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.

Cleveland vs. Golden State is rivalry the NBA needs right now

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Cleveland vs. Golden State is for more than just a battle for the Larry O’Brien trophy.

It’s a showdown of the two most popular players in the game, LeBron James and Stephen Curry. It’s a battle of styles, the more old-school isolation-heavy ball of Cleveland vs. the three-point shot and up-tempo game of the Warriors. It’s a battle about legacy. It’s a matchup of the two best teams in the NBA, two teams who dominated their conference playoffs to get here.

It’s a rivalry.

The best one the NBA has had in years — maybe the best one going in professional sports right now. It’s one played out on the biggest stage with three straight NBA Finals meetings, with the third installment of the trilogy starting Thursday night in Oakland. We love watching the players and storylines evolve over those years — this is drama on the “Game of Thrones” level.

That is good for the NBA.

However, when we head into next NBA season expecting a fourth Finals showdown between these teams, and maybe we get a fifth after that, is that good for the NBA? Or is that lack of competitiveness sucking the drama out of the postseason? Is this sense of inevitability good for the league?

Right now it’s working. LeBron has tried to deny there’s a rivalry, but Draymond Green knows better.

“It’s definitely fun, you know?” Green said earlier this season. “A team that you beat, that’s beat you – it’s definitely fun. I think, if you look at the last two years and this year, we’ve been the top two teams in the league each year. So, I look at it as a rivalry, and it’s definitely a fun game to play in.”

And fun to watch — two great teams going at it with contrasting styles and philosophies. Ratings should be sky high for this one.

The NBA used to be thick with rivalries: Bulls vs. Pistons (with the player rivalry Isiah Thomas vs. Michael Jordan), Bulls vs. Knicks, there was Phil Jackson vs. Pat Riley, and the ultimate Lakers vs. Celtics (which included Magic vs. Bird). That’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Now? Not so much. And this is true across professional sports. The advent of free agency — which fans love, people are more into playing GM now than the games themselves — has torn down those walls. Johnny Damon can jump from the Red Sox to the Yankees and that’s just business. In the NBA, often players have known each other since AAU or USA Basketball events long before they get to the NBA, so while they go hard at each other on the court, off it there is a sense of fraternity. In the off-season, they all play and work out together in one of a handful of places in Los Angeles or Las Vegas.

That’s what makes the Cavaliers vs. Warriors different.

This is LeBron forcing a switch so Curry has to guard him. This is Green trying to get under LeBron’s skin but actually, LeBron gets under Green;s and forces a mistake that leads to a suspension. This is Andre Iguodala in LeBron’s face. It’s Kyrie Irving hitting the game winner over Curry in the 2016 Finals (and hitting the game winner last Christmas Day to complete a Cavaliers comeback). It’s the Warriors adding Kevin Durant to the mix.

These teams don’t like each other. Respect is there, but so is the passion needed for a great rivalry. It’s why we’re all excited to see the rubber match between these two powerhouses.

And when it’s over, we may be lined up for a fourth. Then maybe a fifth.

In the West, the Warriors will re-sign Curry and Durant this summer, and every one of their four core players is still under age 30. It’s hard not to see them remaining the team to beat in the West — and maybe being unbeatable — for four more years. At least.

In the East, LeBron has been the dominant force leading his team to seven straight NBA Finals, and in his 14th season he is having arguably his best playoffs ever. He shows no signs of slowing down, and the team around him with Irving and Kevin Love can pick up as he fades.

Fans can complain, but both of these “superteams” were born of circumstances other teams can’t recreate (which is to say, there’s nothing for the league to do to “fix” this). For one, there’s not going to be another LeBron for a long, long time. With the Warriors, they built this team via the draft — they picked and developed Curry, Green, and Klay Thompson. They added Andre Iguodala as a free agent, but he’s complementary to the stars. As for Durant, it took a one-time giant spike in the salary cap thanks to a new television broadcast deal to create the space for Golden State to land him, another situation that is not going to be repeated (and the league added the “Designated Veteran Player” contract to the CBA because of it anyway).

