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Orlando has become team worth watching for first time in long time

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This is the latest of NBC’s NBA season preview stories, and we will post at least one a day on these pages until Oct. 16, when the NBA season kicks off. We will look at teams and topics around the NBA throughout the series, and today the young Orlando Magic are the focus.

A strange sensation came over me during Summer League in Las Vegas this year:

I wanted to watch Orlando Magic games.

It felt weird. It has been years since the Magic were must-watch, but I was intrigued by them and their potential. Part of it was they have zigged when the league has zagged — in a small-ball league the Magic (in Vegas and in general) went big with Mo Bamba and Jonathan Isaac. And those two, for stretches, could dominate the paint.

“The potential between me and (Isaac) is unreal, I think in Summer League we’re starting to bridge that potential into production with the small things we do,” Bamba said to NBC Sports in Las Vegas.

That carries over to this season and expands to other players — which makes the Orlando Magic interesting and worth watching.

It’s been a long time since we could say that, but the Magic have the potential for a dynamic defense this season, especially up front: Bamba, Isaac, just-resigned Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Simmons. Put all of them under the guidance of new, defensive-minded coach Steve Clifford, and the Magic can be big and defense-first in an NBA leaning more toward the Warriors’ model of small and offense first.

“To tell you the truth, I don’t even think (the team’s defensive play in Summer League) scratches the surface in terms of where Mo is going to be in a year or two years, or where I am going to be in a year or two years,” Isaac said of the team’s potential. “Physically, mentally, game wise, you throw in AG and all those guys we have on our team now, and I think we will be a defensive nightmare for a lot of teams.”

Isaac was one of the real head turners at Summer League. He missed much of his rookie season with an ankle injury, playing in just 27 games. In Las Vegas he looked healthy and like he spent time in the weight room getting stronger. He was a defensive force but was able to turn some of that into offense.

Bamba showed potential in Vegas as well, although he was more up and down and showed how he needs to get stronger and develop a better feel for the game. For example, the Suns’ No. 1 pick Deandre Ayton pushed him around physically for much of the night. But even then, Bamba blocked an Ayton shot and altered others, plus he flashed offensive potential (and in another game, showed a smooth shooting stroke from three).

“I just have to establish myself as a roller, it really opens up a lot for our team, even if I don’t necessarily get the ball it opens up guys in the corner or in spots as teams adjust to how we are playing,” Bamba said.

The Magic still are not going to be good, and there are a lot of questions to be answered. How well can both Bamba and Isaac play with Gordon (it would be hard to play all three together, with Gordon at the three, he has struggled in that role before)? Coach Clifford has said he wants to switch more and that these bigs can do it, but how will that really work in practice? Clifford also wants to see how Bamba and Nikola Vucevic pair together for stretches.

Gordon is the best player on the team, the franchise cornerstone guy who signed a four-year, $76 million contract this summer (with incentives that could bring it to $84 million). He averaged 17.6 points and 7.9 rebounds a game last season, is a competent three-point shooter who can finish at the rim like a beast.

Can one of the other young Magic players step up and join Gordon as a cornerstone? Can this team go big and become a force? Those are the interesting questions for the Magic this season, what makes them worth watching.

The rest of the team… not as interesting.

The Magic still don’t have a point guard of the future — D.J. Augustin and Jerian Grant will split the bulk of the time there — and beyond that have solid to good NBA players who are not great fits or parts of the future, such as Evan Fournier and Timofey Mozgov. Vucevic and Terrence Ross are in the final years of their contracts and the Magic will look to move them (they have tried to trade Vucevic since last trade deadline, and he could help some teams, but no deal has been found).

Orlando will lose more games than it wins this season, Bamba and Isaac will learn hard lessons. It will not always be pretty.

But there is real reason for hope, and with it this is a team worth keeping an eye on. It’s been a long time since we could say that.

Kevin Huerter dunked, then stared down Jimmy Butler (VIDEO)

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Atlanta Hawks rookie Kevin Huerter contributed seven points, five assists, three rebounds, and two steals during his team’s win over the Philadelphia 76ers on Saturday night. He performed reasonably, and he’s often been a double-digit scorer for the Hawks this season.

But for Huerter, the moment of the game came for him on a breakaway dunk attempt with less than two minutes to go in the fourth quarter. In a close game, Taurean Prince was able to poke the ball away from Joel Embiid, leading to Huerter streaking down the floor with the ball.

Philadelphia’s Jimmy Butler ran to recover, but couldn’t quite stop Huerter, who threw it through the rack.

That’s when Huerter stared down the wily vet.

Via Twitter:

If Butler is the kind of guy who likes “dogs” then perhaps he has a newfound respect for Huerter these days?

Trae Young beat the Sixers on a game-winning floater, 129-127.

