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Stephen Curry Is Having a Season For the Ages

Stephen Curry is having a monster year – better than any of Steve Nash’s individual seasons, writes Nate Duncan.

Nate Duncan

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Stephen Curry Is Having a Season for the Ages

Golden State Warriors point guard Stephen Curry’s 51-point game against the Dallas Mavericks last week led me to this observation during the game:

It provoked quite a bit of response on both sides, including from analysts who worked with Nash in Phoenix.  To be clear, the comment was not meant to denigrate Nash in the slightest.  As the quarterback of some of the greatest offenses of all-time, he deserves to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Rather, the point was to provide some scale for how amazing Curry has been this season.  Coach Steve Kerr often compares Curry’s game to Nash (with the obvious differences that we’ll get to), and the comparison is a logical one since they are two of the few point guards in the NBA who have combined such levels of shooting and passing.

The biggest difference between the two players is defense, although we should avoid falling into the trap of overrating it for point guards.* While it is important at all positions, a team’s defensive fortunes rise and fall much more with its big men. Nonetheless, it does matter. Curry has become a good defender this year (although he has had lapses in certain games).  Nash was well below-average his entire career.

*Let’s call this the Kirk Hinrich principle. 

Curry has always been a steal maven, and has upped his steal rate to 3.1 percent of opponents’ possessions when he is on the floor. Nash never managed even half that in his prime. Nash’s only strength defensively was taking charges, as he was annually among the league leaders in that category.  But Curry’s quick hands and foot-speed make him a much better help defender than Nash.

More importantly, Nash almost never guarded the other team’s point guard in Phoenix if he were any sort of a threat, both because Nash was a poor individual defender and to save his energy for offense.  This was most notable in Phoenix’s titanic clashes against the San Antonio Spurs in 2005, 2007 and 2008, when Nash would usually be hidden on Bruce Bowen or someone like Brent Barry.  That forced Shawn Marion, usually the team’s power forward, to guard Tony Parker out on the perimeter.  Although those Phoenix defenses were a little underrated in that they managed to be average rather than terrible as is commonly believed, Nash essentially never played on a good defense in his career.  Although he did not exactly benefit from amazing defenders behind him much of the time, almost no one would argue that Nash was good defensively.

To date, the Warriors have by far the number one defense in the NBA by over 1.7 points per 100 possessions, per Nylon Calculus.  While much more of the credit for that should go to his teammates rather than Curry, it is very hard to imagine they could maintain that level with Nash in Curry’s stead. *

*Especially since the Warriors still had the number one defense while Andrew Bogut was injured for a month.

In terms of individual box score statistics, Curry’s 2014-15 has Nash beat.  His 27.4 PER is over three points better than any Nash season.  Nash four times recorded a better True Shooting Percentage than Curry’s .624, but never at anywhere near Curry’s 28.7 usage percentage.  Nash was certainly a much better passer as one of the best of all-time, but Curry is no slouch in that area. And Curry turns it over significantly less often than Nash, whether measured by turnover percentage, turnovers per 36 minutes or turnovers per 100 possessions.  Curry is also a much better rebounder this season than Nash ever was in his prime.

On film, Curry does a lot of things that Nash simply couldn’t.  He is much more dynamic off the dribble, making defenders look silly a few times per game.  And his jump shot is more versatile, especially from three-point range.  Curry gets his shot off much faster, and can do it easier one-on-one.  Teams periodically had a little success slowing down Nash by switching the pick and roll, but a big man on Curry is absolute suicide.

Nash was one of the greatest shooters ever, but it took him awhile to load up his release since he used his legs a little more. Curry’s volume and versatility from beyond the three-point line is a completely different animal for defenses to guard.  The Davidson product is also much more deadly using screens off the ball or shooting off dribble handoffs, roles in which Nash was not used nearly as much if at all.

The most common Twitter defense for Nash was that his offenses ranked number one in the league every year in his prime, and it’s a good one.  And even that probably understates how good those offenses were, since they often were two points/100 or more better than the number two offenses in those years. Clearly Nash’s effect on his team exceeded mere box score stats. He was certainly an enormous part of that.  But he does not deserve anywhere near all of the credit.  From the beginning of his run as an All-Star in 2001-02 through 2009-10, Nash played with perhaps the league’s best ever pick and roll big man and the league’s best ever pick and pop big man.  And the argument that Nash made Amar’e Stoudemire and Dirk Nowitzki is not a good one.  He certainly helped their efficiency, but they were no slouches on their own. Stoudemire was awesome in New York before his body betrayed him, and Nowitzki achieved even greater heights after Nash’s departure.

