NBA Playoffs: Magic demolish the Hawks, turn the series on its head

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On Tuesday night, the Orlando Magic returned to the comforts of reality, while the Atlanta Hawks experienced a jarring awakening. The first four games in this series weren’t an accurate representation of the performance of either team, but Game 5 shifted the matchup back toward balance, as Orlando thoroughly dominated both ends of the court en route to a 101-76 victory.

Dwight Howard remains the best player taking the court in this series, but Tuesday’s game was won by the rest of the Magic rotation. They of the underwhelming first four games finally executed on offense up to their capability. Pick-and-roll play won the day, even with Howard serving only as a distraction; Hedo Turkoglu, J.J. Redick, and Jameer Nelson created a ton out of basic screen action, and generated points for themselves and their teammates by exploiting Atlanta’s weak defense. Nine Magic players scored seven or more points, a far cry from the solo act that had previously anchored Orlando’s offense by necessity during this series.

The Hawks will need substantially better defensive coverage if they’re to counter the Magic in Game 6, but there’s only so much that Atlanta can do in their current strategic framework. Covering the pick-and-roll is incredibly difficult without utilizing a third defender, but by electing to stay home on Orlando’s shooters, a two-man defense is all that Atlanta can really employ. The Magic seemed to be in a bind with their inability to involve any of their perimeter players in a fluid offense, but all it took to solve the riddle were a few well-placed screens and smart navigation of interior space. The Hawks hold the 3-2 series lead, but the pressure is on them to respond — and I’m not sure that they can.

The Hawks’ offense wasn’t going to stay afloat forever. Not with Josh Smith’s decision-making, Jamal Crawford’s quick trigger, and Joe Johnson’s willingness to take tough shots to his team’s detriment. Plenty of those difficult looks found the net in the first four games of this series, but Atlanta’s offense was impressive precisely because its success was fleeting. Logic told us that the Hawks shouldn’t be able to consistently create offense with such difficult shots, and that logic was correct. That didn’t stop the shots from falling, but it did suggest that if the series went on long enough, we may start to see a swing in a different direction in Atlanta’s shooting percentages. That swing came in Game 5, and Orlando dominated as a result.

That said, Orlando’s margin for error remains small. Stan Van Gundy can find some peace of mind now that his team’s shots are falling and the open attempts are coming a bit more easily, but the Magic must continue to execute their altered game plan without becoming too reliant on Howard’s post play. Orlando played terrific basketball without even having Howard on the floor in Game 5, and there’s no reason why that can’t develop into a trend over the remainder of the series; the Hawks have no player uniquely capable of punishing the Magic at the rim (the defensive job that Brandon Bass and Ryan Anderson have done on Al Horford, the Hawks’ top interior threat, has been unfairly overshadowed by Orlando’s more public failures), and proper defensive execution sans Howard can still take away most of what the Atlanta looks to do on offense.

Still, all it takes is a bit of luck — if, say, Crawford and Johnson can manage to produce on contested jumpers just once more while playing reasonably effective defense — to end Orlando’s season. The Magic are the better team in this series, but that fact would be irrelevant under the weight of a first-round exit, eve one fashioned with pull-up jumpers and poor shot selection.

Report: LeBron James’ camp likes Collin Sexton

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In 2014, LeBron James tweeted his fondness for Connecticut point guard Shabazz Napier. The Heat traded up to get Napier in the draft, but LeBron left for the Cavaliers that summer, anyway.

Could history repeat itself, this time in Cleveland?

LeBron has already talked up Oklahoma point guard Trae Young, but maybe LeBron and his camp want the Cavs to take a different point guard – Alabama’s Collin Sexton – with the No. 8 pick.

Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com, via Jordan Zirm of ESPN Cleveland:

The Cavaliers should take the best prospect available. Worrying about what LeBron might want makes a mistake only more likely.

LeBron might stay in Cleveland, but as 2014 showed, it won’t be because of a draft pick. If he stays, it very well could be by opting into the final year of his contract. His player-option salary ($35,607,968) is slightly higher than his projected max salary as a free agent (about $35.35 million). If LeBron opts in, the best chance of keeping him long-term is building a better team around him.

That means taking the best prospect at No. 8 or trading the pick for someone who can help LeBron win now. If the top prospect is Sexton, that’s fine. But the Cavs are fare more likely to appease LeBron by getting the pick right in the long run rather than choosing the prospect he wants now.

2018 NBA Draft Prospect Profiles: Is Trae Young a super star in the making?

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Trae Young is a perfect example of why, as an elite freshman entering the college ranks, it is so important to pick a school that is the right fit for you.

Young was a borderline five-star prospect entering the college ranks, the kind of point guard that was recruited by everyone from Kansas to Kentucky, but instead of picking one of the bluebloods, Young opted to stay home. He enrolled at Oklahoma, where his supporting case was questionable and he had the opportunity to have the entire offense run through him every single night.

