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.

Suns promote GM James Jones to to President of Basketball Operations

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James Jones put together the roster that took the Suns to the Finals two seasons ago and had the best record in the NBA last season (64 wins). At 13-6, the Suns sit atop the Western Conference this season.

The Suns have rewarded Jones, giving him the title of President of Basketball Operations on top of GM.

“In the nearly 15 years I have known James, he has excelled in every role he performed, from player to NBPA Treasurer to his roles in our front office, most recently as general manager,” Suns interim Governor Sam Garvin said. “James has the unique ability to create and lead high-performing teams in basketball operations and his commitment to collaborating with our business side, including at the C-level with partners like PayPal and Verizon, is second to none. We are fortunate for his contributions across the organization and this promotion recognizes his commitment to excellence.”

Jones moved into the Suns’ front office in 2017 at the end of a 14-year playing career, then became GM in 2019. The move gives Jones a little more stability during the sale of the franchise. Not that the new owner would come in and fire a successful GM.

“I am grateful for the privilege to work with and support the players, staff and employees of the Phoenix Suns and Phoenix Mercury,” Jones said in a statement. “The collective efforts of our business and basketball operations have allowed us to provide an amazing atmosphere and best-in-class experience for our fans and community. I remain excited about and dedicated to driving success for our Teams on and off the court.”

Jones has made several moves that set the culture in Phoenix, including hiring Monty Williams as coach then, after an undefeated run in the bubble (that left Phoenix just out of the playoffs), he brought in Chris Paul to take charge at the point.

Report: Leaders in Lakers’ locker room think team ‘only a couple of players away’ from contending

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There’s a sense of optimism around the Lakers: They have won 5-of-6 and are expected to have both Anthony Davis and LeBron James healthy Monday night, plus Russell Westbrook has found a role and comfort level off the bench and other players are settling into roles. They may be 7-11, but it’s early enough there is a sense this could be turned around.

That is echoed by “locker room leaders” who think the team is just a couple of players away from being a contender in the West (where no team has pulled away), reports Dave McMenamin at ESPN.

There is belief shared by leaders in the Lakers’ locker room, sources said, that the team is only a couple of players away from turning this group into a legitimate contender. But acquiring the right players could take multiple trades.

Let’s unpack all of this.

• “Leaders in the Lakers’ locker room” means LeBron and Davis (both repped by Rich Paul). Let’s not pretend it’s anything else.

• If the Lakers don’t make a move to significantly upgrade the roster, how unhappy will those leaders become? How disruptive would that be?

• It is no coincidence that McMenamin’s report comes the day the Lakers face the Pacers, a team they went deep into conversations with this summer on a Myles Turner/Buddy Hield trade, but Los Angeles GM Rob Pelinka ultimately would not put both available Lakers’ first-round picks (2027 and 2029) in the deal and it fell apart. Turner said the Lakers should “take a hard look” at trading for him. The thing is, the Pacers are now 11-8, not tanking for Victor Wembanyama but instead thinking playoffs, so are they going to trade their elite rim protector and sharpshooter away? Not likely. At least not without an overwhelming offer, and the Lakers’ two picks may not get there anymore.

• While Westbrook has found a comfort level coming off the bench (and not sharing the court as much with LeBron), he is still a $47.1 million contract that no team is trading for without sweeteners. To use NBA parlance, he is still a negative value contract, even if it feels less negative than a month ago.

• Are the Lakers really a couple of players away from contending? While they have won 5-of-6, three of those five wins came against the tanking Spurs, the others were against the so-injured-they-might-as-well-be-tanking Pistons, and the Nets before Kyrie Irving returned. The Lakers did what they needed to do and thrived in a soft part of the schedule, but that schedule is about to turn and give the Lakers a reality check on where they really stand. After the Pacers, it’s the Trail Blazers (likely still without Damian Lillard), then an East Coast road trip that includes the Bucks, Cavaliers, Raptors and 76ers. The next couple of weeks will be a better marker for where the Lakers stand, and if they can build off of the past couple of weeks.

Dallas Mavericks near agreement to sign Kemba Walker

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Looking for help spacing the floor and with secondary shot creation behind Luka Doncic, the Dallas Mavericks are turning to Kemba Walker.

Marc Stein was first with the news the sides were close to a deal, but since then multiple reports — plus comments from team owner Mark Cuban — confirmed it is happening.

This will be a veteran minimum contract (all the over-the-cap Mavericks can offer). To create the roster spot, the Mavericks will waive Facundo Campazzo, who was signed a few weeks ago and has barely touched the court for the team.

Walker averaged 11.6 points and 3.5 assists a game playing solidly in stretches for the Knicks last season, but the concern was his staying on the court — he appeared in just 37 games due to ongoing knee problems. Walker spent the offseason working on getting past those, but the Knicks traded him to Detroit for picks, but the Pistons were stacked at the point guard spot (at least before the season and injuries hit Cade Cunningham), so they bought out his $9.2 million for this season.

Walker worked to convince teams he still had plenty in the tank, but it was always going to take a situation where a team reached a certain level of desperation. Enter the Mavericks.

Doncic calls Antetokounmpo ‘the best player in the NBA right now’

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It was a matchup of two of the NBA’s top five players and two guys high in the way-too-early mix for MVP this season: Giannis Antetokounmpo and Luka Doncic.

Doncic carried the Mavericks again with 27 points on 10-of-20 shooting plus 12 assists.

Antetokounmpo was a force of nature with 30 points on 11-of-19 shooting plus 11 rebounds, plus he had more help around him leading the Bucks to a 124-115 win.

There is a mutual admiration society between these two players, and after the game Doncic called Antetokounmpo the best player in the NBA. Via Jack Maloney at CBS Sports.

“Enjoy [competing against him] is hard because I want to win, so it’s hard to go against a guy like that,” Doncic said after the Mavericks’ fourth consecutive defeat. “He’s the best player in the NBA right now. He’s almost impossible to stop. It’s really fun to see him play, but it’s not that fun to go against him.”

Antetokounmpo had praise for Doncic as well.

“That’s a great compliment and I appreciate that,” Antetokounmpo said. “When you play against the best players in the league, being able to say something like that feels good. No matter wins or losses, just being respected by your peers, it’s always a good feeling.”

We have many years of these two players testing each other, and someday it may be Antetokounmpo calling Doncic the best in the NBA.