Jonathan Simmons

NBA Power Rankings: Greek Freak knocking down threes helps Bucks back to top spot

6 Comments

Milwaukee is back on top and look like a real threat in the playoffs, although the East remains a fascinating chase. It’s Golden State then everyone else in the West.

 
Bucks small icon 1. Bucks (46-14, last week No. 2). Don’t tell anyone, but Giannis Antetokounmpo is hitting his threes lately. In his last 15 games, the Greek Freak is shooting 39.5% from three on 2.9 attempts per game. The defensive strategy on the Bucks in the playoffs will be to lay 15 feet off Antetokounmpo and dare him to shoot, if he can take and make enough of those just to keep the defense honest, it’s a game changer. Of course, if the Bucks need a big three at the end of a game — say, against the Celtics — they would want Khris Middleton to take it.

 
Warriors small icon 2. Warriors (43-17, LW 1). The much-hyped starting five of the Warriors — Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, DeMarcus Cousins — has struggled. In its last 8 games together, the lineup has a net rating of -15.1 per 100 possessions, and they have been bad on both ends of the court. The result is the Warriors having to dig out of holes seemingly every game. In his last five games, DeMarcus Cousins is averaging 14.6 points per game but on just 40.3 percent shooting overall and 20 percent from three. If you’re looking for chinks in the armor, Golden State has some.

 
Raptors small icon 3. Raptors (45-17, LW 3). Toronto appears locked into the two seed in the East (2.5 games back of the Bucks, 4.5 up on the Pacers), giving Nick Nurse a chance to experiment with lineups around Marc Gasol and Jeremy Lin, to see where they best fit. Toronto made a statement by blowing out the Celtics on Tuesday night, showing off their combination of length, shooting, and versatility. Toronto looked every bit the title contender in the win. The kind of team Kawhi Leonard might want to stick around for.

 
Nuggets small icon 4. Nuggets (41-18, LW 7). Denver has found its defense again — in the last five games, they have allowed less than a point per possession (97.7 per 100), the best in the league over that stretch. That’s a good sign for the postseason — so is the fact Nuggets also are a matchup nightmare for the Thunder. In their three meetings this season OKC has led the games for 12 minutes total, Denver for 85 minutes. There have been questions about how far the untested Nuggets can go in the postseason, but in the win Tuesday night over the Thunder they looked like the second best team in the West.

 
Thunder small icon 5. Thunder (38-21, LW 4). This is better Thunder team than a year ago heading into the playoffs — Russell Westbrook has found his shooting stroke of late, Paul George looks like an MVP candidate, and there is no Carmelo Anthony. Of concern, however, is the fact Denver seems to have their number, which would be an issue in the playoffs The Thunder are the current three seed in the West but have the toughest remaining schedule of any team in the NBA, and Portland is only one game back — slip to the four seed and even if they beat Houston/Utah in the first round they are on the Warriors’ side of the bracket for the second round.

 
Pacers small icon 6. Pacers (40-21, LW 8). So much for the Pacers falling back without Victor Oladipo: They are 8-2 in their last 10 with a +11.1 net rating, mostly because their defense has been elite during the stretch. Nobody is a bigger Pacers fan the rest of the way than the Raptors, because if Indiana holds on to the three seed the path for the two seed (almost certainly Toronto) to the conference finals is much easier.

 
Sixers small icon 7. 76ers (39-22, LW 6). The Sixers have gone 2-1 without Joel Embiid since the All-Star break (sore knee), but they have not looked like the same team without their best player and anchor in the middle. Philly will be without him (and Boban) against Oklahoma City Thursday. That is followed by a big test against Golden State on Saturday — if Embiid is not back for that game it feels like the red flag on his health flies a little higher. They need Embiid back to help this team gel before the playoffs.

 
Blazers small icon 8. Trail Blazers (37-23, LW 11). How much they can play him in the postseason is a different question, but in the regular season adding Enes Kanter to back up Jusuf Nurkic has led to an advantage in the paint and on the glass so far for Portland. Combined through three games they have averaged 37 points and 17.7 rebounds a game. Portland has started 3-0 on a 7-game road trip through the East, but Boston and Toronto are up next.

