NBA Preview: Orlando Magic

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Last season: Oh, what a tangled web we weave…

The Magic won 37 games (to 29 losses) last season because for a stretch in the first half of the season they were one of the top-five teams in the NBA. Dwight Howard was putting up his usual MVP numbers (well, not last season next to LeBron but he should be in the conversation most years), the Magic were defending and on offense knocking down threes.

But from the first days the foundation was going to crumble and it came apart in a way worthy of The Days of Our Lives. Howard and his people were pushing hard for a trade to the Nets, and they had leverage with his ability to opt-out in the summer. Except the Magic were not playing along, wanting a better deal and not to give Howard what he wanted. Then Howard caved and opted-in with the Magic for next season, so they didn’t have to trade him. Then Stan Van Gundy threw Howard under the bus in front of he New York Media. Then Howard’s back injury worsened and he had to sit out of the playoffs.

The Magic got run in the first round of the playoffs by the Pacers, then they fired Stan Van Gundy, then they eventually traded Howard to the Lakers in a four-team deal that netted them essentially five picks (three future picks and two recent players) but none of them lottery picks.

Key Departures: Orlando is going the Oklahoma City model — they are looking to be terrible and get good again through the draft. Dwight Howard is gone. While that is obvious you really need to think through how big a loss that is — he is a three-time defensive player of the year who made them one of the better defensive teams in the league for years, plus he was the hub of their offense. He is arguably the third best player in basketball right now. That’s not easy to replace.

Also gone is stretch-four sharpshooter Ryan Anderson, a guy bordering on All-Star status. Then there is Jason Richardson. That would be three of the top four scorers for the Magic. By the way, numbers five and six on the scoring list last season — J.J. Redick and Hedo Turkoglu — can be yours in a trade for picks and prospects.

Key Additions: The best player they got in the Howard trade is Arron Afflalo, a solid two-way swingman who will be asked to do a lot more scoring than he has in the past but will play well. Through the trade they also landed rookie Moe Harkless, the St. John’s star who has promise but is raw. There also is Gustavo Ayon and Al Harrington, but you get the idea. The Magic did not make this trade trying to get better, they are intentionally going to be bad.

One guy who could catch on, Andrew Nicholson. You didn’t see him play in college unless you watched a lot of St. Bonaventure, but in Summer League he averaged 12.6 points and 6.8 rebounds a game. He will get a chance.

Orlando also added new head coach Jacque Vaughn, who gets thrown into the fire of his first NBA job in charge of a roster Phil Jackson couldn’t win with.

Three keys to the Magic season:

1) When do they trade J.J. Redick, Hedo Turkoglu and Glen Davis? The Magic are not going to be good this year, but they are going to get worse. Orlando is going with what is now called the Oklahoma City Thunder model of building through the draft. So the second they can unload one of these veterans for picks and prospects they will. Likely it all happens closer to the deadline, but you are going to hear a lot of Magic trade rumors. General Manager Rob Hennigan has a plan and they are not going halfway on it.

2) How many wins does Jameer Nelson get them? With all the roster changes and revamping the Magic brought Nelson back on a three-year deal. He is the one guy still on the roster who has proven he can up points plenty of at the NBA level, although last season he averaged 11.9 points and 5.7 assists per game. The light for Nelson will be green; he is now freed up to shoot pretty much whenever he wants. His career high is 16.7 points per game and don’t be shocked if he bests that.

But he’s not going to get them a lot of wins. (Not that the Magic brass want him to.) This is the guy you pair with an elite player, he is not elite. And his defense has not been impressive at all the past couple seasons.

3) Can Jacque Vaughn get the youth to develop? In the end for the Magic, it’s really about seeing if Moe Harkless and Andrew Nicholson can develop into solid complimentary players to the franchise guy they hope to draft down the line. Same with Kyle O’Quinn and Christian Eyenga. (Afflalo certainly would fit in, he’s proven it.) Right now it’s about developing talent for the long-term and seeing if the guys can fit in. And part of that has to fall to Vaughn to lead and teach them.

What Magic fans should fear: That the plan doesn’t really work. It’s not easy to land three years of consecutive top four picks like the Thunder did, and they were fortunate to have Kevin Durant fall to them. Then they nailed the Westbrook and Harden picks. Cleveland had the series of top picks as well and they have Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters, and we’ll see how that plays out. But to get the picks is hard and to get the right guy at spots No. 2 and No. 4 is not easy (sometimes not even at No. 1).

