NBA Preview: Orlando Magic

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Last season: Oh, what a tangled web we weave…

The Magic won 37 games (to 29 losses) last season because for a stretch in the first half of the season they were one of the top-five teams in the NBA. Dwight Howard was putting up his usual MVP numbers (well, not last season next to LeBron but he should be in the conversation most years), the Magic were defending and on offense knocking down threes.

But from the first days the foundation was going to crumble and it came apart in a way worthy of The Days of Our Lives. Howard and his people were pushing hard for a trade to the Nets, and they had leverage with his ability to opt-out in the summer. Except the Magic were not playing along, wanting a better deal and not to give Howard what he wanted. Then Howard caved and opted-in with the Magic for next season, so they didn’t have to trade him. Then Stan Van Gundy threw Howard under the bus in front of he New York Media. Then Howard’s back injury worsened and he had to sit out of the playoffs.

The Magic got run in the first round of the playoffs by the Pacers, then they fired Stan Van Gundy, then they eventually traded Howard to the Lakers in a four-team deal that netted them essentially five picks (three future picks and two recent players) but none of them lottery picks.

Key Departures: Orlando is going the Oklahoma City model — they are looking to be terrible and get good again through the draft. Dwight Howard is gone. While that is obvious you really need to think through how big a loss that is — he is a three-time defensive player of the year who made them one of the better defensive teams in the league for years, plus he was the hub of their offense. He is arguably the third best player in basketball right now. That’s not easy to replace.

Also gone is stretch-four sharpshooter Ryan Anderson, a guy bordering on All-Star status. Then there is Jason Richardson. That would be three of the top four scorers for the Magic. By the way, numbers five and six on the scoring list last season — J.J. Redick and Hedo Turkoglu — can be yours in a trade for picks and prospects.

Key Additions: The best player they got in the Howard trade is Arron Afflalo, a solid two-way swingman who will be asked to do a lot more scoring than he has in the past but will play well. Through the trade they also landed rookie Moe Harkless, the St. John’s star who has promise but is raw. There also is Gustavo Ayon and Al Harrington, but you get the idea. The Magic did not make this trade trying to get better, they are intentionally going to be bad.

One guy who could catch on, Andrew Nicholson. You didn’t see him play in college unless you watched a lot of St. Bonaventure, but in Summer League he averaged 12.6 points and 6.8 rebounds a game. He will get a chance.

Orlando also added new head coach Jacque Vaughn, who gets thrown into the fire of his first NBA job in charge of a roster Phil Jackson couldn’t win with.

Three keys to the Magic season:

1) When do they trade J.J. Redick, Hedo Turkoglu and Glen Davis? The Magic are not going to be good this year, but they are going to get worse. Orlando is going with what is now called the Oklahoma City Thunder model of building through the draft. So the second they can unload one of these veterans for picks and prospects they will. Likely it all happens closer to the deadline, but you are going to hear a lot of Magic trade rumors. General Manager Rob Hennigan has a plan and they are not going halfway on it.

2) How many wins does Jameer Nelson get them? With all the roster changes and revamping the Magic brought Nelson back on a three-year deal. He is the one guy still on the roster who has proven he can up points plenty of at the NBA level, although last season he averaged 11.9 points and 5.7 assists per game. The light for Nelson will be green; he is now freed up to shoot pretty much whenever he wants. His career high is 16.7 points per game and don’t be shocked if he bests that.

But he’s not going to get them a lot of wins. (Not that the Magic brass want him to.) This is the guy you pair with an elite player, he is not elite. And his defense has not been impressive at all the past couple seasons.

3) Can Jacque Vaughn get the youth to develop? In the end for the Magic, it’s really about seeing if Moe Harkless and Andrew Nicholson can develop into solid complimentary players to the franchise guy they hope to draft down the line. Same with Kyle O’Quinn and Christian Eyenga. (Afflalo certainly would fit in, he’s proven it.) Right now it’s about developing talent for the long-term and seeing if the guys can fit in. And part of that has to fall to Vaughn to lead and teach them.

What Magic fans should fear: That the plan doesn’t really work. It’s not easy to land three years of consecutive top four picks like the Thunder did, and they were fortunate to have Kevin Durant fall to them. Then they nailed the Westbrook and Harden picks. Cleveland had the series of top picks as well and they have Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters, and we’ll see how that plays out. But to get the picks is hard and to get the right guy at spots No. 2 and No. 4 is not easy (sometimes not even at No. 1).

This tear it down and build it back up strategy is the right one, but it’s far from easy or foolproof. And it’s going to take years to judge.

How it likely works out: Orlando will be one of the worst teams in the NBA this season, and Magic fans better be prepared for that. It’s not about wins, it’s about Shabazz Muhammad and Nerlens Noel. Expect trades mid-season and a lot of very hard-to-watch losses. Most painful may be that the biggest weakness will be big men in the paint.

The hope is that you see sparks from Harkless, that Nelson and Afflalo can provide some points and the team rallies around Vaughn and is competitive. We saw a lot of losses from the Hornets last season but they played hard for Monty Williams, they defended better, and that’s where the signs of hope will be for Magic fans.

