Nikola Vucevic and Tobias Harris coming into their own for Magic

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BOSTON – Nikola Vucevic is more confident than ever and playing the best basketball of his life.

Perhaps, it’s because the Magic gave him a four-year, $54 million contract extension last offseason.

“It just kind of gives you a kind of peace of mind, to where you do what you do, and you don’t have to worry about those things,” Vucevic said. “I feel like I know that I put the summer in, the work in, and I know what I sacrificed to get to here. Now, when I get on the court, there’s no reason for me to doubt myself.”

On the flip side, Orlando failed to reach a deal with another rookie-extension-eligible player, Tobias Harris. If Vucevic’s extension made him comfortable, how did Harris not getting one affect him?

“I’m always going to work hard at anything I do just because I love this game,” Harris. “Ever since I was a kid playing basketball, I always just instilled the work ethic in myself to be the best that I can be, free agent or non-free agent.”

Vucevic confirms Harris’ mindset hasn’t changed. In fact, Vucevic has though the sacrifices Harris makes to improve are “sometimes even too much.”

“He wants to compete all the time,” Vucevic said. “Whatever you do, he has to be the best. When it comes to dressing up, the car you have, the music you listen to, whatever – Tobias, he has to be the best.”

So who has the team’s best car?

“I do,” said Vucevic, who declined to share what he drives.

Though Vucevic’s vehicle remains a mystery, here’s what’s clear: A confident Vucevic and competitive Harris are driving the Magic, and if they keep this up, they’ll deserve real All-Star consideration.

Orlando has repeatedly hit the right notes with these two. The Magic drafted neither Vucevic (No. 16 in 2011) nor Harris (drafted No. 19 the same year), acquiring both in trades. Vucevic came from the 76ers in the Dwight Howard megadeal, and Harris from the Bucks as the primary return for J.J. Redick. Whatever motivational factors Orlando had in mind when negotiating their contract extensions last offseason, Vucevic (18.2 points on 52.0 percent shooting and 11.8 rebounds per game) and Harris (18.6 points on 47.4 percent shooting and 7.2 rebounds per game) are having All-Star-type seasons.

Between six and eight frontcourt players will make each All-Star team. Vucevic and Harris rank fifth and sixth among Eastern Conference frontcourt players in Estimated Wins Added, a PER-based stat that accounts for playing time, behind only LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Al Jefferson and Chris Bosh.

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This is not to suggest Vucevic and Harris should make the All-Star game, merely that they’re reasonable candidates. Of course, it’s unlikely they’ll be treated as such – especially in tandem.

The Magic are 11-20. It’s hard enough for a losing team to send a player to the All-Star game, let alone two. In the last 30 years, just 11 teams with losing records at the All-Star break produced multiple All-Stars.

Team Record at All-Star break All-Stars
2012-13 LAL 25-29 Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard
2011-12 BOS 15-17 Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo
2007-08 WAS 25-27 Caron Butler, Antawn Jamison
2006-07 NJN 25-29 Vince Carter, Jason Kidd
2005-06 HOU 22-31 Tracy McGrady, Yao Ming
1996-97 MIN 23-25 Kevin Garnett, Tom Gugliotta
1994-95 DET 17-29 Joe Dumars, Grant Hill
1993-94 NJN 22-24 Kenny Anderson, Derrick Coleman
1992-93 GSW 23-30 Chris Mullin, Tim Hardaway
1992-93 DET 21-29 Joe Dumars, Isiah Thomas
1987-88 PHI 20-23 Charles Barkley, Maurice Cheeks

All those teams had better winning percentages than this year’s Magic. The last team with such a poor record and two All-Stars was the 1971-72 Cavaliers, who were 15-32 at the break and sent Butch Beard and John Johnson. Back then, the East had just eight teams from which to build an All-Star squad.

Now, with 15 teams per conference and an unofficial allocation of reserve votes based on team record, it’s a practical certainty Vucevic and Harris can’t both reach the All-Star game.

