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NBA PM: Orlando Hoping to Rebound in February

The Magic were awful in January, but hope to get back on track in February despite a tough schedule.

Cody Taylor

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Orlando Hoping to Rebound in February

After securing the fourth-best record in the Eastern Conference through the end of December, the Orlando Magic tied the Phoenix Suns and Minnesota Timberwolves for fewest wins during the month of January.

Including last night’s 119-114 win over the Boston Celtics, the Magic posted just two victories in 14 tries last month. The team’s other win came against one of the worst teams in the league in the Brooklyn Nets on Jan. 8.

A 100-93 win over the Nets on Dec. 30 brought the Magic to fourth place in the East, but the team has been in a free fall ever since.

Among the many disappointments for the Magic during January included another blowout loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers, a blown 15-point fourth quarter lead against the Charlotte Hornets and a loss to the last-placed Philadelphia 76ers.

Many of the things the team was doing well over the course of the first two months of the season had fallen off drastically in January. Orlando had the 14th-best offensive rating in the league in 2015 and was holding opponents to 100.3 points per 100 possessions, which was 10th in the league.

Once the calendar flipped to 2016, the Magic have posted the third-worst offensive rating and fourth-worst defensive rating (giving up 108.2 points per 100 possessions).

“The problem with what I’m about to say is it makes it seem like I’m saying we don’t have any talent [and] that’s not the case,” head coach Scott Skiles said. “We’re a hustle team. We’ve got to be flying around, even if we make mistakes; we have to stay in plays. Like a lot of teams in a league, we don’t have just one guy that can bail us out of situations we get in. We’ve got to be flying around all of the time.”

The disappointing month further proved that the team may not be as close to competing for a playoff berth as initially thought. After three seasons of rebuilding, the team had shown that this season may finally be the year in which they seriously challenged for a playoff berth.

The team’s drought has dropped them to 12th in the standings, three games back of the final playoff spot in the East. But, after posting a come-from-behind win last night against the Celtics, the team is hoping the win could be the spark to getting back on the right track.

“I think it was a good way to end the month by winning,” center Nikola Vucevic said. “Now, we have to turn things around and wake up and get some wins. I know one win is not going to do anything if we go get on a losing streak, so we have to make sure that we take away stuff from tonight the way we played and finished the game. If we keep playing like that going forward, I think we’ll be in a pretty good position.”

The Magic will face an uphill battle if they want to remain in the playoff picture. February is going to be make or break for the team as they have a tough schedule against a lot of playoff teams.

Nine out of the team’s 12 games will be against teams currently in a playoff spot. Among Orlando’s games left before the All-Star break are contests against San Antonio (twice), Atlanta (twice), Oklahoma City and the Los Angeles Clippers.

Waiting for Orlando after the All-Star break are games against the Dallas Mavericks, Indiana Pacers and Golden State Warriors. That schedule begins in San Antonio, where the Spurs have yet to lose a game this season.

“Every night we’re playing against the best players in the world,” rookie Mario Hezonja said. “[The upcoming schedule] is not affecting our mind. We know it, but we gotta focus on ourselves and do our job. We go step by step, so nothing can affect us.

“We got to keep growing up as a team and get the wins; we’re a young team. We got to outplay our enemies with our energy. We have a tough schedule, but we got to get wins. That’s the most important thing here.”

It seems clear by this point that the Magic are still a piece or two away from seriously competing in the East. The team is winless in 11 attempts against the Washington Wizards, Cleveland Cavaliers, Indiana Pacers and Atlanta Hawks.

Orlando is in a bit of a unique situation regarding the upcoming trade deadline. While it’s clear that they still need a superstar player, it’s likely that player won’t become available via trade. Equally, it doesn’t make much sense to part ways with one of their young prospects if a deal doesn’t make sense. In addition, what could the players on the team realistically yield in a trade?

It’s true that the Magic have made improvements this season, but it remains to be seen if this group can take the next step without more help. Skiles has made lineup changes, has tried tough love through the media and has benched players in an attempt to send a message and nothing has seemed to work yet. 

With the upcoming schedule, the Magic are going to prove what kind of team they are by the All-Star break. At that point, the team could try to trade some of their upcoming free agents if they feel like they don’t want to retain them. Evan Fournier (restricted), Andrew Nicholson (restricted), Jason Smith and Dewayne Dedmon (restricted) will all be free agents and could be on the trading block.

