ProBasketballTalk 2014-15 preview: Orlando Magic

12 Comments

Last season: The goal was to play the young guys a lot, and by that measure there was some success. Victor Oladipo and Nikola Vucevic each played more than 31 minutes a game, Tobias Harris more than 30 (all when healthy, of course). However, if you judge success by wins, well, it was a rough year as the Magic had just 23 of those with a -5.5 points per 100 possessions net rating (6th worst in the league). The real issue was the offense which put up just 99.3 points per 100 possessions, second worst in the NBA. But since last season was about development, at least there was some of that.

Signature highlight from last season: We could have gone with the Tobias Harris dunk to beat OKC, but if you’re into hope for the future in Orlando, it has to be Victor Oladipo shutting down Damian Lillard on the break (one of a lot of great blocks he had last season).

Offseason moves: The Magic shook up the roster. Gone are veterans Jameer Nelson and Arron Afflalo (as well as E’Twaun Moore, Doran Lamb and Jason Maxiell), who were the heart of what was the Magic’s offense last season.

Drafted: Aaron Gordon with the No. 4 pick, then they traded with Philadelphia to get point guard Elfrid Payton, the No. 10 pick (they gave Philadelphia No. 12 pick Dario Saric in the deal).

Free agent signings: Two surprises on this front, Channing Frye chose Orlando over other options and Ben Gordon signed for $9 million over two years. Both of those guys are as much trade bait as anything else (especially Gordon at that price). Orlando also added Luke Ridnour as the backup point guard and Evan Fournier can play the two off the bench.

Keys to the Magic season:

Victor Oladipo developing at the two guard. Hopefully the drafting of Payton means the “Oladipo as point guard” experiment is over. It may have been worth a shot (and he can handle a little at the two) but not every experiment works out. This didn’t, so the Magic drafted a pure point guard in Payton (don’t be shocked if Ridnour is the starting point guard opening night but Payton takes the job mid-season). Now Oladipo is at the two and needs to show he can work off the ball, shoot better than 32 percent from three (his number last season), and generally become more of a scorer. As a point guard he seemed to think and hesitate, hopefully a move to his natural position and a year of experience changes that and he just attacks. The question remains what kind of player he can develop into, and I’m on board with the Tony Allen comparisons — a lock down defender who can knock down a three and get you some points. Oladipo could be more than that on offense, but he has work to do on that end to get there.

Where do the points come from? Arron Afflalo isn’t really cut out to be a No. 1 option in the league (he’s a much better fit in the Denver team concept) but he still provided an efficient 18.2 points a night. Jameer Nelson, for all his flaws, knows how to run a team and create scoring opportunities off the pick-and-roll. They’re both gone. The Magic don’t have a go-to scoring option on this roster, and it’s safe to say they are not going to have Spurs-like ball movement to create looks. Ridnour and hopefully Payton can create some looks, Oladipo will be asked to step up, Frye and Fournier can knock down some threes. But once again this team is going to struggle to score.

Defensive improvement must continue. This is the side of the ball that kept Orlando in games last season, it’s clearly a priority in their choosing of players — they can’t let things slide back on the defensive end of the floor. The Magic were already a middle of the pack defensive team last season (18th in points allowed per possession) but by drafting Payton and Gordon they clearly made defense the priority (Gordon in particular has a raw offensive game). While the offense will struggle if the Magic can continue to improve in the defensive end they will be making progress.

Can Jacque Vaughn coach these guys up, can he develop them? When the Magic hired Vaughn as coach it was with the understanding that he was going to lose a lot of games the first few years and there was nothing he could really do about it. This is a player development job, similar to what Brett Brown has in Philadelphia. The question is: Are the players making enough development? We’ll get some good tests this year as we see how Oladipo progresses, plus how Vucevic and Harris do in the year before they become restricted free agents. We’re not going to see a lot of wins in Orlando, but we should really start to see some of the development that the franchise has banked on.