Nash almost always played with either a shooter or a wing at the four, such as Nowitzki, Shawn Marion, Boris Diaw and Channing Frye.  And those Suns teams in his prime had a ton of shooting around him along with some excellent wings like Jason Richardson and Joe Johnson.  Nash certainly improved the three-point shooting of guys like Leandro Barbosa and Raja Bell by helping them get more open shots.  But even hitting 40 percent on open threes is a huge skill in the NBA – they helped space the floor for him as well.

Curry has never played with an offensive big man anywhere near the caliber of Stoudemire or Nowitzki, or even young (and skinny) Boris Diaw.  Klay Thompson is having his own breakout season this year and is a better shooter than anyone Nash played with, but even the Warriors themselves would acknowledge a lack of additional shooting beyond Thompson and Curry on the roster.  Nevertheless, Golden State’s offense has been awesome this year, especially with Curry on the court.  Per NBA.com, they are scoring 114 points per 100 possessions with him out there, and only 100.3 with him on the bench.  Overall, their net rating with him on the court is a crazy 17.3 points/100, and that 114 points scored per/100 is 3.4 better than the league-leading Clippers.  Although Curry is not the passer Nash was, Curry’s gravity and his own higher-usage scoring is pushing the Warriors to nearly the same levels as the Nash-led Suns.  Curry currently leads the league in ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus statistic, which measures a player’s on-court impact while adjusted for the effect of his teammates and the opposition.

NBA.com only has on/off data going back to the 2007-08 season, but from that year through 2010 the Suns were right around 115 points/100 with Nash on the floor.  The Suns performed at similar overall levels going back to 2004-05, so it is reasonable to assume they were playing at a similar level with Nash in the game back then as well.  The point is, the Nash-led Suns only performed about 1 point/100 better on offense with Nash in the game than this year’s Warriors are with Curry playing.  Now, that must be normalized for the fact the league’s offensive environment was worse in many of those years, but we also must consider that teams these days are much better at using the new rules defensively and dealing with spread pick and roll.  But even more importantly, the offensive talent on the 2014-15 Warriors pales in comparison to those Suns teams.  Draymond Green and Andrew Bogut are skilled passers and screeners, but neither qualifies as an above-average scorer.  Andre Iguodala is in the same boat, while David Lee has played few minutes with Curry this year, can’t shoot threes and is not having one of his better years.  The biggest flaw in the pro-Nash argument is that it seems to give almost no credit to his teammates. Nowitzki and Stoudmire are two of the best offensive power forwards ever, while Marion should probably also join them in Springfield one day. The rest of the cast included a number of very good offensive players. Curry’s supporting cast doesn’t come close to measuring up offensively.

So Curry is pushing the Warriors to nearly Suns-esque heights even with a much worse offensive supporting cast.  Add in Curry’s vastly superior defense and rebounding, and it is clear to this writer at least that Curry is now playing at a higher level than Nash ever achieved.

With that said, it must be noted that the comparison was just a snapshot between what Curry is doing right now compared to any particular season of Nash’s career.  Nash’s longevity is very unique in NBA history, as only John Stockton managed to maintain such a level of effectiveness late into his career at point guard.  Curry has an incredibly long way to go to match Nash’s career.  But it must be noted that Nash did not even have his first good season until 2000-01 in Dallas at age 26.  If Curry’s shooting ability allows him to age anywhere near as well as Nash did, he could eventually eclipse Nash.  That, however, is an extremely tall order; only another 10 great seasons to go.

Payne Trade Positions Hawks for Off-Season

As noted on Saturday, the Atlanta Hawks’ 2015 offseason is complicated by the fact they only have the Early Bird rights of Paul Millsap and DeMarre Carroll, meaning that they may have to use salary-cap space to re-sign those players.  In that piece, I speculated that Atlanta might try to dump salary to facilitate those re-signings or use the space for outside players if Millsap and Caroll are willing to fit their salaries within the Early Bird exceptions.  Atlanta’s trade of Adreian Payne for a 2017 lottery-protected first-rounder from Minnesota today gives them a little more breathing room in case Millsap and Carroll’s market is a little better than anticipated.  His $1.9 million for 2015-16 and $2 million for 2016-17 is now on Minnesota’s books.

