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NBA AM: Is Jonathon Simmons The Magic’s X-Factor?

The Orlando Magic are off to a hot start and swingman Jonathon Simmons may be a big reason why.

Steve Kyler

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Is Simmons The X-Factor?

Of all of the starts to the NBA’s 2017-18 season, none may be more surprising than the Orlando Magic. The team has gone 5-2 over their first seven games.

Six weeks ago, if someone were to have told you the Magic would have the same record as the Golden State Warriors after six games or that they would have a better record than the Cleveland Cavaliers or Oklahoma City Thunder, you may have looked at them funny.

Not only have the Magic gotten off to a solid start, they have already beaten the Cavaliers and the Spurs (although shorthanded). The Magic didn’t land some superstar free agent or make a blockbuster trade, in fact, they are returning much of the same core as last season, with the only meaningful free agent being Jonathon Simmons. He, though, may very well be the X-Factor for the Magic’s success.

“He’s been playing really well,” Magic center Nikola Vucevic told Basketball Insiders. “Offensively, he just plays really aggressive. He’s able to get to the paint a lot, drawing a lot of fouls. He just brings aggressiveness to the floor, and that’s something we need.”

Last season the Magic struggled to gain ground after a deadline trade shook up the style of play. This season with Simmons in the lineup, much of which at point guard, the Magic have surged, scoring the most points through six games in franchise history.

“[Simmons is] just a spark man, defensively and offensively,” explained Magic forward Aaron Gordon. “He’s very tenacious. Plays with a lot of heart, so, it’s really good for us.”

Simmons who signed a three-year, $20 million deal in July has been sort of unleashed by Magic coach Frank Vogel, who continues to find ways to insert Simmons into the lineup, even though he is not a starter for the team, but is often trusted with closing out games.

“He’s just a good basketball player,” Vogel explained. “He has earned the trust. You know, when we put the ball in his hands, typically, he makes good things happen. He’s a good decision maker, and he’s a threat going to the basket. I mean, he really attacks the rim and will get to the free throw line and will finish. He does a good job making the extra pass, too. I do have a lot of trust; he’s earned it very early with me in his stay here.”

Simmons came into the NBA the hard way—he was a walk-on player in the D-League for the San Antonio Spurs. Still, he is finding a lot of opportunity with the Magic.

“It’s just another game for me,” Simmons said humbly after his team put down the Spurs.

“Coach and the staff is putting everyone in perfect positions, just so we could be great on offense. I think we’re just playing hard with energy and being able to execute as the offensive unit.”

Simmons understands the trust his coach has in his game.

“It feels good,” Simmons said. “I think for anyone of us, Coach has given that much confidence in any of us on the floor, and it’s just what we do after that. I think everybody’s taking great opportunity of that [trust].”

Simmons has set the tone defensively, joking “That’s what I do,” but it been his spark offensively that’s turned the table for the Magic.

“I think we’re gelling together as a team. We’re giving a little bit better continuity together. It’s just about trusting each other on the floor. Ultimately, just playing hard.”

After seven games, the Magic find themselves in the second spot in the East, something that seemed like a moonshot a year ago. While it’s unlikely the Magic maintain their current seeding, what’s become clear is that they are not as far away from the playoffs as maybe it seemed six weeks ago, and Jonathan Simmons has been a key part of their early success.

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Steve Kyler is the Editor and Publisher of Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA and basketball for the last 17 seasons.

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NBA PM: Losing Beverley Is A Devastating Blow For Clippers

The loss of Patrick Beverley is a major setback for the Clippers, which could be the catalyst for major changes to the team moving forward.

Jesse Blancarte

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If you ask any average NBA fan to name the ten best point guards in the league, Patrick Beverley’s name probably won’t make the cut. However, based on the injury issues plaguing the Los Angeles Clippers and the early season impact Beverley had on his team, losing him for the season is the functional equivalent of losing a top-ten point guard for the season.

In the 11 games Beverley played in this season, he averaged 12.2 points, 4.1 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 1.7 steals, while shooting 40 percent from beyond the arc and 40.3 percent from the field. Beverley’s control of the Clippers’ offense and his three-point shooting efficiency were nice surprises for the Clippers early on, but his fearless attitude and aggression on defense were the most important attributes he brought to the team. The Clippers have missed other players recently, including Danilo Gallinari, but the loss of Beverley has been a setback that Los Angeles has been unable to overcome.

“It’s a tough blow for the team, but it’s worse for Patrick,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers told reporters in Atlanta. “We thought it would probably be just meniscus, but it turns out to be a lot more.”

What seemed to be nagging knee soreness turned out to be a serious cartilage injury that required a microfracture procedure. Beverley will miss the rest of the season and his recovery will take roughly nine months. The Clippers had already lost 30-year-old rookie passing sensation Milos Teodosic in the second regular game of the season, whom is still out indefinitely. Los Angeles lost its starting backcourt 11 games into the season and it seems highly unlikely that they can effectively make up for those losses. Austin Rivers and Lou Williams are the veteran guards still available in the backcourt, with rookies Sindarius Thornwell and Jawun Evans offering their support.

