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NBA PM: Magic Looking to Finish Season Strong

The Magic were eliminated from playoff contention yesterday, but they want to enter the summer with momentum.

Cody Taylor

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Magic Looking to Finish Season Strong

It’s been quite a disappointing season for the Orlando Magic. The team was supposed to end its playoff drought and return to the postseason in 2016.

Instead, the Magic now find themselves out of the playoffs for a fourth-straight season, tying a franchise-high for consecutive seasons without a trip to the postseason.

It was a 104-101 win by the Indiana Pacers over the Houston Rockets on Sunday night that officially eliminated the Magic from playoff contention. Although they were officially eliminated last night, the team seemed all but out of the race long ago.

The team’s struggles this season have long been covered previously on Basketball Insiders. The team was 19-13 at the end of December and were sitting in fourth place in the Eastern Conference.

They were competing in games against some of the best teams in the league, and they were winning the games they were supposed to win. It seemed as though they were going to be alive in the playoff race until the end of the season.

The Magic were getting it done on the defensive end, and the offense appeared to be improving as well. Last season, the Magic had the league’s fourth-worst offense and the sixth-worst defensive rating. They improved the offense to 13th, and the defense was tied for ninth-best in the league by allowing 100.3 points per 100 possessions.

The calendar flipped to 2016 and an entirely different team showed up to play basketball. Since January 1, the Magic have gone just 11-30, which is the fourth-worst record in the league during that time frame. The offense sputtered, and the defense began to allow seven more points per game compared to 2015.

Head coach Scott Skiles made a comment to reporters in the beginning of the season that he’ll know more about his team around the halfway mark of the season. With such a young group of players, Skiles said the team will either show they’re a legitimate contender or they’ll begin to show bouts of consistencies.

We now know it’s the latter part of that statement that has plagued the team. The biggest area of concern with the team is how they’ve managed to close games. When opponents went on runs, the Magic couldn’t find ways to stop them.

So far, they’ve played in 18 games this season that were decided by three or fewer points, which ranked inside the top five in the league — they won just six of those contests. Being able to win close games separates the good teams from the bad, and can be the difference between a playoff berth and a lottery pick.

Despite being officially eliminated from playoff contention, the team will now attempt to finish on a strong note and continue to make progress.

“It’s going to help us for the future so we got to keep playing great like we do now; don’t stop at all,” Mario Hezonja told Basketball Insiders. “No negativity at all or whatever it is. Just keep working and get us better individually and as a team.

“In our approach there is no, ‘Today this. Tomorrow something else.’ So, we really have the same mindset in [improving].”

Although it’s been a season of disappointment, the Magic have already posted more wins than they did last season. Saturday night’s 111-89 win over the Chicago Bulls snapped a six-game losing streak, and was the team’s 30th victory of the season.

“Everyone on this team loves the game of basketball,” forward Aaron Gordon said. “We’re playing for the joy of it. More than anything, we’re playing for the joy of it. Obviously, we want to compete and we’re all very competitive people. [We need to] just go out there, try to win and have fun.”

So, what’s next for the Magic?

Orlando has nine games remaining on the season and will try to gain some momentum going into what figures to be an important summer. Of the nine games remaining, they’ll play five at home and four on the road. They’ll almost certainly attempt to finish with a winning record over that nine-game stretch.

While the players will look to finish off the season strong, it’s likely the front office has already started looking ahead to this upcoming offseason. They already started to look ahead awhile back at the trade deadline when they opted to trade Tobias Harris to the Detroit Pistons for Brandon Jennings and Ersan Ilyasova.

Both players could come off of the books this summer, as Jennings will be an unrestricted free agent and Ilyasova is on a non-guaranteed contract for next season. The move to trade Harris was said to add a couple of veteran players in Jennings and Ilyasova to help in the team’s push for the playoffs and to create cap space this summer.

In addition to those two players, Evan Fournier (restricted), Jason Smith, Andrew Nicholson (restricted), Dewayne Dedmon (restricted) and Devyn Marble (non-guaranteed), could all become free agents this summer. By renouncing the rights to those players, the Magic could have up to $50 million in cap space.

The problem for the Magic is over half of the league will be in contention for this summer’s top free agents. As things stand currently, there could be as many as 17 teams that have enough cap space to sign at least one max-deal player, with five teams having enough space to sign two max players.

