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Now What? The Orlando Magic

Bobby Krivitsky examines what’s next for the Orlando Magic, who, at the trade deadline, moved on from a core group of players who led them to two consecutive trips to the postseason in hopes of launching a more successful rebuild.

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After two consecutive years of being the seventh or eighth seed in the Eastern Conference and quickly exiting the playoffs after an uncompetitive first-round series, the Orlando Magic broke up the core of those teams at this year’s trade deadline.

Gone are stalwarts like Nikola Vucevic, who became a two-time All-Star during his time in Orlando. The same goes for Aaron Gordon, a former fourth overall pick, who, for as valuable a role as he occupies, never developed into the player the Magic were hoping for when they drafted him. And while Evan Fournier’s game blossomed in Orlando, developing into one of the team’s leading scorers, at the deadline, the Magic moved on from him as well.

As difficult a decision as that may have been, doing so increased the odds of Orlando securing one of the top picks in this year’s draft. Since the trade deadline, the Magic are 3-14 with the second-worst record in the NBA. That has them on pace to be one of the three teams with the highest odds of getting the top pick in this year’s draft. Even if they don’t win the Cade Cunningham sweepstakes, they’d have a 52.1 percent chance of getting a top-four selection. Doing so would put them in a position to take one of this year’s other tantalizing top prospects, such as Jalen Suggs, Evan Mobley, or Jonathan Kuminga.

The moves the Magic made at the deadline have also improved the outlook on their future cap sheets. After this season, Vucevic still has two more years left on his deal at over $20 million each. Gordon’s owed $16.4 million next season and, after that, he’ll be an unrestricted free agent who won’t come cheap. Al-Farouq Aminu, who went to the Chicago Bulls with Vucevic, is scheduled to make $10.2 million next season. Sure, Gary Harris Jr., who Orlando acquired in the deal that sent Gordon to the Denver Nuggets, is on the Magic’s books for $20.5 million next season, but it remains true that the moves they made have cleared future cap space that can aid their rebuilding efforts.

The third feat the Magic accomplished at the trade deadline was acquiring multiple young players the franchise finds intriguing. Wendell Carter Jr. was selected one pick after Mo Bamba in 2018 and began his career by displaying the two-way impact that made the former Duke Blue Devil one of the top centers in his draft class. However, thanks in part due to injuries, Carter’s career has gotten off track. Still, he turned 22-years-old this month and he’s under contract for next season, giving the Magic more than merely a brief opportunity to see if they can help him grow into their center of the future. Carter’s presence could also light a spark under Bamba.

Then, there’s R.J. Hampton. After playing 25 games with the Nuggets, the 24th overall pick in this year’s draft has nearly matched that figure since relocating to Orlando. In his 16 games with the Magic, Hampton’s averaging 9.2 points, 3.8 rebounds, 1.6 assists and nearly a steal per game while shooting 50 percent from inside the arc on 5.9 two-point attempts per game. He’s come off the bench in all but one game for Orlando and that figures to be the case next season. But given his first-step quickness and body control, as a raw talent who turned 20 in February, he offers intriguing upside, especially if he ever turns into a shooter defenders have to respect from beyond the arc.

Like with Carter and Bamba, Hampton’s competing for minutes with a fellow first-round pick from his draft class in Cole Anthony. The former North Carolina Tar Heel’s struggling to find his shooting touch in his first NBA season, connecting on just 31.7 percent of his three-point attempts and 39 percent of all of his field goals. Still, he’s found ways to average nearly 12 points per game while also contributing 4.5 rebounds and 4.4 assists. While Anthony’s started the majority of the games he’s played in, he may ultimately prove more valuable coming off the bench. The Magic don’t have to choose between Hampton and Anthony this offseason but, if neither player improves from beyond the arc or seizes control of a starting spot in Orlando’s backcourt, the Magic will probably be better off trading one of them.

Then there’s the case of Markelle Fultz. On the eve of the regular season, the Magic signed him to a three-year $50 million contract. The hope was that his growth would combine with the team’s continuity to push them higher up the standings this season. The boost Orlando’s offense got from his court vision and playmaking were reasons to be optimistic about that coming to fruition. However, eight games into the 2020-21 campaign, Fultz tore the ACL in his left knee, bringing an abrupt end to his second season with the Magic. Fultz turns 23 in May, so time is on his side, but he’s only played in 121 games the last four seasons, excluding exhibition and Summer League contests. Even with his innate feel for the game, missing that much time during critical years in his development will make it hard for him to live up to his new contract.

