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Let’s Talk About the Orlando Magic

A once-promising season has turned sour for the Magic in Orlando, writes Cody Taylor.

Cody Taylor

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Heading into this season, morale around the Orlando Magic was high. Back on Media Day in September, players seemed genuinely excited about the upcoming season. With new players and a new head coach in charge, this was supposed to be the season in which the Magic finally returned to the postseason.

The team seemingly lucked out when Scott Skiles suddenly resigned as head coach. Frank Vogel was among those candidates available to choose as the franchise’s replacement for Skiles, and the idea of adding a coach who had previously guided the Indiana Pacers to the Eastern Conference Finals seemed perfect for a team wanting to experience that same kind of success.

Vogel caught the attention of fans at his introductory press conference when he guaranteed the team would make the playoffs, something they hadn’t done since Dwight Howard was still in town. With several defensive-minded players on the roster, and Vogel being known as a great defensive coach from his time with the Pacers, the fit seemed to be a match made in heaven.

At least that was the feeling four months ago when this new-look Magic team first met with members of the media. There was a feeling in the air that hadn’t been there in quite some time. Players seemed ready to help in any way they could. They were ready to lead this franchise back to the playoffs for the first time in five years.

Now, it seems as though the playoffs are an afterthought. Granted, the Magic are still just four-and-a-half games back of the final playoff spot in the East, but watching this team lately feels like they’re even further than that. We’re now around the halfway point of the season for most teams, and the Magic are 10 games under .500 at 17-27.

They just wrapped up a six-game road trip and won just one of those outings. Road trips of that length are tough for any team to go through, but good teams figure out ways in which to make the most of them. The Magic dropped games to the Los Angeles Lakers, Clippers, Utah Jazz, Denver Nuggets and New Orleans Pelicans on the trip, with the lone win against the Portland Trail Blazers.

“We’re just not playing hard enough, plain and simple,” Jeff Green said. “We need to make sure that we leave it out there on the floor. We can’t worry about how many games we had on this road trip. There are no excuses. We had only one back to back; we can’t allow that to be an excuse. We had days in between. We had chances to rest. There is no excuse for the way that we’ve been playing. That’s not what we came here to do. We all want to win, but we’re all not giving an effort to win. That’s the result right there. We’re losing by 20. It’s embarrassing.”

The Magic were expected to be a stout defensive team, led by Bismack Biyombo, Serge Ibaka, Aaron Gordon and Elfrid Payton. While they’ve shown during stretches how great they can be (they were a top-five defense at one point), they’ve taken a step back and have dropped out of the top 20 in defense.

Trying to diagnose the problem seems much easier said than done. Vogel has seemingly tried everything he can do to flip the script this season. He has made lineup changes, benched players for lackluster effort and has even tried intense film sessions to help the problems. Whatever the problem is, the players don’t seem to have the answers, either.

“I’ve been asking myself that every day and I have no idea why we can’t do the right things,” Nikola Vucevic said. “Basketball is a very simple game and if you keep it simple, it works. The best teams play simple. They don’t complicate stuff. Look at Klay Thompson when he had 60 — he took 11 dribbles. It’s simple. Why would he need to take more? They set up every shot for him. That’s how it should be. [Nikola] Jokic had 30 [against us]. They set up every shot for him. He didn’t score any one-on-one on [Bismack Biyombo] or me. Anthony Davis. He didn’t score one-on-one. It was all off setups. Yet, we don’t play that way. We try to play pick-up. That’s what we’re doing: playing pick-up.”

Vucevic’s candid response to reporters Wednesday night following a 20-point loss to the Pelicans is an indication the team has reached perhaps their lowest point of the season. The Magic appeared to be on the right track at the start of the December. After a slow start to the season, they won four out of five games on the road, including a win over the San Antonio Spurs. Since that stretch, they have fallen apart.

