What the Magic should do when the lockout ends

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PBT is working its way through what every team in the NBA should do when the NBA lockout ends. See all the teams we’ve done so far here. Today, we talk Orlando Magic.

Last season in Orlando: They had a solid regular season — 52 wins, which was fourth best in the Eastern Conference. But they also clearly were not going to compete with Miami, Chicago and Boston to win the conference, so GM Otis Smith made some moves — out went Vince Carter, Rashard Lewis and Marcin Gortat (he was the only one of the three really missed). In came Hedo Turkoglu, Gilbert Arenas and Jason Richardson.

It didn’t help. In the playoffs the Magic ran into a Hawks team that could single-cover Dwight Howard with Jason Collins, and while Howard could still get his it allowed the Hawks to not double as often and stick with the Magic’s perimeter shooters. Jameer Nelson and Turkoglu really couldn’t create shots for everyone and the result was the Hawks bouncing the Magic in the first round.

Then there was panic.

Since we last saw the Magic… Not much has changed. There were all sorts of rumors that Nelson would be traded around the draft, but nothing happened. Orlando traded for the rights to Justin Harper (a projected stretch four) and DeAndre Liggins (good perimeter defender) in the second round. They have big man Daniel Orton, who played some in the D-League before a major knee injury sidelined him last season. All potential nice fits, but not impact guys who are really going to change things.

When the lockout ends, the Magic need to… pray, sacrifice a virgin in a volcano, go down to the crossroads and make a Faustian deal — whatever it takes to keep Dwight Howard in Orlando. That also means is shake up the roster, although that is easier said than done.

Few teams will be as impacted by the final form of the new NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement as the Orlando Magic.

If, as has been discussed, there is a “Melo Rule” put in place Orlando’s position improves. This rule is designed to prevent how Carmelo Anthony held Denver hostage last season (at least that’s how the owners see it, I thought he was more up front than LeBron James had been). It would say no team can sign a player to a “Bird rights” extension of his existing deal if the trade happened after July 1 — meaning you can’t trade for Howard in the middle of next season and give him the big, big bucks. It would force Howard to chose next year — sign a max extension with Orlando, pick up his extension and stay another year (at $19.5 million) or take much less to walk away. (How much less, and how much the Magic can sign him for are all part of the CBA talks.)

If there is no ‘Melo rule, Orlando could find itself in the shoes Denver was in last season. And like the Nuggets they will be faced with a brutal choice.

Even if there is a ‘Melo rule, Howard might still opt out and walk if he doesn’t think Orlando can build a winner around him. This much is clear: right now the Magic’s roster needs to be reworked. Jason Richardson is out as a free agent, so that is step one (Orlando is not brining him back except at a drastically reduced price tag).

There likely will be an amnesty deal in the new CBA that would allow the Magic to wipe Gilbert Arenas’ contract off the books (likely both from the tax and the salary cap). If so, that will help. But even without him the Magic have $56.3 million on the books in salary (for nine players). We don’t know what the new cap will be, but last year it was $58 million and it will likely go down, not up. Meaning the Magic can’t just go buy a free agent to fit in. Not that there is a great free agent crop anyway.

GM Otis Smith is going to have to pull a rabbit out of his hat — and it’s got to be a better gambit than the Richardson/Arenas one last year. Can he find some team to take on Turkoglu’s contract (which has two more years at $22.8 million then a $6 million buyout for the third year)? Does someone want Nelson? There likely will be teams looking to get rid of big salary players after they see the new labor deal, there will be some guys cut free in amnesty moves, but getting a real game changer to pair with Dwight Howard will be hard.

But it’s that or trade Howard. A trade is what everyone outside of Orlando wants the Magic to do (so long as Orlando trades Howard to said fan’s favorite team), but in Orlando the clear goal is to keep him. If a ‘Melo rule prevents Howard from basically forcing a trade, Smith will have more options. But still not many good ones. Nobody really will give up much for what the Magic have on their roster, and the Magic need to get another star.

The bottom line is the Magic are still a good team. A second tier contender with some nice role playing parts — J.J. Redick, Brandon Bass, Ryan Anderson, even Quentin Richardson. But right now for Orlando, good is not good enough. They need to be contenders with a future where Howard can see competing with Miami and Chicago. If not, he may just walk away.

