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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: The Stretch Run – Central Division

In the next edition of our The Stretch Run series, Basketball Insiders takes a closer look at the Central Division bubble teams as things get back on track following the All-Star break.

Chad Smith

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The so-called second half of the season is kicking back into gear, but the forthcoming agendas for teams in the Central Division are all very different. Some organizations have their eye on the draft lottery, some on making the playoffs and one or two have set their sights on the NBA Finals. Each team has less than 28 games remaining, which means every one of them will be extremely important.

As part of Basketball Insiders’ latest running series called The Stretch Run, we’re taking a look at every division and analyzing their standing — both in the postseason position or rebuilding efforts.

The Central Division is a mixed bag of teams on various tier levels, naturally. The Milwaukee Bucks find themselves alone at the top, owning the best record in the league — as of publishing — with a 46-8 record. Clearly not a bubble team, Milwaukee’s focus has been on fine-tuning their roster and figuring out their playoff rotation. They recently added another piece in Marvin Williams after his buyout with the Charlotte Hornets.

Behind the Bucks sit the Indiana Pacers with a 32-23 record at the All-Star break. Indiana beat Milwaukee in their final game before the stoppage to end a five-game losing streak. One of the reasons for their recent struggles is likely due to incorporating Victor Oladipo back into the rotation. While the chemistry will take time to build, the talented backcourt Oladipo and Malcolm Brogdon should be one of the best in the league eventually. Their twin towers of Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner should keep the Pacers squarely in the playoff picture.

At the opposite end of the spectrum sit the Cleveland Cavaliers. They are 14-40 on the season and have had very few bright spots. Collin Sexton picked up where he left off last season, but he hasn’t been able to elevate his teammates. The Cavaliers decided not to move Kevin Love before the trade deadline, before then acquiring Andre Drummond from a division rival to create a log jam of big men. After taking Sexton and Darius Garland in the draft lottery the past two years, Cleveland will likely have another top pick to use this summer.

The odd five-year contract that Cleveland gave former Michigan head coach John Beilein this past summer has not worked out well. After reports earlier this season that the players had already tuned him out, it appears as though his days in the league have come to an end. Beilein and the organization finalized a contract settlement that’ll stop proceedings just a half-season into the deal.

Again, and swiftly, the franchise has fallen on hard times since LeBron James’ second departure.

The remaining two teams in the Central are right on the bubble and have some work to do. All hope is not lost, but they will need a few breaks to go their way over these final weeks.

With those three out of the way, it’s time to dive deep into the divisional troublemakers.

The Chicago Bulls have had a disappointing season, but they also have dealt with a myriad of injuries. Now that the All-Star festivities have concluded, the city will see if their team can get back into the postseason with a little bit of luck. The Bulls are 19-36 on the season with 27 games remaining. Looking ahead, the numbers are fairly even as 14 of those games will be against teams .500 or better. Additionally, Chicago will also have 14 of those 27 games on their home floor.

Chicago has lost six straight games and is currently tenth in the Eastern Conference standings. worse, they must find a way to leapfrog the Orlando Magic and Washington Wizards. Both teams have a similar strength of schedule over the course of their remaining games. If the Bulls want to get back into the playoffs, they will have to finish tight games. Chicago has a winning percentage of 41.7 in close games this season, which ranks 22nd in the league.

Individually, Zach LaVine has been having an outstanding season. His 25.3 points and 4.8 rebounds per game are career highs — and his late-game execution has been remarkable, considering the defenses knowing exactly where the ball is going. His ability to penetrate, finish, or just pull up has kept Chicago afloat this season. Injuries to virtually every other player on the roster have had this team trying to dig their way out of a hole since early in the year.

Oddly enough, the offense has been the biggest issue in Chicago this season. The Bulls are 26th in offensive rating and rank 25th in the league in scoring. Their defense has actually been much better than most people realize as they rank inside the top half of the league in opponent scoring and defensive rating. Both Thaddeus Young and Kris Dunn have been catalysts on that end of the floor for Jim Boylen’s squad. If they crumble over this final stretch, it could be the end for the outspoken coach.

The Detroit Pistons have a little more work to do and they only have 25 games in which to do it. Detroit currently sits 12th in the conference with a 19-38 record. The most difficult obstacle in this challenge for the Pistons will be jumping over four teams to get there. Of their 25 remaining games, only 11 of them will be played at home in Little Caesars Arena.