This team is clearly still a work in progress, and could be much different by this summer.

Nash not Interested in Suns’ Job

Following the conclusion of a four-game road trip, the Phoenix Suns opted to fire head coach Jeff Hornacek late Sunday night upon arriving back to Phoenix.

The team will conduct several interviews today and will likely hire an interim head coach from within its staff, according to Yahoo Sports.

One candidate that has come up for a potential replacement is former Suns point guard Steve Nash. He was a target even before the firing of Hornacek and is someone the Suns have long wanted to take over the team.

Marc Stein of ESPN reported earlier today that Nash is apparently not interested in taking over the job. Instead, Nash would like to focus his time on his three young children for the time being.

Nash retired from basketball in March of last year, and has since joined the Golden State Warriors in a consultation role. His role with the Warriors calls for him to spend a few days per month with the team, according to the report.

In addition to his part-time job with the Warriors, Nash also trained with various players over the summer, including Charlotte Hornets point guard Kemba Walker.

The Suns’ decision to part ways with Hornacek didn’t seem to be all that surprising as he had been rumored to be on the hot seat for some time now. He was nearly fired back on Dec. 27, but the team opted to let two of Hornacek’s assistants go instead.

The team had hoped the changes within his staff would be enough to spark a change in the right direction. However, the team has lost 15 out of 17 games since the change and has dropped to 13th in the Western Conference – nine and a half games out of the last playoff spot.

The Suns had high hopes entering the season, and have failed to live up to expectations. Injuries have been a huge part to the team’s inconsistent play, but it became clear to the team that a change was needed.

The Suns return to action against the Toronto Raptors tomorrow night, with a replacement expected to be announced sometime before then.

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

Deep Bench Stays Ready for the Pelicans

Though out of the rotation, DeAndre Liggins and Jordan Crawford are staying ready to step up and contribute for New Orleans, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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As DeAndre Liggins is standing by his locker talking about what his next move might be in terms of free agency, he gets a ringing endorsement from the New Orleans Pelicans’ franchise guy, Anthony Davis.

“He ain’t going nowhere,” Davis shouts from across the locker room. “He ain’t going nowhere.”

Liggins pauses for a moment, lets out a laugh and then turns back.

“I don’t know, I’ll have to talk to Dell [Demps],” Liggins told Basketball Insiders with a grin.

With the NBA playoffs in full swing, there are always those guys on the fringe — players who may not always know when they’ll have a chance to get into a game. It can be tough sitting on the bench and watching the rest of the team partake in the postseason.

For players like Liggins, however, they’re just as much a part of the team as the guys in the rotation. They do bring value to the team. And they patiently await their turn, however long that may take. Even if he doesn’t get to play in an actual playoff game, Liggins believes he understands the atmosphere.

“It started off in Orlando, a playoff team. OKC was a playoff team. I’ve been in the playoffs twice,” Liggins told Basketball Insiders. “I haven’t experienced playing minutes, but I know what the feeling is like, I know what the vibe is like. It’ll be great going into the playoffs, we’ll be ready.”

Liggins has never spent more than one season with any team. He’s spent the past seven years shuffling between the Orlando Magic, Oklahoma City Thunder, Miami HEAT, Cleveland Cavaliers, Dallas Mavericks, Milwaukee Bucks and now New Orleans.

He had a bit of a breakthrough with Cleveland where he emerged as one of the better perimeter defenders on the team. He started 19 games for the Cavaliers last season and shot 37.8 percent from the three-point line. It’s been that 3 and D calling card that’s allowed him to latch on from team to team despite never really playing major minutes.

“Just bringing that defensive energy. I do all the little things like take charges, all the intangibles,” Liggins told Basketball Insiders. “I was the same way at Kentucky. You got to stick to what you know, what you do, and play a role. Especially when you’re in the league and being on this type of team.”

Liggins has a non-guaranteed contract for next season. It’s too early to know what the Pelicans front office will decide to do. He isn’t focused on that right now though. Right now, the focus is helping New Orleans make a deep playoff run even if he isn’t on the court that much.

He joined the Pelicans around mid-season after being cut by the Bucks. Although he hasn’t been on the team for very long, he’s already noticed the competitiveness and togetherness of this group. They rallied around each other following the season ending injury to DeMarcus Cousins.

