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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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NBA Daily: Surging HEAT Must Overcome Adversity

The Miami HEAT have been hit with a number of injuries at shooting guard. Can they stay hot?

Buddy Grizzard

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The Miami HEAT have surged to fourth in the Eastern Conference on the back of a 14-5 stretch since Dec. 9, including a seven-game win streak that ended with Monday’s 119-111 loss to the Bulls in Chicago. In the loss, shooting guard Tyler Johnson got his legs tangled with Robin Lopez and appeared to suffer a serious injury.

“I was scared,” said HEAT small forward Josh Richardson, who joined his teammates in racing down the court to check on Johnson. “You never want to see a guy, whether it’s on your team or the other team, down like that. I talked to him when he was in here [the locker room] and he said he didn’t know what was up.”

Coach Erik Spoelstra told pool reporters after the game that X-rays were negative. It was initially feared to be a knee injury, but Spoelstra said the knee is okay and the ankle is the area of concern. Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel tweeted that an MRI was not deemed necessary and Johnson will be listed as doubtful for Wednesday’s game in Milwaukee.

Meanwhile, the HEAT is facing a serious shortage at shooting guard, having lost Dion Waiters to season-ending knee surgery, Rodney McGruder to a left tibia stress fracture that will likely keep him out until February, and now Johnson. Miami has applied for a $5.5 million disabled player exception after losing Waiters, according to the Sun-Sentinel. HEAT power forward James Johnson said the team will be looking for other players to step up.

“I think it’s the next guy’s gonna step up like we always do,” said Johnson. “As we have guys going down we also have guys getting back and getting back in their groove [like] Justise Winslow. Hopefully, it’s going to give another guy a chance to emerge on this team or in this league.”

Johnson added that the loss to Chicago came against a hot team and the HEAT didn’t have the right mental approach or defensive communication to slow them down.

“Our communication was lacking tonight,” said Johnson. “I think our brains rested tonight and that’s not like us. Tilt your hat to Chicago. They’re shooting the hell out the ball. They didn’t let us come back.”

Richardson echoed the theme of communication and the inability to counter a hot-shooting team.

“We weren’t communicating very well and we were not giving them enough static on the three-point line,” said Richardson. “They’ve been the number one three-point shooting team in the league for like 20 games now. They ran some good actions that we were not reacting right to.”

Spoelstra referred to a turnover-riddled close to the first half as “disgusting” basketball and agreed that the defense let his team down.

“I don’t know what our record is in HEAT franchise history when we give up 120-plus,” said Spoelstra. “I would guess that it’s probably not pretty good.”

The good news for Miami is that it can try a combination of Richardson and Winslow at the wings, while Wayne Ellington has been shooting the leather off the ball from three this season (40.5 percent on over seven attempts per game). The HEAT is the latest team to attempt to defy history by making a serious run without a superstar player. To make that a reality and remain in the upper half of the East’s playoff bracket, Miami will have to personify the “next man up” credo.

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NBA Daily: Is It Time To Cash Out On Kemba Walker?

Should the Hornets get serious about trading Kemba Walker or risk losing him in 2019 for next to nothing?

Steve Kyler

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Is It Time To Sell?

Every professional sports team at some point has to decide when its time to cash out, especially if they have a star player heading towards free agency. The Charlotte Hornets are a team teetering on this decision with star guard Kemba Walker.

Check out these UK sports books with free bets!

Now, let’s be honest for a moment. The Hornets are getting nothing of meaningful value in a trade for Walker if they decided to put him on the trade market—that’s something that will drive part of the decision.

The other part of the decision is evaluating the marketplace. This is where Charlotte may have an advantage that’s easy to overlook, which is the ability to massively overpay.

Looking ahead to the cap situations for the NBA in the summer of 2019, there doesn’t appear to be a lot worth getting excited over. While it’s possible someone unexpected goes into cap clearing mode to get space, the teams that project to have space in 2019 also project to have space in 2018, meaning some of that 2019 money could get spent in July and change the landscape even more.

But for the sake of discussion, let’s assume most of the 2019 cap space teams swing and miss on anything meaningful this summer and have flexibility the following summer. Not only will Walker be a name to watch, but guys like Boston’s Kyrie Irving, Minnesota’s Jimmy Butler, Golden State’s Klay Thompson, Dallas’ Harrison Barnes, Detroit’s Tobias Harris, San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard and Cleveland’s Kevin Love can all hit unrestricted free agency.

