Are the Magic contenders now?


Through the summer’s free agent frenzy, the Orlando Magic sat on the sidelines with a Zen-like calmness. They were confident the pieces were already in place to beat Boston this time around if they could just stay healthy. Same with the Heat.

A quarter of the way into the season that was clearly not the case. The Magic had a $94 million payroll that likely would have had them losing in the second round.

So Saturday the Magic tried to change their fortune with a dramatic roster shakeup. Gone are Vince Carter, Rashard Lewis, Marcin Gortat, and Mickael Pietrus. In are Gilbert Arenas, Hedo Turkoglu, Jason Richardson and a newfound hope.

Should there be hope? Are the Magic really better? Are they good enough to challenge the top two in the East?

Maybe, but they have taken on a lot of risk and a lot more long-term salary. They now have guys who will not shrink from the spotlight. They have given themselves a lot of versatility.

But all that is different than having enough talent — and talent that blends well — and those doubts remain.

What Orlando is going to do on offense will not change — pick-and-roll and spread the floor with shooters. One thing these trades do is give Stan Van Gundy more options: Jameer Nelson with Dwight Howard/Brandon Bass/Turkoglu/any of the 18,000 people in the Amway Center; Jason Richardson with Bass or Turkoglu; Turkoglu with Bass or Howard or Ryan Anderson. Arenas also can be a pick-and-roll ball handler and in Washington this season was just about as effective at that as he was in isolation. Which wasn’t great.

The theory is now Orlando can find the mismatch and attack it a variety of ways. It’s a nice theory, but to execute it means a couple of wild cards have to fill out the flush.

What I love about this move for the Magic is Jason Richardson — he is an underrated two guard. He is a big upgrade over Vince Carter  — Richardson will stretch the floor as he shoots 10 percent better from three (a key part of the Orlando offense). Richardson is also a much better rebounder. Carter was supposed to be there to create more off the dribble, but at this point in their careers Richardson can do that about as well. And you’ll get a few thunderous dunks.

What would worry me if I were an Orlando fan is the depth in the middle — the drop off from Dwight Howard to Earl Clark is like falling off K2. Now you mix in Howard’s propensity for foul trouble and you could see some funky lineups as Stan Van Gundy tries to figure out what will work on any given night. Bass played some backup center in Dallas, he will do that again. Or, you might see the Magic make a trade for a backup center.

Well, one more quick little worry for Orlando — come the playoffs when they have to match up against a Paul Pierce or a LeBron James, Pietrus and his defense would have been handy to have around. Even if his offense had been off this season.

In the end there are two wild cards that will determine if the Magic are again contenders, if this trade works out for them.

One is Turkoglu. He may well come off the bench with Brandon Bass starting next to Howard, but Hedo is going to get his chance. Except, he had chances in Toronto and Phoenix the last two years and blew those.

Turkoglu had a nice playoff run in Orlando but he was not fantastic all season, a bit of a myth seems to have grown up around him that inflates his value. He had his best success with the Magic when Jameer Nelson was down and he could run the pick-and-roll with Rashard Lewis — except now Nelson is here and Lewis is gone now. Can he have the same success with Ryan Anderson and Howard? Can he even still run the pick-and-roll that well? In limited attempts in Phoenix this season he did not do well (generating 0.64 points per possession) and shot just 40 percent (and 0-7 fr0m three). That said — and despite the poor fit in Phoenix — he is shooting better on threes and long twos this season than he did in his last season in Orlando, and better than Lewis has for the Magic. If he can knock down those shots, if he can provide some shot creation like he did three years ago, then this works out. If he is the Hedo we saw in Toronto, the Magic have a big contract that will sit buried on their bench.

The other wild card is Arenas. He has been injured and just did not look comfortable in Washington, on John Wall’s team. Maybe the new surroundings, a new team with something to really play for, rejuvenates him. More Arenas will mean less Chris Duhon, and that is an upgrade for the Magic. But the question is can Arenas return to near what he was before the suspension — the Magic need that guy who can create on the wing. In theory Arenas should be able to do that better than Carter at this point in their careers, but will he?

The Magic used basically every good tradable asset on the roster — and some contracts we didn’t think tradable — to make this happen. They have huge cash outlays in a couple years for guys getting old. Otis Smith has gone all in. But a lot of things need to go right for Orlando for this to push them past Boston and Miami. A second round playoff exit is still very possible. Probably even likely.

Unless you believe in wild cards.

Good news: Anthony Davis listed as probably vs. Utah Saturday

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Watching Anthony Davis fall to the court clutching his knee, not being able to put any pressure on his leg as he was helped to the locker room, it was frightening Friday night in Los Angeles.

