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Nikola Vucevic is one of the East’s best centers — and will get paid like one next July


LOS ANGELES — When Nikola Vucevic’s son grows up — he and his wife are expecting their first child next month — this is the video he’s going to show the boy over and over:

Dad posting up LeBron James, using a spin move to blow by him and dunking while the all-time great is helpless to stop him.

It’s a fitting image of how Vucevic’s season has gone.

Vucevic dropped 31 points on the Lakers Sunday then turned around on a back-to-back and had 30 points Monday against the Warriors. Those games continue a run that has him looking like one of the two best centers in the East (Joel Embiid claims the other spot) and playing like an All-Star and Most Improved Player candidate— 20.8 points and 11.3 rebounds a game, shooting 39 percent from three, with a PER of 26.9.

If you prefer your stats advanced: Vucevic is fifth in the’s “value over replacement player” (VORP) stat, nestled between Anthony Davis and Kyrie Irving on the list, ahead of Kevin Durant and James Harden.

Vucevic has been that good this season.

Vucevic credits new Orlando coach Steve Clifford for putting him in better situations this season, which sparked his improved numbers. Last season Vucevic took 56 percent of his shots either at the rim or on short mid-rangers off post-ups or runners (usually within 8 feet of the rim), this season that is up to 65 percent (stats via Cleaning the Glass). While that has come at the expense of fewer three-pointers, the ones he is getting now are cleaner looks and his percentage from beyond the arc has jumped from 31.4 percent a year ago to 39 percent this season.

“The way we play now, it helps me playing inside-out, it gets me going and makes me more comfortable,” Vucevic said. “Last year I felt I was a little too much on the perimeter, space the floor, which is fine, but at the same time [this season’s style] makes it much more difficult for the other team and gives them a different look. It works great for me because I get some easy ones in the paint and am able to step out.

“The way coach wants me, wants us, to play fits my skill set.”

That skill set is also going to get him paid next summer as a free agent, whether by Orlando or someone else. There are a lot of playoff/contending teams intrigued by the idea of adding Vucevic via trade this season, especially with his very reasonable $12.8 million contract (and the fact Orlando has rookie Mo Bamba behind him). However, sources tell me Orlando is not going to be taking those calls unless they drop way out of the playoff picture by the deadline (the Magic are currently the eight seed in the East).

“He’s probably a little overlooked, he’s a very, very good player,” Lakers’ coach Luke Walton said. “Coaches, players that have to play against him, when you watch tape he can score all over the floor on you. He’s a nightmare to match up with when you’re scheming against him whether you’re switching or you’re in a drop because of that ability.”

Teams will come calling next July with big contracts just because of he’s such a matchup nightmare and how it opens up an offense. For example, on Orlando’s first possession of the game Sunday against the Lakers, Aaron Gordon curled off a Vucevic off-ball screen, received a pass about the free throw line and attacked the rim down the lane, going in for a thunderous dunk. Why? Because JaVale McGee couldn’t afford to leave Vucevic unguarded 18 feet from the rim, so he was out higher than he wanted to be and was a step slow on the rotation. Vucevic created those kinds of problems all game.

“That’s the advantage of having Vuc out there,” Clifford said. “Normally, if you don’t have a range shooting center, they’re going to have somebody in the paint there. He’s so involved, especially at that point in the game, there’s a lot of room to drive the ball.”

The Lakers struggled against the problems a lot of teams have had against Vucevic and the Magic this season. Los Angeles prefers to have its bigs drop off a pick-and-roll and protect the rim (the same strategy a number of teams use, such as Milwaukee and Utah). Do that against Vucevic and he pops out and drains a three. Keep your big out higher to stay with Vucevic and the lane opens up for drives. Switch that pick and Vucevic will head down to the block with that smaller player show off his variety of post moves — just ask LeBron.

“When he’s in the game, it’s hard for [the other team to go small] because he’s good at posting and our guys are good at finding him…” Clifford said. “Every team that’s downsized when he’s on the floor, we’re good. We struggled when he wasn’t out there.”

“I just wanted to keep being aggressive when they try to switch matchups against me,” Vucevic said. “We’re calling plays to get me involved in the offense, to get me the ball in spots, and I’m just trying to be aggressive.”

