ProBasketballTalk 2014-15 preview: Orlando Magic

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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.

Suns keep winning, T.J. Warren keeps scoring, Nuggets outlast Jazz in 2OT

Suns star Devin Booker vs. Heat
Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images
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The Suns are unbeatable. T.J Warren is unstoppable. And the NBA is unapologetically fun.

Just another day in the NBA bubble.

Phoenix – already the NBA’s only undefeated team at Disney World – moved to 5-0 in seeding games with a 119-112 win over the Heat.

The Suns are still a half game outside play-in position with a tougher closing stretch than the ninth-place Trail Blazers.* But Phoenix sure is making the race interesting, and Portland isn’t closing the door.

*Both teams still play the 76ers and Mavericks. The Suns also play the Thunder. The Trail Blazers’ last seeding game is against the Nets.

Whether or not they make the playoffs, the Suns should absolutely be encouraged by this stretch. Unlike an early-season surge, when Aron Baynes and Ricky Rubio carried big loads, Phoenix’s young players are leading the charge now. Devin Booker scored 35 points tonight. Jevon Carter added 20 points on 6-of-8 3-point shooting off the bench. Deandre Ayton (18 points and 12 rebounds) continues to impress. Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson have steadily contributed at forward.

Expectations are rising for next season.

First, the Suns aren’t ready for this season to end soon.

All the best bubble stories were in Phoenix last season.

Pacers forward T.J. Warren – whom the Suns dumped with a draft-pick sweetener last summer – continued his scoring binge with 39 points in a 116-111 win over the Pacers.

Warren could always get buckets. But he has been on another level lately.

The Nuggets (somewhat safely in third place) and Jazz (who might prefer to finish sixth) had few obvious reasons to care about beating each other.

But then the game got going, and both teams’ competitive juices took over.

Donovan Mitchell drove for a layup to force overtime. Nikola Jokic converted inside to force double overtime. Finally, Jamal Murray – who scored 23 points in his first game of the resumption – put Denver up for good with a jumper then 3-pointer in a 134-132 victory.

Bubble games have featured such great energy and competitiveness.

Damian Lillard to Paul George on Instagram: ‘keep switching teams … running from the grind’

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Damian Lillard missed a pair of clutch free throws in the Trail Blazers’ loss to the Clippers today. Patrick Beverley and Paul George let Lillard hear about it. Lillard boasted in his post-game interview about his series-winning shots over Beverley’s Rockets in 2014 and George’s Thunder in 2019 (which literally came over George).

Now, the conflict has spilled onto Instagram.

Bleacher Report:

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Dame, PG and Pat Bev went at it in our comments 👀

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George:

And you getting sent home this year 🤣 respect✊

Beverley:

Cancun on 3😂😂😂

Lillard:

keep switching teams … running from the grind . You boys is chumps

George:

@damianlillard respect that too in my stint with my first team I had more success… Dame time running out g

George did lead the Pacers to Game 7 of the 2013 Eastern Conference finals, losing to the eventual-champion Heat. Indiana also pushed Miami to Game 6 in the 2014 Eastern Conference finals. George doesn’t get enough credit for those achievements.

Though Lillard’s Trail Blazers peaked in the 2019 Western Conference finals, they got swept by the team that lost in the NBA Finals.

But George forced his way out of Indiana despite that being the only place he could earn a super-max contract. He also re-signed with the Thunder, announcing his plan at a big party thrown by Russell Westbrook, then requested a trade to join Kawhi Leonard on the Clippers only a year later.

Lillard just has different sensibilities. He said he’d stick with the Trail Blazers rather than join a super team. Lillard even talked disparagingly about players who get pressured into bypassing super-max contracts in order to be viewed as a winner elsewhere.

So, this clash makes sense.

Maybe it got too personal for George, who has overcome major injury and returned even better. He surely doesn’t want to be called a chump at this point in his career.

But I disagree with George’s championships-only argument. There is plenty of room for major achievements that fall short of a title – like the Pacers’ deep playoff runs George cited. And Lillard’s series-winning shot last year. George was the casualty on that play. There’s no way around it, and it’s likely still a sore spot. That was a high-profile moment that supersedes missed free throws in a seeding game.

