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Orlando Magic 2016-17 Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the Orlando Magic’s 2016-17 season.

Basketball Insiders

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Last season, the Orlando Magic entered the 2015-16 campaign with increased expectations. For the first time in recent memory, making the playoffs didn’t seem out of the question. The Magic had a new head coach in Scott Skiles, and the organization expected to take the next step in their development.

While posting 35 wins was an improvement from recent years, Orlando fell apart during the new year. The team was in fourth place in the Eastern Conference heading into 2016, but a 2-12 record in January quickly dropped the Magic down the standings and, eventually, they fell out of the playoff race.

After an active offseason that featured plenty of player movement and another coaching search due to Skiles’ resignation, the Magic are hoping to end their four-year playoff drought and return to the postseason under new head coach Frank Vogel.

Basketball Insiders previews the Orlando Magic’s 2016-17 season.

FIVE GUYS THINK

Giving up Victor Oladipo and a lottery pick for Serge Ibaka is forgivable, but turning around and spending $72 million on Bismack Biyombo immediately after that trade is considerably less so. With those moves, the Magic now have one of the deeper (and more confusing) frontcourt rotations in the league, which is great for their ability to defend the paint with some elite shot-blockers, but it hasn’t left the team with anybody capable of actually creating some meaningful offense. Elfrid Payton is the team’s projected starting point guard, but he can’t shoot. Evan Fournier and Jodie Meeks both can pour it in, but neither is known for dominant one-on-one offense. There are going to be many low-scoring games in Central Florida this season, which means it could be another long one for Magic fans.

4th Place – Southeast Division

– Joel Brigham

The Magic spent years after Dwight Howard’s exit sticking to a patient approach to rebuilding their roster. The team was seemingly content building through the draft, letting the youngsters develop and avoiding big free agency expenditures, but the team abruptly changed course this summer. Orlando opened up the piggybank and was active during free agency to bring in veterans Bismack Biyombo, Jeff Green and D.J. Augustin while also trading for defensive-minded forward Serge Ibaka. There’s no question the team has gotten better defensively, which has sort of become new head coach Frank Vogel’s calling card. Offensively, the Magic lack a true go-to scorer when things get tight late in games and this will be the primary source of the team’s struggles to get over the hump.

5th Place – Southeast Division

– Lang Greene

Based on what Frank Vogel was able to get out of the Indiana Pacers over the course of his time there, I think that the young core in Orlando has a capable leader. I like a lot of the pieces on the team and think that Vogel is a capable taskmaster, but it’s the front office that I question. Let’s not forget that the Magic very recently traded the promising Tobias Harris for Brandon Jennings and Ersan Ilyasova. Jennings has since departed for New York, while the Magic packaged Ilyasova with Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis in the Serge Ibaka trade. On paper, you could argue that could be a good trade, but then you can’t help but to question why the Magic signed Bismack Biyombo to a huge deal right after that. Adding those two to Nikola Vucevic and Jeff Green (who was also signed this summer) just leaves me very confused as to just what these guys are doing. I love a lot of the young players in Orlando, but I get the sense that this season is going to be more about figuring who is there to stay and how Vogel will coach these guys than it will be about getting the Magic to the playoffs for the first time since 2012.

4th Place – Southeast Division

– Moke Hamilton

The Magic had an interesting offseason to say the least. Former head coach Scott Skiles unexpectedly resigned and was replaced shortly thereafter by former Indiana Pacers head coach Frank Vogel. The Magic later traded Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova and the rights to Domantas Sabonis to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Serge Ibaka, signed Jeff Green to a one-year, $15 million contract and Bismack Biyombo to a four-year, $72 million contract. They also re-signed Evan Fournier to a five-year, $85 million deal. Giving up Oladipo and Sabonis is a steep price tag for Ibaka, who has declined in recent seasons and could leave after the upcoming year as an unrestricted free agent. The signing of Green is surprising as well considering his skill overlaps talent already on the roster. Additionally, while I like the defensive impact Biyombo can add to the Magic, his contract is pretty hefty (even with the inflated salary cap) considering his limited track record. The Magic seemed to be continuing down the path of auctioning off the young talent they’ve compiled to bring in veterans that can help them compete for a playoff berth now. While I think they have sold low on that talent (see the Tobias Harris trade), I do like the hiring of Vogel. If Vogel can turn this team into a strong defensive unit (something Ibaka and Biyombo should help with), that may help this team turn things around sooner than expected. I like the young talent Orlando assembled in recent years, I just don’t love the deals they’ve made recently to bring in veterans that don’t move the needle enough to compete for anything other than a low-seed playoff berth.