These teams aren’t going away. It’s hard to picture something happening this summer that will lead anyone to say “that team can dethrone the Cavaliers/Warriors” next season. (Barring injury, of course.) Think of it this way: If the Boston Celtics have an ideal summer, what will we say about them heading into next season? “They can challenge Cleveland.” That’s it. Do everything right and maybe they can take a series six or seven games now.

The Cavaliers/Warriors rivalry will continue.

But if it remains such a dominant force that it sucks the drama out of the playoffs with its inevitability, that’s not good for the league. Yes, the NBA has always thrived when it’s biggest stars are on its biggest stage — we talk about the six times Michael Jordan won a title, not the seven times he lost in the Eastern Conference playoffs and couldn’t get there. But even in the Jordan era, there was a drama that seems lacking in this postseason. That’s not a good thing for the NBA, it’s broadcast partners rely on the playoffs for a lot of that revenue the league is getting.

However, we’ve got the drama we wanted now — Cavaliers vs. Warriors. LeBron vs. Curry. The two best teams in the NBA going at it for a third straight year.

We’ve got a real rivalry.

Kobi Simmons out to show that leaving Arizona for draft was no mistake

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Kobi Simmons came to the University of Arizona a year ago as a five-star recruit looking to take over the Wildcats backcourt, maybe the brightest jewel in another impressive recruiting class for coach Sean Miller.

It didn’t work out that way.

Simmons played a little at point guard, but that job usually fell first to senior Kadeem Allen, and when healthy, to Parker Jackson-Cartwright.

Simmons was moved to the off-guard position. And when Allonzo Trier returned from his substance abuse suspension, he became the starter at off guard and Simmons played as a reserve.

He won’t talk about those days.

“I don’t think about that. That’s behind me,” he said after a pre-draft workout with the Phoenix Suns on Monday. “Right now I’ve got to focus on me, raising my stock and I’m getting better every day, grooming in the gym when I’m back home and then coming out here and doing it.”

He was surrounded by high-quality talent at Arizona, Simmons finished sixth on the team in scoring at Arizona.

His ex-Arizona teammates Trier and Rawle Alkins, tested the NBA waters and chose to return to what should be a loaded Wildcat squad.

But one season in college was enough for Simmons.

The 19-year-old from Atlanta, Georgia, hired an agent and never looked back. His mission, he said, is to prove to coaches and general managers that he can play point guard at the NBA level.

“Me playing point guard, seeing the floor. I played well off the pick and roll,” Simmons said. “At school I was playing off the ball so I was relying on another player bringing the ball down the court. Teams rely on me being a vocal leader.”

Suns assistant general manager Pat Connelly calls Simmons an “intriguing” point guard prospect.

“The first time I saw him, he went to Treviso (Italy) with an Adidas team and played the point guard there,” Connelly said. “It was very intriguing.

“Obviously he played off the ball for Arizona, which was best for his team. Today it’s 3-on-3, looking for reads are limited because it is 3-on-3. But he looked solid playing the pick-and-roll. Obviously extremely athletic so his continued growth in that position will be something to evaluate.”

Simmons knows it’s a learning experience, even as he tries to impress.

He played the point at the draft combine. That helped. And the thought of an extremely athletic 6-foot-5, 166-pound point man is tantalizing, no matter how raw the player is now.

Mock drafts mention him uniformly in the second round, with projected picks ranging from 51st overall to Denver to 58th to the New York Knicks. One picked him for the Suns as the 54th choice overall.

But there is a chance he won’t be drafted at all, a gamble he was willing to take.

“I’m not thinking about it right now,” Simmons said. “I’m locked and loaded right now of me grinding it, raising my stock every day and looking forward to my next goal.”

Six players worked out for the Suns on Monday, including first-team All-American guard Josh Hart of Villanova. Others who took part were guard Troy Caupain of Cincinnati, forward Tidjane Keita of France, forward Kyle Kuzma of Utah and forward Johnathan Motley of Baylor.

The winner of the end-of-practice 3-minute run was Hart.

The Suns have the No. 4 pick overall, and two selections in the second round. They get the second pick of the second round, the 31st overall, and the 54th choice overall.