*The protections on the pick, per ESPN’s Brian Windhorst: Lottery-protected through 2020.

Given how little Payne was playing, the fact they have Mike Scott under contract for another two years after this one at a bargain $3.3 million per and the fact Payne is already 23 and has had health issues, Atlanta surrenders little in this deal.  Since they are unexpectedly contenders this season and probably expect to be next year as well, Payne wasn’t helping a lot.  The 2017 pick is a lot more useful, as by then Millsap, Korver, Horford and Carroll will likely be out of their primes and some rebuilding will be necessary.  Although discounting the 15th pick of the 2014 draft for a worse pick in 2017 or possibly later is a bit of a disappointment, Atlanta’s changed circumstances meant they just weren’t going to have a use for Payne.  They also may have seen enough of him in practice that they realized he wasn’t that good.  In that case, it was time to cut bait immediately before his value was further degraded by sitting on the bench.

From Minnesota’s side, it seems pretty clear that Flip Saunders sees little hope for Anthony Bennett.  Saunders brought in Thaddeus Young to play over Bennett in a disastrous trade of Miami’s top-10 protected first rounder to Philadelphia (part of the Andrew Wiggins deal), and Payne is yet another stretch four.  Hopefully the Wolves can find a trade market for Young, a potential free agent after the season, and find some time for both Payne and Bennett.

But there is some good news in this trade for NBA fans. Since the pick is lottery-protected rather than at some arbitrary number within the lottery, NBA fans will be spared the prospect of the Wolves tanking to keep their pick. NBA watchers will recall the annual tradition of Minnesota tanking down the stretch in the late 2000s after they attached a top-10 protected first-rounder to Sam Cassell so they could acquire Marko Jaric.  No need yet to bring in Mark Madsen as an assistant starting in 2016-17.

Nate Duncan is an NBA analyst and attorney. He writes regular features for Basketball Insiders and chats weekly at 11 Eastern on Tuesdays.

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NBA Daily: Playoff Implications In Week One

Douglas Farmer takes a quick look at a few matchups this NBA opening week that could have notable implications in playoff seeding, or lack thereof, many months from now.

Douglas Farmer

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When the Los Angeles Clippers lost to the New Orleans Pelicans in last season’s first week, they had no way of knowing how costly the defeat would be. Flipping that 116-109 defeat, or any single one of the Clippers’ other 33 losses, would have kept Los Angeles from the buzzsaw of the Golden State Warriors in last spring’s first round.

That seems obvious now when every game feels important because it has been so long since any game has happened. But in no time, this week’s games will be diminished with “early season” qualifiers. They should not be. An October win has the same worth as an April victory. Losing before Halloween is as costly as falling after St. Patrick’s Day.

Some nights heighten those stakes even further. Facing the closest competition in the standings can have double the effect. With that in mind, let’s take a quick look at a few matchups this opening week that could have notable implications in playoff seeding, or lack thereof, many months from now.

Tuesday: Los Angeles Lakers at Los Angeles Clippers, 10:30 p.m. ET – TNT.

To err on the side of obvious, as this is arguably the most-hyped game of the week, more than inane home-court advantage could be on the line in the second game of the league year. Neither Los Angeles team will have its full arsenal at its disposal, but that is part of the importance to the game: Both the Lakers and the Clippers have distinct hopes of managing their workloads this season. Getting off to a strong start is crucial to those intentions.

Consider last year’s Houston Rockets: If they had not struggled so mightily in October and November (not getting above .500 until Dec. 17), they would not have had to go pedal to the metal throughout the spring just to get home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Better seeding or fresher legs may have spelled better postseason fortune.

Wednesday: Boston Celtics at Philadelphia 76ers – 7:30 ET p.m. – ESPN.

The Eastern Conference pecking order is expected to separate these two, the Celtics among the also-rans while the 76ers chase the Milwaukee Bucks for the No. 1 seed. For both, though, each game will matter. Boston will have the Toronto Raptors, the Indiana Pacers and the Miami Heat all looking to slip by it, while the Bucks will inevitably rattle off enough wins to make Philadelphia’s pursuit a difficult one.