If one makes it – and that’s far from guaranteed – it will probably be Vucevic, whom Doc Rivers called an All-Star. The Clippers coach also described Vucevic as “probably the best player in the league that nobody knows.”

“When he says nobody knows me, it’s kind of true,” Vucevic said. “Not a lot of people knew about me before, but I’ve never been worried about it. I knew what I was capable of. I had the talent. I just had to keep working to sustain it and become good.”

Without question, Vucevic is good. The 7-foot center is an effective post player with range well outside the paint. He’s shooting 66.0 percent at the rim and 43.0 percent from mid-range. Only Anthony Davis tops both those marks (minimum: 100 shots from each location). Vucevic, though his feet still run a little slow and he’s not a great rim protector, is making defensive progress. For the first time, the Magic are allowing fewer points per possession with him on the court than off, though he’s always hovered around their team-wide mark.

Similarly, Harris is on the right track. He’s shooting 39.3 percent on 3-pointers, well above the 28.0 percent he was shooting beyond the arc entering this season. His increased range has opened the floor for himself and teammates, and he likes to advantage with well-timed cuts to the baskets. Playing more small forward this season after seeing a lot of time as a stretch four last season, Harris has really enhanced his all-around game.

The big question: If these guys are so good, why is Orlando so bad?

It’s a fair point.

To some degree, they’re putting up numbers on this team because someone has to. But imagine where the Magic would be without Vucevic and Harris. Orlando performs better when those two share the court than any of its other 10-most-used duos. And more directly, Harris has hit two game-winning jumpers.

Earlier this month against the Hawks:

 

 

And last month against the 76ers:

With Harris already holding a reputation for clutch play entering the season, a dearth of quality wings around the league and a rising salary cap looming, Harris will get plenty of attention this summer. Don’t be surprised if the annual salary on his next contract exceeds $10 million.

He’s reportedly interested in the Knicksplaying in New York would reportedly trigger a bonus in his Nike contract – but he’ll be a restricted free agent. The Magic can keep him, and he’s on record saying he wants to remain in Orlando.

If all else fails, Harris could accept the qualifying offer for next season and become an unrestricted free agent in 2016, when the salary cap should skyrocket. If Harris starts 17 more games or plays 1,121 more minutes this season, he’ll raise his qualifying offer from $3,394,726 to $4,433,683. It’s a small advantage, one Harris is likely to meet, but it’d nudges him a little closer to that route.

How much would the Magic pay to keep Harris? They have one of the league’s most egalitarian salary structures.

Channing Frye ($8,579,088) is the second-lowest-paid player among teams’ highest-paid players, behind only the 76ers’ Jason Richardson ($6,601,125). Victor Oladipo ($4,978,200) is the lowest-paid player among teams’ second-highest-paid players. Ben Gordon ($4.5 million) is the lowest-paid player among teams’ third-highest-paid players, behind only the 76ers’ Joel Embiid ($4,427,640).

And so on. The Magic’s fourth- (Aaron Gordon), fifth- (Vucevic), sixth- (Luke Ridnour) and seventh- (Elfrid Payton) lowest-paid players are the or among the lowest-paid in the league for their team rank. It’s telling that Orlando’s second- and fourth-highest paid players are still on their-rookie scale contracts.

What it means: The Magic still have incredible flexibility to shape their roster.

Their seven highest-paid players are all contract for next season. That’s when Vucevic’s big extension kicks in, and Frye is the only other Orlando player slated to make more Oladipo’s rookie-scale salary. Harris is the team’s eight-highest-paid player.

So, if the Magic think they’re onto something here – with a young core that also includes an emerging Oladipo and Evan Fournier – there’s little reason to let Harris bolt. Frye, the team’s veteran leader, sure believes they’re onto something with Vucevic and Harris.

“They’re developing as leaders on this team, as kind of the pillars of where we’re going to build this team,” Frye said. “And I’m cool with that. I’m very cool with that. And it’s an honor to play with these guys and watch them develop, and I think they’re both learning that they can’t do it by themselves and that with each other, we’re a very good team. We’re going to put it all on them.”

For now, both players are still trying to find their place in the league individually.

