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Orlando Magic 2019-20 NBA Season Preview

The Orlando Magic are basically returning the same core that won 42 games last year and posted impressive improvement throughout the season. But can the Magic take another step forward? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Orlando Magic in this 2019-20 NBA season preview.

Basketball Insiders

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After earning the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs — all behind the strong play of Nikola Vucevic — the Orlando Magic should have the optimism to improve during the 2019-20 season. The Magic were able to maintain stability within their ranks entering this year, keeping a large part of their core roster from last year. The biggest move the Magic made was to re-sign their aforementioned All-Star center to a four-year, $100 million deal ensuring that he finishes his prime playing years in Orlando.

The Magic added some intriguing new players to their roster with Markelle Fultz and Al-Farouq Aminu, players that could be difference-makers throughout the campaign. Aminu is a hard-working low post role player that will provide efficient scoring while contributing on the defensive end. Fultz will, hopefully, come back from his various shoulder injuries and display the promise upon, at long last. The Magic lack depth at the point guard position and Fultz can challenge a 31-year-old D.J. Augustin for the starting position. Look for the Magic to earn another playoff appearance again this season, with the goal of earning a higher seed and winning their first series since 2010.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

The Magic are the second-best team in the Southeast Division, but that shouldn’t conjure up too much excitement in Orlando. The Magic still lack direction pertaining to their ongoing rebuild – which feels like it’s been underway for a decade. They are still in dire need of a point guard, but instead, they continue to collect big men. They should be active in the trade market this year in pursuing a point guard if one becomes available. And, in exchange, they have incredible depth upfront, but not enough playing time to go around. There is the recently re-signed Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon and Mo Bamba, as well as Jonathan Isaac and 2019 free agent-signee Al-Farouq Aminu.

And to make matters worse, the Magic went back to the well and drafted 6-foot-8 Chuma Okeke this past June. Even if they don’t make a move, the Magic will still end the year around .500 and probably qualify for the playoffs again. But they won’t progress far forward until they find a point guard around whom they can build.

2nd Place – Southeast Division

– Drew Maresca

Steve Clifford’s first go-round as head coach of the Magic went better than some had expected. He got the best out of Nikola Vucevic in a career year, utilized the size of Jonathan Isaac on the defensive end and put Terrence Ross in the perfect situation to succeed as the leader of the second unit. Coming into this campaign, Orlando hadn’t lost any core pieces and actually gained a vastly underrated one in Al-Farouq Aminu. The conundrum will be finding ample playing time for the plethora of forwards on their roster while lacking a star point guard necessary to take the next step. It’s asking a lot out of D.J. Augustin to repeat what he did in one of his best seasons as a pro. And as far as Evan Fournier and Aaron Gordon are concerned, the status quo may be good – but in this league, good isn’t good enough. Improvements must be made. With that said, they should be in playoff contention — but how far they can go remains to be seen.

2nd Place – Southeast Division

– Spencer Davies

The Magic took a big step last season when they finished with a winning record and made the playoffs for the first time in seven years. They even managed to steal Game 1 of the first round from the eventual champions in Toronto. Aaron Gordon has taken a big leap forward and has emerged as a borderline All-Star talent. The Magic also have some intriguing young players in Jonathan Isaac, Mo Bamba and, yes, Markelle Fultz, whom they just picked up the contract option on. The real test for Orlando though is going to be to prove that last season wasn’t a one-year wonder and that this team is ready to be a perennial playoff contender. They even appeared to be the top team in their division until the HEAT acquired Jimmy Butler this summertime. Even though it’s the Eastern Conference, it might be a little difficult for them to replicate last season’s success. They’re going to need some real growth from their young guys to show they actually are headed in the right direction.

2nd Place – Southeast Division

– David Yapkowitz

The Magic may be the biggest “what if” team in the East. What if Markell Fultz can be the guy he was championed to be in the draft? What if Aaron Gordon takes the next step to All-Star status? What if Jonathan Issac can be the future star he looks to be? What if Mo Bamba can play valuable minutes all season? The great thing for Orlando is that if any of those things happen, then they should be better than the 42 wins they had last season. If two of them happen, they could be scary good; but if three happen, they could have home court. The downsize is the Magic still don’t have the franchise guy they coveted and desperately need to be considered a real contender. So if the “ifs” don’t pan out, the Magic do have lots of attractive trade chip if that star becomes available in trade. Overall, the Magic should be better. They found a solid identity down the stretch last year and have kept the core together, which should help them pick up where they left off.