Vucevic spent last summer at home in Orlando, spending time with his wife and preparing for his new son, not playing internationally for Montenegro.

“I think one of the things [that has him playing well], to be honest with you, if you ask him, he didn’t play for his national team this summer,” Clifford said. “I know he’d tell you he feels fresher, so I think that’s a big part of it.”

Players rarely talk poorly of their national teams and the toll, and Vucevic didn’t fully buy what Clifford was selling.

“It’s just different because when you play for the national team you get into game shape in July, the end of July into August, ready to play a transition game, so you come into the season having played for a month or two,” Vucevic said. “So it’s a little different, but I’m still 28 so it’s not too big.”

What is big is the impact he is having on the Orlando Magic and the NBA this season.

“You never know a guy until you coach him. I never liked to coach against him,” Clifford said. “He brings inside/outside decision making and he’s a far better defender than anyone has given him credit for. He’s playing at a very high level and playing an all-around game.”

The other thing that’s big? That contract he is going to get next summer after stepping up his game.

Report: Kawhi Leonard didn’t travel with Clippers to Disney World, expected to arrive in few days

Kawhi Leonard in Orlando
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A Clippers-Lakers Western Conference finals – featuring Kawhi Leonard vs. LeBron James – is one of the most anticipated potential attractions of the NBA’s resumption at Disney World.

But Leonard must get there first.

Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports:

Los Angeles Clippers star Kawhi Leonard did not travel with the team on Wednesday to Walt Disney World for the resumption of the NBA season, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

Leonard was given permission by the organization to tend to a family matter and the two-time Defensive Player of the Year and two-time NBA Finals MVP is expected to join the team on campus in a few days, sources said.

Hopefully, everything is alright with Leonard and his family and he arrives as smoothly as this report indicates. The NBA has protocols for players who travel to Orlando after their teams. Leonard isn’t unique in having a personal issue delay his arrival.

But this situation bears especially close watching for two reasons:

1.  Kawhi Leonard might be the NBA’s best player. The Clippers are a top-tier championship contender. Leonard’s whereabouts hold more significance for the season than, say, Magic guard Markelle Fultz‘s.

2. The Clippers have misled to protect Leonard before. Though it was easy to see their logic, it leaves them with less credibility here.

Again, hopefully this is only a minor snag. We’ll know more within a few days.

Report: Nets signing Jamal Crawford

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Most points scored in a player’s last game (among non-active NBA players):

  • Kobe Bryant: 60 (LAL-UTA April 13, 2016)
  • Jamal Crawford: 51 (PHO-DAL April 9, 2019)
  • Alec Peters: 36 (PHO-DAL April 10, 2018)

It’s time to remove Crawford from the list.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

A defensive liability who needs the ball in his hands, 40-year-old Crawford can still make difficult shots remarkably well. But most teams can build a lineup and system that consistently create more efficient shots than the tough looks Crawford specializes in.

The Nets aren’t most teams.

Kyrie Irving and Spencer Dinwiddie are both out. Caris LeVert, Garrett Temple Chris Chiozza and Tyler Johnson are an underwhelming backcourt rotation.

Crawford can add scoring punch. With the point guard-deficient Suns last season, he also showed passing ability, though a good team won’t ask too much of him.

Reminder: The Nets will keep their first-round pick only if they miss the playoffs. With Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving healthy, Brooklyn would probably convey a later pick to the Timberwolves next season.

If nothing else, this is a tremendous personal achievement for Crawford, who badly wanted to keep playing. He has kept in tremendous shape for his age and built a strong reputation in the locker room, earning himself more opportunities.  If everything goes according to plan, Crawford will join Vince Carter, Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Garnett, Kevin Willis, Robert Parish, Kobe Bryant and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the only players to play 20 NBA seasons.

Stephen Jackson peddles another anti-Semitic conspiracy theory, says he’s misunderstood

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Former NBA player Stephen Jackson defended Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson, who has drawn criticism – including from the Eagles – for posting an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory (incorrectly) attributed to Adolph Hitler.

DeSean Jackson apologized twice and pledged to educate himself.

