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Is Orlando a contender again? Maybe, maybe…

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Here was the conventional wisdom after the Orlando Magic made a series of trades to bring in Gilbert Arenas, Hedo Turkoglu and Jason Richardson: Why? The Magic took on a lot of extra long-term salary and locked themselves in with a roster that is, at best, marginally better than what they had. The offense had more diversity short term, but the defense would be worse.

Um, maybe we were wrong.

The long-term contract issues remain. But short term the Magic are undefeated in their last five . In those five not only has offense has gotten better so has the defense. As the wise Mark Haubner noted at TrueHoop, in the last five games the Magic have been scoring 110.5 points per 100 possessions, and giving up 96.0 points per 100 possessions. Over the course of the season, that would be the best offense and best defense in the league right now.

It’s just five games (welcome to the small sample size theater), but it’s enough to make us take a second look at the trades and think maybe we undervalued a few things.

One is that Orlando knows how to use Hedo Turkoglu. As Rob Mahoney points out at the New York Times, Turkoglu is not shooting any better than he did in Phoenix or Toronto. He’s basically the same player he always was. The differences are that he is getting minutes now, and that Orlando trusts him to be the ball handler on the pick-and-roll. Phoenix didn’t because then they were taking the ball out of Steve Nash’s hands and one should never do that. Toronto used him less as a ball handler and more as a spot up shooter, something he’s not great at. But put the ball in his hands as Orlando does and he becomes a solid NBA player.

Orlando also is running more with the new configuration, about 3.5 more possessions per game. Teams score at a high rate in transition so if this is a long-term trend it bodes well for their offense.

The other thing of note is that the Magic’s three-point shooting touch has returned — they are draining 45.7 percent of their threes in the last five games. That is not a sustainable number, but the fact it is better than they had shot all season is of note. When the Magic are hitting their threes, with their inside-out game centered around Dwight Howard, they become very hard to beat.

The question is can they keep all this up? Will the defense continue to be good (or as good as it was pre-trades)? Will they continue to drain the long ball at a high rate? Will they continue to run?

Are they title contenders again?

We don’t know. But it seems more like it than it did a couple weeks ago, that’s for sure. In that sense, the trades have been a success so far.

Jimmy Butler won’t pick LeBron over Durant as toughest matchup in NBA, and for good reason

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Chicago Bulls star Jimmy Butler is a smart dude. He’s spent years of offseason work turning himself into a max-level player, and that shows he knows not only how to work but how to attack the game of basketball.

He’s also smart enough to know he shouldn’t go poking the bear when it comes to two future Hall of Fame players in LeBron James and Kevin Durant.

When asked whether the Cleveland Cavaliers star or the Golden State Warriors scorer was the toughest matchup in the NBA, Butler made sure he wasn’t adding any kind of blackboard material to rile up either player.

Via Twitter:

The best way to defend LeBron or Durant: don’t make them angry.

Smart move, Jimmy.

Likely top-10 pick Dennis Smith Jr. of North Carolina State declares for draft

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This had long been expected, but now it is official.

North Carolina State freshman point guard Dennis Smith Jr. has declared for the NBA Draft. He made the announcement on ESPN saying playing in the NBA is his dream, reports the News & Observer.

“It was definitely an obtainable dream for me,” said in an interview on SportsCenter. “I knew I would chase it with all of my might.”

Smith is considered a top-10 pick (DraftExpress.com has him going seventh currently).

Smith had missed his senior year of high school ball with an ACL injury, but was named ACC Freshman of the Year after averaging 18.1 points and 4.6 rebounds per game. He had two triple-doubles as a freshman. He was also inconsistent. Smith had brilliant games and ones where he looked disinterested.

Smith is unquestionably explosive and athletic, and that makes him a threat both in the open court and getting to the rim off a pick-and-roll. He’s got good handles, he knows how to draw fouls, and you can see his potential to get buckets at the next level. His jump shot needs to be far more consistent to thrive at the next level, however. The questions about Smith are more about his ability to make good decisions and be a floor general. He knows how to survey the floor and create for himself, but can he figure out when to pass to set up teammates? Can he defend consistently? He needs smooth out the rough edges of his game, but the potential to be very good is there.

James Harden says playing in every game should matter in MVP voting

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James Harden has played in every Houston Rocket game this season so far. Russell Westbrook has done the same thing for Oklahoma City.

When voters sit down in a few weeks to choose the league’s Most Valuable Player — in one of the most wide-open races in memory, with Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James making legitimate cases as well — Harden says they should take playing every game into account. It’s the latest part of the rest discussion going on around the league. Here’s what Harden told Calvin Watkins of ESPN.

“Yeah, because you’re not leaving your teammates out there to dry, ” Harden said Tuesday morning, before the Rockets’ game against the Warriors. “For me, I worry about always having my teammates’ back and always being out there….

“I’m going to have [my teammates’] back and they know that they have mine as well,” said Harden, who is second in the league in points and first in assists. “For the coaching staff and the fans, especially here in Houston, the front office, I’m here to play.”

Both LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard have had rest nights.

This injects Harden into the rest debate, where recently Harden’s teammate Patrick Beverley came out and said players are “disrespecting the game” when they rest. Gregg Popovich sees more nuance in the debate and certainly backs resting players. On the latest PBT Podcast, former Bull B.J. Armstrong told me that they didn’t have rest days back in his day, but players were kept out of games for things they could play through to get right for the playoffs, it was just listed differently. He added that the rest situation might have been different back in the day if the data about the increased chance of player injuries on the second night of a back-to-back (and it goes up from there with four games in five nights) had been available.

In this case, Harden lobbying for his case in the MVP voting. The thing is, his numbers make the case for him: Harden is averaging 29.4 points per game, leading the league with 11.3 assists a night, and he’s creating the most points per game 27.5 (buckets and direct assists. He has taken on the point guard duties in Mike D’Antoni’s offense and has taken on the largest load on offense he has in his career — and he has continued to do it efficiently.

However, one can make a strong statistical case for Westbrook (who carries a larger load for an OKC team that has less talent around its star than Houston), Leonard (best defender of the group), and LeBron (the Cavs recent struggles may doom his chances).

Little details are going to divide this group, and Harden is trying to get his point out there.

That said, the Rockets are almost certainly locked into the three seed in the West, and once it’s clear they are in that slot team management should discuss giving Harden a night off before the playoffs, to let his body rest. Whether he wants to or not.

Rajon Rondo is hilarious (photo)

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Is Rajon Rondo stubborn? Yes.

Is he petty? Yes.

Is he harsh? Yes.

But the Bulls point guard is also hilarious in his own way.

 

Sean Highkin of The Athletic:

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