NBA Season Preview: Orlando Magic

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Thumbnail image for Jnelson_Dhoward.jpgLast season: 59-23, the second seed in the East. In the playoffs they Magic swept past the Bobcats and Hawks before running into the buzz saw that was the Celtics and losing in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Head Coach: Stan Van Gundy, one of the best going and probably funnier than his brother.

Key Departures: Matt Barnes, which will not be a big loss unless the Magic have to face him and the Lakers in the finals, and he comes with a chip on his shoulder.

Key Additions: The biggest move was bringing back JJ Redick, matching and offer from the Chicago Bulls. Redick is a great fit within the Magic system and the perfect counterweight on the days that Vince Carter goes Toronto Vince on the team.

Chris Duhon comes in as the primary backup for Jameer Nelson and is much better fit here than he was in the Mike D’Antoni system in New York. Duhon is a solid defender and hit 36.4 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes last season. It’s a good role for him.

Quentin Richardson replaces Barnes and is a better fit in this system — he is a fantastic spot-up shooter. More than half his shots came that way last season and he scored an impressive 1.15 points per shot attempt, and shot 42 percent from three. Van Gundy is going to love him.

Best case scenario: NBA champions. They are in the elite tier of the NBA, it’s only a matter of beating out the others also there — Miami, Boston and the Lakers. Oh, just that….

For that to happen: Orlando has to be better than last year — and last season they have the best regular season point differential in the league — and better than a couple years ago. The Lakers have gotten better, Boston has gotten better, the Heat will be the Heat. There is no easy path to the ring.

Specifically, the Magic need to be better on offense. The defense will again be at or near the top of the league. And last season the Magic were near the top of the league if offensive efficiency (depends on the way you measure it, Basketball-Reference has them fourth, Hoopdata second). But it didn’t feel consistent.

Dwight Howard shot 61.2 percent last year, an insanely high number, but he saw his touches in the offense go down (two fewer shots per game than the season before). Meanwhile, more shots went to an inconsistent core around him of Jameer Nelson, Vince Carter and Rashard Lewis. None of them were bad, but there were nights when the Magic offense just didn’t fire.

Howard again has to be the focus of the offense, and he spent the summer working with Hakeem Olajuwon to round out his game. Howard takes unfair criticism for not having a jumpshot, but he remains a very efficient scorer. He does have moves around the rim, and the ones he has he knocks down the shot.

Simply put, the Magic is Howard’s show. There will be nights Carter or Nelson can win the game, but the Magic offense has been more efficient when Howard gets touches. He needs more of them.

More likely the Magic will: Be right in the thick of things, but is that enough to get out of the East? Or past the Lakers? A lot will depend on health — of the Magic and other the other top teams — and seedings. Boston could blow off the end of the regular season again to get healthy, and if so the team that can avoid playing them the longest has the easier path.

The Magic may have the best roster to beat the Heat. Miami is insanely good at the two, three and four — if you beat them it will be by exploiting them at the point guard and center spots. I can see a playoff series where the Magic will run the Nelson/Howard pick-and-roll every time down, daring Bosh to help off Rashard Lewis or Wade off Redick. (Matt Barnes used to be the guy you helped off of, do that now and Richardson makes you pay.) Maybe the Heat can adjust, maybe they can just overwhelm, but don’t think they can just roll the Magic. That would be a great series.

The Magic did not make many roster changes, nor should they have (unless an amazing opportunity fell in their lap). They went to the finals two seasons ago. The second half of last season they were the best team in basketball, up until they ran into the playoff buzz saw that was the Celtics. This team is good, this team is on the edge of winning it all. You don’t mess with that much.

They Magic will be one of the best regular season teams in the league, no doubt. The question is will they hone their game enough during the season to take the next step in the playoffs

Prediction: 59 wins, again which will get them the two seed again (the Heat may be vulnerable in the playoffs, but they will be regular season beasts). Then Orlando’s real work starts.

Raptors hire Spurs video coordinator, who just happens to be Kawhi Leonard friend

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Jeremy Castleberry played his high school ball in Riverside, California, on the same team as Kawhi Leonard. When Leonard went on to San Diego State for college, Castleberry went too and was a walk-on for that team.

When the Spurs drafted Leonard, it was not long before Castleberry was a video coordinator and on the staff in San Antonio. Now Leonard is a Raptor so… you know what’s coming. Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN explained it well.

