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NBA Daily: Finally, Mario Hezonja Is Breaking Out

Mario Hezonja talked to Basketball Insiders about staying in rhythm, dealing with trade rumors and his positional flexibility.

Ben Nadeau

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Even after all this time, Mario Hezonja is still a difficult NBA prospect to nail down.

In between flashes of immense athleticism and a multi-positional talent, there were weeks and weeks that Hezonja, 22, spent glued to the Orlando Magic bench. Often raw and inconsistent, steady playing time had been difficult for Hezonja to lock down over the early stages of his career, typically surpassed by veterans with longer leashes and career resumes. This up-and-down partnership would eventually lead to Orlando declining Hezonja’s option for a fourth-year at the end of October, a move that will make him an unrestricted free agent in the summertime.

But since that resolution — and in thanks to one of the NBA’s most unfortunate list of injuries — the Magic have come to rely on the Croatian playmaker quite a bit recently. Over the last 19 games, Hezonja has averaged 11.2 points and 3.9 rebounds (even joining the starting lineup in nine of these games). As he now creeps toward a career-high in minutes per game, Hezonja has chalked up the new-found success to staying in rhythm.

“It’s all about the rhythm, I’ve been working — actual work, after practice, before practice, all the extra steps to maintain the rhythm,” Hezonja told Basketball Insiders. “Even though practice is different than actual games, the minutes and being on the court helps with the rhythm and everything else comes naturally to me.”

Before he was permanently inserted into the Magic rotation in early December, there were 11 instances in which Hezonja played less than 10 minutes in a contest and he racked up seven DNPs along the way. Unsurprisingly, Hezonja isn’t all that interested in padding his statistics or working toward career-highs — no, what he wants is to help the Magic turn their sinking season around.

“I shoot to make. I’m not into percentages, I’m not paying attention to that,” Hezonja said. “I just want to make every shot that I take — that’s what I’m working toward because I just want to win games.”

Of course, Orlando began the year as an unexpected dark horse and soared out to an 8-4 record, a perch that neared the top of the Eastern Conference. Then the laundry list of injuries came hard and fast. First, it was Jonathan Isaac, then Terrence Ross. Starters Aaron Gordon (nine) and Evan Fournier (eight) have both missed a chunk of games, while center Nikola Vucevic has been sidelined since Christmas.

These injuries have decimated the Magic, who now sit in the conference’s basement-dwelling 15th place at 14-33. Acting as one of Orlando’s brightest developments this season, thankfully, Hezonja has certainly looked the part over his run of extended minutes. Naturally, Hezonja says that the correlation between his increased role and subsequent statistical output is not a coincidence.

“The minutes are big. If I had them before, maybe these [numbers] would’ve come before, but now it’s all coming together,” Hezonja said. “I’m telling you, it’s all about rhythm, so everything comes after that.

“Injuries suck — they’ve pushed us a little bit behind, but I don’t think that’s the reason why I’m playing.”

As a highly-touted European prospect, the expectations for the 6-foot-8 Croatian — who was picked at No. 5 overall in 2015, ahead of players like Myles Turner and Devin Booker — have always loomed large. But while he bounced in and out of the rotation for two different head coaches, many began to wonder if the talented Hezonja would ever take the next step. With the minutes in fine supply as of late, however, Hezonja has played his most consistent stretch of basketball since he arrived in the NBA.

Fans and front offices alike are obsessed with finding ready-made prospects in the draft, so when a player like Hezonja didn’t immediately take the league by storm, the negative chatter inevitably began. But competitive as they come, the 22-year-old was able to answer the call when head coach Frank Vogel needed somebody to step up as the number of injuries and losses grew by the game,

All of a sudden, Orlando may come to regret declining that team option.

“Every year, I’ve improved — mostly in the off-season. During the season, you will learn from other guys who learned from opponents and what they do,” Hezonja told Basketball Insiders. “You talk to people and everything that you do over time is so helpful.

“You win, you improve. You lose, you improve — it’s unbelievable. It’s how the NBA works and it’s amazing, I’ve definitely gotten better every year.”