On top of that, studying how the wings of the Celtics fare against the size of the 76ers could be informative for both seasons.

Wednesday: Denver Nuggets at Portland Blazers, 10 p.m. ET – ESPN.

Perhaps only out of deference to continuity, both the Nuggets and the Blazers are trendy picks to finish among the top-four of the West. A year ago, they finished a game apart, only one game separating second-seeded Denver from falling to fourth in place of Houston.

Putting too much emphasis on one game the second night of the season may sound absurd, but the head-to-head matchups in this series will very likely determine playoff seeding among the league’s best. That is as true on Oct. 23 as it is on April 9.

Friday: Toronto Raptors at Boston Celtics – 7 p.m. ET.

Activate your League Pass subscription. While the defending champions may have lost a lot this summer, they still have playoff aspirations. By no means do those expectations equate to slipping in among the Eastern Conference’s barely-competent middle class. The Raptors anticipate fighting for home-court advantage. The Celtics hung on to such by one game last season. There is no reason to expect that gap to be bigger this year.

Friday: Dallas Mavericks at New Orleans Pelicans, 8 p.m. ET – ESPN.

The legitimacy of these playoff hopes may as much hinge on fall-off elsewhere in the West as the progress of these upstarts, but the odds of both the Mavericks and the Pelicans reaching the playoffs are slim. With or without Zion Williamson this week – and it’ll be without – New Orleans will need to boost its record while knocking Dallas’ early if it wants to find the postseason at the dawn of the Zion Era.

The Mavericks, meanwhile, are looking to prove the viability of the Luka Dončić and Kirstaps Porzingis pairing. Floundering into the draft lottery will not do much in the eyes of prospective free agents.

Friday: Utah Jazz at Los Angeles Clippers, 10:30 p.m. ET – ESPN.

Much akin to the Nuggets and Blazers, the Jazz have stayed in the contention conversation because of continuity more than anything else, while the Clippers jumped into it via their active offseason. At some point, some of these teams have to end up in the bottom half of the Western Conference playoffs. That’s just math.

Last season, two games separated the fifth seed from the eighth. Los Angeles may be without Paul George right now, but how it does without him will thus directly impact what awaits George in the spring.

When the Clippers lost to the Pelicans 12 months ago, their leading scorer was Tobias Harris, who tallied 26 points yet was still a minus-3 while on the court. By the playoffs, Harris was working for the 76ers, but his showing in October still altered Los Angeles’ spring.

The same can be said of many games this week, early season or not.

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NBA Daily: Five Breakout Players To Watch — Pacific Division

Shane Rhodes takes a look at players in the Pacific Division that have a great chance to take a significant leap in the upcoming season.

Shane Rhodes

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Anything can happen in the NBA.

Every season, there are so many things that seem to come out of the blue, whether it be a team that was or wasn’t expected to be competitive or big trade that no one saw coming. There is just too much randomness involved in the day-to-day to be certain about anything.

But, if there is one thing consistent in the NBA, it’s that there are always a few breakouts every season.

Pascal Siakam, Montrezl Harrell, Victor Oladipo, Nikola Jokić are a few that have made stepped out from behind the curtain and made their way to the NBA’s center stage over the last few seasons.

Basketball Insiders has already looked at the Atlantic, Central, Southeast, Northwest and Southwest — but which players could step into those shoes from the Pacific Division?

Landry Shamet, Los Angeles Clippers

After the Philadelphia 76ers traded him to the Los Angeles Clippers, Landry Shamet shined in a primary role. And now, after the Clippers’ serious roster improvement, the game should come even easier to Shamet in his sophomore season.

In 25 games with Los Angeles, Shamet averaged 10.9 points, 2.2 rebounds and 2.3 assists while he shot 41.4% from the floor and 45% from three-point range with relatively little room to operate. On the season, he shot 42.2% from three, good for 11th-best in the NBA.

Now with Paul George and Kawhi Leonard expected to draw much of the defensive attention, Shamet – and the entire Clippers’ roster on the whole – should have plenty of room to operate.

Given weapons of George’s and Leonard’s caliber, opposing defenses should be stretched quite thin against Los Angeles; although he proved he was a plus-shooter, Shamet may find that other teams pay him relatively little mind when he has the ball. And, because of that, a jump in efficiency is firmly in Shamet’s range of possible outcomes in 2019, however hard that is to believe.