The Toronto Raptors are hiring San Antonio Spurs staffer Jeremy Castleberry — a close friend of Kawhi Leonard — to a position on their coaching staff, league sources told ESPN.

Castleberry has worked with Leonard as a Spurs staffer and played with Leonard in high school and at San Diego State, where he was a walk-on.

Is this alone going to keep Leonard a Raptor next summer when he’s a free agent? No. But this is how the game is played — make the star player you’re recruiting feel comfortable, wanted, a key part of everything. Bringing in a friend to a new city for him fits right into that plan.

The smart money is still on Leonard bolting next summer to go to Los Angeles, but if the Raptors are able to change his mind — ala Paul George — it will not be one big thing but a thousand little ones. And a lot of wins. But hiring Castleberry is a start.

Brandon Jennings signs to play in Russia next season

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Brandon Jennings has just never been the same since his 2015 torn Achilles. He hasn’t shot over 40 percent from the floor for a season since then, he hasn’t moved well defensivly, and he had a PER of 19.3 the season it was torn and it’s never been above 13.7 for a season since then. In the past couple of seasons he has played in the G-League and China, and he played 14 games at the end of the season for the Bucks last campaign.

This summer, there were no offers. He is now headed to Russia, according to multiple reports, including EuroHoops.net. He will play for Zenit St Petersburg.

He’s only 28 years old, there is time for him find a way to make his game fit into the NBA landscape again. He’s just not there yet, and maybe the opportunity in Russia will lead him there. If not, he’s still getting paid to play at a high level.

Some owners reportedly want access to mental health files of players

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If you read one thing NBA related today, it should be the first installment of Jackie MacMullan’s brilliant series at ESPN on the mental health of players and staffs in the NBA, and how the league is handling it. MacMullan not only got Kevin Love and Paul Pierce to open up about their challenges, but she also got into the challenges the league faces in confronting this issue head-on.

One such challenge: Owners wanting access to players mental health “files.”

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, players union executive director Michelle Roberts and their respective teams are reportedly working on a new mental health policy for the league. Privacy is going to be a big part of that. From MacMullan:

Yet there remain many obstacles to confront, chief among them the stigma attached to mental health that prompts many players to suffer in silence. The union also insists that mental health treatment be confidential, but some NBA owners, who in some cases are paying their players hundreds of millions of dollars, want access to the files of their “investments.” That is not, however, the league’s position. “The NBA fully supports protecting the confidentiality of players’ mental health information and, accordingly, committed to the players association that any mental health program we undertake would do so,” NBA spokesman Mike Bass says.

Confidentiality, says Love, has to be non-negotiable. Without it, he says, he never would have become comfortable enough to announce from that All-Star dais that he was seeking treatment.

Those files must be private. This is different from a torn knee ligament or sprained ankle (and on those we have HIPPA laws for good reason). For one, this is something more unpredictable in treating. Second, it comes back to the stigma of mental health issues and how the information about them might be used.

That stigma still exists, both in society and the NBA — McMullan gets into the players and their wives talking behind Love’s back All-Star weekend, and the players currently seeking treatment who do not want it public. The “real men don’t talk about this” mentality is everywhere, but it has fertile ground in professional sports locker rooms where players see themselves as invincible.

That mentality, that stigma will be the hardest thing to change in altering the culture of mental health issues in the NBA. There are no easy answers here. Does anyone think the owners who want access to those files wouldn’t use against the player in negotiations (never underestimate an owner’s effort to gain leverage)?

The players’ union will not allow that in whatever the framework is for the leagues’ new mental health policy. Nor should they.

Love, DeMar DeRozan, Royce White and others broke barriers stepping forward into the spotlight to discuss their challenges. But there are a lot of barriers still up, and a lot of work for both the NBA and society to do on this front. And privacy must be part of that.

Rebuilding Hawks add depth by signing Daniel Hamilton, Alex Poythress.

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ATLANTA (AP) — The rebuilding Atlanta Hawks have added depth by signing guard-forward Daniel Hamilton and forward Alex Poythress.

Poythress was signed to a two-way contract, so the former Kentucky player will split his time with the Hawks’ G League Erie team.

Hamilton is on a fully guaranteed one-year contract after impressing the Hawks playing for the Thunder Summer League team. He averaged 2 points in six games with Oklahoma City last season while on a two-way contract with the Thunder. He spent most of the season with the G League Oklahoma City Blue.

Poythress averaged 1 point in 25 games with Indiana last season. He began the season on a two-way contract.