Not only has Hezonja found his niche as a talented scorer, but he’s even done it across four different positions in his young career as well. Beyond his assumed appearances at shooting guard and small forward, Hezonja once flirted with the idea of point guard during his rookie year under former head coach Scott Skiles. Under Vogel, Hezonja has gone the other direction to power forward, where he frequently punishes slower defenders in his ever-confident fashion.

Since Dec. 13, Hezonja has crossed the double-digit threshold in 12 of his last 19 games, topping out with a perspective-altering 28 points on 8-for-12 from three-point range against the Detroit Pistons. No matter where he plays or who guards him, Hezonja has quickly become an invaluable member of Orlando’s rotation. When asked about his positional flexibility, Hezonja again focused back to the team.

“Yes, I’m expecting to play center next year,” Hezonja told Basketball Insiders jokingly. “It’s about how I can help the team from other spots, especially with the injuries and now that we don’t have enough guys, I’m covering basically three positions. It’s definitely helpful for my individual game, but it’s helped the team too.”

Nevertheless, those whispers haven’t totally subsided.

Hezonja, along with Fournier and Payton, could be moved before the Feb. 8 deadline, according to Marc Stein of the New York Times. While the declined fourth-year option could leave the door open for an agreeable return to Orlando, rival executives expect Jeff Weltman — Orlando’s team president — to “aggressively hunt” for a Hezonja deal in the coming weeks. Amidst the never-ending trade rumors and his soon-to-be first-ever trip to free agency, it would be understandable if Hezonja was a little distracted these days.

But even with an undecided future, Hezonja isn’t worried about new contracts or opportunities, not even the rumors themselves. Hezonja has been down this road before — he cropped up in trade rumors last season too — so he knows that this won’t likely be the last time either. Undeterred by all the noise, Hezonja is finally breaking out and producing some of his finest moments on an NBA court yet — and he’s ready to keep on rising as well.

“Rumors, they always show up late, but it’s all from before because we changed a lot of people, we changed the front office, so everything pops out — everybody talks about different stuff,” Hezonja told Basketball Insiders. “I wasn’t paying attention at all to it — I mean, I’m not on Twitter, I barely use Instagram, so I’m not swiping, I’m not a typical athlete nowadays.

“I’m really focused on basketball, that’s why I’m here in America, so I really don’t care about anything else.”

Ben Nadeau is a Seattle-based writer in his second year with Basketball Insiders. For five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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NBA Daily: To Tank Or Not To Tank, That’s The Question In Brooklyn

With their season quickly falling apart, the Brooklyn Nets must decide on the best path forward and commit to it, writes Ben Nadeau.

Ben Nadeau

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The Brooklyn Nets, fresh off three straight seasons of disappointing results, finally looked halfway competent to start the 2018-19 campaign. Fueled by the impending breakout of Caris LeVert, the Nets began the year a very manageable 6-7 — a record that had them in the mix for a postseason berth within a muddied Eastern Conference. With big-time homegrown assets like Spencer Dinwiddie and Joe Harris making strides and youngsters like D’Angelo Russell and Jarrett Allen on the up-and-up, it was officially time to be optimistic, if not downright positive, in Brooklyn once again.

Then disaster struck all at once.

Despite the minor miracle surrounding the brutal, gut-wrenching injury that LeVert suffered on Nov. 12 in Minnesota, his absence has buried the Nets from the inside out. Since then, the Nets have gone 3-10 and now sit only three games back from the ever-so-familiar territory of the conference basement. During this low streak, Brooklyn has blown multiple double-digit leads, gave the win away against Memphis (twice) and suffered a 14-point loss to the dysfunctional Washington Wizards. From playoff contenders to the bottom of the ladder at the snap of a finger, it’s gone from bad to worse very quickly for the Nets.

Well, unless you’ve got your eye on the 2019 NBA Draft, that is.

