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Let’s Talk About the Orlando Magic

A once-promising season has turned sour for the Magic in Orlando, writes Cody Taylor.

Cody Taylor

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Heading into this season, morale around the Orlando Magic was high. Back on Media Day in September, players seemed genuinely excited about the upcoming season. With new players and a new head coach in charge, this was supposed to be the season in which the Magic finally returned to the postseason.

The team seemingly lucked out when Scott Skiles suddenly resigned as head coach. Frank Vogel was among those candidates available to choose as the franchise’s replacement for Skiles, and the idea of adding a coach who had previously guided the Indiana Pacers to the Eastern Conference Finals seemed perfect for a team wanting to experience that same kind of success.

Vogel caught the attention of fans at his introductory press conference when he guaranteed the team would make the playoffs, something they hadn’t done since Dwight Howard was still in town. With several defensive-minded players on the roster, and Vogel being known as a great defensive coach from his time with the Pacers, the fit seemed to be a match made in heaven.

At least that was the feeling four months ago when this new-look Magic team first met with members of the media. There was a feeling in the air that hadn’t been there in quite some time. Players seemed ready to help in any way they could. They were ready to lead this franchise back to the playoffs for the first time in five years.

Now, it seems as though the playoffs are an afterthought. Granted, the Magic are still just four-and-a-half games back of the final playoff spot in the East, but watching this team lately feels like they’re even further than that. We’re now around the halfway point of the season for most teams, and the Magic are 10 games under .500 at 17-27.

They just wrapped up a six-game road trip and won just one of those outings. Road trips of that length are tough for any team to go through, but good teams figure out ways in which to make the most of them. The Magic dropped games to the Los Angeles Lakers, Clippers, Utah Jazz, Denver Nuggets and New Orleans Pelicans on the trip, with the lone win against the Portland Trail Blazers.

“We’re just not playing hard enough, plain and simple,” Jeff Green said. “We need to make sure that we leave it out there on the floor. We can’t worry about how many games we had on this road trip. There are no excuses. We had only one back to back; we can’t allow that to be an excuse. We had days in between. We had chances to rest. There is no excuse for the way that we’ve been playing. That’s not what we came here to do. We all want to win, but we’re all not giving an effort to win. That’s the result right there. We’re losing by 20. It’s embarrassing.”

The Magic were expected to be a stout defensive team, led by Bismack Biyombo, Serge Ibaka, Aaron Gordon and Elfrid Payton. While they’ve shown during stretches how great they can be (they were a top-five defense at one point), they’ve taken a step back and have dropped out of the top 20 in defense.

Trying to diagnose the problem seems much easier said than done. Vogel has seemingly tried everything he can do to flip the script this season. He has made lineup changes, benched players for lackluster effort and has even tried intense film sessions to help the problems. Whatever the problem is, the players don’t seem to have the answers, either.

“I’ve been asking myself that every day and I have no idea why we can’t do the right things,” Nikola Vucevic said. “Basketball is a very simple game and if you keep it simple, it works. The best teams play simple. They don’t complicate stuff. Look at Klay Thompson when he had 60 — he took 11 dribbles. It’s simple. Why would he need to take more? They set up every shot for him. That’s how it should be. [Nikola] Jokic had 30 [against us]. They set up every shot for him. He didn’t score any one-on-one on [Bismack Biyombo] or me. Anthony Davis. He didn’t score one-on-one. It was all off setups. Yet, we don’t play that way. We try to play pick-up. That’s what we’re doing: playing pick-up.”

Vucevic’s candid response to reporters Wednesday night following a 20-point loss to the Pelicans is an indication the team has reached perhaps their lowest point of the season. The Magic appeared to be on the right track at the start of the December. After a slow start to the season, they won four out of five games on the road, including a win over the San Antonio Spurs. Since that stretch, they have fallen apart.

After defeating the Washington Wizards on December 6, the team’s record stood at 10-12. Since that point, they have gone 7-15 and have posted the third-worst defense in the NBA. It seems like for every step forward the team may take, they then take two steps back. Last season, the team was playing well heading into 2016 after posting a 19-14 record. They went just 2-12 during the month of January and subsequently began a downward spiral that saw them go 16-34 the rest of the season. This season looks to have the same outcome – they’re just 2-8 this month.

