On the surface, it was a big summer for the Orlando Magic.
Aaron Gordon practically got a max contract and the highly-rated Mohamed Bamba became the shiniest addition to an already young, talented roster. But to focus your full attention on those two would be a massive disservice to Jonathan Isaac, the Magic’s next great franchise cornerstone.
Still, if you’re heading into this regular season in need of a refresher course on the burgeoning second-year professional, you certainly wouldn’t be alone. After going No. 6 overall in 2017, Isaac worked through normal rookie season yips in a reserve role but suffered a nasty ankle injury in November that shelved him for 45 of the following 48 games.
His return in March was welcomed, albeit unexplosive. Now (nearly) healthy, Isaac is currently preparing for what he hopes will be a full-on breakout season — but the forward has noted some major changes in his perspective and outlook.
“It’s huge, man, it’s just a huge difference from where I’m at mentally with it all,” Isaac told Basketball Insiders. “Like last year, all the nerves and anxiousness of just like: ‘Oh, media day’ — like the first one. But there’s definitely a calmness and stillness about this one and it’s easier.”
Over his 27 contests in 2017-18, Isaac posted an average of 5.4 points, 3.7 rebounds, 1.2 steals and 1.1 blocks in 19.9 minutes per game. All things considered — including the injury that nearly derailed the 21-year-old for an entire season — those were some encouraging returns. But in an outstanding rookie class, Ben Simmons, Donovan Mitchell and Jayson Tatum only served to fade Isaac further into the background — well, that is, until his coming out party this summer.
Out in Los Angeles, Isaac stood out in a big way, dominating alongside the looming — and his now close friend — Bamba, tallying 14.3 points, seven rebounds, 1.3 steals and 2.7 blocks in three games. From turnaround fadeaways on the baseline to nailing jumpers off the dribble, Isaac appeared more confident and comfortable on one end, while continuing to be a rim-protecting, shot-changing pest on the other. Simply put, if people weren’t ready to talk about the 6-foot-10 hyper-mobile Isaac, they certainly are now.
“Having people talk about you always feels great, especially if it’s positive things,” Isaac joked. “Having people see growth and say: ‘Wow, we might see something here that we didn’t expect’ or ‘he’s able to do things that we didn’t expect’ — it feels great.
“It definitely adds fuel to the fire, wanting to get that place of becoming the great player that I see myself becoming. It just gives me more incentive to work harder.”
An assumed eruption for Isaac would firmly entrench him in the new-era Magic blueprint, one that includes the aforementioned Gordon — who earned a contract worth $76 million in July — and Bamba. Together, the long, athletic trio would hopefully form a terrorizing force in the Eastern Conference for years to come. And although it’s easy to pick out those with the ceilingless potential on Orlando’s roster, Isaac was quick to heap praise on the entire roster before reluctantly talking about himself.
“I hate to talk about this because I don’t want to put too much emphasis on just us three,” Isaac told Basketball Insiders. “[Evan, Vucevic], these guys are big-time basketball players and great players for our team. Mo is just coming into his own, I’m just coming into my own and I don’t want to leave any of those guys out — D.J. — so many guys that are going to be great for us this year. But I do definitely see that buzz around me, AG and Mo.”
But as our Spencer Davies detailed in the offseason, the optimism surrounding their newly-minted twin towers is what might just excite onlookers the most. Unsurprisingly, their on-court chemistry has soared, even boasting a fun moment in which the pair simultaneously blocked the same shot during Summer League. (“If we ever do that again — that’ll be a miracle,” Isaac laughed in recollection.) However, it’s the duo’s real-life kinship that has truly blossomed in the days since the draft. Isaac and Bamba, who go back to high school together, have spent much of their free time learning what makes each other tick.
“I would say it’s definitely two-fold — Mo is a great dude and so full of energy,” Isaac said. “And he’s really smart and just hanging out with him has been fantastic, getting to know him more, getting to know about his family and where he comes from and all that.
“It’s been good to have real heart-to-heart moments.”
