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Do you believe in Magic? They sure do

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NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

The Magic just had their best season in seven years. Orlando was buzzing. Management poured more than $160 million into keeping the roster intact.

All for a 42-40 team that lost 4-1 in the first round.

The Magic should feel good about their breakthrough season. They ended the longest playoff drought in franchise history.

But this summer showed major long-term commitment to a group that has proven capable of just moderate winning and lacks obvious upside.

The major investments: Re-signing Nikola Vucevic (four years, $100 million) and Terrence Ross (four years, $54 million). Vucevic was an All-Star last season, and Vucevic finished fifth in Sixth Man of the Year voting. They’re good players.

But Vucevic didn’t become an All-Star until his eighth season. Most players who make their first All-Star game so late in their career don’t return. He also plays center, where there’s a surplus of capable players. That’s an expensive price for his age-29-through-31 seasons.

Likewise, Ross will turn 29 next season. He’s a streaky scorer who flourished in a bigger role last season. I’m just not convinced he’ll keep it up to justify his price tag.

At least Orlando structured the contracts well. Like Aaron Gordon‘s terms signed the year before, Vucevic’s salaries declines throughout his deal. Ross’ increases in the second year then declines. That should help the players hold more value later.

In the meantime, the Magic want to keep winning now. They’re the only Eastern Conference playoff team to return every starter.

They also re-signed key backups Khem Birch (two years, $6 million) and Michael Carter-Williams (minimum) for reasonable value. That continuity could make the difference next season. Orlando really took off after Birch and Carter-Williams joined the rotation last season.

The Magic signed Al-Farouq Aminu (three years, $29,162,700) to add depth. In a vacuum, I like that move. In Orlando, Aminu is another power forward on a team overloaded with bigs.

It’s already difficult enough to find proper opportunities for Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac. Aminu only complicates matters. All three can play both forward spots. Maybe the Magic envision always having two interchangeable forwards on the floor, allowing them to maintain a style. But all three are better at power forward. There were probably better ways to allocate resources.

Signing Aminu with the mid-level exception necessitated stretching Timofey Mozgov to stay out of the luxury tax. That’s a not-small $5,573,334 cap hit each of the next three seasons.

Orlando drafted yet another power in the first round, Chuma Okeke at No. 16. But considering Okeke tore his ACL in March, the Magic could look quite different by the time he’s ready to contribute. They might get a long runway with him, as he has yet to sign his rookie-scale contract and could spend next season on a minor-league deal. Six years of team control, up from the usual five for a first-round pick, could matter significantly.

There are paths for Orlando to reach the next level – Gordon becoming a star, Isaac breaking out, Mohamed Bamba getting on track after a disappointing rookie year, Okeke getting healthy and proving correct the advanced models that rated him as a top prospect, Markelle Fultz rediscovering his form. None seem like great bets, especially because it might take a couple hits to propel this forward.

There’s a decent chance this summer’s spending works out. Winning increases the value of everyone involved. It creates flexibility not afforded to losing teams. And it’s just fun while it’s happening.

But I think it’s slightly more likely Orlando regrets locking into these players at those prices – that the Magic don’t win enough then head right back to the wrong side of mediocre while facing new long-term costs.

Offseason grade: C-

NBA gets coronavirus test results quickly, unlike much of nation. Should they?

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The NBA’s entire bubble restart plan is built on testing — upon arrival in Orlando, players are quarantined in their rooms until they pass two coronavirus tests 24 hours apart, then they will be tested daily. Commissioner Adam Silver was clear during the planning of the league’s restart that if the league were taking coronavirus tests away from hot spots and people who needed them, then there would be no restart. The league took its PR hit on that back in March when teams were tested while people wondering if they had COVID-19 struggled to get tests. It came off as preferential treatment.

Silver has nothing to fear on this front, tests appear widely available nationwide.

Getting the results for those tests, however, is a different story — nationally, labs are overwhelmed with the increase in testing.

The NBA is getting its test results back from a lab within a day (or two at most), while much of the nation is waiting a week or longer for those same results.

Is that the same ethical issue for the NBA as not taking tests away from people? NBC’s own Tom Haberstroh dove into the issue, noting the NBA has moved away from Quest Diagnostics as its testing partner in Florida and is now using BioReference Laboratories, sources told Haberstroh.

The shift away from Quest is notable considering that on Monday, Quest Diagnostics issued a worrisome press release. Quest stated a recent surge in demand for coronavirus testing had caused delays in processing, with 4-6 day average turnarounds on COVID-19 tests for populations that do not fall into their “Priority 1” group. That group includes “hospital patients, pre-operative patients in acute care settings and symptomatic healthcare workers.” Average turnarounds for Priority 1 would be one day, the lab company said.