Injuries have also plagued Jonathan Isaac. Since Orlando made him the sixth pick in the 2017 draft, he’s missed 162 regular-season games and played in 136. When Isaac’s on the floor, he can be an elite defender with the versatility to switch in most instances. But because he’s been more likely to be in street clothes than in uniform, Isaac remains raw offensively. He shot 34 percent from beyond the arc last season. If he can become a reliable spot-up shooter who can space the floor and work as a dynamic pick-and-roll partner who can produce points diving to the rim and popping behind the three-point line, he’ll provide considerable value on both ends. That’s a development that would make him a foundational building block for the Magic moving forward. 

Another promising prospect in Orlando’s frontcourt is Chuma Okeke. He sat out last season while recovering from an ACL tear he suffered in college, but the rookie forward’s demonstrating more of an offensive feel for the game than the majority of the Magic’s first-round picks of the last decade. Like Isaac, Okeke’s best suited to play the four, but as long as the former’s healthy next season, Orlando will be able to see how effectively they play alongside each other. Isaac’s defensive versatility and Okeke’s ability to make the game easier for his teammates offensively could allow them to work well together.

As the Magic embark on their rebuild, they’re going to need veteran leaders to help guide the team’s younger players. That’s why it’s in their best interest to re-sign Terrence Ross. He’s spent five seasons in Orlando and helped them end a six-year playoff drought. However, he’s still an effective scorer who can produce points in bunches, so he may not want to stick around for a rebuild.

The Magic’s rebuild began at the trade deadline and the draft is of critical importance to their future outlook. Luckily, they’re in a position to get a top prospect. Unfortunately for them, there are too many instances where that hasn’t worked out. But they moved on from a core group of players who were beloved by their fans and could get counted on to reach the postseason so they could reinvigorate the franchise and build a team that can go further in the playoffs. To accomplish that, it’s paramount they draft based on who’s the best player available rather than emphasizing who fits in with their current roster. They don’t have anyone who’s established themselves as a foundational player.

Lastly, the Magic need to ask themselves how far removed they are from becoming an attractive destination to marquee free agents. It’s happened in the past with Tracy McGrady and Grant Hill. And they nearly landed Tim Duncan. They’re in a warm climate and there’s no state income tax, top-tier free agents have taken their talents to Orlando before and it can happen again. For that to happen, the culture needs to be appealing, they’ll need promising players and it may require having the necessary cap space to bring in a star tandem. They can accomplish each of those tasks and the moves they made at the deadline are a step in that direction. But it’s much easier to tear something down. Now, it’s time for the most challenging parts of launching a rebuild that’s more successful than what they’ve done the last two years.

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NBA Daily: Examining Michael Porter Jr.’s Ascension

Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. is averaging over 25 points per game and looks like a future All-NBA player. Bobby Krivitsky examines Porter’s ascent and the questions that come with it.

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Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. has taken his game to new heights.

In the wake of Murray’s ACL tear in mid-April, Porter’s playing time has gone from 30.6 minutes per contest to 35.7, while his shots per game have risen from 12.6 per game to 16.5. The increased responsibility has fueled his ascent. He’s knocking down 56.3 percent of those attempts. He’s taking 8.2 threes per game and making a blistering 50 percent of them. As a result, Porter’s gone from averaging 17.5 points per game to 25.1. He’s also grabbing 6.1 rebounds and blocking almost one shot per contest.

At the time of Murray’s injury, the Denver Nuggets were in fourth place in the Western Conference. They remain there now, 9-4 in his absence, and they boast the eighth-highest net rating in the NBA.

The only way for the Nuggets to fall from fourth would be if they lost their four remaining games and the Dallas Mavericks won their final five contests because the Mavericks have the tiebreaker since they won the season series. On the more realistic end of the spectrum, Denver sits just 1.5 games back of the Los Angeles Clippers, who occupy the third seed in the West. The Nuggets won their season series against the Clippers, meaning they’d finish in third if the two teams ended the regular season with the same record.