And the results, at first, were sensational.

Young put up massive numbers, at one point averaging 30 points and 10 assists while leading Oklahoma into the top ten of the national rankings, getting himself compared to Steph Curry, talked about by LeBron and the focus of every college basketball broadcast for the first three months of the season.

Then, once Big 12 play started, opponents began to crack the code. Young didn’t have a ton of help on that roster, which, when combined with some of the issues that he has with shot selection and decision-making, turned him from a player with unimaginable efficiency on a never-before-seen level of usage into just another high-volume, low-efficiency gunner. Oklahoma’s season went in the toilet, the Sooners finished 18-14 on the year, losing 12 of their last 16 games and falling out of the Big 12 and NCAA tournaments in the first round.

That has turned Young into one of the more polarizing prospects in recent memory.

He became the first player in Division I history to lead the nation in scoring and assists, but he did it as a player that doesn’t like to play defense on a team that couldn’t figure out how to win late in the year.

Is he the second-coming of Steph Curry?

Or is he Jimmer Fredette?

And what GM is going to have the stones to find out?

HEIGHT: 6-foot-1.75
WEIGHT: 178 lbs
WINGSPAN: 6-foot-3
2017-18 STATS: 27.4 PPG, 8.7 APG, 3.6 RPG, 42.2/36.0/86.1, 5.2 TPG
DRAFT RANGE: 5-10

STRENGTHS

I would make the argument that Trae Young is the single-most skilled player in this year’s NBA draft. He might very well be the best shooter available, and I think that it is inarguable he is the best passer in this draft class. The biggest reason his counting stats are so high is because of the absurd level of volume and freedom that Lon Kruger afforded him, but there’s also a reason he was given that freedom.

Let’s start with his shooting. Young’s range extends will beyond the NBA’s three-point line, but what makes him so dangerous isn’t his ability as a catch-and-shoot threat, it’s how well he is able to get to his shot off of the dribble. Young’s handle is elite, as is his footwork. He’s always on balance and he has a lightening quick release, one that he doesn’t need much space to get off. He also has a variety of different step-backs and pull-backs to create space, and he’s a very good shooter off of hang-dribbles (if there’s a switch) or if a defender goes under a ball-screen.

Young is not the quickest or most explosive guard you’ll find, but he understands how to use his change of pace and some deceptive ball-handling to get a defense off balance and create room for himself to get into the paint. He has an array of shots that he can make in the paint, although he does need to continue to get more consistent with his floaters and mid-range shots.

Part of the reason that Kyrie Irving and Steph are able to thrive as two of the best scorers in the NBA is because they are elite finishers at and around the rim despite the fact that they are smaller and less athletic than the players that will be guarding them. Young will need to get to that level, and it’s certainly doable.

The other side of Young’s game is his ability to pass the ball. His vision is sensational, both in transition and in the halfcourt, and it will only get more effective in the NBA, where the players he is passing to are better and the wider deeper three-point are creates more space. The thing that really stood out to me in watching Young was his ability to read a defense in ball-screen actions. His basketball IQ and his understanding of where the defense is moving and who is going to be open is already at an elite level.

WEAKNESSES

The biggest concern with Young as a prospect is on the defensive side of the ball. Physically, he was not quite ready to defend at the collegiate level last season, let alone at the NBA level. He’s actually a little taller than you may realize — he’s just a shade under 6-foot-2 — but he weighs just 178 pounds with a willowy frame and a wingspan that is just 6-foot-3. He’s not all that strong, he’s not all that physical and he’s not all that tough, and that’s before you question if he has the quickness to guard elite NBA point guards.

And then there is the issue of whether or not he actually wants to play defense. He was a mess guarding ball-screens as a freshman, often showing little-to-no effort to fight through and getting lost when he did. He got beaten off the dribble without providing much in the way of resistance far too many times. He almost looked disinterested on that end of the floor. Context might be important here, however. With the load that Young was carrying on the offensive end, it’s certainly reasonable that he was either A) saving his legs to be able to carrying the Sooners offensively or B) didn’t actually have enough energy to defend.

That doesn’t diminish the concerns with his physical tools, but defending is about want-to, and it will be on the teams that are drafting to figure out whether or not he actually wants to defend. As flawed as Steph is defensively, he tries hard enough that he’s not that much of a liability.

The other issue is how careless and inefficient Young was late in the year. Not only did he lead the nation in scoring and assists, but he led in turnovers as well. He also has a bad habit of taking terrible shots early in the shot clock, settling for 25-footers with a defender in his face, but again, context is important to the discussion here.

The degree of difficulty on the plays that Young tried to make this season was often insanely high, but the truth is that Oklahoma really didn’t have any other options to create offense. Young had to carry the load for this group to be a tournament team, and it worked well enough for long enough that the Sooners were still a tournament team despite a disastrous finish to the season.