With players like Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Al Horford, Chandler Parsons, DeMar DeRozan, Mike Conley, Dwight Howard and Joakim Noah (among others) having the option to become free agents, the fight for these guys will be extremely competitive.

If the Magic are interested in making a big splash this summer (and all indications are that they will be), they’re going to have to hope that one of those top players is interested in coming to a team that hasn’t made the playoffs in four seasons.

The team has been linked previously to Horford and Parsons, but the chances of either player leaving their current team are unknown at this point. A source has indicated Parsons would be open to the idea of signing with the Magic since he grew up in the Central Florida area, but things in the NBA can change quickly.

Bringing Howard back to Orlando has been an idea that has gained traction in recent days, but given the way things ended previously with Howard and the Magic, it seems unlikely that the team would welcome him back.

Depending on how things play out over the last few weeks of the season, Orlando could have a draft pick within the 8-12 range. Does the team want to draft another player that would likely take another couple of seasons to develop when they’re trying to make a return to the playoffs? Would the Magic want to trade that pick?

It’s clear that it’s going to be a busy summer for the Magic. There are questions all over the roster that will need to be answered before next season. It’s very possible that by the start of training camp this Magic roster will be completely different.

Regardless of which players will suit up for the Magic on opening night next season, the team still has a lot to improve upon before making the jump to becoming a playoff team.

Nowitzki Could Play Two More Seasons

Dallas Mavericks forward Nowitzki is currently playing in his 18th season in the NBA and his current deal runs through the end of next season. Nowiztki currently holds a $8,682,184 player option for the 2016-17 campaign, and it sounds as though he will opt to pick up that option.

“My goal was when I signed this three-year deal to fulfill that contract,” Nowitzki told ESPN Radio on Sunday. “If I play next year through, by that point I’ll be 39. To be honest, 20 years [in the NBA] would sound really, really great. And next year would obviously be my 19th year, so maybe after this next year I could sign on one more. But I’ll just have to wait and see, I think, at this point.”

Nowitzki has proven this season that he can still remain productive for the Mavericks. He’s only missed seven games, and currently leads the Mavericks with 18.7 points per game while also shooting 46 percent from the field. His 20.04 PER ranks 10th-best among all power forwards.

“This season I felt good,” Nowitzki said. “Next year we’ll see how it goes and then I can make that decision with my family, with [longtime shooting coach and mentor] Holger Geschwindner and all my guys that have been working with me for so long … I can make that decision if I play one more season.”

Dallas is still fighting for their playoff lives. Entering tonight’s game against the Denver Nuggets, the Mavericks are a game and a half out of the eighth-placed Rockets with just nine games remaining. Of those nine games that remain, only four of them are against teams above .500.

They’ll play the Rockets on April 6, which could be a huge game for both teams with the season drawing to a close.

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

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Is LeBron Enough For Cavs To Get Through The East?

Cleveland’s offense has struggled through the first two games of the playoffs. Can the four-time MVP consistently bail them out? Spencer Davies writes.

Spencer Davies

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After a less-than-encouraging series opener versus the Indiana Pacers, LeBron James responded emphatically and led the Cleveland Cavaliers to a bounce back 100-97 victory to even things up at one game apiece.

Scoring the first 13 points of the game itself, The King was a one-man wrecking crew out of the gate and carried that momentum throughout all four quarters of Game 2. His 46 points were James’ second-highest scoring mark between the regular season and the playoffs. In addition, he shot above 70 percent from the field for the sixth time this year.

The four-time MVP pulled down 12 rebounds total, and but all but one of those boards were defensive—the most he’s had since Saint Patrick’s Day in Chicago a month ago.

What James did was another classic instance where LeBron reminds us that through all the injuries, drama, and on-court issues, whatever team he’s on always has a chance to go all the way. But having said all of that—can the Cavaliers realistically depend on that kind of spectacular effort for the rest of the postseason? It’s a fair question.

Kevin Love is a solid secondary go-to guy, but he’s struggled to find his rhythm in the first two games. He’s done a solid job defensively between both, but he’s getting banged up and is dealing with knocked knees and a reported torn thumb ligament in the same hand he broke earlier in the season.

Love has admitted that he’d like more post touches instead of strictly hanging out on the perimeter, but it’s on him to demand the ball more and he knows it. But finding that flow can be challenging when James has it going and is in all-out attack mode.

