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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.

Kyle Lowry tried to drive through George Hill’s legs. That didn’t work. (VIDEO)

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Milwaukee’s George Hill, a physical 6’3″ defender, was up on Toronto’s Kyle Lowry out on the perimeter. Lowry, pinned, had no good options.

So, Lowry tried to go through Hill’s legs. Not dribble through and run around, Lowry tried to tunnel his way between Hill’s legs.

 

Lowry, at 6-foot even, is not going to pull that off. Maybe against Boban Marjanovic. Maybe.

At least Nick Nurse got a good laugh out of it. He needed it; the rest of the night didn’t go so well for Nurse, Lowry, and the Raptors.

Three Things to Know: Bulls’ Coby White is red hot — and the latest Jim Boylen controversy

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday during the NBA regular season we are here to help you break it all down. Here are three things you need to know from yesterday in the NBA.

1) Bulls’ Coby White is red hot — and latest Jim Boylen controversy. Will Jim Boylen be the coach of the Bulls next season? Current management — the Gar/Pax team — has his back and loves his old-school ways, but that duo has already lost some power (Gar Forman has seen his role reduced) and John Paxson is about to. A new GM (or whatever title) is coming in this summer — talks have started, and there was a lot of buzz about that around All-Star weekend — and you can bet that person will want a say in who coaches his team.

Bulls players are reportedly not Boylen fans. Bulls fans are with the players and there is a long list of grievances from his heavy-handed practices to the odd (read: poor) use of late-game timeouts.

Now add Coby White to that mix.

White, the rookie backup point guard for the Bulls, is on fire. He had consecutive 33-point games coming into Tuesday night, but White’s mentor and former AAU coach, Chris Paul, promised an end to this trend.

That’s not what happened. White dropped 35 on the Thunder, shooting 13-of-21 overall and 6-of-9 from three (in another Chicago loss).

The last Bulls rookie with three 30+ point games in a row? Some guy named Michael Jordan.

As noted by K.C. Johnson at NBC Sports Chicago, White and Zach LaVine have each scored 30-plus points in consecutive games, and the last Bulls’ teammates to do that were Bob Love and Chet Walker in 1969. Beyond the stats, White brings a level of dynamic play and energy to the Bulls nobody else on that roster seems able to.

For the last three games, White and LaVine have formed an electric offensive backcourt. Starting point guard Kris Dunn is out for the season. A lot of people are calling for White to get the call and start games.

So coach Boylen, is it time to make White the starter?

No. Boylen is going to keep White coming off the bench (and play his veterans, in general), rather than move White into the starting lineup.

“I keep getting this question and I’m just going to answer it one more time,” Boylen said. “Coby’s in a good place. We’re going to keep him in a good place. Let’s let Coby keep playing and lets let him keep developing.”

Don’t change what’s working is a good philosophy.

If it’s actually working. Which, in the big picture, is the real question in Chicago.

John Paxson will remain the Bulls president and he fully buys into Boylen’s style. Normally that would mean Boylen is safe, but the ground is shifting in Chicago with front office changes coming. How much they change remains to be seen, but any GM coming needs to have new ideas and bring change — otherwise what’s the point of bringing him in — and that will include on the coaching front. The ground is shifting in Chicago, and that makes it difficult for Boylen to remain standing.

2) Zion Williamson comes to Los Angeles but LeBron James steals the show, drops season-high 40. Zion Williamson made his debut against LeBron and the Lakers — and he did some very Zion things. Like dunk.

And show off the kind of hops where he can grab a rebound away from Dwight Howard.

Despite that, Tuesday night was the LeBron James show — the MVP candidate got whatever he wanted. Wherever he wanted. The results was a season-high 40 points (and a 118-109 Laker win).

Los Angeles has won six in a row and is in control atop the West.

New Orleans is now four-games behind Memphis in the loss column in the chase for the eighth seed — and the right to face the Lakers in the first round of the playoffs.

3) Bucks remind everyone they own the East. The Milwaukee Bucks have been the clear best team in the East — rather, the best team in all of basketball — this season. It’s not up for debate. The calendar hasn’t even flipped to March yet and the Bucks have 50 wins.

If you want more evidence, take a look at the Bucks schedule. Last Saturday, Milwaukee dismantled Philadelphia (largely without Ben Simmons, but still).

Then on Tuesday night, on the second night of a back-to-back (and the team’s third game in four days), Milwaukee went into Toronto and took care of a red-hot Raptors team. It was a balanced attack. Giannis Antetokounmpo had 19 points and 19 rebounds (plus eight assists), Khris Middleton had 22 points, Eric Bledsoe had 17, and Brook Lopez had 15 as the NBA-leading Bucks won their fifth straight and 18th of 20.

Antetokounmpo said yes, he was motivated by the fact Toronto is where the Bucks lost in the playoffs last season — you have to love that attitude.

We keep talking ourselves into teams that will challenge the Bucks in the East — right now the Celtics are trendy on that list — but then you watch the Bucks play and realize it is them and then a big gap to everyone else.

Lakers, Dion Waiters reportedly to talk March 2

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It has always been easy to connect the dots that would bring Dion Waiters to the Lakers. Waiters’ former agent is Rob Pelinka, who is now the Lakers’ GM. Waiters’ current agent is Rich Paul, who reps both LeBron James and Anthony Davis. That gets your foot in the door.

After Memphis bought out Waiters, it was rumored he and the Lakers would talk. That is now set to happen on March 2, next week, something Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports reported Tuesday night on TNT during the Lakers win against New Orleans.

The Lakers have been active in the buyout market — they signed Markieff Morris, who made his debut for the team Tuesday night — looking to add playmaking and shooting. Waiters can shoot — 37.7 percent from three last season and 38.6 percent on catch-and-shoot threes — but is not much of a playmaker (he can put the ball on the floor but only to create for himself). The Lakers need to decide if he’s a fit, they have Avery Bradley and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope at the two-guard spot already. Waiters has played a fair amount at the point in Miami, but he’s not the kind of playmaker the Lakers are seeking to go with Rajon Rondo.

Waiters clashed with coaches and management in Miami, but with a strong, LeBron-led locker room culture the Lakers aren’t worried about that impact.

Waiters is available because Miami used his salary to balance out the money in the Justise Winslow to Memphis/Andre Iguodala trade. Memphis did not want a distraction, plus they are deep at the two-guard spot with the just extended Dillon Brooks, De'Anthony Melton, and Grayson Allen. So the Grizzlies waived Waiters, as was expected.

The only question is does he upgrade the Lakers roster?

What we do know is he has the connections to at least get in the building and make his case.

Grizzlies’ rookie Brandon Clarke will be out at least two weeks with thigh bruise

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Fans tune into Memphis games to watch Ja Morant, the dynamic rookie point guard who has led the Grizzlies to the playoff chase in the West (the Grizzlies currently hold down the eighth spot and final playoff slot).

Those same fans often come away saying, “who is that No. 15?”

It’s Brandon Clarke, another Memphis rookie, this one out of Gonzaga. Clarke is averaging 12 points a game shooting 62.3% from the field, and he’s been a solid part of the Memphis rotation.

Now, he’s going to be out a couple of weeks with a thigh bruise.

It’s another tough blow for a Memphis team trying to hang on to the eight seed. The Grizzlies also are without Jaren Jackson Jr. due to a sprained left knee.