It’s difficult to see how the NBA and its personnel would be considered Priority 1 in the Quest designation. Being put in the normal population group, with 4-6 day turnarounds, would lead to significant delays and could jeopardize the league’s entire testing operation.

The good news for the NBA is that BioReference Laboratories (if that is who the NBA uses, nothing is official)  is turning tests around in about a day for the league (and Major League Soccer, which also has a restart campus on the Walt Disney World property). But it’s not that way for everyone.

BioReference is experiencing serious delays with the general public. As of Thursday morning, patients attempting to access test results on the BioReference website would be met with an alert that reads: “If you are looking for your COVID-19 PCR (swab) results please note that these may not be available in the patient portal for up to 5-7 days after collection. As always, we appreciate your business and thank you for your patience during this unprecedented time.”

To be clear: The NBA has not announced its testing partner in Florida, and it’s not officially known if the NBA is being put in “priority one” groups ahead of the general public for results. We don’t know for sure what system the NBA has in place.

What we know is what we see: Players had to pass two tests 24 hours apart to be done with quarantine, to practice, and be free to roam the campus the NBA set up on the Disney property. The first teams to arrive are practicing just 48 hours after they arrived. Meaning the NBA is getting fast test turnarounds.

It raises an ethical and moral question about preferential treatment. While the NBA is big business and there is a desire to have NBA games return, the league should not be put ahead of anyone else who is looking to get tested. Sure, the NBA and it’s players’ union have agreed to be part of a Yale University’s SalivaDirect test study, but that alone should not bump NBA players to the front of the testing line ahead of the general public.

Haberstroh has medical ethicists saying the same thing, but the real judge will be the public and the PR backlash. This could be another black eye for the league. We, as a nation, have always prioritized sport as entertainment, giving it a lofty status in our culture. But with people’s health on the line, that feeling may be very different for a lot of people.

 

 

Nets reportedly sign Donta Hall for restart games in Orlando

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Donta Hall went undrafted out of Alabama last June, then made the most of the opportunities he was given. The 6’9″ big man tore up the G League for the Grand Rapids Drive, averaging 15.4 points a game on 66.9% shooting, plus gabbing 10.6 rebounds a night. It was good enough to get him a call up to the Pistons and getting in four games for them.

Now he’s going to play in the NBA restart for the Brooklyn Nets, a story broken by Marc Stein of the New York Times.

The shorthanded Nets are without big men DeAndre Jordan, Taurean Prince, and Nicolas Claxton (Jarrett Allen was the only center on the roster). Donta Hall will get the chance to impress the Nets — and other teams — and try to earn a contract for next season (he will be a free agent when the Nets are eliminated).

Hall is a tremendous athlete, he’s bouncy and long (7’5″ wingspan). If his skills develop, he has a role in the NBA.

The Nets were hit hard by injuries and had to make substitute signings such as Jamal Crawford and Michael Beasley. Here is what the final Nets roster looks like in Orlando.

After four months off, first NBA teams practice in restart bubble

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ASSOCIATED PRESS — Nikola Vucevic had to raise his voice a bit to answer a question. He had just walked off the court after the first Orlando Magic practice of the restart, and some of his teammates remained on the floor while engaged in a loud and enthusiastic shooting contest.

After four months, basketball was truly back.

Full-scale practices inside the NBA bubble at the Disney complex started Thursday, with the Magic — the first team to get into the campus earlier this week — becoming the first team formally back on the floor. By the close of business Thursday, all 22 teams participating in the restart were to be checked into their hotel and beginning their isolation from the rest of the world for what will be several weeks at least. And by Saturday, all teams should have practiced at least once.

“It’s great to be back after four months,” Vucevic said. “We all missed it.”

The last eight teams were coming in Thursday, the Los Angeles Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers among them. Lakers forward LeBron James lamented saying farewell to his family, and 76ers forward Joel Embiid — who raised some eyebrows earlier this week when he said he was “not a big fan of the idea” of restarting the season in a bubble — showed up for his team’s flight in what appeared to be a full hazmat suit.

“Just left the crib to head to the bubble. … Hated to leave the (hashtag)JamesGang,” James posted on Twitter.

Another last-day arrival at the Disney campus was the reigning NBA champion Toronto Raptors, who boarded buses for the two-hour drive from Naples, Florida — they’ve been there for about two weeks, training at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers — for the trip to the bubble. The buses were specially wrapped for the occasion, with the Raptors’ logo and the words “Black Lives Matter” displayed on the sides.