There’s a bevy of questions surrounding Porter’s recent play that need to be asked but cannot get answered at the moment. That starts with whether this is anything more than a hot streak. While it’s impossible to say definitively, it’s reasonable to believe Porter can consistently and efficiently produce about 25 points per game. He was the second-ranked high school prospect in 2017 and entered his freshman year at Missouri firmly in the mix for the top pick in the 2018 NBA draft. That was thanks in large part to his offensive prowess as a 6-10 wing with a smooth shot that’s nearly impossible to block because of the elevation he gets when he shoots. 

A back injury cost him all but 53 minutes of his collegiate career and caused him to fall to the 14th pick in the draft. He ended up in an ideal landing spot, going to a well-run organization that’s also well aware of its barren track record luring star players looking to change teams, making it vital for the Nuggets to hit on their draft picks. 

Porter’s first year in the NBA was exclusively dedicated to the rehab process and doing everything possible to ensure he can have a long, healthy and productive career. Last season, finally getting a chance to play, he showed off the tantalizing talent that made him a top prospect but only took seven shots per game while trying to fit in alongside Nikola Jokic, Murray, Paul Millsap and Jerami Grant.

More experience, including battling against the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, an offseason, albeit a truncated one, to prepare for a more substantial role with Grant joining the Detroit Pistons and Millsap turning 36 this year, helped propel Porter. 

But for the Nuggets, before Murray’s injury, the perception was that even though they weren’t the favorites to come out of the Western Conference, they were a legitimate title contender. How far can they go if Porter’s consistently contributing about 25 points and over six rebounds per game while effectively playing the role of a second star alongside Jokic? 

It seems fair to cross Denver off the list of title contenders. But, if Porter continues to capably play the role of a second star alongside Jokic when doing so becomes more challenging in the postseason, the Nuggets can advance past a team like the Mavericks or Portland Trail Blazers. And at a minimum, they’d have the ability to make life difficult for whoever they had to face in the second round of the playoffs.

Unfortunately, the timing of Murray’s ACL tear, which happened in mid-April, means there’s a legitimate possibility he misses all of next season. Denver’s increased reliance on Porter is already allowing a young player with All-NBA potential to take on a role that’s closer to the one he’s assumed his whole life before making it to the sport’s highest level. If the Nuggets are counting on him to be the second-best player on a highly competitive team in the Western Conference next season, it’ll be fascinating to see what heights he reaches and how far they’re able to go as a team.

Theoretically, Porter’s growth could make it difficult for Denver to reacclimate Murray. But given Jokic’s unselfish style of play, there’s room for both of them to be satisfied by the volume of shots they’re getting. Unfortunately, the Nuggets have to wait, potentially another season, but Jokic is 26-years-old, Murray 24, Porter 22. When Denver has their Big Three back together, they could be far more potent while still being able to enjoy a lengthy run as legitimate title contenders.

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NBA Daily: D’Angelo Russell Back on Track

D’Angelo Russell lost much of the 2020-21 season to injury. Drew Maresca explains why his return will surprise people around the league.

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D’Angelo Russell was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves last February, just before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the entire season. But we’ve yet to see what Russell can really do in Minnesota.

The Timberwolves acquired Russell in late February in exchange for a future first-round pick – which transitions this season if they pick later than third – a 2021 second-round pick and Andrew Wiggins.

Sidenote: For those keeping score at home, the Timberwolves currently have the third-worst record in the league with five games remaining. It would behoove Minnesota to lose as many of their remaining games as possible to keep their 2021 pick. If the pick does not transition this season, it becomes unrestricted in 2020.

Trying to turn an owed pick into an unprotected future first is usually the wrong move; but in this instance, it’s better to keep the high first-rounder this year with an understanding that your 2022 pick will probably fall in or around the middle of the lottery.

The thinking around the deal was that Minnesota could qualify for the playoffs as soon as this season by swapping Wiggins’ contract for a young, talented lead guard in Russell. It has not played out as planned.

