Nikola Vucevic and Tobias Harris coming into their own for Magic

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BOSTON – Nikola Vucevic is more confident than ever and playing the best basketball of his life.

Perhaps, it’s because the Magic gave him a four-year, $54 million contract extension last offseason.

“It just kind of gives you a kind of peace of mind, to where you do what you do, and you don’t have to worry about those things,” Vucevic said. “I feel like I know that I put the summer in, the work in, and I know what I sacrificed to get to here. Now, when I get on the court, there’s no reason for me to doubt myself.”

On the flip side, Orlando failed to reach a deal with another rookie-extension-eligible player, Tobias Harris. If Vucevic’s extension made him comfortable, how did Harris not getting one affect him?

“I’m always going to work hard at anything I do just because I love this game,” Harris. “Ever since I was a kid playing basketball, I always just instilled the work ethic in myself to be the best that I can be, free agent or non-free agent.”

Vucevic confirms Harris’ mindset hasn’t changed. In fact, Vucevic has though the sacrifices Harris makes to improve are “sometimes even too much.”

“He wants to compete all the time,” Vucevic said. “Whatever you do, he has to be the best. When it comes to dressing up, the car you have, the music you listen to, whatever – Tobias, he has to be the best.”

So who has the team’s best car?

“I do,” said Vucevic, who declined to share what he drives.

Though Vucevic’s vehicle remains a mystery, here’s what’s clear: A confident Vucevic and competitive Harris are driving the Magic, and if they keep this up, they’ll deserve real All-Star consideration.

Orlando has repeatedly hit the right notes with these two. The Magic drafted neither Vucevic (No. 16 in 2011) nor Harris (drafted No. 19 the same year), acquiring both in trades. Vucevic came from the 76ers in the Dwight Howard megadeal, and Harris from the Bucks as the primary return for J.J. Redick. Whatever motivational factors Orlando had in mind when negotiating their contract extensions last offseason, Vucevic (18.2 points on 52.0 percent shooting and 11.8 rebounds per game) and Harris (18.6 points on 47.4 percent shooting and 7.2 rebounds per game) are having All-Star-type seasons.

Between six and eight frontcourt players will make each All-Star team. Vucevic and Harris rank fifth and sixth among Eastern Conference frontcourt players in Estimated Wins Added, a PER-based stat that accounts for playing time, behind only LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Al Jefferson and Chris Bosh.

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This is not to suggest Vucevic and Harris should make the All-Star game, merely that they’re reasonable candidates. Of course, it’s unlikely they’ll be treated as such – especially in tandem.

The Magic are 11-20. It’s hard enough for a losing team to send a player to the All-Star game, let alone two. In the last 30 years, just 11 teams with losing records at the All-Star break produced multiple All-Stars.

Team Record at All-Star break All-Stars
2012-13 LAL 25-29 Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard
2011-12 BOS 15-17 Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo
2007-08 WAS 25-27 Caron Butler, Antawn Jamison
2006-07 NJN 25-29 Vince Carter, Jason Kidd
2005-06 HOU 22-31 Tracy McGrady, Yao Ming
1996-97 MIN 23-25 Kevin Garnett, Tom Gugliotta
1994-95 DET 17-29 Joe Dumars, Grant Hill
1993-94 NJN 22-24 Kenny Anderson, Derrick Coleman
1992-93 GSW 23-30 Chris Mullin, Tim Hardaway
1992-93 DET 21-29 Joe Dumars, Isiah Thomas
1987-88 PHI 20-23 Charles Barkley, Maurice Cheeks

All those teams had better winning percentages than this year’s Magic. The last team with such a poor record and two All-Stars was the 1971-72 Cavaliers, who were 15-32 at the break and sent Butch Beard and John Johnson. Back then, the East had just eight teams from which to build an All-Star squad.

Now, with 15 teams per conference and an unofficial allocation of reserve votes based on team record, it’s a practical certainty Vucevic and Harris can’t both reach the All-Star game.

If one makes it – and that’s far from guaranteed – it will probably be Vucevic, whom Doc Rivers called an All-Star. The Clippers coach also described Vucevic as “probably the best player in the league that nobody knows.”

