The 2015-16 season for the Orlando Magic didn’t quite go as planned. Upon hiring a new coach in Scott Skiles, the goal that the franchise set was clear: make the playoffs.
A quick glance at the final standings for this season will show the team made a 10-game improvement compared to last season, but it still wasn’t quite enough to make the playoffs as they came up nine games short of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
The team had been rolling through the first two-plus months of the season as they posted a 19-13 record through the end of December, which was good for fourth place in the East. After roaring out to that solid start, the rest of the season was a completely different story as the Magic went 16-34 over the remainder of the season and quickly fell down the standings.
Now the team is tasked with perhaps their most important offseason since trading away Dwight Howard. The Magic have now missed the playoffs in four consecutive seasons, tying the franchise mark for most seasons without a postseason appearance. Having a great summer is key into getting back on track in 2016-17.
Look at Trading the Draft Pick
As 16 teams are in the full swing of the playoffs, 14 other teams have already turned their attention to the 2016 NBA Draft. Although those teams not in the playoffs can officially execute trades, the draft typically serves as the unofficial start to trade season, as we often see deals consummated on draft night.
The Magic head into the draft in a position that they haven’t been in recently. This is the first draft during their current four-year rebuild where their pick will likely fall outside of the top-10. As things stand going into the draft lottery on May 19, the Magic have the 11th-best odds of landing the first pick.
This year’s draft class is generally considered to be extremely top heavy, with no real franchise-changing player outside of the top-five or so. The Magic have been able to build its core through the draft as they’ve held a top-five selection in each of the past three drafts. They also had another lottery pick two years ago that they eventually used to obtain the draft rights to Elfrid Payton.
Given that there likely won’t be a great option for the Magic when they draft, the team should look at trading that pick. Adding another young player that will likely need a few seasons to develop may not necessarily help the Magic win now. The team wants to make a deep run in the playoffs and adding a player that is a few years away may not be the solution.
While nothing is set in stone regarding the Magic and this draft pick, the team should consider packaging this pick in a deal that would bring back a veteran player. Magic general manager Rob Hennigan said during exit interviews last week that the team will be as aggressive as any team this summer. It’s likely that they have already began looking at their options with this draft pick.
There were reports around the trade deadline that the Magic were among those that inquired about Jimmy Butler from the Chicago Bulls. Given the Bulls’ recent comments on Butler last week, it doesn’t seem like he is untouchable. Acquiring a guy like Butler (or another top-tier player) is worth exploring as it would be a big step in the right direction for the franchise.
Be Smart in Free Agency
Virtually every team this summer will have a lot of money to play with. The Magic will be among 20 or so teams that will have enough cap space to sign a max-deal player. They are also one of about six teams that will have enough cap space to potentially sign two max-deal players.
In recent years, having that much cap space was huge for a team. The problem for the Magic is they’ll have to convince free agents to choose Orlando over some of the more established destinations out there since there will be so many teams with cap space. Would a highly-coveted free agent choose the Magic – a team that hasn’t made the playoffs in four years – over a team that is currently in the playoffs right now?
Given that logic, the team will likely need to overspend a little bit to lure one of those top names to Orlando. We saw the team do this previously a few years ago when they signed Channing Frye to a four-year, $32 million deal. Many thought the team overpaid a bit for Frye, but it was likely the extra few million dollars that convinced Frye to choose Orlando over teams in championship contention.
It’s clear at this point that the Magic need some more veteran guidance on the roster. The team’s downfall after December was having to rely too much on their younger players. We saw those players go through bouts of inconsistency late in games and we saw them drop several close games down the stretch. Had some of those close games gone in their favor, they could have possibly made the playoffs.
The team added some veteran leadership at the trade deadline when they acquired Brandon Jennings and Ersan Ilyasova from the Detroit Pistons in exchange for Tobias Harris. Those two players can potentially come off of the books this summer as Jennings is an unrestricted free agent and Ilyasova is on a non-guaranteed contract next season. This trade was designed to help in the team’s playoff push and to also create cap space this summer.
