What the Magic should do when the lockout ends

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PBT is working its way through what every team in the NBA should do when the NBA lockout ends. See all the teams we’ve done so far here. Today, we talk Orlando Magic.

Last season in Orlando: They had a solid regular season — 52 wins, which was fourth best in the Eastern Conference. But they also clearly were not going to compete with Miami, Chicago and Boston to win the conference, so GM Otis Smith made some moves — out went Vince Carter, Rashard Lewis and Marcin Gortat (he was the only one of the three really missed). In came Hedo Turkoglu, Gilbert Arenas and Jason Richardson.

It didn’t help. In the playoffs the Magic ran into a Hawks team that could single-cover Dwight Howard with Jason Collins, and while Howard could still get his it allowed the Hawks to not double as often and stick with the Magic’s perimeter shooters. Jameer Nelson and Turkoglu really couldn’t create shots for everyone and the result was the Hawks bouncing the Magic in the first round.

Then there was panic.

Since we last saw the Magic… Not much has changed. There were all sorts of rumors that Nelson would be traded around the draft, but nothing happened. Orlando traded for the rights to Justin Harper (a projected stretch four) and DeAndre Liggins (good perimeter defender) in the second round. They have big man Daniel Orton, who played some in the D-League before a major knee injury sidelined him last season. All potential nice fits, but not impact guys who are really going to change things.

When the lockout ends, the Magic need to… pray, sacrifice a virgin in a volcano, go down to the crossroads and make a Faustian deal — whatever it takes to keep Dwight Howard in Orlando. That also means is shake up the roster, although that is easier said than done.

Few teams will be as impacted by the final form of the new NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement as the Orlando Magic.

If, as has been discussed, there is a “Melo Rule” put in place Orlando’s position improves. This rule is designed to prevent how Carmelo Anthony held Denver hostage last season (at least that’s how the owners see it, I thought he was more up front than LeBron James had been). It would say no team can sign a player to a “Bird rights” extension of his existing deal if the trade happened after July 1 — meaning you can’t trade for Howard in the middle of next season and give him the big, big bucks. It would force Howard to chose next year — sign a max extension with Orlando, pick up his extension and stay another year (at $19.5 million) or take much less to walk away. (How much less, and how much the Magic can sign him for are all part of the CBA talks.)

If there is no ‘Melo rule, Orlando could find itself in the shoes Denver was in last season. And like the Nuggets they will be faced with a brutal choice.

Even if there is a ‘Melo rule, Howard might still opt out and walk if he doesn’t think Orlando can build a winner around him. This much is clear: right now the Magic’s roster needs to be reworked. Jason Richardson is out as a free agent, so that is step one (Orlando is not brining him back except at a drastically reduced price tag).

There likely will be an amnesty deal in the new CBA that would allow the Magic to wipe Gilbert Arenas’ contract off the books (likely both from the tax and the salary cap). If so, that will help. But even without him the Magic have $56.3 million on the books in salary (for nine players). We don’t know what the new cap will be, but last year it was $58 million and it will likely go down, not up. Meaning the Magic can’t just go buy a free agent to fit in. Not that there is a great free agent crop anyway.

GM Otis Smith is going to have to pull a rabbit out of his hat — and it’s got to be a better gambit than the Richardson/Arenas one last year. Can he find some team to take on Turkoglu’s contract (which has two more years at $22.8 million then a $6 million buyout for the third year)? Does someone want Nelson? There likely will be teams looking to get rid of big salary players after they see the new labor deal, there will be some guys cut free in amnesty moves, but getting a real game changer to pair with Dwight Howard will be hard.

But it’s that or trade Howard. A trade is what everyone outside of Orlando wants the Magic to do (so long as Orlando trades Howard to said fan’s favorite team), but in Orlando the clear goal is to keep him. If a ‘Melo rule prevents Howard from basically forcing a trade, Smith will have more options. But still not many good ones. Nobody really will give up much for what the Magic have on their roster, and the Magic need to get another star.

The bottom line is the Magic are still a good team. A second tier contender with some nice role playing parts — J.J. Redick, Brandon Bass, Ryan Anderson, even Quentin Richardson. But right now for Orlando, good is not good enough. They need to be contenders with a future where Howard can see competing with Miami and Chicago. If not, he may just walk away.

No team may have a tougher road when the lockout ends than the Magic.