No team may have a tougher road when the lockout ends than the Magic.

Chris Paul scores 33, Rockets topple Warriors 116-108

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HOUSTON (AP) — James Harden felt closer to normal after struggling in his first game back from a hamstring injury, and the Houston Rockets got a big game from Chris Paul to down the Golden State Warriors on Saturday night.

Paul scored 33 points with 11 rebounds, Harden bested Stephen Curry twice in the final seconds and the Rockets held off the Warriors 116-108 to snap their 14-game road winning streak.

The victory gives Houston a 2-1 series advantage over Golden State after the reigning NBA champions had won the series the previous three seasons.

“Obviously they’re a championship caliber team for the past four years … and that’s what we’re trying to build our way up to,” Harden said.

Harden stepped back from Curry for a 3-pointer as the shot clock expired to make it 114-108 with 1:10 left, then blocked Curry’s 3-point attempt after a timeout.

Harden finished with 22 points. Paul added two free throws with 28 seconds left.

Golden State lost away from home for the first time since Nov. 22. The Warriors had won seven straight in Houston.

“It’s been a good streak, disappointing end to it,” coach Steve Kerr said. “But we didn’t deserve to win tonight. We played pretty poorly, did a lot of things to hurt ourselves and we’re playing a great team. Can’t get away with it.”

Houston coach Mike D’Antoni raved about the performance of the 32-year-old Paul .

“The guy is a winner, he’s been a winner, he’s going to win,” D’Antoni said.

Kevin Durant led Golden State with 26 points, Draymond Green had 21 and Curry added 19 on a night he went 5 of 15 on 3-point attempts and 6 of 20 overall. It was just the sixth time in his career that he’d attempted 20 or more shots while making six or fewer.

“It was just one of those nights where I personally didn’t have the right vision on the floor,” he said. “So I’ve got to take that responsibility for that one. It was pretty bad.”

The Warriors were wrapping up a five-game road trip and had won the first four games to tie a franchise record for consecutive road wins. But they struggled from the outset Saturday and trailed by double digits for most of the first half.

It was Harden’s second game back after missing seven with a strained hamstring. He was in a much better rhythm than in his return Thursday night, when he scored a season-low 10 points. He had eight assists, two steals and two blocks Saturday.

The Rockets got the victory despite missing Trevor Ariza and Gerald Green, who were both serving the second game of a two-game suspension for an altercation with the Clippers. Clint Capela added 18 points for Houston on a night when top reserve Eric Gordon went 0 for 9 from 3-point range and finished with just six points.

Golden State led by four before Houston went on a 9-2 run, with the first five points from Paul, to take a 109-106 lead with about three minutes left.

 

Report: NBA’s minor league won’t allow potentially eligible college players

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USC’s De’Anthony Melton, Louisville’s Brian Bowen and Auburn’s Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy haven’t played this season due to the FBI’s probe into college basketball. Mitchell Robinson left Western Kentucky before his freshmen season started to train for the NBA draft.

But they’re all potentially eligible to play college basketball again someday.

So, they can’t play in the NBA’s minor league.

Jonathan Givony of ESPN:

That ineligibility stems from a rule that prevents players who were enrolled in college during an academic calendar year from being offered a contract in the same season, unless they have been ruled permanently ineligible by the NCAA with no opportunity of being reinstated (as was the case with P.J. Hairston in 2013).

“We’re not looking to compete with college basketball for their players,” a G League source said. “The NBA, specifically NBA lawyers, are concerned about the optics of NCAA players being disgruntled with minutes or coaching decisions and leaving college with the hopes of joining the G League. This is a blanket rule unfortunately that applies to all players. Like all of our rules, we are open to revisiting them if needed, but at the moment any player that was enrolled in a college this season is ineligible to play in our League.”

NBA executives and scouts are griping because they can’t evaluate these prospects in games. I don’t care about that.

This is an affront to capitalism. The basis of our economy should be competition, and the NBA is handing the NCAA – a cartel – a monopoly in this level of basketball. And it’s the workers (players) who lose.