 
Celtics small icon 9. Celtics (37-24, LW 5). They have lost three in a row out of the All-Star break, including to Milwaukee and getting blown out by Toronto. More concerning, the Celtics have a bottom-10 defense in the NBA through their last 10 games — that was supposed to be their calling card, supposed to be Brad Steven’s strength, and the Celtics have not been good of late (they are fifth in the NBA defensively for the season). It’s hard to figure out where this team ranks in the pecking order of the East, but the last couple of games have not been promising.

 
Rockets small icon 10. Rockets (35-25, LW 9). James Harden’s 30+ points a game scoring streak ended the way it was always going to — against a team where he didn’t need to put up crazy numbers for them to win (he still had 28). If the Rockets are going to return to being the second best team in the West two things need to happen the rest of the way: Chris Paul needs to keep playing like he did against Golden State (23 points, 17 assists) and their defense needs to improve to at least league average levels if not better. Just a couple of things to watch.

 
Jazz small icon 11. Jazz (33-26, LW 10). We don’t question Utah’s ability to defend (even if they have been up and down of late on that end), but the offense… actually has been good recently. In their last 10 games, they have averaged 114.6 points per 100 possessions, sixth best in the NBA over that stretch and better than the Thunder or Bucks. Donovan Mitchell is attacking, and anyone who continues to think Rudy Gobert is just a defender needs to sit down and watch more Utah basketball — he has good hands and can score around the rim.

 
Clippers small icon 12. Clippers (34-28, LW 13). The Clippers are the 7 seed in the West, on pace to finish with 44 wins and they have a 74% chance of making the playoffs (according to fivethirtyeight.com). Doc Rivers is doing that with unconventional lineups — starting Landry Shamet and Ivica Zubac, two recent additions, and counting on Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell off the bench to carry the day. And it’s working — but there are big tests in their playoff chase this week with games against the Kings and Lakers, two of the teams chasing Los Angeles.

 
Nets small icon 13. Nets (32-30, LW 15). After stumbling back into a fight for a playoff spot, the Nets seem to have righted the ship, winning 3-of-4 and they now have a four-game cushion over the nine-seed Magic. They’re going to be a playoff team. That said they have the fourth-hardest remaining schedule in the NBA (second in the East) and that could leave them open to getting passed by surging Detroit for the six seed. They need more of the D’Angelo Russell we saw against Charlotte, where he scored the team’s final 12 points to secure the win.

Pistons small icon 14. Pistons (29-30, 16). Welcome to the playoffs Detroit — winners of 7-of-8 with the best offense in the NBA during that stretch (120 points per 100), the Pistons are the seven seed in the East. And, they have an easier schedule the rest of the way than anyone they are competing with for one of the final spots other than Orlando. They key has been Reggie Jackson, who in his last 10 games is averaging 19.2 points per game, shooting 44.8 percent from three, is dishing out 5.7 assists a night, and is +9.4 points per game. Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond will do their thing, but this team needs Jackson to be great to thrive.

 
Kings small icon 15. Kings (31-29, LW 12). Rookie Marvin Bagley has steadily improved all season starting to really find his groove, he had good games against the Warriors, Thunder, and Timberwolves combining for 72 points and 35 rebounds in those contests. The Kings dropped 3-of-4 on a tough road trip and things do not get easier now with the Bucks and then the Clippers, one of the teams they are trying to catch for the final playoff slots in the West.

 
Spurs small icon 16. Spurs (33-29, LW 14). A couple weeks ago the talk was about the Clippers slipping back and getting passed for a playoff spot by the Kings or Lakers, but now the Spurs look like the vulnerable team. San Antonio went 1-7 on the Rodeo road trip and now sit as the eight seed, just one game up on Sacramento. FiveThirtyEight gives the Spurs an 81% chance of making the playoffs, but that seems high unless the Spurs start to defend a lot better. The Spurs are home again but with the Pistons, Thunder, and Nuggets coming to town there are not easy wins on the horizon.

 
17. Timberwolves (29-31, LW 21). Karl-Anthony Towns’ streak of 303 consecutive games played ended because of a car accident that left him in the league’s concussion protocol. The funniest thing this week was Ja Rule putting a curse on the Timberwolves, saying KAT was going to leave — that would be the same guy whose five-year max extension kicks in next season. If he’s going anywhere it’s not for a while, Minnesota is building around him. Now, if Ja Rule wants to curse Andrew Wiggins out of town that would be welcome among Wolves fans.