2nd Place – Southeast Division

– Steve Kyler

Orlando is a team I just can’t quite figure out, which may explain why the Magic will be one of the non-California teams I will be keeping a close eye on this upcoming season. Aaron Gordon keeps improving and could be set for a big season. I don’t know what to make of the collective power forward-center combination of Jonathan Isaac, Al-Farouq Aminu, Nikola Vucevic and Mohamed Bamba but if either Isaac or Bamba takes a leap, things could get very interesting. And that doesn’t even include what this team can become if Markelle Fultz overcomes the issues that have plagued him early in his chaotic career. Orlando didn’t make any out of the box or completely unexpected moves this offseason, but did what was necessary to move forward with what is becoming an increasingly competitive team in the Eastern Conference. The team still has a ways to go to become a true contender, but there are some interesting parts in Orlando and I would not be surprised if the Magic exceed expectations this upcoming season.

2nd Place – Southeast Division

– Jesse Blancarte

FROM THE CAP GUY

The Magic remains the only team yet to sign their 2019 first-round draft pick as Chuma Okeke (16th) recovers from an ACL tear, reports are he may red-shirt in the G-League.

Orlando is close to the NBA’s $132.6 million luxury tax threshold, with $129.7 million in guaranteed salary. Okeke would earn at least $2.1 million as a rookie (80 percent of scale, when the norm is 120 percent), which might explain the delay. Look for the Magic to explore a cost-cutting trade at some point throughout the season if they do end up above the tax line.

The team has a hard cap at $138.9 million, after using their full Mid-Level Exception on Al-Farouq Aminu. The team isn’t especially close to that limit but still may not use its Bi-Annual Exception of $3.6 million, with tax concerns. (edited)

– Eric Pincus

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Nikola Vucevic

Nikola Vucevic earned his first NBA All-Star selection this past season as he averaged a career-high 20.8 points and 12.0 rebounds per game. Vucevic has always shown strong offensive capabilities during his career but he took it to a new level during the 2018-19 season. Vucevic also dominated from behind the arc last year as his percentage on two-point attempts, 54.9 percent, was the highest of his career. He also converted on 84 total three-pointers, averaged 36.4 percent from three-point range and earned a 51.8 field goal percentage

As the centerpiece of Steve Clifford’s offense last season, Vucevic was the first option and often had pick and rolls or post-up plays go through him, but it was his improved passing that helped the team’s perimeter game. Vucevic averaged a career-high in assists last year with 3.8 per game.

Vucevic draws a lot of attention because of his ability to score on the block but he scored just 0.93 points per possession on post-ups. Despite being one of the most-frequent post players in the league, Vucevic may need to improve points per possession in the post to become a more dangerous threat. Regardless, Vucevic will continue to be the focal point of the offense and has shown tremendous growth in the position last year.

Top Defensive Player: Jonathan Isaac

During the 2017 NBA Draft, Jonathan Isaac was a solidified lottery pick after one season at Florida State University, where he was seen a project player. At 6-foot-8 with a 7-foot-4 wingspan and good lateral mobility, he has an incredible defensive upside. Isaac struggled through injuries in his rookie season but is back on track after a solid sophomore season that saw him improve defensively as the season progressed.

Up until the All-Star break, Isaac’s opponents shot 45.5 percent and 39 percent from three-point range. After the break, Isaac’s opponents shot just 42.8 percent from the field, 32 percent from behind the arc and held the third-highest defensive win-shares on the roster.

Despite Isaac’s slender frame, he has become a more versatile defender both on the perimeter and in the paint. Isaac finished 20th in the league in blocks last season and 17th in Block Percentage. Moreover, the talented rotation piece finished the season with a Defensive Real Plus-Minus of 1.02 this season, well above average for his position. He was even more impressive in the limited sample size of his rookie season, ranking 14th among 83 qualified power forwards with a DRPM of 1.78.

Top Playmaker: Terrence Ross

Last season, the Magic — and their overall shooting prowesses — relied heavily on the first guy off the bench, Terrence Ross. His reputation for reckless shot selection hasn’t materialized during his time in Orlando. Ross attempted seven three-pointers per contest, even averaging a three-pointer every 3.5 minutes he was in the game. He made 38.3 percent of those attempts and they accounted for over 55 percent of his total shot distribution. No player has ever made as many threes in a season while playing exclusively in a bench role as he did — and he finished with 217 made three-pointers.

