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Aaron Gordon can defend the spot, but is he really a small forward?

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LOS ANGELES — There are nights where Aaron Gordon looks like a future All-Star at the small forward spot. Against Memphis a week ago, he dropped 30 points on 15 shots against one of the best defenses in the NBA. A few nights later coach Frank Vogel assigned Gordon to slow James Harden, and he helped hold an MVP candidate to 14 points. All season, Gordon has been impressive on defense.

However, there are far more nights such as Sunday against the Lakers, when he had the kind of game Magic fans have become entirely too familiar with this season. Gordon spent much of the game as a weak side decoy hanging out in the corner (occasionally rotating up above the break), but as a 32.6 percent three-point shooter this season the Lakers didn’t respect him in that role. Gordon is improving from deep, but he’s not a guy you fear to leave at the arc, and the Lakers did a good job of keeping an eye on him when he cut or in transition. The result was a 0-of-5 shooting night where Gordon was a non-factor in the game.

“Some games you have the opportunity to shoot 30 times, some games you have the opportunity to shoot 10. It’s the way basketball works, it finds you when it’s supposed to find you,” Gordon said postgame. “I need to do a better job seeking it out, cutting off the ball. But like I said, credit the Lakers, they had their head on a swivel and didn’t get caught too many times. It’s when you look to be more aggressive at times.”

It’s the biggest debate in Orlando this season: Is Gordon a three or a four? He had much more success last season at the power forward slot, but when Frank Vogel came to town and saw the roster he was handed — which L.A.-based ESPN personality Andy Kamenetzky accurately described as “the island of misfit toys” — he decided to move Gordon to the three, allowing him to have Serge Ibaka at the four with Nikola Vucevic/Bismack Biyombo at the five.

Gordon’s efficiency has plummeted. His greatest asset was his superior athleticism at the four — his performance at the Dunk Contest in Toronto showed that off — but the move to the three neutralizes some of that. Last season he shot 47.3 percent overall with an above-average true shooting percentage of 54.1, this season those numbers have fallen to 43.2 and 50.7 percent. His PER dropped from 17 last season to a below average 13.2. Gordon has the athleticism to play the three, but not the shot.

“He has the ability to impact the game in an opportunistic way — running the floor, getting cuts, crashing the glass,” Vogel said. “The knock on him has always been his perimeter shooting, and he’s grown more and more confident every game as the season goes along, he’s been a knock-down three-point shooter. (Note, Gordon shot 36.5 percent from three in December, but that’s down to 27.6 percent in his last five games.)

“He’s doing some good things off the bounce, that’s probably the last area he needs to develop, and we’re trying to pull him along at the right pace. So we’re asking him not try and do too much there. But he as the ability to be one of those guys who just hurts you a variety of different ways.”

Does he? Gordon is certainly putting in the work — nobody is or should question his effort. After a Laker game where he admitted he came out flat and was not impactful, he was asked how he gets past it.

“It’s a little bit easier at home, you just go to the gym and shoot. On the road, I’ve got to find a gym,” which he proceeded to do.

What Gordon has the ability to do is defend on the perimeter — he’s arguably Orlando’s best perimeter defender now. NBA’s Sports VU tracking cameras show opponents shooting just 40.7 against Gordon this season. Against the Lakers he started on Nick Young and held the streaky shooter in check. After D’Angelo Russell got the Lakers off to a good offensive start with six points and a couple assists, Vogel moved Gordon on to the point guard for a stretch. Vogel tried that a couple of times during the game, but Russell was a little too quick and made good decisions with the space he got from Gordon.

“That’s the value in moving him to small forward — he’s bigger, stronger, and longer than most of the guys he’s guarding,” Vogel said. “He’s got good size to him, where if he’s guarding power forwards and doing a good job maybe he’s undersized against most of those guys. There is value with what we’re doing with him playing small forward….

“He’s got all the athleticism in the world to do it, and it’s not been about blitzing pick-and-rolls and banging in the post, but about chasing guys off screens and guarding the ball.”

That defense is why Vogel and the Magic push back against the idea of Gordon at the four — they need him at the three. They need his defense. So Vogel is just trying to be a teacher.

“Every game is an opportunity to correct, and to positive reinforce what he’s doing well…” Vogel said. “I don’t pretend to come in and give him some mind games or anything like that, in terms of the mental approach, you just try to teach, and through the teaching there are small confidences they gain, and you try to build on that. And show them they have the ability to be great in that way.”

Can Gordon be great at the three spot? No doubt he will put in the work. Maybe Gordon can develop into a three, but he would need the right guy at the four next to him — and that is not Serge Ibaka.

In the best of all possible worlds, Gordon provides Vogel versatility — play him at the three or the four depending on the matchups. But the Magic are not in that ideal world, with too many bodies at the four and five right now, Vogel is getting his best athlete run where he can.