Why you should watch the Magic: This is one very athletic team and they will make some entertaining plays. With Frye and Maurice Harkless and Fournier out there knocking down threes it should open up driving lanes for Harris and Oladipo. Gordon is going to throw down some dunks. Plus the Magic have played hard for Vaughn and that should continue.

Prediction: 29-53 and in the lottery again. Which is kind of the plan, the Magic are on the slow rebuild process and while they do have some real nice young talent on the roster nobody expects it to fully blossom this season. That said there are big questions that need to be answered this season, specifically with Vucevic and Harris as they will be restricted free agents next summer (unless an unlikely extension deal is reached before Halloween) and there’s the question of how much to pay them. Vucevic is going to draw interest from other teams, Orlando has to figure out what he’s worth to them. His play this season impacts his future payday.

This season will be rough in Orlando, the Southeast Division has gotten pretty tough with Washington, Charlotte, Miami and Atlanta all likely playoff teams. The Magic are going to finish last in the division again.

Report: Making 2020 NBA Finals could swing whether Giannis Antetokounmpo signs super-max extension with Bucks

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
2 Comments

The honeymoon between Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks is over.

Milwaukee’s superb season ended tonight with a Game 6 loss to the Raptors in the Eastern Conference finals. Already, attention is turning to the 2020 offseason, when Antetokounmpo can sign a five-year super-max extension that projects to be worth $250 million. If he doesn’t, the pressure will turn way up as he approaches unrestricted free agency in 2021.

Antetokounmpo is already applying some.

Malika Andrews of ESPN:

a source close to Antetokounmpo said that getting to the NBA Finals is not just an ambition, it could tip the scales as he weighs his contractual future.

And if they can reach the NBA Finals next season, the Bucks can improve their chances of signing Antetokounmpo to the supermax in the summer of 2020.

Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez and Malcolm Brogdon will be free agents this summer. It’s unclear how much luxury tax Milwaukee is willing to pay.

This leak could be Antetokounmpo trying to convince the Bucks to pay to keep this team intact.

Would he actually leave Milwaukee? At every turn, he has praised the city and organization. But the Bucks have also been on an upward trajectory for years. As they get closer to the top, it becomes more difficult to maintain that positive momentum. They’re now entering a crucial season with the clear goal of a conference title. That doesn’t leave much room for error.

The Lakers are rumored to be plotting to get Antetokounmpo. If there are signs he’ll actually become available, many other teams will line up just for a chance to sign him. Antetokounmpo is a special player, a superstar at age 24.

He also needed this loss. Having never advanced past the first round before this year, he didn’t fully grasp the high level of play and intensity this deep into playoffs. He hadn’t felt the heartache of coming so close and falling short, a highly effective motivator. Raptors like Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol had already faced these tests, and that had a lot to do with Toronto winning.

I have no doubt this experience will make Antetokounmpo even better.

Antetokounmpo wants to ensure the Bucks match his desire to win. If they do, he and Milwaukee will remain committed to each other. The honeymoon isn’t the end.

But this is when it gets real.

Raptors’ summer gamble pays off with trip to Finals after Game 6 win over Bucks

Associated Press
5 Comments

Toronto’s big gambles paid off.

Last summer, after five years of winning at least 48 games and looking impressive in the regular season only to stumble in the playoffs, Toronto’s team president Masai Ujiri went all in. He fired the NBA’s Coach of the Year in Dwane Casey to hire his assistant Nick Nurse with the hope of installing a more creative offense.

Then they traded fan favorite and (at least to that point) the greatest Toronto Raptor in franchise history DeMar DeRozan to get Kawhi Leonard, a guy coming off an injury that essentially sidelined him for a season. A guy who would be a free agent after one season. Leonard could bolt — like other stars had done north of the border — and leave the Raptors high and dry.

It was all a massive roll of the dice.

Toronto hit their number with that roll — the Raptors are headed to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history.

Toronto stormed from 15 points down in the third behind another monster game from Leonard — 27 points, 17 rebounds, 7 assists — and held on to win Game 6 in front of a raucous home crowd, 100-94.

Toronto will host Game 1 of the NBA Finals Thursday night against the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors.

