NBA Playoffs: Why the Magic can win it all and frustrate Cavs fans at the same time

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Thumbnail image for Howard_game.jpgThe Orlando Magic finished with the second-best record of any team in the league. They are the reigning Eastern Conference Champions. Furthermore, the old cliches go that defense and dominant big men win championships. The Magic lead the league in defensive efficiency, and have easily the best big man in the league on their roster. For some reason, the Magic are still regarded as a “gimmicky” choice to take home the Maurice Podoloff trophy come finals time. Maybe it’s because the Magic have never won a title before. Maybe it’s because they take so many threes. Maybe it’s because their coach has a goofy mustache. I don’t know the reason why the Magic still don’t seem to be getting taken seriously as championship contenders, but I do know a bunch of good reasons the Magic can win it all this season. Without further ado:

1. Defense

Defense wins championships, and the Magic play defense as well as anybody. Stan Van Gundy has the league’s best defensive player, and he knows how to use him. Dwight Howard shuts down the paint (no team gives up fewer points in the paint than the Magic), and the rest of the players on the Magic are adept at showing hard on the perimeter and funneling opposing players towards Howard. With Mickael Pietrus and Matt Barnes functioning as perimeter stoppers and shutting down opposing wings, the Magic managed to lead the entire league in defensive efficiency this season. 
2. Dwight Howard

Yes, he’s not quite a dominant one-on-one scorer with his back to the basket. Yes, his free throw shooting is still a serious issue. In spite of all that, Dwight Howard is still easily the best big man in the league. He’s capable of overpowering almost any center that tries to guard him one-on-one with his combination of strength and speed, and he’s improved his low-post game this season. If Howard is making his hook shots on a given night, it’s game over. No low-post player commands more double-teams. Howard is completely unstoppable when he catches the ball around the basket in dunking range, forcing teams to sag on the pick-and-roll and free up the Magic’s perimeter players. Pundits will focus on what Howard isn’t, but opponents will focus on what Howard is — and be completely terrified. 
3. Three-Point Shooting

The Magic love the three-ball, and for good reason. Vince Carter, Rashard Lewis, Pietrus, Jameer Nelson, J.J. Redick, Jason Williams, Ryan Anderson, and Matt Barnes are all more than willing to pull the trigger from deep, and they’re all capable of making those threes when given the slightest bit of daylight. When the Magic are making their threes, they’re all but unstoppable. When they’re not, they still have the league’s best defense and Dwight Howard working inside. The Magic’s love of the three-ball makes them seem like a feast-or-famine team, but really they’re more like a feast-or-five dollar chicken plate from Ralph’s team. And five-dollar chicken from Ralph’s can be pretty darn tasty. 
4. Perimeter Scoring Options

Vince Carter and Jameer Nelson are both dangerous options as primary scorers. J.J. Redick has matured into a complete offensive player capable of handling the ball and draining open shots. Rashard Lewis is one of the most versatile power forwards in the league. Mickael Pietrus can get hot at any time, and certainly isn’t shy. When opposing teams double down on Howard, the Magic have plenty of guys more than willing to make teams pay for doing so. 
5. Stan Van Gundy

Van Gundy is perpetually hoarse, and does not look like a basketball course. He also has a knack for creating a system that allows his personnel to thrive, finding matchup problems, and isn’t afraid of making a risky choice if he thinks it will benefit his team. He might not look the part, but Van Gundy is one of the best coaches in the league and definitely helps the Magic’s chances of winning it all. 
6. A Chip on Their Shoulder

Too many teams play the “no respect” card in the playoffs, but the Magic really seem to believe it. Van Gundy has been fueling their fires all season in this regard, and the Magic certainly seem eager to prove that they deserve to be taken seriously as championship contenders. This postseason, they’ll have their chance. I’m eager to see what they can do with it. No team blends old-school values with new-school effectiveness better than the Magic do. We’ll see if that can be a championship formula. 

