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2015-16 Orlando Magic Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the 2015-16 Orlando Magic.

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The Orlando Magic posted another dreadful season last season, but that resulted in another high-level draft pick and a change at head coach. The Magic had talent last year and underachieved on every level. Coming into the 2015-16 NBA season, the Magic look like a team with all the pieces to compete. The question is can the Magic achieve on the court to their talent level or better yet, overachieve as new head coach Skiles’ teams have done every year he’s taken over a team?

Basketball Insiders previews the 2015-16 Orlando Magic.

Five Thoughts

At some point, a team has to quit stockpiling draft picks and start progressing and at some point, a young team needs to grow up and begin to mature. The 2015-16 season should be that year for the Orlando Magic. Scott Skiles is a no nonsense coach pushed his players in Milwaukee and Chicago and wasn’t renowned as someone who made many new friends. In all honesty, though, I think that is exactly what this Magic team needs. Nikola Vucevic is perhaps the most underrated player in the entire league and Victor Oladipo, in my opinion, has already proven himself to be a special, special talent. Tobias Harris being re-signed was a bit surprising to me, only because the Magic already seemed to have so many talented, young pieces, but clearly, they must have high expectations for him. Elfrid Payton seemed to progress beautifully over the course of last season and rookie Mario Hezonja should help make a difference from day one. Without naming each and every player on the roster, I will simply say that I expect the Magic to progress under Skiles and become a good basketball team. Unfortunately for them, they are seemingly putting things together at a time when the conference is getting tougher. Barring injuries, there is no chance that the Magic will be better than the HEAT, Hawks or Wizards in the Southeast Division, and if I were a betting man, I would probably take the Hornets to finish better than them as well. In the long run, I believe this is the year the Magic cease being a sure win on anyone’s schedule, but I still believe they are a year or two away from being ready to dance with the top dogs out East.

5th Place — Southeast Division

– Moke Hamilton

The Magic enter this season with playoff aspirations, as point guard Elfrid Payton recently reiterated on the Basketball Insiders’ podcast. While I believe that the Magic will make progress this season and show that they have one of the best up-and-coming cores in the NBA, I think they’re still a year away from making the playoffs in the improved Eastern Conference. With that said, I think that Scott Skiles will do an excellent job improving the team’s defense and building a winning culture. I also expect a breakout season from Victor Oladipo, who finished the 2014-15 season on a very strong note, and a solid year from Nikola Vucevic. Finally, I expect Payton and Aaron Gordon to shine in their sophomore seasons. This will be an exciting team to watch and they’ll be better this year.

5th Place — Southeast Division

– Alex Kennedy

It’s hard not to love the talent that Orlando Magic GM Rob Hennigan has put together, with players like Victor Oladipo, Aaron Gordon, Elfrid Payton, Nikola Vucevic and Tobias Harris leading the charge for what is sure to be a very exciting Magic team this year. That said, it’s still hard to avoid putting them anywhere but at the bottom of the Southeast Division, due primarily to their lack of experience. Outside of Channing Frye and C.J. Watson, there aren’t a lot of guys on this roster with any sort of playoff experience. It’s a roster constructed of good youth, but it’s youth all the same. One of these years they’ll break on through; I’m just not sure this is the year.

5th Place — Southeast Division

– Joel Brigham

The Orlando Magic have assembled an intriguing batch of young players with a good level of upside, but the franchise is still seeking a star in order to seriously make a run for the upper echelon of the Eastern Conference. Nikola Vucevic, Tobias Harris, Elfrid Payton and Victor Oladipo are solid building blocks, but none of those guys are ready to carry a team into playoff contention. The Magic will continue to improve, but in order to reach that next level the team’s front office will have to pull the trigger and land a difference maker. Until then, the Magic will be on the outside looking in at the playoffs come April.

