Channing Frye quietly playing leading role in Magic turnaround

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AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – When Channing Frye signed a four-year, $32 million contract the Magic in 2014 – the team’s most expensive free agent signing in years – he spoke with his cousin, Orlando forward Tobias Harris.

“He says, ‘We need what you do,'” Frye said. “I was like, ‘Well, I need you to do what you do for me to do what I do.'”

After arguably the worst season of Frye’s career, an offseason of the Magic reportedly trying to dump him and five DNP-CDs in this season’s first seven games… Frye and Orlando are finally giving each other exactly what they need.

Despite his modest per-game numbers – 5.9 points and 3.2 rebounds – Frye has made a remarkably positive impact on the Magic. In fact, one key statistic shows very few players have boosted their teams more.

The top 15 in Real-Plus Minus, which attempts to improve upon standard plus-minus by accounting for the other nine players on the floor:

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1. Russell Westbrook, 11.04

2. Stephen Curry, 10.3

3. Kawhi Leonard, 9.9

4. Draymond Green, 8.5

5. LeBron James, 8.43

6. Kyle Lowry, 7.44

7. Paul Millsap, 6.45

8. Kevin Durant, 6.39

9. DeAndre Jordan, 6

10. Chris Bosh, 5.49

11. Kevin Love, 5.41

12. Tim Duncan, 5.38

13. Channing Frye, 4.97

14. Chris Paul, 4.9

15. DeMarcus Cousins, 4.72

In other words, 14 potential All-Stars and Frye.

Nobody could credibly argue Frye is one of the NBA’s 15 best players, and that’s not what the stat claims. Rather, the point is that Frye fills his role better than nearly all players fill theirs. Bolstering the idea that this isn’t just noise in the numbers, Frye ranked 11th in Real Plus-Minus in 2013-14, his final season with the Suns.

So why did he dip to 245th last season?

I’d argue his team transformed around him more than he changed.

Two years ago, Phoenix was a talented squad led by two point guards who pushed the tempo and shared the ball. The Magic, dealing with a midseason coaching change from Jacque Vaughn to James Borrego, were a poor passing team last season. But this year’s edition moves the ball much better under Scott Skiles.

Plus, Frye’s young Orlando teammates have steadily developed. Harris, Nikola Vucevic, Evan Fournier and Elfrid Payton all look better than a season ago.

That has allowed Frye to become more selective than ever. His shots per 36 minutes (8.8) are a career low, and his effective field-goal percentage (61.2) is a career high.

Though still dangerous on the pick-and-roll, Frye often just spots up at the top of the key. He takes 71.6% from his shots from beyond the arc and makes them at 43.8% clip.

The effect? His teammates get 31.6% of their shots at the rim when he sits. That jumps to 37.9% when he plays.

“I like that a role a lot,” Frye said. “…I know what I’m doing is helping our team. My teammates, I know when they’re scoring, when they’re getting to the rack or they’re getting easy shots and not getting double-teamed, I know I’m doing my job.

“I’ve accepted who I am as a player.”

Asked who that is, Frye provides a scouting report:

  • “Skill player who’s going to space the floor”
  • “Positional defensive player”
  • “Average rebounder”

How many 6-foot-11 players would admit to being merely average rebounders? But that’s Frye. The most underrated trait in basketball is understanding your strengths and weaknesses and playing to them. Frye does that.

He’s also willing to improve at age 32.

Even when he wasn’t playing early this season, Frye said he didn’t resent Skiles, because the coach communicated well. So, when Skiles told Frye to become more aggressive defensively, Frye responded.

Never the most physical player – though underrated in that regard – Frye is using his long arms to steal the ball at a career-high rate. Also healthier than last season, when he sprained his MCL before the year even began, Frye is moving more fluidly. That allows him to better contest shots.

He seems to be helping Orlando on both ends of the floor.

The Magic were 6-8 when Skiles inserted Frye into the starting lineup for shooting guard Victor Oladipo, shifting a small lineup into a standard-sized one.

“With the way the team’s been the last few years, I can’t let two-, three-game losing streaks turn into five-, six-, seven-game losing streaks,” Skiles said. “I have to take action. It might not work, but I’ve got to do something.”

