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NBA PM: Orlando Magic 2017-18 Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the Orlando Magic, who have a lot to prove this upcoming season.

Basketball Insiders

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As the Orlando Magic enter yet another season with a high draft pick on its roster, many are beginning to wonder when this team can finally become relevant in the Eastern Conference.

The team is already in its longest playoff drought in franchise history with no real answers as to when they might be able to return to the postseason. With a new front office in place, will it be enough to get the Magic back to the playoffs this season?

Let’s preview the 2017-18 season for the Orlando Magic:

FIVE GUYS THINK…

It feels like this is the final, put-up-or-shut-up year for several members of Orlando’s youth project that hasn’t really worked too well. Guys like Elfrid Payton, Mario Hezonja and Aaron Gordon need to firmly prove they belong on a team that can contend for a playoff berth, or the Magic will have to look at the next wave of youngsters. That’s already started with guys like Jonathan Isaac, who could see quite a bit of court time this season. This team doesn’t project to be very good, and there could be lots of chances for these younger pieces to show out. There could also be some landscape changes on the horizon if it’s another lost season in Orlando. There could be enough talent here to keep them out of the cellar in the Southeast – the Hawks will give them competition there – but there isn’t a ton of high-level hope for the future at this point.

4th Place – Southeast Division

– Ben Dowsett

The Orlando Magic’s roster features young, talented players and an assortment of veterans mostly on short term contracts. It appears as though Orlando wants to build up its young core, while remaining somewhat competitive by bringing in veterans like Shelvin Mack, Arron Afflalo and Marreese Speights. Maintaining financial flexibility is a good thing, but the Magic are going to have to make some tough decisions on players like Elfrid Payton and Aaron Gordon rather soon. It’s hard to not look at this roster and wonder how good this team could have been had Orlando’s front office not made several perplexing deals over the last few seasons. However, there is still some nice young talent in Orlando and a disciplined approach to rebuilding the team could yield results sooner than most expect. Also, the signing of Jonathon Simmons was a nice value move for Orlando. Don’t be surprised if Simmons outplays his contract and other teams regret not making more competitive offers for his services.

5th Place – Southeast Division

– Jesse Blancarte

Both Jonathon Simmons and Marreese Speights are the type of player that I’d covet if I were a general manager of an NBA franchise, so at least newly installed general manager John Hammond has a few pieces to work with.

My biggest problem with the Magic, however, is that they are simply a team full of overlapping young pieces, and it could be argued that none of them have fulfilled their promise. Bismack Biyombo, Aaron Gordon, Mario Hezonja and Nikola Vucevic have all had their bright moments, but they have simply been too far and few between. I like both Evan Fournier and Elfrid Payton, and newly drafted rookie Jonathan Isaac should be able to carve out a niche for himself on the squad.

The unfortunate reality, though, is that neither the Magic nor their young pieces have done much to instill confidence that this ship will be righted. It would appear that they will be competing with the Hawks for worst place in the Southeast Division, and I believe it’s a battle that not even the Magic could find a way to lose. So I suppose there’s something to be happy about.

4th Place – Southeast Division

-Moke Hamilton

Every year the Orlando Magic do stuff, and every preseason I step into the year believing they’ve made absolutely no progress. Jonathan Isaac was the team’s big offseason pickup, but he already has had his fair share of health issues and was one of the biggest question marks in the top half of this year’s lottery. Beyond him, this is basically the same team that went 29-53 a year ago, so even with the Eastern Conference wide open for burgeoning playoff contenders, the Magic don’t have a shot at the postseason in 2018. They aren’t as bad as the Bulls or Hawks, but it won’t be a shock if they end up with the #7 pick in the draft next June.

4th Place – Southeast Division

– Joel Brigham

In a division with three potential playoff teams, the Orlando Magic will be doing their best just to stay out of the basement of the Southeast.

After overhauling the front office, maybe successful seasons are on the horizon, but for next year, the same old song and dance look to be in play down in Orlando. With Aaron Gordon and Elfrid Payton in contract years, this season will be more of an evaluation process for the Magic to see if either of those players are worth an extension. Rookie Jonathan Isaac provides hope for the future, but the lanky forward is possibly a year or two or away from making a true impact due to his lack of physical maturity.

While the top half of the division should have their sights set on the playoffs, the Magic will be trying their hardest to battle out of the basement they found themselves in last season.