COVID resulted in a play stoppage shortly after the deal, robbing Russell of the opportunity to ramp up with his new team. When the NBA returned to finish the 2019-20 season, the Timberwolves failed to qualify for bubble play – and considering the US was still battling a global pandemic, Russell couldn’t easily practice with his new teammates and/or coaches.

The 2020-21 season began weirdly, too. The NBA proceeded with an abbreviated training camp and preseason. And while this impacted all teams, Russell was additionally hindered by the decision.

Ready or not, the season began. In 2020-21, Russell is averaging a near-career low in minutes per game (28.2) across just 36 games. He’s tallying 19.1 points per game on 43.6% shooting and a career-best 38.8% on three-point attempts. He’s also he’s posting a near career-best assist-to-turnover ratio (5.7 to 2.8).

Despite Russell’s contributions, the Timberwolves have failed to meet expectations. Far from the playoff squad they hoped to be, Minnesota is in contention for the top pick in this year’s draft. So what has gone wrong in Minneapolis?

Russell’s setbacks are fairly obvious. In addition to the lack of preparation with his teammates and coaches, Russell was diagnosed with a “loose body” in his knee, requiring arthroscopic knee surgery in February. As a result, he missed 27 consecutive games. Russell returned on April 5, but head coach Chris Finch revealed that he’d been on a minutes restriction until just recently.

Minnesota is clearly being cautious with Russell. Upon closer review, Russell has been restricted to under 30 minutes per game in all of his first 10 games back. Since then, Russell is averaging 31 minutes per game including an encouraging 37 minutes on May 5 in a four-point loss to Memphis.

Since returning from knee surgery, Russell is averaging 27 minutes per game across 16 games. Despite starting 19 of the team’s first 20 games, he hadn’t started in any game since returning – until Wednesday.

On the whole, Russell’s impact is about the same as it was prior to the injury, which should be encouraging to Timberwolves’ fans. He’s scoring slightly less (18.8 points since returning vs. 19.3 prior), shooting better from the field (44.9% since returning vs 42.6%% prior) and has been just slightly worse from three-point range (37.4% since vs. 39.9 prior). He’s dishing out more assists per game (6.5 since vs. 5.1 prior), too, and he posted three double-digit assist games in his last five contents – a feat achieved only once all season prior to his last five games.

Despite playing more and dropping more dimes, there’s still room to improve. Looking back to his career-bests, Russell averaged 23.1 points per game in 2019-20 in 33 games with Golden State (23.6) and 12 games with Minnesota (21.7).

But his most impactful season came in 2018-19 with the Brooklyn Nets. That season, Russell averaged 21.1 points and 7.0 assists per game, leading the Nets to the playoffs and earning his first trip to the All-Star game. He looked incredibly comfortable, playing with supreme confidence and flashing the ability to lead a playoff team.

At his best, Russell is a dynamic playmaker. The beauty of Russell is that he can also play off the ball. He has a quick release on his jumper and impressive range. His game is not predicated on athleticism, meaning he should stay at his peak for longer than guys like De’Aaron Fox and Ja Morant.

And while he’s been in the league for what feels like ever (six seasons), Russell just turned 25 approximately two months ago. Granted, comparing anyone to Steph Curry is unwise, but Curry wasn’t Steph Curry yet at 25. Former MVP Steve Nash hadn’t yet averaged double-digits (points) at 25. Twenty-five is also an inflection point for Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook. And the list goes on.

To be fair, Russell was drafted at 19 so he’s more acclimated to the league at this age than most, but his game will continue expanding nonetheless. He’ll develop trickier moves, become stronger and grow his shooting range. And a good deal of that growth should be evident as soon as next season since he’ll be fully healed from knee surgery and have a full offseason and training camp to finally work with teammates and coaches.

So while Minnesota’s 2020-21 season was incredibly bleak, their future is quite bright – and much of it has to do with the presence of Russell.

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NBA AM: Is This It for Indiana?

Following their major drop-off, Matt John explains why the Pacers trying to get back to where they were may not be the best decision.

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Remember when, following the maligned trade of Paul George, the sky was the limit for the Indiana Pacers? The 2017-18 Pacers were one of the best stories in the NBA that season because they made their opponents work for their victories, and they put on a spectacle every night.