A playoff appearance last season increased expectations for the Pistons this year, even with Blake Griffin’s injury in that first-round series. The thought was that he would be ready to go at the start of this season, but that didn’t happen. Unfortunately, he only made it 18 games before he had to have another round of surgery. Quickly, the season outlook changed for Dwane Casey’s team.

Drummond had a fantastic start to the season without Griffin and was put up his typically-monstrous numbers. With their outlook changing, Detroit traded the big man to Cleveland for all of John Henson, Brandon Knight and a second-round draft pick. Stranger, Derrick Rose has been Detroit’s best player by a wide margin. The resurgent point guard leads the team in points and assists  — and, further, did not want to be traded. Reggie Jackson returned to the lineup just before the break but just accepted a buyout so that he could join the Los Angeles Clippers.

Christian Wood has played very well and rookie Sekou Doumbouya emerged as a pleasant surprise for the Pistons, thankfully, so it’s not all doom and gloom. Bruce Brown continues to be one of the best young guards that no one talks about. Should Luke Kennard return to health and continue his progression, a return to the playoffs might be possible with a strong finish. Change must come swiftly, however, as Detroit has lost 10 of its last 12 games.

The real question here is if the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference is indeed worth pursuing. Should Chicago or Detroit earn the spot, a first-round exit is almost a certainty. The Bucks are arguably the best team in the league with the likely back-to-back MVP leading them. Obviously these division rivals know Milwaukee well and simply do not have an answer for them. Injuries can always play a factor in how these things turn out, but the owners would prefer to have the playoff revenue.

The other side of this would be getting into the lottery to improve their first-round draft pick. Normally this is weighed heavily by the organizations, but with the rules designed to prevent teams from tanking, that’ll be difficult to do so.

Making the playoffs is still something that most players would like to do, needless to say. Coaches definitely would prefer that route, of course, as their jobs are dependent on it. Looking at the two Central Division teams in the hunt though, both appear to be headed back to the lottery once again.

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Kristaps Porzingis Is Quietly Rounding Into Form

After disappointing early this season, Kristaps Porzingis is rounding into form with the Mavericks. How much does Luka Doncic’s absence factor into his improved recent play?

Jack Winter

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The Dallas Mavericks are far ahead of schedule.

Just a single season removed from their worst finish since 1998-99, the Mavericks are already back in playoff position, poised for another decade of success despite the departure of Dirk Nowitzki. The chief means behind their rapid rebuild requires no explanation. Luka Doncic will almost surely finish top-five in MVP voting this season and has a convincing case as the league’s best 20-year-old of all-time. At this rate, it’s even only a matter of time until Doncic supplants Dirk Nowitzki as Dallas’ greatest player in franchise history.

But Doncic’s ankle-breaking step-back triples, dazzling finishes and ingenious all-court playmaking won’t lift the Mavericks to legitimate contention alone. The front office has done typically well rounding out the roster with solid, versatile contributors who fit snugly next to Doncic, while Rick Carlisle’s consistent ability to get the most from his bench assures Dallas of competence on which most teams can’t rely without their superstar. The Mavericks couldn’t have planned to rise up the Western Conference hierarchy quite so rapidly, but already possess the rough outlines of a team ready to compete for a title.

Smoothing those edges into surefire championship contention will be no easy task. Tim Hardaway Jr.’s evolution into a valuable role player could complicate Dallas’ plans to make a splash in free agency this summer. The team projects to have more cap space in 2021, but Mark Cuban understands the fickle unknown of free agency better than any owner in basketball after years of missing out on marquee, high-priced targets.

Luckily for the Mavericks, they aren’t necessarily looking to free agency or the trade market to find Doncic a worthy co-star. Swinging for the fences last year by bringing in Kristaps Porzingis afforded the luxury of building around a potentially elite tandem from the ground up.

It’s no secret that Porzingis’ acclimation to the Mavericks, not to mention the court after spending a year-and-a-half off it while recovering from a torn ACL, is ongoing. Dallas’ plus-5.9 net rating with that pair on the floor is solid, far better than the team’s season-low mark after trudging into the All-Star break by losing four of its last six games. Still, there’s no getting around the fact that the Mavericks have fared far better with just one of Porzingis or Doncic on the floor despite their seemingly symbiotic offensive fit.