4th Place – Southeast Division

– Dennis Chambers

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Evan Fournier

Fournier enters the 2017-18 campaign as the Magic’s top offensive player. In the past, center Nikola Vucevic has led the team in scoring, but Fournier’s 17.2 points per game last season was tops on the team with Vucevic second at 14.6 points per game.

With Victor Oladipo out of the picture last season, Fournier turned in a career-high 17.2 points, 3.1 rebounds and three assists per game while shooting 35.6 percent from three-point range. Fournier has proven to be a solid player capable of creating his own shot and hitting from three-point range.

While Fournier struggled shooting a bit, he appeared to have found his stroke following the All-Star break. In 45 games prior to the break, Fournier averaged 16.8 points per game and shot 34.3 percent from three-point range but he averaged 18 points and shot 37 percent from beyond the arc in 23 games after the break.

The team’s offense changed drastically after the All-Star break after trading Serge Ibaka to the Toronto Raptors in exchange for Terrence Ross. Head coach Frank Vogel also moved Aaron Gordon back to power forward and the team finally began to embrace running a smaller lineup. Fournier looked more comfortable in the new offense as indicated by his improved play.

Fournier figures to pick up where he left off last season with the team likely continuing to play a similar style of offense they used toward the end of the season.

Top Defensive Player: Aaron Gordon

In a season where a lot of things went wrong, Gordon proved to be one of few bright spots for the Magic on defense. While the results were mixed with Gordon at small forward last season, his defense on the perimeter remains elite.

Gordon often drew the matchup of guarding some of the league’s elite scorers last season as he was tasked with defending the likes of James Harden, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George among others. Gordon has all of the physical tools needed to guard players of that caliber: size, quickness, strength and the jumping ability.

Last season, players like Serge Ibaka and Bismack Biyombo were added to the roster to shore up the Magic’s rim defense. As most teams were going small, the Magic went big and the results were not positive. Ibaka was dealt to the Toronto Raptors prior to the trade deadline and the team took a step back with Biyombo on the floor.

Simply put, the Magic struggled on defense when Biyombo was on the court. The team’s defensive rating was lower than their average with Biyombo on the floor. In addition, his block rate was down, his rebounds dropped and his field-goal percentage defense dipped as well.

With Biyombo’s struggles last season, Gordon has emerged as the team’s best defender, but the team has more defensive potential on the roster. Newcomer Jonathon Simmons has shown flashes during his stay with the San Antonio Spurs as a strong defender, while rookie Wesley Iwundu was known as a capable defender in college as well.

Top Playmaker: Elfrid Payton

As the point guard, Payton is the top playmaker for the Magic. Although the team used Payton in the starting lineup and off of the bench last season, he played very effectively for the team late in the season as a starter.

Payton averaged a career-high 12.8 points, 6.5 rebounds and 4.7 rebounds per game last season and made headlines when he recorded five triple-doubles in a 14-game stretch from March 6 to April 1. He averaged 12.7 points, 8.4 assists and 7.6 rebounds during the month of March.

Once the Magic opted to embrace the small-ball lineup last season, Payton was one of a few players that benefitted from the change. While he struggled for much of the season before the change, he improved drastically following the All-star break. Payton often had the ball in his hands more following the change and was primarily responsible for initiating the offense when he was on the court.

He has proven to be most effective when the Magic get out and run and the team simply wasn’t able to do that with Serge Ibaka and Bismack Biyombo on the floor. The change at the All-Star break played to Payton’s strengths and he showed flashes of being a capable starter. It seems reasonable to believe that he could continue that strong play this season if the team can continue to get out and run.

Payton enters the 2017-18 season with a lot to prove in the final year of his rookie contract. The Magic can agree to a contract extension with Payton before the start of the season, but it seems more likely Payton will hit restricted free agency next summer. There are still a lot of questions with his game, but he has an opportunity to answer them this season.

Top Clutch Player: Evan Fournier

Since Fournier is the team’s top offensive player, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to see him as the best clutch player on the roster. The NBA defines clutch stats as the final five minutes of a game when a team is either ahead or behind by five minutes. Fournier was by far the Magic’s best player in these situations.

Fournier ranked 26th in the NBA with 93 total points when the Magic were either ahead or trailing by five points last season. To put that into context, notable players like Russell Westbrook ranked first in the league with 247 total points, while James Harden was 10th with 150 points and LeBron James was 20th with 112 points.