Dejounte Murray added to growing Hawks injury report, out 2-3 weeks with sprained ankle

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John Collins is out for at least another week with a sprained ankle. DeAndre Hunter has been out with a strained hip flexor.

Now you can add Dejounte Murray to the Hawks’ growing injury report, he is out at least 2-3 weeks with a sprained ankle, Shams Charania and Sam Amick of The Athletic report.

The injury happened on a closeout from RJ Barrett of the Knicks.

The Hawks have already had chemistry and fit issues this season, and missing key players for an extended period only exacerbates the problem. Atlanta looked flat getting their doors blown off by the Knicks Wednesday night, 113-89, a game that added to a string where they have lost 5-of-7. Now they will have to find a way to right the ship without their second-best playmaker.

There also is an update on the Hawks’ play-by-play announcer Bob Rathbun.

NBA, WNBA players react to news Brittney Griner coming home

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Brittney Griner is finally coming home.

The WNBA and USA Basketball star has spent 10 months in Russian prisons — including being convicted and sent to a Russian penal colony — for having vape canisters with small amounts of cannabis oil in her luggage as she went through Russian airport security back in February. She became a political pawn in the tensions between the United States and Russia, mostly surrounding Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine, and was freed via a prisoner swap announced Thursday.

The basketball world — WNBA players in particular — had worked to keep her name front and not let Griner be forgotten during this ordeal, pushing President Joe Biden and the government to reach a deal. With the news Griner was freed, NBA and WNBA players took to social media to react.

“Brittney has had to endure an unimaginable situation and we’re thrilled that she is on her way home to her family and friends,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said. “We thank the members of the NBA and WNBA community who never wavered in their efforts to raise awareness of Brittney’s unjust circumstances.”

“We are overwhelmed with relief and gratitude that our sister Brittney Griner is finally coming home,” the NBPA said in a statement. “Her strength and courage throughout this last year have been truly remarkable, as have the efforts of her wife Cherelle, our WNBPA sisters, Terri Jackson and the WNBPA staff, who have been relentless in their call to bring Brittney home. We know this homecoming would not have been possible without their unwavering support and continued work to keep BG always top of mind, and our players are honored to have contributed to those efforts. While this is a celebratory moment for our sisters and us, we must not forget the other political prisoners who remain in dire circumstances all over the world. These individuals must be remembered and fought for every single day as BG was so that they too can have this moment. Welcome home Brittney, we are so happy to have you back! #WeAreBG”

PBT Podcast: Lakers, Clippers, and Nikola Jokic as Beethoven

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Anthony Davis has played at an MVP level for weeks now, outdueling even Giannis Antetokounmpo recently in a Lakers’ win. LeBron James is still a force at age 37, Russell Westbrook has accepted the role and has been a game-changer as a sixth man, and the Lakers’ role players are hitting their 3-pointers.

It’s been an impressive run, but can the Lakers keep it up and be a genuine threat in the West? Corey Robinson of NBC Sports and I discuss all that, plus whether the now-healthy Clippers can find a groove and become a threat.

In Corey’s Jukebox he dances a little salsa and explains how Nikola Jokic is like Beethoven. Then there is talk of the Kyle Kuzma trade rumors, and what exactly are the long-term plans in Washington.

You can always watch the video of some of the podcast above or listen to the entire podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google Play, or anywhere else you get your podcasts.

We want your questions for future podcasts, and your comments, so please feel free to email us at PBTpodcast@gmail.com.

WNBA star Brittney Griner freed in U.S.-Russia prisoner swap

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Russia freed WNBA star Brittney Griner on Thursday in a dramatic prisoner exchange, as the U.S. released notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout but failed to win freedom for another American, Paul Whelan, who has been jailed for nearly four years.

The swap, at a time of heightened tensions over Ukraine, achieved a top goal for President Joe Biden but carried a heavy price.

“She’s safe, she’s on a plane, she’s on her way home,” Biden said from the White House, where he was accompanied by Griner’s wife, Cherelle, and administration officials.

The deal, the second such exchange in eight months with Russia, procured the release of the most prominent American detained abroad. Griner is a two-time Olympic gold medalist whose monthslong imprisonment on drug charges brought unprecedented attention to the population of wrongful detainees.

Biden’s authorization to release a Russian felon once nicknamed “the Merchant of Death” underscored the escalating pressure that his administration faced to get Griner home, particularly after the recent resolution of her criminal case and her subsequent transfer to a penal colony.