So what if a freshman is disgruntled with his minutes and wants to turn pro during the season? He can’t join the NBA due to the age minimum. Why shouldn’t he be allowed to at least enter the NBA’s minor league, for which he’s old enough? We should trust him to manage his future, not protect the almighty college coach from facing consequences to his rotation.

I don’t know whether or not the NBA and NCAA colluded, but the NBA’s stance is the exact one it would take if it colluded. The NBA has worked to improve the quality of play in its minor league by increasing salary to compete against foreign leagues for players. It’s strange to just willingly take a backseat to college basketball when there’s a great opportunity to compete for top talent.

The players could legally challenge the policy, but they’ll be eligible for the NBA draft in June, and there’s risk in upsetting a potential future employer. And would anything be decided quickly enough in court to matter for the challenging player?

Players like Melton, Bowen, Wiley, Purifoy and Robinson aren’t allowed to let the market set their compensation as college basketball players, because NCAA schools have colluded to cap wages. Those players aren’t allowed to seek employment in the comparable American professional league, because that league doesn’t want to compete with the NBA.

It’s a travesty for capitalism and these workers.

LeBron James has tepid response when asked about Tyronn Lue’s job safety

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LeBron James was no fan of David Blatt, so he was let go around the All-Star break with the Cavaliers a couple of years ago when the team had the best record in the East.

Now the Cavaliers have fallen to third in the East and have lost 8-of-11, were blown out by the Thunder on national television on Saturday, have one of the worst defenses in the NBA, and have a brutal stretch of games against good teams ahead.

Is Tyronn Lue’s job in danger? That question has been asked around Cleveland, and when LeBron was asked about it after the OKC loss his response was tepid (via Chris Fedor of Cleveland.com)

Is a coaching change really the answer? I’m not Lue’s biggest fan as a coach, I think Cleveland’s offense has too much isolation and can get simplistic, but he’s got an older team that lost Kyrie Irving (and replaced him with Isaiah Thomas, who just returned to the rotation a couple of weeks ago and is still getting his legs under him).

Maybe that wakes the team up, but the more likely change is a trade or two at the deadline. If Cleveland isn’t willing to put the Brooklyn pick in the mix (reportedly they will only do that for an elite superstar) it’s hard to see them getting a player that really makes a difference. However, get one who wakes the team up out of its malaise and plays a little defense, and the Cavaliers become more likely to out of the East.

It’s going to be an interesting few weeks in Cleveland.

Thunder drop 148 points on defenseless Cavaliers, win in rout

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If you wondered why Cleveland is so active in the trade market as the deadline nears — and why they are hunting out guys who can play defense — all you had to do was watch the Thunder dismantle the Cavaliers on Saturday afternoon on national television, 148-124.

The Thunder went into Quicken Loans Arena and list of offensive accolades is long (and ugly if you’re a Cleveland fan):

• Oklahoma City dropped 148 points.

• Oklahoma City shot 58 percent overall.

• Oklahoma City shot 46.7 percent from three.

• Oklahoma City got 44 percent of its shots within four feet of the rim.

• Oklahoma City’s big three of Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony, and Paul George combined for 88 points.

• Westbrook had 23 points and 20 assists.

• Paul George had 36 points on 12-of-19 shooting.

Steven Adams had 25 points and 10 rebounds.

• Westbrook, George, Adams, and Anthony combined for 113 points on 66 shots.

To be fair, this was also about the Thunder playing one of their most complete offensive games of the season. They moved the ball beautifully, there wasn’t the “your turn/my turn” issues from earlier this season.

For a team still unsure of its identity and looking for validation, this game provided it.

It also provided another glimpse into the troubles in Cleveland.

Last season the Cavaliers counted on an exceptional offense to cover up for a defense that was decent when they cared and horrific when they didn’t, but when it got time in the playoffs Cleveland was able to flip the switch (it just wasn’t enough in the Finals). LeBron James has another gear and was able to lift his teammates up with it.

This season, they don’t seem to know where the switch is. The good defensive habits they had built over time seem lost and forgotten, as they run out a litany of minus defenders in their regular rotation.

Cleveland looks like a team that needs help at the trade deadline to ensure it gets out of the East. The question becomes will they throw in the Brooklyn pick to do it? And even if they did, would DeAndre Jordan really solve their issues right now?