Needless to say, those fun anecdotes will only stay fresh as long as the wins keep coming for a Magic team still searching for an identity. Outside of last season’s minor aberration — Orlando finished one game better than the Atlanta Hawks at 25-57 — the Magic have come in last place within the Southeast Division every year since 2012-13. That season, naturally, was the first without Dwight Howard, the franchise’s last truly dominant force in the paint and a multi-time Defensive Player of the Year winner.
While Isaac would someday like to emulate that Future Hall of Famer’s successes in blue and white, the forward showed promise of his own throughout that hampered rookie season. Had Isaac qualified, his 1.1 blocks per game would’ve ranked him just barely behind the Nets’ Jarrett Allen for the best shot-blocker in the class, and he recorded multi-block efforts in a third of his total contests. As Isaac continues to improve, so will Orlando’s overall team numbers — a should-be featured anchor in a shaky unit that ranked 11th-worst in 2017-18 for defensive rating.
According to Isaac, that recently unearthed Summer League prowess comes from a strong faith and a growing comfort.
“Me, I put it all on my faith and that is honestly where it comes from for me,” Isaac told Basketball Insiders. “Having that new confidence in myself, a new stillness in myself — yeah, it definitely comes from the work as well, getting in and working hard . . . But also time as well, letting time take its toll and me being more mature and comfortable with myself.”
If there really was some self-proclaimed nervousness last season, Isaac looks to have shed those insecurities today. For as frustrating as that ankle injury may have been, Isaac has come away with lessons that’ll guide the rest of his bright career. That stillness — a word he returns to time and time again — places Isaac in new territory far before he’s even scratched his on-court potential as well. In a way, those initial setbacks could galvanize an already promising prospect.
But even if Isaac wanted to rush things before — back from injury, into the spotlight — he now believes that it’ll all work itself out eventually.
“Absolutely [I wanted to rush it], and I think that’s such a part of my stillness and my comfortability and calmness in it now,” Isaac said. “It’s not on my timing, I give that all to God. It’s his will for my life and where he wants me to be is where I’m gonna be.
“All I can do is focus on how hard I work, how hard I approach each and every day — but the time will come where everything unfolds.”
NBA Daily: Buyers or Sellers – Northwest Division
Which teams are buyers or sellers in the Northwest Division? David Yapkowitz breaks down each team’s respective situation.
This coming weekend, Dec. 15 to be exact, is a big marker in the NBA. It is the day that players who signed free-agent contracts over the summer are eligible to be included in trades.
Here at Basketball Insiders, we started a new series this week taking a look at each NBA team, division by division, and identifying which teams should be looking to move or add salary as this day approaches.
The Northwest Division is home to some of the better teams in the Western Conference. The Denver Nuggets have surprised many and have battled their way to the top of the conference. The Oklahoma City Thunder got off to a slow start, but have also fought their way to the top. The Portland Trail Blazers and Memphis Grizzlies are among the middle of the pack playoff teams. Only the Utah Jazz are struggling more than anticipated.
Here’s a look at what each of these teams should do as trade season approaches.
The Denver Nuggets suffered a couple setbacks recently with the injuries to Gary Harris and Paul Millsap. Fortunately for them, they are a deep and talented team that looks able to withstand those temporary losses.
As it stands, they aren’t locked into any terrible contracts and most of their young bench guys who have been crucial this season still have a couple years left on their current contracts. They are also awaiting the debut of Isaiah Thomas and prized rookie Michael Porter Jr. The Nuggets are a team that would do well to just stand pat and stay the course. Wait to get healthy and see what this team is capable of.
If they were to make a move, it could be something very low key. They were recently granted an injury exception to add a player over the roster limit which they used on Nick Young. Young is an instant offense guy off the bench who played a key role in last season’s championship Warriors team. Should he impress, the Nuggets could offload a seldom-used player like Tyler Lydon in a salary dump to make room for Young once the injured guys return.
