary