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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.”

Giannis Antetokounmpo drops 33 on Heat, Bucks secure No. 1 seed

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton scored 33 points each, and the Milwaukee Bucks overcame a huge early deficit to get a 130-116 win over the Miami Heat on Thursday to clinch the top seed in the Eastern Conference.

The Heat led by as many as 23 points in a first half where the team piled up 73 points despite playing without Jimmy Butler and Goran Dragic. Miami cooled off after the break and the Bucks took the lead in the third quarter but were down by 6 to start the fourth.

Antetokounmpo, the favorite to win his second MVP award, sat out about five minutes of the fourth quarter after collecting his fifth foul with 11 minutes to go. Milwaukee trailed by 1 with about five minutes remaining before using a 20-0 run, with three dunks from Antetokounmpo, to make it 130-111 with less than a minute to go and cruise to the victory.

Antetokounmpo and Middleton played 30 and 34 minutes respectively after the stars both sat out the entire second half of their last game on Tuesday.

Duncan Robinson had 21 points for the Heat, who lost to Milwaukee for the first time this season after winning the first two meetings.

The Heat led by 6 with about 11 minutes left in the fourth quarter when Antetokounmpo picked up his fifth foul on a charge and headed to the bench. Andre Iguodala made a 3 for Miami before the Bucks scored the next 13 points, capped by a 3 from Bledsoe, to take a 107-103 lead with about seven minutes remaining.

Robinson made a 3-pointer to end a scoring drought of almost four minutes for Miami with about 6 ½ minutes to go and Antetokounmpo re-entered the game soon after that.

The Heat led by 12 with about 10 minutes left in third quarter before Milwaukee used a 16-3 run to take an 82-81 lead with five minutes left in the quarter. Antetokounmpo and Wesley Matthews each had five points each in that span to help close the gap.

The Bucks cut the lead to 3 with a dunk by Antetokounmpo late in the third. But the Heat wrapped up the quarter with a 5-2 spurt to take a 98-92 lead into the fourth.

Report: Bulls likely to keep Jim Boylen as coach for financial reasons

Bulls coach Jim Boylen
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The Bulls appeared ready to fire Jim Boylen. After all, Chicago just hired a new team president in Arturas Karnisovas who’d want to pick his own coach. That was unlikely to be Boylen, whose tenure had been defined by players disliking him, ill-timed timeouts and losing.

Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times:

But as the Sun-Times learned this week, even if Karnisovas didn’t like what he would have seen from Boylen he would likely be handcuffed from making a change.

According to several sources, there is strong growing momentum that financial concerns the Reinsdorfs have about the 2020-21 NBA season will keep Boylen in his current seat, as well as most of the coaching staff.

Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf has earned a reputation for his frugality. However, the economic downturn surrounding the coronavirus pandemic has caused many teams to tighten their belts. The financial consequences will likely continue into next season.

But this puts Chicago at a disadvantage.

Boylen has looked like one of the NBA’s worst coaches. Though Bulls ownership is more optimistic than most on Boylen and he could exceed expectations, it’s telling that Chicago probably wouldn’t have kept him based on merit. This is about saving money and hoping for the best.

That’s obviously great news for Boylen. He has improved significantly since taking over last season. More time on the job could allow him to grow into it. That said, improving from a near-mutiny in his early days doesn’t exactly mean he’s in an acceptable place now. Boylen still has a long way to go, and it could be more difficult if players are tired of him.

Nets fined $25K for injury-reporting violation

Brooklyn Nets
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Earlier this season, Kyrie Irving missed several weeks with a shoulder injury. Throughout the absence, the Nets provided few details and no clear timeline. Eventually, a report said Irving could miss 2-3 additional weeks with bursitis. The Nets denied it. Later, Irving confirmed he had bursitis then returned nearly three weeks after the report.

Finally, Brooklyn caught the league’s ire.

NBA release:

The NBA today announced that the Brooklyn Nets have been fined $25,000 for failing to comply with league policies governing injury reporting.

It’s unclear what specifically caused this violation. Caris LeVert, Joe Harris, Jarrett Allen, Jamal Crawford and Rodions Kurucs have all appeared on the Nets’ injury report during the resumption. As 19-point underdog, Brooklyn pulled a historic upset of the Bucks. Remember, public injury disclosures are primarily about preserving gambling integrity.

For the NBA not to reveal even basic details while fining the Nets for their lack of transparency is ironic. It’s also ironic this fine comes amid a restart that featured the NBA being highly secretive about player heath.

The Clippers got fined $50,000 earlier this season for saying Kawhi Leonard was healthy. What did Brooklyn do that was less egregious but still worth of a fine?

LeBron James says Lakers have off-court issues, out vs. Rockets (groin)

Lakers star LeBron James
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The Lakers’ offense has stumbled so far in the bubble.

Joe Vardon of The Athletic:

LeBron gave a weird answer about this. He agreed that he and the Lakers were looking for a rhythm on offense. And then he said: “It’s just some things that you can’t control that’s here, that I really don’t want to talk about, that’s off the floor.”

Mike Trudell of the Lakers:

Was LeBron referring to his groin injury? I wouldn’t call that an off-court issue, but maybe he would.

LeBron knows how to work the media. This subtle comment will draw attention and sets up LeBron to look better if he leads the Lakers through this mysterious issue.

Without more context, it’s easy for imaginations to wander – especially about a team with Dwight Howard, Dion Waiters and J.R. Smith. The Lakers could be facing a major hurdle. Or a minor nuisance. Who knows? But the unknown is scary.

It’ll be difficult to detect the Lakers’ progress during remaining seeding games. The Lakers have already clinched the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference, and without a home-court advantage in the NBA Finals, there’s no reason to chase the NBA’s best overall record. That’s why LeBron missing tonight’s game against the Rockets could be mostly precautionary.