Kyle Korver came to the rescue for Cleveland as the only shooter that consistently converted on open looks. Outside of those three, and maybe J.R. Smith, really, there hasn’t been a tangible threat that’s a part of the offense during this series.

We all pondered whether or not the “new guys” would be able to step up when their respective numbers were called. So far, that hasn’t been the case for the most part.

Jordan Clarkson looks rushed with tunnel vision. Rodney Hood has had good body language out there, but seems reluctant to shoot off dribble hand-offs and is second-guessing what he wants to do. The hustle and effort from Larry Nance Jr. is obvious, but he’s also a good bet to get into foul trouble. Plus, he’s had some struggles on an island against Pacer guards.

As for George Hill, the good news is the impact on the floor just based on his mere presence on both ends (game-high +16 on Wednesday), but he hasn’t really done any scoring and fouled out of Game 2.

Maybe these things change on the road, who knows. But those four, the rest of the rotation, absolutely have to step up in order for the Cavaliers to win this series and fend off this hungry Indiana group, which brings us to another point.

Let’s not forget, the offensive issues aren’t simply because of themselves. After all, the Cavs were a team that had little trouble scoring the basketball in the regular season, so give a ton of credit to the Pacers’ scheme and McMillan’s teachings to play hard-nosed.

Unlike many teams in the league, the strategy for them is to pressure the ball and avoid switches as much as possible on screens. The more they go over the pick and stick on their assignments, the better chance they have of forcing a bad shot or a turnover. That’s what happened in Game 1 and in the majority of the second half of Game 2.

Cleveland has also somewhat surprisingly brought the fight on defense as well. In the first two contests of the series, they’ve allowed under 100 points. Lue’s said multiple times that they’re willing to give up the interior buckets in order to secure the outside, and it’s worked. It doesn’t seem smart when there’s a yellow-colored layup line going on at times, but it certainly paid off by only allowing 34 percent of Indiana’s threes to go down.

Still, looking ahead to what the Cavaliers can do in the playoffs as a whole, it doesn’t bode well. They’re not only locked in a tug-of-war with Indiana, but if they get past them, they could have a Toronto Raptors group chomping at the bit for revenge.

If they’re having this much trouble in the first round, what should make us believe they can barrel through the Eastern Conference as they’ve done in the past?

It’s not quite as obvious or as bad as Cleveland’s 2007 version of James and the rest, but it feels eerily similar for as much as he’s put the team on his back so far. The organization better hope improvement comes fast from his supporting cast, or else it could be a longer summer than they’d hoped for.

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2017-18 NBA Report Card: Third-Year Players

Among the third-year players a few budding superstars have emerged, along with some role players who are helping their teams in the 2017-18 NBA Playoffs.

Mike Yaffe

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The 2015 NBA Draft has provided the league with a limited quantity of talent so far. After Terry Rozier (at 16th), it’s unlikely that anyone remaining has All-Star potential. Despite the lack of depth, the highest draft slot traded was at number 15, when the Atlanta Hawks moved down to enable the Washington Wizards to select Kelly Oubre Jr.

But placing a definitive “boom” or “bust” label on these athletes might be premature as the rookie contract is standardized at four seasons with an option for a fifth. If their employers are given a fourth year to decide whether a draftee is worth keeping, it seems reasonable to earmark the NBA Juniors’ progress for now and see how they’ve fared after next season’s campaign before making their letter grades official.

The Top Dogs

Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves: Given the dearth of premier choices and their glaring need up front, it’s hard to envision the T-Wolves drafting anyone but KAT if they had to do it again. Although his scoring average is down from last season (21.3 vs. 25.1 PPG), that trend could be explained by the addition of Jimmy Butler and the team’s deliberate pace (24th out of 30 teams).

To his credit, Towns had career highs in three-point percentage (42.1 percent) and free throws (85.8 percent), while finishing second overall in offensive rating (126.7). His continued improvement in these areas could explain why the Timberwolves ended their 14-year playoff drought.

Nikola Jokić, Denver Nuggets: Although he was a 2014 draft pick, Jokić’s NBA debut was delayed due to his last year of commitment to the Adriatic League. His productivity as a rookie was limited by both foul trouble and a logjam at the center position, but he still managed 10.0 PPG.

With Joffrey Lauvergne and Jusuf Nurkic off the depth chart, Jokić became the clear-cut starter this season and rewarded Denver’s confidence by averaging 18.5 points and 10.7 rebounds per game. And by chipping in 6.1 APG, he provides rare value as a center with triple-double potential.

