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.

Kobe Bryant tells Shaq he was planning to leave Lakers for Bulls (VIDEO)

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Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal got their three championships together as members of the Los Angeles Lakers. The two stars were part of the three-peat team that won in 2000, 2001, and 2002. But the story that perhaps overshadows those accomplishments in the modern era is the story of Kobe vs. Shaq, and the long-standing beef that was between the players even after they split in 2004.

The back-and-forth between the two is part of the fabric not just of the Lakers, but of pop culture as it surrounds basketball. The Shaq/Kobe beef even has it’s own Wikipedia page that’s longer and more well-sourced than most of the papers I wrote in college. It’s impressive.

Meanwhile, Kobe and Shaq sat down in a long special that aired on Saturday as All-Star Weekend ramped up that revealed quite a bit about their time together and their relationship. One of the more interesting anecdotes was Kobe telling Shaq that he was planning on leaving the Lakers for the Chicago Bulls in 2004. That plan was quashed when the team sent O’Neal to the Miami Heat in July.

Via Twitter:

That would have been a major shift for LA and for Chicago. The Bulls drafted both Ben Gordon and Chris Duhon that year, and traded for Luol Deng. The team improved by 24 wins the following season, and adding Bryant may have altered that trajectory and of course sent shockwave of consequential changes through the league. Heck, Scottie Pippen retired that October, but perhaps he would have stayed for one more year with Kobe?

The rest of the interview was interesting, and there were lots of tidbits of information that had people talking. Bryant and O’Neal rehashed their fights, Shaq’s infamous rap dissing Kobe, and mooning Sacramento Kings fans after beating them in the 2002 playoffs.

The biggest takeaway from the interview was how the one-upsmanship between Shaq and Kobe, although subtle, still remains.

As context, Bryant has done a fair bit of career revisionism as he tries to alter his public image now that he’s not a player. He’s painted himself as a “storyteller” and has tried to make his single-mindedness appear praiseworthy rather than destructive. It’s mostly so he can sell shoes well into his 50s à la Michael Jordan.

In the sit down between the two Lakers greats, Shaq did some legacy revision of his own. He played off his continuous egging of Bryant over their careers as simple media manipulation, calling himself a master marketer. It really was a thing to see something that hilariously disingenuous, especially as much of the conversation between the two — including many admissions on each side — were about times they made each other sincerely angry.

The two finished the interview by taking photos next to some championship trophies (Kobe with more, of course) and exchanging laughs and hugs.

You can watch the full interview in the video above.

JJ Redick appears to use racial slur toward Chinese fans

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Chinese New Year was February 16, and now we’ve rolled over to the Year of the Dog. The NBA has a huge presence internationally in China, and so its video partner across the Pacific put together a compilation video of NBA players wishing people a happy new year.

The only problem? In one cut of the video that has been making the rounds on social media, Philadelphia 76ers guard JJ Redick appears to use a racial slur aimed at those of Chinese descent.

The instance is absent from the official video, but a reaction-style YouTube video captured a different edit of the Year of the Dog video with Redick still in it. Redick appears to say, “I just wanted to wish all the NBA c—k fans in China a very happy Chinese New Year.”

Redick responded on Twitter, saying he was simply tongue-tied.

It’s difficult to judge intention from a distance, but the result is certainly disappointing. Even with Redick’s apology, it seems possible he’s contacted by the league office as part of a disciplinary inquiry.

Adam Silver says change to 1-16 playoff format has gotten “serious consideration”

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LOS ANGELES — Going into this season, continuing off the recent past went the Western Conference has been deeper in talent than the East., there was a lot of discussion among fans and media about switching to a 1-16 playoff format that ignores the current conference system.

The league has always balked at that — there is tradition, the conferences play an unbalanced schedule so it’s not a fair matchup now, and travel is an issue — but things have gotten more serious, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said during All-Star weekend.

“That is something that’s gotten serious attention, not just recently, but over the last few years at the league office,” Silver said in an address to the media. “I think, as I’ve said in the past, the obstacle is travel, and it’s not tradition in my mind, at least. It’s that as we’ve added an extra week to the regular season, as we’ve tried to reduce the number of back-to-backs, that we are concerned about teams crisscrossing the country in the first round, for example. We are just concerned about the overall travel that we would have in the top 16 teams.

“Having said that, you also would like to have a format where your two best teams are ultimately going to meet in The Finals, and obviously, if it’s the top team in the East and top team in the West, I’m not saying this is the case this year, but you could have a situation where the top two teams in the league are meeting in the Conference Finals or somewhere else.

“So we’re going to continue to look at that. It’s still my hope that we’re going to figure out ways.”

There is no vote scheduled, no change on the immediate horizon.

The idea of teams playing a more balanced regular season schedule, then having the best 16 teams in the playoffs, is appealing. This season, the Finals should be the Warriors and Rockets, a matchup of the two best teams. Instead, it will be the Western Conference Finals.

Fixing it is not simple. If travel is the concern — having something like the Golden State and Philadelphia in a 2-2-1-1-1 series that drags out in the first or second rounds (if the playoffs started today we would get Boston vs. Portland) — there is no easy answer, short of a Star Trek teleporter. Faster travel across the nation is not on the immediate horizon.

As Silver said, the only real answer would be to build the potential for more time into the schedule. However, the NBA is already starting in mid-October and running through June, how much longer are they really willing to go?

The obvious answer is reducing the number of games, but we know that’s not happening. Don’t expect much of a change here.

Adam Silver: Discussions about one-and-done rule ongoing, change not likely soon

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LOS ANGELES — Nobody likes the one-and-done rule. Not the NBA owners, not universities, not players, not anyone.

It’s also not likely to change soon.

The NBA and players’ union are discussing the issue — along with NCAA representatives — NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said. But the sides are not near a deal to make changes, whatever they are.

“In terms of the NBA, we’re conflicted, to be honest…” Silver said in his annual address to the media during All-Star weekend. “So we’ve had some meetings with the Players Association where we’ve shared data on success rates of young players coming into the league. We’ve talked a lot about youth development in terms of whether we should be getting involved in some of these young players even earlier than when they come into college.

“And from a league standpoint, on one hand, we think we have a better draft when we’ve had an opportunity to see these young players play an elite level before they come into the NBA.

“On the other hand, I think the question for the league is, in terms of their ultimate success, are we better off intersecting with them a little bit younger? Are we better off bringing them into the league when they’re 18 using our G League as it was designed to be as a Development League and getting them minutes on the court there?”

Right now an NCAA commission, headed by Stanford President and former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice that is looking into this issue and is expected to make recommendations this spring that the league will look at, Silver said.

He added that another consideration is jobs for veteran players — if the NBA went back to a rule that allowed the drafting of 18-year-olds, it could squeeze some veterans out of the league to create roster spots.

While the NBA appears headed eventually toward some version of the “baseball rule” — players can be drafted out of high school but if they go to college they need to stay two or three years at least — don’t expect changes soon.

“So we’re not by any means rushing through this,” Silver said. “I think this is a case where, actually, outside of the cycle of collective bargaining, we can spend more time on it with the Players Association, talking to the individual players, talking to the executive board and really trying to understand the pros and cons of potentially moving the age limit.”