“When he says nobody knows me, it’s kind of true,” Vucevic said. “Not a lot of people knew about me before, but I’ve never been worried about it. I knew what I was capable of. I had the talent. I just had to keep working to sustain it and become good.”

Without question, Vucevic is good. The 7-foot center is an effective post player with range well outside the paint. He’s shooting 66.0 percent at the rim and 43.0 percent from mid-range. Only Anthony Davis tops both those marks (minimum: 100 shots from each location). Vucevic, though his feet still run a little slow and he’s not a great rim protector, is making defensive progress. For the first time, the Magic are allowing fewer points per possession with him on the court than off, though he’s always hovered around their team-wide mark.

Similarly, Harris is on the right track. He’s shooting 39.3 percent on 3-pointers, well above the 28.0 percent he was shooting beyond the arc entering this season. His increased range has opened the floor for himself and teammates, and he likes to advantage with well-timed cuts to the baskets. Playing more small forward this season after seeing a lot of time as a stretch four last season, Harris has really enhanced his all-around game.

The big question: If these guys are so good, why is Orlando so bad?

It’s a fair point.

To some degree, they’re putting up numbers on this team because someone has to. But imagine where the Magic would be without Vucevic and Harris. Orlando performs better when those two share the court than any of its other 10-most-used duos. And more directly, Harris has hit two game-winning jumpers.

Earlier this month against the Hawks:

 

 

And last month against the 76ers:

With Harris already holding a reputation for clutch play entering the season, a dearth of quality wings around the league and a rising salary cap looming, Harris will get plenty of attention this summer. Don’t be surprised if the annual salary on his next contract exceeds $10 million.

He’s reportedly interested in the Knicksplaying in New York would reportedly trigger a bonus in his Nike contract – but he’ll be a restricted free agent. The Magic can keep him, and he’s on record saying he wants to remain in Orlando.

If all else fails, Harris could accept the qualifying offer for next season and become an unrestricted free agent in 2016, when the salary cap should skyrocket. If Harris starts 17 more games or plays 1,121 more minutes this season, he’ll raise his qualifying offer from $3,394,726 to $4,433,683. It’s a small advantage, one Harris is likely to meet, but it’d nudges him a little closer to that route.

How much would the Magic pay to keep Harris? They have one of the league’s most egalitarian salary structures.

Channing Frye ($8,579,088) is the second-lowest-paid player among teams’ highest-paid players, behind only the 76ers’ Jason Richardson ($6,601,125). Victor Oladipo ($4,978,200) is the lowest-paid player among teams’ second-highest-paid players. Ben Gordon ($4.5 million) is the lowest-paid player among teams’ third-highest-paid players, behind only the 76ers’ Joel Embiid ($4,427,640).

And so on. The Magic’s fourth- (Aaron Gordon), fifth- (Vucevic), sixth- (Luke Ridnour) and seventh- (Elfrid Payton) lowest-paid players are the or among the lowest-paid in the league for their team rank. It’s telling that Orlando’s second- and fourth-highest paid players are still on their-rookie scale contracts.

What it means: The Magic still have incredible flexibility to shape their roster.

Their seven highest-paid players are all contract for next season. That’s when Vucevic’s big extension kicks in, and Frye is the only other Orlando player slated to make more Oladipo’s rookie-scale salary. Harris is the team’s eight-highest-paid player.

So, if the Magic think they’re onto something here – with a young core that also includes an emerging Oladipo and Evan Fournier – there’s little reason to let Harris bolt. Frye, the team’s veteran leader, sure believes they’re onto something with Vucevic and Harris.

“They’re developing as leaders on this team, as kind of the pillars of where we’re going to build this team,” Frye said. “And I’m cool with that. I’m very cool with that. And it’s an honor to play with these guys and watch them develop, and I think they’re both learning that they can’t do it by themselves and that with each other, we’re a very good team. We’re going to put it all on them.”

For now, both players are still trying to find their place in the league individually.

Vucevic, with the big extension and nice car, is a bit further along in that process. Even Harris, who said he drives a BMW M6, admitted Vucevic had the team’s top car – though not without his signature competitiveness showing in the answer.

“He does,” Harris allowed, “now. But – yeah he does.”