4th Place – Southeast Division

– Jesse Blancarte

While I’m curious to see how Serge Ibaka fits with this Magic squad, I’m also excited to watch Aaron Gordon’s continued development. I interviewed Gordon last week and he made it clear that he expects to play a much bigger role under new head coach Frank Vogel. He has been working really hard this offseason and seems poised for a breakout third season. With the Vogel hire, talented veteran additions and more experience for their young core, the Magic should take a significant step forward this year. With that said, if the Magic lose Ibaka to free agency after this season, the front office will be criticized (and deservedly so) for dealing away Victor Oladipo and lottery selection Domantas Sabonis for a one-year rental who, at best, makes them a fringe playoff team.

4th Place – Southeast Division

– Alex Kennedy

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Evan Fournier

After parting ways with Victor Oladipo, Fournier steps in as the team’s best offensive weapon given everything that he can do. Although it was center Nikola Vucevic who led the team in scoring last season, expect Fournier to take over as the team’s top offensive player. Last year was the most productive of Fournier’s four-year NBA career, as he averaged a career-high 15.4 points, 2.8 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.2 steals per game. Fournier led the Magic in scoring 19 times and 24 outings with 20 or more points (including two 30-point efforts). He can finish at the rim and create his own shot. Like Manu Ginobili, his Eurostep remains one of his most effective moves. He averaged 5.7 drives per game last season, which ranked inside the top 50 in the league. He also figures to be one of the team’s best shooters next season; last year, he knocked down 40 percent of his three-point shot attempts, which was tied for 21st among qualified players.

Top Defensive Player: Serge Ibaka

There is no question who Orlando’s best defender will be this season. The team desperately wanted to add a defensive-minded big man next to Vucevic in the starting lineup and that’s what they’re getting in Ibaka. The reaction to the trade that brought Ibaka to the Magic was a bit mixed, as some believe Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova and the rights to No. 11 overall pick Donatas Sabonis was too much to give up for Ibaka since he’ll be an unrestricted free agent next summer. However, it’s clear that the Magic love Ibaka’s game and feel he can take them to the next level. He has been selected to three All-Defensive First Teams and has led the league in total blocks four times. Ibaka is a great rim protector, which is exactly what the Magic have needed since Dwight Howard left town. Ibaka held opponents to 43.6 percent shooting at the rim last year, which ranked among the best in the league. His 1.9 blocks per game ranked seventh in the NBA and he was third in total blocks with 148. The Magic haven’t had a player average more than 1.5 blocks per game since Howard in 2011, so Ibaka gives them a much-needed interior defender.

Top Playmaker: Elfrid Payton

As the team’s point guard, Payton is our pick for top playmaker. He is the player who touches the ball most frequently on the team and is in charge of running the offense. Last season, Payton averaged 10.7 points, 6.4 assists, 3.6 rebounds and 1.2 steals per game. Payton averaged 74.1 touches per game last year. He’s shown that he’s comfortable passing to set up his teammates or keeping the ball to get to the rim, as he averaged 7.8 drives per game last season. What makes Payton such a weapon when he drives are the different head fakes, ball fakes and hesitation dribbles that he uses to keep defenders guessing. He’s a guy who can be a triple-double threat – he’s recorded three during his two years in the league and has come close a number of other times. Payton has shown a lot of promise so far during his career and many believe that he can be a dangerous point guard once he develops a consistent jump shot. He made big strides from his rookie to sophomore season in that department and it seems as though the 22-year-old is poised to be even better next season.

