Welcome back to The ‘Shop for this week’s discussion. Jabari Davis and Lang Greene continue their NBA conversation with a few new topics from the headlines and are joined today by Josh Eberley of Hoop Mag (NBA.com) and Press Basketball:
Jabari: I hope the holiday treated you and the families well, Josh and Lang. Hopefully, a whole lot better than former NBA head coach George Karl is treating some of his ex-players with some of the excerpts coming from his upcoming book, ‘Furious George’ set to be released on January 10, 2017. “Tell-all” books are nothing new and, given the fact that Karl appears to have fizzled out of the NBA rotation of viable coaching candidates, I guess this should come as no shock.
My biggest issue with it wasn’t the fact that he went out of his way to heavily criticize some of the very players that helped him become the coach with the fifth-most wins in NBA history over the second half of his coaching career. My problem with it was the way in which he decided to personally attack these players using coded (and in some cases blatantly prejudiced) language to add the type of tone that was likely used to specifically sell books. Essentially, this has the feeling of selling the very people out that he experienced some of his greatest professional heights with, while tacking on the type of language and rhetoric that could only have been added to specifically hurt those individuals OR for the positive monetary benefits that can come from sensationalist commentary. First, did you have an issue with Karl’s decision to specifically call out Carmelo Anthony and Kenyon Martin by essentially calling them “fatherless” and criticizing them for things completely out of their control? Second, does this feel like a “final act” for Karl as a member of the NBA sidelines or could you see a path where he would be trusted by NBA players enough to be placed in charge at some point moving forward?
Josh: I love tell-all books, I really do. We’re all NBA junkies and of course I want the behind-the-scenes tour! That said, Karl didn’t have to take it there. Nothing he said about Carmelo Anthony’s game was unfair, it’s not stuff we all haven’t heard before on Twitter or wherever. But adding in his doctor’s notes on the impact of not having a father was probably out of line and overall unnecessary.
Karl put himself in a bad situation here; people will discredit him based on his lack of tact. The truth is there’s probably some great stuff in that book. Even if you hate the guy (as many players seem to), he was an NBA coach for a lot of years. I hope people can sort through the B.S. while still enjoying the nuggets, not for Karl, but for your own NBA fandom.
Oh, Karl is done. Who in the hell would ever want to play for this guy? Boogie, Melo, Martin, Allen, Iguodala, etc. Have all blasted the man. Now he’s writing a book throwing crap on the most prestigious players to ever suit up for him? Even if some of the strictly basketball-related criticism is fair, no one wants to play for a guy who’s going to crap on them publicly and privately.
Lang: What’s up Hoop Freaks? Strong welcome to J.E. I appreciate you stopping through, my man. Let’s rock.
When guys are trying to sell books, especially in today’s climate, I already know there will be some juicy nuggets to bring in readers. George Karl just followed the normal procedure for someone heading into retirement not looking for another check. I might be taking a different approach on this, but Karl has coached some guys that most in his profession would be shaking in their boots to lead. Let’s run down some names for the Freaks: Allen Iverson, DeMarcus Cousins, Rajon Rondo, Kenyon Martin, J.R. Smith, Carmelo Anthony, Vin Baker, Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp, JaVale McGee, Ty Lawson, Chris Andersen, Reggie Evans, Julius Hodge, J.R. Reid, Sam Cassell and Anthony Mason. I mean, I can go on but you get the point.
My goodness. Most of the guys on this list are just headstrong alpha males without any off-court baggage. But some of these guys were (or are) dealing with alcohol issues and drug issues. Some were just blatantly immature and still are to this day. One of the guys got shot in the middle of the season for goodness sake. Quite a few were known to give their other coaches fits during their careers.
I found his criticism to be out of line, but maybe the man was just fed up after having to play the “bigger man” all these years while keeping things internal.