Of course, that’s not to say Fournier is on the same playing level as those players, but he proved to be extremely reliable in crunch time for the Magic. Fournier shot 46 percent from the floor (29-of-63) in those situations and 44.8 percent from three-point range (13-of-29).

Although Fournier didn’t hit any game-winning shots last season, he did help the Magic with several big shots throughout the season in the final moments of games. Some Magic fans may remember his big three-point shots against the Miami HEAT to send the HEAT to a second consecutive loss following their 13-game winning streak.

When the game is on the line this season, look for Fournier to have the ball in his hands. As he proved last season, he can be trusted to hit big shots.

The Unheralded Player: Nikola Vucevic

With so many new additions to this team, it might be easy to forget about Vucevic this season. As a player that has dealt with his fair share of trade rumors, Vucevic has continued to work and stay as a reliable scoring option for the Magic.

Perhaps most impressive for Vucevic is he’s among the best scorers at his position. While he may take some criticism for his defense (which has improved), he still remains one of the best offensive centers in the NBA.

Although his production did dip a bit last season with the arrival of Serge Ibaka, Vucevic averaged 14.6 points, 10.4 rebounds, 2.8 assists, one steal and one block per game. Vucevic ranked seventh among all centers in scoring and was 11th in the NBA in rebounds.

For one reason or another, his shooting percentages did also fall last season as well. He ranked as one of the best midrange shooters in the NBA two seasons ago, but his percentages dropped across the board last season. The Magic hope his drop in shooting was just a fluke and he can bounce back to the shooter he was two years ago.

Regardless of how he shot last season, look for Vucevic to continue to be a reliable scorer the Magic can count on this season. He might also add a few more game-winning shots as well.

Best New Addition: Jonathon Simmons

Simmons played an important role with the San Antonio Spurs last season. He initially hit restricted free agency this summer with the Spurs, but became an unrestricted free agent once the Spurs withdrew their qualifying offer.

Simmons averaged a career-high 6.2 points, 2.1 rebounds and 1.6 assists per game last season with the Spurs. He became a key member in head coach Gregg Popovich’s rotation and earned four starts in the playoffs in place of the injured Kawhi Leonard. He came up with perhaps the biggest play of his career after drawing a charge against James Harden to help send the game into overtime in Game 6 of the Western Conference Semifinals.

Many believe the Magic may have secured one of the biggest steals of the offseason after signing Simmons to a three-year, $18 million contract. The first two years of the deal are fully guaranteed, while only $1 million is guaranteed in the third year.

The Magic entered the offseason with roughly $15 million in cap space to work with and, by all accounts, appear to have used that money wisely. In addition to Simmons, the team also signed free agents Shelvin Mack, Arron Afflalo and Marreese Speights. Given his chance to immediately come in and have a large role with the team, Simmons is the best new addition of the summer.

It was reported that Simmons gained significant interest around the league once he became an unrestricted free agent and the Magic moved quickly to sign him. For the Magic, adding the 6-foot-6 Simmons will add a proven wing defender to the lineup that could compete for a place in the starting lineup.

– Cody Taylor

WHO WE LIKE

1. The New Front Office:

After letting general manager Rob Hennigan go at the conclusion of last season, the Magic hired Jeff Weltman as the team’s president of basketball operations and John Hammond as the general manager.

The two have previously worked together and appear to have great chemistry in the early going in Orlando. The duo maintained after taking over that they’d make smart personnel decisions over the course of the summer and it seems as though they’ve stuck with that philosophy.

Many have pointed to the Magic as a team that has quietly put together a solid offseason. The team opted to draft Jonathan Isaac with the sixth overall pick and Wesley Iwundu early in the second round. While the team entered draft night with four total draft picks, Weltman and Hammond established that they didn’t want to add four rookies this year and opted to trade those additional two picks for future considerations.

As many teams went to work quickly during free agency, the Magic stayed quiet in the early going. The Magic entered the free agency period with roughly $15 million in cap space and knew they wouldn’t be making splashy moves, but it appears as though they spent their money wisely.

The team signed arguably the biggest steal of the offseason in Jonathon Simmons to a very team-friendly deal. They signed veteran Shelvin Mack to a one-year, $6 million deal. After those two signings, the team added Arron Afflalo and Marreese Speights on a pair of one-year deals. Staying flexible in the NBA is a must for teams and Weltman and Hammond did just that by not committing long-term money to free agents this summer as the team has done in previous years.