Lillard and George can go back-and-forth about their accomplishments. Both have done plenty in this league. Their individual routes to success show their contrasting values. Neither are wrong. They’re just different.

That’s perfectly fine and – when it leads to spats like this – fun.

Damian Lillard misses clutch FTs, Trail Blazers blow key game against Clippers backups

Damian Lillard vs. Clippers
Kim Klement-Pool/Getty Images
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The Clippers – maybe wanting to give the Lakers a tougher first-round matchup – showed their lack of interest in beating the Trail Blazers today by sitting Kawhi Leonard. Down five with two minutes left, the Clippers really waved the white flag by closing with a lineup of:

But that group ended the game on a 12-2 run to hand Portland a devastating 122-117 loss.

The Trail Blazers are now just half a game up for ninth in the Western Conference. This further opens the door for the Spurs, Pelicans, Suns and even Kings to make a play-in (and gives the Grizzlies more breathing room for advancing to that stage).

After McGruder hit the go-ahead 3-pointer with 26 seconds left, Damian Lillard drew a pair of free throws with Portland down one. Lillard is arguably the NBA’s most clutch player, and he had made 89% of his free throws this season. But he missed both – to the particular delight of injured Clippers guard Patrick Beverley:

Beverley and Lillard have a longstanding personal rivalry. The Clippers also have Paul George.

After the game, Lillard – who hit a series-winning shot against Beverley’s Rockets in 2014 and another series-winning shot over George, who was with the Thunder, last year – didn’t mince words.

Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports:

Lillard:

Asking me about Patrick Beverley, who – I sent him before at the end of a game. Paul George just got sent home by me last year in the playoffs. So, they know. The reason they’re reacting like that is because of what they expect from me, which is a sign of respect, and it just shows what I’ve done at a high clip more times than not. So, I’m not offended by it. If anything, it should just tell you how much it hurt them to go through what I put them through in those situations previously.

I love Lillard’s ability to remain calm and in control. Kudos for him for finding a way to boast after missing a pair of free throws that effectively cost his team a big game. Really. Lillard’s emotional maturity is an asset.

Expect the Trail Blazers to follow his lead and not further unravel. They can and probably should still be favored to reach the play-in.

But their margin for error definitely just shrunk.

76ers star Ben Simmons leaving bubble for surgery

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Ben Simmons injured his knee, and the 76ers didn’t hide their concerns.

This is serious.

Serena Winters of NBC Sports Philadelphia:

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Obviously, the surgery itself is a setback. If Simmons becomes healthy enough to return before Philadelphia gets eliminated, he could be required to quarantine in his hotel room – which would limit rehab and training.

And of course it will be difficult for Philadelphia to advance deep into the playoffs without Simmons.

There are even graver concerns beyond this season. Will Simmons now be more susceptible to future injuries? This could derail a budding championship contender with Joel Embiid and Simmons.

Embiid already has long-term health concerns. It was always uncertain how long Philadelphia’s window would remain open despite Embiid and Simmons being so young.

Even next season could be perilous. How long will Simmons take to recover? Next season could be right around the corner (or not). If the 76ers’ outlook looks worse – especially amid the economic downturn caused by coronavirus – they could no longer follow through on their plan to pay the luxury tax. Slashing payroll could further reduce the roster’s effectiveness.

Already, expectations shrink this season without Simmons. Philadelphia appears increasingly likely to land the No. 6 seed and a tough first-round series against the Celtics (rather than a spot in the 4-5 series against the Heat or Pacers).

Will these difficult circumstances give 76ers coach Brett Brown more leeway to keep his job? Or do they just make it more likely the 76ers lose early in the playoffs and fire him?

He has plenty of options for proceeding without Simmons. Simmons was a multi-positional star who spent most of the season at point guard but had been playing power forward in the bubble.

Without Simmons, Al Horford moved back into the starting lineup, and Mike Scott – who had been out with a knee injury – joined the rotation. Glenn Robinson III could also get an expanded role once he’s healthy.

Many sans-Simmons lineups could give Philadelphia more spacing around Embiid, which makes the star center even more dangerous.

But this loss of talent can’t be offset and significantly lowers the 76ers’ ceiling this season and maybe reduces their odds of reaching their ceiling in future seasons.