Lastly, the fatherless talk is definitely loaded in code. Make no mistake, it plays to an audience that have preconceived notions of young minority multi-millionaires. However, fatherless households in minority communities is without a doubt a big issue – a huge issue. I don’t want to dismiss that nugget, but I also feel Karl wasn’t trying to “lend a hand” or “raise awareness” when he was going after ‘Melo and Kenyon. Last thing, the exponential growth of fatherless households since the 1960s has increased in all ethnic groups in America. Just to be clear.
Jabari: I suppose we should wait for the rest of the material or perhaps a few more excerpts for additional perspective on what Karl is discussing in the book, but the first bit of information (while it will certainly snatch headlines and potentially sell some books) actually turns me off on the idea of the project, altogether.
Transitioning to a topic Josh actually brought up on Twitter, many of us came into the season with high hopes for what year-two of D’Angelo Russell might look like. The “fit” with head coach Luke Walton, his staff and the system is significantly better than last season, but Russell still hasn’t quite been able to turn the corner just yet.
Finding a consistent effort, not only on both sides of the court, but specifically when his shot is not falling, has been a challenge for Russell to this point. This is not an uncommon characteristic for young guards, but Russell was brought in under the guise of potentially being a “next-level” player among his peers and the hope has to be that he’ll at least be able to continue developing into an impact player at this level. Russell does enough on a regular basis (14.5 PPG, 4.5 APG, 3.3 RPG in 26.3 MPG) to still make you raise your eyebrows about his potential, but remains a sub-40 percent shooter from the field for the season (39.4 percent) and still turns the ball over at an alarming rate on some nights. His current Defensive Real Plus-Minus ranking is 39th among point guards that have started at least four games in 2016-17 just behind Russell Westbrook and ahead of Beno Udrih. When adjusted to determine Real Plus-Minus Wins among the same group, Russell ranks just 25th.
I’m covering him from within the market and will fully admit that I still believe he has the “it” factor that could make him special, but I’d be interested in hearing from each of you about what his potential looks like from the outside and whether he will ultimately live up to the hype many of us have placed on him?
Josh: The “it” factor is what scared me off this kid in what appeared to be a stacked draft. I remember watching him play against Arizona in the tourney and he just kept shooting and shooting. Frankly, it was ugly. He shot a woeful 3-of-19 (16 percent) while his teammates shot a combined 17-33 (52 percent). It was one game but that’s the downside of the “it” factor, it seems to come with a lack of self-awareness. His decision-making is at times, well, not ideal.
That comes off as wholly negative, but I don’t mean it to be. Not unlike Devin Booker and Justise Winslow, the hype of the class seems to drain some of the reality. The Lakers’ hot start was in spite of Russell and not because of him. Is he still incredibly talented? Absolutely. Could he still be an All-Star? Hell yeah, he could. However, his sophomore numbers leave a lot to be desired. Playing less minutes under Luke Walton than he did under Byron Scott doesn’t seem like a red flag to you?
I think he’s going to be a good player – he’s only just creeping up to 21 years old – but I don’t see him as the franchise player many hope he could be.
Lang: Way too early to say he doesn’t have “it” in my view. I remember watching Russell Westbrook during his first season and a half and thinking, “Man, this kid is going to be really good.” But I certainly didn’t see 32-11-11 type of potential.
Honestly, from the outside it seems D’Angelo might fall into the “too-cool-for-school” crowd. The jersey always looks just right, the movements textbook, picturesque jump shots when things are rolling for the Lakers, etc. But I did a YouTube search for “D’Angelo Russell hustle play” and came up with crickets.
I’m on record with you, Jabari, saying Russell has more upside than Devin Booker. This is based on “potential” and what I believe he can become. But here is the definitive D’Angelo Russell play for me up until now – from last Christmas:
Four-on-one fastbreak, two forwards on the wing (Julius Randle and Anthony Brown, I believe) and Nick Young spotting up from three. Oh, and old man Paul Pierce as the only defender on the break. Russell double dribbles after trying to go solo. But pay attention to his teammates’ reaction. Randle is in absolute disbelief. Nick Young is befuddled. The end of the Lakers’ bench is frustrated and have a mini huddle before clapping it up. Just look at Roy Hibbert and Robert Sacre.