 
Magic small icon 18. Magic (28-34, LW 19). Orlando is on the doorstep of the playoffs thanks to an 8-3 run fueled by their defense, the best in the NBA over that stretch (although the loss to the Knicks Tuesday hurt). Not coincidentally, Orlando’s rise started when coach Steve Clifford stopped playing Mo Bamba — he has potential but is not ready — and Jonathan Simmons (since traded). Orlando has an easier schedule than everyone else chasing one of the final playoff spots in the East, they have a real shot.

 
Hornets small icon 19. Hornets (28-32, LW 17). Charlotte has lost 4-of-5 and subbing Miles Bridges in for Jeremy Lamb in the starting lineup after the All-Star break has not changed things. Charlotte sits as the eighth seed in the East as you read this, just one game up on Orlando and 1.5 on Miami, and the Hornets have the toughest remaining schedule of any team in the East. It’s why fivethirtyeight.com gives the Hornets just a 40% chance of making the playoffs. Miss the postseason and Kemba Walker’s free agent decision this summer gets more interesting.

Pelicans small icon 20. Pelicans (27-35, LW 23). The Pelicans are limiting the minutes of Anthony Davis down the stretch — more interestingly they had some good play without him. The Pelicans beat the Lakers while Davis sat. A fourth-quarter run to make it just a one-point loss (after trailing by 17 earlier) against the 76ers came with Davis on the bench. They are still +7.5 per 100 better with Davis on the court since his return from injury, but the Pelicans are showing they can do some things without their star who doesn’t want to be there. Julius Randle continues to play himself into a big contract this summer.

 
Lakers small icon 21. Lakers (29-31, LW 20). Two ugly losses has led to renewed questions about Luke Walton’s job security (few around the league think he’s back next season) and a passive-aggressive LeBron James seeming current starting lineup with Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, JaVale McGee, Reggie Bullock and James is giving up 116.2 points per 100 possessions. For reference, the Cleveland Cavaliers have the worst defensive rating in the league at 115.9. LeBron’s effort has been at the heart of those defensive issues. Before LeBron (and maybe Magic) goes blaming the young kids for the Lakers not making the playoffs, they may want to look at this chart.

 
Heat small icon 22. Heat (26-33, LW 22). Miami has a lot of nice complimentary players — Josh Richardson, Justise Winslow, Bam Adebayo — but no true star to create good looks and lead them in crunch time. The return of Goran Dragic doesn’t change that. The Heat are only 1.5 games out of the playoffs, but with the Warriors, Rockets, and Nets on the schedule this week it’s going to take some upsets to get them in playoff position.

 
Mavericks small icon 23. Mavericks (26-34, LW 18). Losers of five in a row, they were without Luka Doncic for the fist couple of games after the All-Star break, but he was back against Clippers Monday. Not that it mattered. Classy move by Doc Rivers at the end of Monday’s game to make sure that Dirk Nowitzki got a proper send-off from the Los Angeles fans.

 
Wizards small icon 24. Wizards (24-36, LW 24). Bradley Beal leads the NBA in total minutes played this season, but with the Wizards all but out of the playoff chase you’d think Scott Brooks would start to ease up on him. You’d be wrong. He has played at least 41 minutes in each of the Wizards last four games, all losses. Washington is four back of a playoff slot and fivethirthyeight.com has them with a 7% chance of getting back into the postseason. Time to ease up on Beal.

 
Grizzlies small icon 25. Grizzlies (24-38, LW 25). Memphis wouldn’t mind winning enough — and getting some lottery luck — so that they lose their first-round pick to Boston this season in a down draft. Their actions at the trade deadline just made that hard. With where they stand now, the Grizzlies have a 3.8 percent chance of sending that pick to the Celtics, and they are not going to win enough the rest of the way to improve those odds much.

 
Bulls small icon 26. Bulls (16-45, LW 27). The Bulls are playing their best basketball of the season, having won 3-of-4 and having the best offense in the NBA in the month of February. When Zach LaVine, Otto Porter and Lauri Markkanen are on the court together this has been a good offensive team, and that gives real hope for the future in the Windy City.