This tear it down and build it back up strategy is the right one, but it’s far from easy or foolproof. And it’s going to take years to judge.

How it likely works out: Orlando will be one of the worst teams in the NBA this season, and Magic fans better be prepared for that. It’s not about wins, it’s about Shabazz Muhammad and Nerlens Noel. Expect trades mid-season and a lot of very hard-to-watch losses. Most painful may be that the biggest weakness will be big men in the paint.

The hope is that you see sparks from Harkless, that Nelson and Afflalo can provide some points and the team rallies around Vaughn and is competitive. We saw a lot of losses from the Hornets last season but they played hard for Monty Williams, they defended better, and that’s where the signs of hope will be for Magic fans.

Prediction: 22-60 and a whole lot of ping-pong balls. It’s not going to be pretty in the short term, but that is the plan.

Adam Silver likes NBA teams moving away from term ‘owner,’ prefers ‘governor’

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Warriors star Draymond Green has objected to using the term “owner.” The 76ers use “managing partner,” not “owner,” as Josh Harris’ title.

Does NBA commissioner Adam Silver like teams moving away from the term owner?

Silver, via TMZ:

I do. I don’t want to overreact to the term because, as I’ve said earlier, people end up twisting themselves into knots avoiding the use of the word owner. But, we moved away from that term years ago in the league. We call our team owners governor of the team and alternate governors. So, I think it makes sense. As I’ve said, I don’t want to overreact, and you’ll find the word throughout memos over the past decade in the NBA. But I’m sensitive to it, and I think to the extent teams are moving away from the term, we’ll stick with using governor.

Players have gone both ways. I think a few players have actually spoken out and said the greatest thing that ever happened was when Michael Jordan was able to call himself an owner. But, of course, Draymond Green has been very public about the fact that we should be moving away from the term, and I completely respect that.

The elephant in the room: Slavery. The history of white people owning black people is the subtext to this entire discussion. Slavery looms over a league where most owners are white and most player are black.

However, the term “owner” here doesn’t refer to owning the players, but owning the team. “Ownership” has far wider historically usage than slavery. In most fields, “owning” companies – which NBA teams are – doesn’t generate backlash.

Are we too loose with the term “owner” in sports? Perhaps. It’s common to say something like, “Players should strongly consider their potential owners in free agency” rather than “players should strongly consider their potential team’s owners in free agency.”

But there are power differences between players and owners/managing partners/governors/whatever you want to call them. Unless addressing the actual underlying issues, changing terms will accomplish nothing.

Those power dynamics are why the Warriors referred to Mark Stevens as “Mr. Stevens” and Kyle Lowry as Kyle Lowry after Stevens pushed Lowry during the NBA Finals. Those power dynamics are why Donald Sterling took guests into the Clippers’ locker room to ogle players. Those power dynamics are why LeBron James is remembered as the bad guy from The Decision despite Dan Gilbert’s wild letter.

There will always be differences between players and owners. Owners have more money and staying power. But the NBA can create a better, fairer environment for its players.

It’ll just require deeper consideration than a simple word change.

Report: Knicks will roll over cap space if they don’t sign Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard

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The Knicks are chasing Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. New York will reportedly get a meeting with Kawhi Leonard.

But Irving appears headed to the Nets, and Durant might follow. Leonard appears to favor the Raptors in a two-team race with the Clippers.

Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News:

New York still believes it’s in the hunt for Kawhi Leonard, Irving and Durant. But, according to a source, the Knicks will punt their $70 million-plus in cap space if they can’t land one of those Tier A free agents.

This plan would require patience Knicks owner James Dolan has rarely shown. The Knicks have missed the playoffs six straight years. Twice during that span – including last season – they posted their worst record in franchise history (17-65). Dolan publicly proclaimed confidence New York would sign major free agents this summer.

He’d really allow the Knicks to delay winning even further?

New York is positioned to wait until 2020 free agency (though Joakim Noah‘s cap hit will remain on the books after an avoidable error). R.J. Barrett and Kevin Knox will still be on relatively cheap rookie-scale contracts. As a second-round pick, Mitchell Robinson is even lower-paid. If they sign players to only one-year contracts this offseason, the Knicks will once again have massive cap room.