Of course, the team has yet to take the court yet for the 2017-18 season and it’s far too early to tell how these new additions will come together, but it appears as though the team’s new front office is off to a good start.

2. Arron Afflalo:

After a two-year stint with the Magic from 2012-2014, Afflalo is back in Orlando on a one-year deal. While his most productive years appear to be behind him, Afflalo figures to add a quality veteran to a locker room with several younger players.

Since returning to Orlando, Afflalo has expressed his immense love for the city and the team. He even said during his introductory press conference that his previous stint with the Magic was by far the happiest he had been with an NBA team.

Afflalo figures to log backup minutes at shooting guard behind Evan Fournier this season. He averaged 8.4 points, two rebounds and 1.3 assists in 61 games last season with the Sacramento Kings while shooting 41.1 percent from three-point range.

He experienced his best run in the NBA previously with the Magic when he averaged 17.4 points, 3.7 rebounds and 3.3 assists in 137 games. He’ll be a valuable option off of the bench for Frank Vogel and a leader off of the court.

3. Jonathan Isaac:

As the team’s sixth overall pick in June’s draft, there is a lot of intrigue with Isaac. He was viewed by many to have perhaps the highest upside of any player in this year’s draft class. He flashed a wide range of skills after averaging 12 points, 7.8 rebounds, 1.5 blocks, 1.2 steals and 1.2 assists per game in one season at Florida State.

Measuring in at 6-foot-11 with a 7-foot-1 wingspan, he has the potential to be a nightmare for teams on the defensive end. He’s a player that projects to fit right into a small-ball lineup or in a big lineup should the team opt to run that way.

Isaac showed a lot of promise in three Summer League games, but he also showed that there will be some growing pains as well. He figures to be able come in immediately and play meaningful minutes. He should be fun to watch develop this season given his physical tools.

– Cody Taylor

SALARY CAP 101

The Magic went under the salary cap this summer to sign Jonathon Simmons and Shelvin Mack. The team is now slightly over with just the $4.3 million Room Exception to spend. Orlando has 14 guaranteed players with Khem Birch, Tony Caupain, Rodney Purvis and Kalin Lucas vying for the final roster spot.

Orlando is still heavily invested in players after last year’s spending spree. The team projects to have roughly $13 million in cap space next summer which is relatively equivalent to staying over and simply using the Mid-Level and Bi-Annual Exceptions instead. Nikola Vucevic has one year remaining on his deal but the market for centers has cooled in recent years. Aaron Gordon is eligible for an extension before the start of the season. Mario Hezonja has a team option due by Halloween

— Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

As a team that has struggled to remain competitive over the past several years, there are understandably not many strengths on this team.

With some younger players on the roster, the team did manage to do a solid job of signing veteran players this summer in free agency. The team brought back fan favorite Arron Afflalo on a one-year deal. He proved to be a great locker room presence during his first stint with the team a few years ago.

In addition to Afflalo, the team also signed Marreese Speights to a one-year deal as well. Speights, who grew up not far from Orlando, said it was a dream of his to play for the Magic. As an NBA Champion with the Golden State Warriors, his resume and character will be a great addition for the team.

The team also added veteran point guard Shelvin Mack in free agency as well. Mack has playoff experience and most recently turned in one of his best seasons with the Utah Jazz. The team will surely not be lacking high-character veterans this season.

– Cody Taylor

WEAKNESSES

One glaring hole on this roster is the lack of star power. While Aaron Gordon has certainly dazzled at the past two Slam Dunk Contests, he still hasn’t developed into an All-Star player to this point for the Magic.

Unfortunately, the Magic just haven’t hit on any of their high draft picks in recent years. Gordon has shown flashes, as has Elfrid Payton, but the two haven’t been able to put it all together just yet. While they haven’t developed quite like the team would have expected, they are both entering just their fourth year in the league and still have time to put it together.

The reality for the Magic is until they can put together a legitimate playoff run, they likely won’t be able to sign a star player in free agency.

– Cody Taylor

THE BURNING QUESTION

Can the Magic make the playoffs this season?

As the team continues its longest playoff drought in playoff history, it doesn’t appear to be ending anytime soon. Although many believe the Eastern Conference should be wide open for the playoffs, the Magic still project to face an uphill battle to reach that objective.

