51Q: Is Scott Skiles, typical player development enough to satisfy Magic?

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The Magic were likely to get better this season no matter whom they hired as coach.

Orlando had an average age – weighted by playing time, holding someone’s age constant as of Feb. 1 – of 24.3 last season. In the previous decade, 86% of teams with an average age below 25 improved the following year.

It’s just hard to keep a young team down.

Young players improve. Young players are typically bad, helping their team add talent through the draft. Young players typically make less money, leaving their team cap space to add depth.

The Magic fit that model perfectly.

They should get internal improvement from Nikola Vucevic (24), Victor Oladipo (23), Tobias Harris (23), Evan Fournier (22), Elfrid Payton (21) and Aaron Gordon (20). They drafted Mario Hezonja No. 5. They splurged a little in free agency on C.J. Watson and Jason Smith after giving Channing Frye a lucrative contract the previous summer.

They also hired Scott Skiles.

Skiles is a hard-driving, defensive-minded disciplinarian who produces immediate results. Twice, he has taken over losing teams.

The Bulls promoted him midway through a 23-59 season in 2003-04. The next year, they went 47-35.

The Bucks went 26-56 in 2007-08. Then they hired hired Skiles and went 34-58.

He gets players to play hard and focus on defense, a simple path to a turnaround. His tight style might produce a lower ceiling – his best record is 51-31 with the 2000-01 Suns – but his methods raise the floor. Skiles’ worst full season is 34-48 – better than the Magic’s 25-57 last year.

Put it all together – the internal development, Hezonja, the rotation-level veterans, Skiles – and I absolutely expect Orlando to improve this season.

But will it be enough to satisfy the team’s brass?

Magic general manager Rob Hennigan, via Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel:

“Last year, our hope was to turn the corner,” general manager Rob Hennigan said. “This year, we expect to turn a corner. Our goal is to make the playoffs, and our expectation is that we’ll compete for a playoff spot throughout the entire season. It’s important for us to be playing games that matter at the end of the season. We expect to be in the mix.”

The Magic, who’ve missed the playoffs the last three years, have talked a lot about winning now. Their actions have been mixed, making it difficult to determine just how patient they really are.

The bar to make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference is low, and the Magic could clear it. I expect them to fall a little short, but it’s nowhere near impossible.

A postseason berth would unquestionably be a quality year for Orlando. Likewise, notching fewer than last season’s 25 wins would be problematic.

But if the Magic fall between those outcomes – which is most likely – will that be enough to keep the front office happy?

Skiles and crew will probably have to land closer to the playoff side of that scale. Can they do it?

Donovan says Lonzo Ball’s recovery has ‘been really slow’

Milwaukee Bucks v Chicago Bulls
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Watching the finger-pointing and heated moments between Bulls’ defenders on Wednesday night as Devin Booker carved them up to the tune of 51 points, one thought was how much they miss Lonzo Ball‘s defense at the point of attack.

Ball had a second surgery on his knee back in September and the team said he would be out at “least a few months.” It’s coming up on a few months, so Donovan gave an update on Ball and his recovery, and the news was not good for Bulls’ fans. Via Rob Schaefer at NBC Sports Chicago:

“It’s been really slow,” Donovan said when asked about Ball’s rehab. “I’m just being honest.”

Donovan added Ball has not necessarily suffered a setback. The Bulls knew this would be an arduous process. But he also noted that Ball is “not even close” to being cleared for contact or on-court work.

Ball had his first knee surgery in January and the expectation was he would be back and 100% by the playoffs. However, Ball’s knee didn’t respond well, and he was eventually ruled out for the season. Things didn’t improve over the summer, which led to the second surgery. How much do they miss him? The Bulls were 22-13 with him last season, and he averaged 13.1 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 5.1 assists, a game. However, it was his defense that was most crucial.

There is no timeline for his return. Which is not good news for Chicago.

PBT Podcast: Timberwolves without KAT, get Luka some help

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Minnesota has stumbled out of the gate this season, and now they will be without Karl-Anthony Towns for around a month with a calf strain. Just how much trouble are the Timberwolves in?

Corey Robinson from NBC Sports and myself discuss that and then get into Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s Team USA vs. Team World matchup — does Evan Fournier get the world team in trouble? Who guards whom?

From there, it’s time for Corey’s Jukebox and some New Orleans jazz for Zion Williamson. Some Mavericks’ talk follows that — Dallas has put a big load on the shoulders of Luka Doncic, and while he’s playing like an MVP it’s a long-term concern for the Mavericks and their fans.

You can always watch the video of some of the podcast above, or listen to the entire podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google Play, or anywhere else you get your podcasts.

We want your questions for future podcasts, and your comments, so please feel free to email us at PBTpodcast@gmail.com.

LeBron calls out reporters for asking him about Kyrie Irving but not Jerry Jones

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Within days of Kyrie Irving being suspended by the Nets in the wake of a Tweet promoting an antisemitic film (and his initial refusal to apologize for it), Irving’s former teammate LeBron James was asked about it. He had to deal with the controversy, saying, “I don’t condone any hate to any kind. To any race.”

At the end of his press conference Wednesday night after the Lakers beat the Trail Blazers, LeBron scolded the assembled press for not asking him about the 1957 photo that surfaced of Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones outside North Little Rock High School while white students protested the integration of the school when they had been quick to ask about Irving.

“When I watched Kyrie talk, and he says, `I know who I am, but I want to keep the same energy when we’re talking about my people and the things they’ve been through,’ and that Jerry Jones photo is one of those moments that our people, Black people, have been through in America. And I feel like as a Black man, as a Black athlete, someone with power and with a platform, when we do something wrong or something that people don’t agree with, it’s on every single tabloid, every single news coverage. It’s on the bottom ticker. It’s asked about every single day.

“But it seems like to me that the whole Jerry Jones situation, the photo, and I know it was years and years ago, and we all make mistakes, I get it. It seems like it’s just been buried under, like, `Oh, it happened. OK. We just move on.’ And I was just kind of disappointed that I haven’t received that question from you guys.”

Irving and LeBron were teammates in Cleveland and won a ring together, there was a direct connection (plus Irving had been linked to the Lakers in trade rumors over the summer).

However, there was a connection between LeBron and the Cowboys as well. LeBron was for many years a very public Cowboys fan (despite growing up in Browns territory). It came up as recently as October, when LeBron was on Instagram Live promoting his HBO show with Maverick Carter “The Shop” and he said he had stopped rooting for the Cowboys in the wake of Colin Kaepernick’s peaceful protests, “There’s just a lot of things that were going on when guys were kneeling. Guys were having freedom of speech and wanting to do it in a very peaceful manner…. The organization was like, ‘If you do that around here, then you will never play for this franchise again.’ I just didn’t think that was appropriate.”

When asked about the photo, Jones said he was a curious 14-year-old who was watching and didn’t understand the magnitude of the moment or situation.

Watch Russell Westbrook drain two buzzer-beaters against Blazers

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The Portland Trail Blazers had to know it was not their night when Russell Westbrook knocked down a buzzer-beating step-back 3-pointer just before the half.

Westbrook wasn’t done, he had one more buzzer-beater in him at the end of the third.

Westbrook wasn’t the only guy in the building draining half-courters — for the second-straight game a Laker fan knocked down a half-court shot, this time to win $25,000.

It was a good night all around for the Lakers and their fans at home against the shorthanded Trail Blazers. They got 31 points from LeBron James, plus 27 points and 12 boards from Anthony Davis. Austin Reaves added in 22, and the Lakers took control in the third and cruised in for a needed win.