Like Shaun Livingston, JaVale McGee perfect fit on Warriors

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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — JaVale McGee practices 3-pointers from all around the arch, just in case. He sits with assistant coach Jarron Collins and a laptop to study film, long after practice and his shooting workouts are complete.

The 7-footer’s rugged professional path has landed him at seemingly the perfect stop: in the Bay Area with the NBA’s best.

Just don’t call him a journeyman.

“I’ve never considered myself a journeyman in the first place,” McGee said after a practice this weekend. “Whatever y’all want to call me y’all can call me. The number of teams I’ve been on was in like one year. I’ve been with three teams in two years.”

Yet McGee must not look far to find someone else who has learned to thrive as a well-traveled NBA role player. Just a quick glance a couple of lockers down to where Shaun Livingston dresses at Oracle Arena, defying the odds yet again this season as a regular reserve contributing to another Warriors championship chase, is all it takes.

McGee has never made it this far, an NBA Finals first-timer when Golden State hosts defending champion Cleveland in Game 1 on Thursday night. Livingston never should have made it this far, and here he is back to the final round seeking his second title in three seasons – and 10 years after a devastating injury that could have sidelined him for good. Doctors thought they might have to amputate his left leg.

Fourteen teams between them, over 21 combined seasons. Each has found a great groove in Golden State’s rotation, called upon to take pressure off the big stars while maintaining the highest level.

“We just kind of follow suit, but it’s up to everybody to come in and lock in on the details. It’s the playoffs,” Livingston said. “Obviously the stars help, they get all the headlines deservedly so, but the small things, the details, that’s what we lock in at and that’s how we win ballgames.”

McGee has discovered the ideal place to shine as an alley-oop specialist in a pass-happy offense, and even Stephen Curry admits it’s so easy to target the sure-handed big man perhaps the Warriors do so too often at times.

“We almost get in trouble because we try to do it too much even if it’s not there, because he has the ability to catch it really anywhere around the rim, around the backboard,” Curry acknowledged. “You kind of see it developing when he gets a free lane to the rim, and as a passer in that situation literally feel the most confidence that if I just get it anywhere up there, he’ll go get it, and usually he does.”

With great efficiency, too.

In Game 3 against the Spurs, McGee scored a postseason-best 16 points, all in the first half to get Golden State going as Zaza Pachulia sat out with a bruised heel. He made all seven of his shots in Game 2 of a first-round win against Portland, shooting 18 for 23 in all in the four-game sweep of the Trail Blazers.

“That’s my whole thing, I just try to be efficient out there,” McGee said. “I don’t try to do too much. I just try to do what’s necessary for me in the minutes that I’m out there.”

Livingston has unselfishly dealt with a diminished role, a rotation change late in the season that altered when he’s used, and then a hand injury in the first round of the playoffs.

In February 2007 with the Clippers, Livingston tore three major ligaments in his knee – the anterior cruciate, posterior cruciate and medial collateral as well as his lateral meniscus, then required extensive surgery. Though the injury could have ended his career at age 21, he still believed he would play again. First he had to walk again.

“Shaun, that story isn’t really the same now. He’s become a staple of this franchise, he’s helped us win a title, he’s done some great things here,” Draymond Green said. “For JaVale, it’s still fresh, to where I think it’s a great situation for him. He’s finally been put in a position where he can do what he do. He’s finally come to an organization, a first-class organization, that has embraced him for him and not tried to make him something that he’s not. I think that has been pretty special, just seeing his growth over the course of the year, how he’s been able to thrive. … It’s special to see when you take the path that they’ve taken to get to this moment.”

McGee will have to help keep Cleveland’s Tristan Thompson off the boards. His teammates know he’s up to the task.

“It just speaks to his kind of character and perseverance and work ethic and his belief in himself that when he’s out there on the floor he deserves to be out there on the floor, he belongs and can make an impact,” Curry said. “When he showed up here, he understood the opportunity and he’s taken full advantage of it. It’s great to see.”

