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Orlando Magic’s big conundrum

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DETROIT – Magic second-year player Jonathan Isaac said he’s not sure whether he’ll develop into more of a small forward or power forward long-term. At times, he prefers small forward. At other times, he prefers power forward. But some think Isaac – who’s listed at 6-foot-10 and probably already taller than that and still growing – will eventually slide to center as he fills out.

“Become a center? I’m not sure,” Isaac said. “I don’t think I’d want to be a center.

“I’m too used to being out on the perimeter and shooting 3s and coming off the dribble.”

That’s when Orlando rookie center Mohamed Bamba piped in from a few lockers over.

“You can shoot 3s,” Bamba offered.

The Magic are in the early stages of identifying how good their most-valuable players actually are, which of them can play together and in which roles. Orlando certainly hasn’t made it easy on itself.

The Magic’s best player is a center (Nikola Vucevic). Their highly drafted rookie is a center (Bamba). Their highly drafted 2017 first-rounder is a big forward/maybe eventual center (Isaac). Their highest-paid player is a big forward (Aaron Gordon).

A big-man crowd like that is unsustainable in the modern NBA. But how Orlando moves on is tricky.

Vucevic looked like a prime trade candidate entering the season. He’s earning $12.75 million on an expiring contract, and at 28, he might be too old to fit the Magic’s rebuild. They had also just drafted Bamba No. 6.

But Vucevic is in the midst of a career year and was just named Orlando’s first All-Star since Dwight Howard. The Magic (22-31) are also just three games and three teams out of playoff position in the lousy Eastern Conference.

With Vucevic earning name recognition and Orlando at least plausibly in contention to end a six-season postseason drought, the optics of moving him could be tough for the Magic to stomach.

If they keep Vucevic, what then, though? Re-sign him to a hefty salary that keeps the logjam intact? Let him leave in free agency for no return?

Vucevic said Orlando drafting Bamba didn’t faze him, that he wants to mentor the young center. Likewise, Bamba said he appreciates Vucevic’s lessons on the finer points of the NBA.

Yet, Bamba also craves a bigger role. He said he feels as if he’s competing with Vucevic for playing time and wants to prove Magic can depend on him with Vucevic’s contract ending in a few months.

“The way everything was kind of put in place was kind of perfect for me down here,” Bamba said. “Just have got to earn it.”

In the meantime, Vucevic appears essential for making the Gordon-Isaac combo work.

Gordon is a good NBA player and just 23. Isaac is solid, only 21 and also trending in the right direction.

But there’s probably too much overlap between the forwards. They collectively don’t provide enough outside shooting, ball-handling and passing. Gordon is more polished in those areas, but he shines far more at power forward than the small forward he has played most of this season. Even defensively, as mobile and athletic as Gordon and Isaac are for their size, forcing one of them to defend a more wing-y small forward can be an exploitable mismatch.

Yet, the pairing works fine with Vucevic at center. Vucevic is so skilled offensively, he draws defensive attention inside and outside. He can put the ball on the floor, shoot from multiple spots including beyond the arc and distribute. Vucevic is talented enough to mask deficiencies of playing Gordon and Isaac together.

Here are, per NBA Wowy, Orlando’s offensive/defensive/net ratings with Gordon and Isaac on and…

  • Vucevic on: 113.0/107.9/+5.1
  • Vucevic off: 92.7/138.2/-45.5

Gordon and Isaac have played just 29 minutes together without Vucevic, most of those coming with Bamba on the floor. So, the sample size is too small to be completely reliable. But that’s also likely no accident. Magic coach Steve Clifford can see how important Vucevic is to making Gordon and Isaac work together.

Eventually, Orlando should determine how Gordon, Isaac and Bamba fare as a frontcourt. That trio possesses so much size, length, athleticism and defensive potential.

Offense remains worrisome, though. Bamba has theoretical 3-point ability, but he (understandably) lags way behind Vucevic in ball skills. At 20, Bamba is so raw.

So, there’d be value in retaining Vucevic. He’d help provide a structure more conducive to Gordon and Isaac producing.

That’s particularly important with Gordon, who’s on the first year of a four-year, $76 million contract that contains deescalating annual salaries. His trade value should only increase as his salary falls.

It could hinder Isaac, though. He’s often the overlooked player in the Magic’s starting frontcourt. His usage percentage (15.6) lags well behind Vucevic’s (28.0) and Gordon’s (21.5).

“He’s developing at a really good pace,” Clifford said of Isaac. “It’s just hard for me to find ways to give him opportunities to iso, to play one-on-one, with the makeup of our team. So, people will see it here eventually, but that’s the part that I have to figure out better, too.”