Vucevic, with the big extension and nice car, is a bit further along in that process. Even Harris, who said he drives a BMW M6, admitted Vucevic had the team’s top car – though not without his signature competitiveness showing in the answer.

“He does,” Harris allowed, “now. But – yeah he does.”

Told of Harris’ admission, Vucevic calmly nodded.

Vucevic’s confidence and Harris’ competitiveness are working for each player right now. Vucevic is proving why he got paid, and Harris is showing why he should get paid. In the process, the duo is driving the Magic in the right direction, and the next major stop might just be New York for the All-Star game.

Chris Paul says he wants to play at least 20 seasons

Thunder star Chris Paul
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CHICAGO – Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta was bellyaching about Chris Paul‘s contract (three years, $124,076,442 remaining). Houston traded two first-round picks and two first-round pick swaps just to go from Paul to Russell Westbrook. The Thunder appeared to prioritize the picks far more than Paul, whom they were reportedly willing to flip to his preferred destination.

A few months later, Paul was making big plays and berating officials in the All-Star game.

It’s quite the resurgence for the 34-year-old who’d missed the last three All-Star games.

Here are the oldest players ever to make an All-Star team after not being an All-Star the prior three seasons:

Chris Paul

Of the players older than Paul on that list, Dirk Nowitzki was placed into the All-Star game by the commissioner, and Michael Jordan came out of retirement after missing three seasons. Only Johnny Green kept grinding before breaking back through.

Feeling revitalized, Paul – in his 15th season – doesn’t sound anywhere near retirement.

“Especially the way that my body feels now, I definitely probably at least want to play at least 20 years,” Paul said.

That’s ambitious. Just seven players have played at least 20 NBA seasons:

  • Vince Carter (22)
  • Dirk Nowitzki (21)
  • Kevin Garnett (21)
  • Kevin Willis (21)
  • Robert Parish (21)
  • Kobe Bryant (20)
  • Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (20)

So much can go wrong this late into a player’s career.

But by raising his game, Paul gives himself more runway to decline and remain a viable NBA player. He at least has a chance, which is far more than most players can say at his age.

Kevin Garnett says first choice for 2007 trade was Kobe Bryant and Lakers

Celtics great Kevin Garnett and Lakers legend Kobe Bryant
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Kevin Garnett didn’t have a no-trade clause when the Timberwolves were shopping him in 2007. But because he could either sign an extension with his new team or opt out in 2008, Garnett had massive leverage over where he went. Effectively, he could swing whether it was worth a team’s while to deal for him.

Four primary suitors emerged: Celtics, Lakers, Suns and Warriors.

Garnett’s initial top choice? Joining Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles.

Garnett on All The Smoke:

I’m just being honest with everybody. I wanted to link with Kobe.

Kobe and I had a different connect. When Kobe-Shaq went on their little thing, a lot of people went with Shaq. A lot of people didn’t even f— with Kob. You know, Kob, whatever. One of the very few to just stay with him. I was a neutral guy, anyway. I show everybody love.

I tried to link with him, and I couldn’t get him on the line.

Garnett was working out at the time with Tyronn Lue, who was close with Bryant and encouraged Garnett to call back. Garnett did, but Bryant still didn’t return the call.

This only reinforces the notation that Bryant cost the Lakers stars. As singularly great as he was, Bryant just wasn’t about recruiting.

Bryant and Garnett would have been a fascinating pairing. They definitely had the talent to compete. Maybe the two notoriously intense stars would have meshed over a shared approach. Or maybe they would’ve driven each other crazy, a lack of balance between them.

The Lakers even had a trade framework in place involving Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom.

But Bryant’s unavailability created an opening for Boston.

Garnett:

Danny Ainge flew in, and he just got right to it and showed the vision, the vision he was seeing. You ever have somebody talk to you and as they’re talking to you, you can see what they’re seeing, so much that you’re not even looking at them no more but you see it? That’s how he was painting it. And he was a Picasso. And this is Danny Ainge’s greatness, in him being able to lure you in, his charming ass. You know what I’m saying? I didn’t even know he was finessing me.