It’s hard to believe that all transpired three whole years ago. When Cleveland eliminated Indiana in a very tight first-round series, I asked if having the exciting season that they did – when many thought it would turn out the opposite – was going to benefit them in the long run. Three years later, this happens.

We were getting plenty of smoke about the Pacers’ drama behind-the-scenes beforehand, and now, we have seen the fire firsthand. More and more reports indicate that the crap has hit the fan. Indiana has seemingly already had enough of Nate Bjorkgren in only his first year as his coach. When you see the results they’ve had this season compared to the last three, it’s not hard to see why.

The Pacers have routinely found themselves in the 4-5 playoff matchup for the last three years. Sadly, despite their fight – and, to be fair, they had pretty awful injury luck the past two postseasons – they haven’t been able to get over the hump in the first round. They may not have been in the elite tier, but they weren’t slouches either. So, seeing them not only fail to take the next step but look more and more likely for the play-in is as discouraging as it gets. Especially after they started the season 6-2.

If these reports about the tensions between the players and Bjorkgren are real, then this has already become a lost season for the Pacers. It’s too late in the season to make any major personnel changes. At this point, their best route is just to cut their losses and wait until this summer to think over what the next move is.

In that case, let’s take a deep breath. This has been a weird season for everyone. Every aspect minus the playoffs has been shorter than usual since last October. Everything was shortened from the offseason to the regular season. Oh, and COVID-19 has played a role as the season has turned out, although COVID-19 has probably been the least of Indy’s problems. Let’s think about what next season would look like for Indiana.

TJ Warren comes back with a clean bill of health. Caris Levert gets more acquainted with the team and how they run. Who knows? Maybe they finally resolve the Myles Turner-Domantas Sabonis situation once and for all. A new coach can come aboard to steady the ship, and it already looks like they have an idea for who that’s going to be

Should they run it back, there’s a solid chance they can get back to where they were before. But that’s sort of the problem to begin with. Even if this recent Pacers’ season turns out to be just a negative outlier, their ceiling isn’t all too high anyway. A team that consists of Warren, Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon, and Caris Levert as their core four is a solid playoff team. Having Turner, Doug McDermott, TJ McConnell, Jeremy Lamb, and the Holiday brothers rounds out a solid playoff team. Anyone who takes a good look at this roster knows that this roster is a good one. It’s not great though.

Just to be clear, Indiana has plenty of ingredients for a championship team. They just don’t have the main one: The franchise player. Once upon a time, it looked like that may have been Oladipo, but a cruel twist of fate took that all away. This isn’t a shot at any of the quality players they have on their roster, but think of it this way.

For the next couple of years, they’re going to go up against Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving. All of whom are on the same team. For potentially even longer, they’ll be going up against the likes of Giannis Antetoukounmpo, Joel Embiid, and Jayson Tatum. With the roster they have, they could make a series interesting against any one of those teams. However, it’s a rule of thumb in the NBA that the team with the best player usually wins the series. Not to mention, they’d have to beat most of the teams those players play for to go on a substantial playoff run. That’s a pretty tall order.

There’s no joy in talking about the Pacers like this because they have built this overachieving underdog from nothing more than shrewd executive work. They turned a disgruntled and expiring Paul George into Oladipo and Sabonis. Both of whom have since become two-time all-stars (and counting). They then managed to turn an expiring and hobbled Oladipo – who had no plans to return to Indiana – into the electric Levert. They also pretty much stole Brogdon and Warren away while paying very little for either of them.

That is fantastic work. The only hangup is that, as of now, it just doesn’t seem like it will be enough. But, doubt and skepticism are things Indiana’s had thrown their way consistently since 2017. Many thought their approach to trading Paul George would blow up in their face, and since then, they’ve done everything in their power to make everyone eat their words.

Kevin Pritchard’s got his work cut out for him this summer. This season will hopefully turn out to be nothing more than performance ruined by both the wrong coaching hire and an unusual season that produced negatively skewed results. But at this point, Pritchard’s upcoming course of action this summer shouldn’t be about getting his team back to where they were, but deciding whether he can get them a step or two further than that by adding more to what they have or starting over completely.

Indiana’s had a rough go of it in this COVID-shortened season, but their disappointing play may have little to no bearing on where they go from here.

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