Top Clutch Player: Nikola Vucevic

Although a case can be made for Fournier here, we’re going to highlight Vucevic’s clutch play. It may seem odd to name a center as a team’s best clutch player, but that’s exactly what the Magic have with Vucevic. He hit two game-winning shots for the Magic last season – one against the Los Angeles Lakers on Nov. 11 and one against the Atlanta Hawks on Feb. 7. Vucevic just edged out Fournier in total points scored in the final five minutes of close games (with neither team ahead by more than five points). Vucevic recorded 78 points in those situations, compared to 76 points for Fournier. One of the most impressive aspects of Vucevic’s game is his mid-range shooting. Last season, he averaged 2.2 made shots per game between 15-19 feet from the rim, which ranked second in the league; he shot 50.3 percent from that distance. Vucevic has proven to be one of best offensive centers in the league and he figures to be a guy the team can continue to count on down the stretch.

The Unheralded Player: Mario Hezonja

Hezonja played sparingly during his rookie campaign, but he left a lasting impression on fans when he did see the court. Many people in Orlando are excited about his potential, especially on the offensive end. He appeared in 79 games last year and averaged 6.1 points, 2.2 rebounds and 1.4 assists in just under 18 minutes per game. He elevated his production to 11.1 points per game in nine starts. What is encouraging for Hezonja fans is the fact that Coach Vogel loves his game. During his introductory press conference in May, Vogel said he is excited to help Hezonja develop. He loves Hezonja’s confidence and his ability to shoot the ball, while also saying that Mario’s skillset and style of play fits with how he wants to run the team. While it doesn’t seem as though Hezonja will find himself in the starting lineup very often, it does seem like he’ll be playing more than the 18 minutes he averaged last season.

Top New Addition: Serge Ibaka

Ibaka experienced great success during his time with the Thunder, so he could emerge as a leader for the Magic and help build a winning culture in Orlando. In addition to everything he brings on the defensive end, he also provides a scoring punch and stretches the floor. Ibaka averaged 12.6 points on 48 percent shooting from the floor and 33 percent from three-point range last season. His numbers were down a bit compared to previous seasons, but that’s likely because the Thunder experimented with getting big men like Enes Kanter and Steven Adams more involved. In Orlando, Ibaka is in a great position and he’ll be one of the team’s top scoring options. Coach Vogel has indicated that Ibaka will be relied on more than he was in OKC. Ibaka is in a contract year and will surely be looking to put up big numbers so that he can cash in when he hits unrestricted free agency next offseason.

– Cody Taylor

WHO WE LIKE

1. Aaron Gordon

After becoming a household name following his incredible performance in February’s Slam Dunk Contest, what’s not to like about Gordon? The most remarkable thing about Gordon is that he’ll be turning 21 years old later this week, meaning he still has plenty of room to grow as a player. In his second season, he averaged 9.2 points, 6.5 rebounds and 1.6 assists per game. His per-48 stats offer a look at what he could produce given an increased role: 18.5 points, 13.1 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.4 blocks. It can be quite exciting to watch Gordon play since his athleticism allows him to make impact plays all over the floor. He has a great understanding of the game and has one of the best work ethics in the league. Oh, and his confidence is through the roof. He’s much more comfortable entering this campaign and many are expecting him to have a breakout season.

2. Frank Vogel

Was Scott Skiles’ unexpected resignation in May actually a blessing in disguise for the Magic? Vogel was among the top candidates remaining at the time and the team moved quickly to hire him as their next head coach. Given his success with the Indiana Pacers, the hiring of Vogel looks to be a great move. Vogel consistently put the Pacers in great position to be successful and his teams were always known to be very good defensively. Vogel has already set the bar high for next season, stating that the team will make the playoffs.

3. D.J. Augustin

One of the biggest areas of concern for the Magic last year was the backup point guard position. The team tried to address that issue prior to last season by signing C.J. Watson, but he played in just 33 games after battling a calf injury for much of the year. The team then traded for Brandon Jennings, who left to join the New York Knicks this summer. Now, the Magic have brought in Augustin to bolster their backcourt depth. He will give the second unit some much needed shooting; he’s a career 37-percent shooter from three. Augustin also brings a ton of experience to the team and has played on plenty of contenders. It remains to be seen if it will be Watson or Augustin who will ultimately backup Elfrid Payton, but the Magic have legitimate options at the position for the first time in a long time.