“We just don’t play the right way,” Vucevic said. “We can play as hard as we want, [but] as long as we keep playing like this, this is how it’s going to be. … We take bad shots, we play selfish. It’s embarrassing. We’ve been losing to everybody by 20. It’s bad. Last year, we were losing but we had 35 wins and 10-15 games we lost by less than three points. This year, we haven’t lost a game by less than 10 points.”

Vucevic may have exaggerated a bit to reporters: The Magic have lost a few games by less than 10 points, but there are a lot of losses by more than 10 points mixed in as well.

Perhaps even more troubling for the Magic is key injuries to Evan Fournier and Jodie Meeks. Fournier leads the team in scoring, but has missed three consecutive games with a sore right foot. Meeks suffered a dislocated right thumb on Wednesday and is expected to miss four to six weeks.

The injuries to Fournier and Meeks leave the Magic rather thin at the shooting guard position. Fournier also missed five games a few weeks back with the same foot injury. Mario Hezonja and C.J. Watson figure to see additional playing time with Fournier and Meeks out at the moment. Hezonja has been used sparingly this season by Vogel and has played inconsistently when he’s been on the court, and Watson is averaging 2.6 points in 32 outings this season.

With the trade deadline just over a month away, the Magic could be a team to keep an eye on. The team is said to be open to acquiring additional scoring help but it remains unclear who they might consider adding. Sacramento Kings forward Rudy Gay had been mentioned previously as a potential target, but he’ll likely not be traded this season after rupturing his Achilles on Wednesday night.

The recent struggles have further put the team’s past moves under the microscope. Most would point to the decision to trade a promising young player in Tobias Harris just before the trade deadline last year for what essentially ended up being open cap space as the first questionable move. They followed that up by trading Victor Oladipo, the rights to the 11th overall pick Domantas Sabonis and Ersan Ilyasova for Ibaka on draft night. Ibaka could leave this summer in free agency.

It’s clear the front office has a decision to make on the future of the team this season. Do they attempt to make a trade to bring in more scoring or do they start looking ahead? The worst place to be in the NBA is in the middle. Teams in the middle are just good enough to make the playoffs and not quite bad enough to earn a high draft pick. While the team is clearly built to win now, they may have to start considering all of their options at this point.

After investing over $100 million into the roster, the expectations for the Magic this season were understandably high. But with a roster that is underperforming, it might be time for the franchise to look itself in the mirror and realize that this group may not be the answer moving forward.

Cody Taylor is an NBA writer in his fourth season with Basketball Insiders, covering the NBA and NCAA out of Orlando and Miami.

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NBA Daily: Spurs Enter New Territory After Moving Parker To Reserve Role

The San Antonio Spurs are seemingly entering a new phase as Tony Parker has been moved to a reserve role.

James Blancarte

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San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg made a significant change to his rotation earlier this week. On Sunday, January 21 Popovich placed guard Dejounte Murray into the starting lineup in place of Tony Parker. The Spurs went on to lose the game at home to the Indiana Pacers. The result was the same as a losing effort in Friday’s matchup against the Toronto Raptors in Toronto.

The San Antonio Spurs came into the 2017-18 hoping to bounce back from last year’s playoffs where the team suffered injuries to Kawhi Leonard and Parker and eventually lost to the Golden State Warriors. This season started off with the Spurs surviving without Leonard and Parker as the two continued to rehab from lingering injuries. As of now, Leonard is once again taking time off to rehabilitate after playing in nine games while Parker has been able to stay healthy so far. Unfortunately, being healthy enough to play doesn’t make up for the inevitable decline that comes with age and injuries.

On the season, Parker is averaging a career low in minutes (21.6), assists (4.0) and points (8.2), as well as free throws made and attempted per game. His usage rate, player efficiency rating (PER) and shooting percentages are also all at or around career lows. It’s hard to argue against the notion that Parker, at 35 years old with 17 years of pro basketball under his belt, is in the twilight of his impressive career.

Parker has acknowledged his demotion but seems to be handling it like a true professional.

“[Popovich] told me he thought it was time, and I was like, ‘no problem.’ Just like Manu [Ginobili], just like Pau [Gasol], you know that day is going to come,” Parker said recently. .