Told of Harris’ admission, Vucevic calmly nodded.

Vucevic’s confidence and Harris’ competitiveness are working for each player right now. Vucevic is proving why he got paid, and Harris is showing why he should get paid. In the process, the duo is driving the Magic in the right direction, and the next major stop might just be New York for the All-Star game.

Report: Carmelo Anthony would’ve allowed Knicks to trade him to Trail Blazers if no deal with select three teams

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Carmelo Anthony spent most of the offseason saying he’d waive his no-trade clause for only the Rockets.

But as training camp neared and Anthony faced returning to the Knicks, he expanded his list to include the Thunder and Cavaliers.

Just how badly did Anthony want to leave the Knicks?

Marc Berman of the New York Post:

Sources say Anthony would have allowed the Knicks to deal him to Portland if the Knicks struck out with the other three.

Apparently, the Trail Blazers’ recruitment almost worked. Of course, the Knicks traded Anthony to Oklahoma City. But this report raises a couple questions:

How many teams would have Anthony approved in a trade? He obviously preferred to leave the Knicks, but he also had reasons to stay in New York. We now know Anthony preferred at least four teams to the Knicks, but how long is that list? Twenty-nine teams?

Did the Knicks err by sending Anthony to Oklahoma City? Maybe the Trail Blazers would’ve never beaten the Thunder’s offer (the Bulls’ 2018 second-round pick, Enes Kanter and Doug McDermott). But if New York had played hardball, it could have at least brought Portland into a bidding war.

Damian Lillard, Jusuf Nurkic make plays late to lift Blazers past Nets

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NEW YORK (AP) — Jusuf Nurkic apologized to Damian Lillard as they strolled back to their locker room, upset he had missed two free throws with less the three seconds left, giving the Brooklyn Nets a chance to either tie or win it at the buzzer.

All Lillard could care about was Nurkic’s heads-up play a couple of seconds earlier that eventually served as the game-winner.

Lillard scored 34, Nurkic added 29 and 15 rebounds, including eight in the fourth quarter, and the Portland Trail Blazers rallied from a six-point deficit late in the fourth quarter to edge the Nets 127-125 on Friday.

“After the game he was telling me, `Man, my bad I missed the free throws, I did this and I this that’,” Lillard recalled. “I stopped in the hallway, I said, `I don’t care about none of that, the most important thing is you made the biggest play of the game’.”

Portland trailed 121-115 with 2:20 left after former Trail Blazers’ guard Allen Crabbe floater. The Trail Blazers then scored the next eight points, capped by Shabbaz Nappier’s three-point play with 55 seconds left. Brooklyn’s Spencer Dinwiddie then evened it 123 with a putback layup after missing his own 15-foot pullup shot.

Lillard then freed himself off Dinwiddie’s tight defense as Nurkic set a pick at the 3-point arc, diving to the basket as the Portland point guard served him the ball. DeMarre Carroll then slid in to help on the coverage, blocking Nurkic right under the basket. Caris LeVert briefly had control of the ball before the Trail Blazers’ center snatched it away and put it through, drawing a foul and capping a three-point play with 27 seconds left to put his team ahead for good, 126-123.

“I learned never quit,” said Nurkic, who had eight rebounds and two of his four blocks in the final period. “There’s no lost possession. I see an opportunity to steal the ball and try to make a play. It (went) in.”

Despite Lillard’s words of encouragement, he was still beating himself for making 5 of 10 free throws.

“I know I am a way better free throw (shooter) than I am showing,” said Nurkic.

CJ McCollum chipped in 26 for the Trail Blazers, who found themselves down by 11 in the first quarter in a post-Thanksgiving noon tip.

The Trail Blazers’ defense held the Nets 0 for 5 from the field during their key fourth quarter 8-0 run, two days after a disappointing 20-point loss at Philadelphia.

“We made some good defensive stops in the last minute and a half and were able to convert in the other direction,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said.

Dinwiddie had 23 for the Nets, who have lost three straight games – the previous two to the defending champions, Golden State Warriors, and Cleveland Cavaliers.

After cutting Portland’s lead to 126-125 with 15.7 seconds, he had a chance to put the Nets ahead but missed a 3-pointer with 4:8 seconds left.