4. Bismack Biyombo

Whether or not you agree with Orlando’s decision to give Biyombo a four-year deal worth $72 million, it’s evident that Biyombo can make a big impact for the Magic. He helped his league-wide perception last year with Toronto Raptors – particularly during the playoffs – by making hustle plays and defending the paint. He pulled down a franchise record 26 rebounds against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals, which was impressive. It appears Biyombo will be counted on to anchor the Magic’s second unit and that could be a role he flourishes in. It’s clear that the front office is in love with Biyombo judging by the contract they gave him. Coach Vogel’s teams have always been great defensively and Biyombo looks like he’ll fit right in with what the team wants to do.

– Cody Taylor

SALARY CAP 101

The Magic have had a busy offseason, acquiring Serge Ibaka via trade and then going under the NBA’s $94.1 million salary cap to sign players like Bismack Biyombo, Jeff Green and D.J. Augustin.  The team also re-signed Evan Fournier, locking in at least $104.8 million in salary on 13 players.  Orlando invited six players to camp, all on non-guaranteed summer contracts, to compete for two open roster spots.  The Magic also have their $2.9 million Room Exception available.

Next summer, Orlando may reach $29 million in spending power under a $102 million salary cap.  That assumes the team picks up the rookie-scale options on Aaron Gordon, Mario Hezonja, C.J. Wilcox and Elfrid Payton.  Only $1 million of C.J. Watson’s $5 million salary is guaranteed for 2017-18.  While Ibaka is eligible to have his contract restructured and extended, the Magic do not have the necessary cap space to get that kind of deal done.

– Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

The theme of the Magic’s offseason was adding defense. They have a great defensive mind in Vogel on the sideline and they added a couple of very talented defenders in Ibaka and Biyombo to help the team improve on that end of the court. The Magic improved to 17th in defense last season under Scott Skiles, but they clearly would like to be significantly better this season. In addition to Ibaka and Biyombo, Payton and Gordon have emerged as great defenders as well.

– Cody Taylor

WEAKNESSES

As strong defensively as the Magic may seem on paper, there are plenty of questions about their offense entering this season. The team failed to add a star through free agency and now they must decide who will become the squad’s go-to option. Vucevic led the team in scoring last season at 18.2 points per game, with Fournier next down the list at 15.4 points per game. Key players like Payton, Gordon and Biyombo are not known to be great scorers, which begs the question: Where will the scoring come from?

– Cody Taylor

THE BURNING QUESTION

Can the Magic finally break through into the playoffs?

With his bold statements, Vogel has set a playoff-or-bust atmosphere in his first season as Magic head coach. The team made a number of moves that signal their desire to win now and return to the postseason. While it seems as though the team’s defense will be much improved, there are still a lot of unanswered questions when it comes to how these pieces fit together. While the Magic certainly have the potential to improve their win total this year, it wouldn’t be all that surprising to see them miss the playoffs for a fifth-straight season.

– Cody Taylor

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NBA DAILY

NBA Daily: Pelicans Might Be Better Off Without DeMarcus Cousins

Without DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis has excelled. It might not be a coincidence.

Moke Hamilton

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Forget Kawhi Leonard, the most interesting storyline of this NBA summer is going to be DeMarcus Cousins.

By now, if you’ve wondered whether the New Orleans Pelicans would be better off without the talented big man, you’re certainly not alone.

Just ask the Portland Trail Blazers.

On Saturday, the Pelicans pulled off an improbable sweep of the third-seeded Blazers in the first round of their best-of-seven playoff series. And while the immediate question that comes to mind is what to make of the Blazers, a similar question can be (and should be) asked of the Pelicans.

Without question, Cousins is one of the most gifted big men the NBA has sen in quite some time, but it shouldn’t be lost on any of us that Anthony Davis began to put forth superhuman efforts when Cousins was absent.

