In Basketball Insiders’ latest podcast from the weekend, one topic discussed was teams that must make the playoffs this season. Many factors played a role in this discussion, such as roster moves that were made with the playoffs in mind and teams that feature talented players.
Teams like the New York Knicks, Chicago Bulls and Washington Wizards were thrown around as teams that must make the playoffs this season. With the Knicks adding a lot of veteran players, the team has gone all in with their roster in order to make the playoffs now.
The Bulls added veteran players in Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo with the intent of remaining competitive in the Eastern Conference. The Wizards are an interesting read heading into this season given their recent additions of Jason Smith, Andrew Nicholson, Ian Mahinmi, Trey Burke and others. With John Wall putting up career numbers and with Bradley Beal set to return, do they have enough to compete?
Another team mentioned in the podcast was the Orlando Magic. The team was extremely active this summer in free agency and took full advantage of the rising salary. A number of their moves came with some questions — it still seems unclear at this time how everything will eventually come together.
The team may have caught a blessing in disguise at the beginning of the summer, when former head coach Scott Skiles announced somewhat suddenly that he was resigning from the position. Orlando moved quickly and named Frank Vogel as head coach, which is a great addition on the surface considering the success Vogel experienced with the Indiana Pacers.
In the weeks leading up to the start of the offseason, Vogel and the Magic remained extremely confident in their vision. Vogel said numerous times during his introductory press conference in May that he believes the team will be successful this season and will make the playoffs. He mentioned the team’s pitch to prospective free agents would include winning expectations right away.
On draft night, the team traded away fan favorite Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova and the rights to Domantas Sabonis to the Oklahoma City Thunder in exchange for Serge Ibaka. Looking back on that trade now, the move seemed to be the first of many intended to help the team win now and solidify their place in the playoff race.
In addition to the trade, the Magic signed Bismack Biyombo, Jeff Green and D.J. Augustin in free agency and also re-signed restricted free agent Evan Fournier. They committed a lot of money to players in free agency, something the team hasn’t done to this extent since beginning their current rebuild four years ago.
As head coach of the Pacers for five full seasons, Vogel’s teams performed exceptionally well on the defensive end. During his time in Indiana, he proved able to get the most out of his players. In each of Vogel’s five years on the job, the Pacers finished inside the league’s top 10 in defensive efficiency, including two seasons with the top-ranked defensive unit.
Looking at the moves the Magic made during this offseason, it seems as though each were made with defense in mind. Ibaka is as accomplished as they come defensively, a three-time NBA All-Defensive First Team Player who led the league in total blocks four straight times before finishing fourth during the 2014-15 season and third last season.
Biyombo stepped up in a big way on the game’s biggest stage last season during the postseason for the Toronto Raptors. While he averaged just 6.4 points, 9.4 rebounds and 1.4 blocks in 20 postseason games, it was his time as a starter that helped earn Biyombo a four-year, $72 million deal with the Magic. He set a Raptors playoff record with 26 rebounds in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers, while also adding seven points and four blocks.
In addition to Ibaka and Biyombo, the team has other defensive-minded players in Elfrid Payton and Aaron Gordon on the roster. They’re hoping that Ibaka, Biyombo, Payton and Gordon can help anchor the team to another top-10 defense under Vogel.
Given the team’s activity level this summer, it seems as though a playoff-or-bust type of mentality is present in Orlando heading into this season. It began with Vogel’s comments stating the team will make the postseason, and it continued with the money they committed in free agency. Teams simply don’t hand out long-term money like that without lofty expectations.
Brass in Orlando has created a top-down culture with the playoffs as the ultimate goal. The front office certainly believes they can win, and the players are beginning to buy in as well. It seems as though everyone is on the same page and ready to end the longest playoff drought in franchise history.
“We are a playoff team,” Gordon told our own Alex Kennedy last week in a Q&A. “I haven’t stepped foot in the gym with everyone yet, but just through our text messages and calls, [the playoffs are] where everybody’s mindset is at. They’re ready, and I’m ready as well. Really, we have to play present. We need to take each game and play it like it’s our last. If we do that, we’re going to have a very successful season.”
With so many defensive-minded players on the roster, there are questions with how the offense will come together. The team still didn’t address its need for a star player who can be counted on in crunch time, and their leading scorer last year was center Nikola Vucevic, who averaged 18.2 points per game.
While Vucevic has demonstrated that he is one of the league’s best offensive centers, can he lead the Magic again? Fournier is arguably the team’s best all-around offensive player now, but hasn’t yet averaged over 15.4 points per game during his short career. Ibaka and Green have proven to be solid scorers during their careers, but it still remains to be seen who will be the top scorer next season — and whether the team as a whole will have enough offensive punch.
While Orlando feels as though they’ve upgraded the roster as best as they can to make the playoffs, it’s clear that there is still plenty to figure out before they can reach that point. The pressure is mounting on this young Magic team to take the next step in their development, even if it doesn’t seem at all likely that Vogel is coaching with any looming expectation in his first year.