 
Hawks small icon 27. Hawks (20-41, LW 26). Trae Young continues to play well and put up numbers — 30 points against the Pistons, and 36 against the Rockets. But while we focus on his scoring his passing is still creating highlight after highlight and he — along with John Collins — are making the Hawks worth watching.

 
Knicks small icon 28. Knicks (13-48, LW 30). No tanking for Zion here, the Knicks have won 3-of-4 and have done in part thanks to Dennis Smith Jr., but the emergence of Mitchell Robinson has helped as well. The rookie big man had 17 points, 14 rebounds, and 6 blocks against the solid front line of Orlando Tuesday night. I’m not sure he’s going to be the star some Knicks fans think, but he could be part of the rotation in whatever the Knicks will look like next.

 
Cavaliers small icon 29. Cavaliers (14-47, LW 28). Kevin Love, back from injury for five games now, looks like he is starting to get his legs back under him as Love scored 32 against Memphis and now has 66 points and 35 rebounds in his last three games. Love looking healthy the rest of the season will increase the odds he gets traded this summer (although those odds are not that high).

 
Suns small icon 30. Suns (12-50, LW 29). A surprising win in Miami ended a 17-game losing streak on Monday night, thanks to a balanced attack from their starters, led by Devin Booker with 20. If Suns fans missed the win because all their doing is watching Duke games, you can’t blame them.
=

Tobias Harris on staying with Sixers: ‘I’m hopeful it can be a long-term partnership’

3 Comments

Tobias Harris hopes to stay a while with his new team after bouncing around the NBA throughout his career.

Harris was the centerpiece of a blockbuster deal the Philadelphia 76ers made early Wednesday morning to bolster their chances at making a run at a championship. The 26-year-old forward was having a breakout season with the Los Angeles Clippers before coming to his fifth team in eight seasons.

He joins All-Stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, along with Jimmy Butler and JJ Redick, to form perhaps the best starting lineup in the Eastern Conference.

Harris is in the final season of a contract but the Sixers certainly will want to keep him around after trading sensational rookie guard Landry Shamet and four draft picks along with forwards Wilson Chandler and Mike Muscala to Los Angeles. Center Boban Marjanovic and forward Mike Scott came to Philadelphia as part of the deal.

“The top of the list for me is winning culture and No. 2 is loyalty,” Harris said Thursday. “Just finding the right situation for team basketball, a winning culture and loyalty from both sides. This team has made a big trade and I’m hopeful it can be a long-term partnership.”

Harris is averaging 20.9 points and shoots nearly 50 percent from 3-point range. He gives Philadelphia another shooter it needed. The Sixers, who were eliminated in the second round of the playoffs last season, are 34-20 and in fifth place in the East.

Harris said he had dinner with coach Brett Brown upon arriving in town and they discussed his role.

“He’s going to let me go play my game and figure things out on the fly,” Harris said. “When you have a team with this much talent, see what works and fueling off each other on the floor. We have a lot of talent but smart players, too.”

Harris is excited to play with Simmons, the talented 6-foot-10 point-guard.

“He’s a beast in the open court,” Harris said. “Matching up against him, the toughest thing is how well he passes the ball and gets other guys involved. I’ve always been a big fan of his game and how he plays, his size and speed and skill level.”

Marjanovic, a 7-foot-3 backup center, provides depth behind Embiid. He averaged 6.7 points in 10.4 minutes played.

“Big fan of (Embiid),” Marjanovic said. “I like how he plays, how he moves. I’m really impressed with that. Now, I’m on the same team. We can both help each other.”

Scott shrugged off a question about added pressure because the expectations have grown for Philadelphia and Marjanovic deferred to Harris, one of his best buddies. Harris handled it diplomatically.

“We understand the team invested a lot in us,” he said. “It was a big move. It was a win-now move. That means a lot. This is already a winning culture and we look to bring our games to it and help as best we can.”

The Sixers made two other moves before the NBA’s trade deadline, sending former No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz to the Orlando Magic, according to two people familiar with the negotiations. Philadelphia gets guard Jonathan Simmons, a 2020 first-round pick that the Sixers used to own but was conveyed in other deals. Philly also get a second-round pick this year. Fultz has played in only 33 games since the Sixers traded up to select him No. 1 overall in the 2017 draft.

