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.

Kings forward Harrison Barnes tests positive for coronavirus

Kings forward Harrison Barnes
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The Kings have been hit especially hard by coronavirus.

Buddy Hield, Jabari Parker and Alex Len all tested positive. Richaun Holmes is quarantined after violating the NBA’s bubble protocols at Disney World.

And now Harrison Barnes reveals he was diagnosed with coronavirus.

Harrison Barnes:

Presumably, Barnes was among the 19 players the NBA announced tested positive for coronavirus in July in home markets.

“Primarily asymptomatic” is a strange assessment. Does Barnes mean he’s mildly symptomatic?

The Kings already faced an uphill climb for making the playoffs. At best, several of their players are falling behind in training. At worst, Sacramento will have its rotation depleted when games begin.

Hopefully, Barnes recovers and joins the team as he hopes. He has a personal stake in it. Even during the lengthy hiatus, Barnes stuck with his pledge not to shave or cut his hair until the Kings reach .500 (or, as he amended it, make the playoffs) or the season ends.

Report: Pacers star Victor Oladipo’s remaining salary in dispute

Pacers star Victor Oladipo
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Among the continuing 22 NBA teams, players not playing in the resumption at Disney World essentially fall into two categories:

Pacers star Victor Oladipo lands in the gray area.

Oladipo, who returned from a year-long absence shortly before the season got suspended in March, said he was sitting out due to elevated risk of injury during a quick buildup. But he also traveled with the team to Orlando and is even practicing so well, Indiana is reportedly becoming increasingly optimistic he’ll play.

Is Oladipo healthy enough to play?

At stake for Oladipo:

  • $2,763,158 if the Pacers get swept in the first round
  • $2,993,421 if they play exactly five playoff games
  • $3,223,684 if they play six or more playoff games

Brian Windhorst of ESPN:

The union believes Oladipo, who went to Orlando with the Pacers and then cleared quarantine so he could practice, should be paid his remaining salary, sources said.

The league, largely in an effort to set a precedent in case other players who are deemed healthy want to leave Orlando and no longer play, believes Oladipo has opted out and should not be paid, sources said. His public comments about feeling healthy has only solidified the league’s position on the matter, sources said.

The Pacers support Oladipo’s decision and are willing to pay him the salary whether he plays or not, sources said.

Presumably, if Oladipo plays, he’ll get paid like anyone else playing in the resumption. This controversy lingers only if Oladipo doesn’t play.

It’s unsurprising the Pacers don’t want to pick this fight with their star player, especially as he approaches 2021 free agency. Trying to avoid alienating their own players but not necessarily eager to pay for services not rendered, teams collectively want the league to handle these issues.

If teams had ample discretion, the Wizards might have said Davis Bertans – who chose to sit out – had some lingering injury. NBA players are rarely perfectly healthy. There’s always some physical issue to point to. Bertans will be an unrestricted free agent this offseason, and they want to re-sign him. What an easy way to build goodwill – and maybe even get a discount on Bertans’ next contract.

Obviously, the league doesn’t want those type of shenanigans. That’s why on outside rulings on players’ health can be important.

Oladipo might not be the only borderline case:

Oladipo’s situation might take care of itself if he decides to play. But the league might inquire more deeply into other situations.

Report: Rockets star James Harden ‘feeling fine,’ might travel with Russell Westbrook

Rockets stars James Harden and Russell Westbrook
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When Russell Westbrook revealed he had coronavirus, speculation immediately turned to the Rockets’ other star who also didn’t travel with the team to Disney World.

James Harden is “feeling fine,” working out and might travel with Westbrook to Orlando, according to Shams Charania of Stadium:

Was Harden also diagnosed with coronavirus? Is he just waiting for his friend before entering the restrictive bubble? Is there another issue?

These questions beget even more questions.

If both players have coronavirus, they won’t necessarily recover on the same day. Would the first to get cleared wait for the other? Or is traveling together just an idea in case it works out?

If Harden is fully healthy and just waiting for Westbrook, how do their teammates inside the bubble feel about that? Those already at Disney World are spending more time away from friends and family in less-than-ideal conditions.

If there’s another issue… who knows?

The lack of transparency around the situation only invites rumors and guesses.

At least it’s good news that Harden feels fine.

Bucks GM not worried about other players recruiting Giannis Antetokounmpo inside bubble

Giannis Antetokounmpo
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Already reports are leaking out of the NBA restart bubble of players from different teams mingling, talking, hanging out together some. There will inevitably be some tampering (which goes on between players whether they are in the quarantine bubble or not).

All eyes are on Giannis Antetokounmpo, who is eligible for a supermax extension this summer, one the Bucks are going to offer him the minute they can (how much that is worth will depend on where the salary cap lands). Most people around the league expect he signs the deal, but if not rumors will fly. In the bubble, some players may try to plant the “come play with us” seed in his head.

Buck GM Jon Horst said he can’t worry about that. Via Eric Woodyard of ESPN:

“Zero [worries]. We can only control what we can control. If it’s considered tampering or recruiting or whatever it is, in our league people talk, people are connected, people have relationships,” said Bucks GM Jon Horst. “At the end of the day, I have full confidence in my personal relationship, our league’s relationship, our coach’s relationship, his teammate’s relationship with Giannis in what we’re doing and what we’re about.

“I think that separated us and we’re going to continue to be above that and not worry about that. We can only worry about what we can control, to be the best that we can, to have the best organization of support and success as possible, and that’s really where our energy and our focus is. Also, just as a funny kind of side note, I think that technically violates the social distancing rules and I think everyone is getting tracked for that, so I think we’ll be OK that way as well.”

I’m not sure how much players are sticking to the social distancing rules — they don’t have to wear the proximity alarms that team staff, media, and others do — but it doesn’t matter.

What happens in the playoffs could impact Antetokounmpo’s decision, but in the end he is expected to stay with the Bucks — they can offer the most money, they are a contending team, and Milwaukee is the only home he has known in the United States. It’s where his family is, where his child lives. That said, Antetokounmpo has played this close to the vest, not talking about his intentions.

That said, he knows what he wants. Nobody is going to say anything in the bubble to sway Antetokounmpo’s mind.