After defeating the Washington Wizards on December 6, the team’s record stood at 10-12. Since that point, they have gone 7-15 and have posted the third-worst defense in the NBA. It seems like for every step forward the team may take, they then take two steps back. Last season, the team was playing well heading into 2016 after posting a 19-14 record. They went just 2-12 during the month of January and subsequently began a downward spiral that saw them go 16-34 the rest of the season. This season looks to have the same outcome – they’re just 2-8 this month.

“We just don’t play the right way,” Vucevic said. “We can play as hard as we want, [but] as long as we keep playing like this, this is how it’s going to be. … We take bad shots, we play selfish. It’s embarrassing. We’ve been losing to everybody by 20. It’s bad. Last year, we were losing but we had 35 wins and 10-15 games we lost by less than three points. This year, we haven’t lost a game by less than 10 points.”

Vucevic may have exaggerated a bit to reporters: The Magic have lost a few games by less than 10 points, but there are a lot of losses by more than 10 points mixed in as well.

Perhaps even more troubling for the Magic is key injuries to Evan Fournier and Jodie Meeks. Fournier leads the team in scoring, but has missed three consecutive games with a sore right foot. Meeks suffered a dislocated right thumb on Wednesday and is expected to miss four to six weeks.

The injuries to Fournier and Meeks leave the Magic rather thin at the shooting guard position. Fournier also missed five games a few weeks back with the same foot injury. Mario Hezonja and C.J. Watson figure to see additional playing time with Fournier and Meeks out at the moment. Hezonja has been used sparingly this season by Vogel and has played inconsistently when he’s been on the court, and Watson is averaging 2.6 points in 32 outings this season.

With the trade deadline just over a month away, the Magic could be a team to keep an eye on. The team is said to be open to acquiring additional scoring help but it remains unclear who they might consider adding. Sacramento Kings forward Rudy Gay had been mentioned previously as a potential target, but he’ll likely not be traded this season after rupturing his Achilles on Wednesday night.

The recent struggles have further put the team’s past moves under the microscope. Most would point to the decision to trade a promising young player in Tobias Harris just before the trade deadline last year for what essentially ended up being open cap space as the first questionable move. They followed that up by trading Victor Oladipo, the rights to the 11th overall pick Domantas Sabonis and Ersan Ilyasova for Ibaka on draft night. Ibaka could leave this summer in free agency.

It’s clear the front office has a decision to make on the future of the team this season. Do they attempt to make a trade to bring in more scoring or do they start looking ahead? The worst place to be in the NBA is in the middle. Teams in the middle are just good enough to make the playoffs and not quite bad enough to earn a high draft pick. While the team is clearly built to win now, they may have to start considering all of their options at this point.

After investing over $100 million into the roster, the expectations for the Magic this season were understandably high. But with a roster that is underperforming, it might be time for the franchise to look itself in the mirror and realize that this group may not be the answer moving forward.

Cody Taylor is an NBA writer in his fourth season with Basketball Insiders, covering the NBA and NCAA out of Orlando and Miami.

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NBA Daily: Three Trade Targets for the New York Knicks

Drew Maresca explores three restricted free agents-to-be who the Knicks should explore adding via trade before the March 25 trade deadline.

Drew Maresca

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Often the NBA’s biggest flop, the New York Knicks have been significantly better-than-expected to start the 2020-21 season. They’ve won eight of their first 16 games and have surrendered the fewest points per game on the season, placing them squarely in the Eastern Conference playoff picture.

That said, they’re not out of the woods yet; with much of the season left to play, the Knicks are devoid of any meaningful offensive weapons. Additionally, the roster features a number of high-quality veterans whose deals are set to expire, the kind of players that contenders like to fill out their rotations with down the stretch, so the roster could look much different at the end of the year than it does now.

So, the Knicks are expected to be active on the trade front, again – no surprise there. But this year could be among the last in which the Knicks are sellers at the deadline. And, while moving some of those veterans for future assets is smart, the Knicks may also want to look at players they can add to bolster that future further.