Garnett told the Celtics to keep Rajon Rondo, who was apparently initially part of the package going to Minnesota. They did, and it worked out extremely well. Boston won the 2008 title – over Bryant’s Lakers. (The Lakers won the next two championships, including over the Celtics in the 2010 NBA Finals.)

What about Phoenix, which – featuring Steve Nash, Amar’e Stoudemire and Shawn Marion – was the best of the four teams at the time?

Garnett:

I actually called Steve Nash just as a courtesy, and I guess the call he hit me back with was, “Yo, if you come down here, we need you to take a major pay cut.” And I was like, “OK, if I come down there, I’m playing with you and Amar’e right?” He’s like, “Yeah, I think they’re going to give Amar’e up for you and Shawn.” And I said, “So, who is it going to be? Just me and you?”

As for Golden State, which – featuring All The Smoke hosts Stephen Jackson and Matt Barnes – had just pulled a historic upset of the top-seeded Mavericks:

I was seeing how y’all was, but I needed a superstar.

Report: John Paxson to remain in power with Bulls

Bulls executive John Paxson
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The Bulls are reportedly looking for a general manager to replace Gar Forman.

But the other half of GarPax – Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations John Paxson – apparently isn’t going anywhere. And of course neither is president/CEO Michael Reinsdorf, son of owner Jerry Reinsdorf.

Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times:

A source familiar with the situation told the Sun-Times on Wednesday that there could be multiple people hired, as the power structure is still being determined.

Paxson and Reinsdorf are still running the show, with Paxson still considered to have a valuable seat at the table no matter what title they come up for him.

Even if it appears that Paxson will be taking a background approach, the source said don’t believe it. The Reinsdorfs still have 100 percent faith in him leading the direction of this organization.

Evaluating individual members of a front office can be extremely difficult from the outside.

But Paxson didn’t cover himself in glory when he effectively declared the Bulls, after going 27-55 in 2017-18, were done tanking. Chicago went 22-60 last season and is 19-36 this season.

The Bulls need an honest assessment of where they are. They’re not good and probably not that close to being good. They have a few interesting young players – Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, Coby White and Wendell Carter Jr. But even with a high pick in this year’s draft, Chicago’s young core isn’t strong enough to assume it will rise into a quality team.

Though Paxson has supported Jim Boylen, the Bulls could probably use a new coach.

More importantly, they must understand that remaining at the bottom and securing more high picks is their best path forward. Drafting well would accelerate the process, but drafting is hard. Sometimes, you need more bites at the apple.

Of course, that will require a patience Chicago has rarely shown.

Knicks’ former player, G-League GM Allan Houston could get promotion

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There was a time when former Knicks All-Star player Allan Houston was seen as the rising front office star of the team. Since then, he has risen to assistant GM (before the Phil Jackson era), survived multiple management changes, and bounced around to different roles, most recently as the GM of the G-League Westchester Knicks.

Now he could be seeing a promotion under soon-to-arrive team president Leon Rose, according to Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News.

As Leon Rose prepares for his imminent takeover, Garden constant Allan Houston has emerged as a candidate for a front office promotion, a league source told the Daily News…

According to a source, Craig Robinson, the current Knicks’ vice president of player development, has already had his responsibilities cut. Robinson, who is Michelle Obama’s brother, was hired by his Princeton buddy Steve Mills to oversee a comprehensive player development initiative…

The future of GM Scott Perry is unknown but it’s worth noting he has a strong relationship with Rose’s confidante, William Wesley.

Nobody knows exactly what the Knicks front office will look like after Rose officially takes the reins (he is still finishing up commitments to his CAA clients before coming over). We know William “World Wide Wes” Wesley will not have a role with the team, staying with CAA, but he will likely still have Rose’s ear. There will be a host of changes.

A deep house cleaning is in order in New York as the Knicks need to change their culture, not just their players. There is a lot of work to be done to develop players and build a foundation that will attract star players — right now the Knicks are not that kind of draw.  Houston apparently is going to get a chance to be part of whatever is next.