Players whose trade restrictions are lifted on Dec. 15: Torrey Craig, Monte Morris, Isaiah Thomas
The Timberwolves already made their big splash when they traded Jimmy Butler to the Philadelphia 76ers for Robert Covington and Dario Saric. After starting the season off poorly following the Butler distraction, they’ve since played .500 basketball.
This is a team that is looking to get back to the playoffs after ending their playoff drought last season. They do have one particularly big contract in Gorgui Dieng that they probably wouldn’t mind shedding. The only thing is they’d most likely need to add someone to a potential deal to make to more enticing. That’s where Tyus Jones comes in.
The Wolves were buyers with the additions of Covington and Saric, and now it’s probably time for them to become sellers. The resurgence of Derrick Rose and the presence of Jeff Teague has made Jones expendable. While he is a very solid point guard, it’s clear that he’s probably best suited for a new home. There are teams looking for a point guard, the Phoenix Suns being one. The Wolves could probably rid themselves of Dieng’s contract in potential Jones deal.
Players whose trade restrictions are lifted on Dec. 15: Luol Deng, James Nunnally, Anthony Toliver
Oklahoma City Thunder
At one point, the Thunder were the only team in the NBA without a win. Now, they’re sitting atop the Western Conference, ahead of the Golden State Warriors. They are looking like the changed team that many thought they’d be after trading Carmelo Anthony.
If the question on whether or not the Thunder should be buyers or sellers were posed about a month ago, they almost certainly would have been buyers. Their outside shooting was pretty poor. Since then, its’ improved dramatically. Paul George has been shooting better from the three-point line. Jerami Grant has emerged as a legit outside threat. Dennis Schroder has gotten his percentage up as well.
If they can add another shooter though without having to give up much, then they should go ahead and look into it. What they should really do, however, is stand pat and await the return of Andre Roberson.
Roberson has yet to play while recovering from an injury sustained last season. While the Thunder defense suffered without him last year, they’re actually one of the best defensive teams in the league this season.
Players whose trade restrictions are lifted on Dec. 15: Raymond Felton, Nerlens Noel
Portland Trail Blazers
The Blazers have hit a bit of a rough patch lately, bouncing back down to the middle of the pack when they were near the top of the conference. Even so, they’re still one of the better teams in the West but haven’t yet reached that level where they can make some noise in the playoffs.
Portland is a team that should almost assuredly be buyers this trade season. They should be looking to add talent where they can to really be able to compete with the upper echelon of the conference. They’ve got a pair of contracts in Myers Leonard and Mo Harkless that they’d probably be open to moving if the opportunity presented itself.
What the Blazers should be looking for is someone who can probably fill the spot that they’d hoped Harkless could. That’s a wing who shift between both forward spots, knock down the three and play tough defense. There is a player supposedly on the market who fits that bill, Trevor Ariza. He’s been linked to the Los Angeles Lakers, but it wouldn’t hurt for Portland to make inquiries.
Players whose trade restrictions are lifted Dec. 15: Seth Curry, Nik Stauskas
The Utah Jazz are perhaps the most disappointing team in the NBA this season. They were not supposed to be a sub .500 team. There is definitely still time to turn things around, but it’s going to have to happen much sooner than later as the West is shaping up to be extremely tough.
The Jazz have also made their trade move already when they brought back Kyle Korver. Three-point shooting was a major concern for them and Korver is one of the best in the business in that regard. This is a roster that on paper is talented and shouldn’t be as bad as they have been. It’s not clear if there’s a move out there that would suddenly vault them up in the standings.
The Jazz are going to have to make decisions on both Ricky Rubio and Derrick Favors though. Rubio is an expiring contract and Favors is non-guaranteed for next season.
Players whose trade restrictions are lifted on Dec. 15: Georges Niang
It’s going to be interesting to see what these teams, and the rest of the NBA as a whole, does once Dec. 15 rolls around. Even with the Jazz’ poor start, each of these teams had major playoff aspirations when the season began.
Make sure you follow along here at Basketball Insiders with the rest of the divisions as well as any trade news and reactions if they happen.