This is, of course, the first season that the Nets have held their own draft pick since 2013. And, perhaps rightfully so, there are compelling arguments to now release the safety brakes and tank out, especially with LeVert no longer leading the way. Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish represent the crown jewel trio of NBA-ready prospects and adding any of them — let alone the hulking Bol Bol or high-scoring Romeo Langford — would jumpstart the Nets’ rebuild in a way not yet seen. Still, the Nets have said from the start of training camp that they’d try to be competitive because their attempt to develop a winning culture needs, well, wins.

Tired of losing — 69-177 over the last three seasons will do that to a franchise — the Nets have constantly put themselves in a position to win, at least for the first 36 minutes or so. But with so many crucial, organization-altering decisions on the very near horizon, Brooklyn will need to reevaluate their direction if the losses continue to pile up. At what point does incubating culture come at the expense of missing out on an elite prospect? On the other hand, their error-prone defeatism would certainly put a toll on a growing roster, head coach and front office if it continued until April as well.

Aside from outright winning — LeVert’s injury was cruel timing in more ways than one — there appears to be no unanimously great path forward from here.

For example, there’s the internal struggle over Spencer Dinwiddie and D’Angelo Russell. As two of the Nets’ best players, a desire to retain them both is understandable — but unless one is willing to come off the bench for the foreseeable future, it may not be the road the franchise wants to head down. Dinwiddie is eligible for his extension worth $47.5 million on Dec. 8 and the Nets’ biggest success story in Brooklyn remains candid about his desire to either stay or test the free agent market come June. The flipside of this two-headed coin is Russell, a younger, higher-ceiling guard that has struggled to find consistency every night thus far. Russell is the only roster member capable of the 38-point, 8-rebound, 8-assist effort he dropped last month against the Philadelphia 76ers, but also he’s spent many late-game scenarios glued to the bench as well.

Russell, as luck would have it, is a restricted free agent come July and he’ll likely have a long list of suitors himself. If the Nets commit to Dinwiddie, they could end up letting Russell walk for nothing. If the Nets take a wait-and-see approach to Russell, they could obviously lose Dinwiddie and leave that situation empty-handed instead.

(For more on this intriguing dilemma, check out Drew Maresca’s most recent piece here.)

Utilizing them both will have a negative impact on the Nets’ eventual lottery position — unless, naturally, the organization truly believes they can tread water until LeVert’s undetermined return. But the Nets will need to decide if hanging around eighth place is really worth missing out on a blue-chip prospect. Even if Brooklyn won’t commit to one or both (or neither) of their point guards just yet — Dinwiddie is extension-eligible until Jun. 30 — there’s another tweak that could help determine their best-foraged way to the future: The often-maligned youth movement.

There’s a clamor for another youth movement in Brooklyn that grows louder with each defeat, this time for Dzanan Musa, Rodions Kurucs, Theo Pinson and Alan Williams. Frankly, the foursome has been tearing up the G League for the Long Island Nets and the thought-process here is rather simple. Play the prospects and rookies and if they energize an at-times lethargic Nets squad — see Kurucs versus the Knicks — then great. If it doesn’t and the Nets keep falling down the conference ladder, then at least their future assets will have gained valuable experience at the NBA level.

Musa, the No. 29 overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, has appeared in just seven games so far, most often as the ceremonial white flag in a loss. On Long Island, Musa has averaged 20 points, 6.4 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.3 steals per game — but as he’s stuck behind a veteran-laden backcourt rotation, there may not be a true opportunity here without a trade. For Kurucs, his previous exclusion has been harder to quantify. Kurucs was forced into the rotation after preseason injuries to Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and DeMarre Carroll and the 20-year-old Latvian not only held his own, he thrived.

He’s tallied 7.3 points and 3.3 rebounds over 12.3 minutes per game, an athletic forward finding his place through aggressive open court action and a willingness to get dirty. An injury of his own knocked Kurucs back out of the rotation briefly — wherein that time, Hollis-Jefferson and Carroll both returned — but head coach Kenny Atkinson recently admitted that they may need to find more time for him moving forward.