In 2019-20, he delivered the best and most consistent season of his career. He was a clear-cut candidate for Sixth Man of the Year, averaged 15.1 points per game and made 38.3 percent of his three-pointers. As part of the Magic bench, he was the guy they ran almost all their offense through.

Ross has always been considered streaky in his scoring and has not had reliable output. Ross’ ability has never been questioned, especially after scoring 51 points in a game during the 2014-2015 season. But Ross can go extremely cold when it matters, like, for example, when he averaged 13.2 points per game and shot just 37 percent from the field during last season’s playoffs. Look for Ross to work on consistency, an aspect he improved tremendously through the season last year.

Top Clutch Player: Evan Fournier

During the fourth quarter (or overtime), with less than five minutes remaining, and neither team ahead by more than five points — aka known as “Clutch Time” — the Magic have consistently relied on Evan Fournier. In the 2018-19 season, Fournier led the team with 32 points in 29 games played during these pressure-filled moments, converting on 11 out of his 20 shots and three of the nine attempts from three-point range.

Over the past three years, Fournier has scored 83 points in 74 clutch games, making 27 of 53 shots (50.9 percent) and 10 of 27 three-pointers (37 percent). Terrence Ross may be a secondary option for these clutch situations with 22 points on 7-for-20 shooting (35 percent), but he only hit three of his 12 three-pointers in those instances last season. Fournier has exhibited a knack for performing in these moments and will be the primary option going into the 2019-20 season.

Unheralded Player: D.J. Augustin

Acting as the only spark of offense in the playoffs last season, D.J. Augustin scored 19 of his 25 points in the first half of Game 1 in the first round against the Raptors, thus forcing head coach Nick Nurse to adjust his defense. By acquiring Markelle Fultz last season, the Magic have made it apparent that Augustin is only a short-term solution until they can develop the younger version to take over the offense.

Throughout the prior season, Augustin notched 11.7 points per game and 5.3 assists per game with a 56.6 percent effective field goal percentage. Augustin rarely turned the ball over and that composure helped the Magic through some tough games. By providing a steady hand and consistency, Augustine will be seen as a stabilizing force for the inexperienced team and an unheralded part of the Magic this season.

Best New Addition: Al-Farouq Aminu

With first-round pick Chuma Okeke expected to red-shirt the season in the G-League, Al-Farouq Aminu gets the nod as the best new addition.

Aminu has been seen as a wing that can shoot at an efficient level while defending against some of the best scorers in the league. Better, Aminu has shown versatility on the defensive side of the court by playing center and stretching the floor as a power forward on offense.

The Magic offered Aminu a three-year, $29.2 million deal despite having a “log-jam” at the power forward position. Aminu, Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac all have incredible, athletic upsides that have not been fully developed and, in turn, make their skillsets slightly repetitive. Each are lengthy wings that lack some technical skills and shooting ability, but each provides value in different ways.

The Magic already had the eighth-most efficient defense in the league last year. so Aminu will only contribute to the strong defense as he has ranked as a top-15 power forward in RPM over the past four years. What Aminu provides in the present is security for the team, a way to shore up the defense and provide depth to the frontcourt that has talent but little consistency. Aminu has only missed 35 games over the past four years, making his durability and stability an insurance policy for Jonathan Isaac and Mo Bamba.

– David Weissman

WHO WE LIKE

1. Keeping The Gang Around

Orlando’s president of basketball operations, Jeff Weltman, repeatedly said the team wanted to bring back Vucevic. The Magic re-signed Vucevic to a four-year, $100 million deal even though they could have offered him as much as a five-year, $189.7 million contract. Vucevic also had other options as another franchise was willing to offer him a four-year, $140.6 million deal.

The Magic also signed Khem Birch to a two-year, $6 million contract to add to the depth behind Vucevic. When Bamba went down with a season-ending leg injury last year, Birch helped the Magic earn a defensive rating of 102.7 when he was on the court during the regular season, making him the perfect insurance policy should Vucevic or Bamba fall victim to injury. Best of all, Birch is currently considered the best defender of the three.

One primary focus the Orlando Magic honed on this summer was bringing Terrence Ross back. They accomplished their goal by signing Ross to a four-year, $54 million contract, thus continuing the great fit with the added bonus of his veteran leadership. Last season, Ross averaged 38.3 percent from deep and became the first player in league history to make over 200 three-pointers without ever starting a game.