“I felt like it was a good look,” Dinwiddie said. “It bounced around the rim a couple of times but didn’t go in.”

Brooklyn had six other players score in double-figures, including Rondae-Hollis Jefferson had 17. Sean Kilpatrick added 14 and Joe Harris scored 14.

 

Should Cavaliers be interested in DeAndre Jordan? At what price?

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In a season ravaged by injuries, the Clippers are stumbling and — especially if the stumbles continue — they will be left with a couple of hard questions. One is the future of Doc Rivers.

The other is the future DeAndre Jordan. He has a player option for next season and almost certainly becomes a free agent. While new Clipper president Lawrence Frank has said he wants Jordan to be a “Clipper for life,” other teams are calling Frank to see if Jordan is available. If the Clippers think they may not be able to re-sign him this summer, they have to consider their options. Including a trade.

Should the Cavaliers be one of those teams calling the Clippers? Joe Varden of the Cleveland Plain Dealer had this answer to that question.

DeAndre Jordan’s numbers are down this season. He’s averaging 10.4 points and shooting .664 from the field (he only shoots twos). Even his blocks — 1.2 per game — are down from the 1.7 he averaged a year ago. Also, Jordan, 29, has a $24.1 million player’s option in his contract for next season. So, he could essentially be a rental. That said, you’re right, he’d thrive playing alongside LeBron James and Isaiah ThomasTristan Thompson was great against the Warriors in the Finals two seasons ago, and struggled mightily last year. A league source believes this move, Jordan for Thompson, is one the Cavs would consider. How the Brooklyn pick figured in remains to be seen (Cleveland also has its own No. 1 pick), but if the Cavs felt Jordan was the only piece missing for them to take down the Warriors they’d have to consider this.

First, Jordan’s numbers are down this season because Austin Rivers is feeding him the ball off pick-and-rolls, not Chris Paul. That’s a huge talent drop off. Jordan and Paul played well off each other, a decrease in counting stats was to be expected.

Second, it’s fair to ask if Jordan actually puts the Cavaliers on the level of the Warriors? I don’t see it, and if the Cavaliers don’t think he puts them on that tier, they should be careful about what they offer.

Finally, Jordan would be a rental, although the Cavaliers might be able to re-sign him if the price was right and LeBron stays.

What I’ve heard around the league is that the Brooklyn pick is off the table right now, that Cleveland may be willing to move their own first rounder (likely in the mid-20s). The bottom line on the scenario above, Jordan is an upgrade on both ends of the court over Tristan Thompson, even when Thompson is healthy. If the Cavaliers are all-in for a title this season, they have to seriously consider it.

Would a  Thompson and Cavaliers pick get the deal done? Thompson has two-years, $36 million on his contract after this season, the Cavaliers might like to have the flexibility of Jordan’s expiring deal over TT (despite Thompson’s close ties to LeBron). However, would the Clippers take on that extra salary for just a late first rounder? Not likely. They will demand the Brooklyn pick at first. The question is will the Clippers come around to what the Cavaliers offer? Or will Cleveland decide that this season is more important than future protections and throw the Brooklyn pick in?

Other teams — Washington and Milwaukee are rumored among them — are calling the Clippers, too.

The first question is, will the Clippers want to trade DJ at all, or are they going to stand pat and try to re-sign him. The ball is in Lawrence Frank’s court right now.

 

Kyrie Irving: ‘I see you. I see everyone. More than just your physical presence, I see your energy. I feel it. I know it’

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Kyrie Irving has done good lately.

Not just during Celtics games. He gave his jersey and shoes to military members in the crowd, and he recently shared a Thanksgiving dinner with Boston families.

Irving also addressed the event.

Irving, via Nicole Yang of Boston.com:

“I see you,” he said. “I see everyone. More than just your physical presence, I see your energy. I feel it. I know it.”

“I think that the most important thing that I strive to live by is extremely by truth and by consistently giving others the truth, without any judgement, without constraints, without anything extra except the understanding that I see you,” he said. “I have family members who come from knowing energy, and it was passed along to me.”

I can’t get enough of all this stuff.