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.

Ben Simmons makes his first-ever NBA three pointer. Finally.

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Three seasons, 193 games, and 18 missed shots (if you add in his playoff stats). Sixers nation was not sure they would ever witness this day, but it has happened:

Ben Simmons has made his first NBA three.

We’ve all seen the videos of him hitting threes in an empty gym, he’s been working on it, but that’s a lot different from taking and making in rhythm in a game.

This was Simmons’ first attempt at a three all season — he’s going to have to take a lot more before teams start to respect him out there. But it’s a start.

Potential No. 1 pick James Wiseman suspended by NCAA 11 more games

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Starting on Jan. 12, James Wiseman can return to playing for the University of Memphis.

The NCAA — the self-appointed arbiters protecting the myth of amateurism — have investigated the fact that then high school coach Penny Hardaway, paid $11,500 to help Wiseman’s family move to Memphis. Hardaway, a graduate of Memphis, has since become the coach of the Tigers, and before that was considered a booster. That made helping Wiseman move an illegal benefit, and the NCAA has made its ruling to punish Wiseman for this.

Memphis reportedly plans to appeal the ruling. Wiseman had this reaction to the decision:

Here’s why fans of certain teams near the bottom of the standings — and the front offices of those teams — care: Wiseman has the potential to be elite.

He could be the top pick in next June’s draft and is a lock top-three selection. He is by far the best big man in a guard-heavy draft class coming up.

Wiseman was ranked 37th by the basketball writers here at NBC in our “50 Best Players in Five Years” project this past summer. Here is what College Basketball Talk’s Rob Dauster wrote about Wiseman for that project:

Wiseman has a chance to be really good. He stands 7-foot. He has the kind of length, mobility and athleticism that should allow him to thrive at the five in the modern NBA. He is a capable defender with the potential to be very, very good with some added strength and a bit of motivation. And he is skilled enough where he has the potential of one day doing all four things modern fives are asked to do – protect the rim, switch ball-screens, space the floor to the three-point line, be a lob target as a roll-man in ball-screens…

If Wiseman embraces the fact that he can be a top five center in the NBA doing the four things I listed above at an elite level, then he’ll make himself a lot of money while making some NBA GM very, very happy.

Wiseman also has worked on a face-up game and wants to add some Greek Freak like skills to his game. We’ll see how that goes, but his floor seems to be a very good NBA big man. A lot of teams could use that.

Rob Gronkowski, Venus Williams dance with Laker Girls (video)

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Former New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski said he doesn’t plan to play football this season.

How is he spending his time?

Dancing with the Laker Girls cheerleaders along with tennis legend Venus Williams. They put on quite a show. I’m sure comedians James Corden and Ian Karmel, mostly off camera, were also great.

But the most-impressive stoppage entertainment in Los Angeles last night? That might be Maxx.

Portland waives Pau Gasol as he tries to recover from foot surgery

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Portland signed Pau Gasol to a one-year contract this summer, hoping the aging Spaniard could help the team stay afloat while Jusuf Nurkic recovers from surgery on his leg.

It didn’t work out that way. Gasol suffered a foot injury that required surgery and he has yet to recover enough to get back on the court. Meanwhile, an injury to Zach Collins left Portland even more shorthanded up front. Wednesday, the Trail Blazers waived Gasol, something the player confirmed.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN broke the news and had more details.

Is this the end of Gasol’s Hall of Fame career? He’s 39 years old, and last season with the Bucks he looked like a shell of the All-NBA big man who joined forces with Kobe Bryant to win the Lakers a couple of titles. Injuries limited him to 30 games last season, he doesn’t move like he once did, and he averaged a career-low 3.9 points per game.

If so, one of the good guys of the NBA will be missed.

If not, if he can get healthy, some teams certainly would be interested in having him for depth and his locker room presence during a playoff run.