– Cody Taylor

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NBA Daily: Biggest Disappointments — Southeast Division

Chad Smith breaks down the Southeast Division in the latest installment of Basketball Insiders’ Biggest Disappointments series.

Chad Smith

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Over the last few weeks, Basketball Insiders has highlighted the biggest surprises of the young NBA season. And, breaking down each division, there seemed to be a fantastic story about to unfold around every corner.

But, now, has reality finally started to settle in?

The pleasant surprises throughout the season are always welcome, but there have been plenty that aren’t so spectacular. Whether expectations were just too high, or unforeseen circumstance led to an awkward shift, some players or teams just haven’t had the greatest time to start the 2019-20 season.

It’s important to remember that the season is but weeks old, November its first full month. And things can change very quickly in the NBA. Still, there are a few situations of note to keep an eye on. That said, here are three of the Southeast division’s biggest disappointments so far this season.

Orlando’s Not So Magical Offense

After they were the darling team of the Eastern Conference last season, the 2019-20 iteration of the Orlando Magic have struggled to find that same consistency.

Orlando has proven especially bad on offense, as they currently rank 30th in total offense, 30th in field goal percentage and 30th in three-point shooting. The fact that they are dead last in every category is even more baffling when you consider the fact that they returned largely the same roster from a year ago.

The Magic were the last team to score 100 points in a game this season and, as of this writing, they average a league-worst 99 points per game. Terrence Ross and Evan Fournier have struggled to find a groove, while DJ Augustin has dropped back into a reserve role. Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic have looked mediocre-at-best.

Case-and-point, it isn’t difficult to pinpoint why the Magic have struggled to a 5-7 record to start the season, no matter how disappointing it may be. There is hope, however; Orlando has put forth a strong defensive effort, while their schedule is expected to lighten up after contests against the Philadelphia 76ers, Milwaukee Bucks, Denver Nuggets and Toronto Raptors, among others.

They also have some nice young pieces that have thus far yielded positive results: Markelle Fultz and Jonathan Isaac.

After such a fun postseason run, it’s incredibly disappointing to see Orlando’s 5th ranked offense from a season ago stumble to such depths. We can’t say for sure whether it’ll turn up at some point but, fortunately for the Magic, they have another 70 games to figure it out.

John Collins Suspension

The 2019-20 season has been a roller-coaster for the Atlanta Hawks. Trae Young has looked like a star, but missed time due to an ankle injury. And, despite their 4-7 record, the team has, at times, looked strong on both ends of the court.

But, now, they face a 25-game stretch without John Collins, lost to suspension.

Collins is a remarkable talent, and it’s easy to see how his absence has hurt Atlanta on the court. In the midst of a road trip, Atlanta has struggled against the Bucks, Los Angeles Clippers and Lakers, teams with solid options at the five-spot Collins used to occupy.

As spectacular as he is, it’s unfair to expect Young to carry the day for the team on his own. And, like other teams — see Aron Baynes behind Deandre Ayton in Phoenix — the Hawks just don’t have the depth at the position persevere through the loss of Collins.

If they’re to turn it around, Atlanta will need Jabari Parker, Cameron Reddish, De’Andre Hunter and others to step up and make a big impact. Unfortunately, given their lack of experience (or, in Parker’s case, the fact that he’s a known commodity) it’s hard to imagine that that’ll be the case.

At the very least, it’ll take some time for those players to grow into their game and help turn the season around, time the Hawks may not have given such poor start

Where’s Miles Bridges’ Breakout?

On the whole, things have actually been better than expected in Charlotte, as the team has carried a 5-7 record through 12 after many expected them to be one of the worst in the NBA. But, after a rookie season where he flashed, the 2019-20 regular season was set to be Miles Bridges’ introduction to the national NBA audience.

With Kemba Walker gone, and veterans like Nic Batum, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marvin Williams populating the roster, Bridges was supposed to establish himself as the Charlotte Hornets’ best player and lead the team into the next phase of their rebuild.

And, to be fair, Bridges hasn’t been horrible this season. He just hasn’t been what many had hoped for or expected.

Through Charlotte’s 12 games, Bridges has averaged 12.6 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 2.3 assists. His shooting percentages — 47.6 percent from the floor, 39.2 percent from three — are good as well. But Bridges has yet to really take the bull by the horns and assert himself as the Hornets’ top-dog. Of course, there is plenty of time for him to change that, but the fact that he hasn’t already is disappointing nonetheless.