Kristaps Porzingis, New York Knicks: Although he has never played a full season since joining the league, Porzingis has provided enough evidence that he can be a force when healthy. Before his junior campaign was derailed, the Latvian was enjoying career highs of 22.7 PPG and 39.5 percent shooting from behind the arc.

Unfortunately, the Knicks haven’t provided much support at point guard to help with Porzingis’ development. Trey Burke looked impressive down the stretch in Zinger’s absence, but that was in a score-first capacity. Meanwhile, both Frank Ntilikina and Emmanuel Mudiay have underwhelmed. On the plus side, Porzingis’ outside ability paired nicely in the frontcourt with Enes Kanter, who prefers to bully his way underneath.

Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns: Like Porzingis, Booker’s third year in the NBA was cut short by injuries, but that didn’t stop him from achieving career highs in points (24.9 per game), assists (4.7) and three-pointers (38.3 percent) on an otherwise moribund Suns team. Indeed, cracking the 40-point barrier three times in 54 contests was an achievement in and of itself.

While his short-term prospects would’ve been far better on a team like the Philadelphia Sixers (who might have taken him instead of Jahlil Okafor in a re-draft), Booker can still become a franchise cornerstone for the Suns if they are able to build around a young core that also includes T.J. Warren and Josh Jackson.

Solid Potential

Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers: Despite an inconsistent freshman season at Texas, Turner has become a stabilizing influence at center for the Pacers, whose blueprint consists of surrounding a go-to scorer with role players. While he hasn’t shown drastic improvement in any particular area, he has produced double-digit PPG averages all three years as a pro.

Although Turner’s shot-blocking ability fuels his reputation as a defensive maven, the reality is his 104.8 defensive rating (which is just OK) was skewed by his 110.9 d-rating in losses (it was 100.8 in wins). In order to merit consideration for the NBA’s all-defensive team, he will need to bridge the gap in this discrepancy and impact his team’s ability to win more games in the process.

D’Angelo Russell, Brooklyn Nets: Following their respective trades, Russell has fared better in the Big Apple than his 2015 lottery counterpart Emmanuel Mudiay, as the Los Angeles Lakers were forced to cut bait to draft Lonzo Ball. While Ball has shown promise as a rookie, the Lakers’ perception of Russell may have been premature, as the former Buckeye has stabilized a Nets backcourt that had been characterized more by athleticism than consistency.

Despite missing a significant stretch of mid-season games, Russell provided similar numbers for Brooklyn to that of his sophomore season; but without a pick until number 29 in the upcoming NBA Draft, the Nets will have to bank on improved production from DLo and his raw teammates to contend for the eight-seed in the East.

Terry Rozier, Boston Celtics: Injuries have paved the way for Rozier to showcase his talent, most recently with a 23-point, 8-assist effort in game two against the Milwaukee Bucks. But Rozier was already making headlines as a fill-in for Kyrie Irving whenever he was injured. Now that the starting point guard reins have been handed to the former mid-round pick, he has become one of the more pleasant surprises of the 2017-18 NBA season.

The biggest impediment to Rozier’s success might be the regression to limited playing time once Irving returns. While the Celtics could “sell high” and trade Rozier on the basis of his recent performances, they may opt to retain him as insurance while he is still cap-friendly.

Best of the Rest

Larry Nance Jr., Cleveland Cavaliers: Following the trade deadline, Nance has provided a spark for a Cavs frontcourt that has been bereft of viable options aside from Kevin Love.

Josh Richardson, Miami HEAT: A jack-of-all-trades at the small forward position, Richardson has evolved into a three-and-D player that has meshed well with the HEAT’s shut-down focus.

Willie Cauley-Stein, Sacramento Kings: Thrust into the starting center role after the trade of DeMarcus Cousins, WCS has provided serviceable (albeit unspectacular) play as the next man up.

Delon Wright, Toronto Raptors: A key contributor for the East’s top seed, Wright was instrumental in the Raptors’ game one victory over the Washington Wizards with 18 points off the bench.

Bobby Portis, Chicago Bulls: The former Razorback has flashed double-double potential, but playing time at his true position (power forward) has been limited by the emergence of rookie Lauri Markkanen.