But I say all this to say, I think the man has All-Star potential … but it’s much more than acting or looking the part. It’s about becoming that dude.
Jabari: The decreased minutes under Walton aren’t really a shock as you’ll notice everyone within the main rotation is playing somewhere right around 22-29 minutes. His minutes were also reduced for about a week following that knee injury that sidelined him for 12 games, but I anticipate them settling somewhere between 27-30 minutes by the end of the year. It seems like we are all on the same page when it comes to Russell, although, I still think he could be a star player at some point. He’s just nowhere near that place at this stage, and the jury is still out on whether he will ultimately reach it.
Continuing on to another story… can we please take a moment to appreciate just how phenomenal that Cavs vs. Warriors game was from Christmas? At the same time, can I now rescind my “let’s appreciate everything else aside from CLE-GS” stance on the season and start getting geared up for an eventual showdown? I know there are a ton of great storylines continuing to play out (Westbrook, James Harden, the Spurs, the Raptors, etc.), but after seeing “Game 8” the other day, I am ALL in, once again! IF we get a Part 3 from these teams, is Cleveland actually the favorite? Even with the addition of Kevin Durant? Even though the Warriors appear to have at least figured out some of their defensive issues that plagued them in the early going?
Josh: Let’s start with the obvious: It was a great game. I won’t lie, I was in the danger zone early Christmas day. The girlfriend spent Christmas Eve with my family this year so it was Christmas at her place.
Genuine fear creeped into my heart that I’d have to record and watch later. I was at the mercy of the girlfriend’s family, spending Christmas afternoon with them for the first time. I was unsure if NBA basketball on mute during present opening would fly. (My own family has long accepted it at my place.)
*Walk in hug everybody.
“Can I help with anything, No? Great, I mean, umm, hey, would it be cool if basketball was on mute while we did this.”
*Five pairs of eyes fixate on the new guy, how can he be so bold?
“Yeah, for sure, Josh. No problem at all.”
That was my 60 yarder and it was cash, my full court buzzer-beater – nothing but net. Watching the game later after knowing the result would’ve been horrid.
Can we take a second to appreciate 36-year-old Richard Jefferson cramming all over the Warriors? I broke taboo just once during the present opening, jumping up and down and screaming when Jefferson drove his flag six feet into Klay Thompson.
What was the question again? Are the Cavaliers the favorites in the tiebreaker series? Ha. No. Hell no. Steph Curry was hurt, Draymond Green got suspended, Andrew Bogut got hurt, three all-time plays were necessary to win in seven. The Warriors have to be the favorites still. They added a former MVP to a 73-win team. I WILL NOT LET ANYONE FORGET THIS. If the Cavaliers win again, it’s the best NBA Finals ever. There’s never been a better team on the paper than this Warriors squad, they are still coming together. Wait, just wait, for their post All-Star run. It’s going to be savage.
Lang: Josh, props for standing in the pocket with the future in-laws my man. You set the tone early so the next 10-15 years should be a breeze. I remember those early days…
Let me ask this, though. Do I hear excuses? Do I hear a bunch of “What Ifs”? I think I do. Since we’re at excuses making, what about 2015 … what if Kyrie Irving wasn’t hurt in Game 1 of the Finals? What if Kevin Love wasn’t hurt? It’s sports, man. I always wonder what if Richard Steele didn’t stop the first Meldrick Taylor versus Julio Cesar Chavez fight with two seconds remaining in the 12th round. Would Taylor have become one of the all-time greats?
But we’ll never know so all we can deal with is what’s the reality and the reality is, as Ric Flair said, “To be the man, You’ve got to beat the man.” The Cavaliers beat the Warriors. Period. This we know. Then beat them again on Christmas. Cleveland is the favorite until I see something different. This isn’t to say the Warriors aren’t going to show up with a can, because they will, but the Cavaliers – at full strength – might have their number.