5th Place — Southeast Division

– Lang Greene

The Magic are an intriguing team to watch in the Eastern Conference, where there is room for newcomers in the playoffs. While they finished last in the Southeast Division last season with only 25 wins, they have a high ceiling of potential. The Magic boast one of the most underrated big men in the NBA. Nikola Vucevic averaged 19.3 points and 10.9 rebounds per game last season, which got overshadowed by the team’s record. Tobias Harris, a proven contributor, returns after inking a mega contract this summer. The Magic also feature an emerging backcourt of Victor Oladipo and Elfrid Payton. Aaron Gordon, who battled injuries last season, and rookie Mario Hezonja further boost their young talent. The Magic have the pieces in place to grow this season and in the future.

4th Place — Southeast Division

– Jessica Camerato

Top Of The List

Top Offensive Player: Nikola Vucevic

It was seven-foot big man Nikola Vucevic that emerged as the Magic’s top scorer last season. Vucevic paced the Magic with 19.3 points per game on 52 percent shooting from the field. His 19.3 points per game average was good for sixth-best among all players in the Eastern Conference last season. He’s been a double-double machine for the Magic as he recorded 45 double-doubles in 74 games played last season.

His biggest strength on the floor has become his jump shot. Vucevic attempted the bulk of his shots within five feet of the rim (451 attempts), but the midrange was his next favorite spot on the floor. He knocked down 47.4 percent of his shots (304 attempts) between 15-19 feet from the rim. His jumper can spread the floor a bit for the guards as Elfrid Payton and Victor Oladipo will often kick the ball out to him after penetrating into the paint. New head coach Scott Skiles will likely want Vucevic to continue to be a big part of the offense.

Top Defensive Player: Elfrid Payton

While we like Elfrid Payton here, we could have also gone with backup center Dewayne Dedmon. He’s emerged as the Magic’s best defensive player in the post, and as a result, led the team in blocks. He held opponents to 57.4 percent shooting less than five feet from the rim and 37.2 percent shooting between five and nine feet from the rim. But, because he’s unlikely to crack the starting lineup, we like Payton as the best defensive option on the team since he’ll be on the court for longer stretches.

After just one season in the league, Payton has emerged as a great perimeter defender and someone that just doesn’t wear down on defense. Payton recently told our own Alex Kennedy on a recent Insiders Podcast episode that he feels comfortable guarding just about every point guard in the league. He did mention that Charlotte Hornets point guard Kemba Walker was one of the toughest matchups he faced due to Walker’s speed and athleticism. As a rookie, Payton averaged 8.9 points, 6.5 assists, 4.3 rebounds and 1.7 steals per game. His 1.7 steals per game was good for fifth-best in the Eastern Conference, and after the All-Star break, he increased that number to 2.1 steals per game. Payton stands to benefit perhaps the most with Skiles taking over as head coach. Skiles has always had great defensive teams, which makes it likely that a player like Payton could continue to improve.

Top Playmaker: Victor Oladipo

Many are expecting Victor Oladipo to come out this season right where he left off last season. It was after the All-Star break that Oladipo caught fire, and averaged 20.3 points per game. During this time, we saw Oladipo turn in a career-high 38-point performance against the Phoenix Suns. There was also a stretch of five games in which only Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook averaged more points per game than he did.

It’s becoming clear that Oladipo has become one of the leaders on the team after just two seasons in the league. During this time, he’s played at both guard positions and can be the team’s primary ball handler and can also play off of the ball as well. Whether it’s creating fast break opportunities off of steals, finding the open man on offense or his ability to drive in the lane for an easy basket, Oladipo has solidified his place on the team as best playmaker.

Top Clutch Player: Tobias Harris

During his two and half season stay in Orlando, it’s clear that Tobias Harris has become the Magic’s most clutch player. Since arriving in Orlando at the trade deadline in 2013, Harris has hit three game-winning shots, which is more than any Magic player in the past two decades. Last season, the entire league saw 39 total game-winning shots during the regular season and Harris had two of them.

