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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.”

Western Conference, NBA Finals predictions: Is another title coming to Los Angeles?

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The NBA season tips-off tonight night, which leaves us time for one last thing:

Our Western Conference and NBA Finals predictions.

We’ve run through some postseason awards — MVP, Rookie of the Year, Coach of the Year, Sixth Man of the Year — and yesterday we laid out who we thought would win the East. Today we stick our neck out and make our predictions on how the Western Conference will shake out.

As a disclaimer, we get it: making NBA preseason awards predictions is like nailing Jell-O to a tree. We’ll be wrong. But it’s fun, so the NBA staff here at NBC is making our picks.

THE WESTERN CONFERENCE

Kurt Helin
1. Denver
2. Utah
3. L.A. Clippers
4. Houston
5. L.A.Lakers
6. Portland
7. Golden State
8. San Antonio
Western Conference Finals: L.A. Clippers over L.A. Lakers.
NBA Finals: L.A. Clippers over Philadelphia

I’ve never gone into a season less confident in my predictions. For example, I think Dallas has a very good shot at the eight seed (maybe Sacramento, too), but I simply cannot pick against the Spurs. The order of these teams could easily shift, the West will be so close that just losing a star for a few weeks to a sprained ankle could dramatically change a team’s seeding. I’m comfortable that systems and continuity will keep Denver and Utah at the top of the regular season standings, but the playoffs will feel completely different. The Los Angeles teams are better built for the postseason than anyone else (although I think Utah has a chance to crash the party). I trust the depth and the wing defense of the Clippers more than the Lakers, so Doc Rivers will get back to playing in June. For the Finals, I’ll take the Clippers over the Sixers, but I don’t say that with a lot of confidence.

Dan Feldman:

1. Houston
2. Denver
3. L.A. Clippers
4. L.A. Lakers
5. Utah
6. Portland
7. Golden State
8. Dallas
Western Conference Finals: L.A. Clippers over L.A. Lakers.
NBA Finals: L.A. Clippers over Milwaukee

There’s a rare divergence between teams prepared for the regular season and teams prepared for the playoffs, which makes this prediction difficult enough. Adding to the complications: The West is so deep, leaving few postseason locks. For some teams, a few moderate breaks in either direction could make the difference between making the Western Conference finals and missing the playoffs entirely.

The last playoff spot was an extremely tough call between the Mavericks and Spurs. The Kings weren’t that far behind, either. Kawhi Leonard just showed an ability to get through the regular season and bring elite production to a deep postseason run. LeBron James has done it the previous several years. That’s why the Clippers and Lakers get so much benefit of the doubt. The Lakers’ Anthony Davis is a better second star than the Clippers’ Paul George, but I have more trust in the Clippers’ depth — from the front office to the coaching staff to other players.

Dane Delgado:
Western Conference Finals: L.A. Clippers over L.A. Lakers.

Everyone is picking the Los Angeles Clippers in the Western Conference, and for good reason. This is not just a team that lumped together several superstars trying to make a playoff push. This time around, it’s a bit different. Los Angeles was already a solid team before both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George arrived and their most important players from last year — Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell, Patrick Beverley — are all back. Doc Rivers, whose reputation as a coach was in question heading into last season, has solidified is legacy simply by what he could squeeze out of this the Clippers team last season. If L.A. can make it to the Western Conference Finals this year, it would not surprise anyone. The real question will be health. Leonard has shown he is willing to battle through various ailments to perform on the highest stage, but George’s shoulders are a real concern. Still, if you were placing bets on the best team in the west, it makes sense to go with the team that’s been able to stay intact while at the same time adding to generational superstars. It may be a bridge too far to pick the Clippers to win the NBA championship in 2020, but it’d be a safe move at this juncture to slot them in as the West champs.

Michael Jordan says Stephen Curry is not a Hall of Famer, yet

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Three-time NBA Champion. Two-time MVP. Six-time All-NBA. Six-time All-Star. Scoring champion. And the best pure shooter the game has ever seen, a player whose style helped revolutionize the way the game is played. A player idolized and imitated by youth on blacktop courts around the globe.

Even if he quit the sport today and walked away, Stephen Curry is a lock first-ballot Hall of Famer…

Unless you ask Michael Jordan.

Jordan just did a few interviews around the opening of a medical clinic he paid for in Charlotte to help the underserved, and Hoops & Brews caught this gem in Jordan’s interview on NBC’s The Today Show (h/t Bleacher Report).

Yes, he is.

Technically Curry can’t be let into the club until five years after he retires, and at age 31 he’s got a few more good years in him — including this one, where he could have an MVP-level season. However, in practical terms, he is in. It’s not close. Done deal. Move along, nothing to see here.

It’s good the NBA games are starting because we need things to talk about other than this silliness.