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NBA Daily: Looking At The 2018 Draft Class By Tiers

The NBA Draft is a hard thing to predict, especially when it comes to draft order and individual team needs, Basketball Insiders publisher Steve Kyler takes a look at how this draft looks in tiers.

Steve Kyler

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Looking At The 2018 Draft In Tiers

While Mock Drafts are an easy way to look at how the NBA Draft might play out, what they do no do is give a sense of what a specific player might be as a player at the next level. With that in mind, we’re going to take a look at how some of the notable NBA draft prospects project.

It’s important to point out that situation and circumstance often impact how a player develops, even more so than almost any other variable.

So while the goal here is to give a sense of how some NBA teams and insiders see a draft prospect’s likely potential, it is by no means meant to suggest that a player can’t break out of his projection and become more or sometimes less than his he was thought to be.

Every draft class has examples of players projected to be one thing that turns out to be something else entirely, so these projections are not meant to be some kind of final empirical judgment or to imply a specific draft position, as each team may value prospects differently.

So, with that in mind, let’s look at the 2018 NBA Draft in Tiers.

The Potential Future All-Stars

DeAndre Ayton – Arizona – C – 7’0″ – 245 lbs – 20 yrs
Luka Doncic – Real Madrid – SG – 6’7″ – 218 lbs – 19 yrs
Michael Porter Jr – Missouri – SF/PF – 6’10” – 216 lbs – 20 yrs

Maybe Stars, But Likely High-Level Starters

Jaren Jackson Jr. – Michigan State – PF – 6’10” – 225 lbs – 19 yrs
Marvin Bagley III – Duke – PF – 6’11” – 220 lbs – 19 yrs
Wendell Carter – Duke – PF – 6’10” – 257 lbs – 19 yrs
Mohamed Bamba – Texas – C – 7’0″ – 216 lbs – 20 yrs
Collin Sexton – Alabama – PG – 6’2″ – 184 lbs – 19 yrs
Mikal Bridges – Villanova – SG/SF – 6’7″ – 210 lbs – 22 yrs
Robert Williams – Texas A&M – C – 6’9″ – 235 lbs – 21 yrs
Miles Bridges – Michigan State – SF/PF – 6’7″ – 230 lbs – 20 yrs
Dzanan Musa – Cedevita – SF – 6′ 9″ – 195 lbs – 19 yrs
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander – Kentucky – SG – 6′ 6″ – 181 lbs – 20 yrs
Trae Young – Oklahoma – PG – 6’2″ – 180 lbs – 20 yrs

Maybe Starters, But Surely Rotation Players

Kevin Knox – Kentucky – SF – 6’9″ – 206 lbs – 19 yrs
Troy Brown – Oregon – SG – 6’6″ – 210 lbs – 19 yrs
Khyri Thomas – Creighton – SG – 6′ 3″ – 210 lbs – 22 yrs
Zhaire Smith – Texas Tech – SG – 6′ 5″ – 195 lbs – 19 yrs
Rodions Kurucs – FC Barcelona B – SF – 6′ 9″ – 220 lbs – 20 yrs
Aaron Holiday – UCLA – PG – 6′ 1″ – 185 lbs – 22 yrs
Jacob Evans – Cincinnati – SF – 6′ 6″ – 210 lbs – 21 yrs
De’Anthony Melton – USC – PG – 6’4″ – 190 lbs – 20 yrs

The Swing For The Fence Prospects – AKA Boom-Or-Bust

Lonnie Walker – Miami – SG – 6’4″ – 206 lbs – 20 yrs
Mitchell Robinson – Chalmette HS – C – 7′ 0″ – 223 lbs – 20 yrs
Anfernee Simons – IMG Academy – SG – 6′ 5″ – 177 lbs – 19 yrs
Jontay Porter – Missouri – C – 6′ 11″ – 240 lbs – 19 yrs
Lindell Wigginton – Iowa State – PG – 6′ 2″ – 185 lbs – 20 yrs
Bruce Brown – Miami – SG – 6’5″ – 191 lbs – 22 yrs
Isaac Bonga – Skyliners (Germany) – SF/SG – 6’9″ – 203 lbs – 19 yrs
Hamidou Diallo – Kentucky – SG – 6’5″ – 197 lbs – 20 yrs

Players not listed are simply draft prospects that could be drafted, but don’t project clearly into any of these tiers.

If you are looking for a specific player, check out the Basketball Insiders Top 100 Prospects list, this listing is updated weekly.

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