Jabari: Part of me absolutely wants to believe what Josh is saying, but what we’ve seen over the last four times the two teams have faced one another makes me hesitant to put anyone ahead of LeBron, Kyrie and a productive Kevin Love so comfortably. The elephant in the room when it comes to these Warriors is the specific way that game ended, in my opinion. Heading in, one of the more intriguing aspects of Durant deciding to join the Warriors was the idea of seeing him play within a system and alongside a group of guys that have won before. Whether it was a foul on the final sequence or not, why did that look so similar to the way things would devolve down the stretch of OKC games year after year?
Josh: I don’t know if I’d go there, not yet. Though, I’m sure somewhere Reggie Jackson is tickled by that notion. The Warriors just aren’t who they are going to be – not yet anyway. Comfort and custom are parts of this game, teams with the least changes usually thrive early in the season. If the Warriors are still falling apart in April, it’s time to bring back this idea. Remember, Durant has actually seen his shooting percentages drop four straight years come the playoffs, I’ll be watching for that this year.
Lang: Still too early to tell, but maybe the problem in OKC in late situations wasn’t Russell Westbrook.
Jabari: The last topic for the week is related to something I actually saw Josh discussing via Twitter (@JoshEberley, @LangGreene and @JabariDavisNBA) the other day. Josh, you were talking about the great play of Kyrie Irving, John Wall and Kyle Lowry. The debate over the top point guards will rage on for another day, but I’d actually like each of you to rank these East guards in terms of which of these guys deserve to make an All-Star team aaaaand which do you think WILL make it: Irving, Wall, Lowry, Kemba Walker and Isaiah Thomas?
Lang: Interesting question. Kyrie Irving is automatic from the standpoint of being on the East’s best team and defending champion. Isaiah Thomas has been hurt so I have him pulling up the rear, for now. I give John Wall the edge over Kemba Walker. The man has been everything to Washington and I believe Walker has a bit more help on a nightly basis. So if I were ranking right now, Kyrie then J-Dub, then Kemba and then I.T. (and that’s just because of the slight injury absence). I honestly believe Kemba, for all his goodness, will be snubbed again this season. LG out.
Josh: Kyle Lowry has been the best point guard in the East this year, I don’t think it has been close. He’s on the second-best team, he’s probably the best defender of the bunch and his shooting splits are out of this damn world.
A lot has been made of Kyrie Irving being the best he has ever been, or not developing to the level of a superstar, etc. It has been an ongoing conversation, but the simple answer is that Kyrie has been great. He’s an excellent complement to LeBron James, he’s shooting very well, the Cavaliers are winning. He should come off the bench in the All-Star game behind Lowry and Giannis Antetokounmpo, but he should be there.
It gets tricky here because everyone you listed is good enough to get in. John Wall is the next man up here, the Wizards are pushing at the right time and he’s having a career-year.
So chances are one of Isaiah Thomas and Kemba Walker are missing this year. I think it’s Walker’s turn to get in, he’s the better defensive player and they both mean similar to their teams offensively. I also don’t feel so bad because Walker was the last cut last year. Shouts to Goran Dragić, who is having a really good year but has no chance due to market coverage and team record.
Jabari: For me, Lowry has been the most consistent of the group thus far, but Kyrie will likely get voted in by the fans. As long as each of them make it, I’m fine with whichever (if any) of the other three-four candidates make it. After Wall, to Josh’s point, it could simply be a matter of which guy is up in the proverbial rotation.
Really good stuff from each of you gentlemen this week. Allow me to thank each of you for taking the time and I encourage the readers to continue providing the excellent feedback and topic suggestions in the comment section or on Twitter!
NBA Daily: Luke Walton’s Uncertain Future
Could this be it for Luke Walton in Sacramento? David Yapkowitz examines.
There’s one big question surrounding the Sacramento Kings this season: what, exactly, will become of head coach Luke Walton? Walton, in the second year of a four-year deal he signed back in 2019, has often headlined the group of coaches that are thought most likely to be let go next.