Of course, New York shouldn’t go all-in for Bradley Beal — they’re not there yet — but there are a number of restricted free agents to-be that would fit both their roster and timeline nicely.

But why give away assets to acquire someone that the team could sign outright in just a few months? It may sound counterintuitive to add a player that’s about to hit free agency, restricted or otherwise, but procuring that player’s Bird rights, an exception in the NBA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement that allows teams to go over the salary cap to re-sign their own players (not to mention offer them an extra contract year and bigger raises), can be key to securing a player’s services and building a long-term contender.

Further, the 2021 free agent market isn’t might not live up to expectation, with many presumed free agents already agreed to extensions. So, with that in mind, which players should the Knicks pursue via trade prior to the March 25 trade deadline?

John Collins, Atlanta Hawks

Collins’ production is down this season, but that has nothing to do with his ability. A 23-year-old stretch-four who’s shooting 35% on three-point attempts, Collins is big, athletic, can score the ball (16.7 points per game this season) and is a great rebounder (7.5 per game). He also connects on 80% of his free-throw attempts.

Despite those impressive stats, Collins was even more productive last season, averaging 21.6 points on better than 40% three-point shooting and collecting 10.1 rebounds per game.

But the Hawks rotation has become increasingly crowded this year. They added Danilo Gallinari and rookie big man Oneyeka Okongwu, the sixth overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, to the frontcourt this offseason, while Collins was already vying for minutes with Clint Capella, who Atlanta added via trade last season. Cam Reddish, a second-year wing who is versatile enough to play some power forward, has also stolen some of Collins’ potential minutes.

So, as much as the Hawks seem to like Collins, he may be a luxury they can do without. He’ll obviously demand a relatively high-priced contract. The fact that Atlanta and Collins failed to reach an extension last summer would also seem to make a reunion less likely; would the Hawks invest so heavily in him now that they have three players at the position signed through at least the 2022-23 season? Further, could they invest even if they wanted to at this point? The Hawks are already committed to more than $100 million next season and, with Trae Young and Kevin Huerter extensions on the horizon, they might be hard-pressed to scrounge for the cash Collins would want in a new deal.

He won’t come cheap, for sure. But, while Julius Randle fans may not love the idea of bringing in his replacement, Collins is simply a better long-term solution.

Lonzo Ball, New Orleans Pelicans

The point guard position has been a sore spot for the Knicks for some time. And while Ball might not be the franchise cornerstone that many hoped he’d become, adding a young player with his upside is clearly a positive move.

Granted, Ball is inherently flawed. His jump shot appeared to be much improved last season and he’s showcased a significantly improved shooting form from years past. But he’s struggled in the new season, shooting only 28% on three-point attempts (down from 37.5% last season). In fact, he’s struggled on the whole on the offensive side of the ball, posting just 11.9 points and 4.4 assists per game (a career-low). He’s also missed some time with knee soreness and moved to more of an off-the-ball role as new head coach Stan Van Gundy has put the ball in the hands of Brandon Ingram more and more.

But, with New York, Ball would step into a significant role immediately. For his career, Ball is a net-positive player and, despite his shooting woes, has posted a positive VORP every year he’s been in the league, save for this season. He’s an above-average defender and, while he does need to ball in his hands, he doesn’t necessarily need to take shots to be effective.

Ball may never become the All-World caliber guard many pegged him as before the 2017 NBA Draft, but he’s better than any other option currently at the Knicks disposal. And, best of all, his trade value is arguably as low as it’s ever been. So, while the Pelicans won’t just give him away, New York should do what they can to acquire him for a reasonable price.

Devonte’ Graham, Charlotte Hornets

Last but not least, the surprise from the 2018-19 rookie class. Graham is possibly the hardest sell on this list, but it’s not for a lack of talent.