The pair of two-way signees, Wiliams and Pinson, are considerably less urgent since the Nets can shuttle them between teams for up to 45 days before a decision has to be made. In any case, it’s not hard to imagine that both could help the Nets right now if that’s what the team is still aiming for in 2018-19. For argument’s sake, Brooklyn’s front office could be auditioning the likes of Jared Dudley, Kenneth Faried and the aforementioned Carroll — all of whom are expiring contracts — ahead of the trade deadline. Last season, the Nets’ extracted a second-round pick out the Milwaukee Bucks for Tyler Zeller, so that route is sensical, especially for general manager Sean Marks.

However, Faried has barely seen the floor at all, notching only 5.6 minutes over just eight contests so far. As of Friday, the Nets ranked 25th in rebounds per game at 32.7 and Faried, an eight-year veteran, has gobbled up a career average of 8.1 of them along the way but this seemingly perfect union hasn’t come together. Faried would conceivably help the Nets with their rebounding issues and put him front and center for a potential move elsewhere, so its become an overall confusing footnote indeed. Williams, a former NBA center himself, has pulled down 13.9 rebounds in just 25.2 minutes per game for Long Island — he, in all likelihood, is too good for the G League.

Elsewhere, Carroll underwent a career resurgence in Brooklyn in 2017-18 and he’d be worth a valuable return on the trade market if he’s available — but if the Nets still want to reach the postseason, the gritty veteran would almost definitely remain in their plans. Lastly, there’s Hollis-Jefferson, who, like Russell, will venture into restricted free agency this summer too. While the stretchy forward has been solidly part of the Nets’ rebuild, he could be an eventual casualty depending on how the Dinwiddie-Russell conundrum unfolds. Basically, there are difficult puzzles to solve here without any discernable, clear-cut answers.

But when the overarching goal is to compete despite the loss of your best player, the water gets muddied quickly. It’s hard to find time for both the veteran on an expiring contract and the scrappy rookie when those late-game wins turn into shocking losses time and time again.

Stuck between two frames of mind, the franchise has been tossed into a difficult position — to tank or tread water, that is the debate. LeVert’s injury turned a promising season into turmoil, but sooner rather than later, the Nets will need to take stock and determine how to most effectively proceed. Whether that’s the calculating the value of their two electric guards or the puzzling use of those back-of-the-rotation assets, it’ll be a busy winter and spring for the Nets’ front office, full of challenging questions that absolutely require the right answers.

Until then, even if the agonizing defeats continue to rise, the Nets must simply decide what kind of team they want to be.

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Reaction: Hill To Bucks In Three-Team Trade

There was a lot of moving pieces and parts in this three-way Eastern Conference deal between the Bucks, Cavaliers and Wizards. Spencer Davies looks at its effects.

Spencer Davies

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The Cleveland Cavaliers have traded George Hill and a 2021 second-round pick to the Milwaukee Bucks in exchange for Matthew Dellavedova, John Henson and two future draft picks, a 2021 first-rounder and 2021 second-rounder.

The Washington Wizards acquired Sam Dekker to make it a three-team deal and subsequently sent Jason Smith, an unprotected 2020 second-round draft pick and cash considerations to the Bucks.

The Cavaliers created as $2.76 million trade exception and the Wizards created a $2.68 million trade exception stemming from the transaction, per Bobby Marks of ESPN.

The Milwaukee picks going to Cleveland are both protected under specific parameters. The Bucks are sending a first-round draft pick that is lottery-protected in 2021, but will likely go to the Phoenix Suns due to the Eric Bledsoe deal last season.

Per reports, chances are the pick will be conveyed to the Cavaliers in 2022, when it is top-10 protected, meaning the Bucks would have to finish in the bottom third of the league standings that year.

If Milwaukee’s first-round draft pick does not convey by 2024, it will send its own 2024 and 2025 second-round draft picks to Cleveland.

For a more detailed look at the protections, here’s an overview:

2021: Top-14 protected
2022: Top-10 protected
2023: Protected 1-10 and 25-30
2024: Top-8 protected

In summation:

MIL gets: George Hill, Jason Smith, removed protections on Bucks 2020 2nd round pick (via Wizards in Jodie Meeks trade with Bucks), Cavaliers 2021 2nd round pick (via Wizards from Jazz), cash considerations from Wizards

CLE gets: Matthew Dellavedova, John Henson, Bucks 2021 1st round pick (protected), Bucks 2021 2nd round pick, Wizards 2022 2nd round pick

WAS gets: Sam Dekker

So let’s look at this deal for all three sides.