The Clippers won’t need Shamet to be a world-beater, just good enough to keep defenses honest when faced with George, Leonard and others. So, he may not see a meteoric rise in his total touches or field goal attempts per game, but it would be a surprise if there wasn’t a leap in his counting stats, namely points and assists.

If Shamet can take that boost and maintain a spot near the top of the league in three-point percentage, expect the NBA to take notice.

Deandre Ayton, Phoenix Suns

Deandre Ayton had quite the impressive rookie season for the Phoenix Suns. Unfortunately, it went unnoticed by most because of the hype machine that was Luka Dončić.

Now in his second season, his first with a capable point guard on the roster, the NBA may not be ready for him.

Ayton averaged 16.3 points, 10.3 rebounds and shot 58.3% from the floor as a rookie in an offense that lacked a floor general and, outside of Devin Booker, struggled to create space. While Ricky Rubio isn’t an elite guard, he is more than capable of injecting some life into a Suns offense that was one of the worst in the NBA, both in terms of scoring and turnovers.

What does that mean, exactly? Some cleaner looks underneath should allow for a few more field goals, while the added spacing from Rubio, Cameron Johnson, Dario Šarić and others should open things up even more down on the block.

While he isn’t a marquee addition, Aron Baynes could also play a pivotal role on the Suns if he can get Ayton to buy in on the defensive end.

If he can step up his game on that end of the court, and take the necessary steps that are expected of him on offense, Ayton could prove one of the best young players in the NBA this season.

Bogdan Bogdanovič, Sacramento Kings

Like Ayton, the Sacramento Kings’ Bogdan Bogdanovič had quite an excellent, if not under the radar, rookie season. The 6-foot-6 wing averaged 14.1 points, 3.5 rebounds and 3.8 assists in his second season and played a major role in the Kings’ turnaround after years of poor results.

That may seem like a breakout in and of itself. But, unfortunately, Bogdanovič’s play went largely unnoticed on the national stage because of his teammate, De’Aaron Fox, who had a breakout season of his own a year ago.

That said, with another offseason in the books, it wouldn’t be a shock to see Bogdanovič elevate his game further.

Bogdanovič should spend much of his time with the second unit. And, as the leader of the bench, he certainly shouldn’t lack for touches. Likewise, against opposing second units, Bogdanovič should come into his fair share of open shots or easy plays.

With Buddy Hield and Harrison Barnes clogging up space in the starting lineup, Bogdanovič may never see enough time to break out to a more national audience — barring a sixth-man role rise ala Lou Williams. That said, if he can maintain his efficiency, Bogdanovič’s play should prove competent enough to put him squarely in the conversation for Most Improved and, maybe, even Sixth Man of the Year.

And in his third season, if that isn’t a breakout for Bogdanovič then what is?

Avery Bradley, Los Angeles Lakers

It’s been an arduous journey for Avery Bradley.

In his last season with the Boston Celtics, Bradley was regarded as one of the NBA’s premier defenders and was more than capable on offense as he averaged 16.3 points, 6.1 rebounds and 2.2 assists.

But since? Bradley has bounced between three different teams while his stats have dropped off and his defense has worsened. In two seasons between the Clippers, Detroit Pistons and Memphis Grizzlies, Bradley managed a meager 11.8 points per game while he averaged a defensive rating of 113, by far the worst of his career.

That said, Bradley’s stint with the Los Angeles Lakers could see a return to form. While the “best shape of his life” story is a yearly cliché, Bradley may truly be in the best shape of his life, having lost 40 pounds between his trade from Los Angeles to Memphis and the start of free agency.

Alongside LeBron James and Anthony Davis, a healthy Bradley should prove more than capable as a secondary scorer, a role which would afford him enough energy to wreak havoc again on the defensive end.

He may not post a career year, but expect Bradley to once again look like the player he was for seven years in Boston as opposed to the question mark that has taken the court over the last two seasons.

Marquese Chriss, Golden State Warriors

Marquese Chriss, the No. 8 overall pick back in 2016, has been a flop to this point in his NBA career. But with the Golden State Warriors, Chriss may be in line for his best season as a pro and a potential breakout year.

