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.

Mike Budenholzer no fan of Drake’s free run on Toronto sideline

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Drake is the Mayor of Toronto.

Actually, he does fewer drugs than some former mayors of Toronto, and Drake was not elected, but he’s The Mayor in any meaningful way. The man can do whatever he wants.

Such as walk up and down the sidelines of a Raptors game with impunity, and give Nick Nurse a massage during the game.

Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer has much bigger things to worry about — such as were Eric Bledsoe misplaced his shot — but somehow during his conference call with the media on Wednesday, before a critical Game 5, Drake was the topic of discussion. Budenholzer is not a fan of Drake getting to patrol the sidelines. Via ESPN:

“I will say, again, I see [Drake talking to Raptors] in some timeouts, but I don’t know of any person that’s attending the game that isn’t a participant in the game a coach,  I’m sorry, a player or a coach, that has access to the court. I don’t know how much he’s on the court. It sounds like you guys are saying it’s more than I realize. There’s certainly no place for fans and, you know, whatever it is exactly that Drake is for the Toronto Raptors. You know, to be on the court, there’s boundaries and lines for a reason, and like I said, the league is usually pretty good at being on top of stuff like that.”

My guess is the league (and maybe the referees before Game 6 in Toronto) will reach out to Drake and tell him he can’t go Joe Biden on a coach during the game, and to stay near his seat. This is precisely the kind of distraction from the game that fans love to talk about and annoys the league office, which wants the focus on the court.

Personally, the more personality around the game, the better. It’s entertainment people, enjoy the show.

Knicks president Mills says Porzingis threatened to return to Europe if not traded in seven days

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If you thought the Knicks thrashing or Kristaps Porzingis on his way out the door was over, well, you haven’t been paying attention to the Knicks.

Team president Steve Mills was at a Knicks fan forum on Wednesday and was asked about the Kristaps Porzingis trade and dropped this bomb: Porzingis gave the Knicks the ultimatum of “trade me or I’m going back to Europe.”

“When he walked into our office, my office, and Scott [Perry, Knicks GM] was sitting there with me, and point blank said to us, ‘I don’t want to be here, I’m not going to re-sign with the Knicks, and I’ll give you seven days to try and trade me or I’m going back to Europe.'”

To be clear, Porzingis had to mean going back to Europe to work out and hang out, he could not have played professionally. European clubs honor commitments to NBA contracts — they will not sign and play a guy under an NBA contract — the same way the NBA does with European clubs (as well as China and all FIBA leagues).

Saying he wasn’t going to re-sign makes things clear, it’s one of the reasons the NBA touted the “super-max” contract extensions because teams would find out earlier about player intentions. The Europe part, if Porzingis really said that, is a toothless threat.

For the Knicks brass, speaking in front of Knicks fans, this was the chance to make themselves look good — “see, we already had a good trade in place” — and thrash the guy they had been selling as the franchise savior a year before. It’s all about perception.

The Knicks have a lot of cap space this summer and their perception as a front office will hinge on what they do — or do not do — with it.

Porzingis landed in a good spot with Luka Doncic in Dallas, and the Mavericks will give Porzingis a max contract. Then it’s on him to earn it.

New Suns coach Monty Williams: ‘I’m here at the right time, and I’m here with the right people’

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PHOENIX (AP) The Phoenix Suns have gone through coaches like tear-away racing visors, the count up to five in five years.

The instability has hurt them on the court, the run of playoff-less appearances stretching to nine straight seasons with this year’s 19-63 finish.

Monty Williams, the man GM James Jones hired to coach the Suns, hopes to change the trend.

“Continuity, having a staff here for a while and putting in a system that the players can rely upon, but ultimately it will come down to James, myself and the players pushing this thing forward,” Williams said during his introductory news conference Tuesday. “The players are going to have to embrace a level of work and commitment that it takes to be a champion.”

Williams was hired on May 3 to replace Igor Kokoskov, who was fired after one season in the desert.

Williams’s arrival in Phoenix was delayed while he finished out the playoffs as an assistant to Philadelphia coach Brett Brown. The 76ers were eliminated from the playoffs last week by Toronto on Kawhi Leonard‘s hang-on-the-rim buzzer-beater in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Williams’ name had been linked to numerous head coaching jobs, including the Lakers, but he wound up in the Valley of the Sun after multiple discussions with Suns owner Robert Sarver.

“In my conversations with Mr. Sarver, I saw someone who didn’t duck the tough questions,” Williams said. “We both had tough questions for each other and in this day and age where people throw each other under the bus, make excuses, blame, I didn’t see that. I saw a man who really wants to bring success to this city and I mean that with all of my heart or I wouldn’t have come here.”

Williams had a previous stint as an NBA head coach, leading New Orleans from 2010-15. A year after he was fired, Williams’ wife, Ingrid, was killed in a car crash.

He didn’t know if he wanted to get back into coaching after her death, but was pushed by his kids to return to coaching the sport he loves.

“When everything happened to my family, my focus was just take care of my children,” said Williams, who has remarried. “That led me to believe I might not ever be able to coach again, and I was cool with that. But they weren’t. And to have your children want you to go back to doing what you love to do gave me even more confidence, more strength. Hopefully that translates and the players can pick up on that.”

The Suns have been known as a dysfunctional franchise, but were lauded for landing Williams, a well-respected, well-rounded coach.

Williams played nine NBA seasons with New York, San Antonio, Denver, Orlando and Philadelphia. He’s been a head coach, an assistant and spent two years in San Antonio’s front office.

“His experience in all facets of basketball as a coach, player development on the offensive side of the ball and the defensive side of the ball, in the front office gives him a unique perspective that I think is well suited for our franchise,” Jones said.

In the Suns, Williams takes over a young team with two star-quality players at its core: Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton.

Booker has developed into one of the NBA’s best scorers, leading the Suns with 26.6 points per game. He had five 40-point games the final month of the season, including 50 and 59 in consecutive games.

Ayton was the No. 1 overall pick in last year’s NBA draft and didn’t disappoint, shooting 59% while averaging 16.3 points and 10.3 rebounds.

Phoenix should add to its talent base with the sixth overall pick in this year’s draft.

“There’s so much room to grow,” Williams said. “I think we have a young team that’s learning how to win and they will and I have to do my job. I have to enhance the strengths but be honest about our weaknesses and get the players to consider a new way of doing some things. I think I’m here at the right time and I’m here with the right people.”

Hornets’ Miles Bridges on All-Rookie: ‘I didn’t get snubbed. I played like a— all year’

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The NBA released its All-Rookie teams yesterday. Hornets forward Miles Bridges missed out, getting only one first-team vote and four second-team votes.

Bridges:

I love this attitude. Bridges didn’t deserve to make it. It’s silly to for anyone, including him, to pretend otherwise.

He’s obviously being too hard on himself. He had an OK rookie year. It just wasn’t one of the NBA’s 10 best this season.

Players often hold inflated opinions of themselves. That might help them succeed in a high-pressure job, and that’s obviously their priority. To be clear: I’m not criticizing them for adopting an approach that helped them reach this high level. But it leaves them as lousy analysts of their own performance.

Bridges doesn’t have that problem. It’s easy to see how this will drive him to improve.

His humility won’t work for everyone. But it works for him, and it’s a refreshing change of pace.