Losing Teodosic was a difficult loss, but Beverley had managed well enough without him. With Beverley in the lineup, the Clippers outscored opponents by 4.5 points per 100 possessions this season. Without him, the Clippers have been outscored by 4.3 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com/stats.

Now the Clippers face some difficult decisions. Without Beverley and Teodosic, and with Gallinari missing extended time, the Clippers have fallen to 6-11 and are ranked 13th in the Western Conference. Making the postseason was going to be a challenge even without major injuries and now it seems like a daunting task that will require better health and an extended winning streak or two. However, without Beverley, the Clippers need to consider the possibility of moving significant trade assets now to prepare for the future.

Center DeAndre Jordan is now 29 years old and is set to be an unrestricted free agent next season. Teams are reportedly calling the Clippers to gauge whether Jordan would be available via trade. But earlier this season Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations Lawrence Frank stated that he is working to ensure that Jordan remains a Clipper through his entire career. However, with the Clippers facing such daunting injury issues and having already slipped to the back of the Western Conference, the Clippers may be more willing to listen to offers on players like Jordan and Lou Williams. The Cleveland Cavaliers, who are dealing with their own issues, could benefit substantially from brining on a player like Jordan. While there are no concrete discussions regarding a deal for Jordan or any other Clipper, this is now a team to watch as we get closer and closer to the trade deadline.

Derrick Rose Reportedly Away From Cavaliers, Contemplating Future

Derrick Rose has struggled with injuries since tearing his ACL in the 2012 playoffs. Now it seems as though the multi-year struggle to get and stay healthy is catching up to Rose, who is reportedly away from the Cleveland Cavaliers and is contemplating his future in basketball.

Adrian Wojnarowksi and Dave McMenamin of ESPN reported this story earlier today and stated that “Rose has been non-communicative to multiple people close to him inside and outside of the Cavaliers in recent days, league sources said.”

Rose, who won the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award in 2011, has also struggled to adapt his game to the league’s evolving style of play. Rose has failed to shoot better than 30 percent from the three-point line in the last four seasons and his ability to make plays for others consistently has dwindled as well. Rose has primarily been a scorer this season and has at times displayed his unique ability to attack the basket off the dribble effectively. However, his inability to stay healthy, knock down open three-pointers and be an effective playmaker for others have limited his impact in today’s NBA.

There is still a place in the NBA for Rose should he ever find a way to overcome his injury issues. But after years of fighting that battle, it seems as though Rose is unsure how much longer he wants to keep on fighting.

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Dunn Thriving With New Opportunity In Chicago

After a disappointing rookie campaign in Minnesota, Kris Dunn is thriving with the Bulls, Spencer Davies writes.

Spencer Davies

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Having met head-to-head in Tuesday night’s game for the first time in their careers, Kris Dunn and Lonzo Ball have some things in common.

Drafted fifth overall by the Minnesota Timberwolves, the former college star at Providence struggled to adjust to the professional level. He was finding difficulty putting the ball in the basket. He wasn’t nearly aggressive enough.

Part of this was due to an inconsistent role and a battle with Tyus Jones for the backup spot at point guard behind Ricky Rubio, but aside from that, there were significant shortcomings with his game that made people have their doubts about Dunn’s future in the NBA.

But fortunately for him, it was only one year, and — contrary to how most players are gauged these days — one year does not define who or what a player is or isn’t. Sometimes, it takes time or a change of scenery, and so far this season with the Chicago Bulls, the 23-year-old Dunn is showing flashes.

Despite missing the first four games with a dislocated finger, he hasn’t missed a beat. The discrepancies between now and his rookie season are already very apparent.

For one, Dunn scored in double digits a total of seven times in 78 games with Minnesota. Through just 12 games playing for the Bulls, he’s already registered nine of those performances, including recently eclipsing the 20-point mark for the first time with a career-high 22 against the Charlotte Hornets.

So what can you credit for the improvements? Assertiveness, probably. You score more when you shoot more. Dunn is averaging over triple the number of attempts per game this year with Chicago than with the Timberwolves. To no surprise, the numbers are prettier because of it.

It’s a decently small sample size, but Dunn’s effective field goal percentage (46.5) is more than five points higher than in 2016-17. He’s averaging 15.8 points per 36 minutes, pulling down at least five rebounds per game and averaging close to four assists per game as well.

His development on offense has been something, but the sophomore guard’s impact on the defensive end is something to keep an eye on. Though the Bulls rank in the bottom 10 defensively, there is a bright spot when Dunn is on the floor. As a team with him playing, Chicago allows 103.1 points per 100 possessions. When he’s on the bench, that number balloons to 110, which is the third-highest difference among his teammates.