Report: Spurs wouldn’t trade Kawhi Leonard to 76ers unless they included Ben Simmons or Joel Embiid

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The 76ers reportedly refused to include Markelle Fultz in trade offers for Kawhi Leonard, which seems misguided to me. Leonard carries major questions about his future, but after his rookie year, so does Fultz! At least Leonard has proven he can reach an elite level. That’s not to say Philadelphia should have definitely dealt Fultz for Leonard. The 76ers definitely have a better understanding of Fultz’s behind-the-scenes progress, and they might have more information on Leonard’s health and willingness to stay long-term. I just wouldn’t have made Fultz a deal-breaker in negotiations.

But it seems the Spurs placed a far more unreasonable restriction on Philadelphia, though.

Zach Lowe of ESPN:

The Spurs made it clear any deal with Philly would require Ben Simmons or Joel Embiid (likely Simmons), and the Sixers weren’t going anywhere near that, league sources say.

Given their age and contract status – and, in Simmons’ case, health – Simmons and Embiid are each way more valuable than Leonard. There’s no way the 76ers would have dealt either of those two for Leonard.

Which apparently took a still-viable suitor off the table for San Antonio.

Between Fultz, Dario Saric, Robert Covington, Zhaire Smith, the Heat’s 2021 first-rounder and Philadelphia’s own picks, the 76ers could have assembled a better package than the Raptors sent the Spurs for Leonard. Maybe the 76ers wouldn’t have. But it would have been worth at least exploring.

It seems San Antonio placed too much on remaining competitive, which led to a deal revolving around DeMar DeRozan. There’s nothing wrong with that strategy per se, but it gets more difficult to defend when the Spurs got so little. In this Western Conference, they could slip out of the playoffs, even with DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl. A long-term approach should have at least been considered.

To be fair, I’d also caution against taking this report at face value with no skepticism. Today, 28 teams – especially those, like Philadelphia, linked to Leonard – are trying to explain why they didn’t get the star. This could easily be the 76ers’ spin and not an accurate reflection of the Spurs’ stance.

But Lowe is a great reporter, and I tend to trust this – which raises red flags about San Antonio.

NBA players bothered by Raptors trading DeMar DeRozan

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DeMar DeRozan is clearly upset with the Raptors for trading him (for Kawhi Leonard).

Is DeRozan’s frustration justified?

To a certain extent, he’s entitled to feel however he wants. I would never tell him his reaction is “wrong.”

But that’s not the same as endorsing his outlook. Should we rally behind him and hold Toronto accountable for mistreating him? Answering that question relies on so much hearsay, I’m not sure it’s possible to answer fairly.

In what I find a telling illustration of the situation, ESPN has updated its story on the trade multiple times today. In an early version:

Sources close to DeRozan told ESPN’s Chris Haynes that DeRozan met with Toronto brass in Las Vegas during summer league and was told he would not be traded.

That got changed to:

Sources close to DeRozan told ESPN’s Chris Haynes that DeRozan met with Toronto officials in Las Vegas during summer league and believed that he would not be traded.

That’s a subtle, but meaningful, distinction.

Did the Raptors tell DeRozan he wouldn’t be traded? Different people involved in the conversation would probably give different answers.

Did DeRozan take away that Toronto wouldn’t trade him? It seems so, and maybe it’s because team officials told him that directly. But it’s also possible he misinterpreted team officials. Not that he’s willing to grant that possibility.

David Aldridge of NBA.com:

Without being privy to the exact wording, I don’t know where to side.

Unsurprisingly, other players are backing DeRozan – some publicly and quite strongly, others anonymously.

Lou Williams:

Isaiah Thomas:

Damian Lillard:

Anthony Morrow:

Enes Kanter:

Chris Haynes of ESPN:

DeRozan meant a lot to the Raptors, and he deserves a proper sendoff. But some of this strikes me as an overreaction.

The Spurs didn’t thank Leonard in their press release, either. Both teams posted cursory messages of gratitude on social media to their outgoing players. Gregg Popovich held a press conference today and said many kind things about Leonard, though. The main difference appears to be Masai Ujiri just hasn’t happened to hold his press conference yet. I’d be shocked if he doesn’t effusively praise DeRozan in it.

