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Aaron Gordon can defend the spot, but is he really a small forward?

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LOS ANGELES — There are nights where Aaron Gordon looks like a future All-Star at the small forward spot. Against Memphis a week ago, he dropped 30 points on 15 shots against one of the best defenses in the NBA. A few nights later coach Frank Vogel assigned Gordon to slow James Harden, and he helped hold an MVP candidate to 14 points. All season, Gordon has been impressive on defense.

However, there are far more nights such as Sunday against the Lakers, when he had the kind of game Magic fans have become entirely too familiar with this season. Gordon spent much of the game as a weak side decoy hanging out in the corner (occasionally rotating up above the break), but as a 32.6 percent three-point shooter this season the Lakers didn’t respect him in that role. Gordon is improving from deep, but he’s not a guy you fear to leave at the arc, and the Lakers did a good job of keeping an eye on him when he cut or in transition. The result was a 0-of-5 shooting night where Gordon was a non-factor in the game.

“Some games you have the opportunity to shoot 30 times, some games you have the opportunity to shoot 10. It’s the way basketball works, it finds you when it’s supposed to find you,” Gordon said postgame. “I need to do a better job seeking it out, cutting off the ball. But like I said, credit the Lakers, they had their head on a swivel and didn’t get caught too many times. It’s when you look to be more aggressive at times.”

It’s the biggest debate in Orlando this season: Is Gordon a three or a four? He had much more success last season at the power forward slot, but when Frank Vogel came to town and saw the roster he was handed — which L.A.-based ESPN personality Andy Kamenetzky accurately described as “the island of misfit toys” — he decided to move Gordon to the three, allowing him to have Serge Ibaka at the four with Nikola Vucevic/Bismack Biyombo at the five.

Gordon’s efficiency has plummeted. His greatest asset was his superior athleticism at the four — his performance at the Dunk Contest in Toronto showed that off — but the move to the three neutralizes some of that. Last season he shot 47.3 percent overall with an above-average true shooting percentage of 54.1, this season those numbers have fallen to 43.2 and 50.7 percent. His PER dropped from 17 last season to a below average 13.2. Gordon has the athleticism to play the three, but not the shot.

“He has the ability to impact the game in an opportunistic way — running the floor, getting cuts, crashing the glass,” Vogel said. “The knock on him has always been his perimeter shooting, and he’s grown more and more confident every game as the season goes along, he’s been a knock-down three-point shooter. (Note, Gordon shot 36.5 percent from three in December, but that’s down to 27.6 percent in his last five games.)

“He’s doing some good things off the bounce, that’s probably the last area he needs to develop, and we’re trying to pull him along at the right pace. So we’re asking him not try and do too much there. But he as the ability to be one of those guys who just hurts you a variety of different ways.”

Does he? Gordon is certainly putting in the work — nobody is or should question his effort. After a Laker game where he admitted he came out flat and was not impactful, he was asked how he gets past it.

“It’s a little bit easier at home, you just go to the gym and shoot. On the road, I’ve got to find a gym,” which he proceeded to do.

What Gordon has the ability to do is defend on the perimeter — he’s arguably Orlando’s best perimeter defender now. NBA’s Sports VU tracking cameras show opponents shooting just 40.7 against Gordon this season. Against the Lakers he started on Nick Young and held the streaky shooter in check. After D’Angelo Russell got the Lakers off to a good offensive start with six points and a couple assists, Vogel moved Gordon on to the point guard for a stretch. Vogel tried that a couple of times during the game, but Russell was a little too quick and made good decisions with the space he got from Gordon.

“That’s the value in moving him to small forward — he’s bigger, stronger, and longer than most of the guys he’s guarding,” Vogel said. “He’s got good size to him, where if he’s guarding power forwards and doing a good job maybe he’s undersized against most of those guys. There is value with what we’re doing with him playing small forward….

“He’s got all the athleticism in the world to do it, and it’s not been about blitzing pick-and-rolls and banging in the post, but about chasing guys off screens and guarding the ball.”

That defense is why Vogel and the Magic push back against the idea of Gordon at the four — they need him at the three. They need his defense. So Vogel is just trying to be a teacher.

“Every game is an opportunity to correct, and to positive reinforce what he’s doing well…” Vogel said. “I don’t pretend to come in and give him some mind games or anything like that, in terms of the mental approach, you just try to teach, and through the teaching there are small confidences they gain, and you try to build on that. And show them they have the ability to be great in that way.”

Can Gordon be great at the three spot? No doubt he will put in the work. Maybe Gordon can develop into a three, but he would need the right guy at the four next to him — and that is not Serge Ibaka.

In the best of all possible worlds, Gordon provides Vogel versatility — play him at the three or the four depending on the matchups. But the Magic are not in that ideal world, with too many bodies at the four and five right now, Vogel is getting his best athlete run where he can.

Meaning the Gordon at small forward experiment will remain with us for a while.

Bill Laimbeer on LeBron vs. Jordan comparisons: “I’ll take LeBron James, absolutely”

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LeBron James is headed to his seventh straight NBA Finals. He just passed Michael Jordan to take over the top spot on the NBA’s all-time playoff scoring list. Fourteen years into his NBA career, he has put together a resume that few in the game’s history can match — and he’s not done.

You don’t have to think that LeBron James is better than Michael Jordan, however, if you don’t think it’s a valid discussion, you’re blinded by bias.

Former NBA All-Star, champion, and WNBA coach Bill Laimbeer of the “bad boy” Detroit Pistons was asked about the LeBron/Jordan comparison on “The Rematch” podcast, and he said we’ve never seen anyone like LeBron (hat tip the USA Today).