The Russian Foreign Ministry also confirmed the swap, saying in a statement carried by Russian news agencies that the exchange took place in Abu-Dhabi and that Bout has been flown home Russian and U.S. officials had conveyed cautious optimism in recent weeks after months of strained negotiations, with Biden saying in November that he was hopeful that Russia would engage in a deal now that the midterm elections were completed. A top Russian official said last week that a deal was possible before year’s end.

Even so, the fact that the deal was a one-for-one swap was a surprise given that U.S. officials had for months expressed their their determination to bring home both Griner and Paul Whelan, a Michigan corporate security executive jailed in Russia since December 2018 on espionage charges that his family and the U.S. government has said are baseless.

“We’ve not forgotten about Paul Whelan,” Biden said. “We will keep negotiating in good faith for Paul’s release.”

Whelan’s brother David said in a statement he was “so glad” for Griner’s release but also disappointed for his family. He credited the White House with giving the Whelan family advance notice and said he did not fault officials for making the deal.

“The Biden Administration made the right decision to bring Ms. Griner home, and to make the deal that was possible, rather than waiting for one that wasn’t going to happen,” he said.

In releasing Bout, the U.S. freed a a former Soviet Army lieutenant colonel whom the Justice Department once described as one of the world’s most prolific arms dealers. Bout, whose exploits inspired a Hollywood movie, was serving a 25-year sentence on charges that he conspired to sell tens of millions of dollars in weapons that U.S officials said were to be used against Americans.

The Biden administration was ultimately willing to exchange Bout if it meant Griner’s freedom. The detention of one of the greatest players in WNBA history contributed to a swirl of unprecedented public attention for an individual detainee case — not to mention intense pressure on the White House.

Griner’s arrest in February made her the most high-profile American jailed abroad. Her status as an openly gay Black woman, locked up in a country where authorities have been hostile to the LBGTQ community, infused racial, gender and social dynamics into her legal saga and made each development a matter of international importance.

Her case not only brought unprecedented publicity to the dozens of Americans wrongfully detained by foreign governments, but it also emerged as a major inflection point in U.S.-Russia diplomacy at a time of deteriorating relations prompted by Moscow’s war against Ukraine.

The exchange was carried out despite deteriorating relations between the powers. But the imprisonment of Americans produced a rare diplomatic opening, yielding the highest-level known contact between Washington and Moscow — a phone call between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov — in more than five months.

In an extraordinary move during otherwise secret negotiations, Blinken revealed publicly in July that the U.S. had made a “substantial proposal” to Russia for Griner and Whelan. Though he did not specify the terms, people familiar with it said the U.S. had offered Bout.

Such a public overture drew a chiding rebuke from the Russians, who said they preferred to resolve such cases in private, and carried the risk of weakening the U.S. government’s negotiating hand for this and future deals by making the administration appear too desperate. But the announcement was also meant to communicate to the public that Biden was doing what he could and to ensure pressure on the Russians.

Besides the efforts of U.S. officials, the release also followed months of back channel negotiations involving Bill Richardson, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and a frequent emissary in hostage talks, and his top deputy, Mickey Bergman.

Griner was arrested at the Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February when customs officials said they found vape canisters with cannabis oil in her luggage. She pleaded guilty in July, though still faced trial because admitting guilt in Russia’s judicial system does not automatically end a case.

She acknowledged in court that she possessed the canisters, but said she had no criminal intent and said their presence in her luggage was due to hasty packing.

Before being sentenced on Aug. 4 and receiving a punishment her lawyers said was out of line for the offense, an emotional Griner apologized “for my mistake that I made and the embarrassment that I brought on them.” She added: “I hope in your ruling it does not end my life.”

Her supporters had largely stayed quiet for weeks after her arrest, but that approach changed in May once the State Department designated her as unlawfully detained. A separate trade, Marine veteran Trevor Reed for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot convicted in the U.S. in a cocaine trafficking conspiracy, spurred hope that additional such exchanges could be in the works.

Whelan has been held in Russia since December 2018. The U.S. government also classified him as wrongfully detained. He was sentenced in 2020 to 16 years in prison.

Whelan was not included in the Reed prisoner swap, escalating pressure on the Biden administration to ensure that any deal that brought home Griner also included him.