 

Charlotte GM Mitch Kupchak: Hornets won’t build through free agency

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Mitch Kupchak doesn’t see the Charlotte Hornets being major players in free agency as they attempt to build a winning franchise in the post-Kemba Walker era – at least not right away.

Instead, the second-year general manager said Monday he anticipates the Hornets will construct the roster through draft picks and “savvy trades” during the season, while compiling as many assets as possible.

“We will not be an active player” in free agency, Kupchak said. “I think we can build a culture here and get enough assets and have a promising enough future and really attract the kind of free agent you want to spend that kind of money on – but I don’t think you can do it right now.”

So in the meantime, the Hornets will give young players like Dwayne Bacon, Miles Bridges, Malik Monk, Devonte Graham and even rookie PJ Washington extensive playing time this season as part of their No. 1 overall goal of player development after going 39-43 last season and losing Walker, a three-time All-Star, to the Boston Celtics.

Kupchak said that will take patience, but he and owner Michael Jordan and coach James Borrego are on the same page.

Kupchak said he won’t measure this season’s success in terms of wins and losses, but rather on how the team’s younger players continue to progress.

“Win or lose, I want our players to play with energy and our coaches to coach with energy,” Kupchak said. “As the season goes on I want to see improvement. That’s how I’m looking at the season.”

Kupchak said that concept may not be easy for Borrego.

“I am hoping he is better than he was last season,” Kupchak said with a grin. “At the beginning of the season last year he took each loss really, really hard. Hopefully this year he will be able to handle the losses a little bit better.”

Borrego has yet to name a starting lineup for Wednesday night’s home opener against the Chicago Bulls. Point guard Terry Rozier and center Cody Zeller are locks to start, but the combination of the other three remains a mystery.

That lineup could include Washington, who has impressed Kupchak with his 3-point shooting in the preseason since being selected No. 12 overall earlier this year.

Originally, the Hornets planned for the former Kentucky forward to split time between Charlotte’s G League team and the NBA to gain maximum playing experience. But Kupchak said Washington has been the team’s most impressive young player during the preseason and will likely remain in Charlotte, provided he’s seeing 15-plus minutes per game.

“He does have to play, and, based on his production of late, he will play,” Kupchak said. “… He has worked on his game and has turned himself into not only a big man that can be productive down in the paint, but in our game today he can also make 3s.”

Win or lose, Kupchak expects the Hornets to use a “fast-paced style of play.”

 

Doc Rivers says Los Angeles Lakers counting Minnesota titles “actually bugs me a little bit”

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Los Angeles is a Lakers town.

The Dodgers can get close to energizing the city the same way, although Dodger fans are a little cautious after the past few playoffs. The Rams and Chargers are in a league that ignored Los Angeles for a couple of decades, lost a couple of generations of fans, and it’s going to take time to win them back. The Kings’ following is passionate but not massive (same with the two MLS teams in town).

The Lakers are the team that fathers take their sons to see, like their fathers did before them. The Lakers have won 16 NBA titles…

About that, it’s really 11 in Los Angeles. The first five carried over from Minnesota (where the name Lakers makes more sense). That kind of bothers’ Clippers coach Doc Rivers, something he told Marc Spears of The Undefeated in a story previewing the Clippers’ season.

“It is a Lakers town. I’m good with that. I have no issues with that,” Clippers head coach Doc Rivers told The Undefeated from his Staples Center office recently. “They have how many titles that they’ve won here? You know, they claim them all, but they only won a certain amount here. I will say that. That actually bugs me a little bit. … Having said that, that’s generations of loyalty.

“I look at us as, we’re creating our own movement. … We’re not trying to take away shine from the other. We’ve got our own thing going. I never thought we could get our own thing going. That was what I was so frustrated with being here. And now we got our own thing going.”

Carrying titles over is common… and controversial. Should the Dodgers be able to count Brooklyn titles? It feels wrong to think Oklahoma City could count Seattle’s titles. Should Sacramento be able to count the 1951 Rochester title? Personally, the Lakers carrying Minnesota’s doesn’t seem a big issue, but you know Rivers is going to take a shot at the Lakers when he can.

That hallway rivalry at Staples Center is building.

Few things seem to irritate Lakers fans like the Clippers putting posters of players over the Lakers’ title banners at Staples Center for Clippers home games. Lakers fans think of Staples as their building — and it might not exist but for the draw of the Shaq/Kobe Lakers. However, Staples is owned by AEG (whose primary owner is Philip Anschutz, who owns the NHL’s Kings), not the Lakers. It’s a hockey building.

Doc is right about one thing: The Clippers have their own thing going.

The Clippers, on paper, are the better Los Angeles team and better built for the playoffs with versatile wings such as Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. The Clippers have more trusted depth with Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell. Tuesday night’s Clippers’ home opener will go how it goes — LeBron James and Anthony Davis will go for the Lakers, Paul George is out for weeks still for the Clippers — but a playoff battle between these teams this season could be epic.

And decide who gets to hang the next banner in Staples Center.