Diving a little further into it, Dunn is seeing over nine attempts against him per game. Compared to other players that see between nine and 10 tries per game, he places sixth on the list, allowing just 41.1 percent of those to be successful. According to NBA.com, he is one of 35 players in the league who is allowing less than one point per possession on isolation plays. At the same time, this could be because he’s sending his opposition to the line a ton. Among guards, he averages the second-most fouls per game (3.3) behind only Dillon Brooks.

That’ll need to change eventually, but the potential is there. Dunn gambles on some reaches with his long arms and taller frame, which is why he’s getting two steals per game. He also ranks fifth among point guards in Defensive Real Plus-Minus behind his teammate David Nwaba. Strictly as a hounding defender, we’re seeing what he can become down the line.

Since returning, Dunn has the second-best net rating on the team and Chicago is a net -18.5 points per 100 possessions without him. While that’s not particularly encouraging for the team itself, it proves his importance. Again, the small body of work should tell you to take this with a grain of salt, but at the same time, we didn’t ever really see this in year one.

Whether it’s due to a better opportunity and more touches or more self-confidence on his part, Dunn is playing more loose and free, and he’s thriving because of it.

Maybe, just maybe, one season wasn’t enough to judge.

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NBA AM: Nicolas Batum Is Helping The Hornets Get Organized

Dwight Howard has predictably struggled with scoring efficiency, but Nicolas Batum’s return is already helping.

Buddy Grizzard

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With the Charlotte Hornets below .500 and presently out of the playoff picture almost a quarter of the way into the season, it’s not too early to start looking at what has gone wrong. While Dwight Howard has, predictably, been an inefficient contributor on offense, the loss of Nicolas Batum for much of the early season was a major setback. With Batum averaging 13.5 points and 4.5 assists in his first four appearances since his return, can he be the catalyst to help Charlotte turn its season around?

Batum scored 16 with five rebounds and six assists in his first appearance of the season in a loss to the Cavaliers. Hornets coach Steve Clifford said it’s been a struggle to ease Batum back into the rotation due to his eagerness to be on the court.

“When he feels good, I just leave him out there,” said Clifford after Wednesday’s shootaround. “We just have to be careful because the first night, he gets going in the games and he wants to play more.”

Clifford added that Charlotte’s condensed schedule, featuring seven games in 11 days, has complicated efforts to bring Batum along slowly.

“He just needed to play some,” said Clifford. “I think once we get through this stretch he’ll be good. He eats up minutes anyway.”

Batum working his way back into the rotation could help the Hornets address one of the early issues, which has been the incorporation of Howard into the offense. Batum gives Charlotte another proficient pick and roll ball handler in addition to Kemba Walker, and he should help put Howard in better positions to score.

“It’s a lot different being out there with Nic,” said Walker. “He just takes so much pressure off a lot of us. It’s really good to have him back. He just makes the game easy for a lot of us.”

Three Hornets have executed over 20 pick and rolls as the roll man this season. Cody Zeller has scored 1.14 points per 100 possessions on 22 such possessions. Frank Kaminsky has scored 1.15 per 100 on 33 possessions as a roll man. This scoring efficiency for both players ranks just above the league average.

For Howard, in 24 possessions as a roll man, he’s scored .75 per 100, which ranks in the eighth percentile. In other words, Howard ranks in the bottom 10 percent of the league in pick and roll scoring efficiency. Just as Howard was unable to establish a consistent pick and roll partnership in Atlanta last season with point guard Dennis Schroder, Howard’s possessions as a roll man in Charlotte account for only nine percent of his total possessions.

By contrast, Howard has used 95 possessions this season in post isolation, which accounts for more than a third of his total possessions (35 percent). He’s scoring a ghastly .66 per 100 possessions, which ranks in the 15th percentile league-wide. Of the 17 players who have used at least 50 post-up possessions this season, Howard ranks dead last in scoring efficiency.

Despite these struggles, Clifford said Batum’s re-integration into the lineup has already resulted in more opportunities for Howard, both from direct and indirect assists.

“Since Nic came back now he’s getting the ball a lot more,” said Clifford. “That’s how Nic plays. It’s not only directly from Nic, but Nic will see how he’s playing and touch the ball to somebody else so they can get it to him.”

Clifford sounds relieved to have Batum back in the rotation, almost as if he’s an assistant coach on the floor.

“Certainly [it helps] our efficiency and organization on both ends of the floor,” said Clifford. “It’s the very nature of how he plays.”

With the Hornets just outside the playoff picture in the East, Batum’s return should help stabilize the team in its quest for the postseason. Batum wasn’t available to help ease Howard’s integration in the early part of the season. But now that he’s back, according to Clifford, he’s already been a huge asset to the team’s cohesion.

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