Before Sunday’s game, Parker had started 1151 of 1164 games played, all with the Spurs of course.

Popovich was asked specifically if the plan was either to start Murray at point guard moving forward or if this switch in the lineup was a part of some kind of injury management program for Parker. Never known for being overly loquacious, Popovich responded with little detail or insight.

“We’ll see,” Popovich stated.

In the starting lineup, Murray logged eight points, four assists, seven rebounds, three steals and one block in nearly 28 minutes of action. Murray had previously started before Parker returned from injury earlier this season but eventually relinquished that spot to career reserve guard Patty Mills.

Parker also spoke of the benefit of coming off the bench and potentially mentoring Murray’s growth in his new presumed role as the starter.

“If Pop [Coach Popovich] sees something that is good for the team, I will try to do my best,” Parker said. “I will support Pop’s decision and I will try to help DJ [Murray] as best as I can and try to be the best I can in the second unit with Manu [Ginobili] and Patty [Mills].”

If nothing else, this move will allow the Spurs to see if Parker can be more effective in limited minutes against opposing bench units. Additionally, Parker will hopefully benefit from playing alongside his longtime running mate, Ginobli.

Parker’s willingness to mentor Murray may come as a relief to Spurs fans watching the ongoing dismantling of San Antonio’s former Big-3, which began with the retirement of future Hall-of-Famer, Tim Duncan. At 6-foot-5, Murray benefits from greater size and athleticism than Parker, although Murray failed to keep the starting job when given an opportunity earlier this season. Coach Popovich gave another straightforward answer when asked which areas he thinks Murray can improve in.

“He’s 21-years-old,” Popovich declared. “He can improve in all areas.”

After asking for a trade in the offseason, the Spurs have benefited from focusing their offense around LaMarcus Aldridge, who is having a bounce-back campaign. However, Leonard is now out indefinitely and the Minnesota Timberwolves have now caught the Spurs in the standings. The pressure is on for this resilient Spurs team, which has again managed to beat the odds despite an injured and aging roster.

Parker became a starter for the Spurs at age 19 and never looked back. Now all eyes are on Murray to see how well he performs in his second stint with the starters at a crucial point in the season.

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Sources: Milwaukee Bucks Fire Coach Jason Kidd

Basketball Insiders

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The Milwaukee Bucks have fired coach Jason Kidd, sources ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.

Source: Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN

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Defensive Player Of The Year Watch – 1/22/17

Spencer Davies checks into the DPOY race with his latest list of candidates.

Spencer Davies

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It’s a new year and Basketball Insiders is continuing its Defensive Player of the Year watch with sample sizes widening and new players emerging in the conversation.

There were a couple of names knocked out of the list, but that gives more of a spotlight to those who have really stepped up since our last edition ran on December 29. Without further ado, let’s get into it.

 6. Hassan Whiteside

After missing nearly a month of action with a knee injury, Whiteside has returned with a vengeance. The Miami HEAT were already a good defensive team before he came back, but he’s really bolstered that reputation even further. Since Dec. 26, the 7-foot center has recorded eight multi-block games. In five of those, he had at least four swats, including a six-rejection performance in a win at Milwaukee. Overall in ESPN’s Defensive Real-Plus Minus, Whiteside owns by far the best rating at 4.73. “Agent Block” is back and daring all comers to try him.

5. Anthony Davis

Slowly but surely, the New Orleans Pelicans are creeping away from the bottom of the league in defensive rating. Once ranked in the bottom five a few weeks ago, they’ve shot up to 18th in the league (108.4) rather quickly. While that’s not the most impressive statistic to provide, the obvious reason for their improved standing on that end of the floor is Davis. He’s been an absolute workhorse for Alvin Gentry in the restricted area as an elite rim protector, with a heavy responsibility and a ton of minutes. Without him on the floor, the Pels are allowing 8.9 more points per 100 possessions, which puts Davis in the 96th percentile according to Cleaning The Glass.

4. Josh Richardson

Notice there are two members of the HEAT on this list. It’s because they are on fire right now, no pun intended, so it’s about time they received some love in the conversation for DPOY. Whiteside was addressed first, but if we’re talking about a greater sample size with consistent evidence, Richardson fits the bill. Opponents are attempting over 11 shots per game against him, yet are only making 38.9 percent of those tries. That’s the lowest conversion rate in the league with a minimum of 10 attempts.