Bridges is vocal on the floor and can communicate with others on Charlotte’s roster, both the veterans and the up-and-comers. He could prove exactly the leader this team needs as they transition into the post-Walker phase of their franchise.

Again, the season is young, and these disappointments could quickly flip on their heads and become surprises. But not every team can be so lucky, and these teams may just have to accept them and adjust.

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NBA Daily: Aron Baynes’ Three-Point Revolution

Aron Baynes took just six three-pointers over the first five years of his career. But he’s an elite floor-stretcher now, though, a development that’s changed everything for both him and the Phoenix Suns.

Jack Winter

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Aron Baynes attempted a grand total of six three-pointers over his first five years in the NBA.

When he first ventured beyond the arc in 2017-18 — during his debut campaign with the Boston Celtics — Baynes’ newfound stretch seemed more like a novelty than a development that could significantly alter the course of his career. He took just 21 triples, but 13 of them came from the corners — a spot at which more and more players experimented with the long ball as the league’s emphasis on space reached a new zenith.

The evolution that initially pushed Baynes and other non-shooters like him to the perimeter is ongoing. Thirteen teams are taking at least 35 percent of their shots from deep, up from nine last season, while the number of teams with a three-point rate above 30 percent has jumped from 23 to 27, per Cleaning the Glass.

The NBA’s three-point revolution, obviously, is still in its heyday. But more frequently and easily identified with that reality is a player like James Harden — an annual MVP-worthy candidate — whose three-point rate has risen to a ridiculous 57.2 percent. Or, take Andrew Wiggins, who has revitalized his career by launching 6.7 triples per game – a number that would have ranked among the league’s the top-10 as recently as 2015-16, but currently sits outside its top-20.

Still, it would be foolish to overlook the influence of role players that continue pushing their personal boundaries as long-range shooters, a group for which Baynes has become the poster boy.

Any chance that the three-ball would be a more complementary aspect of his game as opposed to a driving force behind it vanished last season. Baynes shot a solid 34.4 percent from three-point range, just below league average and nearly double his accuracy from the previous season. But his shot chart hinted at even further growth to come as 50 of Baynes’ 61 three-point tries were from above the break. He wasn’t just a stationary safety valve to make opponents pay for ignoring him in the corner — but a shooter with numbers indicated that needed to be guarded all over the floor.

Baynes’ red-hot start to 2019-20 has ensured that defenses must treat him with the respect he deserves, and the Phoenix Suns are taking full advantage.

It’s safe to say Baynes won’t shoot 46.8 percent on three-pointers all season long. Danny Green and Joe Harris were the only players in basketball to connect on even 45 percent of those attempts last season, and it’s not like Baynes has been shy getting them up, allowing for the possibility of a small sample size to artificially inflate his numbers. He’s launching 4.3 triples in only 23.8 minutes per game, hunting them with the vigor of a veteran frontcourt marksman.

Baynes doesn’t care where he is, how quickly he needs to set his feet or how much time is on the shot clock. Only three of his long-range efforts last season came as a defender was within six feet of him. Less than a month into 2019-20, Baynes has doubled that total, even taking three shots from deep when being closely defended, per NBA.com.

He doesn’t just get his shots in pick-and-pop or scramble situations, either. The Suns believe so much in Baynes’ viability as a three-point shooter that they sometimes run a baseline out-of-bounds play to get him an open look from the wing.

Baynes has been one of the best screeners in basketball for years. He’s massively built with broad shoulders and a thick chest, thus allowing him to make contact with defenders trying to avoid a pick when most bigs couldn’t. His keen understanding of angles and timing regularly provides unencumbered runways for ball handlers that otherwise wouldn’t exist.

Even so, Baynes is far more dynamic as a screener now that he’s an imminently-dangerous three-point shooter. He mixes in a steady diet of dives to the rim with more frequent pops to the arc, and Phoenix ball handlers have increasingly made a habit out of drawing two defenders by creasing the paint, only to kick back out to Baynes for an open triple. The result is Baynes averaging 1.56 points per possession as a roll man, fourth-best in the league, on the strength a 77.8 effective field goal percentage, per NBA.com.