Ever heard the saying that too many cooks spoil the brew?

That may be pricisely the case here.

Sure, having good players at your disposal is a problem that most head coach in the league would sign up for, but it takes a special type of player to willingly cede touches and shots in the name of the best interests of the team.

We once had a similar conversation about Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, mind you. Those that recognized that Westbrook’s ball dominance and inefficiency took opportunities away from Durant to be the best version of himself once believed that the Oklahoma City Thunder would have been wise to pitch Westbrook to New Orleans back when Chris Paul was still manning their perimeter.

For what it’s worth, with Cousins in the lineup, he averaged 18 shots per game. In the 48 games he played this season, the Pelicans were 27-21. With him in the lineup, Davis shot the ball 17.6 times per game and scored 26.5 points per contest.

In the 34 games the Pelicans played without Cousins, Davis’ shot attempts increased fairly significantly. He got 21.9 attempts per contest and similarly increased his scoring output to 30.2 points per game.

Aside from that, Cousins’ presence in the middle made it a tad more difficult for Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday to have the pace and space they need to be most effective. With both Davis and Cousins, the Pelicans struggled to consistently string together wins. Without Cousins, they improbably became the first team in the Western Conference to advance to the second round.

That Cousins tore his achilles tendon and is just a few months from becoming an unrestricted free agent combine to make him the most interesting man in the NBA.

* * * * * *

With Chris Paul having decided that the grass was probably greener with James Harden and Mike D’Antoni than it was with Doc Rivers and Blake Griffin, the Clippers fulfilled his request to be trade to the Houston Rockets and re-signed Griffin to a five-year max. deal. In doing so, they both gave Griffin a stark reminder of what life in the NBA is like and provided a blueprint for teams to follow when they have a superstar player with whom they believe to have run their course.

The glass half full perspective might be that Davis has simply become a better, healthier, more effective player and that with Cousins, he would have another weapon that could help catapult the Pelicans ever further toward the top of the Western Conference. But the half-empty glass might yield another conclusion.

At the end of the day, although he still hasn’t appeared in a single playoff game, Cousins is regarded as a game-changing talent and is one of the few players available on the free agency market this summer that could justify an annual average salary of $30 million. In all likelihood, the Pelicans will re-sign him for a sum that approaches that, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best move.

In the end, the Clippers traded Griffin for Avery Bradley, Tobias Harris, Boban Marjanovic, a first round pick and a second round pick. All things considered, it was a great haul for the Clippers when you consider that, just a few months prior, they could have lost Griffin as a free agent and gotten nothing in return.

Remarkably, after seeing Griffin dealt to Detroit, in the Western Conference, the Pelicans are on a collision course with the Golden State Warriors. Their health a constant concern, the team will have to deal with the pesky perimeter defense of Holiday and Rondo and versatility and two-way effectiveness of Davis.

Nobody gave New Orleans a chance against Portland, and for sure, not many people are going to believe in their ability to score an upset over the defending champions. But believe it or not, New Orleans has become a different team. And they’ve done so without Cousins.

Indeed, believe it or not, the Clippers gave us a blueprint for what a team should do when it has a superstar who might not be the best long-term fit for their program.

And if the Pelicans were wise, they’d be smart to follow it.

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NBA Daily: Rookie Contributors Lifting Playoff Teams

This year’s impressive rookie class has translated their regular season performances to the playoff stage.

Dennis Chambers

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This past NBA season had the luxury of an incredibly entertaining and high-powered rookie class. Every other day it seemed like the feats of either Donovan Mitchell, Jayson Tatum, Lauri Markkanen, Dennis Smith Jr., Kyle Kuzma, or Ben Simmons were dominating the discussion about how advanced the league’s crop of newbies appeared to be.

As a result, the 2017-18 Rookie of the Year race was a much more heated discussion than the year before.

With the impressive campaign these NBA freshmen put together, it should come as no surprise that on the on bright stage of playoff basketball, three of the aforementioned crop are helping lead their team’s in tight first-round battles.