Isaac’s and Bamba’s development could be especially important to Orlando important because they’re the only two of the four primary bigs acquired by Magic president Jeff Weltman. Weltman inherited Vucevic and Gordon. Re-signing Gordon was widely seen as a prelude to trading him. I’m not even convinced Weltman particularly coveted Bamba, either. Bamba might have just been the best prospect available when Orlando drafted.

But the Magic have all four bigs now. They must figure out where to go from here.

It’s not Showtime 2, but Lakers fast break surprising, running past teams

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LOS ANGELES — Sunday night, the Los Angeles Lakers ran past the Timberwolves.

Literally.

The Lakers got their first bucket when Anthony Davis got a rebound, pushed the ball up the court himself, and went coast-to-coast for an and-1 lay-up. Soon after LeBron James was throwing look-aheads to a sprinting Davis.

Los Angeles had 17 fast-break points in the first quarter, on their way to 32 for the game. The Lakers kept getting easy buckets in transition, which kept a feisty Timberwolves team in the rear-view mirror.

That happens a lot. Talk to opposing the coaches about the Lakers and you hear about their length defensively, the activity of their big men, and how the LeBron/Davis pick-and-roll leaves defenders with impossible choices.

The fast break points sneak up on teams. These Lakers are not the second coming of Showtime, but the break has become a vital weapon for them.

“The transition game over the past couple of weeks has really picked up,” Lakers’ coach Frank Vogel said.

Los Angeles averages 18.4 fast break points per game, third most in the NBA, but that number doesn’t tell the entire story. The Lakers add as many points per game on transition plays as any team in the league, looking at the advanced stats at Cleaning the Glass (which filters out garbage time in its numbers). The Lakers start 16 percent of possessions in transition, eight highest percentage in the league, and they have a ridiculous 130.8 offensive rating when they do get out and run, third best in the NBA.

Maybe more importantly, the players love it. They want to run. Vogel praised Davis’ “old school, smash mouth” 50 points against Karl-Anthony Towns and the Timberwolves, but he did that in part by rim-running hard in transition and getting some easy dunks early.

“For me, I like to get out and run, get some easy buckets first, especially on the break get a lob or a lay-up, see the ball go through the basket and go from there,” Davis said of those early transition buckets Sunday.

Transition points have to start with a stop and a rebound, which has been the focal point of Vogel and the coaching staff. Once the break starts it’s much more straightforward —get LeBron the rock and just run.

“Prior to the Denver game (Dec. 3), we had not been rebounding the basketball very well,” Vogel said. “With a strong message delivered that we’re not going to reach our potential if we continue to be poor on the glass and rely on our athleticism to rebound rather than really committing to hitting people — and if we secure the rebound and hold people to one shot — then we’re dealing with live rebounds and we’re able to run.

“We always encourage our guys to run their patterns. LeBron James, he’s just unbelievable with his throw aheads. He’s putting the ball on target in narrow spaces and getting guys easy lay-ups.

“So I think it starts on the defensive end with the defensive glass and then LeBron running the action.”

Those easy transition buckets make it much harder to beat the Lakers and are a key reason they are a West-leading 21-3. Los Angeles is difficult to score against with all its length, and it has the sixth best defense in the NBA. Against teams like that, giving up easy transition buckets almost guarantees a loss. Teams can’t make up the ground.

Which sounds a lot like the Showtime Lakers.

This year’s Lakers’ edition may not be Magic to Worthy for the tomahawk dunk, but it’s closer to it than the Lakers have been in a long time. Even if it’s not what people notice first.

Keep the pace up and these Lakers may be able to run their way to some of the success — and the rings — of those Showtime Lakers.

Derrick Rose in on-court interview after game-winner: ‘Excuse my English, but I’m born to do this s—’ (video)

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Yesterday was a big night for hitting game-winners then cursing in walk-off interviews.

Nemanja Bjelica made the game-winning 3-pointer for the Kings against the Rockets then said, “F— it, we deserved this win, man.”

Derrick Rose also made a game-winning jumper for the Pistons against the Pelicans then said on Fox Sports Detroit:

Excuse my English, but I’m born to do this s—. Dead serious. This is what I do.

Rose spent a large portion of his life as an elite basketball player. Then, he had multiple lost years with the Bulls, slipped with the Knicks and was downright awful with the Cavaliers. It seemed he could fall out of the NBA entirely.

He’s clearly darned proud of persevering.

He also doesn’t always explain that in the most polite language.

Based on the Marc Gasol precedent of saying “f—” in an on-court interview, Bjelica will probably get fined. Is “s—” OK, though? What a fascinating question for the league office.

Nemanja Bjelica in on-court interview after game-winner: ‘F— it, we deserved this win’ (video)

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Teams down two points with one second left almost always lose.

The Kings beat the odds when Nemanja Bjelica hit the game-winning 3-pointer against the Rockets last night.