But good players generally want multi-year deals. So, New York would be choosing among a far more limited pool of free agents. Another gloomy season would likely await.

And then the 2020 free-agent class looks weak. Especially with Anthony Davis already on the Lakers, there probably won’t be an attainable superstar for the Knicks. There might not even be an attainable star.

Then what? Sacrifice the 2020-21 season to gear up for 2021 free agency? Maybe Barrett, Knox and Robinson develop and send New York on a different track, but that’s far from assured.

The genius of this plan is it allows Knicks president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry to keep their jobs while the team continues to stink. There would be no expectations of winning anytime soon – as long as Dolan abides.

Report: Kyrie Irving doesn’t like living in Boston

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Has Kyrie Irving been in contact with the Boston Celtics about his free agency? We have reports that say that Irving has “ghosted” the Celtics… and of course we have counter reports that say just the opposite.

It’s hard to believe anything that swirls around Irving, one of the more enigmatic and tiring personalities in the NBA. At the very least, Irving has appeared to send signals that he is looking to sign with the Brooklyn Nets. Chief among them being that Irving recently fired his longtime representation and signed with Roc Nation, which has a close partnership with the Brooklyn front office.

Boston has had a hard time getting free agents to come to play for the franchise, and that’s before they had a standing beef with Klutch Sports. According to ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan, one of our Irving’s problems with the Celtics was that he simply didn’t like living in Boston.

Via ESPN:

“Kyrie Irving didn’t like Boston. I’ve been told this by many people. He didn’t like living in Boston — he just didn’t. By the end he had issues with Brad, by the end he had issues with Danny… by the end he had issues with pretty much all of us.”

We have heard rumors that things started to go wrong in the Celtics locker room when coach Brad Stevens seemed to openly favor injured star Gordon Hayward a bit too heavily (Hayward played for Stevens at Butler in college).

Meanwhile, Danny Ainge has the propensity to rub folks the wrong way. He makes whatever decision he thinks is the best from a basketball perspective, relationships be damned. We learned that with the Isaiah Thomas trade.

At this juncture it seems unlikely that Irving will return to the Celtics. Meanwhile, we will probably continue to get stories like this out of Boston.

Chris Paul: “I never asked for a trade” and says he’s happy to be in Houston

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With Golden State laid low by injuries (and maybe a defection), Houston should be the team stepping to the front of the line saying “it’s our turn” in the West.

Instead, the Rockets two stars — James Harden and Chris Paul — are feuding, ownership is turning coach Mike D’Antoni into a lame duck, and everyone without a fantastic beard hears their name in trade rumors.

The Harden/Paul feud is real, but Paul tried to downplay it at a charity event in Los Angeles over the weekend, denying a trade request and saying he was happy to be in Houston, as reported by Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle.

“I never asked for a trade,” Paul said. “I never demanded a trade.”

“I’ll be in Houston,” Paul said. “I’m happy about that. I’m very happy about that. I’m good.”

The report goes on to note Paul was asked if he had to work things out with Harden and he kind of danced around that question but said the issues were around a season-ending loss. Certainly, two straight years of being bounced by the Warriors has the Rockets frustrated. However, there is also a style issue: Harden dominates the ball and likes to work in isolation, Chris Paul can’t be as efficient that way anymore and prefers a more fluid offense (and more pick-and-roll for him). Coach D’Antoni gives a lot of leeway to Harden.

Harden and Paul need to work their issues out because Paul is nearly untradable (unless the Rockets want to throw in a sweetener with a pick or young player). Paul still has value on the court — a master floor general he averaged 15.6 points and 8.2 assists per game last season — but he is 34-years-old, lost a step last season, has an injury history (he played 58 games last season), and is owed $124 million fully guaranteed over the next three seasons. There simply are not teams interested in trading for Paul.

Houston could head into next season the favorites in the West. Part of that depends on how things shake out in free agency (does Kawhi Leonard come West, for example), but a lot of it is just the Rockets getting their act together. I expect Paul and Harden to figure things out, at least well enough to make it work. Mostly because they don’t have a choice. Paul isn’t going anywhere, whether he asked to leave or not.