2. The Young Core

The Magic fielded the youngest starting line up in the playoffs last seasons with six of the players in rotation under the age of 25. With Gordon, Isaac, Bamba and Fultz all considered possible starters for the upcoming season, the Magic are sending up signals that their focus is on the future. According to FiveThirtyEight, the Magic have one of the most dynamic young cores in the league.

Using the CARMELO projection system and WAR figure, each of which evaluates a multi-season future forecast based on a player’s history and determines the number of wins above replacement over the next five seasons for every player on each team’s roster, the Orlando Magic rank 11th-best in the league. Aaron Gordon ranked highest with a 16.2 rating, but the rest of the young core looks more unpredictable, despite the hope that they will develop into starters on a playoff team.

Issac and Gordon have proven to be capable of starting on the Magic, but have not shown the dominance and game-changing play that made them both lottery picks. Fultz and Bamba have not played a lot, but are looking for a fresh start this season.

3. Magic Players In The FIBA Basketball World Cup

With the closing of 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup, the United States disappointed fans by finishing in seventh place — theIR worst showing in Team USA history. That is due, in part, to the newfound distribution of basketball talent at the global level. The Magic saw four players represent their national teams, with some of them even using their NBA experience to help bring down Team USA.

Evan Fournier captured his third bronze medal with the French national team, by defeating Australia in the third-place game. The 26-year-old averaged 19.8 points per game throughout the tournament, fourth-best among current NBA players. Fournier also helped France break the Team USA’s streak of 58 straight wins in international tournaments and was named to FIBA’s All-Tournament team.

Nikola Vucevic represented Montenegro in his first-ever FIBA World Cup. Vucevic was solid for his country, despite only winning one of the five games during the competition, and averaged 14.6 points, 6.4 rebounds and 1.2 assists per game.

Nigeria finished the 2019 FIBA World Cup as the highest-ranking African team and will go onto play in its third consecutive Olympics. Al-Farouq Aminu was arguably Nigeria’s most-stifling defender and was often his team’s secondary or tertiary playmaker. Despite only scoring 8.2 points per game, his experience in the NBA translated to his play in the tournament, thus helping Nigeria win three of five games.

With a large amount of their talented Canadians sitting out the FIBA World Cup, Khem Birch was able to have a prominent role with the team. Birch averaged 11.6 points on nearly 58 percent shooting from the field and seven rebounds per game. Despite his performance, however, Canada was not able to make it out of the first round.

It is clear that the Magic provided the world with a bevy of talent, especially Fournier. After the impressive showings that these players had during the FIBA World Cup, the Magic will hope that their international players continue to grow heading into the 2019-20 season.

4. Solidifying The Center Position

The whole offseason for the Orlando Magic revolved around Nikola Vucevic. The Magic had two options this offseason: (1) resign Vucevic, focus on re-signing Terrence Ross and retaining the same core of their roster; or (2) let Vucevic walk, leaving the team to find a way to fill the center position, but staying competitive in the Eastern Conference. The Magic, rightfully, went with option one.

Despite his overwhelming potential, Bamba still has a lot of growing to do, especially adding weight and developing strength. Experience will come with time, but taking the starting role from Vucevic will be a difficult task. After signing Vucevic to a four-year deal, it is clear that Orlando feels as Bamba’s development will take a few years. The team will look to Bamba to become a future starter but, for now, there is no pressure for him to be that guy.

– David Weissman

STRENGTHS

With the acquisition of Al-Farouq Aminu and the drafting of Chuma Okeke, many Magic fans felt confused by the number of frontcourt players that the team currently has on the roster. Pundits call the power forward situation a “log-jam,” but that take appears overblown.

Aminu will be the perimeter player with defensive versatility, similar to the sets that both Gordon and Isaac possesses. With Okeke set to spend all season in the G League, that rotation becomes a little bit leaner. Despite the notion that there may be a “log-jam,” the Magic can keep a versatile defender at power forward at all times while maintaining the ability to switch up to the small forward position.

The Magic played that way most of the year, with Isaac playing small forward and Gordon at power forward. That pairing raised some questions before the season began, but when both shared the floor last year, the Magic had a +1.7 net rating (108.3 offensive rating and 106.6 defensive rating).

– David Weissman

WEAKNESSES

During the playoffs, the Magic tried to work through Nikola Vucevic — but the hard-nosed Raptors were able to swarm the center, close off his usual passing lanes and stymied his flow on offense. Then and there, the team’s biggest weakness was apparent. The Magic had no one who could break the Raptors’ defense down off the dribble.