Run that last possession 100 times, and Sacramento would mostly lose. But credit the Kings for taking Houston, a good team, the distance on the road. Even having that final opportunity reflects well on Sacramento.

That was Bjelica’s message after the game – a point he felt quite strongly about.

Bjelica closed his on-court interview on NBC Sports California with:

F— it, we deserved this win, man.

I love it. This was genuine emotion of a big moment for him.

The NBA might not be as fond. Marc Gasol got fined $15,000 for closing an on-court interview a couple years ago with, “Overall, we won. F— it.”

Three Things to Know: Derrick Rose is (almost) back, drains game-winner vs. Pelicans

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Derrick Rose is (almost) back, drains game-winner to beat New Orleans. The saga of Derrick Rose is one of the biggest NBA stories of the past decade — we thought he might be the Player of the Decade when it started. Young Rose was an unstoppable force, throwing his body around and absorbing contact while making plays for the Bulls. Rose was the 2011 NBA MVP and his future seemed limitless.

Then in 2012 he tore his ACL. It was the first of a string of knee injuries that changed his career. Instead of owning the decade, Rose spent much of it in recovery from multiple surgeries that robbed him of his explosiveness, and he struggled without it. Rose had to put in the work to find and grow the craft in his game.

In 2019, Derrick Rose is back.

Almost. We’re never going to see 23-year-old Rose again, but the 31-year-old version is a different kind of force for the Pistons, a crafty player averaging 16.1 points and 5.8 assists a game who is one of the early contenders for Sixth Man of the Year. He is an integral part of what is happening in Detroit.

How integral? With the game tied 103-103 in New Orleans last night and time for one last shot, Detroit coach Dwane Casey drew up an isolation play for Rose. Blake Griffin wasn’t going to touch the ball, it was all Rose — with a good defender in Jrue Holiday in front of him. Rose got the bucket anyway.

In the locker room later, a reporter asked Holiday if Rose pushed off, and the veteran wouldn’t take the bait and instead praised the former MVP.

“He has everything,” Holiday said, via the Associated Press. “I think it was a good play on his part. I’m not going to take anything from him. He’s a great player and the shot that he made was a tough shot. There was nothing I could do about it.”

Rose was 7-of-8 for 17 points in the fourth quarter, including hitting a spinning layup with 38.7 seconds left to tie the game at 103-103.

Thanks to Rose, the Pistons got the win (their fourth in five games). It was Rose’s second strong fourth quarter in a row.

Rose is back. At least enough to become a player you want to stop and watch again.

And that story arc makes him one of the best stories of the last decade.

2) Nemanja Bjelica drains game-winner in Houston to give Kings impressive back-to-back wins in Texas. Maybe, after an ugly start to the season, Luke Walton’s Kings are finding their way. Maybe it was too early to write them off as a playoff team (it was, nobody in the West ran away with the 7/8 eight seed, leaving the door open).

Sunday night the Kings took down Luka Doncic and the Mavericks. On Monday night, it was the Rockets turn.

It was the best finish to a game all night (with apologies to Derrick Rose). Sacramento’s Buddy Hield had tied the game at 116-116 with a leaning three-pointer with eight seconds left.

Houston called a timeout, then Mike D’Antoni made a smart decision having the Rockets bring the ball up the length of the court rather than advance it — it allowed Russell Westbrook to pick up a head of steam. Sacramento sold out to keep the ball out of James’ Harden’s hands, and that left a lane for Westbrook to blow by Heild and get all the way to the rim for a far too easy lay-up. Houston was up 118-116 with one second left on the clock, and Westbrook was yelling “game over.”

Nemanja Bjelica then had his say.

Kings Twitter smacked the Rockets with the best trash talk of the night

Sacramento just swept a very difficult Texas two-step on a back-to-back. The wins improve the Kings to 10-13 on the season, just a game back of slumping Phoenix for the final playoff slot in the West. And this week the Kings will get Marvin Bagley III back (De’Aaron Fox is still a couple of weeks away).

Luke Walton seems to have the Kings headed in the right direction.

3) Gordon Hayward returns, Celtics ease him back in against Cavaliers’ “defense.” Gordon Hayward looked like he never left.

After a month on the sidelines recovering from surgery to his fractured hand, Hayward beat the timeline by two weeks and was back on the court Monday. The Celtics eased him back by bringing him in against the Cavaliers, a team that wasn’t going to make him work too hard to score.

Hayward had 14 points on 7-of-10 shooting and generally looked comfortable in his return.

It’s good to see Hayward back, a guy having his own bounce-back year from a major surgery a couple of years ago. He has started to look like his vintage self. Boston could use that Hayward and shot creation in their next three games, which will be a little tougher: At Indiana, hosting Philadelphia, at Dallas.