Donovan Mitchell has been the leading scorer for the Utah Jazz through two games in their series against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Jayson Tatum is stepping up for the Boston Celtics to help fill in the void of Kyrie Irving as they take on the Milwaukee Bucks. Ben Simmons is nearly averaging a triple-double through three games for the Philadelphia 76ers in their matchup with the Miami HEAT.

Lottery pick talents are expected in today’s NBA to come in and have some level of impact for their clubs. Usually, they play the role as a foundational building block that shows flashes of promise with an expected up-and-down first season. While these three playoff contributors haven’t been perfect all year long, under the pressure of the postseason, they’ve stepped up their play and appear to be avoiding the learning curve.

With that, let’s highlight further what Mitchell, Tatum, and Simmons have been able to do thus far in the postseason.

Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz

All season long Mitchell threw the entire scoring load of Salt Lake City on his back for the Jazz and helped carry them to a 5-seed in the Western Conference when early season projections suggested they should head towards in the wake of Rudy Gobert’s injury.

However, the 13th pick out of Louisville had no intentions of missing out on the postseason. And from the looks of his production so far, who can blame him?

Through the first two games of the Jazz-Thunder series, Mitchell yet again placed his name in the same breath as Michael Jordan. Mitchell’s 55 points in his first two playoff games broke Jordan’s record of 53 for most points scored by a rookie guard in that scenario.

Mitchell’s 27 points in Game 1 and 28 points in Game 2 led the Jazz to even the series and steal home court advantage from the Thunder. While he hasn’t been responsible for setting up the team’s offense, tallying just five assists through those two games, Mitchell is fulfilling the role of Gordon Hayward as the team’s primary scorer.

In a series against a team that features the likes of Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony, Utah needs Mitchell to go out there and get as many buckets as he possibly can.

So far, he appears to be welcoming the challenge.

Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

When it was announced that Kyrie Irving would be lost for the entire postseason due to injury, the Boston Celtics’ hold on the 2-seed seemed a lot less intimidating than it once was in the Eastern Conference.

However, three games into the first round series against the Bucks, the Celtics hold a 2-1 lead. A lot part of that has to do with the role Tatum has been able to step in and play right away with the Celtics down their main scorer and playmaker.

Throughout the first three games of the series, Tatum 12.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists, and 2.3 steals. The third overall pick in the 2017 draft started the series off with 19 points, 10 rebounds, and three steals to help Boston start off the matchup with a 1-0 lead.

At just 20 years old, Tatum is matching his age number with his usage percentage thus far against Milwaukee. For some perspective, Jaylen Brown managed just 12 minutes a night for the Celtics last season as a rookie when the playoffs rolled around.

Granted, injuries and missing players are helping in Tatum being on the court as much as he has, but the rookie is earning his time out there on the court.

Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers

The perceived frontrunner for Rookie of the Year, Ben Simmons has taken control in his first ever playoff series.

For starters, Simmons is averaging nearly a triple double over his first three games against the HEAT; 20 points, 10 rebounds, and 9.7 assists.

On top of his triple double ways, Simmons has upped arguably his biggest weakness so far in the playoffs, shooting 75 percent from the charity stripe. During the regular season, Simmons struggled from the line, hitting only 56 percent of his attempts.

With the offensive prowess of Simmons obvious, it’s the job he’s doing on the defensive end of the court against an aggressive and tough Miami squad that’s elevating his play to the next level.

Simmons’ ability to switch all over the defensive end of the court has placed his responsibilities from Goran Dragic to Justise Winslow to James Johnson, and seemingly everywhere in between.

Now with Joel Embiid back in the fold for the Sixers and Simmons, the rookie point guard has his defensive partner on the floor to help ease the workload on that end. A two-way performance each night will be imperative for Simmons in helping lead the young Sixers past the experienced HEAT team.

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Pelicans Role Players are Key to Success

The supporting cast in New Orleans is a big part of their playoff surge, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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The New Orleans Pelicans have taken a commanding 3-0 lead in their first-round playoff series again the Portland Trail Blazers. While surprising to some, the Pelicans only finished one game behind the Blazers in the standings. The Pelicans have the best player in the series in Anthony Davis and the defensive duo of Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday have stifled Portland’s backcourt.