The Orlando Magic have lacked that type of talent since the departure of Victor Oladipo, but they may look to Markelle Fultz to fill that role. Despite past injuries, he has already recorded a triple-double and is still an effective scorer off the dribble. Gordon and Isaac both have shown glimpses of perimeter penetration skill and can be alternatives to Fultz this season. Because the Magic lack perimeter playmaking last year, the team’s shooting was also negatively impacted.

Furthermore, Clifford must create an offense to cover up their shooting woes at the forward position. Shooting is still a major flaw for all three players there as Aminu shot 34.3 percent from beyond the arc last year, Isaac went for 32.3 percent and Gordon made just 34.9 percent.

Overall, the Magic shot 35.6 percent from beyond the arc, the 11th-best mark in the league last season, so there are signs of life there.

-David Weissman

THE BURNING QUESTION

What will Markelle Fultz become this year?

D.J. Augustin was a solid point guard for the Magic last year and will continue to provide stability as, ideally, the Fultz Era begins in earnest. As a steady veteran, Augustin was able to pace the team and provide perimeter offense creation. He was effective getting the team into its sets and working the pick and roll with Nikola Vucevic. He was a game manager, playing over 28 minutes a game with only 1.6 turnovers.

The Magic once had a strong playmaker with Victor Olidipo but, unfortunately for the Magic, he became an All-Star only after he left town. The Magic then acquired Elfrid Payton to fill Olidipo’s offensive production, but he did not live up to expectations. During this transition in point guards, the Magic relied on Augustin to maintain the offense, while also never considering him as a long-term solution.

Fultz now has the NBA world thinking that he may become the biggest bust since Anthony Bennett was drafted No. 1 overall in 2013. Fultz will be with the Magic for at least two seasons as they picked up his fourth-year option for the 2020-2021 season.

Even in a draft that produced Jayson Tatum, Donovan Mitchell and Kyle Kuzma, Fultz was seen as a tremendous athlete whose speed is rare even by NBA standards. The mere chance to add that kind of talent, even in a compromised state, was enough for the Magic to take on the financial risk. Fultz has played only 33 NBA games in two years for reasons that aren’t clear. He was diagnosed with Thoracic Outlet Syndrome last season, but that is a vague diagnosis that is made largely through the process of elimination. Many have attributed his struggles to the yips, a situation that the Magic can help resolve.

But if Fultz is even half of what he came advertised as, Orlando could take their biggest step as a budding franchise yet.

-David Weissman

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NBA Daily: Biggest Disappointments — Central Division

Basketball Insiders’ Biggest Disappointments series continues as Drew Mays explores the struggles of the Central Division.

Drew Mays

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Basketball Insiders has looked at some of the biggest surprises and disappointments to start the new season. And, now, four weeks in, the shift in perception from “The sample size is too small” to “Maybe this is just who this team is” has begun. While there is plenty of time left to justify the former, the latter has looked far more truthful for much of the disappointments in the NBA’s Central Division.

Confused in Chicago

The Chicago Bulls’ postseason hopes were widely known. And it wasn’t just speculation – the Bulls themselves talked playoffs from media day until the beginning of the season. But, sitting at 4-9, each passing game bears a striking resemblance to last year’s 22-60 team, one that was talented but unable to sustain any consistency.

The numbers paint Chicago’s struggles in an even more confusing light. Per Cleaning the Glass, the Bulls take a slightly above-average number of threes and have the most rim attempts in the league. They’ve shied away from the mid-range, while they get to the free throw line and turn the ball over at standard — not great but not terrible — rates. The offense must be clicking, right?

Wrong. Chicago sits at 28th in points per 100 possessions (they’re 14th in points per 100 defensively). Their half-court offense has been stagnant, with a lot of side-to-side action but nothing much in the way of getting to the basket. The league-high rim attempt percentage is clouded by poor decision-making in the paint, where the Bulls often force shots or flat-out miss kick out opportunities.

Lauri Markkanen, arguably Chicago’s most important player, has yet to get going. He’s averaging 14.5 points and 7.7 rebounds per game, but he’s shot just 37.7 percent from the field and 28.2 from deep. He’s scored over 20 points only once, on opening night in Charlotte.

There is reason for optimism. Markkanen is getting good looks; he should start hitting them eventually. Wendell Carter has been excellent in the middle. The Bulls’ shot chart lends itself to success. Outside of Milwaukee, the rest of the division is vulnerable. Chicago held their own against the Bucks and even the league-leading Lakers, controlling much of the game versus the latter. If not for some fourth quarter collapses, the Bulls might have a winning record.