That’s a pretty respectable free agent class.

While most of those names will likely stay where they are, especially if their teams shower them with full max contracts as most would expect, there are a few names that might make the market interesting.

The wrinkle in all of it is the teams projected to have space. Based on what’s guaranteed today, the top of the 2019 cap space board starts with the LA Clippers.

The Clippers currently have just Blake Griffin and Danilo Gallinari under contract going into 2019. They will have qualifying offers on Milos Teodosic and Sam Dekker, but that’s about it. If the Clippers play their cards right, they could be looking at what could be close to $48 million in usable cap space, making them the biggest threat to poach a player because of the LA marketplace. It should be noted, though, that DeAndre Jordan’s situation will have an impact here.

The Chicago Bulls come in second on the 2019 cap space list with just $35.77 million in cap commitments. The problem for the Bulls is they are going to have to start paying their young guys, most notably Zach LaVine. That’s won’t stop the Bulls from getting to cap space, it’s simply a variable the Bulls have to address this summer that could get expensive.

The Philadelphia 76ers could come in third on the 2019 cap space list, although it seems the 76ers may go all in this summer on re-signing guard J.J. Redick and a swing at a big fish or two. If the 76ers miss, they still have an extension for Ben Simmons to consider, but that shouldn’t impact the ability to get to meaningful space.

For the Hornets, those three situations have to be a little scary, as all of themff something Charlotte can’t offer – big markets and rosters (save maybe the Clippers) with potentially higher upside.

The next group of cap space markets might get to real salary cap room, but its more likely they spend this summer like say the Houston Rockets or are equal to less desirable situations like Sacramento (similar), Dallas (has Dennis Smith Jr), Atlanta (similar) or Phoenix (likely drafts a point guard).

That brings us back to the Hornets decision making process.

If the Hornets put Walker on the market, historically, teams get pennies on the dollar for high-level players headed to free agency. If traded, its more likely than not that Walker hits free agency and goes shopping. That’s the scary part of trading for an expiring contract unless you get the player early enough for him to grow attached to the situation, most players explore options. That tends to drive down the potential return.

The Hornets can also start extension discussions with Walker and his camp this summer and it seems more likely than not the Hornets will pay Walker the full max allowed under the collective bargaining agreement, which could be a deal north of $150 million and he could ink that in July.

It’s possible that someone offers the Hornets the moon for Walker. That has happened in the past. The Celtics gave the Cavaliers a pretty solid return for Irving, a player the Cavaliers had to trade. So it’s not out of the question real offers come in, especially with the NBA trade deadline approaching, but what’s far more likely is the Hornets wait out this season and try to extend Walker this summer.

League sources at the G-League Showcase last week, doubted that any traction could be had on Walker while admitting he’s a name to watch, despite however unlikely a trade seemed today.

The challenge for the Hornets isn’t as simple as cashing out of Walker, not just because the return will be low, but also because where would the franchise go from here?

It’s easy to say re-build through the draft, but glance around the NBA today – how many of those rebuild through the draft situations are yielding competitive teams? How many of them have been rebuilding for five years or more?

Rebuilding through the draft is a painfully slow and frustrating process that usually costs you a coach or two and typically a new front office. Rebuilding through the draft is time consuming and usually very expensive.

It’s easier to rebuild around a star already in place and the fact that Walker himself laughs off the notion of him being anywhere but Charlotte is at least a good sign and the Hornets have some time before they have to really make a decision.

At some point, Charlotte has to decide when to cash out. For the Hornets, the time to make that decision on Walker might be the February 8 trade deadline. It might also be July 1, when they’ll know whether Walker would sign a max contract extension.

If he won’t commit then, the Hornets have their answer and can use the summer to try an extract a package similar to what the Cavaliers got for Irving.

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Cavs Woes Reason For Concern, But Not Dismissal

Spencer Davies takes a look at the Cavs’ issues and why we shouldn’t count them out just yet.

Spencer Davies

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The Cleveland Cavaliers are the classic case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

When they’re on, they look like the defending three-time Eastern Conference Champions. When they’re off, they look like an old team that’s worn down and, at times, disinterested—and it gets ugly.

Take this past three weeks for example. After going on a tear of 18 wins in 19 games, the Cavs have dropped eight of 11 and are falling fast. Two of those three victories in that stretch were decided by four points or less against bottom-of-the-barrel teams in the East.