It will be important for the Magic to be smart in free agency. Just because the team has money to spend, doesn’t mean they have to spend it. Players like Al Horford, Chandler Parsons, DeMar DeRozan, Bradley Beal, Mike Conley, Rajon Rondo, Kent Bazemore and Marvin Williams (among others) could all become free agents this summer and are all among the players that seem obtainable (though some are much more obtainable than others).
LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Dwyane Wade and Hassan Whiteside headline this summer’s free agent class, but those players seem unrealistic at this point to sign with Orlando. In any case, the Magic will need to be smart in who they bring in, something that Hennigan has already mentioned.
Decide on the Future
The Magic will have several players set to hit free agency this summer. Players like Jennings and Jason Smith will be unrestricted free agents, while Evan Fournier, Andrew Nicholson and Dewayne Dedmon can be restricted free agents once the Magic extends qualifying offers to them. Ilyasova and Devyn Marble are on non-guaranteed deals for next season.
As things stand going into next season, only seven players are on fully guaranteed contracts. The team will need to decide which players they want to bring back among those upcoming free agents. They could ultimately decide to renounce as many contracts as they can in order to maximize their cap space and make a big splash through free agency.
Perhaps their biggest decision will be with Fournier. He’s a player that has played well when given the opportunity, and because of that, likely drove his price tag up substantially. It’s unclear what the Magic would be willing to match, but it was reported that Fournier rejected a four-year, $32 million deal at the beginning of the season. The key thing to remember with Fournier this summer is the team can keep all of their cap space by re-signing Fournier last. The team’s estimated $50 million cap space includes Fournier’s cap hold of $4,433,683, so they can go over the cap to re-sign him since they hold his Bird Rights.
Starting this summer, the Magic will also be able to re-sign Victor Oladipo as he is set to become a restricted free agent next summer. Both Fournier and Oladipo play the same position, so would Orlando want to retain both players? The team could also opt to eventually re-sign both players in order to keep them as assets and ultimately trade them later as we saw them do this season with Tobias Harris.
It’s often been said that no player on the Magic is untouchable, and they would be open to moving one of their core players for the right price. Would they elect to part ways with a core player if it meant returning a top-tier player?
It’s clear that this summer is going to be a big offseason for the Magic. The team wants to be aggressive, but will they be able to make a big splash in free agency or through trades? Adding players like Horford or Parsons (or others) could be what puts them over the top and into the playoff race next season.
A welcomed sign for the team is they can add players through free agency and still keep their core intact if they want to. Bringing in a couple of key veteran players to a team that includes Payton, Oladipo, Fournier, Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon and Mario Hezonja could make a dangerous core that sticks around for a long time.
NBA Daily: Pelicans Might Be Better Off Without DeMarcus Cousins
Without DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis has excelled. It might not be a coincidence.
Forget Kawhi Leonard, the most interesting storyline of this NBA summer is going to be DeMarcus Cousins.
By now, if you’ve wondered whether the New Orleans Pelicans would be better off without the talented big man, you’re certainly not alone.
Just ask the Portland Trail Blazers.
On Saturday, the Pelicans pulled off an improbable sweep of the third-seeded Blazers in the first round of their best-of-seven playoff series. And while the immediate question that comes to mind is what to make of the Blazers, a similar question can be (and should be) asked of the Pelicans.
Without question, Cousins is one of the most gifted big men the NBA has sen in quite some time, but it shouldn’t be lost on any of us that Anthony Davis began to put forth superhuman efforts when Cousins was absent.
Ever heard the saying that too many cooks spoil the brew?
That may be pricisely the case here.
Sure, having good players at your disposal is a problem that most head coach in the league would sign up for, but it takes a special type of player to willingly cede touches and shots in the name of the best interests of the team.