Brought in by the previous regime, Sacramento’s situation has changed considerably since they brought in Walton. Former general manager Vlade Divac has since stepped down and been replaced with Monte McNair. And, often, new management will look to build their team, coaching staff included, in their own mold — that’s nothing really against the current personnel, just that different voices sometimes have different visions and want to construct a team within that vision.
If the team plays well, the new management team may be inclined to ride it out with the current staff. In a somewhat recent example, when Masai Ujiri first took over in the Toronto Raptors front office, the Raptors started surging in the standings and Ujiri held on to Dwane Casey for a while before ultimately replacing him with Nick Nurse. Casey had been hired by former executive Bryan Colangelo.
The Kings are in an interesting scenario in that, despite being a perennial bottom-dweller, expectations have existed for the team for over a decade now, the main expectation being that they would eventually improve beyond that bottom-feeder status. Now, that expectation may be more warranted than ever, as Sacramento has some seriously talented pieces in place, including franchise cornerstone De’Aaron Fox and Rookie of the Year contender Tyrese Haliburton.
In fact, just a few weeks ago, the Kings looked like they might actually be turning things around. On a four-game win streak, with wins over the Los Angeles Clippers and Boston Celtics, they looked like a different team.
Since then, unfortunately, they’ve reverted to the Kings of old. Now, they’re on an eight-game losing streak, their first such skid since 2019.
There are plenty of good teams in the Western Conference and, because of that, at least a couple of them are going to be on the outside looking in come playoff time. Of course, it can be hard to fault teams that show consistent effort and improvement. But that just hasn’t been the Kings, for quite some time now.
The main area of concern for the Kings where they haven’t shown real improvement is on the defensive end. They were already among the bottom half of the league on that end before their most recent skid, while it’s been significantly worse during their last eight games.
It’s always a possibility to bring in a defensive-minded assistant to help with that end, much like Sacramento tried to do on offense this past offseason. To spark the team on that end of the court, the Kings added Alvin Gentry to Walton’s staff and for the most part, it’s worked out: Sacramento is 12th in the league in scoring, up from 22nd last season. They’re also shooting better from three-point range while playing at a quicker pace.
But in order to win in this league, you need to do it on both ends. And that’s something the Kings haven’t shown the ability to do.
Sacramento is allowing 119.6 points per game, dead last in the NBA. Their defensive rating of 118.7 is also last. And, at this point, simply adding an assistant might not do the trick; at this point, it might just be easier (and more effective) for management to simply cut ties with Walton and set up a new staff under a new head coach.
Walton’s popularity and potential as a head coach first piqued during the 2015-16 season with the Golden State Warriors. When he stepped in for Steve Kerr, who took leave from the team to recover from back surgery, Walton guided the team to a 24-0 start and a 39-4 record upon Kerr’s return. While the Warriors were in their second of what would be five-straight runs to the NBA Finals and had a strong foundation already in place, Walton’s involvement in the feat can’t be discounted, while it opened the league’s eyes as to his potential as a head coach.
But later, during Walton’s years as head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, the team showed slight, if minimal improvement each year at best. In fact, those Lakers were similar to these Kings in that they were a young team with no real experience just trying to get better. And, obviously, it’s much easier to look good when you already have an established unit.
Coaching in the NBA is a tough and often thankless job. When things go right, they get little credit. When they go wrong, the blame lies almost squarely on their head. As with players, sometimes a coaching situation just isn’t the right fit for either party; maybe this Kings’ roster just isn’t built to maximize Walton’s system.
That said, in this particular case, it would probably be best for the Kings to ride the current situation out. Sacramento has shown some improvement from last season and Walton deserves some credit for that. He’s shown constant faith and trust in his rookie, Haliburton, while he has Fox playing at a near All-Star level and Richaun Holmes looking like one of the NBA’s best in the painted area (and an absolute steal, given his contract).
