Jameer Nelson, J.J. Redick, Dwight Howard

Is Orlando a contender again? Maybe, maybe…


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.

51Q: Does Ty Lawson vault the Rockets into the top tier of championship contenders?

DENVER, CO - MARCH 07:  James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets controls the ball against Ty Lawson #3 of the Denver Nuggets at Pepsi Center on March 7, 2015 in Denver, Colorado. The Rockets defeated the Nuggets 114-100. 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 Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
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I see five clear upper-echelon championship contenders –  Warriors, Spurs, Clippers, Thunder and Cavaliers.

Do the Rockets belong in that group, or do they fill the next tier by themselves?

Ty Lawson – acquired for pennies on the dollar – could put Houston over the top.

But, really, this premise might not be fair to the Rockets. They earned the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference last season and reached the conference finals last season. James Harden finished second in MVP voting. Dwight Howard looked like a star during the playoffs. The supporting cast – Trevor Ariza, Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas, Patrick Beverley, Corey Brewer and even Jason Terry – played better than anyone expected. Young players like Clint Capela, K.J. McDaniels, Sam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell could make a leap at any moment.

There’s a case to be made we should have taken Houston more seriously even before trading for Lawson.

I didn’t, though, and I don’t think many others did either.

I suspect one of the biggest reasons is the Rockets’ balance. Houston – 12th in points scored per possession, sixth in points allowed per possession – was one of only two teams to win more than 51 games last season without ranking top five in either category. Of the seven teams with so many victories, the Hawks – sixth, seventh – were the only other. Atlanta was a darling team, winning 60 games after going 38-44 the season prior. The Rockets’ modest win increase, from 54 to 56, drew less attention.

But balance shouldn’t be punished. Houston’s surprisingly strong defense should be celebrated. Lawson might push its middling offense over the top.

There are reasons to question that, though.

The biggest is Lawson’s sobriety. If he’s not focused and engaged, this all goes out the window. His comments about going to rehab only because it was court-ordered raise doubts, though they hardly foretell anything.

Let’s say Lawson’s off-court problems are behind him. How big of an upgrade is he? The Rockets already had a pretty good point guard who fit well with Harden in Beverley. Lawson is a clear offensive upgrade, but in the biggest moments, the ball will still run through Harden. At that point, would you rather have Beverley or Lawson on the floor? Beverley is a far superior defender, and his off-ball offensive game isn’t far from Lawson’s. Beverley is is a fine spot-up shooter, and Lawson’s strengths involve having the ball and creating. Lawson’s biggest boost could come when Harden sits, but that was fewer than 12 minutes per game last season.

Sure, a secondary ball-handler could ease pressure on Harden throughout a long regular season. Lawson and Harden can take turns running the attack.

But we’re talking about title contention, and in those high-leverage situations, it’s Harden’s show. How much does Lawson matter then?

The Rockets have a chance to win a championship. As good a chance as the NBA’s five best teams? I’m not so sure.

UNLV following Kentucky’s lead with combine for NBA scouts

Goodluck Okonoboh, Patrick McCaw
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Kentucky held a two-day combine last season for NBA scouts.

Now, LSU and UNLV are following suit.

Rob Dauster of NBC Sports:

The Runnin’ Rebels will hold their event on October 23rd and 24th at the Mendenhall Center, UNLV’s practice facility, sources told NBCSports.com. The expectation is that all 30 NBA teams will be in attendance.

LSU has potential No. 1 pick Ben Simmons and another first-round prospect in Tim Quarterman.

UNLV features lottery prospect Stephen Zimmerman.

This won’t replace scouts attending games and watching practices, but the fact that all 30 teams plan to attend shows how seriously the pro league takes these. No college team wanted John Calipari to have that competitive advantage in recruiting, so the smart ones are leveling the field with their own combines. Soon, more college teams will follow.

As the calendar gets packed, NBA teams might have to pick and choose which they attend. At that point, we might get little clues about which prospects they’re scouting hardest.