The Raptors may not be familiar with that stage, but Leonard knows both the Finals stage and that opponent (recall that the last time he faced them Zaza Pachulia slid under his foot on a jumper, spraining Leonard’s ankle and ending San Antonio’s playoff hopes that season). Thoughts about July 1 are banished for now in Toronto, the party is on.

“It means a lot,” long-time Raptor Kyle Lowry said about making the Finals. “It’s taken a long time to get here in my career, 13 years, seven years here [in Toronto]….

“But I’m not satisfied.”

This series changed in Game 3 when Nurse mixed things up and had Leonard as the primary defender on Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Greek Freak still got his, but everything became harder, and as the Raptors slowed the pace their halfcourt defense locked in. On the offensive end, Leonard just made plays when he needed to.

“He’s a great player, he made some very special plays, give him a ton of credit,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said of Leonard.

For the Bucks, who had the best record in the NBA this season and a likely MVP in Antetokounmpo, this was a learning experience about their shortcomings — both his and the Milwaukee roster. He had 21 points and 11 rebounds, but he was not able to dominate the game like Leonard did in crucial moments, and when he couldn’t get to the rim at will his lack of a jump shot he has confidence in showed. Those kinds of lessons come with being just 24 and making a deep playoff run.

“In our minds, we feel he’s going to get a lot better,” Budenholzer said of the Greek Freak. “At 24 some guys are… I don’t want to say they are who they are, but at 24 some of the great ones were the same at 30 and 32 and so forth. Giannis we feel has a lot of room to grow.”

So does the roster around the Greek Freak. Antetokounmpo sat just 7:28 in this game, and that proved to be too much — the Bucks were -9 in those minutes. They lost by six.

Eric Bledsoe struggled again, with 8 points on 9 shots. Khris Middleton — who is a free agent this summer — had 14 points on 5-of-13 shooting.

Still, this is a good team on a learning curve. One with some tough decisions ahead for the front office, but a team on the rise.

They showed that early.

Milwaukee came out playing with a sense of desperation — it showed in their energy and second efforts on defense — and they raced out to a 15-point lead early in the second quarter mostly because they just hit shots. In the first half, the Bucks did not get the ball inside (only seven shots at the rim) but were 9-of-18 from three and hit 50 percent of their shots from the midrange. Antetokounmpo had 10 points and seven rebounds and Ersan Ilyasova surprised with nine points in the first 24.

That had the Bucks up 50-43 at the half, but it felt precarious. Then in the third, Milwaukee had an 8-0 run and the lead was pushed to 15 at one point. The Raptors were stumbling. Pascal Siakam hesitated on shots, not trusting himself. Danny Green trusted himself but couldn’t hit anything.

The tide turned thanks to Leonard. The Raptors finished third on 10-0 run — with Leonard scoring or assisting on every bucket — and the lead was down to 5 after three.

Early in the fourth was when Antetokounmpo sat again, and the Raptors went on a 7-2 run to tie the game at 78-78. That lead kept growing in a run that got to 26-3 for Toronto, then Leonard did this.

Milwaukee would not go away down the stretch, but Leonard kept making plays while Antetokounmpo and company got tight. Milwaukee could never get back in front.

For the Bucks, it’s a lesson.

For the Raptors, it’s the trip to the Finals they bet big on.

Watch Kawhi Leonard dunk all over Giannis Antetokounmpo, highlight of 26-3 Toronto run

Getty Images
5 Comments

For most of the first three quarters of Game 6, the Milwaukee Bucks were in control of the game and looked to be on the way to forcing a Game 7.

But Kawhi Leonard sparked a 10-0 run for Toronto to end the third, scoring eight and assisting on a Serge Ibaka bucket.

That run carried over into the fourth and became a 26-3 run that was highlighted by this insane dunk by Leonard over Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Insane.

I’d say that’s Leonard’s best shot as a Raptor if not for the series winner against Philadelphia.

The Bucks responded with a 7-0 run and this game is going to go down to the wire.

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

Associated Press
1 Comment

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.