 

Cool Hand Lue: Cavs coach keeps NBA champs cool amid chaos

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CLEVELAND (AP) — Moments after the Eastern Conference championship banner was raised by the Cavaliers for the third straight time and the obligatory postgame interviews ended, Tyronn Lue slipped quietly away.

Cleveland’s coach ducked into the shadows, his preferred location.

“I don’t like the attention,” he said.

But Lue, once a journeyman point guard who steered the Cavs to an NBA championship last season, has grown more accepting of his frontman role. He’ll again be at center stage this week as Cleveland meets Golden State in the third installment of their title trilogy.

If the unassuming, easygoing Lue had his preference, the teams would duke it out for the Larry O’Brien Trophy on a playground court in a stifling hot gymnasium, with only a handful of onlookers present. A student of the game, he’s old school with a fresh perspective.

Of the many juicy subplots between the Cavs and Warriors, one that frequently goes overlooked is Lue, the former assistant who has blossomed in no time into one of the league’s brightest young head coaches and a playoff savant.

He’s 28-6 in two postseasons with Cleveland. His players credit Lue’s soothing, steady influence – on and off the floor – as nearly as vital to their success as a clutch Kyrie Irving 3-pointer.

“It’s just his level of calmness no matter what’s going on,” LeBron James said following practice. “He always talks about, at the end of the day, he’s already won in life, so whatever else happens after this is extra credit. And I feel the same way. That’s why I relate to him so much. Lose here, or you win a game here, it’s like, `All right, cool. I’ve already done so much more than anybody ever gave me credit of doing or thought I can do, so there’s no reason to get too high or too low.’

“So it’s the even-keel mentality about our coach and it definitely helps us as players when we’re going out into a war.”

Lue has been preparing for the biggest battle of his basketball career this week.

From the moment he returned home from Boston following the Cavs’ win in Game 5 of the conference finals, Lue has immersed himself in the Warriors, a virtual All-Star team featuring two league MVPs (Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry), a dead-eye shooter (Klay Thompson) and a triple-threat performer (Draymond Green).

Lue’s defensive strategy to this point in the playoffs has been to neutralize the opponents’ top player. The Cavs were able to do that with Indiana’s Paul George, Toronto’s DeMar DeRozan and Boston’s Isaiah Thomas, who aggravated a hip injury in Game 2 and missed the remainder of the series. Cleveland blitzed, double-teamed and did all it could take away the other team’s offensive threat.

Lue was asked if it’s more difficult to identify who that is on Golden State.

“Hell yeah,” he said, his voice rising. “It’s tough.”

There are few weaknesses in these Warriors, the first team to head into the final round 12-0 and winning by an average of 16.3 points per game.

“They have so many weapons,” Lue said, “having four All-Stars and now adding KD to the mix who I’ve always loved as a scorer, just how he scores so easy. They have a lot of options. It’s going to be tough, but we have to lock into what we have to do defensively, and sometimes you can play great defense and it doesn’t work. Steph is making tough shots, Klay is making tough shots and KD is making tough shots. But all you can do is play your defense, stick to your principles and just make it as tough as possible.”

The Cavs know Lue won’t panic.

He stayed cool last spring when Cleveland fought back from a 3-1 deficit to win its first title. Lue made subtle tweaks to his rotation, drew up key inbounds plays, then isolated Irving late in Game 7 on Curry. The Cavs All-Star guard made his now famous go-ahead, step-back 3-pointer.

Pressure intensifies in the postseason, when possessions, turnovers and rebounds are magnified.

As the drama builds, Lue stays composed, setting the tone for his players.

“Throughout the postseason there’s so many different emotions,” James said. “Going high, going low. And if you’re a coach able to just stay even-keeled throughout the whole thing, it relaxes the rest of the group.”

Lue is a stickler for detail, and he won’t cut any corners preparing for another dance with the Warriors. He’ll have the Cavs ready, and they can also count on him to keep them relaxed.

“When you’re prepared and you do the best you can do and you put it out there on the floor, you’ve just got to live with the results,” Lue said. “I’m doing my homework, I’m doing every possible thing to put this team in every situation to win. When you’re doing that, things you go over every day, end-of-game plays and things like that, either they work or they don’t.”