There’s a reason the Suns regarded Chriss so highly as a prospect too — while at Washington, he showed he had the tools necessary to play the role of the NBA’s modern, floor-stretching big. He averaged 13.7 points, 5.4 rebounds and shot nearly 57% from the field and 35% from three-point range.

In Phoenix’s always dysfunctional system, Chriss struggled. After a production dip between rookie and sophomore seasons, the Suns cut bait and he bounced from the Houston Rockets to the Cleveland Cavaliers. There, Chriss showed some of that spark that made him a top pick, thought

Now with the Warriors, Chriss has impressed enough in training camp to push Alfonzo McKinnie from the roster. With little frontcourt depth beyond Draymond Green, Kevon Looney and Willie Cauley-Stein, there is a clear opportunity here and a role for Chriss to fill.

If he can take advantage, Chriss would certainly prove a worthwhile gamble for the Warriors and a nice surprise this season.

Any player could find themselves on the fast track to NBA stardom. Fox, Harrell, Siakam and D’Angelo Russell represent a few prime examples from a year ago; players can come out of nowhere to make their mark on the NBA stage, and that could prove true again this season.

But these players, via a combination of opportunity and or talent, would seem to have a greater chance to do so – maybe more so than anyone else – in the Pacific Division. If they step up or show out, don’t be surprised – their respective teams certainly won’t be.

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How Magical Can Orlando Be?

In an Eastern Conference full of unknowns, the Orlando Magic stand out as one of the most prominent in that category. Matt John takes a look at the three players who should play a role in their progress this season.

Matt John

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As it stands right now, the Eastern Conference is wide open.

It definitely has its favorites, like the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers. But even they have their question marks.

There are teams who could be at that level, or possibly higher should things break their way, like the Boston Celtics and Indiana Pacers. But, that remains to be seen; how they do depends on if their previously injured stars are back to normal and how much their young talent progresses.

Then there are others like the Brooklyn Nets, who honestly may have to wait a year before they’re put in the conversation, and the Miami HEAT, who just got their biggest free agent since LeBron James and could sneak their way into the conversation if they make the right moves.

And then, there’s the Orlando Magic.

There’s a lot of optimism coming out of the Magic Kingdom. And why shouldn’t there be? Orlando made its first playoff appearance in seven years, they had one of the best records in the league following the trade deadline (18-8) and they brought pretty much everyone back and even some reinforcements.

And yet, of all the teams in the East, Orlando’s the one that has no consensus. Or, more specifically, no one knows where they will fall in the conference. They might just be the biggest wild card in an Eastern Conference that already has plenty of them.

If all their hopes and dreams come true this season, the Magic could very well be right up there with the Bucks and the Sixers. If it goes the opposite way, they could find themselves back in the lottery.

But this Orlando team is good. They can make the playoffs, but they should be wary of their other competitors. The Toronto Raptors may have lost Kawhi Leonard but, as of now, they’re not going anywhere. Same goes for the Detroit Pistons. There is also a lot of buzz around two particular and young up and coming teams- the Atlanta Hawks and Chicago Bulls.

If the Magic are to prove themselves better than those teams and as good as those aforementioned ones, they’ll need contributions from several particular players. They already know what they’re going to get out of Nikola Vucevic, Evan Fournier, Terrence Ross, Al-Farouq Aminu, Wes Iwundu and DJ Augustin, but for the following players, Orlando’s odds of getting to that next level depends on their individual progressions.

Aaron Gordon

Aaron Gordon has already proven himself an above average player. He’s an excellent athlete, a hard-nosed defender, has improved his three-point shot over the years and, in this past year alone, has shown improved playmaking ability, as his assist percentage shot all the way up to 16.6.

But now, entering his sixth season in the NBA, he still has yet to prove that he’s a truly special talent. We’ve been waiting for a couple of years to see an explosion from Gordon, the transition from raw talent to the superstar we anticipated he’d be. It’s not entirely his fault; previous Orlando management forced Gordon to play out of position for too long, which may have hurt his growth as a player.

It didn’t ruin his career, but it didn’t help one bit. Two years later, Gordon has some playoff experience under his belt. His first go-round was honestly quite solid for a playoff rookie. 15.2 points, 7.2 rebounds, 3.6 assists while putting up 47/40/52 splits is promising, but those are satisfactory stats for a complementary player.