Meaning the Gordon at small forward experiment will remain with us for a while.

Kings GM Vlade Divac: ‘My team is a super team. Just young’

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The Kings drafted Marvin Bagley No. 2 last night (seemingly for bad reasons, which doesn’t at all eliminate him from being the right pick but makes it less likely he is). He’ll join a young core also comprised of Bogdan Bogdanovic, De'Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Willie Cauley-Stein, Skal Labissiere, Justin Jackson and Harry Giles.

That group excite you?

Kings general manager Vlade Divac isn’t reducing expectations.

Lina Washington of ABC 10:

To be fair, in 2012, the Warriors were coming off a 23-43 season with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson already on the roster and had just drafted Draymond Green and Harrison Barnes. Everyone would’ve laughed at calling Golden State a “super team, just young” then. But those four (plus Andre Iguodala) eventually led the Warriors to a championship.

But, really: Nah.

Entering the 2016-17 season, then-Knicks guard Derrick Rose said, “They’re saying us and Golden State are the super teams.” We mocked Rose relentlessly, and of course, the Warriors went 73-9 while New York finished just 32-50.

How long until Divac’s young super team reaches even 32-50?

Spurs GM still optimistic relationship with Kawhi Leonard can be salvaged

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SAN ANTONIO (AP) — General manager R.C. Buford acknowledges star forward Kawhi Leonard is unhappy with the Spurs.

He remains optimistic the relationship can be salvaged.

Leonard has requested a trade from San Antonio because he is unhappy after missing most of last season with a right quadriceps injury. Buford would not comment on “speculation” of a trade demand, but agreed there is a fractured relationship between Leonard and the only franchise he has played for.

“Kawhi and his family mean a lot to the organization and to the community and while none of wish we are where we are, we’re going to do what we can to build the best relationship we can with him,” Buford said Thursday night as the Spurs made two late picks in the NBA Draft. “We’ll explore all of our options, but the first one would be to do what we can to keep Kawhi as part of our group.”

Leonard missed the first 27 games of the season but returned to play in nine games. He complained of discomfort and pain in the leg in his final game. Leonard sought an outside opinion after the Spurs cleared him to play, working with his own medical team in New York in an attempt to return to the court. The 6-foot-7 forward reportedly grew upset that the Spurs had questioned his rehabilitation process.

The Spurs listed him as out on their injury reports for much of the year citing “injury management.” While San Antonio was in the playoffs, losing in the first round to eventual repeat champion Golden State, Leonard was rehabbing in New York – which meant that Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, when asked for the situation, deferred all comment to “Kawhi and his group.”

“I think all of us would wish that things would have gone differently,” Buford said.

The Spurs held a team meeting late in the season where veterans, led by Tony Parker, implored Leonard to return. Leonard said he was unable to due to the injury.

In the 2016-17 season, Leonard averaged a career-best 25.5 points and was third in the MVP voting. The 2014 NBA Finals MVP and two-time NBA defensive player of the year is due just over $20 million next season, and can become a free agent in the summer of 2019. He is eligible to sign a $220 million extension with San Antonio.

He is reportedly willing to walk away from that to play elsewhere, possibly in Los Angeles.

“I don’t know that timing is a factor in this from today … he’s under contract for another year, our goal is to keep him as part of our program for a long time,” Buford said.

 

NBA Draft Winners, Losers: Big nights for Phoenix, Dallas

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Let’s start with the obvious — this whole story is a fool’s errand. It really takes about three years to accurately assess who are the winners and losers in the NBA draft. Guys we thought were locks will turn out to be pretty pedestrian, guys we wrote off as projects down the board will impress. In three years, we’ll have a real sense of which teams read this draft well and nailed it.

But we don’t live in that world.

So here are my projections on the real winners and losers Thursday night in Brooklyn, starting with the guys who didn’t screw up the No. 1 pick.

 

Suns small icon Winner: Phoenix Suns.

It isn’t just that they didn’t screw up the top pick and landed in DeAndre Ayton, the guy most likely to be a franchise cornerstone star in this class. Although they did that. Also, it was their move later to trade their pick at No. 16 (Texas Tech’s Zhaire Smith) for Mikal Bridges — most likely the best “3&D” prospect in this draft (it cost them a future first via Miami). By the time everyone was trying to get an Uber outside Barclays Center the Suns had put together a starting lineup of Devin Booker, Bridges, Josh Jackson, and Ayton (plus a point guard to be named later). That’s a group worth watching — and they hired Igor Kokoskov as their new coach this summer because he’s strong on player development. It’s the start of something.

Phoenix also drafted French point guard Elie Okobo at 31 in the second round when a lot of teams thought of him as a first-round talent. Another smart move.

Loser: Michael Porter Jr.