Going forward, it’s worth rolling the dice and seeing if they can’t end this skid and get back to their strong play earlier in the year. Further, it might not be that great an idea to make such a radical structural change halfway through the season when your team might still have a realistic shot at the postseason.
That said, should the team continue to struggle, then it would be wise to revisit the matter in the offseason. If they do, it wouldn’t be much of a reach if McNair decides that two years is enough and that he wants to bring in a head coach of his own choosing.
NBA Daily: Where Does John Collins Really Fit?
Since the Atlanta Hawks and John Collins were unable to agree to an extension in the offseason, rumors have swirled about the 23-year old big and his future. Ariel Pacheco breaks down which teams might be the best fit for Collins should he and Atlanta decide to part ways.
John Collins has been the subject of trade rumors all season long. The Atlanta Hawks are reportedly seeking a “lottery level pick” in return for the talented big man. With Collins set to be a restricted free agent this upcoming offseason, any team that trades for him must also be willing to either offer an extension that will likely be north of $100 million or lose him for nothing.
This cuts down the list of potential suitors to just a handful of teams. These teams will have to be willing to part with draft capital and/or young players. Here’s a look at where John Collins could fit in.
San Antonio Spurs
Few teams are as good of a fit for Collins as San Antonio. The Spurs are off to a surprising start at 16-11 and the sixth seed in the Western Conference. That said, they are in desperate need of a floor-spacing big with some upside and Collins is just that. With the 35-year-old LaMarcus Aldridge set to be a free agent and his play dropping off, Collins can slide right in as the team’s big of the future.
The Spurs have multiple young guys and their draft picks. The question is how much would they be willing to part with. There are a couple of iterations that the Spurs could send out to Atlanta. A trade centered around Derrick White and a protected pick could be something that interests the Hawks. They might also be interested in a deal that includes Lonnie Walker, salary filler and a protected pick. Again, it depends on how far San Antonio would be interested in going in their pursuit of Collins.
Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder have quietly been a competitive team this season, possibly more so than they want to be. With a young star they certainly want to build around in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Collins would represent an intriguing co-star to lead the franchise into the future. At the very least, the fit between the two would be beautiful to watch. Oklahoma City has a number of young, high-upside players they like in Lugentz Dort, Isaiah Roby, Darius Bazley and Theo Maledon. Adding in Collins to compliment them would significantly accelerate their rebuild.
The Thunder also happen to have a war chest stuffed with draft capital. They have 16 first-round picks and 13 second-round picks through the 2027 draft. It’ll be impossible for them to select a player with every one of those picks and, while they are unlikely to just offer them recklessly, using some of that capital to swing a trade for a young talent with All-Star potential in John Collins would be a great use of resources.
Yes, Cleveland just added Jarrett Allen. But that shouldn’t preclude them from a potential move for Collins.
The Cavaliers have struggled after a nice start to the season. While they seem to have settled on a core centered around Allen, Collin Sexton and Darius Garland, they are in need of a frontcourt scorer who can space the floor for their guards. Collins might prove the perfect fit, as he can play alongside Allen and should prove a threat with both Sextan and Garland in the pick-and-roll. And, given his upside, the Cavaliers’ future would shine even brighter.
The difficulty here is finding a deal that works for both sides. If a deal were to happen it would more than likely have to be a three-team deal. The Cavaliers just aren’t a natural trading partner with the Hawks. A third team would be able to give both sides what they are looking for. Cleveland could also bet on Collins not signing an extension with a new team; in that event, they would be better off waiting until free-agency to offer him a deal.
Sacramento struck gold in this past year’s draft with Tyrese Haliburton. Alongside De’Aaron Fox, the Kings have their backcourt of the future firmly in place. Marvin Bagley and Buddy Hield have both been rumored to be unhappy in Sacramento, involving one or both of them in a trade for Collins could give the Kings a lot more upside and add some frontcourt scoring.
