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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.”

Did Hornets GM tell Kobe Bryant on draft night, ‘We couldn’t have used you anyway,’ as Bryant claims?

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Kobe Bryant spent 16 days as a Charlotte Hornet.

Long enough to develop resentment for the Hornets.

Charlotte drafted Bryant No. 13 in 1996 to trade him to the Lakers for Vlade Divac. Divac threatened to retire, but eventually relented on joining the Hornets. After the moratorium, Bryant went to Los Angeles, where he had a Hall of Fame career.

He hasn’t let go of draft night, though.

Bryant on the Knuckleheads podcast:

You get drafted, you get on the phone with the GM of the team that drafted you and all this stuff. So, I get on the phone with the Charlotte GM. He just tells me, “Hey, you know what’s going on.” Like, “Yeah. Yeah, yeah.” And you’ve got media in front of you and all that. And he goes, “Well, it’s a good thing we’re trading you, because we couldn’t have used you anyway.” You motherf. OK. OK. Alright. So, that’s what happened on draft night. So, I was already triggered. I was triggered. I was ready to go to the gym. Like f— the media. I don’t want to do any more interviews. I’m trying to – what are you telling me that for? I’m 17. What are you telling? OK. Alright.

The Hornets’ general manager was Bob Bass. He died last year, so he can’t tell his side of this story.

However, in previous tellings, Bryant said Charlotte coach Dave Cowens delivered that message. Cowens denied it.

Did Bryant forget whether he talked to the general manager or coach? Forget which position Cowens held? That’d be perfectly understandable decades later.

Or maybe both Bass and Cowens were on the call. Perhaps, Bryant initially thought Cowens said it and more recently learned it was Bass. That could explain Cowens’ denial.

But…

Stephen A. Smith of The Inquirer at the time:

On Wednesday, the Hornets took Bryant with the 13th pick of the NBA draft. Within minutes, there was talk of Bryant’s going to L.A. Dave Cowens, the Hornets’ new coach, was among those who raised the possibility, dismissing Bryant as “a kid” who would have a hard time playing for Charlotte.

That was a reasonable expectation. Bryant was just a teenager. Charlotte had veteran wings like Glen Rice and Dell Curry.

But Bryant was that special. He quickly became a contributor with the Lakers then developed into an all-time great.

In part because he fanned his competitive fire with perceived slights like this one.

Bryant is right: Who would say that to a 17-year-old? It just sounds cruel. Of course, Bryant would want to avenge being treated that way.

Here’s my guess: Someone from Charlotte – either Cowens or Bass – tried to comfort Bryant in a chaotic situation by saying the trade would work out for the best because the Hornets wouldn’t have played him much. It was supposed to be nice. Bryant took it as an insult.

But that’s just a guess. It was a private conversation many years ago. We’ll probably never know exactly what was said, let alone what was intended.

Report: Rockets signing Thabo Sefolosha

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The Rockets’ minicamp has produced a signing – Thabo Sefolosha.

Marc Stein of The New York Times:

This is surely for the minimum. It’s unclear how much is guaranteed.

Houston has just 10 players with guaranteed salaries, including Nene’s dud of a deal. So, there’s room for Sefolosha to make the regular-season roster.

Sefolosha should fit well in Houston. He’s a smart, versatile defender and can knock down corner 3s. James Harden and Russell Westbrook will allow Sefolosha to concentrate on his strengths in a limited role. The biggest question is how much the 35-year-old Sefolosha has left in the tank.

NBA to better define traveling rule, increase enforcement, explain rule to players, fans

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Gather and two steps.

That is how the NBA has defined the traveling rule for many years now. A player can take a step if he is in the process of “gathering” a dribble or pass, then has two steps. Players such as James Harden have stretched that to the limit, frustrating opponents and non-Rockets fans, but it’s legal.

Now the NBA is looking to better define that “gather” step, then crackdown on enforcement of the rule. With that will come an education program for everyone from players to fans. All of this was approved at the NBA’s Board of Governors’ meeting in New York on Friday.

“One of the most misunderstood rules in our game is how traveling is interpreted and appropriately called,” Byron Spruell, NBA President, League Operations, said in a statement. “Revising the language of certain areas of the rule is part of our three-pronged approach to address the uncertainty around traveling.  This approach also includes an enforcement plan to make traveling a point of emphasis for our officiating staff, along with an aggressive education plan to increase understanding of the rule by players, coaches, media and fans.”

That “aggressive education plan” should be interesting.

At the meeting, the owners also made gamblers everywhere happy by saying that starting lineups now need to be submitted by coaches 30 minutes prior to the start of the game. In past years that had been only 10 minutes (and road teams complained that was not evenly enforced between home and road teams all the time).

This is a good bit of transparency by the league, as have been some of the recent changes in requirements of announcing injuries. But make no mistake, this rule change is all about gambling.

Under new anti-tampering rules, Adam Silver empowered to suspend execs, take away picks, void contracts

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LeBron James publicly courted Anthony Davis. Many free agents seemingly struck deals before free agency even began. Kawhi Leonard‘s uncle/advisor reportedly sought prohibited extra benefits from teams.

The NBA finally reached its breaking point on tampering and circumvention.

After late apprehension, the league will enact stricter enforcement.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

I’m not surprised this passed unanimously. NBA commissioner Adam Silver wanted this to happen and wasn’t going to have owners vote unless he knew it’d pass. At that point, any protest-voting owners would just put themselves at odds with the commissioner. Not worth it.

We’ll see how long this crackdown lasts. I think that anonymous general manager represents many. If nobody is tampering, it’s fine not to tamper. But if some teams tamper, nobody wants to be at a disadvantage.

This could slowly creep back toward the old status quo. But if there’s a clear violator early, Silver will have an opportunity to send a message. We’ll see whether he takes it.

This should be less about which communication is or isn’t allowed. It’s about fairness.

That’s why it’s important the NBA has rules it will enforce and only rules it will enforce. That hasn’t been the case. If it is now, this will be a success.