Are the Magic contenders now?

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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.

Nuggets say Paul Millsap won’t return until after All-Star break

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The Western Conference has been a blast this season, with the Houston Rockets playing strong after the arrival of Chris Paul. The team has 13 straight wins, and a 1.5 game lead over the Golden State Warriors.

That’s just part of the results of the West getting a boatload of stars sent its way over the summer. One team is lacking their new addition, however, and his absence has been a quiet disappointment. The Denver Nuggets still sit in sixth place out West, but new forward Paul Millsap has been sidelined with a wrist injury.

The original timeline for Millsap said he would be out for three months, which would put him back around the beginning of March. That plan was confirmed by Nuggets head coach Mike Malone, who said that he expects Millsap will be out until at least the All-Star break, which starts on February 16.

Malone also seemed to indicate it’s possible Millsap is out longer than that.

Via Twitter:

At least Millsap is on schedule? It’s hard to tell inflection from text, but let’s just hope Malone’s “at the earliest” isn’t an indicator of slow recovery on Millsap’s part. The Nuggets certainly don’t need to rush Millsap back. They have a 16-13 record and instill more confidence than most the teams floundering below them in the standings.

LeBron James on talk with Lonzo Ball: “Some things could be held private”

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LeBron James was caught on a hot mic this week speaking with Los Angeles Lakers rookie Lonzo Ball. The conversation came after the Cleveland Cavaliers beat the Lakers in Ohio, 121-112.

In their talk, LeBron told Ball that he needed to stay in his zone and be aggressive. Pretty generic stuff, to be honest.

Meanwhile, LeBron was asked about whether he thought having microphones record those types of conversations between players was good for the league. He was less than enthused.

Via Cleveland.com (response is at 0:50 in the video above):

Some things could be held private. Like my conversation with Lonzo. Everything doesn’t need to be said. Should be some type of privacy. I’m OK with it.

It does raise an interesting question in terms of player privacy and separation between media, fans, and players. On one hand, you could see how what they say on the floor, in a public arena meant for spectators, could be deemed public and therefore fair game.

But it’s also common for media not to publish — or for TV not to broadcast — the things players say during the game. We don’t hear trash talking, even if we see it, and if you’ve ever sat near the floor at an NBA game you hear a lot more colorful language than you do watching the game on TV.

However you come down player privacy on the court, it doesn’t seem like LeBron needed to speak with Ball in front of media like that. He could have spoken to him in the tunnels below the Q, or got his phone number and texted him. He could have sent him a DM on Twitter and it would have been more private.

It feels like there was a performative aspect to this, like LeBron wanted to create a mystery around his conversation with Lonzo but it got turned on its head. It’s just too bad what was said between them wasn’t actually that interesting.

LeBron James on possibly winning fifth MVP this season: “it would mean a lot”

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LeBron James is destroying the NBA’s traditional aging curve. Over the years and looking at thousands of players, we know that at certain ages and years in the league, guys start to decline. Look at the guys still in the league from the 2003 NBA draft: players still in the league, such as Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony, are seeing their games deteriorate in their 15th NBA season. As expected.

Not LeBron.

About to turn 33 and having played more regular season games than Michael Jordan did, LeBron is averaging 28.1 points, 9.3 assists and 8.1 rebounds a game, with a true shooting percentage of 65.9 that would be a career high, and a PER of 31.5 that is right at his career high for a season (31.7). LeBron has not lost a step.

LeBron is in the middle of the too-early MVP conversation, where he and Houston’s James Harden have separated from the field a third of the way into the season. At shootaround Saturday LeBron said winning the NBA MVP for a fifth time would matter to him, but what he really likes doing is opening the door to future NBA players to blow up the aging curve. Via Nick Friedell of ESPN.

“Team success is always the number one, but along the way if you’re able to accomplish some individual awards, individual achievements, it would mean a lot,” James said after Saturday’s practice. “I feel good. This is my 15th year, but this is one of the best years I’ve had as far as how I feel and I want to continue that. I want to kind of try to break the mold for the next generation. So just take the narrative out of ‘OK, you’re past your prime when you get [to] 31, or you’re past your prime in your 12th year in the league, or whatever the case may be.’ Hopefully I can break the mold so when the next guy comes, he can still get 200 or 300 million and be 33 years old. I’m serious. You guys are laughing, I’m serious. This is the mold I’m trying to break.”

He’s broken it.

Part of it is that today’s players know more about nutrition and training than past generations. They tend to take better care of their bodies, there are improved medical treatments, and much better diets — and nobody takes all that more seriously than LeBron.

Also, he is a physical freak of nature. Always has been.

It’s too early to have a serious MVP conversation, we have two-thirds of the season remaining, but as of now LeBron and Harden are the front runners (with guys such as Giannis Antetokounmpo, Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving, Anthony Davis and others on the next tier). If LeBron can keep up this level of play, and continues to carry the Cavaliers to a top two record in the East, he will be one of the top vote-getters. No question.

And that would break a mold, too, and put him in a conversation with Michael Jordan again (Jordan won five MVPs, the oldest at age 35).

Kevin Hart plays Shaq, Saturday Night Live takes on Inside The NBA

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Notoriously undersized actor — and NBA All-Star Weekend Celebrity Game MVP — Kevin Hart playing the notoriously oversized Shaquille O’Neal is brilliant.

That was at the heart of it when Saturday Night Live took on Inside the NBA on its Christmas show Saturday night. Hart was into it poking fun at Shaq’s penchant for going off with his own word salad during the show.

Charles Barkley and Shaq are rich satire targets, and SNL went right at them. Well done.