Dallas outscores opponents by 10 points per 100 possessions when Doncic plays without Porzingis, a feather in his MVP cap. The Mavericks’ plus-8.9 net rating when Porzingis plays without Doncic is almost equally strong, but the former hasn’t received near the praise bestowed on the latter for propping up similar lineups.

Even a multi-faceted big like Porzingis just can’t affect the game the way a maestro alpha dog like Doncic does. His abject struggles to punish smaller defenders on switches early in the season was a popular early-season talking point among national media — plus Carlisle’s December acknowledgment that Porzingis can better help his team by spacing the floor fueled that narrative further. Dallas didn’t sign Porzingis to a five-year, max-level extension before he ever donned a Mavericks uniform for him to shoot 34.5 percent on post-ups and 23.1 percent in isolation, per NBA.com/stats.

The Mavericks will always be best served with the ball in Doncic’s hands, but that hardly means they don’t need Porzingis to be much, much better than he’s been for the majority of this season when possessions devolve into one-on-one play. The good news? Recent evidence suggests Porzingis still has the goods to exist as that trump card, at least on a part-time basis.

With Doncic sidelined by a sprained right ankle for seven straight games early this month, Porzingis forcefully reminded the basketball world why optimists once considered him a potential MVP candidate in his own right. He dropped 38 points and 12 rebounds on the Houston Rockets, 38 and 12 on the Indiana Pacers and then 32 and 12 on the Memphis Grizzlies in successive appearances. After being limited against the Washington Wizards by a broken nose, he returned three days later to score 28 points on 17 field goal attempts against the Utah Jazz.

A five-game sample size is small, obviously, but the scope of Porzingis’ labors and the perception of his play in 2019-20 overall make his dominance without Doncic noteworthy regardless. He averaged 27.2 points and 10.2 rebounds over that brief stretch, shooting 50 percent from the field and 40.9 percent from deep on nearly nine three-point attempts per game.

But even without Doncic setting him up, Porzingis did most of his damage with help. Whether he was popping off screens or attacking overzealous close-outs off the dribble, he was still far more of a play finisher than starter — an indication of his limits as a true offensive fulcrum.

Where Porzingis’ play diverged from this season’s norm was his sudden propensity for drawing fouls. He took at least 10 free throws in just two games prior to Doncic going down, but surpassed that total versus Indiana, Memphis and Washington before attempting nine freebies against Utah. Porzingis lived at the line when Doncic returned to the lineup against the Sacramento Kings, too, connecting on 10-for-12 free throws during a 27-point outing.

Porzingis’ free throw rate now stands at .293, a hair off his mark during his breakout final season with the New York Knicks. Is that uptick and his recent scoring binge proof that Porzingis is merely getting more comfortable on the court two years removed from surgery? Or, rather, that the Latvian and Doncic still have work to do before reaching their ceiling as a duo?

The answer, obviously, lies somewhere in between. Porzingis’ rising production is what matters most — and should have the rest of the league extra wary of Dallas going forward – in both short and long-term futures.

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NBA Daily: The Stretch Run – Pacific Division

Matt John starts off Basketball Insiders’ The Stretch Run by taking a look at the Pacific Division franchises on the playoff bubble.

Matt John

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Well, well, well . . . we’re now entering the home stretch here, people. With the All-Star break nearing its end, the regular season stakes will intensify exponentially. The losses count for far more now than they did a month ago. The playoff seedings are starting to settle a bit and we’re starting to see a playoff bubble in our midst.

With that in mind, Basketball Insiders would like to introduce a new series titled The Stretch Run. In these pieces, we’ll be looking at the teams from each division to evaluate their ever-growing bubble and the chances of reaching the postseason. Keep in mind, of course, that this analysis is based on the standings as of now. Needless to say, a whole bunch can change in the 25-and-change games that are left.

Today we’re diving into the Pacific Division — or, otherwise known as the top-heavy division.

There are other top-heavy divisions in the NBA at the moment — just look at the Central — but the Pacific Division is the much polarizing of them all. The best teams in the division currently sport two of the top three records in the Western Conference. The other three? Unfortunately, they hold three of the four worst records in the Western Conference.

So let’s just get this out of the way: Neither Los Angeles-based team is on the bubble. Barring a major meltdown — which is not likely when you have the likes of LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis and Paul George on your squad — both the Lakers and the Clippers are most definitely making the playoffs.

There’s not much cause for concern since both are expected to make deep postseason runs — although you never know with injuries. At this point, however, the franchises may too deep to worry about breaking down, but it’s still worth mentioning. According to Tankathon as of Feb. 18, the Lakers and Clippers have two of the league’s 10 easiest schedules from here on out, so all that has gone well should end well.