NBA Daily: The Team No One Talks About
Even if their situation isn’t pretty, the Miami HEAT are a much more interesting team than people are giving them credit for. Matt John explains why.
The final matchup between LeBron James and Dwyane Wade created a ton of national buzz on Monday night, and for good reason.
The two of them are both future first-ballot Hall of Famers, they were two of the absolute best players of their generation, and of course, they experienced plenty of success together. When the two legends embraced one another at the end of what was a tight contest, it was moving to see two buddies savoring the moment in their last game together.
We as the audience live for spectacles like those because they come ever so rarely in a lifetime, but you know what else was a rarity that night? Miami was in the headlines again.
It sounds odd, doesn’t it? The HEAT used to be all the rage dating back to the LeBron days, but since then, not so much. Miami hasn’t done a terrible job since LeBron departed in 2014. In 2016, they came within inches of returning to the Eastern Conference Finals. The following year, they went on a tear following an abysmal start only to come up short on the playoffs.
Now it’s a different story. The HEAT are coming off a gentleman’s sweep at the hands of the Philadelphia 76ers last season, have an unimpressive 11-15 record, and, before the Wade-LeBron matchup, the last big storyline centered around them was when they tried to acquire Jimmy Butler.
At the moment, Miami has the highest payroll in the league and lots of money tied up to players who aren’t making the All-Star team anytime soon, which limits their ceiling. Because of that, it’s tough to find reasons to talk about them.
However, after taking the Lakers to the wire, Miami is starting to show signs that its outlook isn’t as bleak as it looks and that they deserve more attention than people are giving them.
The Kids Are Alright
Well, well, well. Perhaps youth isn’t wasted on the young after all. At least, not in South Beach.
Miami’s young talent has shown some promise over the last few years, but the production has been a little slower than they would have hoped. Luckily for them, their patience appears to be paying off.
Let’s start with who would have been the main piece in the HEAT’s bid for Jimmy Butler: Josh Richardson. If they don’t already, Minnesota is probably going to regret not trading for Richardson, because the 25-year-old wing started off the season as a man possessed. Through the first month-and-a-half of the season, Richardson averaged 20.5 points on 43 percent shooting, including 41.4 percent from three while also averaging four rebounds and 3.1 assists.
Since the start of December, his numbers have gone down probably because of a shoulder injury, but once he fully recovers from that, there’s no telling what Richardson may be capable of. Since coming into the league, Josh has established himself as one of the premier young jack-of-all-trades wings. At only 25 years old, he may just be elevating his game from Swiss army knife to blossoming star.
Next, there’s Justise Winslow. Since being heralded as one of the bigger steals in the 2015 draft, Winslow’s start in the NBA hasn’t been the most graceful. Going down with a torn labrum in 2016 probably had something to do with that. Among the glimpses of talent he’s shown, Winslow has never found consistency, but he may have turned a corner.
Justise has had pretty much the exact opposite season that Richardson has had. His first month-and-a-half numbers were okay, but he’s had a fantastic December so far. He’s put up 18.4 points a game on 53 percent shooting including 52 percent from distance, while also averaging 6.2 rebounds and four assists. Putting up those kinds of numbers against the Lakers and the Clippers is no easy task, so this might be a sign of things to come.
If it is, then he’s beginning to show why Danny Ainge was willing to trade six first-round picks to get him.
Finally, there’s Bam Adebayo. His stats won’t “wow” you, but his net rating probably would. The second-year player currently ranks third in net rating behind only Richardson and Kelly Olynyk, as the HEAT are a plus-8.4 with Bam on the court. When you compare that to Hassan Whiteside, with whom the HEAT are minus-6.7 on the court, you can see that Adebayo brings a much more positive impact.
That stems mostly from his defense, as the HEAT’s defensive rating is plus-9 with Adebayo on the court according to NBA.com, which is highest on the team. Miami is currently tied for the ninth-best defensively rated team at 107.9, so they’d be sure to play him more to keep that up.