His first game-winner came on a last-second dunk against the Oklahoma City Thunder two seasons ago, and his two last season came against the Philadelphia 76ers and Atlanta Hawks. Harris shot 50 percent (20-of-40) from the field last season in the final five minutes of games when the Magic were either ahead by five points or behind by five points, per NBA Stats. He finished the year by shooting 2-of-4 in situations where the Magic were trailing by one possession or were tied. Great players are often defined as those that want the ball in late-game situations and are not afraid to take the last-second shot and Harris has already demonstrated that. Look for Harris to get the ball down the stretch for the Magic next season.

The Unheralded Player: Dewayne Dedmon

Dewayne Dedmon is perhaps the best player on the Magic that no one is talking about. He’s a player that works as hard as anyone on the team and is a guy that brings intense energy onto the court. He’s often one of the first players you see on the court in pre-game warm-ups and often the player that’s out there the longest. He’s much more than his averages of 3.7 points and five rebounds might indicate.

As mentioned earlier, he’s the Magic’s best defensive player in the post as he’s allowing opponents to shoot 57.4 percent less than five feet from the rim (better than DeAndre Jordan) and just 37.2 percent between five and nine feet of the rim. He’s shown spurts at times of what he might give you in an increased role as he recorded an 11-point, 16-rebound and two-block performance against the Boston Celtics on March 8. In 11 starts, he raised his averages to five points, 8.1 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game. As one of the better defensive guys on the team, Dedmon could see an increased role under Skiles this season.

Best New Addition: Mario Hezonja

Although he’s yet to play in a single NBA game, it would seem that Mario Hezonja has the most swagger on the team. He’s been known as an extremely confident player during his time playing professionally overseas, and we’ve already started to see that translate during his short time with the Magic so far.

If Hezonja’s play during Summer League is any indication as to what we’ll see from him during his rookie campaign, then we should be in for a treat this season. He’s demonstrated that he can shoot the three-point shot, he can find open teammates with great passing and he can also put the ball on the floor and drive. We also saw Hezonja throw down a number of highlight-reel dunks. His teammates are all raving about what they’ve seen from him so far and are all excited to see what he can do this season.

– Cody Taylor

Who We Like

1. Evan Fournier

Injuries limited Evan Fournier to just 58 games played last season, but he became a key contributor in the offense in his first season in Orlando. Fournier joined the Magic last year on draft day after the Magic traded Arron Afflalo and a second-round pick to the Denver Nuggets. Fournier averaged just 8.4 points per game the season before joining Orlando and many were questioning what type of player the Magic would receive. But, it’s become clear that the Magic like Fournier and what he brings to the team. He averaged a career-high 12 points per game last season and shot 37.8 percent from three-point range, which was second on the team behind Channing Frye’s 39 percent. Shooting and floor-spacing have become an integral part in today’s NBA, which is what Fournier provides for Orlando. Fournier has solidified himself as Oladipo’s backup at shooting guard as he is an exceptional ball handler, can shoot the ball and can penetrate into the paint. Fournier’s ability to stay healthy this season will play a large part in how successful the Magic can be.

2. Scott Skiles

The hiring of Scott Skiles signaled to everyone that the Magic want to begin winning, and now. Skiles was perhaps the most-established head coaching candidate available and the team ultimately chose experience over youth. Of course, it’s been widely publicized by now that Skiles comes in as a tough-minded coach that is going to demand a lot out of his players. His attitude comes from his playing days, which has a lot of the players on the team excited for what he’ll bring to the locker room. The team will gain a coach known to be a defensive guru as none of his teams have finished below 17th in the league in defensive efficiency during his 13 years as a head coach. It seems as though the Magic will stand to benefit greatly on defense as they’ve yet to finish higher than 17 in defensive efficiency since trading away Dwight Howard three years ago. Skiles’ teams have historically performed well during his first year as head coach, which could help the Magic’s chances of returning to the playoffs this season.