Prediction: 22-60 and a whole lot of ping-pong balls. It’s not going to be pretty in the short term, but that is the plan.

76ers: Joel Embiid doubtful for Game 3 against Heat

AP Photo/Chris Szagola
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MIAMI (AP) — Joel Embiid remains listed as doubtful by Philadelphia for Game 3 of the 76ers’ Eastern Conference playoff series at Miami on Thursday night.

Embiid was on the floor with the 76ers for their morning shootaround practice, but coach Brett Brown says there’s no change in the All-Star center’s status.

Embiid has missed Philadelphia’s last 10 games while recovering from a concussion and surgery that repaired a fractural orbital bone around his left eye. He’s no longer in the NBA’s concussion protocol.

He took to social media after the 76ers lost Game 2 of this series to the Heat, saying he’s tired of being “babied.”

Embiid has averaged 22.9 points and 11 rebounds in 63 games for the 76ers during the regular season.

Rumor: Lakers, Kawhi Leonard share mutual interest

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The Spurs seem like they won’t trade Kawhi Leonard.

That won’t stop teams from trying.

There’s a clear disconnect between Leonard and San Antonio. Even the potential of a player as good as Leonard becoming available has teams salivating.

The Clippers are reportedly assembling a trade offer for the L.A. native. Los Angeles’ other team – the Lakers – are also apparently expected to factor prominently.

Sean Deveney of Sporting News:

“I think they go in hard for Leonard once the season is over and once the dust settles in San Antonio,” one executive told Sporting News. “(Leonard) wants to go to LA. There probably won’t be public demands on that, but he has leverage. He is going to be a free agent (in 2019). He’s an LA guy and he can just let teams know he won’t re-sign next year with anyone but the Lakers.”

But make no mistake, the Lakers are the favorite here.

“I would say that’s the most likely thing,” another general manager told Sporting News. “He’s going to be their target any way you look at it, this summer or next summer. There’s not many other ways to explain what’s been going on with that situation other than him trying to get out of San Antonio.”

Of course, every team wants Leonard. He’s an elite two-way player when healthy. But teams will go to differing lengths to pursue him. If the Lakers will “go hard for Leonard,” that means something beyond just desiring him.

Under Magic Johnson, the Lakers have made no secret of their plan to acquire stars. That has largely been centered on 2018 free agents, but with that well drying up, talk has turned to 2019 free agents. If the Lakers can get a top 2019 free agent – Leonard – sooner, why wouldn’t they?

One reason is the cost. Trading with San Antonio would require dealing at least some combination of Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma. Signing Leonard outright in 2019 would be simpler.

But a trade is the only surefire way of getting Leonard. If the Lakers don’t trade for him, another team could. With promising young players and cap space, the Lakers have the tools to make an intriguing offer for Leonard.

Or, more likely, the Spurs could keep him. Their relationship isn’t necessarily beyond repair, and they can offer him a super-max contract extension this summer.

They might not offer it. Even if they do, he might not take it. If he doesn’t, he could pledge to re-sign with only certain teams – like the Lakers – and steer trade talks that way. You can see how the thinking develops:

Leonard might be unhappy in San Antonio. He grew up in Southern California. Therefore, he’ll engineer his way to the Lakers?

Maybe, and maybe these anonymous executives know something to that effect. But this mostly sounds lazily speculative.

PBT Extra: Disciplined Celtics highlight bad habits of Milwaukee Bucks

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Giannis Antetokounmpo has been every bit the top five NBA player in the postseason — 32.5 points per game on 63.2 percent shooting, plus with 11 rebounds and 7.5 assists per game.

Yet the Bucks are down 0-2 to Boston.

The Celtics have had a strong series from Al Horford and Terry Rozier, but the real difference is in the discipline this team has shown all season — Boston knows who it is. Clearly, Milwaukee does not. They turn the ball over too much and make too many mistakes.

I get into all of that in this PBT Extra, and I wonder if that’s something the Bucks can really turn around mid-playoffs.

Ettore Messina to coach Spurs in Game 3 following death of Gregg Popovich’s wife

AP Photo/Eric Gay
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Spurs coach Gregg Popovich’s wife, Erin, died yesterday.

That sad news was felt throughout the NBA, and it obviously affects San Antonio most closely. That includes for tonight’s Game 3 against the Warriors.

Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News:

Ettore Messina was a longtime head coach in Europe. The Spurs lead assistant also took over for a few regular-season games Popovich missed. So, making – rather than advising – coaching decisions won’t be a brand new challenge to Messina.

But down 2-0 to defending-champion Golden State is a tough place to make an NBA playoff debut.

On the bright side, there will be no pressure. Not only has San Antonio been outclassed the first two games of the series, focus is rightly on the Popovich family. A win would be a pleasant surprise and help Messina – who’s up for the Hornets job – in his pursuit of a head-coaching position. A loss would be quickly forgotten with more important matters at hand.

To that end, hopefully the time away allows Popovich the space he needs to grieve. That matters far more than a basketball game.