Earlier, the Sixers added forward James Ennis from the Houston Rockets in exchange for draft considerations, according to a person familiar with the deal. Ennis, who averaged 7.4 points for the Rockets this season, has also played for Miami, Memphis, Houston and New Orleans. He’s a career 36 percent shooter from 3-point range and will add to Philadelphia’s bench depth.

AP Basketball Writer Tim Reynolds and AP Sports Writer Dan Gelston contributed to this report.

More AP NBA: http://www.apnews.com/NBA and http://www.twitter.com/AP-Sports

Five big takeaways from NBA trade deadline

Leave a comment

So much for a quiet trade deadline — from when New York surprised Knicks’ fans by trading their favorite player, through the end of the trade deadline at 3 p.m. Eastern on Thursday, there were more than 20 NBA trades.

A few that shifted the landscape, a lot that were more about the salary cap or setting things up for the future. And the biggest trade of all did not happen.

Here are the five big takeaways from the NBA trade deadline.

1) Anthony Davis is still a Pelican, now Boston gets into the mix and this saga will drag out into the offseason. Rich Paul’s gambit failed. He told the Pelicans’ Anthony Davis would not re-sign with the team — which wasn’t surprising news to the New Orleans front office — and then demanded a trade. Then leaked that trade news to the press (and got Davis fined for it). Everything was orchestrated to get Davis to the Lakers to team up with LeBron James (another Paul client). The Lakers were all-in on the idea and put everything they could into an offer – Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, first-round picks and more were all on the table — to the point it has led to team chemistry issues.

And the Pelicans didn’t want to play. They listened to the Lakers, but never seriously engaged. Part of the reason for that, according to sources, is that people high up the food chain in the New Orleans organization didn’t want to be pressured into making a trade on someone else’s terms, to just blindly trade Davis where he wanted to go. They wanted some control over the process.

The other main reason for the delay is the Pelicans wanted Boston to get involved. While trades in the last few days weakened a couple of Boston’s potential first-round picks — the Clippers now will likely fall out of the playoffs and keep their pick; Sacramento got better so that pick gets a little worse — the future Memphis pick looks even better as the Grizzlies start their rebuild. Plus, if Jayson Tatum is in the mix, the Pelicans want him — almost every team/scout I have spoken to has him rated much higher than any of the young Lakers.

Add to all that Pelicans want to see how the draft lottery shakes out — if the Knicks get the No. 1 pick things get interesting. They want to see if a surprise team — maybe the Clippers now? — get in on the bidding. They want to wait.

This will get resolved by early July at the latest. But for now, Anthony Davis is a Pelican and the Lakers are worse for it.

2) There was an arms race at the top of the Eastern Conference and the East playoffs are going to be insane. Starting with the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, it could be a bloodbath. As happened in the West for many years (but not this one, at least not at the top), there was an arms race among the top teams.

It started when the Sixers traded for Tobias Harris from the Clippers — Philly now has the second-best starting five in the NBA. At least on paper. Ben Simmons, J.J. Redick, Jimmy Butler, Harris, and Joel Embiid can match up with anyone. The team needs to add depth, and the Sixers stars need to show they are willing to sacrifice points/touches for the betterment of the team, but the Sixers just got demonstrably better.

That woke up the other teams in the East.

Milwaukee responded by trading for Nikola Mirotic, the sharpshooting big man who will be a great fit with Giannis Antetokounmpo. Mirotic will thrive the same way Brook Lopez has in coach Mike Budenholzer’s system. Remember how much Mirotic looked good playing next to Anthony Davis in the Pelicans’ playoff run last season? Now the Bucks add that to the team with the best record in the NBA already.

The Raptors topped that with the addition of Marc Gasol in a trade from the Memphis Grizzlies. He provides floor spacing shooting, strong rebounding, fantastic passing, and just a high IQ game that Nick Nurse can use to great effect. Gasol is versatile and gives Toronto more ways to matchup in the postseason.

All of those teams got better, and the team we haven’t mentioned Boson — they have won 9-of-10 and have looked like the East favorite we expected of late. (And they got what they wanted at the deadline with Davis not getting traded.) Boston could still come out of the East.

The playoffs cannot get here fast enough.

3) The Clippers, Knicks, and Mavericks set themselves up to be big-time players this July. While a few teams went all in on right now, a few teams made some shrewd moves thinking about July.

