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.

Bucks play with desperation, lead by as many as 15 in first half

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If you think a 15-point lead is safe, go talk to a Portland Trail Blazers fan and get back to me.

The Bucks will still take it. Milwaukee has come out with a sense of desperation, but more importantly got to play with some pace and couldn’t miss early from three — they started 4-of-6 and were 7-of-13 from three as of this writing — and what we saw were play after play from the Bucks, the kinds of things we haven’t seen the last three games. They led by 13 after one, and the lead got as high as 15.

Can the Bucks sustain this, or will they cool down as the Raptors heat up? It’s going to be a wild rest of the game in Toronto.

The Raptors are up 3-2 in the series and playing for their first ever franchise trip to the Finals. The Bucks are playing to force a Game 7 Monday back in Milwaukee.

 

Dwyane Wade got an All-NBA vote, Gabrielle Union would have gone with Klay Thompson

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Honesty from your spouse is a bedrock of any good relationship.

But come on Gabrielle Union, show your man a little love.

Dwyane Wade got one second-team All-NBA vote, and he took to an Instagram story to thank that voter (even if he wouldn’t have voted for himself). His wife would not have voted for her man.

Just a few notes:

• That is a funny video.

• We do not know who cast that vote for Wade, yet. The NBA’s end of season awards are voted on by 100 media members who cover the league (the NBA selects those voters). There is transparency, the full votes will be released after the NBA’s award show next month.

• Third team All-NBA guard was probably the toughest choice on the entire ballot. Because the NBA forces voters to select only two guards for each of the teams (six guards total), rather than allowing voters to just chose the 15 best players for the honor, deserving guys get left off every year. In this case, Stephen Curry and James Harden were first-team locks. Damian Lillard was a clear second-team choice, and a majority of voters had Kyrie Irving joining him on the second team. Russell Westbrook was not far behind Irving and was clear-and-away the fifth choice for voters. That left one guard spot between Kemba Walker, Klay Thompson, Bradley Beal, Ben Simmons, or anyone else considered worthy (Mike Conley, Donovan Mitchell, etc.). There is no wrong choice in that group. If players were not locked into positions for All-NBA more guards would have made the cut in an increasingly backcourt dominated league. (For transparency purposes, I did vote Walker in on my ballot barely over Thompson.)

• No media members I know are comfortable with these votes having an impact on player salaries. It makes us all uneasy, even as voters study and try to make the best choices. The NBA and players’ union need to come up with a better system in the next CBA. I’ve got a crazy idea, how about letting the teams decide who is worthy of being paid that much?

Brooklyn Nets like Kyrie Irving, but how much does he like them?

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Kyrie Irving is a popular guy. He has a strong relationship with Kevin Durant and rumors of them pairing up on the Knicks next season have been rampant all over the league this season. Irving also is hanging out with LeBron James in Los Angeles, and LBJ is reportedly up for the idea of getting the band back together (minus Kevin Love, and in Los Angeles this time). Boston has every intention of keeping Irving, and ideally pairing him with Anthony Davis who they would acquire via trade.

The Brooklyn Nets will be free agent players this summer and think they would be an excellent fit for Irving. The goal would be to pair him with All-Star D'Angelo Russell in the backcourt, reports Brian Lewis of the New York Post.

How seriously is Irving considering the Nets? A lot, according to Anthony Puccio of SNY in New York.

Sources tell SNY that Kyrie Irving and his camp are strongly considering Brooklyn if he decides to leave Boston. Irving’s camp has kept a close eye on the Nets as the season progressed and the team got better, with the playoffs only helping their case.

SNY also learned recently that the Nets would not shy away from signing Irving even if they re-sign point guard D’Angelo Russell. The ideal scenario would be to pair two max free agents, such as Kevin Durant and Irving, but sources say the Nets would be open to pairing Irving and Russell in the backcourt together.

The Nets, just like the Clippers, could be major players in free agency this summer (the Clippers are more focused on Kawhi Leonard, but if he chooses to stay in Toronto the Clippers will be a potential force in trades and on the free agent market). This is a young team that surprised everyone and made the playoffs this season, they have a good culture and good role players, they just need a star or two to take them over the top.

Irving could be that guy, or at least one of those guys, in Brooklyn.

Irving will have options and you can bet his decision is not yet made. He may be leaning one way or another, but circumstances with other players and time to think things over may (likely will) change his mind. Maybe a few times.

Where his mind is July 1 matters. It could be in Brooklyn then, but it could be a lot of places.

