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.

Wolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns questionable vs. Knicks after car accident

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns was questionable for Friday night’s game in New York against the Knicks after a car accident in the Minneapolis area.

The Star Tribune reports Towns was headed to the airport Thursday when he was involved in the accident. Coach Ryan Saunders told the newspaper Towns caught a commercial flight after the accident and missed a team shootaround.

Saunders said he had no information on specific injuries for Towns. Guard Tyus Jones told the Star Tribune he saw Towns before the shootaround and Towns was doing “all right.”

“Rest” was listed as the reason for him being questionable on the official injury report

It wasn’t immediately clear where the accident occurred. Minneapolis police said they didn’t handle any incident involving Towns. A Timberwolves spokesman didn’t immediately respond to a phone message from The Associated Press.

 

Kings’ Dave Joerger and Buddy Hield apparently argued after Hield’s late 3-pointer (video)

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Important caveats: I don’t know what Kings coach Dave Joerger and Sacramento guard Buddy Hield said to each other late in their loss to the Warriors last night. It looks like they were arguing, but body language can easily be misread. And even if they were arguing, I don’t know about what.

Let’s read into the situation, anyway.

With the Kings down six and 20 seconds left, Hield pulled up for a deep 3-pointer and made it. Afterward, Joerger and Hield had an exchange:

Could Joerger have been upset about the shot? Sacramento was down six with 20 seconds left. There wasn’t time to work for a better look. The Kings needed points, ideally three, quickly. As soon as Hield felt he confident, he should have shot, as he did.

That set up Sacramento’s final possession, down two with 6.5 seconds left. Hield squared up for another deep 3-pointer, hesitated then worked inside for an off-balance miss:

Hield said he should have let it fly. Did Joerger get in his head?

That’s what Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard said happened:

That’s the easy narrative.

Is that the accurate narrative? I don’t know.

But it’s definitely the easy one.

NBA emphasizes its investigation never concluded Tim Donaghy didn’t fix games

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Did Tim Donaghy fix games while working as NBA referee?

That question still draws interest, even many years after he admitted to supplying gamblers with inside information in exchange for money. Donaghy has denied fixing games.

A new investigation into Donaghy was published by ESPN earlier this week. I recommend reading Scott Eden’s piece in full.

Then, it’s worth reading the NBA’s response.

NBA:

The Tim Donaghy matter concluded over a decade ago with a full investigation by the federal government, Donaghy’s termination from the NBA, and his conviction for criminal acts.  At the same time, at the request of the NBA, former prosecutor Larry Pedowitz conducted an independent investigation of Donaghy’s misconduct and issued publicly a 133-page report.  This report was based on an extensive review of game data and video as well as approximately 200 interviews, thousands of pages of documents, and consultation with various gambling and data experts.

The ESPN Article attempts to revive this old story.  Unfortunately, it is replete with errors, beginning with its statement that the Pedowitz Report “concluded that Donaghy, in fact, did not fix games.”  The Pedowitz Report made no such conclusion.  Rather, the investigation found no basis to disagree with the finding of the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office that “[t]here is no evidence that Donaghy ever intentionally made a particular ruling during a game in order to increase the likelihood that his gambling pick would be correct.”  ESPN ignores this important distinction.

The new material that ESPN has assembled to support its own conclusion that Donaghy manipulated games is not strong and adds little to the existing record.

Quoted Individuals

The ESPN Article includes several quotes from named and unnamed individuals.  But these statements conflict with other evidence in the record and in many cases are based on speculation.  For example:

• ESPN quotes Phil Scala, a retired FBI agent who was part of the government’s investigation, as saying Donaghy’s claim that he did not manipulate games “never really flew with us.” But in 2009, Scala wrote a foreword to a book authored by Donaghy in which Scala characterized Donaghy’s cooperation as “unconditionally truthful” and stated that Donaghy “confess[ed] his sins, [took] full responsibility for his actions, pa[id] his debt to society, and [found] the humility to completely display his past vices.”

• ESPN quotes an anonymous “professional gambler” as claiming Donaghy told him “he liked to call an illegal defense call, right away, in the first minute.” But this claim is not accurate.  In the 274 regular season and playoff games that Donaghy officiated during the 2003-04 to 2006-07 seasons, he called illegal defense three times during the first minute of a game.

• ESPN asserts that Donaghy had “come clean” to Tommy Martino. But the actual quotes attributed to Martino do not appear to support that conclusion – they only suggest that Donaghy told Martino he could influence games, not that he had in fact done so.