Again, NBA GMs are going to have to figure out the answer to this question: Was Young inefficient late in the year because that’s who he is as a player, or was he driving into three defenders or forcing 26-foot shots or trying to make tough passes because that’s what his team needed him to do?

NBA COMPARISON

The obvious comparison that gets made by everyone is Stephen Curry, and in a best-case scenario, I don’t think that’s terrible. That said, I think that, given Young’s ability to pass the ball, Steve Nash makes a little more sense — and that is who Young has idolized — but either way, you know about what his ceiling. I’m not sure he has two-time MVP upside, and comparing him to two players of that caliber is probably unfair, but he has the potential to be very, very good in a league built around ball-screens, the three-ball and pace-and-space.

That said, the floor for Young is very low. If he can’t figure out how to defend and he never ends up being good enough to have an offense built around him, I think there’s a real chance that his second contract is with a team outside of the NBA.

OUTLOOK

As the NBA moves more and more towards small-ball, the skill-set that Young has is going to continue to get more valuable. Elite shooting is something that every team in the league needs, and Young has that ability to shoot. He’s excellent in ball-screens as well, and his ability as a passer when the kind of spacing he’ll see on an NBA court is something that absolutely should translate.

We’ve been over the issues that he has with inefficiency, decision-making and defending. All of those are concerns, but I do think that the situation that Young was in at Oklahoma exacerbated them to a degree.

In my mind, Young’s career is going to be determined by whether or not he ends up being good enough that to have an offense built around him. The way he wants to play is as a James Harden or a Russell Westbrook. Even Steve Nash had the ball in his hands the majority of the time. Being a ball-dominant lead guard that gets run through 20-30 ball-screens a night is not something everyone can do.

And if Young can’t do that, I have a tough time envisioning what his role will be in the NBA.

Rumor: Spurs won’t trade Kawhi Leonard to Western Conference team

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Kawhi Leonard reportedly wants the Spurs to trade him, ideally to the Lakers or Clippers.

Chris Sheridan of Get More Sports:

He is not going to Los Angeles…or any other destination in the Western Conference, sources are telling GetMoreSports.com.

Leonard has some leverage in that he can tell any non-L.A. team that he has no interest in signing an extension after his current deal expires in a year, and that may end up diminishing the value of offers Eastern Conference teams are willing to make.

But if you think that bothers Popovich, you don’t know Popovich. The guy would gladly take 75 cents on the dollar for Kawhi if he could ship him out of the West — even if that upsets Kawhi.

There are two choices here:

The Spurs are a well-run organization that will manage this crisis as effectively as possible.

or

The Spurs will outright refuse to trade Leonard to a Western Conference team.

It can’t be both.

If the Spurs trade Leonard, they should take the best offer they get – no matter who makes it. Teams like the Celtics and 76ers have better assets to dangle. But if the Lakers and Clippers are the only team with assurances Leonard will re-sign next summer, they could offer more, even assembling a package from a shallower pool of assets.

The Spurs shouldn’t worry where Leonard lands. But that doesn’t mean they won’t worry where Leonard lands.

Report: Celtics believe Kyrie Irving happy in Boston

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Chris Mannix reported Kyrie Irving, when he played for the Cavaliers, told teammates of his desire to play for the Knicks. In the same discussion, Mannix speculated on the Celtics’ fear of Irving leaving in 2019 unrestricted free agency. Asked about his future in Boston, Irving gave a cryptic answer.

There’s just no good way to resolve this until summer 2019. As Irving knows, a contract extension is illogical. The largest extension he could sign, beginning July 1, would be four years, $108,053,240 ($27,013,310 annually). If he waits until 2019 free agency, he could re-sign for a projected $188 million over five years (about $38 million annually) – and even more if he makes an All-NBA team next year. In that case, his max would project to be $219 million over five years (about $44 million annually).

So, the Celtics must ride this out – or trade Irving before he gets to free agency. How do they feel about his future with Boston?

Adam Himmelsbach of The Boston Globe:

A league source said Friday that the Celtics believe Irving is happy in Boston and would like to be with the team long-term, but that there are no certainties.

This is probably correct. Irving clearly wanted out of Cleveland, so him longing for a spot on the Knicks made more sense then. Overall, Irving seems happy in Boston. A noncommittal answer from someone whose brand is mysterious ideas doesn’t set off alarms.

That said, also file this under: What else are they supposed to say? The Celtics maximize Irving’s trade value if everyone believes he’s happy and not a flight risk who should be preemptively traded.

The Celtics must closely monitor Irving’s satisfaction with them. If it seems he might leave, they ought to look hard at trading him first.

But it really seems the Celtics aren’t anywhere near that point. If they are, they’ve bluffed well.