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

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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 basketball-reference.com’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.

Kings hire WNBA’s Lindsey Harding as assistant coach

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — The Sacramento Kings have hired former WNBA player Lindsey Harding as an assistant and player development coach on Luke Walton’s staff.

The team also hired Stacey Augmon and Rico Hines on Friday.

Harding played nine years in the WNBA before working as a pro personnel scout and then player development coach for the Philadelphia 76ers.

She becomes the latest woman to serve as a coach in the NBA, joining others like Boston’s Kara Lawson, San Antonio’s Becky Hammon, Dallas’ Jenny Boucek and Cleveland’s Lindsay Gottlieb.

The Kings have a history of hiring female coaches, notably Nancy Lieberman and Boucek.

 

Wizards reportedly to finally remove interim tag from GM Tommy Sheppard

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Tommy Sheppard has been doing the work as the Wizards GM since April when Wizards owner Ted Leonsis finally ended Ernie Grunfeld’s run as team GM.

Sheppard was the GM through the draft. Through free agency. All the time with the “interim” tag on his job title. In Las Vegas for Summer League, plenty of other executives wondered why that tag was still on Sheppard’s title.

It’s finally coming off, reports Candace Buckner of the Washington Post.

The Washington Wizards removed the interim tag from Tommy Sheppard’s title Friday, promoting him to be the 12th general manager in franchise history, according to a person with knowledge of the situation…

The promotion of Sheppard, who will be entering his 17th season with the Wizards, mirrors the internal hiring decision Leonsis made with his hockey team. In 2014, Leonsis elevated Brian MacLellan as the Washington Capitals senior vice president and general manager after firing George McPhee. Before the promotion, MacLellan had spent the previous seven years under McPhee as an assistant general manager.

This likely will be made official in the next 48-72 hours.

Part of the delay may have been that a couple of prominent names were linked to the Wizards job at different times. There were reportedly talks with Tim Conley, who built Denver into a real threat, but he decided to stay in the Rockies. There were rumors of Masai Ujiri coming to the District, but he has chosen to stay in Toronto after winning a title.

Making Sheppard the full-time GM provides some stability just as the Wizards reach their most important moment of the summer.

On July 26 the Wizards can offer star two guard Bradley Beal a three-year, $111 million extension. The Wizards have been talking to Beal’s people and the offer will be made.

What Beal decides will decide the Wizards future for years. If Beal doesn’t sign that offer, the Wizards have to look at trading him. If he signs it, they need to build more around him.

Beal has spoken numerous times in the past about wanting to stay with the Wizards. However, there was plenty of informed speculation at Summer League that he is frustrated with the franchise and could choose to not sign it and essentially force his way out.

Either way, Beal’s decision will define the next steps for Sheppard for years.

 

Child tries to call out James Harden for step-back travels, he says it’s no travel

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If you tried this move in a high-school game 10 years ago, you would have been called for traveling.

In today’s NBA, as the rules are interpreted, James Harden‘s step back is not a travel.

At an event on Friday, a young fan tried to call Harden out on the travel and he defended himself. Via Kelly Iko of The Athletic.

Harden’s stepback is not a travel (when he executes it properly). Even if it looks like it is.

Here is the play in question.

The official response — meaning from officials:

I know when you played Junior High basketball in 2002 that was a travel, but the NBA hasn’t called it that way in years.

The NBA rule here (Rule 10, Section XIII) simplified is a “gather and two steps.” Meaning one step while Harden is gathering the ball, plus two more. Nobody pushes the boundary of the gather step like Harden, he has mastered the grey area. But when he executes it properly — and he doesn’t every time — it’s not a travel.

No matter what that young boy’s father tells him.

Justin Holiday reportedly reaches deal with Pacers, will join forces with brother

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The Pacers just added the wing depth and some defense at the position they have been looking for.

It’s through someone they have long had their eye on, Justin Holiday, the six-year NBA veteran who split time last season between Chicago and Memphis. He has reached an agreement to join the Pacers — and his brother, Aaron Holiday — for a season in Indiana. Shams Charania of The Athletic broke the news.

The Pacers have been in touch with Holiday for a while, reports J. Michael of the Indy Star.

Holiday averaged 10.5 points a game last season, shot 34.7 percent from three, and played solid wing defense.

Victor Oladipo is the team’s best wing player, once he returns from injury (the Pacers are hoping around Christmas or a little after). Beyond him there is Jeremy Lamb, C.J. Wilcox, T.J. Warren, Doug McDermott, and Brian Bowen. Holiday can find minutes in that group.

This also sparks the dream of an all T.J./Holiday lineup. The Pacers have two Holidays, Justin and Aaron, as well as three un-related players named T.J. — T.J. McConnell, T.J. Warren, and T.J. Leaf. We need to see those five on the court together next season, if only for a few minutes.