It worked.

Orlando has gone 13-8 since. Here’s the effect of moving Frye off the court to on this season (with league-wide equivalents in parentheses):

  • Offensive rating: 98.7 (28th) to 108.3 (3rd)
  • Defensive rating: 102.7 (17th) to 99.2 (8th)
  • Net rating: -4.0 (24th) to +9.1 (3rd)

Frye plays just 20.2 minutes per start. Only five players have started as much and averaged fewer minutes in those games.* That probably contributes to his sterling numbers in per-possession stats, like Real Plus-Minus. I’m not sure Frye could sustain this production, especially defensively, while handling significantly more playing time.

*Kevin Garnett (15.4), Noah Vonleh (16.3), Raul Neto (17.8), P.J. Hairston (18.4) and Timofey Mozgov (18.8)

But this is where the other reason the Magic signed him comes into play.

Though he calls “veteran leader” a “weird kind of term,” Frye is Orlando’s oldest and most-experienced player. And he acts like it.

“We’re supposed to be that new up-and-coming team,” said Frye, whose Magic (19-16) are tied for eighth in the East but just three games behind second place. “Teams are going to scout you. They’re going to make you do things you don’t want to do. They’re going to switch my screen-and-rolls. They’re not going to let Vuc go left all the time. So, for us, we have to adjust and accept this responsibility.”

Orlando has lost three straight, a stretch of three games in four days, entering tonight’s matchup with the sixth-place Pacers. Suggested the team might be fatigued, Frye scoffed.

“I’m not tired,” Frye said. “These young fellas better not be tired. We ain’t done nothing. We’ve played 34 games. Goodness gracious.”

If Frye sounds harsh publicly, he underlines it with encouragement behind the scenes.

“He’s always positive,” said Pistons forward Marcus Morris, who played with Frye in Phoenix said. “Channing’s a great dude.

“He’s an A1 guy in my book.”

Sounds like the perfect fit for the Magic, who were still rebuilding when they signed him.

“He’s good for any team,” Morris said. “He’s just a positive role model.”

That might be true off the court. But not every team would position Frye so well to succeed on it. The Magic have, and he’s trying to live up to their hopes for him as a “veteran leader,” even if he finds the term strange.

Of all the lessons he gives his younger teammates, Frye lists one above the rest:

“Embrace your role,” Frye said. “Embrace who  you are and then build off that.”

Scoot Henderson says he has skills to be No.1 pick but not hung up on it

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Scoot Henderson came out like a man on a mission Tuesday night against the Metropolitans 92 and Victor Wembanyama — he was in attack mode. He used his explosive athleticism to get to the rim, his impressive body control to get off good shots, and his strength to finish with authority. And if the defender played back, he would drain the jumper over him.

A year ago, Jaylen Brown called him the best 17-year-old he’d ever seen. Scoot is better than that now.

Many years, Henderson would be a clear No.1 overall pick. But, not this year, Wembanyama has that crown because he breaks the mold with his size and skill set (in the NBA, height still wins out).

Kevin O’Conner of The Ringer asked Henderson why he should be the top prospect and got a confident answer.

There will be a lot of people making the Henderson case this season — and with good reason. He could be a franchise cornerstone player for the next decade.

Henderson, however, is trying not to get hung up on No.1 vs. No.2.

There’s a long list of legendary players selected No.2: Bill Russell, Kevin Durant, Jerry West, Jason Kidd, and that is just the tip of the iceberg. Henderson can be one of them.

Unless Wembanyama’s medicals come back with red flags, he is destined to be the No.1 pick next June. That, however, will not be the end of Henderson’s story. Instead, it will be just the beginning.

Doc Rivers says he wants Harden to be ‘a scoring Magic Johnson’

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We’re not in Houston anymore.

James Harden in Philadelphia will not be chasing scoring titles and dominating the game in quite the same way. Instead, he’s been asked to be more of a facilitator — but not too much of one. Doc Rivers told the team at ESPN’s NBA Today he wants scoring to go with the facilitating. Just like one of the all-time greats.

