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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.

Report: Jonathan Kuminga, top prospect for 2021 NBA Draft, to earn $500K in NBA minor league

Jonathan Kuminga
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Jonathan Kuminga didn’t crack our list of the top 50 players in five years last summer, but he drew consideration and rated as the top prospect in the 2021 high school class.

Now, he’s fast-tracking his ascent – turning pro by signing with the NBA’s minor league and positioning himself for the 2021 NBA Draft.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

Kuminga will join Jalen Green, Isaiah Todd and Daishen Nix in this professional-pathway program.

We’ll see how well this setup, run by Brian Shaw, prepares young players for the NBA. But the money is nice. Kuminga ($500,000), Green ($500,000), Todd ($250,000) and Nix ($300,000) have approximate salaries that wouldn’t be allowed by the NCAA cartel system.

Hopefully, the competition forces college basketball to treat its players more fairly.

Washington Mystics: We planned all along to pay Elena Delle Donne

Washington Mystics star Elena Delle Donne
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Washington Mystics star Elena Delle Donne – per a panel of doctors chosen by the WNBA and its union – doesn’t face elevated risk of severe symptoms if she contracts coronavirus. That meant the Mystics wouldn’t have to pay her if she sits out this season. Delle Donne has publicly argued her Lyme disease should have medically excused her from the WNBA season, allowing her to collect her full salary.

Like many people amid the pandemic, Delle Donne faced a hard decision: Work and risk exposure to coronavirus or miss out on money and stay safer.

The Mystics have solved her dilemma – agreeing to pay her while she remains away from the team.

Mystics general manager/coach Mike Thibault, via Tyler Byrum of NBC Sports Washington:

“She is being paid and is continuing to rehab from her offseason back surgery. If at some point later in the season, we are all comfortable – I mean all comfortable – enough with both her physical progress and the safety of joining the team in Florida, then we will make those arrangements. If we don’t feel that she will continue to do the workouts in D.C., and get herself ready for the following season.”

“We can do anything we want,” Thibault said. “We have intended to [pay her] from the start. She’s a major part of our team and she’s making every effort to do the rehab that she needs to do.”

“I have told her that there is not going to be pressure put on her to hurry back, I don’t want — I’m in this and she’s in this for the long haul,” Thibault said.

If the Mystics truly planned all along to pay Delle Donne, her public-relations campaign the last couple days seems excessive.

But it’s also possible the public pressure she raised contributed to this decision.

As reigning WNBA MVP, Delle Donne had leverage that other players don’t. That’s why I’m surprised this was up to the Mystics. Other WNBA teams don’t want to face increasing pressure to pay any players who want to sit out. That’s why the panel of doctors existed in the first place.

Perhaps, Delle Donne’s back injury gave Washington a workaround. That’s a reasonable excuse for Delle Donne not reporting while still getting paid. Is the WNBA really going to investigate the Mystics’ assessment of their own player’s physical health when the player agrees?

This is a good outcome for Delle Donne. She made herself so valuable to her employer that it’ll pay her not to work. That’s a heck of an accomplishment by her.

We’ll see how much, if any, of a precedent it sets.

Sacramento’s De’Aaron Fox out at least 7-10 days with sprained ankle

De'Aaron Fox sprained ankle
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For a Sacramento team with playoff dreams, this is a punch to the gut: De'Aaron Fox is going to be sidelined until around the start of seeding games — 7-10 days at least — with a sprained ankle.

The Kings’ announced that their point guard sprained his left ankle in practice Wednesday. While he will be re-evaluated in 7-10 days, he could be out longer. This is the same ankle Fox sprained in November that caused him to miss 17 games.

The Kings’ first game is 16 days away against San Antonio.

Fox, arguably the fastest player in the league with the ball in his hands, averaged 20.4 points, and 6.8 assists this season, playing at a near All-star level once he came back from the sprained ankle. Fox is the engine of the Sacramento offense, it is 5.2 points per 100 possessions worse when he is off the court.

Sacramento comes into the restart in a virtual tie with Portland and New Orleans for the ninth seed in the West, 3.5 games back of Memphis. However, the Kings have not been able to get their stars on the court together: Harrison Barnes and Alex Len and remain in Sacramento, quarantining after testing positive for the coronavirus. Richaun Holmes is in quarantine on his Walt Disney World hotel room after leaving the confines of the NBA bubble to pick up a food delivery.

All of which combine to make it an even longer shot the Kings end their 14-year playoff drought this season. The sprained ankle for De’Aaron Fox, if it slows him at all, would be a serious blow to those chances.

 

Spurs: Trey Lyles out rest of season (appendectomy)

Spurs forward Trey Lyles
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The Spurs lost their top big in LaMarcus Aldridge.

Now, they’ll lose Trey Lyles, who often started at power forward next to Aldridge and also played behind Aldridge at center.

Spurs release:

Spurs forward Trey Lyles underwent an appendectomy earlier today in Orlando, Fla.

Lyles will miss the remainder of the 2019-20 season.

San Antonio’s last seeding game is scheduled for Aug. 13 – nearly a month away. Theoretically, Lyles could have tried to return by then.

The NBA dodges a complication with the Spurs ruling him out for the rest of the season.

Lyles left the NBA’s campus for his surgery. (Disney World is in Lake Buena Vista. He underwent surgery in Orlando.) That means he faced exposure in Florida, where coronavirus cases are surging. It would have been tricky bringing him back into the bubble safely while not punishing him for requiring medical attention.

The NBA will probably face this conundrum with someone else later. But the league avoids that situation for now.

San Antonio’s problems are more pressing.

Jakob Poeltl is now the Spurs’ top center, but he fits poorly with DeMar DeRozan because they’re both non-shooters from 3-point range. Rudy Gay should see plenty of time at power forward.

Behind them, options – newly signed Tyler Zeller, Drew Eubanks, Chimezie Metu and Luka Samanic – are uninspiring.

Gregg Popovich truly must muster some magic for San Antonio to extend its record playoff streak.