Stephen Jackson insists he’s being unfairly maligned.

Stephen Jackson:

Today’s word is assume. Assume.

To all my Jewish people, I love y’all. Y’all took the video the wrong way. I said he was right stemming from a conversation we had before I got on Live about how they’re handling him and how they handled Cooper when he said the n-word. They didn’t handle them the same way, and that wasn’t right. And that’s what I was talking about. I love y’all. You’ll never find a video or article of me saying I hate anybody. Let me clear that up.

Assume. Today’s word. As a black man, you get pulled over by the police, they assume you’re about to run. They assume you’ve got drugs in the car. They assume you’ve got a gun. They assume the worst, right?

I didn’t say nothing about Jews or supporting Hitler at all in that video. But that’s what they assume I said. And y’all wonder why we’re fighting for equality. Because y’all assume the worst from a black man. I love everybody. I’ve always stood that way. Love for all who have love for all. So, why would you assume I hate somebody?

Too often, apologies get labeled as a “non-apology.” This is a non-apology.

When he said DeSean Jackson is “speaking the truth,” Stephen Jackson sounded like he was talking about DeSean Jackson’s Hitler post – not a private conversation with DeSean Jackson, as Stephen Jackson indicates now.

A reminder of what Stephen Jackson said about DeSean Jackson (emphases mine):

He was trying to educate himself, educate people, and he’s speaking the truth, right? He’s speaking the truth. You know he don’t hate nobody, but he’s speaking the truth of the facts that he knows and trying to educate others.

How do those bolded sections make any sense based on a private conversation between DeSean Jackson and Stephen Jackson?

If this is a case of Stephen Jackson simply not choosing his words carefully enough, it’d be far easier to forgive him. After all, he has now gone out of his way to say he loves Jews.

But Stephen Jackson doesn’t deserve much benefit of the doubt while he also spreads other anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.

Fred Katz of The Athletic:

Police too often make negative assumptions about Black people. That should be addressed.

But, best I can tell, Stephen Jackson is being judged fairly here. He’s promoting anti-Semitic messages. He’s getting treated like someone promoting anti-Semitic messages.

Do I believe Stephen Jackson wants to be anti-Semitic? No. My best guess is his heart is in the right place while his head is in the wrong place. But Stephen Jackson is still spreading anti-Semitism. Even if that’s due to “only” ignorance, he can’t correct that until acknowledging his errors and learning from them. Blaming everyone else for misunderstanding him is not the answer.

Stephen Jackson is also wrong in his comparison to Riley Cooper, a white Eagles receiver who was caught on video saying the n-word in 2013. Like with DeSean Jackson, the Eagles released a statement criticizing Cooper. They didn’t cut Cooper. They also haven’t cut DeSean Jackson. Even if they eventually cut DeSean Jackson, I suspect they’ll follow similar guidelines: Deciding whether the player is good enough to offset the trouble caused by his reprehensible speech.

Magic player tests positive for coronavirus

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The race for the final two playoff spots in the Eastern Conference keeps getting sadder. Somehow.

The Nets are decimated. The Wizards are missing their best players. And the Magic – who already have Jonathan Isaac and Al-Farouq Aminu sidelined – have complications with Markelle Fultz and another unnamed player.

Roy Parry of the Orlando Sentinel:

The Orlando Magic entered the NBA bubble Tuesday without an unidentified player who tested positive for COVID-19 and guard Markelle Fultz, whose entry was delayed due to a personal issue.

Magic president of basketball operations Jeff Weltman said during a videoconference with reporters on Tuesday that Fultz is dealing with a personal matter unrelated to the virus. His absence is excused and the league is aware of his situation, according to Weltman. He said Fultz is following all safety protocols and expects a “seamless transition” for the guard’s return, although Weltman did not have a specific timetable for when that will be.

It’s unclear whether the unnamed player was among the 25 players the NBA announced tested positive.

Fultz and the other player will have to follow protocols for players travelling to Disney World after their teams arrive.

The Magic have D.J. Augustin and Michael Carter-Williams at point guard if Fultz is unavailable. But I’ll take Weltman at his word that Fultz will return to the team smoothly.