A couple of weeks ago, Porter was mentioned as a potential No. 2 selection to the Kings. But after teams got a look at his medical reports from last Friday’s workout — remember, he missed all but three games at Missouri following back surgery — they backed off. Reports about his attitude didn’t help. Porter slid all the way down to Denver at 14. What that means to him besides getting to play at altitude in Denver: The No. 2 pick is slotted for a $7.3 million salary next season, the No. 14 makes less than $3 million. We’ll see if Porter can use this as motivation — and stay healthy.

One winner in this: The Denver Nuggets for grabbing him at 14. That is a good team (they just missed the playoffs) with strong players already where Porter can be brought along slowly without unreasonable expectations.

Mavericks small icon Winner: Dallas Mavericks.

Mark Cuban and company traded up from No. 5 to No. 3 and landed Luka Doncic — the player they had highest rated on the board. This is a win for the Mavs and for Doncic because he lands with a brilliant Xs and Os coach in Rick Carlisle who will put him in positions to succeed, plus Doncic gets mentored by Dirk Nowitzki. This pick also is a strong move because he should pair well with young point guard Dennis Smith Jr. — Doncic can run the pick-and-roll at times with Smith cutting and moving off the ball, and in the reverse Doncic has a good catch-and-shoot game. Dallas has options for playmaking now.

Also, nice second-round pickup of Villanova point guard Jalen Brunson. That’s a high IQ player who can step in as a reserve and help immediately.

Loser: Robert Williams.

The Texas A&M big man has the talent of a late lottery pick — the Clippers met with him a couple of times — but concerns about his attitude and work ethic saw him plummet all the way down the board to 27. Will he use this as motivation to play with a high motor all the time, or will he continue to coast? If he brings it, he could be the steal of this draft. That brings us to…

Celtics small iconWinner: Boston Celtics (because they got Robert Williams).

This was an Oceans 9 level robbery (that’s the next movie, right?) for Danny Ainge this late in the first round. At No. 27 you’re usually just hoping to get a guy who can develop into a role player in a few years. Williams is much more than that, he has the tools to be an elite NBA defender, and in college he was a defensive and rebounding force. In the NBA he’s going to be a rim running big, ala DeAndre Jordan — except Jordan fulfilled his potential. It’s up to Boston to get that out of Williams (and it’s up to Williams himself to work), but if they do this was another brilliant Ainge pick.

Loser: Golden State Warriors.

They tried to buy into the second round as they did a year ago and pick up someone who fits their style — and this year they had $5.1 million to do it (more than the $3.5 million a year ago). However, other GMs remember how much heat the Bulls front office took for selling their pick to Golden State last year and watching the Warriors draft Jordan Bell — Mr. “cash considerations” was playing a role in the NBA Finals. No GM wanted to repeat that mistake. No early second-round pick for the Warriors this year.

However, their first-round pick of Jacob Evans was a good one, he’s the kind of versatile wing player who fits into their rotation.

Winner: Puma.

The German soccer cleat maker shoe and apparel company wanted to get back into the basketball game, and the did it with a splash — their guys Ayton and Bagley went No. 1 and 2. That’s going to be a lot of free publicity and a lot of eyes on their players starting in Summer League and beyond. The company also landed guys with real potential in Michael Porter Jr. and Zhaire Smith.

Oh, and they hired Jay-Z as well. That’s a good week whatever else happens.

Winner: NBA Twitter

The guys in suits up the executive food chain tried to put an end to Woj bombs this year — ESPN was trying to clamp down on their news breakers Tweeting out the picks before they happened (as had been the case for a few years, with Twitter often two or three picks ahead of Adam Silver and the broadcast). Other major news breakers (such as Yahoo’s Shams Charania) agreed to play along. We all thought we would have to wait around for Adam Silver to saunter up to the table.

But if there is one thing NBA Twitter has taught us it’s that it will not be contained. It breaks free, it expands to new territories and crashes through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously. NBA Twitter, uh… finds a way.

Before long Twitter picks were leaking and Twitter was a pick ahead of the broadcast again, and Adrian Wojnarowski was dropping bombs, cleverly not saying who the pick was but….

NBA Twitter is the best.

Lonnie Walker’s Spurs hat appears as if it’s floating above his head (photo)

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Basketball players don’t wear hats.

White Men Can't Jump (1992)

OK, scratch that. NBA players don’t wear hats.

But it has become tradition for draft picks to don a cap of the team that selected him.

So, even though Lonnie Walker‘s hair looks like this (via AP):

Pittsburgh Miami Basketball

…he put on a Spurs hat when they selected him No. 18:

NBA Draft Basketball

Even Elfrid Payton did a much better job cramming his do into his hat on draft night:

Walker, an athletic shooting guard who underperformed at Miami, was a surprising choice by San Antonio. The Spurs generally prioritize basketball intelligence over athleticism (though, to be fair, that’s hardly an absolute).

But no matter how Walker fits in San Antonio goes, it probably won’t be more awkward than this.