“We just clicked and gelled when [Cousins] went down,” Liggins told Basketball Insiders. “I think we lost three or four in a row then after that we just started changing the way we play.”

Aside from Liggins, the Pelicans also feature Jordan Crawford who is in a similar situation right now. Their career beginnings may be a bit different, Crawford was a regular rotation player for playoff teams in the past, but as playoff rotations have tightened up, Crawford has also found himself on the outside looking in.

He was on the Pelicans roster to begin the season but was cut in favor of Jameer Nelson when an injury to Rajon Rondo precipitated the need for point guard help. He had been a key player in the rotation but upon his return near the end of the season, he found himself mostly glued to the bench.

Crawford initially was a bench scorer for the Pelicans, capable of getting hot quickly and putting up a flurry of points on the board. He was nicknamed ‘Instant Grits’ by Cousins due to his penchant for scoring. He’s a little bit unsure though of what he’s going to be asked to do this time around.

“I have no clue. I’m going to try to find out,” Crawford told Basketball Insiders. “I’m going to work my way through, do what I got to do to make the coaches happy and stuff like that. But I don’t know my role yet.”

When Crawford signed with the Pelicans earlier this month, his contract was only for the duration of the regular season and playoffs. He too will be entering free agency this summer, and due to his lack of postseason playing time, he might have to rely on past performances to secure that next contract.

He also isn’t too concerned about that right now. While he is anticipating the summertime, he’s just thrilled to be back with a familiar team, even if the playing time is scarce right now.

“I’m looking forward to the summer, definitely looking forward to the offseason,” Crawford told Basketball Insiders. “I’m happy I accomplished getting back on the team for the season. That’s good right now, I’m satisfied with that for right now.”

Although he was cut despite having initially carved out an important role on the team, Crawford always remained positive and believed things would eventually fall into place. He wasn’t sure if that place would be New Orleans, but he’s glad that it was them who came calling once again.

“I didn’t think I’d be back here. They did stay kind of connected with me, talked to me,” Crawford told Basketball Insiders. “I did have a good time while I was here, so it wasn’t no bad attitude, hard feelings or nothing. It always could’ve worked and by not having a bad attitude it allowed it to work again. It’s been a blessing.”

They stayed in contact with him and made him feel like a part of the team again. And for players like Crawford and Liggins, players who may not know who their next contract is coming from or when their next minute on the court might be, sometimes that makes all the difference

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Mock Drafts

NBA Daily: 2018 60-Pick NBA Mock Draft – 4/24/18

The deadline for early entry into the 2018 NBA Draft has passed, so Basketball Insiders Publisher Steve Kyler offers up another 60-pick Mock Draft.

Steve Kyler

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The Deadline for early entry into the 2018 NBA Draft was April 22, however, the NBA hasn’t yet released the full list of eligible players. There appear to be more than 153 underclassmen that have declared to “test the waters” according to reports. By way of comparison, last year there were 137 players from college and an additional 45 from international basketball that declared early, with 73 of those players pulling out after going through the process.

The 2018 Draft class could be shaping up to be one of the biggest, especially when you consider the volume of highly draftable seniors.

There are still some dates to keep in mind:

The NBA Draft Lottery will be held in Chicago on May 15. The annual NBA Draft Combine will get underway on May 16, also in Chicago. In any given draft year, roughly 70 percent of players invited to the Combine end up being drafted into the NBA, so a Combine invite is a significant draft milestone.

The NCAA requires all players wishing to maintain their college eligibility, without penalty, to withdraw from the NBA Draft by 11:59 pm on May 30. That is an NCAA mandated date, not related to anything involving the NBA, and that notice must be delivered in writing.

The NBA’s draft withdrawal date is June 11 by 5:00 pm ET. The NBA’s date allows a prospect to remain NBA draft eligible for future NBA drafts and is not related to any NCAA rule or date. There are ways for college players that did not accept benefits to return to college, however, they may be subject to NCAA penalties.

Here is this week’s 2018 NBA Mock Draft, based on the final pre-draft lottery draft order:

Here are some of the pick swaps and how they landed where they are currently projected:

The Cleveland Cavaliers are owed the Brooklyn Nets’ first-round pick as a result of the Kyrie Irving trade this past summer. The Brooklyn Nets traded several unprotected picks to Boston as part of the Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce trades in 2015.