It turns out it’s not that bad. After the game the injury was described as a “knee contusion” and not the serious damage that was feared. Saturday the Pelicans said Davis was good to go.

Whew. Nobody wants to see Davis miss time.

The Pelicans had won three in a row until they ran into the Clippers Friday night. Davis has played better of late — the New Orleans defense is 7.2 points per 100 better when he is on the court — and New Orleans has gotten better point guard play out of Ish Smith.

Stephen Curry abuses Sun’s Price with behind-the-back, pull-up three (VIDEO)

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That is just cruel.

An on-fire Warriors team dropped 44 on the Suns in the first quarter Saturday, and Curry had 19 of those points going 5-of-6 from three. The Suns’ had no defender who could begin to hang with him. Certainly not Ronnie Price, who came in off the bench and got abused for his efforts.

Curry finished with 41 points, never had to set foot on the court in the fourth quarter, and the Warriors improved to 17-0 on the season. Just another day at the office for them.

Philadelphia has dropped record 27 in a row dating back to last season

Brett Brown

We tend to think of record streaks having to be in one season, not broken up across two.

But if you can suspend that, the Philadelphia 76ers are now the owners of the longest losing streak in NBA — and major professional sports — history.

With their tough two-points loss to Houston Friday night, the Sixers have lost 27 in a row. The Sixers dropped their final 10 last season and with the loss to the Rockets are 0-17 to start this one.

That bests the 26-game losing streaks of the 2010-11 Cleveland Cavaliers and these same Sixers from 2013-14. Looking across sports, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers of 1976-1977 also lost 26 in a row, which when you consider the length of the NFL season is pretty embarrassing.

The Sixers struggles are born from a plan by GM Sam Hinkie (and approved by ownership) to get better long-term by being bad now and hoarding draft picks. It’s a strategy that can work if Hinkie nails the draft picks (the book is out on how Hinkie is doing on that front). And they are committed to it through at least this draft.

But don’t think for a second the players and coach are trying to lose.

If you have watched the Sixers play their last few games you know the players are trying hard to get that victory (and almost have a couple of times). The effort is there, they are just outmatched and lack the kind of presence at the end of games to execute under pressure (something a couple of quality, regularly-playing veterans might help, but that’s another discussion). They have the point differential of a team that should have a couple wins; they just haven’t been fortunate. It happens. Go ahead and blame management if you think this plan is an abomination. Just don’t question the desire or effort of the players or coaches, that is not in doubt.

The Sixers play at the Grizzlies Sunday, then have maybe their best shot at a win for a while when they host the Lakers on Tuesday.



Byron Scott, is it time to bench Kobe Bryant? “That’s not an option.”

Kobe Bryant, D'Angelo Russell, Byron Scott

Kobe Bryant‘s shooting woes this season have been well documented. Let me explain… no, there is too much. Let me sum up. Kobe is shooting 31.1 percent overall and 19.5 percent from three, all while jacking up more threes than ever before. He was 1-of-14 shooting against Cleveland, and that’s as many shots as rookies D'Angelo Russell and Julius Randle got combined.

If Kobe keeps shooting like this while dominating the ball, is it time to bench Kobe? Coach Byron Scott laughed at the idea, as reported by Baxter Holmes at ESPN.

“I would never, never, never do that,” Scott said after practice at the Lakers’ facility. “That’s not an option whatsoever. No, that’s not an option.”

It’s not an option because this is the guy the fans have paid to see, at home and on the road (the Lakers have still sold out every road game this season, the only team to have done so). Kobe is the draw, he’s going to play.

That doesn’t mean Scott is handling all this well, Kobe has no repercussions for his actions.

Byron Scott is an enabler with Kobe. In his mind Kobe has earned the right to play poorly because of his career, which is just hard to watch.

The real issue I have with Scott enabling Kobe is the double standard — minutes for Russell and the other young players get jerked around when they make mistakes. Scott sounds and acts like a guy with a couple rookies on a veteran team where the objective is to win as many games as possible.

This can’t be emphasized enough: the primary goal for the Lakers this season is to develop Russell, Randle, and Jordan Clarkson (and Larry Nance Jr., who has impressed). But Russell has sat a lot of fourth quarters, and when Scott is asked if playing in those blowout minutes might help develop the young point guard faster, he says, “Nah.” Scott has benched Clarkson at points and called him out in the media.

Reduction of minutes can be a valuable teaching tool with young players — if the conditions of them getting those minutes are precisely laid out. Clear rules with rewards and consequences. That is not the case in Los Angeles, where Russell has said Scott has not spoken to him much about what he’s doing wrong and why he’s spending the ends of games benched. That’s not coaching a guy up; that’s not player development. There need to be clear guidelines and structures for young players to follow.

The only guideline in LA seems to be “Kobe has carte blanche.”