The Clippers are at the top of that list. Los Angeles made the calculation that they could fight for the eight seed in the West, win it, lose their first-round pick this year (to Boston, lottery protected) and get smacked around by the Warriors in the first round. Or, they could trade Tobias Harris, takes some steps back out of the playoffs, keep their pick, get a haul of draft picks from Philadelphia in the deal — including a much coveted Miami 2021 unprotected first rounder — and clear out one max cap slot, plus set themselves up to have two (if they can trade Danilo Gallinari after the season). The Clippers have been all but stalking Kawhi Leonard and are in the mix for him this summer, Los Angeles has the assets to tempt teams with a big trade (Davis?), and they can chase a second free agent. This is a team poised to make a move.

The Knicks are right there with the Clippers in bold free agent planning — and what they did created a lot of buzz around the NBA. By trading Kristaps Porzingins and the nearly dead money contracts of Tim Hardaway Jr. and Courtney Lee, the Knicks now have two max cap slots open next July (plus the Knicks picked up picks in the trade). Do they know something about Kevin Durant? KD hates that speculation, but it is all over the NBA (not the media, I mean front office types), as is the idea Kyrie Irving will follow him. The playoffs can change a lot of plans, but the Knicks seem confident.

Dallas did more than just add Kristaps Porzingis to Luka Doncic this deadline — although that in-and-of-itself was a bold move that could give the franchise two cornerstone pieces for a decade (if Porzingis can come back from his ACL injury to full unicorn status). However, moving Harrison Barnes to Sacramento also freed up cap space, and the Mavericks could have nearly $30 million of it next summer. Want to come play with Porzingis and Doncic? Dallas is setting itself up to be very good soon, if things break their way.

4) The race for the eight seed in the West is going to be fun. As of the trade deadline, the Los Angeles Clippers are the eighth seed in the West and with that own the final playoff spot. (The Spurs and Jazz hold down the six and seven seeds, but neither of them looks like they are going to fade away.)

As noted above, the Clippers traded their best player and have made a conscious effort not to chase the eight seed hard (not that they will admit that). It opens the door.

The Sacramento Kings are trying to barge through it. The team with the longest playoff drought in the NBA (12 years) is a surprising 28-26, just 1.5 games back of the Clippers. They traded for Harrison Barnes to give them the big wing/four they have needed in the rotation, a guy who can be a shot creator (mostly for himself) and get buckets in addition to De’Aaron Fox. While it’s fair to question the long-term ramifications of this move for the Kings, but in the short term Sacramento got better and they want that spot.

Just behind them, the Los Angeles Lakers. They were a playoff team in the East before LeBron James injured his groin, the conventional wisdom has been they would return to that form and own the spot. But Lonzo Ball is injured, and the Anthony Davis drama took its toll on the Lakers’ psyche, and it showed when they got blown out by 42 in Indiana. The Lakers are on the road (the Grammys forced them out of Staples Center) and are in the toughest stretch of their season. If the Lakers stumble a little, can they still catch the Kings?

This race got fun.

5) Markelle Fultz is getting a fresh start. Could Carmelo Anthony get one, too? The trade deadline saw a few players who wanted or needed a change of scenery getting one. Thon Maker wanted out of Milwaukee, now he gets a chance to come off the bench in Detroit. Stanley Johnson is out of Detroit and is now in New Orleans getting a chance, and Marquese Chriss will get some run and opportunity in Cleveland.

Nobody needed a fresh start more than Markelle Fultz, however. And he got it, the former No. 1 pick is now a member of the Orlando Magic.

Fultz was drafted with a lot of fanfare and a lot of pressure to be the third part of a “big three” in Philly with Embiid and Simmons, but after a short but decent Summer League, Fultz showed up at training camp with a new shooting form that was a disaster. Whether it was due to injury or trainers or alien abduction, it was a mess. Fultz missed most of the season getting injury treatment, spent the off-season working with a shot doctor, and by the end his confidence was clearly shot. He was in his own head. Then Fultz was diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome and spent most of this season in rehab.

Orlando traded Fultz for Jonathan Simmons, a top-20 protected first-round pick (via Oklahoma City) and a second-round pick (via Cleveland). The trade raised a lot of eyebrows around the league because it was more than most thought they would get.