So what happened? For one, the schedule got significantly tougher. Beyond just the level of competition, Cleveland has been on the road for a long while. Nine of the games in this recent down period have been away games. The only time they’ve been home was for a quick second in mid-December and a short stay for New Years.

You’ve got to think about how that affects a psyche, not only from an on-court standpoint but also in regard to spending time with loved ones and family. LeBron James brought attention to his own homesickness on Christmas Day while he was in the Bay Area instead of in Northeast Ohio to celebrate the holidays. If it gets to him, you know it’s got to get to the other players as well. These guys are human beings with lives, and the rigors of travel can wear differently on people. Luckily for them, seven of their next nine games will be at Quicken Loans Arena.

With that being said, everybody in the NBA goes through it, so it’s no excuse for how flat the Cavs have been. Anybody on the team will tell you that, too. However, when you’re figuring out rotations and re-implementing players who had injuries, it’s not easy. This is exactly why nobody should envy Tyronn Lue.

He’s being asked to make room in his rotations and adjust on the fly as Cleveland gets guys back. When they went on that month-long run, the reason they had success was that the second unit really clicked. Dwyane Wade found his niche as the maestro of the bench bunch along with any mixture of Kyle Korver, Jeff Green, Cedi Osman, Channing Frye, and Jae Crowder. Lue had found the perfect group to spell LeBron James and company.

But then, Tristan Thompson came back and, with all due respect, it messed with their flow. The spacing is no longer there for Wade or Green to penetrate because the paint is clogged. It makes it easier on opposing defenses to just stick to Korver because there aren’t any other threatening shooters on the floor (besides Osman, maybe). Worst of all, the change basically kicked Frye—who has a plus-14 net rating, according to Cleaning The Glass—out of the rotation completely.

Deciding who plays and when is a tough job. Derrick Rose is set to come back soon. Iman Shumpert is coming along as well. Lue likes a 10-man rotation, but there are at least 12 players who deserve to be on that court. We already know Rose is expected to commandeer the second unit in Wade’s absence on back-to-backs. As for if Shumpert remains in Cleveland, who knows? It’ll be interesting to keep an eye on how this situation is managed moving forward.

Isaiah Thomas, on the other hand, is somebody the Cavs have been waiting on to return since the season started. Despite LeBron being LeBron and Kevin Love having as great of an offensive year as he’s ever had on the team, the starting unit lacks an extra punch. Thomas can be that shot in the arm, and he proved that in his debut at home against Portland and on the road in Orlando. There are two snags that both he and the team are going to hit before the 29-year-old returns to his All-Star form: 1) He’s got to get his legs under him to regain the consistency in his game and 2) His teammates are going to have to adjust to playing with him.

These are not easy things to do. Remember, aside from Jae Crowder, there is nobody on Cleveland’s roster that has played with Thomas before. Add in that he’s trying to re-discover his own game and that makes for a pretty bumpy road, at least out of the gate.

Start here—put Thompson in the starting lineup. As poor of a fit he’s been on the bench, he has shown promising signs of a developing chemistry with Thomas. It’s only been four games, but he loves having a partner in the pick-and-roll game. That’s clearly where you’ll get the most production out of him and how he can thrive. He’ll provide hustle, second chance opportunities, and a semi-decent big that can at least bother some of the competition’s drives to the basket. Sliding Love over to the four might change his game a little bit, but you can still get him going in the post before giving him chances as a shooter to work him outside-in.

The resulting effect helps the second unit as well. They’ll get one of either J.R. Smith or Crowder, depending on who would be relegated there. Both of those guys can use a spark to get them going. Because of Crowder’s familiarity with Thomas, let’s say Smith gets kicked out. Maybe that gets him out of the funk he’s in? It also allows for Frye, who hasn’t seen more than 20 minutes in a game since December 4, to get re-acclimated to a group he truly helped on both ends of the floor earlier in the year.

Outside of the need to make a move at the deadline, the Cavs can figure this out. It’s understood that they’re the fourth-worst defensive team in the NBA, but they’ve gone through these kinds of ruts at this time of year, specifically since LeBron came back. There might not be statistical evidence backing up the claim of any improvement, but the track record speaks for itself.

The panic button is being hit, but pump the brakes a bit. This isn’t anything new. The pieces are a little different and things look as bad as they ever have, but in the end, the result will likely be the same.

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