We once had a similar conversation about Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, mind you. Those that recognized that Westbrook’s ball dominance and inefficiency took opportunities away from Durant to be the best version of himself once believed that the Oklahoma City Thunder would have been wise to pitch Westbrook to New Orleans back when Chris Paul was still manning their perimeter.
For what it’s worth, with Cousins in the lineup, he averaged 18 shots per game. In the 48 games he played this season, the Pelicans were 27-21. With him in the lineup, Davis shot the ball 17.6 times per game and scored 26.5 points per contest.
In the 34 games the Pelicans played without Cousins, Davis’ shot attempts increased fairly significantly. He got 21.9 attempts per contest and similarly increased his scoring output to 30.2 points per game.
Aside from that, Cousins’ presence in the middle made it a tad more difficult for Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday to have the pace and space they need to be most effective. With both Davis and Cousins, the Pelicans struggled to consistently string together wins. Without Cousins, they improbably became the first team in the Western Conference to advance to the second round.
That Cousins tore his achilles tendon and is just a few months from becoming an unrestricted free agent combine to make him the most interesting man in the NBA.
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With Chris Paul having decided that the grass was probably greener with James Harden and Mike D’Antoni than it was with Doc Rivers and Blake Griffin, the Clippers fulfilled his request to be trade to the Houston Rockets and re-signed Griffin to a five-year max. deal. In doing so, they both gave Griffin a stark reminder of what life in the NBA is like and provided a blueprint for teams to follow when they have a superstar player with whom they believe to have run their course.
The glass half full perspective might be that Davis has simply become a better, healthier, more effective player and that with Cousins, he would have another weapon that could help catapult the Pelicans ever further toward the top of the Western Conference. But the half-empty glass might yield another conclusion.
At the end of the day, although he still hasn’t appeared in a single playoff game, Cousins is regarded as a game-changing talent and is one of the few players available on the free agency market this summer that could justify an annual average salary of $30 million. In all likelihood, the Pelicans will re-sign him for a sum that approaches that, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best move.
In the end, the Clippers traded Griffin for Avery Bradley, Tobias Harris, Boban Marjanovic, a first round pick and a second round pick. All things considered, it was a great haul for the Clippers when you consider that, just a few months prior, they could have lost Griffin as a free agent and gotten nothing in return.
Remarkably, after seeing Griffin dealt to Detroit, in the Western Conference, the Pelicans are on a collision course with the Golden State Warriors. Their health a constant concern, the team will have to deal with the pesky perimeter defense of Holiday and Rondo and versatility and two-way effectiveness of Davis.
Nobody gave New Orleans a chance against Portland, and for sure, not many people are going to believe in their ability to score an upset over the defending champions. But believe it or not, New Orleans has become a different team. And they’ve done so without Cousins.
Indeed, believe it or not, the Clippers gave us a blueprint for what a team should do when it has a superstar who might not be the best long-term fit for their program.
And if the Pelicans were wise, they’d be smart to follow it.
NBA Daily: Rookie Contributors Lifting Playoff Teams
This year’s impressive rookie class has translated their regular season performances to the playoff stage.
This past NBA season had the luxury of an incredibly entertaining and high-powered rookie class. Every other day it seemed like the feats of either Donovan Mitchell, Jayson Tatum, Lauri Markkanen, Dennis Smith Jr., Kyle Kuzma, or Ben Simmons were dominating the discussion about how advanced the league’s crop of newbies appeared to be.
As a result, the 2017-18 Rookie of the Year race was a much more heated discussion than the year before.
With the impressive campaign these NBA freshmen put together, it should come as no surprise that on the on bright stage of playoff basketball, three of the aforementioned crop are helping lead their team’s in tight first-round battles.
Donovan Mitchell has been the leading scorer for the Utah Jazz through two games in their series against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Jayson Tatum is stepping up for the Boston Celtics to help fill in the void of Kyrie Irving as they take on the Milwaukee Bucks. Ben Simmons is nearly averaging a triple-double through three games for the Philadelphia 76ers in their matchup with the Miami HEAT.