Warriors know they have is something special, with uncertainty ahead

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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — Stephen Curry hears the dynasty discussion about his Golden State Warriors during another postseason run.

Draymond Green realizes special teams only stay together for so long before something breaks them apart.

That’s why the Warriors decided from Day 1 of training camp to cherish this season.

Golden State is a franchise in its prime – five straight trips to the NBA Finals and seeking a third consecutive title. But the clock is ticking and the Warriors are well aware of the possible ramifications of free agency and how things could change in a hurry this summer.

“Basketball careers aren’t that long. If you can get 10 out of it, you’re lucky,” Green explained. “To be to five straight finals, I don’t even know what to say about it. This is what you play for. This is our goal every year and to get here five straight times is special.”

The Warriors started this run with three All-Stars in Curry, Green and Klay Thompson. They added two more in Kevin Durant and DeMarcus Cousins. How many they’ll have after free agency is any and everyone’s guess.

Curry – with nearly 11-month-old son Canon regularly in his arms for the ride – is certainly relishing this stretch of his decorated career, appreciating how far the Warriors have come during the 10 years he has been in the league.

A third straight title is suddenly within reach, which would be Golden State’s fourth championship in five years.

“We know what’s at stake and what we’re chasing this year, this series, this game, and that’s the only way that you can really put your best foot forward in terms of trying to get back to the mountaintop,” Curry said. “We’ll have plenty of time when we hang the sneakers up to really go back and think about all the different experiences and highs and lows, but right now, we’re two games away from another finals appearance. It’s pretty special.”

The Warriors are the first team to reach five straight finals since the Celtics advanced to 10 in a row from 1957-1966.

Another championship would cement this run of titles among the best ever.

The Los Angeles Lakers of 2000-02 – led by Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal – are the last team to capture three straight titles.

Golden State advanced without Durant, the reigning two-time finals MVP, and Cousins. Both were sidelined with injuries for the entire Western Conference finals. The finished off Portland without Andre Iguodala, another finals MVP who sat out Game 4 with an injury.

While the Bucks and Raptors are slugging it out in the East, the Warriors are rehabbing.

“I hope it doesn’t go unnoticed or underrated. Five straight finals hasn’t been done since the 60s, since Bill Russell’s Celtics,” fifth-year Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “Hasn’t been done for a reason: It’s really, really difficult. I just can’t say enough about the competitive desire about the group of players that we have here and the culture that they have built together, playing together regardless of injury.”

Each Warriors run has been unique. When they won in 2015 it was the first title for the franchise in 40 years.

LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers derailed them in 2016, but the Warriors bounced back in 2017 with a dominant 16-1 record during the postseason.

Last year, Golden State joined Russell’s Celtics, Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls and trio of Lakers teams – including George Mikan and company in the 1950s, Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the `80s, and Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant nearly 20 years ago – as the only franchises in NBA history to capture three championships in four years.

“When I was here the first time, they rebuilt and retooled,” said Andrew Bogut, a member of the 2015 title team before rejoining the Warriors in March.

“They didn’t just sit on their hands thinking it was going to last forever. They freed up cap space, you have to give (general manager) Bob Myers, (owner) Joe Lacob and the coaching staff a lot of credit. There are a lot of teams that win a championship and kind of reward the whole roster, then they end up two-three years down the track and end up in a bit of a hole. Whereas this is a great run for a franchise that will end up as one of the all-time greats.”

The Warriors enjoy playing together and with so many selfless stars and a deep bench they are rarely out of any game.

That doesn’t mean it has been easy, especially with the constant free agency chatter this season.

Durant is an impending free agent and the basketball world continues to speculate on his next move. Thompson’s future with the Warriors is unclear as well, while Green is signed through next season.

“We know that these runs don’t last forever, and obviously there are so many questions and things that could possibly happen with this team this summer,” Green said. “So want to try to take advantage of this opportunity and make the most of it, and deal with the things that come after whenever those things arrive, but right now we’re focused on the task at hand and try to do something that hasn’t been done in a long time, or many times.”

The Warriors are aware of the dynasty talk, but aren’t labeling themselves. They have consistently said their focus is the task of raising another banner in the final season at Oracle Arena before the franchise moves into Chase Center in San Francisco to begin 2019-20.

“I don’t think in those terms. It’s just every opportunity we have to play, these are big moments, big games,” Curry said, “and the context of what this five-year run has been and all that stuff doesn’t really dominate my mind when we’re out there competing.”