There’s still time to turn it around. But thus far, 2019-20 has been a disappointment in Chicago.

The Last Two for Cleveland

 The Cleveland Cavaliers are frisky!

They’ve beaten two division foes in Chicago and the Indiana Pacers, and they’ve held their own in games against the Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics over the last two weeks.

Kevin Love and Tristian Thompson are both averaging double-doubles. Collin Sexton has upped his scoring and lowered his turnovers this season. Darius Garland has shown some serious flashes as a young rookie.

Defense is the toughest thing to learn in the NBA. Younger teams are usually really bad on defense – especially teams with a starting backcourt made up of a sophomore and a rookie. However, Cleveland has managed to remain in the middle of the pack on defense, ranking 15th in points allowed per 100 despite being in the bottom third in effective field goal percentage allowed.

They’re even 16th in the league in Basketball Reference’s adjusted net rating, which estimates a team’s point differential every 100 possessions adjusted for strength of opponent. There is a lot to be excited about for the future.

However, after defeating the Knicks and losing by one to the aforementioned 76ers, Cleveland was steamrolled in both first halves against the HEAT and the 76ers at home. They were outscored by 48 in the two halves, looked utterly outclassed and outmatched and, ultimately, lost by 11 and 19, respectively.

Growing pains were expected, especially for the young backcourt. And even after an encouraging start, two straight blowouts where the Cavaliers never had a chance is still disappointing.

The bad news with Cleveland is the same as the good news: they still have a lot of growing to do.

Detroit’s Free Fall

After starting off the season 4-5 (about what we’d expect from the perennially middling team), the Detroit Pistons have gone cold.

Their most recent loss was on Friday – Blake Griffin needed 19 shots to get to 19 points, Derrick Rose turned the ball over six times, and the Pistons fell 109-106 to Charlotte, dropping them to 4-9 on the year.

The disappointing thing for the Pistons has surprisingly been their defense. Detroit’s usual pattern has been to plod on offense and use their top-10 defense to put them in a position to win. But the script has flipped this year – Detroit ranks 9th in points per 100 possessions and 3rd in team effective field goal percentage, but they’re just 26th and 28th in those respective categories on defense.

Their biggest offensive struggle has been turnovers. Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond, and Derrick Rose are averaging almost 12 per game between the three of them, leading to Detroit’s 28th ranked turnover percentage.

The other problem for Detroit is that they’ve faced a relatively easy schedule thus far. That SOS is middle of the pack the rest of the way. If they plan on returning to the postseason in 2020, they’ll need to end this losing streak sooner rather than later.

Khris Middleton’s Left Leg

Khris Middleton is out for the next several weeks after suffering a left thigh contusion November 10 in Oklahoma City. He was averaging 18.5 points and 5.3 rebounds on a career-best 59.9 true shooting percentage before the injury.

Milwaukee cruised to a 2-0 record last week without their second banana, defeating both Chicago and Indiana. The Bucks will have to navigate at least the rest of November with Giannis and Eric Bledsoe as the only real playmakers on the roster.

Luckily, they’re built for this – questions continue to surround Milwaukee as to whether Khris Middleton as the complement to Giannis is even enough to win the East – the bench will be able to fill in around Giannis. All of the wings will see increased minutes, and Bledsoe will be tasked with a higher usage rate.

Any time your second-best player goes down, it’s disappointing. But Milwaukee has the system in place to continue winning, even without Middleton.

Again, it’s still early for all of these teams. They have played just 13, 12, 13 and 12 games each. But as 13 moves towards 20 and 25 games in the coming weeks, these disappointments are no longer early struggles – they are identities, and what the team may be left with for the rest of the season.

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Melo A Match For Offense-Starved Portland

The Trail Blazers’ problems are widespread on defense, but Carmelo Anthony represents an offensive fix more than anything else. Douglas Farmer writes.

Douglas Farmer

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The Portland Trail Blazers did not have a choice.

With Jusuf Nurkić, Zach Collins and Pau Gasol all sidelined by injury, and with Moe Harkless now in Los Angeles and Al-Farouq Aminu in Orlando, the Trail Blazers had nowhere else to turn.

Portland had to call Carmelo Anthony.

The Blazers do not even have a G League affiliate to raid, instead shipping specific players back-and-forth to the Texas Legends, the Dallas Mavericks’ affiliate, this season.