Statistical Analysis

The ESPN Article relies on a statistical analysis of Donaghy’s officiating and betting line movements.  We asked ESPN to provide us with the data and assumptions underlying this analysis, but they refused.  Based on the limited information contained in the Article, we attempted to replicate ESPN’s findings – but were unable to do so.  Indeed, our analysis found no meaningful pattern of Donaghy making more calls in favor of the team that had the “heavier betting.”

Further, the original analyses conducted by the Pedowitz team were significantly more comprehensive than what ESPN appears to have done.  For example, ESPN’s work appears to include only foul calls, and not significant non-calls or violations.  It further treats all calls the same, without considering the nature or circumstances of the call – such as “take fouls” or high-impact shooting fouls.  And ESPN questionably excludes from its analysis 10 games that it deemed to be “blowouts” and roughly 50 calls that it could not attribute to a particular referee – omissions that could meaningfully alter its conclusions.

Finally, it is important to remember that a statistical analysis can only suggest a probability of an event’s occurrence – it does not itself constitute direct evidence that an event occurred.  By contrast, the Pedowitz team and the NBA supplemented statistical analysis with an assessment of the accuracy of each of Donaghy’s actual calls and non-calls in relevant games.  These analyses also did not support ESPN’s conclusions.

Anecdotal Evidence from Games

The ESPN Article cites several games officiated by Donaghy that included calls or call patterns that ESPN deemed suspicious.  However, these examples have limited value separate from a more careful video analysis, and they frequently omit material information.  For example:

• Dallas @ Seattle, 12/20/2006: ESPN cites a foul called by Donaghy against Seattle with 23 seconds remaining in the game that purportedly gave Dallas an opportunity to cover an 8-point spread.  But it omits that this was an intentional “take foul” by Seattle.  The Article also cites a streak of fouls called by Donaghy against Seattle in the same game, purportedly to favor Dallas.  But it omits that after this streak, and during the last four minutes of the game, Donaghy called two fouls against Dallas.

• Boston @ Philadelphia, 12/13/2006: ESPN cites two consecutive fouls called by Donaghy against the Sixers’ Andre Iguodala in the third quarter when the game’s score margin was near the point spread.  But it omits that between those fouls, Donaghy called a foul against the Celtics’ Paul Pierce.

• Washington @ Indiana, 3/14/2007: ESPN cites four consecutive fouls called by Donaghy against the Pacers in the fourth quarter when the game’s margin was near the point spread.  But it omits that immediately prior to this streak, Donaghy called four consecutive fouls against the Wizards.

* * *

We recognize there is strong interest in the subject of expanded sports betting and the measures sports organizations should undertake to protect integrity.  However, the ESPN Article does not add anything material to the record of what happened over a decade ago.  There is no dispute that Tim Donaghy engaged in criminal conduct as an NBA referee, costing him his job, his reputation, and for a time, his freedom.  The Pedowitz investigation focused on understanding what Donaghy did and how he did it so we would be best equipped to protect the integrity of our games going forward.

In that regard, the Pedowitz Report prompted changes to the NBA’s officiating and integrity programs.  A summary of the initiatives the NBA has adopted since 2008 is available here.  This summary provides added context that describes the NBA’s response to the Donaghy situation and our continued efforts to ensure that the NBA’s integrity programs meet the highest standards.

The Donaghy matter also underscores the need for sports leagues to have greater access to betting data from sports books to monitor gambling on their games.  We will continue our ongoing efforts to obtain this information to further expand our integrity efforts and best protect our sport in an age of legalized sports gambling.

The NBA is right: the Pedowitz Report did not conclude that Donaghy didn’t fix games. The report merely found insufficient evidence to disagree with the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which found no evidence Donaghy fixed games. A lack of evidence to contradict a lack of evidence is not nearly as conclusive as “Donaghy didn’t fix games.”

But is the NBA really now casting doubt on the notion Donaghy didn’t fix games?

That seems backward. The league should seemingly want to protect its integrity, not call attention to lack of clarity around what Donaghy did and didn’t do.

Maybe the NBA is just trying to cast general doubt onto Eden’s reporting. Some of the above distinctions seem like nitpicking, at least without more context. For example, how many illegal defenses did Donaghy call in the first five minutes of games? The gambler might have been embellishing by saying “first minute.”

Still, the league raises one question that seems particularly relevant: Why did former FBI agent Phil Scala vouch for Donaghy’s honesty then express doubt over Donaghy’s claim he didn’t fix games?

Ultimately, I wish we had better data. Pedowitz reviewed only 17 games, but examined all calls. ESPN reviewed 40 games, but apparently examined only fouls.

However, statistical analysis can’t prove Donaghy’s motives. It can only indicate trends. So, even better data won’t prove whether or not Donaghy fixed games.