Battling injuries a season ago, Richardson has played in all 46 games for Miami this year. While it’s been a team effort, he is the heart and soul of Erik Spoelstra’s defense, taking on the most difficult assignments each game. For that reason, he deserves long overdue recognition on this list.

3. Kevin Durant

This isn’t a case where Durant is slipping because of his performances. He’s only ranked third this time around because of the job others have done outside of him. The Golden State Warriors are still a juggernaut on both sides of the court. He’s still a top-notch individual defender. The numbers don’t suggest otherwise and the eye test certainly confirms it.

In isolation situations, Durant is allowing only 0.53 points per possession, which is second in the NBA to only Tony Snell. When it comes to crunch time, he’s always locking up. In fourth quarters, he is limiting the competition to shooting less than 30 percent—and his defended field goal percentage and field goal percentage discrepancy is the best in the league at -17.2. He’s got as good of a chance as anybody to take home DPOY.

2. Joel Embiid

Everybody loves to focus on the off-court antics and hilarities that come with Embiid, but the man deserves his due when it comes to his reputation in the NBA as a truly dominant big. The Philadelphia 76ers have won seven out of their last eight games and it has started on the defensive end of the floor.

Take the games against Boston, for example. Al Horford is a crucial part of the Celtics offense and has had problems getting going against the 23-year-old. In the 22 minutes per game, he’s been on the floor along with him, Horford has been held to below 30 percent from the field on an average of nine attempts. With Embiid off, he’s converted nearly 73 percent of his tries.

Another matchup you can examine is with Andre Drummond. The two have had their fair share of words with each other, but Embiid’s had the edge one-on-one. Similar to Horford, the Detroit Pistons big man has had a rough time against him. Embiid has limited Drummond to under 38 percent on five attempts per game in an average of over 23 minutes on the floor together. When he’s not playing, Drummond has had close to a 78 percent success rate.

Regarding centers, Embiid ranks second in ESPN’s DRPM and fifth in Basketball Reference’s Defensive Box Plus-Minus. Citing Cleaning The Glass, the Sixers are allowing 10 more points per 100 possessions when he’s sitting, which slots Embiid into the 97th percentile.

He’s altering shots. He’s blocking shots. He’s forcing kick outs. And that’s a big reason why the NBA gave Embiid its Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors. Trust The Process.

1. Paul George

Basketball Insiders was well represented this past Saturday in Cleveland when the Oklahoma City Thunder decimated the Cavaliers in their own building. The focus was on the “OK3” exposing a terrible defense, but the real story in this game was how in-tune and sound George was on both ends of the court. He was sizzling shooting the basketball, but perhaps more defining was shutting down LeBron James on a day that was supposed to belong to him.

Any time 23 got the ball to try and get the Cavs going, George was there. He suffocated him with pressure, forcing James into bad decisions and contested shots. The talk of the day was the 30,000-point mark, but PG-13 had other ideas.

“I was hopeful that it took two games for him to get to that,” George said after the 148-124 win at Quicken Loans Arena. “I actually didn’t know that stat until right before coming into [Saturday]. They told me he needed 25 to go to 30,000. I’ve been a part of a lot of those baskets that he’s had, so that’s an achievement or milestone I didn’t want to be a part of.”

Thunder teammate Steven Adams spoke to his prowess on that end of the floor.

“He’s a really good defender man,” Adams said. “It was like a perfect matchup, honestly. He played LeBron really well in terms of our system and what we want him doing. He did an amazing job there.”

Oklahoma City head coach Billy Donovan is a huge fan as well.

“He really I think puts forth good effort,” Donovan said pre-game. “He’s long, smart. He’s disruptive. He’s got good feet. He’s a physical defender. He’s hard to shoot over. Certainly, with he and Andre [Roberson] on the wings, that’s certainly bolstered our defense.”

That was one performance, but it’s obvious how much George brings to the table as one of the toughest guys to score on in this league. He’s got a league-leading 188 deflections and is tied with Eric Bledsoe at the top of the NBA with 2.2 steals per game.

Recently, the Thunder have allowed 91 points at most in three of their last four games. They are also in the top three allowing just 104.7 points per 100 possessions and George has been a huge part of that.

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