Orlando is a perfect spot for Fultz — not a big market, not as bright a spotlight, less pressure, and some other young stars he can grow with. Orlando has a lot of player development to do, but they have potential on that roster. We’ll find out what Fultz really has.

One other guy to watch: Carmelo Anthony.

The Lakers made a two-for-one trade sending Michael Beasley and Ivica Zubac down the hall at Staples Center to the Clippers for Mike Muscala — who can help the Lakers as a pick-and-pop big who will stretch the floor. But that’s not why everyone is talking.

That move opened up a roster spot on the Lakers, LeBron has said he wants Anthony on his team, and the Lakers have said the thing holding them back was a lack of a roster spot. Now they have one. Word is the Lakers are going to check out the full buyout market and see if they can land someone who can help them get to the playoffs, but don’t be shocked if that slot ends up going to Anthony. Which would send Lakers’ nation into a frenzy.

Orlando has become team worth watching for first time in long time

Getty Images
5 Comments

This is the latest of NBC’s NBA season preview stories, and we will post at least one a day on these pages until Oct. 16, when the NBA season kicks off. We will look at teams and topics around the NBA throughout the series, and today the young Orlando Magic are the focus.

A strange sensation came over me during Summer League in Las Vegas this year:

I wanted to watch Orlando Magic games.

It felt weird. It has been years since the Magic were must-watch, but I was intrigued by them and their potential. Part of it was they have zigged when the league has zagged — in a small-ball league the Magic (in Vegas and in general) went big with Mo Bamba and Jonathan Isaac. And those two, for stretches, could dominate the paint.

“The potential between me and (Isaac) is unreal, I think in Summer League we’re starting to bridge that potential into production with the small things we do,” Bamba said to NBC Sports in Las Vegas.

That carries over to this season and expands to other players — which makes the Orlando Magic interesting and worth watching.

It’s been a long time since we could say that, but the Magic have the potential for a dynamic defense this season, especially up front: Bamba, Isaac, just-resigned Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Simmons. Put all of them under the guidance of new, defensive-minded coach Steve Clifford, and the Magic can be big and defense-first in an NBA leaning more toward the Warriors’ model of small and offense first.

“To tell you the truth, I don’t even think (the team’s defensive play in Summer League) scratches the surface in terms of where Mo is going to be in a year or two years, or where I am going to be in a year or two years,” Isaac said of the team’s potential. “Physically, mentally, game wise, you throw in AG and all those guys we have on our team now, and I think we will be a defensive nightmare for a lot of teams.”

Isaac was one of the real head turners at Summer League. He missed much of his rookie season with an ankle injury, playing in just 27 games. In Las Vegas he looked healthy and like he spent time in the weight room getting stronger. He was a defensive force but was able to turn some of that into offense.

Bamba showed potential in Vegas as well, although he was more up and down and showed how he needs to get stronger and develop a better feel for the game. For example, the Suns’ No. 1 pick Deandre Ayton pushed him around physically for much of the night. But even then, Bamba blocked an Ayton shot and altered others, plus he flashed offensive potential (and in another game, showed a smooth shooting stroke from three).

“I just have to establish myself as a roller, it really opens up a lot for our team, even if I don’t necessarily get the ball it opens up guys in the corner or in spots as teams adjust to how we are playing,” Bamba said.

The Magic still are not going to be good, and there are a lot of questions to be answered. How well can both Bamba and Isaac play with Gordon (it would be hard to play all three together, with Gordon at the three, he has struggled in that role before)? Coach Clifford has said he wants to switch more and that these bigs can do it, but how will that really work in practice? Clifford also wants to see how Bamba and Nikola Vucevic pair together for stretches.

Gordon is the best player on the team, the franchise cornerstone guy who signed a four-year, $76 million contract this summer (with incentives that could bring it to $84 million). He averaged 17.6 points and 7.9 rebounds a game last season, is a competent three-point shooter who can finish at the rim like a beast.

Can one of the other young Magic players step up and join Gordon as a cornerstone? Can this team go big and become a force? Those are the interesting questions for the Magic this season, what makes them worth watching.

The rest of the team… not as interesting.

The Magic still don’t have a point guard of the future — D.J. Augustin and Jerian Grant will split the bulk of the time there — and beyond that have solid to good NBA players who are not great fits or parts of the future, such as Evan Fournier and Timofey Mozgov. Vucevic and Terrence Ross are in the final years of their contracts and the Magic will look to move them (they have tried to trade Vucevic since last trade deadline, and he could help some teams, but no deal has been found).