Lottery pick talents are expected in today’s NBA to come in and have some level of impact for their clubs. Usually, they play the role as a foundational building block that shows flashes of promise with an expected up-and-down first season. While these three playoff contributors haven’t been perfect all year long, under the pressure of the postseason, they’ve stepped up their play and appear to be avoiding the learning curve.
With that, let’s highlight further what Mitchell, Tatum, and Simmons have been able to do thus far in the postseason.
Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz
All season long Mitchell threw the entire scoring load of Salt Lake City on his back for the Jazz and helped carry them to a 5-seed in the Western Conference when early season projections suggested they should head towards in the wake of Rudy Gobert’s injury.
However, the 13th pick out of Louisville had no intentions of missing out on the postseason. And from the looks of his production so far, who can blame him?
Through the first two games of the Jazz-Thunder series, Mitchell yet again placed his name in the same breath as Michael Jordan. Mitchell’s 55 points in his first two playoff games broke Jordan’s record of 53 for most points scored by a rookie guard in that scenario.
Mitchell’s 27 points in Game 1 and 28 points in Game 2 led the Jazz to even the series and steal home court advantage from the Thunder. While he hasn’t been responsible for setting up the team’s offense, tallying just five assists through those two games, Mitchell is fulfilling the role of Gordon Hayward as the team’s primary scorer.
In a series against a team that features the likes of Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony, Utah needs Mitchell to go out there and get as many buckets as he possibly can.
So far, he appears to be welcoming the challenge.
Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
When it was announced that Kyrie Irving would be lost for the entire postseason due to injury, the Boston Celtics’ hold on the 2-seed seemed a lot less intimidating than it once was in the Eastern Conference.
However, three games into the first round series against the Bucks, the Celtics hold a 2-1 lead. A lot part of that has to do with the role Tatum has been able to step in and play right away with the Celtics down their main scorer and playmaker.
Throughout the first three games of the series, Tatum 12.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists, and 2.3 steals. The third overall pick in the 2017 draft started the series off with 19 points, 10 rebounds, and three steals to help Boston start off the matchup with a 1-0 lead.
At just 20 years old, Tatum is matching his age number with his usage percentage thus far against Milwaukee. For some perspective, Jaylen Brown managed just 12 minutes a night for the Celtics last season as a rookie when the playoffs rolled around.
Granted, injuries and missing players are helping in Tatum being on the court as much as he has, but the rookie is earning his time out there on the court.
Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers
The perceived frontrunner for Rookie of the Year, Ben Simmons has taken control in his first ever playoff series.
For starters, Simmons is averaging nearly a triple double over his first three games against the HEAT; 20 points, 10 rebounds, and 9.7 assists.
On top of his triple double ways, Simmons has upped arguably his biggest weakness so far in the playoffs, shooting 75 percent from the charity stripe. During the regular season, Simmons struggled from the line, hitting only 56 percent of his attempts.
With the offensive prowess of Simmons obvious, it’s the job he’s doing on the defensive end of the court against an aggressive and tough Miami squad that’s elevating his play to the next level.
Simmons’ ability to switch all over the defensive end of the court has placed his responsibilities from Goran Dragic to Justise Winslow to James Johnson, and seemingly everywhere in between.
Now with Joel Embiid back in the fold for the Sixers and Simmons, the rookie point guard has his defensive partner on the floor to help ease the workload on that end. A two-way performance each night will be imperative for Simmons in helping lead the young Sixers past the experienced HEAT team.
Pelicans Role Players are Key to Success
The supporting cast in New Orleans is a big part of their playoff surge, writes David Yapkowitz.
The New Orleans Pelicans have taken a commanding 3-0 lead in their first-round playoff series again the Portland Trail Blazers. While surprising to some, the Pelicans only finished one game behind the Blazers in the standings. The Pelicans have the best player in the series in Anthony Davis and the defensive duo of Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday have stifled Portland’s backcourt.