The Philadelphia 76ers are owed the LA Lakers’ 2018 Draft pick, unprotected, as a result of the 2012 Steve Nash trade with the Suns. The Suns traded that pick to the 76ers as part of the Michael Carter-Williams three-team trade with the Milwaukee in 2015. The 76ers traded that pick to the Boston Celtics as part of the draft pick trade that became Markelle Fultz before the draft; it has 2 through 5 protections. Based on the final regular-season standings should convey to Philadelphia if the draft lottery holds true to the standings.

The LA Clippers are owed the Detroit Pistons first-round pick in 2018 as a result of the Blake Griffin trade. The pick is top four protected and would convey if the draft lottery holds true to the standings.

The Phoenix Suns are owed the Miami HEAT’s first-round pick as part of the Goran Dragic trade in 2015, it is top-seven protected and would convey to Phoenix based on the final NBA standings.

The Phoenix Suns were owed the Milwaukee Bucks’ first-round pick as part of the Eric Bledsoe trade. The pick would only convey if the Bucks pick landed between the 11th and 16th pick, which based on the final NBA standings did not convey. The Suns will now receive the Bucks 2019 first-round pick assuming it falls between the fourth and 16th pick.

The Atlanta Hawks are owed the Minnesota Timberwolves’ first-round pick as part of the Adreian Payne trade in 2015. The pick was lottery protected and would convey to Atlanta based on the final NBA standings.

The Minnesota Timberwolves are owed the Oklahoma City Thunder’s first-round pick as part of the Jazz/Wolves Ricky Rubio trade this past summer. The Jazz acquired the pick as part of the Thunder’s deal to obtain Enes Kanter in 2015. The pick was lottery protected and would convey based on the final NBA standings.

The Chicago Bulls are owed the New Orleans Pelicans first-round pick as a result of the Nikola Mirotic trade. The pick was top-five protected and based on the final NBA standings would convey

The LA Lakers are owed the Cleveland Cavaliers first-round pick as a result of Jordan Clarkson/Larry Nance Jr. trade. The pick was top-three protected and based on the final NBA standings would convey

The Brooklyn Nets are owed the Toronto Raptors’ first-round pick as part of the DeMarre Carroll salary dump trade this past summer. The pick was lottery protected and based on the final NBA standings would convey

The Atlanta Hawks are owed the Houston Rockets’ first-round pick as part of a three-team deal with the LA Clippers and Denver Nuggets involving Danilo Gallinari and taking back Jamal Crawford and Diamond Stone. The pick was top-three protected and based on the final NBA standings would convey

Check out the Basketball Insiders’ Top 100 NBA Draft Prospects – http://www.basketballinsiders.com/top-100-nba-draft-prospects/

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NBA Daily: Trail Blazers Come Up Short and Now Search For Answers

The Portland Trail Blazers were swept in the first round of the Playoffs and now face tough questions, writes James Blancarte.

James Blancarte

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The playoffs have been a wild ride so far. On Sunday, all three Eastern Conference playoff games were exciting matches that featured star players stepping up in the clutch. As a result, each series is tied up, two games each. The other game of the day featured the San Antonio Spurs, who stayed in control and never once allowed the Golden State Warriors to take the lead. The Spurs managed to get a win against the defending champs despite missing their best player and now their head coach indefinitely.

For the Portland Trail Blazers, there was no such Game 4 turnaround. In fact, with the Spurs win, the Trail Blazers have the lamentable distinction of being the only team to be swept in the first round of the playoffs. This is just one way to describe how disappointing and surprising this playoff series loss to the New Orleans Pelicans was for Portland. Many NBA observers and Pelicans fans were quick to point out that every ESPN NBA personality chose the Trail Blazers to win the series, as did select writers of the Basketball Insiders team.

The Trail Blazers’ players and front office also made it clear how surprised they were at the result. Forward Evan Turner shared his surprise.

“Obviously finishing so quickly wasn’t definitely the plan and to a certain extent it was shocking,” Turner said.

General Manager Neil Olshey chimed in as well.

“Nobody expected [the playoff sweep] to happen. It did. We had our chances in Game 1, we had our chances in Game 2. Clearly Game 3 was a setback,” Olshey stated when describing his surprise at how the series ended. “Stunned, I think disappointed.”

Credit should be given to the Pelicans and their ability to fully harness their talent and impose their will in the series. Turner was effusive in praising the talent and ability of the Pelicans.