But here’s what I can’t get over, no matter how ESPN or the NBA frames these details: Donaghy broke the law to sell gamblers information while working as a referee. Will anyone ever believe he drew the line before fixing games?

Monte Morris plays it safe – to Nuggets’ delight

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DETROIT – Monte Morris entered the NBA inauspiciously.

Despite looking like a borderline first-round pick after his junior year, Morris returned to Iowa State for his senior season. He pulled his quad during the pre-draft process in 2017, missing most of his scheduled workouts. He fell to the No. 51 pick. The Nuggets offered just a two-year, two-way contract.

“I was excited,” said Morris, a Flint, Mich., native. “Where I come from, if you get a chance to get to this level, everybody back home looks at you as the hero. So, I was just happy for my opportunity.”

Morris has seized it.

With Isaiah Thomas sidelined most of the season, Morris has emerged as a quality contributor in Denver. Morris deserves strong consideration for spots on Sixth Man of the Year and Most Improved Player ballots. And this could be just the start.

The knock on Morris has long been his ceiling. The 6-foot-3, 175-pound point guard is neither big nor overly athletic. In four years at Iowa State, he developed a reputation for protecting the ball and taking what defenses gave him. Usually, future NBA point guards bend the game more at that level. They use their burst and/or shooting to dictate terms to the defense. Morris left many scouts believing he’d be a career backup in the NBA – at best.

Morris has improved his outside shooting, making 43.1% of his 3-pointers on 2.8 attempts per game this season. But he’s mostly playing the same style he always has, avoiding bad shots and turnovers. It has just translated far better than expected.

Morris’ 6.4-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio is on pace to be the best in NBA history. Here are the highest assist-to-turnover ratios since 1977-78, as far back as Basketball-Reference data goes (assists and turnovers per game in parentheses):

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Morris has gone 127 minutes since his last turnover.

“As a coach, that’s what you want in a point guard,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “He’s a throwback.”

Morris is averaging 10.8 points per game, and he competes defensively. Few reserves have produced like him this season.

Montrezl Harrell and Domantas Sabonis are pulling away from the field in the Sixth Man of the Year race. But the ballot runs three deep, and Morris ranks third among Sixth Man of the Year-eligible players in win shares:

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Not bad for someone who spent most of last season in the NBA’s minor league.

Morris played well there, and he has only continued to improve since. He impressed so much in summer league, Denver signed him to a standard contract a year before his two-way deal would have ended. That way, the Nuggets could use Morris more than the 45-day limit for two-way players within the season.

“He embodied who we want to be,” Malone said. “He embodied our culture. Self-motivated. And every time you gave Monte Morris a challenge, he met it head on.”

Judging Morris’ improvement can be tricky. He played just 25 minutes in three NBA games last season. I suspect he could have handled a bigger role, even as a rookie. But there’s a certain amount of guesswork there. (Not so for my Most Improved Player favorite, Kings point guard De'Aaron Fox, who was demonstrably bad last season then has become a near-star this season).

Undeniably, Morris’ impact this season is far greater than ever before.

Here are the biggest increases in win shares (middle) from a prior career high (left) to the current season (right):

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Everything is trending the right direction for Morris. He’s showing the fruits of his work ethic, and he’s just 23. Maybe we can finally view him as someone with upside. But even if this is his ceiling, it’s high enough. Morris is already a productive NBA rotation player.

Perhaps best of all for the Nuggets, Morris is on just a minimum contract.

Here are this season’s win-share leaders among minimum-contract players:*

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*Excluding players who were bought out or just waived in-season then signed elsewhere for the minimum. Excluding players on rookie-scale contracts who had their salaries increased to the minimum by the new Collective Bargaining Agreement.

Of the 15 minimum-salary players on that leaderboard, only two have contracts that won’t allow them to enter free agency and pursue raises this summer. Spencer Dinwiddie signed a three-year, $34,360,473 extension in December, which he deemed even better than hitting the open market. Morris has two (!) additional minimum-salary seasons on his deal.

By getting him onto a two-year, two-way deal initially, Denver gained immense leverage in negotiations last summer. Morris could have played out his two-way deal and become a restricted free agent next summer. Instead, he took the safe approach with a three-year contract that guaranteed two seasons at the NBA minimum and included a third unguaranteed minimum season.

It’s incredible value for the Nuggets… and delays Morris getting a payday commensurate with his production. But he’s maintaining the same steady approach he shows on the court.

“It’s cool,” Morris said. “I’ve just got to keep being Monte, keep being on-time, keep being a good person, and everything will take care of itself.”