“I’ll take Lebron James, absolutely,” Laimbeer said to host Etan Thomas… “He’s 6-8, 285 (James is listed at 250 pounds). Runs like the wind, jumps out of the gym. Phenomenal leader since he’s been 12 years old. Understood when he came into the league how to involve his teammates from the start. And you can’t guard him. You can’t double-team, he’s too big, he powers through everything. Michael was a guard. Yeah, he was 6-6, but he wasn’t a real thick and strong guard. It took him a lot of years to learn how to involve his teammates in order to win championships. Don’t fault him for that, it’s a learning experience. But we’ve never seen anybody like LeBron James physically. He just bullies you.

It was Laimbeer and the Pistons who taught Jordan to win — they beat the Bulls year after year in the playoffs, until Jordan broadened his game (and got better teammates) and the Pistons started to fade. People point to MJ’s unblemished Finals record, but he was seen for years as a guy who couldn’t get a team to the Finals because of those Pistons (LeBron learned his lessons on a different stage, taking some early Cavs teams that had no business in the Finals to that stage anyway, only to get crushed).

LeBron has a more versatile game than Jordan, which better suits this era: When Jordan was a force in the ’80s and ’90s there was no zone defense, which led to a lot of clear-out sets where eight guys watched a one-on-one battle from the other side of the key, and if the double-team came it was obvious from where. Jordan’s skill as a guy who could get his shot, kill it from the midrange or get to the rim, his ability to physically play through contact, and the legendary killer instinct made him great. But he was aided by timing — the booming popularity of the sport in the 1990s, the rise of Nike as a marketing giant, and the fact he didn’t have a true rival, a Bird to his Magic, that could best him.

LeBron has reached the point in his career that the legacy talk and where he ranks all-time is the only real discussion left — and Jordan sits as the bar to clear. Kareem Abdul-Jabar, Bill Russell, and a few others should be on that tier as well, part of the discussion, but the point is LeBron has moved on to that level of discussion. He’s earned it. The fact some people on Twitter/sports talk radio feel the need to rip him for everything doesn’t change that — if Jordan played the social media era he would have heard the same things from the same people.

Report: Celtics focused on adding All-Star-caliber frontcourt player

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Isaiah Thomas said he he’d happily forgo a renegotiation-and-extension if the Celtics use their cap space to upgrade their roster.

Where are they looking?

A. Sherrod Blakey of CSN New England:

Multiple league sources have told CSNNE.com in recent weeks that the Celtics are focused on landing an All-Star caliber talent in the frontcourt.

In the last three years, 22 frontcourt players have been All-Stars. Boston already has one: Al Horford. Could the Celtics land any of the other 22?

Almost certainly unavailable

Free agency

Trade

Free agency or trade

  • Pau Gasol (Though Gasol said he’d opt in, San Antonio might try pushing him out to pursue Paul. If Gasol opts in, the Spurs could also trade him to clear space for Paul.)
  • Dirk Nowitzki (The Mavericks have a $25 million team option on Nowitzki for next season. Nowitzki going to Boston, via trade or free agency, would probably require a mutual agreement between Dallas and him that pursuing a title elsewhere is the right way for him to end his career.)

Report: Spurs exploring Chris Paul pursuit

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The Clippers are taking the Chris Paul-to-Spurs rumors seriously.

And apparently so are the Spurs.

Marc Stein of ESPN:

The San Antonio Spurs are exploring the feasibility of making a free-agent run at All-Star point guard Chris Paul, league sources told ESPN.

San Antonio must complete three difficult objectives to land Paul:

  • Clear cap space. Even if they trim their roster to Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Pau Gasol, Danny Green and Tony Parker, the Spurs would still have to dump two of them to clear max room. Can they convince Gasol to reverse course and opt out, maybe re-signing at a major discount? Would they trade Parker, who has meant so much to the franchise? Would they deal Aldridge or Green, players who would make major contributions to a Leonard/Paul-led team?
  • Convince Paul to accept a projected max of $152 million over four years rather than the projected $205 million he could get over five years from the Clippers. Although the annual difference is just $3 million and Paul could sign another deal in four years, it’s unlikely he recoups that at age 36.
  • Convince Paul to leave big-market L.A. for small-market San Antonio. Remember, Paul forced his way from small-market New Orleans then ascended into one of the NBA’s biggest endorsement stars.

The Spurs boast a fantastic basketball culture, and Leonard and Popovich make great partners in a championship chase. There are reasons San Antonio is gaining traction with Paul.

But there’s still a lot for the Spurs to overcome. Will they? At least they’re trying rather than just dismissing the plot as unfeasible.

Cleveland GM David Griffin: “I hope everybody says we have no chance”

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The Golden State Warriors are heavy favorites to win the NBA title. According to bovda.lv, bet $100 on the Warriors to win the title and you get $41.7 dollars. Bet $100 on the Cavaliers and you get $200. And that number is likely to get worse for Warriors fans.

The Cavaliers are okay with that. They like being the underdogs. Look at what GM David Griffin said in a televised interview after they eliminated the Celtics in Game 5, via Cleveland.com.

“I hope everybody says we have no chance,” General Manager David Griffin said during a TV interview following the Cavaliers’ 135-102 win Thursday night against the Boston Celtics, clinching a third straight NBA Finals appearance.

“Obviously the team we’re playing is as good as you can possibly put together, it’s going to be an unbelievable battle for us, but I think [the Cavs] love battling together. The greater the odds, the better we seem to play together. We really do rally around each other in that sense.”

There is some truth to that.

There’s also a difference between that truth and slowing Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant. How the Cavaliers are going to do that will be the interesting part of these playoffs.