3. Aaron Gordon

Looking back at last year’s draft class, a lot of players ended up suffering injuries and thus turned in incomplete rookie seasons. Aaron Gordon was among those that missed part of the season with an injury, as a bone fracture in his left foot kept the fourth overall pick out for 32 games early in the season. He showed during his rookie campaign that he’s going to be a player that will provide a ton of energy on the floor and has the tools to be a great defensive player. He showed that he can defend both forward positions and even held his own against some of the bigger forwards in the league. His performances in the Orlando Summer League have many excited to see him in his sophomore year. He spent much of the summer working to improve his shot and that work seemed to pay off during the Summer League. He converted on just 27 percent of his three-point shots last season, but converted on 50 percent (6-of-12) of those shots in Summer League. He finished second at the Orlando Summer League among all scorers after averaging 21.7 points, 11.7 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.7 blocks and 1.3 steals in three outings. Summer League performances are often taken with a grain of salt, but his performances this summer has many excited for what he can do this season.

4. C.J. Watson

The Magic were interested in bringing in a proven veteran to play behind Elfrid Payton and opted to bring in Watson through free agency. The team was said to have been interested in Watson for a while now, and were finally able to sign him. Watson is an eight-year veteran that will come in and be asked to run the second unit. He won’t be asked to do too much, but has been around for a long time and knows what his role will be. He has plenty of playoff experience after stops with Chicago, Brooklyn and Indiana, and can be a guy that will help mentor the team’s young core. Watson said at his introductory press conference that most of his new teammates reached out to welcome him to the team once news broke that he’d be heading to Orlando, so it seems like he’ll fit in great with the culture the team is building.

5. Rob Hennigan

It finally seems like general manager Rob Hennigan has the Magic poised for an improved year. It’s been three years since Hennigan was hired to rebuild the Magic after the Dwight Howard era ended. Along the way, Hennigan has collected a lot of assets and young players to make up the team as it is today. While it’s fair to say that his job of building the roster is far from complete, his work to this point to give the Magic one of the league’s best up-and-coming rosters hasn’t gone unnoticed. The team’s youth believe in Hennigan and the job he’s done to this point, so it appears as though everyone has bought into the new culture.

– Cody Taylor

Strengths

If you haven’t noticed, the team’s biggest strength is its defense. It’s been talked about in nearly every step up until this point, and it’s going to continue to be talked about. The team has a number of defensive-minded players in Elfrid Payton, Victor Oladipo, Aaron Gordon and Dewayne Dedmon to name a few, and with incoming head coach Scott Skiles specializing in defense, it should come as no surprise that the defense should see the biggest improvement right away. The team finished 25th in defensive efficiency last season, and should see a healthy bump up in Skiles’ first year.

– Cody Taylor

Weaknesses

Put simply, if the Magic want to see improvement, the offense must be better. That seems like a fairly obvious statement, but the team’s offense has been really bad during their rebuilding effort. The offense has finished near the bottom of the league in offensive efficiency during the past three seasons after finishing 27th, 29th and 27th, respectively. After a couple of drafts of focusing on drafting defensive-minded players, the team addressed the offense this summer and drafted offensive-minded players in Mario Hezonja and Tyler Harvey (although he’s yet to sign his deal). Hezonja seems like a great fit with the Magic’s current system and will be a player that can score in a variety of ways. Meanwhile, Harvey led all scorers last season in Division I at Eastern Washington.

– Cody Taylor

The Burning Question

Can the Magic return to the playoffs under new head coach Scott Skiles?

After looking at this team on paper, it would certainly seem like the Magic can be in contention for a playoff berth. The race for the playoffs in the Eastern Conference seems to have six teams locked in, with the final two spots up for grabs. The problem for the Magic is there could be as many as six teams fighting for the last two playoff spots so the room for error will be extremely tight. The Magic still have a lot of young players on the team who are bound to make mistakes, which could make them one of the teams on the outside looking in for the playoffs. But Skiles has historically performed very well in his first year as head coach, so his presence and impact could be just what Orlando needs to return to the playoff picture.

– Cody Taylor

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NBA Daily: Examining Michael Porter Jr.’s Ascension

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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NBA Daily: D’Angelo Russell Back on Track

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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NBA AM: Is This It for Indiana?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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