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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.

Phil Jackson’s reaction to Kristaps Porzingis getting turned upside down feels about right

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New York Knicks big man Kristaps Porzingis is the future of the franchise, so any time he’s upended and nearly lands on his noggin it’s a cause for concern. To say the least.

That’s what happened on Monday night, as Porzingis got turned upside down during a play near the basket during a game against the Detroit Pistons.

Porzingis was OK on the play, and Detroit big man Andre Drummond did his best to help catch him so nothing too scary happened.

Still, Knicks president Phil Jackson had a pretty hilarious reaction to the whole thing. I guess that’s what happens when you watch your basketball life flash before your eyes.

Porzingis was unhurt and played a full 37 minutes. New York beat Detroit, 109-95.

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.

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