“I think we’ve talked so much about him being a facilitator… I need him to be James Harden too. If I had to combine, I would say a scoring Magic Johnson, I don’t know, but that’s what I want him to be. I want him to be a James Harden, but in that, I want him to also be the facilitator of this basketball team too. So in a lot of ways, his role is growing bigger for our team, and I just want him to keep thinking, ‘Do both.'”

Just play like Magic, no pressure there. For his career, Magic averaged 19.5 points a game (with four over 20 PPG) with 11.2 assists.

Harden can get close enough to Rivers’ lofty goals to make Philly a real threat, so long as defenders still fear his first step and step back. Harden can get his shot and get to the line, and he’s long been a great passer who has averaged 10.5 assists a game over the past two seasons. Now it’s just a matter of finding the balance of when to set up Joel Embiid, when to turn the offense over to Tyrese Maxey, and when to get his own shot.

Philadelphia is a deep team poised to win a lot of regular season games — the Sixers being the top seed in the East is absolutely in play. The questions Harden — and, to a degree, Embiid — have to answer come in May, when the second round of the playoffs start and Harden has faded while Embiid has had poor injury luck. In a deep East with Milwaukee, Boston, and maybe Miami and Brooklyn in the contender mix, there is no margin for error.

A Magic-like Harden would be a big boost for the Sixers in that setting.

As he chases record, LeBron says he has ‘no relationship’ with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

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Later this season, health permitting, LeBron James will pass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the NBA’s all-time leading scorer.

Kareem has said LeBron has earned it, but also has called out LeBron on COVID issues (something Abdul-Jabbar apologized for). Have the two legends started to build a relationship as LeBron marches toward the record? Not so much.

“No thoughts, no relationship.”

This question was asked of LeBron days after Abdul-Jabbar slammed former LeBron teammate Kyrie Irving in a Substack newsletter, calling him a “comical buffoon” and saying he is a poor role model. Abdul-Jabbar has been a vocal proponent of getting the vaccine, Irving remains unvaccinated, and LeBron has posted on social media questioning the severity of the virus and the response. Plus, LeBron and Irving are friends, which could have sparked LeBron’s terse response (as could the fact he was ready to get out of the arena after a dull preseason game).

A week earlier at media day, LeBron had been kinder when discussing Abdul-Jabbar and chasing his record.

“And you know, obviously Kareem has had his differences, with some of my views and some of the things that I do. But listen, at the end of the day, to be able to be right in the same breath as a guy to wear the same [Lakers] uniform, a guy that was a staple of this franchise along with Magic and Big Game [James Worthy] over there for so many years, especially in the 80s, and a guy that does a lot off the floor as well,” LeBron said. “I think it’s just super duper dope for myself to be even in that conversation.”

Abdul-Jabbar has been more of a public persona in recent years, both around the game of basketball and discussing social justice issues through his writings. The NBA named its new social justice award after him. With that has come new relationships around the league.

One of those is not with LeBron. Will Abdul-Jabbar be in the building when LeBron does break the record?

We’ve got months for this relationship to evolve — if it does — before that big day.

 

Watch Zion Williamson score 13 in return to court for Pelicans

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Zion Williamson is back.

He certainly looked in better shape and flashed his insane explosiveness on his way to 13 points and four rebounds in 15 minutes Tuesday night against the Bulls, his first game after missing all of last season following foot surgery.

There was some rust, and the Pelicans are wisely bringing him along slowly and not breaking out the entire playbook for a preseason game, but in the moments we saw Zion looked like he was all the way back.

The questions now are can he sustain it, and how to the Pelicans mesh him with other scoring options in CJ McCollum and Brandon Ingram.

And maybe we shouldn’t leave rookie Dyson Daniels off that list, he looked good in his first NBA preseason game.

The Pelicans are one of the most intriguing teams this season, a team that made the playoffs last season with a push after McCollum arrived, and now they add the elite interior scoring and athleticism of Zion to Ingram’s outside shot and slashing, not to mention and a solid core of role players. This team has top six potential if it can get stops. But in a deep West, nothing will be easy.