As for their other Pacific Division compatriots, well, those three are obviously in different places.

Just to tie up any loose ends before diving in, the Golden State Warriors are out, too. And they’ve probably been out since the day Stephen Curry broke his hand. To recap: The Warriors have the worst record in the league; currently trail behind Memphis by 16.5 games for the No. 8 seed with 27 contests left; Curry’s not expected back until March at the earliest. Hell, when Klay Thompson will make his season debut? Or, better yet, who knows if Klay Thompson will make his season debut at all?

The postseason boat has sailed for the boys in the Bay Area. After back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back runs to the NBA Finals, the gang needed a chance to catch their breath. If Curry and Thompson both make it back before season’s end, we’ll get a brief glimpse of Golden State’s new big three plus Andrew Wiggins. That doesn’t breed excitement as much as it breeds intrigue.

Thanks to the updated lottery rules, Golden State can compete at full strength without endangering their odds. Even better, don’t forget that high pick in the upcoming 2020 NBA Draft. The perennial contenders may have had a downer season but, in the long run, this may have been the best route for them.

Therein lies the Phoenix Suns and Sacramento Kings. Any postseason hopes are dim but all hope is not lost. First off, although both combine for two of the four aforementioned worst records in the conference, take it with a major grain of salt. They are currently No. 12 and No. 13 in the conference but the Suns are behind the Portland Trail Blazers by only three games for ninth, while the Kings lag the Blazers by only half a game more.

The hard part, however, is that Phoenix and Sacramento are both well behind the Memphis Grizzlies for the No. 8 seed — 6.5 and 7 games, respectively.

Again, though, all hope is not lost for them. At least, not entirely as the Grizzlies will have the toughest schedule for the rest of the season. Out of their final 28 games, Memphis faces 16 teams over .500, while 18 of them are against tougher Western Conference foes. Getting past them is doable, but they would have to leapfrog Portland, San Antonio and New Orleans in the process.

But who is more likely to complete that feat?

If we’re comparing their strength of schedule, it’s Sacramento. The Kings have the 10th-easiest schedule from here on out. Even though they’re facing 18 Western Conference teams of their own over the last 28 games, only 13 are against those over .500.

Phoenix, by contrast, has the eighth-hardest remaining. They may have fewer games in which they face Western Conference opponents — which could work against them seeing how head-to-head record impacts conference standing — but they also play more teams over .500 than Sacramento (15).

The Suns have a half-game lead over the Kings, but the Kings have an easier path ahead opponent-wise.

Unfortunately for both, the franchise with the easiest schedule for the remainder of the season appears to be the young and frightening New Orleans Pelicans. The Pelicans are starting to look like the dangerous sleeper we all thought they’d be now that Zion Williamson has arrived.

Sadly, that could spell doom for the Suns’ and Kings’ playoff hopes,

Both teams have been decimated by player absences — and pretty much from the beginning too. Phoenix lost Deandre Ayton literally one game into the year due to a suspension. Sacramento ended up missing De’Aaron Fox for a long stretch because of an early ankle sprain.

And even though those were the most prominent injuries, they’ve dealt with several others as well. Aron Baynes hasn’t played in a month, while it may be a while longer before Richaun Holmes takes the court again. Even Marvin Bagley III has struggled to stay on the court for most of the season.

As for how they compare for how they’ve done, there’s more evidence supporting Phoenix as the better team between the two, but only slightly. Phoenix has both a better point differential — minus-1.2 to minus-2.9 — and net rating — minus-0.9 to minus-2.6 — than Sacramento does. The Suns are not in a league above the Kings in either area, but the statistical differences would show that the former has played marginally better.

In the end, Sacramento entered this season with much higher expectations following the franchise’s most productive effort since 2006. On the other hand, Phoenix came into this season with the same small-level outlook they’ve held for quite some time.

So even though the Suns have exceeded expectations and the Kings have fallen well short, the two sides find themselves virtually tied.

Given the deep holes they’ve dug themselves heading toward March, however, it seems more than likely that the Suns and Kings will be spending the playoffs from their couches.

At this point, both franchises are in a newly-found position of promise but that still does not guarantee a postseason berth. Despite the valiant efforts, Phoenix and Sacramento will have the same closing remark when the season closes out: Better luck next year.

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