The truth is, the Pelicans have been a good team all season long. A lot of attention and recognition has been given to Davis, Rondo and Holiday this season and playoffs, and rightfully so. But New Orleans wouldn’t be where they are without the important contributions of some of their role players.
Take E’Twaun Moore, for example. Moore bounced around the NBA early in his career, with stops in Boston, Orlando and Chicago before finding long-term stability contract wise with the Pelicans. He’s primarily been a bench player with them before this season, his second in New Orleans, his first as a full-time starter.
He’s given the Pelicans a huge boost, especially from the three-point line. He’s put up 12.5 points per game on 50.8 percent shooting from the field, both career-highs. He’s shooting 42.5 percent from three-point range.
“I think it’s just our style of play,” Moore told Basketball Insiders. “We play fast and open. Coach [Gentry] gives us a lot of freedom, a lot of confidence. That’s why my game is up, my shooting is up.”
It’s not just offensively though. Moore has always been one of the more underrated defensive guards in the league. Paired up alongside Rondo and Holiday, the trio form a solid wing defensive unit. They’re a big reason for Portland’s offensive struggles.
Moore is the type of role player that every playoff contender needs to succeed. He knows that his role may change from game to game. Some nights he may be asked to score a little more. Other nights his defense is going to be called upon. Whatever it may be, he’s always ready to do what’s asked of him.
“I bring the energy. I bring a spark,” Moore told Basketball Insiders. “It’s knocking down shots, playing defense, getting out in transition. Just trying to be a spark.”
The Pelicans bench has also been a huge factor all season long. Their depth took a major hit early in the season with the injury to Solomon Hill. Hill has since returned to the lineup, but his absence paved the way for other players such as Darius Miller to step up.
This is Miller’s second stint with the Pelicans after spending two years overseas. Drafted 46th overall in 2012, he didn’t play much his first three years in the NBA. In 2014, he was cut by the Pelicans only about a month into the season. This year was different, he was thrown into the rotation from the get-go.
“This is a huge opportunity,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I just come in and try to work every day, try to get better every day. My teammates have done a great job of putting me in situations where I can be successful.”
Miller has given the Pelicans a capable stretch four in the second unit who can slide over to small forward if need be. He’s averaging a career-best 7.8 points per game, the most out of any of New Orleans’ reserves. He’s their best three-point shooter off the bench, connecting on 41.1 percent of his long-range attempts.
While he acknowledges that he’s enjoying his best season yet as an NBA player, he’s quick to praise his teammates for allowing him to flourish.
“I just try to bring a spark off the bench. I come in and try to knock some shots down,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “My teammates do a great job of finding me when I’m open, I just try and knock down shots and compete.”
Sometimes time away from the NBA helps players grow and mature. The NBA game is fast paced and it can take awhile to get used to it. While some players have begun to use the G-League as a means of preparing for the league, Miller took an alternate route of heading to Germany.
For him, it’s a big reason why he’s been able to make an easier transition back to the NBA. His contract for next season is non-guaranteed, but he’s probably done enough to warrant the Pelicans keeping him around. He’s a much different and much-improved player. If not, he’s sure to draw interest from other teams.
“It was a lot to learn for me personally,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I had to learn a lot of different things like how to take care of my body, how to manage my time, a whole bunch of stuff like that. The time overseas really helped me to mature and grow up and learn a few things.”
These Pelicans have most certainly turned quite a few heads since the playoffs began. We shouldn’t deal too much with hypotheticals, but it’s interesting to wonder what this team’s ceiling would’ve been had DeMarcus Cousins not been lost for the season due to injury.
This is a confident bunch, however. They’ve beaten both the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets during the regular season. They’ve already shattered a lot of expert predictions with their performance in the first-round. The Pelicans feel like they can hang with anyone out West.
“As far as we want to go,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I feel like we’ve competed with all the best teams in the league this whole season. We just got to come out, stay focused and do what we do.”