Monty Williams hasn’t just empowered Baynes as a three-point shooter, either. The Suns’ head coach consistently takes advantage of the mere threat of Baynes’ presence, too, producing easy scoring opportunities elsewhere on the floor. Phoenix loves clearing the lane for quick Booker post-ups at the charge circle against overmatched defenders and Baynes, an underrated passer, routinely finds others with backdoor dimes when the defense overplays dribble hand-offs.

The Los Angeles Lakers, sporting the league’s best defense, were eventually so spooked last week by Baynes, Dario Saric and Frank Kaminsky raining threes that they resorted to switching across five positions. While Los Angeles hung on for a hard-fought win in a delightfully hostile environment, it still speaks volumes about the Suns’ offensive attack that a defense led by LeBron James and Anthony Davis felt the need to junk-up its scheme.

Baynes isn’t a high-usage post player and never will be. But when defenses feel compelled to switch to combat the long-range shooting of he and other bigs, the Suns should remember that he was able to exploit James on the block with ease.

Baynes is no star, even if there’s data suggesting otherwise. Phoenix’s offensive rating is almost 15 points better with him on the court, but that number aligns closely with that of other starters. His presence makes almost no affect on the Suns’ team-wide shot chart, either. But any sweet-shooting, screen-setting, backdoor-passing big man would be an abject offensive plus, and it’s telling that Phoenix’s effective field goal percentage ticks up 6.3 percent with Baynes in the game, according to Cleaning The Glass.

Deandre Ayton will take Baynes’ place in the starting lineup upon his suspension ending and rightfully so. But if the Suns take a step back offensively with Ayton active, don’t be surprised.

Baynes isn’t quite the engine behind the league’s third-best offense, but he’s certainly a crucial cog – and his rapid growth as a shooter is the reason why.

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NBA Daily: Biggest Disappointments — Atlantic Division

Basketball Insiders’ Biggest Disappointments series continues with Drew Maresca examining the Atlantic Division’s start to the 2019-20 season.

Drew Maresca

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The NBA season is still very young, but some disappointing starts are just that – disappointing. Meaning that they can exist on their own without knowing the end result. Certain players and teams around the league surprised us with their unexpectedly strong play, and others have left us scratching our heads and wondering what’s went wrong.

And with that being said, let’s continue our series on early-season disappointments, shifting our attention to the Atlantic Division. The Atlantic is always home to controversy thanks to its large media markets and (mostly) historic franchises. So let’s examine who has underachieved thus far and how they can turn it around. 

Nets Surprising Defensive Struggles

Defense is presenting early problems for the new-look Brooklyn Nets; they’re 4-7 after entering the season with fairly high expectations. Now, this writer was burned last season after forecasting a Nets’ demise following a poor start, so we won’t be making any kind of long-term predictions. But it’s been problematic enough to get Kenny Atkinson’s attention in recent postgame press conferences.

Sometimes their defense has lapses in the final minutes of close games (e.g., a five-point loss to the Jazz this past Tuesday), and other times it fails them earlier in the game (e.g., a blowout loss against the Suns on last Sunday).

But one way or the other, the Nets have to improve defensively. They are allowing 119.5 points per game, which is good for 27th in the Association. And sure, they’re averaging the seventh-most points per game in the league (116.8), but they’ve posted the sixth-worst defensive rating in the league so far and a -2.4 net rating. That’s not going to cut it for a team with aspirations of making a deep postseason run.

The bright side is that it’s never surprising when a team struggles to find continuity on defense after an offseason of turnover. The Nets returned only seven players from 2018-19, and each of their three most frequently used lineups features multiple new players. There is plenty of time left for the Nets to build synergy and improve their defense. And Atkinson is an incredible motivator, so there is little reason to worry about long-term implications. But as far as this season is concerned, they should get to it quickly because every win (and loss) affects their seeding and/or chances of making the playoffs.

Knicks Offensive Woes

The Knicks’ lack of success is well-documented. And despite the team signing a number of established veterans who many felt would propel them to respectability, the losing has continued.

And much of the reason for their continued disappointments is their offensive struggles. NBA teams are getting more shot attempts and scoring more points than ever before. The Knicks never received that memo. Through 11 games (not including their game Thursday night vs. the Mavericks), the Knicks are one of only two teams averaging less than 100 points per game, and they rank dead last in points per 100 possessions. And what’s worse — they are tied for the third-least assists per game (20.3) and their coach recently kind of, sort of defended their isolation-heavy offense by mentioning the Houston Rockets proclivity to play isolation-heavy basketball (although he later acknowledged that the Knicks don’t have the same level as do the Rockets and that they must move the ball to succeed).