The truth is, the Pelicans have been a good team all season long. A lot of attention and recognition has been given to Davis, Rondo and Holiday this season and playoffs, and rightfully so. But New Orleans wouldn’t be where they are without the important contributions of some of their role players.

Take E’Twaun Moore, for example. Moore bounced around the NBA early in his career, with stops in Boston, Orlando and Chicago before finding long-term stability contract wise with the Pelicans. He’s primarily been a bench player with them before this season, his second in New Orleans, his first as a full-time starter.

He’s given the Pelicans a huge boost, especially from the three-point line. He’s put up 12.5 points per game on 50.8 percent shooting from the field, both career-highs. He’s shooting 42.5 percent from three-point range.

“I think it’s just our style of play,” Moore told Basketball Insiders. “We play fast and open. Coach [Gentry] gives us a lot of freedom, a lot of confidence. That’s why my game is up, my shooting is up.”

It’s not just offensively though. Moore has always been one of the more underrated defensive guards in the league. Paired up alongside Rondo and Holiday, the trio form a solid wing defensive unit. They’re a big reason for Portland’s offensive struggles.

Moore is the type of role player that every playoff contender needs to succeed. He knows that his role may change from game to game. Some nights he may be asked to score a little more. Other nights his defense is going to be called upon. Whatever it may be, he’s always ready to do what’s asked of him.

“I bring the energy. I bring a spark,” Moore told Basketball Insiders. “It’s knocking down shots, playing defense, getting out in transition. Just trying to be a spark.”

The Pelicans bench has also been a huge factor all season long. Their depth took a major hit early in the season with the injury to Solomon Hill. Hill has since returned to the lineup, but his absence paved the way for other players such as Darius Miller to step up.

This is Miller’s second stint with the Pelicans after spending two years overseas. Drafted 46th overall in 2012, he didn’t play much his first three years in the NBA. In 2014, he was cut by the Pelicans only about a month into the season. This year was different, he was thrown into the rotation from the get-go.

“This is a huge opportunity,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I just come in and try to work every day, try to get better every day. My teammates have done a great job of putting me in situations where I can be successful.”

Miller has given the Pelicans a capable stretch four in the second unit who can slide over to small forward if need be. He’s averaging a career-best 7.8 points per game, the most out of any of New Orleans’ reserves. He’s their best three-point shooter off the bench, connecting on 41.1 percent of his long-range attempts.

While he acknowledges that he’s enjoying his best season yet as an NBA player, he’s quick to praise his teammates for allowing him to flourish.

“I just try to bring a spark off the bench. I come in and try to knock some shots down,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “My teammates do a great job of finding me when I’m open, I just try and knock down shots and compete.”

Sometimes time away from the NBA helps players grow and mature. The NBA game is fast paced and it can take awhile to get used to it. While some players have begun to use the G-League as a means of preparing for the league, Miller took an alternate route of heading to Germany.

For him, it’s a big reason why he’s been able to make an easier transition back to the NBA. His contract for next season is non-guaranteed, but he’s probably done enough to warrant the Pelicans keeping him around. He’s a much different and much-improved player. If not, he’s sure to draw interest from other teams.

“It was a lot to learn for me personally,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I had to learn a lot of different things like how to take care of my body, how to manage my time, a whole bunch of stuff like that. The time overseas really helped me to mature and grow up and learn a few things.”

These Pelicans have most certainly turned quite a few heads since the playoffs began. We shouldn’t deal too much with hypotheticals, but it’s interesting to wonder what this team’s ceiling would’ve been had DeMarcus Cousins not been lost for the season due to injury.

This is a confident bunch, however. They’ve beaten both the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets during the regular season. They’ve already shattered a lot of expert predictions with their performance in the first-round. The Pelicans feel like they can hang with anyone out West.

“As far as we want to go,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I feel like we’ve competed with all the best teams in the league this whole season. We just got to come out, stay focused and do what we do.”

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