The ages of Richardson, Winslow and Adebayo all range from 21 to 25, so the best of them is yet to come. On a team that’s filled with bloated contracts, the HEAT can sleep better at night knowing that their young starlets will all be paid less than $30 million per combined over the next three years.
The End of an Era
Like any other all-time great, Dwyane Wade’s retirement tour should be something every hoop junkie should tune into, but everyone knew that already.
What makes Wade’s final season stand out among others is that he’s making legitimately worthwhile contributions for a team that’s trying to win. Compare that to say, Kobe Bryant, who didn’t put up awful stats in his last season, but played for a team that was intentionally terrible. Or Paul Pierce, who played for a team that was trying to win in his last season, but was cooked by the time he got there.
With Flash, it’s different. Wade is still putting up above average numbers with almost 15 points a game on 41.8 percent shooting on 13 attempts per contest. Not bad for someone who will be turning 37 in a month.
Wade’s scoring numbers are to be expected, but it’s how he’s getting them that should impress even his die-hard fans.
Throughout his entire career, Wade was always a feared scorer with his Achilles’ heel being his inability to stretch the floor. So far this season, the man has changed that. The Chicago native has shot 35 percent from three on four attempts per game. Both are career-highs and a huge boost from Wade’s past numbers centered around the three-ball.
Wade’s numbers are also proving to be effective, as the HEAT are plus-4.2 with D-Wade on the floor, with all of it stemming from his impact on their offensive rating.
Regardless of where Miami finishes, Wade is going out with a bang. Let’s be honest – that is exactly what we all want to see from the soon-to-be retiree.
A Turnaround Is In The Cards
An 11-15 record isn’t going to impress anybody, but Miami has won four of its last six games, and some of those wins weren’t a stroll in the park for them. Beating the Clippers in Los Angeles is quite an impressive feat when you think about how many guys were out for the HEAT. Richardson, Whiteside, Goran Dragic, James Johnson, Wayne Ellington and Dion Waiters were all out, and Tyler Johnson left early with an injury.
Miami still prevailed by 23 points against one of the West’s top teams while basically having eight guys to play. That’s only one game, but in the next game, the HEAT, who had more of their players back, gave the Lakers all they could handle, as it came down to the final buzzer.
Okay, that’s only two games of good play against good teams, but think about this. Miami’s point differential is currently minus-0.3, which is better than the sixth-seeded Detroit Pistons, whose differential is minus-1.2. It’s also better the eighth-seeded Orlando Magic, whose differential is minus-3.4. If Miami improves on that, then they should be able to catch and potentially surpass both.
Remember, Miami has turned the tides before not too long ago. Erik Spoelstra is still an excellent coach in this league who is capable of making the proper adjustments for his team to succeed. Expecting Miami to instantly to be a contender would be stretching it a tad, but they are currently a half-game behind the Magic for the last playoff spot with their core guys starting to come back.
So, if the HEAT turn it around, you heard it here first.
NBA Daily: Almost Trade Time In The NBA
While the NBA has seen some major deals early in the season, the real trade chatter is just getting started. Steve Kyler takes a look at some of the names to watch.
Almost Trade Time In The NBA
While the NBA has already seen a few major deals drop, including the Jimmy Butler deal to Philadelphia and George Hill being moved off to Milwaukee, typically the NBA doesn’t see nearly this much activity this early in the season. Normally, deals start to take shape after December 15, when those players who signed free-agent deals with new teams become trade-eligible, which is this Saturday.
All week long, Basketball Insiders will be looking at who should be “buyers” and who should be “seller” in advance of the Saturday milestone.
While there will hardly be a floodgate opening on Saturday, it is the first milestone of the trade season, which means teams will start talking more intently, especially with the annual G-League Showcase getting underway in Las Vegas next week.
There have already been some notable names hitting the rumor mill such as Phoenix’s Trevor Ariza, who most expect to be moved, and J.R. Smith in Cleveland, who is also expected to be moved at some point before the February 7th NBA Trade Deadline.