Jeremy Lamb hits 48-foot game-winning shot of the season (VIDEO)

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The Charlotte Hornets are still alive in the Eastern Conference playoff race. As the Hornets took on the Toronto Raptors in Ontario on Sunday, things came down to the wire between the two East rivals.

With less than a minute to go in the fourth quarter, Kawhi Leonard appeared ready to play the hero yet again. Leonard hit a game-winning shot over the Portland Trail Blazers at the beginning of March, and it looked like he had sealed a win out of a time game against the Hornets with just 45 seconds left. With everything tied, 112-112, Leonard scored on a go-ahead 18-foot jumper.

Leonard then blocked Kemba Walker‘s shot attempt with 32 seconds to go, giving the Raptors real hope to win the game. Toronto was unable to score on the ensuing possession, and it came down to a final shot attempt for Charlotte.

On a sideline out of bounds, Jeremy Lamb had just 3.1 seconds to get off what was undoubtedly the game winner of this 2018-19 NBA season.

Via Twitter:

The Hornets are now in 10th place, two games back of the Miami Heat for the eighth seed in the western conference with just nine games to go in the regular season.

Charlotte hasn’t been eliminated just yet, thanks in large part to Lamb’s incredible play.

Pau Gasol says Chris Wallace joked about being traded for brother Marc

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The Pau Gasol trade shaped the face of the NBA as the first decade of the new millennium ended. It made the Los Angeles Lakers relevant again, and gave Kobe Bryant a solid second running mate to push him to another two championships in 2009 and 2010.

Gasol was famously traded in a package that included the rights to his younger brother Marc Gasol, who became a star for the Memphis Grizzlies before being traded to the Toronto Raptors this past winter.

Big trades involving superstars like the Gasol often come with the benefit of advanced knowledge by the player or their agent, and with some communication between them. But according to Gasol, the first person to tell him about the trade was newly-minted Grizzlies general manager Chris Wallace, who had joined the team before the 2007 NBA Draft.

Speaking on Adrian Wojnarowski’s podcast, Gasol said that Wallace tried to make light of the situation by pointing out the irony of being traded for his own brother.

Via the Woj Pod:

I walk in and the first thing he tells me is, ‘Pau please, come in, sit down. You just got traded to the Los Angeles Lakers.’

I’m like, ‘Sorry, what?’

I couldn’t take it in. What are you talking about? At that point I was not expecting to be traded at all.

[Wallace said], ‘You got traded for Kwame Brown, Javaris Crittenton, Aaron McKie, a second round pick, and the funniest of all, your brother Marc.’

I’m like, what? Is this a joke, [he’s] trying to be funnier and funnier? At that time I couldn’t process what he was saying, I’m like, is this really happening? Why is he making a joke out of it when I’ve be here for six-and-a-half years, [Wallace] basically just got there, and now I’m traded.

Obviously I got more excited as the minutes went by, but it was crazy and it was Chris that told me. Obviously it was one of the greatest moments of my career just because …. at first it was hard to to process being treated and moving away from the team that you’ve given so much to (and in the other way around) but then I walk into a situation that would allow me to to win. Which is what exactly what I wanted, what I craved, and to play with one of the greatest players in Kobe and to be coached by Phil Jackson.

It is one of the great NBA narratives that both brothers were swapped for one another, and that each had continued success at a level in the NBA that not many siblings have experienced in their lives.

Perhaps he didn’t know why Wallace was joking about the trade at the time, but obviously Gasol knows that it worked out OK for him in any case.

Report: Jason Kidd holding off on Cal job until Lakers decide on Luke Walton

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The Los Angeles Lakers could be headed toward a departure with their head coach in Luke Walton. The Lakers will miss the playoffs yet again, this time coming up short despite adding LeBron James over the summer.

James has reportedly wanted Walton out for some time, and when the season ends many are expecting to see the two sides part ways. The list of potential coaching candidates for Los Angeles appear to be a group of also-rans, potential LeBron favorites who no self-respecting basketball decision-maker would want in charge of a championship-hopeful franchise.

One of those potential head coaching candidates is Jason Kidd, who was fired by the Milwaukee Bucks in January of 2018. We have seen rumors of Kidd being on the list of candidates for the Lakers job for some time, but now it appears that Kidd is basing his decision-making on the availability of the Los Angeles job.

Via Twitter:

Kidd holding out on making an employment decision until the Lakers decide what to do with Walton makes sense. That L.A. would be interested in Kidd to lead their group is another thing altogether.

Talent is a salve that has often pushed teams passed their failings, and this offseason for the Lakers will be a big-time test of that medicine. Los Angeles is not a well-run franchise, and the fact that they have expected anything different from their results speaks to the dissonance between their ability to make basketball decisions outside of branding.

But if they can add one or two big stars in free agency this summer, they might have enough talent on the roster to overcome the inherent issues with having LeBron run the team by proxy. It’s hard to have any faith in the Lakers to make the right decision at this juncture, and considering Kidd for the most important head coaching position in the NBA is par for the course.