This is what it took for the future first-ballot Hall of Famer to find himself on a roster. Two young stars, Nurkić and Collins, needed to be sidelined for months by leg and shoulder injuries, respectively. A veteran, Gasol, needed to be sidelined by his own foot injury, in addition to years of mileage. A $145 million salary sheet needed to prevent Portland from stocking its bench with suitable forwards during the offseason.

And the options on its bench had to struggle immensely on both ends of the floor, torpedoing a season with title hopes into one that elicits headlines like “Is This Damian Lillard’s Lost Season?

More than an eventual criticism of Anthony’s contributing prospects, this is a harsh reality of the Blazers’ supporting options as constituted.

Skal Labissière has spent three years in the NBA without offering much reason to think he could be a reliable resource off the bench now, and his 49.0 effective field goal percentage fits that past evidence.

Anthony Tolliver has gone from being a three-point specialist to a three-point liability, currently hitting 24.2 percent of his shots from deep. Mario Hezonja is, well, Mario Hezonja. This year that means he is shooting 33.3 percent from 2-point range. Lastly, Rodney Hood simply cannot bang with power forwards while carrying only 208 pounds on his 6-foot-8 frame.

Portland has no forward option better than Carmelo Anthony at this point, so it had no choice but to call him despite his year off of active rosters. The team needs someone to take the pressure off Lillard and CJ McCollum. As well as Anfernee Simons has played — and the second-year guard has, averaging 19.3 points per 36 minutes with a 55.9 effective field goal percentage — relying on him comes at the expense of Lillard and McCollum, not in conjunction with them.

Someone needs to take the defensive focus away from the Blazers’ backcourt duo, at least nominally. That was, in some respects, supposed to be Tolliver. When he could shoot from deep, a defender at least had to stay near him, giving Lillard and McCollum space to operate. With that ability seemingly stolen away by Space Jam’s Monstars, Tolliver’s defender now freely ranges away from him.

In theory, and that theory will not be proven until Tuesday at the New Orleans Pelicans or Thursday at the Milwaukee Bucks — after Anthony passes his physical — Anthony can at least knock down open shots from deep. Even as his career began to spiral, he could always shoot. In his final three seasons, Anthony shot 35.6 percent from 3, including 32.8 percent in his aborted Houston Rockets stint in 2018.

The concerns around bringing in Anthony, even on a non-guaranteed contract, come on defense. The concerns around Portland’s 5-8 start also hinge on defense, where it ranks No. 19 in the league with a 109.3 defensive rating, as of Monday morning.

In Anthony’s 10 games with the Rockets to start last season, they were outscored by 63 points with him on the court, even as he averaged 13.4 points per game. In those 294 minutes, Houston’s defensive rating was 112.2.

Some of that obviously stemmed from other issues with the Rockets then dealing with their own personnel problems — as well as newly-implemented, and soon-abandoned schemes. But some of it was undeniably because of Anthony, never exactly known as a defensive ace.

Maybe in that respect, Anthony fits the Blazers both in need and in ethos. Portland’s appearance in the Western Conference Finals did not come from outstanding defense; it relied upon Enes “Can’t Play Him” Kanter, after all. The Lillard and McCollum era has long been defined by offensive deluges surrounding moments of defensive worry.

Anthony should fit that perfectly, if he chooses to. Shooting strokes are one of the last skills lost with age. Even at 35, he should still demand attention in that respect. That alone will be an improvement for the Blazers and make life a bit easier for Lillard and McCollum.

A defensive rating of 109.3 can be survived when the offensive rating is third in the league at 113.7, as Portland enjoyed last season, part of the recipe that produced a 53-29 record. It cannot be survived when the offensive rating is No. 13 at 108.4, where the Blazers sit currently in that category.

Portland did not call one of the greatest individual scorers in league history to fix its defense.

The Blazers have no choice but to hope Carmelo Anthony can aid their offense.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Walton Working Smart In Attempt To Land Role With Clippers

David Yapkowitz speaks with Los Angeles Clippers point guard Derrick Walton about his different experiences around the NBA and how playing overseas helped provide him with wisdom necessary to his growth.

David Yapkowitz

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Every season, multiple players come into NBA training camps with non-guaranteed contracts. For many of these players, being cut is just a mere formality. Most teams already have their rosters set, and these players are little more than practice bodies or potential G League assignees.

But for some of these players, a coveted NBA roster spot is an actual possibility. Some teams have a spot or two open, and the few players whose contracts aren’t guaranteed battle it out in training camp for the right to remain on the team going into the regular season.