Orlando will lose more games than it wins this season, Bamba and Isaac will learn hard lessons. It will not always be pretty.

But there is real reason for hope, and with it this is a team worth keeping an eye on. It’s been a long time since we could say that.

In NBA going small and offensive, Orlando trying big and defensive

Getty Images
8 Comments

LAS VEGAS — You can see the potential.

There was a moment Sunday night, in the first minute against Memphis, when Jaren Jackson — the best rookie through Summer League so far — drove the lane only to see Mohamed Bamba and Jonathan Isaac both rotate over into his path. The 6’11” Jackson changed his mind and decided not to go for the dunk and instead tried to throw an alley-oop to a baseline cutter. Bamba and Isaac both got up so high they blocked it anyway.

“(Isaac) got the credit for the block? Aw, come on,” Bamba joked after the game. Together, Bamba and Isaac are averaging 5 blocks a game in Las Vegas.

It’s just Summer League, but Orlando is interesting for the first time in years because they have zigged when the league has zagged — come October they can roll out a lineup of Bamba, Isaac, and just-resigned Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Simmons. Under the guidance of new, defensive-minded coach Steve Clifford, the Magic can go big, long, and defense-first in an NBA leaning more toward the Warriors’ model of small and offense first.

“The potential between me and (Isaac) is unreal, I think in Summer League we’re starting to bridge that potential into production with the small things we do,” Bamba said. “I think we got three 24-second shot clock violations (against Memphis).”

“To tell you the truth, I don’t even think (their defensive play in Summer League) scratches the surface in terms of where Mo is going to be in a year or two years, or where I am going to be in a year or two years,” Isaac said of the team’s potential. “Physically, mentally, game wise, you throw in AG and all those guys we have on our team now, and I think we will be a defensive nightmare for a lot of teams.”

Other players on the roster, such as Gordon and Simmons, can fit right into this defensive mold. The team is long and can protect the rim, but the big men such as Bamba and Isaac are athletic enough to switch — or at least show and recover — on point guards off a high pick-and-roll. Against this size and length, getting to the rim is not going to be easy. Bamba’s length just eats up guys driving the lane.

“That’s one of the things the league is going to — how hard can you make it (on drivers),” Magic summer league head coach Pat Delany said of what the team wants to do.

Isaac has been one of the standout players of Summer League so far, having gotten stronger in the past year, adjusting to the pace and style of the game, and just gotten healthy. Memphis’ Jackson has overwhelmed other young players he has gone against between both the Salt Lake and Las Vegas Summer Leagues, but Isaac held his own in that matchup, blocking shots and making life hard on Jackson. (To be fair, it was Jackson’s fifth game in seven days and he looked worn down at points.)

Isaac, about to enter his second NBA season, is one of the guys who looks ready to make a leap in games that matter starting in October.

Bamba also has impressed, and not just with his defense — he is shooting 60 percent in Summer League and against Memphis showed a smooth stroke on a corner three that caught everyone’s attention.

It’s not all been smooth sailing for Bamba — Monday night No. 1 pick Deandre Ayton pushed him around physically, slowed Bamba’s offensive game, and got to the glass (Ayton had five offensive rebounds on the night). Phoenix players such as Josh Jackson found driving lanes because Bamba couldn’t help off Ayton. That said, the defensive potential of Bamba and the Magic was still on display in the game, as Bamba had five blocks — including an Ayton hook shot early in the game.

Bamba understands there’s a lot of work to do.

“I just have to establish myself as a roller, it really opens up a lot for our team, even if I don’t necessarily get the ball it opens up guys in the corner or in spots as teams adjust to how we are playing…” Bamba said.

“I want to be a guy who comes in and has an impact immediately. One of my goals is to be Defensive Player of the Year, one of my goals is to be Rookie of the Year. One of my long-term goals is to be walking across the stage to get a jacket with a Hall of Fame patch. There’s definitely some work to do in between there.”

Not some, a lot of work.

But in Orlando, this Summer League has provided hope — something in short supply in recent years. The Magic are going to be interesting, and worth watching, because they are staking out a course different from the way the league is trending.

And it just might work.