And to Kanter’s claim the Raptors gave away DeRozan for nothing? They got Kawhi freaking Leonard.

For what it’s worth, I wouldn’t rule the possibility of the spotlight-seeking Kanter just saying something outlandish to draw attention.

Even if that were Kanter’s intent, that just feeds into this spiraling into a bigger deal than it probably should be.

If the Raptors told DeRozan they wouldn’t trade him, they shouldn’t have done that. If they told DeRozan they didn’t plan to trade him while they were secretly putting the final touches on this deal, they shouldn’t have done that.

But if they told DeRozan they didn’t plan to trade him and truly didn’t at that moment, I wouldn’t blame them. Plans can change, and it would have done them no good to warn DeRozan of that possibility. If he expected more loyalty, that’s on him.

Ujiri will get a chance to explain himself. So will DeRozan – though his narrative is already gaining significant traction, especially among his peers. Maybe we’ll actually become positioned to make an outside judgment.

Most likely, this will remain a he-said, he-said situation that wanes in significance. DeRozan will probably play hard in San Antonio and grow to enjoy it there. Players – even, I bet, including DeRozan – will forgive the Raptors in time. As much furor as these things evoke in the moment, players rarely hold a grudge to the point of avoiding franchises.

But for now, Toronto is dealing with a perception hit right as it begins its courtship of one of the NBA’s top players, Leonard.

PBT Extra: Breaking down Kawhi Leonard to Raptors trade

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While the rumors of Raptors interest in trading for Kawhi Leonard had been around the league for weeks, the thought they would land him always seemed far fetched — Leonard clearly didn’t want to go there, so would GM Masai Ujiri really put one of his big name players in the mix to get a trade done.

Yes. Yes he would.

Leonard is headed to Toronto in a trade package centered around DeMar DeRozan.

I break down what that means for everyone involved in this latest PBT Extra. For the Spurs, they stay relevant and postpone the rebuild for the final few years of Gregg Popovich’s tenure as coach. For the Raptors, they are contenders for a year — and they can take a longshot attempt to win Leonard over.

Report: After backing out of agreement with Sixers, Nemanja Bjelica talking to Kings

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Nemanja Bjelica had found a comfort level in Minnesota, but when Tom Thibodeau pulled his qualifying offer — to sign Anthony Tolliver — it left the Serbian forward without a deal. Philadelphia raced in with a one-year, $4.4 million offer, and he took it.

Then on Tuesday, he backed out, saying he wanted to return to Europe with his family. What he said he wanted was stability, he told Jon Krawczynski of The Athletic.

“It’s not about coach or the Philly organization,” Bjelica told The Athletic in a phone conversation on Tuesday. “Brett Brown, he’s a great guy and a great coach. The most important thing for me is family and some kind of stability…

“I’m thankful for Philly for the opportunity, but I will always do what is the best for my family,” Bjelica said. “At that point, I was considering European life.”

Or, Sacramento. Which I am fairly confident is not in Europe. From Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

Bjelica wanted stability, something that doesn’t always come easily in the NBA life. Clearly, Vlade Divac is pitching a longer-term deal of some kind to provide that stability for Bjelica and his family.

I get why he’s doing it — this is still a bad look for Bjelica and his agent. He gave his word, then backed out of the deal saying he wanted to play in another league. Now he’s talking to another NBA team, a competitor. I get it, teams are not loyal to players either, they lie to them too — just ask DeMar DeRozan — but it doesn’t make this move right. It’s not a great look for the Kings, either.

On the court, Bjelica is a fit with the Kings in that he can be part of the rotation with Marvin Bagley III, Harry Giles and the rest of a crowded Kings’ frontcourt. Bjelica provides needed floor spacing and shooting — I really like him as a player. I liked him in Minnesota and wish Thibodeau trusted him more, I liked the idea of how he fit in Philly, and I would like him in Sacramento.

But this is just awkward.