Gordon’s ceiling right now is still that of a future star. And, at 24-years-old, there is still plenty of time for him to reach that level. Last season, Steve Clifford wanted the young player to be more a defensive specialist, a role in which Gordon performed very well in. Now with higher expectations from the team, Gordon should be expected to take his game another step further.

We got an explosion from an athletic, defensively stout power forward who showed off the three-point range last season that we keep expecting from Gordon, but it came from Pascal Siakam. If Gordon is to take that next step, he should look at Siakam’s last season as an example to build his game on.

Jonathan Isaac

Jonathan Isaac is only 22-years-old. He’s 6-foot-10. He has a 7-foot-1 wingspan. He plays more like a wing but does things on the court that any big would be capable of doing. When people think of Isaac, they think of raw talent.

Following an injury-plagued rookie season, Isaac did okay offensively in his first full year, averaging 9.6 points on 43/32/81 splits while also averaging 5.5 rebounds. Defensively, there was a lot to be excited about, as Isaac averaged 1.3 blocks and 0.8 steals while also putting up a Defensive Real Plus-Minus of 1.13.

With his insane physical measurements, there’s a lot to like about Isaac’s game and potential. His body frame has garnered comparisons (albeit unfairly) to Kevin Durant, but the potential he has makes it hard not to see a great future for him.

He knows how to use his length to bother his opponents; there are just too many advantages he has physically to not already be a good defender. Offensively, he’s not at the same level. But, every so often, Isaac showed he was capable on that end. There were even times where he took over games last season.

As of now, Orlando already has Vooch, Fournier, and Ross to handle the scoring load. If they want to take that next step, Isaac’s offensive progression would not only vault them higher in the standings, but it would also add a whole new dimension to the team.

There’s no rush for him to become a star, but if Isaac can show even more improvement in year three, then the Magic should become a lot harder to stop.

Markelle Fultz

Now this is where the Magic’s ceiling gets interesting.

Markelle Fultz was a project from the day it was announced that he was traded to Orlando. It was clear he no longer fit Philadelphia’s timeline and that he needed his own timetable to get his game back on track. That said, he’s a project worth investing in; Fultz was a top overall pick for a reason.

Unlike Anthony Bennett, whom Cleveland reached for back in 2013, Fultz has the tools to be something special. It’s only been injury and mental gymnastics that have held him back. Now he has a fresh start and a team that can afford to be patient with him.

Because of all the off the court drama that was going on with Fultz, there’s no concrete data to support anything that he could do this season. All we have now are just preseason videos to see what Fultz can do. But, in the few preseason games that we’ve seen, the returns look promising.

With or without a reliable jump shot, Fultz is definitely an NBA-caliber player. He has good court vision.

He can attack the basket.

And he has shown good instincts on the defensive end of the floor.

Then there’s his jumper. His jump shot looks… better? It doesn’t look like it’s completely fixed, but when your jumper is so ugly that it would have made Shawn Marion grimace, you have nowhere to go but up.

We’ll have to see how his new and improved jump shot will fare when the real competition starts. If it’s for real, then Markelle becomes a much more lethal scoring threat. He’s already shown that he can be a useful tool in the offense. His abilities as a scorer would make him all the more dynamic.

The reason why Fultz’s potential could pay more dividends than Gordon or Isaac this season is that the one area where the Magic desperately need improvement is at the point guard spot. DJ Augustin had one of his most efficient seasons ever last season, but that didn’t exactly take Orlando that far. If Fultz is to show that he was worth the top pick – which, at this point, may be unrealistic – then Orlando becomes so much better.

Gordon’s and Isaac’s improvements would definitely take the Magic up a notch. Fultz could vault them up so much higher.

We’re not going to include Mo Bamba on this list because, as long as Vooch is around, Bamba won’t be relied on to do much besides be a back-up five. Even in that role, he has some competition.

Now say these guys all progress enough to stay promising, but not enough that the Magic would take a major leap forward. Then comes the possibility of trading some of their youth for an established star.

Orlando has the assets to acquire someone good. Players like Blake Griffin or Bradley Beal could be had if they have an offer sweet enough to entice their respective teams, but it all depends on the progress of the roster as a whole. They may have to decide whether to try and open a win-now window by pairing Vucevic and Fournier with an established star or to build for a more glorious future around Gordon, Isaac, Bamba and Fultz.

Either way, this Magic team should be up next. What is left to be determined is how “up next” they truly are.

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