Milwaukee Bucks

The Bucks offloaded two contracts they were looking to shed, and they found a partner to do so. It didn’t cost much other than the picks, and those were heavily protected anyways. Plus, if you’re Milwaukee, it’s not about the future anymore. It’s about right now.

George Hill is a veteran with plenty of postseason experience and has plenty left in the tank to offer on the court. Before he went down with a shoulder injury, Hill was shooting the ball extremely well—a career-high 46.2 percent from three—and, when assuming Cleveland’s scoring responsibility, he showed his worth. The Cavaliers loved him as a leader in the locker room and for being the consummate professional that he is. He just didn’t fit the team’s timeline and the writing was on the wall with Colin Sexton’s development.

It’ll be intriguing to see how Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer decides to use Hill. He’s a versatile guard who can work the pick and roll, as well as play off-ball. Milwaukee has Eric Bledsoe and Malcolm Brogdon working together at the moment, so it’s unlikely he’ll split that pairing. Hill could be primarily a part of the bench unit, but there’s no question Budenholzer will find a way to find playing time for him with the ones.

Jason Smith is a serviceable big who will probably serve as an insurance policy in the event of an injury. The 32-year-old is more of a traditional center, but has proved on a few occasions that he can step up and knock down shots. The Bucks already have guys like Brook Lopez and Thon Maker to play at the five, but if somebody goes down, it’s not bad to have a backup plan.

Cleveland Cavaliers

This is the second trade the Cavaliers have made in the last week. Last Friday, they moved Kyle Korver to the Utah Jazz and landed Alec Burks along with two future second round picks. Now, they’ve executed another one.

It’s well-known that Cleveland is actively searching to take on sizeable contracts that teams want to rid themselves of, with the reason being that those contracts will likely have draft picks attached to them. As an organization looking towards the long-term, asset accumulation mode is in full effect. They’re not done by any means.

Taking a glance at the players the Cavaliers received, they’re quite familiar with one. Matthew Dellavedova—nicknamed “Delly”—is a fan favorite of the city and was a part of the 2016 NBA Championship version of the wine and gold. In his last two seasons with the Bucks, he’s dealt with injuries and he’s been kicked from the rotation. Maybe a return to the franchise that gave him an opportunity will do some good.

The other player in this trade is John Henson, a former lottery pick in 2012 out of North Carolina. As this writer guessed before the season started, Henson was always going to be the odd man out in Milwaukee. The system changed with Budenholzer coming in and the team added two stretch bigs, Ersan Ilyasova and Brook Lopez, to the mix. To the 28-year-old center’s credit, he did a solid job of adjusting.

Regardless, Henson tore a ligament in his left wrist and will possibly be out until after the All-Star break. When he’s on the floor, he is a hustler and a big man that provides second chance opportunities. Henson will use his length to his advantage and get you blocks as well.

Both Dellavedova and Henson are under contract for the next two years, including this season. Whether they’ll be a part of the Cavaliers for more than a short stay we’ll have to wait and see.

Washington Wizards

Just when we thought the trade was complete between Milwaukee and Cleveland, the Wizards decided to jump in and get some help on the wing. They had little use for Jason Smith in trending towards small ball, so they found somebody in Sam Dekker who fits those current needs much more naturally.

Dekker has been hampered with a left ankle sprain since early November. He had started in five of the nine games he played in. What he is best used for is backdoor cuts on the baseline, as Dekker is somewhat of a slashing hybrid between a wing and a big.

His biggest career knock has been an inability to shoot consistently, but on the bright side, Dekker has hit a career-best 38.5 percent of his triples. That is within a small sample size, though (5-for-13). In any case, he’ll help space Washington’s offense more and might actually be able to get some playing time—depending on what head coach Scott Brooks decides to do.

There was a lot of moving pieces and parts in this three-way Eastern Conference deal.

