ProBasketballTalk 2014-15 preview: Orlando Magic

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Last season: The goal was to play the young guys a lot, and by that measure there was some success. Victor Oladipo and Nikola Vucevic each played more than 31 minutes a game, Tobias Harris more than 30 (all when healthy, of course). However, if you judge success by wins, well, it was a rough year as the Magic had just 23 of those with a -5.5 points per 100 possessions net rating (6th worst in the league). The real issue was the offense which put up just 99.3 points per 100 possessions, second worst in the NBA. But since last season was about development, at least there was some of that.

Signature highlight from last season: We could have gone with the Tobias Harris dunk to beat OKC, but if you’re into hope for the future in Orlando, it has to be Victor Oladipo shutting down Damian Lillard on the break (one of a lot of great blocks he had last season).

Offseason moves: The Magic shook up the roster. Gone are veterans Jameer Nelson and Arron Afflalo (as well as E’Twaun Moore, Doran Lamb and Jason Maxiell), who were the heart of what was the Magic’s offense last season.

Drafted: Aaron Gordon with the No. 4 pick, then they traded with Philadelphia to get point guard Elfrid Payton, the No. 10 pick (they gave Philadelphia No. 12 pick Dario Saric in the deal).

Free agent signings: Two surprises on this front, Channing Frye chose Orlando over other options and Ben Gordon signed for $9 million over two years. Both of those guys are as much trade bait as anything else (especially Gordon at that price). Orlando also added Luke Ridnour as the backup point guard and Evan Fournier can play the two off the bench.

Keys to the Magic season:

Victor Oladipo developing at the two guard. Hopefully the drafting of Payton means the “Oladipo as point guard” experiment is over. It may have been worth a shot (and he can handle a little at the two) but not every experiment works out. This didn’t, so the Magic drafted a pure point guard in Payton (don’t be shocked if Ridnour is the starting point guard opening night but Payton takes the job mid-season). Now Oladipo is at the two and needs to show he can work off the ball, shoot better than 32 percent from three (his number last season), and generally become more of a scorer. As a point guard he seemed to think and hesitate, hopefully a move to his natural position and a year of experience changes that and he just attacks. The question remains what kind of player he can develop into, and I’m on board with the Tony Allen comparisons — a lock down defender who can knock down a three and get you some points. Oladipo could be more than that on offense, but he has work to do on that end to get there.

Where do the points come from? Arron Afflalo isn’t really cut out to be a No. 1 option in the league (he’s a much better fit in the Denver team concept) but he still provided an efficient 18.2 points a night. Jameer Nelson, for all his flaws, knows how to run a team and create scoring opportunities off the pick-and-roll. They’re both gone. The Magic don’t have a go-to scoring option on this roster, and it’s safe to say they are not going to have Spurs-like ball movement to create looks. Ridnour and hopefully Payton can create some looks, Oladipo will be asked to step up, Frye and Fournier can knock down some threes. But once again this team is going to struggle to score.

Defensive improvement must continue. This is the side of the ball that kept Orlando in games last season, it’s clearly a priority in their choosing of players — they can’t let things slide back on the defensive end of the floor. The Magic were already a middle of the pack defensive team last season (18th in points allowed per possession) but by drafting Payton and Gordon they clearly made defense the priority (Gordon in particular has a raw offensive game). While the offense will struggle if the Magic can continue to improve in the defensive end they will be making progress.

Can Jacque Vaughn coach these guys up, can he develop them? When the Magic hired Vaughn as coach it was with the understanding that he was going to lose a lot of games the first few years and there was nothing he could really do about it. This is a player development job, similar to what Brett Brown has in Philadelphia. The question is: Are the players making enough development? We’ll get some good tests this year as we see how Oladipo progresses, plus how Vucevic and Harris do in the year before they become restricted free agents. We’re not going to see a lot of wins in Orlando, but we should really start to see some of the development that the franchise has banked on.

Why you should watch the Magic: This is one very athletic team and they will make some entertaining plays. With Frye and Maurice Harkless and Fournier out there knocking down threes it should open up driving lanes for Harris and Oladipo. Gordon is going to throw down some dunks. Plus the Magic have played hard for Vaughn and that should continue.

Prediction: 29-53 and in the lottery again. Which is kind of the plan, the Magic are on the slow rebuild process and while they do have some real nice young talent on the roster nobody expects it to fully blossom this season. That said there are big questions that need to be answered this season, specifically with Vucevic and Harris as they will be restricted free agents next summer (unless an unlikely extension deal is reached before Halloween) and there’s the question of how much to pay them. Vucevic is going to draw interest from other teams, Orlando has to figure out what he’s worth to them. His play this season impacts his future payday.

This season will be rough in Orlando, the Southeast Division has gotten pretty tough with Washington, Charlotte, Miami and Atlanta all likely playoff teams. The Magic are going to finish last in the division again.

Celtics’ Gordon Hayward says he’s open to returning this season

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BOSTON (AP) — Celtics guard Gordon Hayward says he is open to playing this season, but says it will depend on how fast he is able to heal and show progress as he works his way back from a broken left ankle.

Hayward was at TD Garden on Friday for Boston’s matchup with the Utah Jazz, the team he left this past summer in free agency after seven seasons to sign a four-year, $128 million contract with the Celtics. He was injured in Boston’s season opener at Cleveland.

Wednesday marked a milestone in Hayward’s recovery process, when he was able to shed the walking boot he’s been using since his surgery in October. He will continue to wear a protective brace during the rehab process.

He said he doesn’t know how long he will have to wear the brace. But he said he is now allowed to do some shooting and begin working more on mobility.