Derrick Walton Jr. is no stranger to that battle. Following a strong four years at Michigan in which he was named the Big Ten Tournament Most Outstanding Player his senior year; he went undrafted in the 2017 NBA Draft.

He played with the Orlando Magic that year in summer league and had an impressive outing to the tune of 10 points, 3.5 assists, and 2.5 rebounds per game while shooting 46.9 percent from the field and 50 percent from three-point range. Despite needing some help at point guard, the Magic opted to look elsewhere.

After spending the 2017-18 season with the Miami HEAT on a two-way contract, Walton found himself again looking for a team at the end of that season. He was in camp with the Chicago Bulls last year, but was ultimately cut during preseason.

This year, he came into camp with the Los Angeles Clippers on an Exhibit 10 contract, meaning he was likely destined for the G League. He had a decent showing in the preseason with 7 points , 3 assists and 1.6 rebounds per game. The Clippers opted to convert his contract to a one-year, non-guaranteed deal, essentially solidifying his place on the opening night roster.

Having been through this before, it wasn’t like there was anything particularly different for Walton.

“It was pretty normal to me, just competing every day for the most part,” Walton told Basketball Insiders. “Nothing out of the extreme ordinary, I was just trying to pick up on things as fast as possible and implement them in games for the most part.”

Heading into the season, the Clippers were a little bit thin at point guard. Patrick Beverley was the incumbent starter, with Lou Williams capable of sliding over if need be. But after that, the point was where the Clippers didn’t have as much depth as they did elsewhere.

That appeared to leave a potential opening for Walton to grab the 15th and final roster spot. Despite the seeming need for the Clippers to strengthen their point guard corps a little bit, Walton wasn’t always sure that he had a good shot at making the team.

“It wouldn’t be truthful for me to say yeah, but I’m always silently confident about everything,” Walton told Basketball Insiders. “Nothing is ever for sure until it actually happens, so I would be lying if I said yeah. Now I’m just ready to build on everything for the most part.”

Although Walton initially started his NBA career with the Magic, it was the HEAT that gave him his first real shot in the NBA. Miami has had a history of success with undrafted players, including Walton’s current Clippers teammate Rodney McGruder. While Walton was on a two-way contract, injuries to Miami’s rotation during the 2017-18 season forced him into some immediate action.

He did spend a good portion of that season with the Sioux Falls Skyforce, the HEAT’s G League affiliate, but he was around the team enough to pick some things up here and there. He saw playing time in a total of 16 games in Miami and shot 41.2 percent from the three-point line. Miami ended up extending a qualifying offer that summer, making him an unrestricted free agent, but ultimately withdrew the offer.

The HEAT have been something of a standard-bearer in the NBA for being a professional organization, and Walton definitely learned some things that have helped in his professional career.

“I think just being a professional about everything overall. It’s always being ready,” Walton told Basketball Insiders. “Working hard is always the status quo at this level, but I think working smart and being a professional for the most part is what I learned.”

This past season after being cut by the Bulls, Walton opted for something a little bit different. He headed overseas and joined Zalgiris Kaunas in the Lithuanian Basketball League. He had some success and put up 8.4 points and 4.4 assists per game while in Lithuania, but left the team this past February and joined Alba Berlin in the EuroLeague.

Walton had heard stories about playing overseas and the possible hardships that may have come with it. But he didn’t quite understand it until he experienced it in person. It helped him grow as both a player and a person and helped toughen him up.

“I think it made me grow up a little faster. Overseas, I got to see some things, experience some things that you can only experience in person. Word of mouth can’t make you experience it,” Walton told Basketball Insiders. “Going through that type of stuff, I feel like it gave me a lot of wisdom overall. I feel really battle-tested like nothing fazes me at this point.”

And now, Walton is back stateside trying to carve out a role with the Clippers. He’s already been assigned to their G League affiliate, the Agua Caliente Clippers, but was recently recalled due to injuries to Kawhi Leonard and Patrick Beverley. In a win over the Atlanta Hawks, Walton played seven minutes and hit his only shot, a three-pointer.

Barring any major injuries, it’s unlikely that Walton sees much playing time with the Clippers this season. But in any case, he’s staying ready and is confident in what he can bring to the team should his number be called at some point.

“I think I can space the floor of course. I can make big plays and be like a coach on the floor,” Walton told Basketball Insiders. “Overall, just be a pest defensively and just try to make an impact on the court anyway possible, I’m one of those guys.”

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