We’ll see how things turn out for everyone as the season progresses.

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NBA Daily: Looking for the Next Head Coach in Chicago

The Bulls recently fired Fred Hoiberg. Shane Rhodes takes a look at possible candidates to become Chicago’s next head coach

Shane Rhodes

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The Chicago Bulls have found themselves stuck in the mud over the last three seasons; a 110-136 record can attest to that. However, with Lauri Markkanen ready to take the next step coupled with a solid offseason, 2018-19 was supposed to be a good season for the Bulls.

It hasn’t gone exactly as planned.

After a 5-19 start to forget, Chicago relieved Head Coach Fred Hoiberg of his duties. In his stead, the front office promoted former Assistant Coach Jim Boylen, who the front office has expressed confidence in going forward. But, with the Bulls being where they are in their rebuild, he is by no means a lock to take over permanently.

So, who could be some of the candidates the Bulls consider down the line?

Jim Boylen

The Bulls, as they should, have high hopes for Boylen in his newfound role. Almost anything would be better than the product Chicago has put forth this season.

But let’s be honest; Hoiberg wasn’t the only reason this roster stumbled out of the gate. Injuries to and lackluster performances from the roster have also played a significant role. If Boylen can’t turn things around and win some games now, he may not have a shot at anything long-term.

That being said, if he can get this team to show almost any signs of life he may be the best bet for the job to start next season. It, at the very least, would give him a leg up on the field.

Ettore Messina

Ettore Messina has been connected to nearly every head coaching search over the past year, and for good reason: he has some serious experience under his belt.

A current assistant to Gregg Popovich in San Antonio, Messina also has an extensive resume as a head coach in Europe. Not only is he a four-time champion and two-time Coach of the Year in the EuroLeague, but Messina has won championships in Italy and Russia as well.

The winning pedigree, combined with the knowledge gained from his time with Popovich, should be as enticing to the Bulls as it has been for other teams. If Boylen can’t find a foothold, Messina could be the front-runner for the job come the offseason.

Monty Williams

Another former Spur, now Philadelphia 76er, Monty Williams is another candidate with a solid resume behind him.

Before his time as an assistant on the 76ers coaching staff, Williams spent time as the Vice President of Basketball of Operations in San Antonio. Before that, Williams was the head coach for the New Orleans Pelicans and has spent time on the pine for the Portland Trail Blazers and Oklahoma City Thunder as well.

Dating back to his time in New Orleans, Williams has been known as a players’ coach, which may be the perfect personality fit for this young Chicago roster. And, with so much talent already in-house — Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr., Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine — there may not be a better place for Williams to land if he truly wants to rejoin the head coaching ranks.

Stan Van Gundy

Stan Van Gundy has made some very questionable moves as an executive. But, as a head coach, the resume is hard to ignore.

During his four-year stint with the Detroit Pistons, Van Gundy managed the team to their only postseason appearance in the last decade. He coached his teams to multiple 50-win seasons during his time with the Miami HEAT and Orlando Magic and should bring a nice change of pace to what Hoiberg had done during his time with the team.

With Gar Forman firmly entrenched as the Bulls’ General Manager, Van Gundy’s spotty history as an executive shouldn’t be an issue as well.

Jay Larrañaga

Jay Larrañaga has been with the Boston Celtics for a long time; he predates head coach Brad Stevens as a member of the coaching staff. To stick around for so long, he must be doing something right, right?

In all seriousness, Larranaga has a solid basketball resume and coaching background; not only is Larrañaga a former player and G-League (then D-League) coach but his father, Jim Larrañaga, is the current head coach at the University of Miami and is a coaching veteran of more than four decades. And, as much as people heap praise Stevens for the job he has done in Boston, Larrañaga has also played a vital role in the development of Celtics’ young core.

The Bulls have a long season ahead of them, but the search for a head coach is one they shouldn’t take lightly. While they have some young talent on the rise, Chicago will need a steady hand to guide them and return the franchise to its winning ways — if they just settle or choose the wrong person for the job, the team could easily find themselves back at square one with an even longer rebuild ahead of them.

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