From a national standpoint, the playoffs may seem out of the question for the Magic. It’s clear, though, that they’re very much in play within the organization.
Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal
The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.
It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.
Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.
There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.
Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.
Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.
That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.
Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.
At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.
It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.
One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.
NBA Saturday: Jabari Bird Experiences The NBA Whirlwind
Jabari Bird entered a hostile environment Friday night after being on his couch just three days before.
When Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending injury six minutes into the Boston Celtics’ season on Wednesday, he wasn’t the only player who saw his season changed in the blink of an eye.
“I was at home in California watching the game as a fan,” Jabari Bird said.
Bird was the 56th overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft. After playing his college ball at the University of California, the Celtics gave the 6-foot-6 swingman a shot to continue his career. After impressing throughout the preseason, Bird was signed to a two-way contract with Boston and returned home to the west coast.
That didn’t last long.
“After the game was over my phone was going off that I had to get on the quickest flight to Boston,” Bird said about opening night. “Got in 7:30 the next morning, suited up against Milwaukee, now I’m here in Philly.”
With the massive hole Hayward left in Boston’s roster due to his injury, the Celtics are going to have to turn to some unlikely performers throughout the season to pick up the slack. Bird didn’t light up the scoreboard or stuff his stat sheet, posting just three points and one rebound in 13 minutes of play. But down the stretch in a close game against the Philadelphia 76ers Friday night, Bird came up big on defense.
As the Celtics trailed the Sixers 61-53 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Bird subbed in for Jaylen Brown and was tasked with guarding J.J. Redick, who was in the midst of carrying Philadelphia with his lights out shooting.
After wiping away the Sixers lead and gaining an 86-84 advantage in the fourth quarter, the Celtics still had Bird sticking Redick. The Sixers’ shooting guard — and highest paid player — rose up for another three-point attempt which would’ve given Philadelphia a late lead and a momentum shift at home with a raucous crowd behind them. Only this time, Bird’s hand was in his face and the shot attempt didn’t find the back of the net.
In a big-time moment on the road, for a team facing a potential three-game losing streak to start the season, the unlikely rookie answered the call.
“Like I said before, he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA, really good perimeter scorer,” Bird said of Redick. “For the team to trust me with that responsibility, with us being down on the road needing to get a win, I was hyped up and ready to go. I was ready for the challenge.”
Placing such a responsibility like guarding Redick on a night where it seemed like the Sixers marksman couldn’t miss on a player who was sitting on his couch three nights ago seems like a bold strategy. Head coach Brad Stevens, however, knew what he was doing.
“All the way through preseason and training camp I felt like he was one of our better perimeter defenders,” Stevens said. “I think he has huge upside. His rebounding spoke for itself in preseason practices. His ability to guard off the ball, especially shooters coming off screens is just really good. He’s not afraid, and you knew he’d step up.”
Going from the couch to a red-eye flight from California to Boston, to the bench in Milwaukee, to the court in Philadelphia is nothing short of a whirlwind experience. With such a series of events, it’s hard to be coached into that moment. As a player, sometimes you have to just go out and play.
“I wasn’t prepared at all for tonight. Mentally I just had to lock into the game,” Bird said. “Coach just looked at me and said ‘Bird get Jaylen.’ ‘Alright.’ So that’s what I did.”
After signing Hayward to $127 million contract this summer, the Celtics were expecting the small forward to provide an elite scoring 1-2 scoring punch with Kyrie Irving. Obviously, at least for this season, Boston will need to move forward without that possibility. An opening night loss, followed by another defeat to Milwaukee the following night, had the Celtics 0-2 heading into Philadelphia and searching for answers a lot sooner than they may have anticipated just a week ago.
Bird’s journey during his first week in professional basketball represents how quickly things can change, and how the ripple effects of injuries and other moves have far outreaching waves.
“I was already packed, I was ready to go to the G-League,” Bird said. “We had training camp coming up. My bags were already packed, I was ready to get out the house. Then I got the call to go to Boston and I was like alright I’m ready to go, just gimmie a flight. And that’s what happened.”
All-star point guard, and Bird’s new teammate, Kyrie Irving doesn’t foresee the rookie leaving the clubhouse anytime soon. With the adversity the Boston Celtics have felt in the first week of the 2017-18 season, Bird’s addition and impact are a prime example of being ready when your number is called, and the culture this team is looking to create.
“Jabari is now probably gonna be on every trip with us,” Irving said. “Guys are gonna be called up and called upon to be ready to play. We just have to have that expectation that when we come into the game we’re gonna be able to play, and we trust one another and have each other’s backs.”
Mavs Guard Devin Harris on Personal Leave from Team
Guard Devin Harris will take an indefinite leave from the Dallas Mavericks after the tragic death of his brother, Bruce.
“I was with him yesterday and just encouraged him that when he’s ready to come on back,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I don’t know when that will be. He can take as long as he needs.”
Source: Tim MacMahon of ESPN