“Unlocked Jrue is pretty dangerous and we all see how Rondo plays. He’s a homerun hitter but he is always solid. He can mess around. He’ll get two or three triple doubles. Anthony Davis is a problem,” Turner said.

When asked how he felt about the playoff exit, starting center Jusuf Nurkic stated that he is beyond disappointed.

“I mean, the way I finish the season, I feel shame. The way we have a season, like a team and group, and being in position to be third in the West, and finish like this, is not good,” Nurkic stated. “It’s not something you should be proud of, because all you do through the year, fight for playoff and to be in position to have a good postseason.”

Despite the early exit, many within the organization were quick to highlight that they continue to see the regular season in a positive light, including Head Coach Terry Stotts.

“I thought we had a very good regular season, I thought we had a very disappointing end of the season,” Stotts stated.

Damian Lillard shared a similar sentiment when reflecting on the season as a whole.

“I think I’ll always remember the way [the season] ended. But I won’t forget the kind of season we had. You can’t ignore the fact we won a division title in a division where there was some great teams,” Lillard stated. “We came out on top.”

Still, the success of the regular season makes the playoff result that much harder to grasp and deal with for some. Nurkic again didn’t hold back when comparing the success of the regular season with the team’s playoff failure.

“Very surprised,” Nurkic stated. “You definitely didn’t see the team who we are in the playoffs.”

Explaining why the Trail Blazers came up short against the Pelicans is no easy task. Clearly Portland’s attempt to feature its two premiere guards failed as the Pelicans were able to clamp down on Lillard and McCollum effectively in each game. Complicating matters further was the inability of the Trail Blazers to effectively utilize Nurkic on both ends of the court. However, there was at least some praise to be heaped on the backup bigs, Zach Collins and Ed Davis.

“I think Zach played really well for us,” Olshey stated. “He had an impact defensively.”

Also, Al-Farouq Aminu was able to do his part as an acceptable defensive option against Davis while spreading the floor with his outside shooting

Regardless, Turner shared his assessment that the team failed to have an adequate game plan for a scenario where their two best players are neutralized.

“One thing that may help, it’s no jabs or anything, but building the identity outside of our two strong scorers,” Turned stated. “[W]e sometimes go downhill when a team fully focuses on a lot of attention on our stars […] But I think we might need certain plays, certain structures that kind of prepare just in case that occurs.”

With their postseason concluded, the Trail Blazers are suddenly left trying to answer questions with no easy answers. Who, if anyone, is to blame for what happened? So far, many head coaches have been let go and unsurprisingly some speculation has turned toward Coach Stotts. Stotts, when asked, focused on the team and deflected any analysis of his performance.

“I’m not going to evaluate the job I did,” Stotts said.

Lillard, on the other hand, was effusive in his praise of his coach.

“Coach Stotts has done a great job from day one. We’ve been in the playoffs five years straight,” Lillard said.

For now, there does not appear to be strong rumblings about Stotts. With the offseason just beginning for the team there is still time to reflect and assess what went wrong. Additionally, the team has to resolve what to do regarding its own free agents. No name looms larger than Nurkic, who despite his poor showing, represents one of the team’s top talents and expressed his guarded optimism regarding a return.

“I want to be here, it’s no secret,” Nurkic stated when asked if he wants an extension in Portland. “Yes, definitely.”

Nurkic ended the thought by stating, a bit ominously, that he did his part and a deal may or may not get worked out.

“My agent and people here are going to figure out the rest, or not,” Nurkic said.

Complicating the desire to retain Nurkic is the team’s financial situation as the team is currently over the cap and under obligation to center Meyers Leonard, who has struggled to stay in the rotation and is earning roughly $21.8 million over the next two years.

“It’s our job to be measured and not to overreact. [Because] when you overreact is when you make mistakes,” Olshey stated.

Lillard was quick to emphatically shut down the notion of splitting up him and McCollum when asked if that would be a good idea.

“I mean, I don’t agree with it. I think it’s that simple,” Lillard declared.

When asked what the team plans to do going forward, Olshey expressed optimism but tried again to pay credit to the season’s effort overall.

“We’re going to do everything we can to upgrade the roster as we always do but we also aren’t going to lose sight of the success throughout the course of the season,” Olshey said.

“I don’t have all the answers for you today,” Olshey surmised. “A lot of times you don’t know where your help is coming from.”

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