While those are the most likely dominoes to drop next, there are a few more worth watching.
Kent Bazemore – Atlanta Hawks
The Atlanta Hawks have been looking for a new home for forward Kent Bazemore for some time. The problem for the Hawks in moving Bazemore is the $18.08 million he is owed this year and the Player Option he is most likely picking up for next season worth $19.26 million.
There has been some interest in Bazemore; he was linked to the Houston Rockets on several occasions, mainly as a money swap for Ryan Anderson, who was moved off to the Phoenix Suns this past summer.
Compounding the problem for the Hawks is that Bazemore hasn’t exactly been blowing the doors off with his play this season. League sources still peg him as an easy player to obtain, mainly because the Hawks don’t seem to want much in return except to get out of his contract.
The Cleveland Cavaliers are believed to be open to taking on longer-term salary if they can extract youth or draft picks in the process. With J.R. Smith’s deal being very favorable with only $3.78 million guaranteed, that could be an interesting situation to watch, especially if the Hawks are open to buying Smith out after a trade and setting him free to find a new team in advance of free agency.
Robin Lopez – Chicago Bulls
With the chaos surrounding the Chicago Bulls lately, it’s not surprising to hear that one of the lone grown-ups on the roster, Robin Lopez, was trying to quell what seemed like an insurrection against new Bulls head coach Jim Boylen.
You will be hard pressed to find anyone that doesn’t think highly of Lopez, and for that reason alone it wouldn’t be entirely shocking to see the Bulls hang on to Lopez, merely to make sure things don’t get off the rails.
That said, there is a reality headed the Bulls way, and that is that Lopez can be a free agent in July, and he will likely be in demand for many of the reasons the Bulls would want to keep him around.
That same demand likely means the Bulls could get a reasonable return for Lopez and his $14.35 million contract.
Few in NBA circles believe Lopez will be in Chicago past the deadline, which makes him an interesting name to watch especially for would-be playoff teams that are looking for veteran toughness for a playoff run.
It won’t be surprising to see the Bulls cash out Lopez in the coming weeks, however, given the current state of things around the team; they would be smart to hang on to him at least until the latest mess comes to pass.
Courtney Lee – New York Knicks
The Knicks desperately want to shed contract money before the trade deadline, and the odd man out seems to be swingman Courtney Lee.
Lee is just getting back from a pretty significant neck injury that cost him almost all the season so far. Lee is expected to get some run in the G-League tonight as part of his rehab. It’s also in part to allow other teams to get an extended look at Lee for trade purposes, according to sources close to the situation.
Amusingly, Lee chose the Knicks because they offered him a fourth contract year when he signed back in 2016. Coincidentally it’s that fourth year the Knicks are now trying to shed.
There is a sense in NBA circles that Lee wouldn’t be hard to move. The question is what else the Knicks will have to include to get that money off the books before the February trade deadline?
Zach Randolph – Sacramento Kings
Zach Randolph has been out of the Sacramento Kings rotation all year as they have been moving towards playing their younger guys. Randolph chose the Kings, mainly because they offered vastly more money than any other team, but did so knowing he might not play as much in his final year, something he has said repeatedly he was OK with.
All of that said, Randolph is someone the Kings would love to trade, and its possible teams looking to shed contract dollars would view Randolph’s $11.692 million deal as attractive if only to buy him out and get out of longer team money.
The prevailing thought from NBA insiders is that the Kings will hang on to Randolph until the trade deadline. If they cannot find a deal, then it is expected he will be bought out and given a chance to latch on to a veteran team that might have a role for him.
Sources near the situation say Randolph has been great with all of this and isn’t pushing the Kings one way or the other, which buys them time to let the market play out.
While these are not remotely close to all the names to watch, but some of the bigger contract guys in play and likely candidates to be moved sooner than later.
Basketball Insiders has already dropped the first part of the Buyers and Sellers series, with Spencer Davies taking a look at the Central Division. A new division will drop every day this week, so stay tuned.
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