Brooklyn, Utah, Washington and Phoenix all were down to practice Thursday, along with the Magic. Denver was originally scheduled to, then pushed back its opening session to Friday. By Saturday, practices will be constant — 22 teams working out at various times in a window spanning 13 1/2 hours and spread out across seven different facilities.

Exhibition games begin July 22. Games restart again for real on July 30.

“It just felt good to be back on the floor,” said Brooklyn interim coach Jacque Vaughn, who took over for Kenny Atkinson less than a week before the March 11 suspension of the season because of the coronavirus. “I think that was the most exciting thing. We got a little conditioning underneath us. Didn’t go too hard after the quarantine, wanted to get guys to just run up and down a little bit and feel the ball again.”

Teams, for the most part, had to wait two days after arriving before they could get on the practice floor.

Many players have passed the time with video games; Miami center Meyers Leonard, with the Heat not practicing for the first time until Friday, has been giving fans glimpses of everything from his gaming setup to his room service order for his first dinner at Disney — replete with lobster bisque, a burger, chicken strips and some Coors Light to wash it all down.

The food has been a big talking point so far, especially after a handful of players turned to social media to share what got portrayed as less-than-superb meals during the brief quarantine period.

“For the most part, everything has been pretty good in my opinion,” Nets guard Joe Harris said. “They’ve done a good job taking care of us and making sure to accommodate us in every area as much as possible.”

Learning the campus has been another key for the first few days, and that process likely will continue for a while since teams will be using all sorts of different facilities while getting back into the practice routine.

“We have to make the best out of it,” Vucevic said. “You know, this is our job. We’re going to try to make the best out of it. I really think the NBA did the best they could to know make this as good as they can for us. And once we start playing, you’re not going to be thinking about the little things.”

Zion Williamson’s stepfather accused of taking $400,000 before Zion’s season at Duke

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ASSOCIATED PRESS — The legal fight over NBA rookie Zion Williamson’s endorsement potential now includes an allegation that his family received $400,000 from a marketing agency before his lone season for Duke.

Prime Sports Marketing and company president Gina Ford filed a lawsuit last summer in a Florida state court, accusing Williamson and the agency now representing him of breach of contract. That came a week after Williamson filed his own lawsuit in a North Carolina federal court to terminate a five-year contract with Prime Sports after moving to Creative Artists Agency LLC.

In court filings Thursday in North Carolina, Ford’s attorneys included a sworn affidavit from a California man who said the head of a Canadian-based firm called Maximum Management Group (MMG) told him he paid Williamson’s family for his commitment to sign with MMG once he left Duke for the NBA.

The documents include a marketing agreement signed by Williamson with MMG from May 2019, a December 2019 “letter of declaration” signed by Williamson and his stepfather agreeing to pay $500,000 to MMG president Slavko Duric for “repayment of a loan” from October 2018, and a copy of Williamson’s South Carolina driver’s license — which listed Williamson’s height as “284” and his weight as “6′06.”

In a statement to The Associated Press, Williamson attorney, Jeffrey S. Klein, said those documents were “fraudulent.”

“The alleged ‘agreements’ and driver’s license attached to these papers are fraudulent – and neither Mr. Williamson nor his family know these individuals nor had any dealings with them,” Klein said. “We had previously alerted Ms. Ford’s lawyers to both this fact and that we had previously reported the documents to law enforcement as forgeries, but they chose to go ahead with another frivolous filing anyway.

“This is a desperate and irresponsible attempt to smear Mr. Williamson at the very time he has the opportunity to live his dream of playing professional basketball.”

The affidavit is from Donald Kreiss, a self-described entrepreneur who worked with athletes and agents in marketing relationships. He had recently contacted Ford then provided the affidavit last week outlining interactions with MMG and Williamson’s family, according to one of the filings.

Ford’s attorneys have sought to focus on Williamson’s eligibility. His lawsuit stated that Prime Sports violated North Carolina’s sports agent law, both by failing to include disclaimers about the loss of eligibility when signing the contract and the fact neither Prime Sports nor Ford were registered with the state.

Ford’s attorneys have argued the Uniform Athlete Agents Act wouldn’t apply if Williamson was ineligible to play college basketball from the start.

Ford’s attorneys had sought to have last summer’s No. 1 overall NBA draft pick and New Orleans Pelicans rookie answer questions in Florida state court about whether he received improper benefits before playing for the Blue Devils. They had also raised questions about housing for Williamson’s family during his Duke career in a separate filing in North Carolina.

A Florida appeals court last month granted a stay to pause the proceedings there, shifting the focus to the North Carolina case.

Duke has repeatedly declined to comment on the case because it isn’t involved in the litigation, but issued a statement in January that school had reviewed Williamson’s eligibility previously and found no concerns.