 

Russell Westbrook triple-double keys OKC in 3OT thriller vs 76ers

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Russell Westbrook had 27 points, 17 rebounds and 15 assists, and Oklahoma City and the Philadelphia 76ers went basket-for-basket in a three-overtime thriller before the Thunder pulled out a 119-117 victory on Friday night.

Andre Roberson scored the winner with 10 seconds left for the Thunder. But one of the early contenders for NBA game of the year belonged to Joel Embiid and Westbrook as they drove, blocked and rebounded their way toward one big play after another.

Embiid scored 34 points in 48 minutes with an achy back and rallied the Sixers from a 17-point hole.

Embiid, Philly’s franchise center and social media star, grabbed his lower back when he took a hard foul on a drive to the basket in the fourth quarter. Embiid grimaced during timeouts on the bench and trudged into position a few times.

Embiid sucked it up and carried the Sixers in the fourth and the first overtime. His feed to a charging Ben Simmons on the baseline for a two-handed dunk tied the score at 94-all with 53 seconds left in the quarter. The Sixers closed the fourth on an 11-0 run.

Embiid scored the first bucket of OT and the Sixers led for the first time in the game. The Sixers’ five-point lead with 1:20 left in overtime was wiped out on Paul George‘s 3-pointer and a Westbrook bucket that made it 102-all. The Sixers blew their final possession on an ill-conceived 3 for Dario Saric.

Round 2 was just as fun.

Westbrook and Robert Covington exchanged 3s and George tied it at 109 on a driving layup. Westbrook and Embiid swapped buckets that kept it even and the Sixers had one more chance to win it with 1.2 seconds to go in the second OT.

Embiid and Westbrook combined to score eight straight points in the third overtime, and Embiid even waved goodbye as the crowd went wild when Steve Adams fouled out of the game.

But Embiid seemed gassed at the end and there’s no telling how the heavy workload may affect his availability the rest of the week.

The Sixers were featured on ESPN on Friday as part of Philadelphia All Access, and Sixers’ related content was aired throughout the day on all platforms.

“I’m not a fan,” coach Brett Brown said. “I like living behind closed doors.”

But Brown understood the exposure would help build the brand and serve as a recruiting pitch of sorts to any free agents intrigued about becoming part of The Process. The Sixers put on a show in the fourth until Embiid gave them a scare.

Embiid’s health woes have dogged him since his college career at Kansas and every slip, ache or bump throws Sixers fans into a panic. Embiid has been banged-up lately but he calmly went to the line and made both free throws. He fell again when he tripped over Adams, who earned a foul, and sank two more free throws to make it 78-72.

 

After Thunder win, Russell Westbrook trolls Joel Embiid, waves goodbye, tells him to “go home”

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Joel Embiid was making friends all over the court on Friday night.

First, he got into a jawing match with Carmelo Anthony. Also during the first overtime, Embiid blocked Russell Westbrook‘s driving attempt at a game winner.

After the Thunder won in triple overtime, Westbrook trolled Embiid by waving goodbye to the Sixers’ center, who was yelling back at him.

When asked about it, Westbrook said Embiid was talking a lot so he told the Sixers center to go home.

That can have some serious connotations — Embiid was born in Cameroon. Westbrook may have meant “go to the locker room” or “go to where you live,” but considering Embiid is an immigrant it comes off very poorly for Westbrook.

Embiid threw a little fire back at Westbrook.

The league office is going to be looking into this one.

DeMarcus Cousins doesn’t expect Pelicans to trade him at the deadline

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The New Orleans Pelicans have a decision to make as they approach the trade deadline: Do they think they can re-sign DeMarcus Cousins next summer to stay in the Big Easy with Anthony Davis?

If the answer is no, then they have to consider trading Cousins at the deadline to at least get something back. There is a lot of context, however, that makes this seeming binary trade/keep decision far more complicated.

Cousins himself doesn’t think he is going anywhere, as he told Marc Spears of ESPN’s The Undefeated.

While the Pelicans have a lot to consider with the unrestricted free agent, Cousins says he is confident that he will still be playing for New Orleans after the Feb. 8 trade deadline.

“I am confident in my team,” Cousins said. “I am starting to understand this business a lot more than I did before. You can kind of tell when things are about to come about. We’re a very competitive team. A talented team. I don’t think that will be the case at all….

“A.D. hits me with little jabs about free agency all the time, but he also understands,” Cousins said. “It was Jrue in that situation last [offseason], and we understood his situation. Of course, they throw their little jabs. They throw their little jokes. But they are serious at the same time. They are respectful about it at the same time.

The Pelicans are 15-14 and the seven seed in the West entering Friday night’s games, and if New Orleans has a shot at the playoffs come the deadline there is no way he gets moved. Ownership and management want a playoff appearance. They have greenlit adding one of the game’s top centers (Cousins) to go next to Davis, and last summer they paid big to keep Jrue Holiday at the point in New Orleans. If the Pelicans don’t make the playoffs (and possibly even if they do squeak in and get swept out in an ugly fashion), everyone in the organization expects a housecleaning. They have been on edge all season. With jobs on the line, they are not trading Cousins and getting worse short term even if you could argue it was the right basketball move long term.

Will Cousins re-sign with the Pelicans next summer? That will be about the money — what the Pelicans offer, and what other teams will offer in what is expected to be a tight free agent market, especially for centers.  DeAndre Jordan will be on the market as well, not to mention second-tier guys who will be more affordable for teams such as Brook Lopez. In that market, Cousins may want to stay where he likes his teammates and seems happy.

But first he has to get past the trade deadline.