This is another situation where, given their personnel, the Kings and Hawks aren’t ideal trade partners and would probably need to involve a third team. Sacramento has shown some growth this season and an upgrade in talent could help make their playoff aspirations more attainable. The Kings own all of their first-rounders and should look to be aggressive in improving their roster.
Pursuing a Collins deal is unlikely for Boston, who has shown to be very reluctant in parting with future assets in recent seasons. Still, Collins would add a pick-and-roll threat Boston just doesn’t have. The Celtics would then be able to build around an extremely strong core of Collins, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
The Celtics would have to pay Collins in the offseason, however, making them even more unlikely to swing a deal for Collins. Already paying Kemba Walker, Tatum and Brown over $100 million each, Boston would almost certainly have to and the same to Collins, further restricting their ability to fill out a roster that, beyond those three, has been lacking this season. On paper they are a great fit, but there are just too many extenuating factors that make a deal unlikely.
Plenty of other teams could (and should) put their hat in the Collins-ring but are also unlikely to do so due to various factors. The Houston Rockets, Charlotte Hornets and Denver Nuggets could all swing a deal for the big man, but they either have younger guys at his position or wouldn’t be willing to pay him.
Collins is a talented 23-year-old big man with All-Star potential. It’s not often someone of his caliber at such a young age is available on the trade market and teams should be aggressive in their pursuit. If Collins doesn’t get traded, teams will have a chance to sign him to an offer sheet in restricted free agency. He will likely command a $100 million deal, with any team that trades for him essentially ponying up for the first shot to pay him.
NBA Daily: Should Orlando Sell?
Injuries have once again foiled Orlando’s plans for success. Chad Smith assesses the situation and details why it is time for the Magic to finally blow it up and fully embrace the youth movement.
As the All-Star break approaches, the Orlando Magic find themselves in an all-too-familiar position. They are the basketball equivalent of a treadmill. Hell-bent on moving full steam ahead, they continue to squeeze out wins but, in the end, they are going nowhere.
There are a variety of reasons why Orlando continues to dwell in the quicksand, injuries being chief among them. There is plenty of young talent on the roster, but they just can’t seem to stay on the floor. Rookie guard Cole Anthony and star Forward Aaron Gordon are both dealing with injuries and will not return until after the All-Star break. It goes much deeper than just this season though.
Jonathan Isaac is in his fourth year but has played just 106 total games. He is expected to miss the entire season after appearing in only 34 games last year. Worse, just when it seemed as though Markelle Fultz had turned his career around, he was lost for the year with a knee injury just eight games into this season.
While injuries may be out of their control, Orlando hasn’t done much to help themselves, control the things they can control, either.
Drafting is a tricky puzzle, for sure, as there are always busts and sleepers that are only be realized years later. But, while Orlando has had the luxury of picking near the top every summer, they have yet to nail the star they have longed for (and desperately need). In back-to-back years they had the sixth-overall pick, which they used on Isaac and Mohamed Bamba. In 2015 they selected Mario Hezonja fifth-overall. None of their second-round picks in that span have contributed to this team, either.
The Magic have seemingly always lived in mediocrity. Despite having one of the easiest schedules in the league, they currently sit 12th in the Eastern Conference. While he obviously hasn’t had the group at full strength, head coach Steve Clifford’s team ranks near the bottom in virtually every statistical category. Player development is something that must be taken into consideration, which puts Orlando in a position where they must make a major decision.
Should they continue with their current nucleus and try to build on another lottery selection next season as they return to health, or sell off their talented veteran players now and embrace a full-on rebuild?
Orlando’s biggest asset is obviously Nikola Vucevic, the All-Star center in the midst of a career year. In year two of a four-year contract worth $100 million, Vucevic’s salary actually declines by $2 million each year. And, at the age of 30, Vucevic will no longer be in his prime once the Magic are relevant again.