Looking ahead, someone is going to pay for this. Franchise owner James Dolan recently met with the team president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry to articulate his frustrations. That prompted an unexpected press conference from the two to discuss their dissatisfaction with the early failures. Ultimately, this is going to fall on Fizdale, whose coaching seat has become white-hot. But Perry, and maybe even Mills. could both be looking for work, too. Dolan is rumored to be smitten with the idea of luring Masai Ujiri to New York, again — potentially with the goal of signing Giannis Antetokounmpo in 2021.

But regardless of what happens in the future, it looks like there’s no way out of the current mess this season. But one thing the Knicks can do to soften the blow is move the ball. Too often, the Knicks settle – or prefer – to isolate with their opponent while the four other Knicks stand idly by and watch. They must move without the ball and screen away from it. More pick-and-roll action would benefit them, too. Getting back to the basics is the best recipe for a team that has appeared to lack an offensive system, or at least an understanding of it.

The Struggles of Dennis Smith Jr.

Since a midseason trade from the Dallas Mavericks last year, Smith Jr. has had a difficult time adjusting to New York, at least on a consistent basis. And before going into this, experiencing a personal tragedy such as what he just went through takes a strong person to push on.

Strictly from an on-court perspective, however, beginning with his first three games of the season, Smith Jr. totaled only three points and three assists on 0-for-3 shooting from beyond the arc in 26:12 of play.

Now,  he tweaked his back sometime prior to the beginning of the preseason, which caused him to miss preseason games, a number of practices and – in turn – threw off his timing and conditioning. It’s understandable how that affects a player. It’s also understandable that his mental state could’ve been significantly affected by personal matters. Why was Smith Jr. playing, then? Was it out of fear of losing his place in the rotation? Was it pressure from the team? Was it his own stubbornness?

On the bright side, Smith Jr. looked more like his old self last night in a victory over the Mavericks. Smith Jr. posted 13 points and 8 assists on 5-for-12 shooting in 29:58 minutes of action. While Smith Jr. has been far-less effective through the Knicks’ first 12 games than they’d hoped he would be, they can take some solace in his most recent performance.

But more importantly, they must demand that he rehab fully so he can demonstrate exactly what he’s capable of doing; Smith Jr. could be seen occasionally limping around the court as recently as last game. Otherwise, the Knicks are not only hurting Smith Jr. and his future earning potential, but they’re also hurting themselves by not getting a clean look at a talented young player. Sure, they exercised his fourth-year option for 2020-21, so they have next season to evaluate, too; but every game is important in assessing a young player’s potential output, and you’d prefer to do so by examining healthy performances.

Celtics’ Continuous Injury Bug

This one hasn’t necessarily affected the team’s play since the Celtics entered Thursday night with the league’s best record (9-1). But still, the Celtics – and more specifically, Gordon Hayward – have had some bad luck as far as injuries are concerned in recent seasons.

Hayward suffered a devastating foot injury two seasons ago. He spent the entirety of last year getting back his confidence and rhythm. He came out this season and looked dangerously close to his old self, averaging 18.9 points, 7.1 rebounds and 4.1 assists in eight games.

And then, the unthinkable happened – Hayward suffered another injury that would ultimately require surgery.

Fortunately for Hayward and the Celtics, the broken hand — which required surgery — shouldn’t be season-ending. Also fortunate is the fact that Boston maintained its depth at the wing this offseason, opting to hang on to Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart.

Still, it must be incredibly frustrating for Hayward, the Celtics and their fans to see the team’s fourth-leading scorer and second-leading rebounder miss extended time – again –  to another injury. Hopefully, this is the last major injury Hayward suffers, and hopefully the Celtics’ entire roster can remain relatively healthy for the foreseeable future – because no one wants to see seasons decided by injuries.

We are only slightly more than 10 percent of the way through the 2019-20 season, so every team and player mentioned above has a chance at redemption. Still, each of the above disappointing starts is a cause for concern. And every player and team should begin preparing countermeasures to combat the possibility that the above-mentioned disappointing trends linger longer than expected.

But one thing’s for sure: When we’re talking about teams from the Atlantic Division, each and every aforementioned storyline will play out as loudly as possible.

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