Taking advantage of desperate teams that need help at the center position, like the Boston Celtics or Golden State Warriors, could net them multiple first-round picks and or a young player in return. The free agent class for next season is lukewarm at best, so teams may decide to explore trading to acquire top-tier talent. If Orlando puts him on the trade block, their phones will be ringing off the hook all the way up to the March 25 deadline.
Nikola Vucevic tonight:
He joins Nikola Jokic as the only centers with a 30-point triple-double on 0 turnovers since 1985.
It’s also his 3rd career triple-double, more than every other Magic center in franchise history combined. pic.twitter.com/HLSWMfzPjn
— StatMuse (@statmuse) February 20, 2021
Should the Magic decide to move their best player, it would open the window of opportunity for Bamba. The seven-footer is still under contract for one more season so he could be easily dealt if the franchise decides to hold on to Vucevic. Several suitors have already been knocking on Orlando’s door about his availability. With Bamba’s name already in trade rumors, it could signal that the team is headed in a different direction.
Gordon’s name is one that has already been in trade rumors even before the season tipped off. The fourth-overall draft pick in 2014 doesn’t have the same explosion and athleticism that he once possessed, but he is still just 25-years-old and would be a valuable piece for any team.
Despite his regression, Gordon’s value remains high for contending teams looking to add a piece that they believe will put them over the top. The return for Orlando will not be a huge bounty, but moving on from Gordon could be wise as he has one year remaining on his contract at just $16.4 million, which should be very enticing to interested teams.
After suffering 15 losses in 19 games, Orlando has now won three in a row and four out of their last five. While none of those victories came against top-level teams, it is a sign that perhaps the Magic aren’t ready to just cut their losses in the midst of an injury-filled season.
Orlando does have two Disable Player Exceptions, worth $6.1 million and $3.7 million, respectively. This would allow them to add another player but they are just $2.8 million below the luxury tax. That being said, there isn’t a player available that is going to turn Orlando’s season around. They will face the Brooklyn Nets, Utah Jazz, Dallas Mavericks, and Atlanta Hawks before the break.
After missing the postseason six years in a row, Orlando has made the playoffs in each of the last two seasons. The problem is they haven’t done much after getting there. In those two years, they have only won a total of two games; both first-round exits. The year-to-year improvement just hasn’t been there, as Orlando seems to have hit their ceiling with this core.
In the best-case scenario, the Magic would have a healthy Isaac and Fultz to pair with their two talented big men. They would have another lottery pick to add to their pool of young talent. Anthony avoiding the sophomore slump and the continued development of Bamba and Dwayne Bacon would be of major help for the future of this franchise as well.
Odds are, even with all of these coming to fruition, however, the team wouldn’t amount to a top-four seed in the Eastern Conference.
Evan Fournier is another name that could be on the move. The veteran sharpshooter will be a free agent this summer and would like to play for a contender, per Zach Harper of The Athletic. The Magic aren’t keen on the idea of re-signing the veteran scorer, as they will have to pay Isaac and Fultz. Finding Fournier’s new home this season could benefit both sides in the long run.
Orlando’s organizational philosophy has always been to compete for the playoffs, with all indications showing that will not change this season. But, with the trade deadline a month away, there is still a chance they could reverse course on that. Every organization starts a new season with the goal of reaching the postseason. But, at some point, the future must take precedence, even if it means suffering in the short-term for the long-term gain.
Orlando’s best route to long-term success would be to cash in on their talented veterans now. Investing in the future and going young is a blueprint that many teams have committed to. The Hawks, Memphis Grizzlies, Charlotte Hornets and New Orleans Pelicans are all oozing with young talent and have bright futures. The Magic have the opportunity to add either another top draft pick or two or some young established players to their promising young core and they should seize it.
Sneaking into the playoffs and getting smacked in the first round once again is not going to improve this team in the long run. There is no added value in playing four or five additional games after the regular season. This franchise must see the big picture and position itself to succeed using a different path.
The goal for Orlando should not be making the playoffs again. Their goal should be to finally escape NBA purgatory. The plan should be to embrace the youth movement and accumulate some assets, while they still can.