Graham burst onto the scene last season, posting an impressive sophomore campaign of 18.2 points and 6.4 assists per game. Unfortunately, those numbers have taken a drastic dip this season with the arrival of Gordon Hayward and the highly-touted rookie LaMelo Ball in Charlotte. Likewise, Graham’s struggles through the Hornets’ first 10 games limited his opportunities further.

That said, he would appear to be done slumping, as he’s connected on 43% of his attempts from deep in the team’s last two games.

But his efficiency wouldn’t be the main challenge when constructing a Graham trade. Instead, some in New York could be concerned with lack of size – Graham is only 6-foot-1 – and his inability to act as a facilitator at the guard spot.

But Graham is talented, plain and simple. In fact, he’s the exact kind of talent the Knicks should be looking to add right now. More specifically, Graham shot 37.3% on three-point attempts last season; the Knicks rank 21st in three-point percentage so far this season.

The Knicks could ultimately sit tight, swap a few veterans for future draft picks and rest assured that they’ve made enough progress by simply adding coach Tom Thibodeau. But they could and should be aggressive while they can. If New York can add one or more the players mentioned, they may not only build a brighter future, but improve on what the team could do this season. Either way, the Knicks look to be on a good trajectory, but every move they make from here on out can and will affect how quickly they make the leap from laughingstock to respectable contender.

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NBA AM: The Utah Jazz Are Showing Continuity Is Key

Is Utah’s early success an indicator of things to come? Between Donavon Mitchell, a stingy defense and hot three-point shooting, they may just be the real deal.

Ariel Pacheco

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The Utah Jazz are riding high on a seven-game winning streak, hotter, at this point, than all hell. 15 games into the season, the Jazz have been the third-best team in the Western Conference. The key for them has been continuity as they have 11 guys who were on last year’s team. The only addition they made to their rotation this offseason was Derrick Favors, who was with the team for nine seasons before a one-year departure. 

Quinn Snyder is widely regarded as one of the best coaches in the league, and he’s showing why this season. The Jazz are currently in 7th in both offensive and defensive rating. Beyond that, there are only three teams who can say they are top 10 in both: The Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Lakers and the Phoenix Suns. Often, teams that finish in this select category are historically serious contenders. 

Moreover, the Jazz have been on a shooting tear. Using Gobert’s rolling ability to collapse opposing defenses and find open shooters, Utah’s offense is clicking right now. It’s worked tremendously too, considering the Jazz have attempted and made the most three-pointers of any team this season – and hitting on 40.3 percent as a team. Royce O’Neale, Donovan Mitchell, Jordan Clarkson, Joe Ingles and Mike Conley are all shooting above 40 percent; while Bojan Bogdanovic is almost there at 37.8.

Basically, the Jazz are just shooting the ball at a ridiculously well rate right now and good ball movement has propelled them. 

Mitchell seems to have taken another jump in his development, although it is subtle, and his growth as a playmaker has benefitted everyone. He’s made teams pay for overhelping, often initiating the ball movement that has led to open looks. He’s also taking fewer mid-range jumpers, converting those attempts into three-pointers. The budding star’s play has been more consistent overall, and he’s been effective out of the pick-and-roll. 

Mike Conley’s improved play this season has been needed – now he’s settled and red-hot. Coming off a disappointing season last year, there were questions as to whether he was declining. While it’s safe to say he’s no longer the guy he was in Memphis, this version of Conley is still a good one. He looks a lot more comfortable in his role and the Jazz are reaping the benefits. In a contract year, Conley is averaging 16.3 points and 6.3 assists per game while shooting 41 percent from three.

Jordan Clarkson is a strong candidate for Sixth Man of the Year, fitting in perfectly as the Jazz need his scoring and creation off the bench – even leading the league in such scorers from there. But the Jazz’s bench is more than just Clarkson though, as they’ve gotten strong minutes from Joe Ingles, Georges Niang and Derrick Favors too. They’re a solid group that plays both ends of the court, and all fit in nicely with the starters as well. 

Sorely needed, however, Bojan Bogdanovic’s return has helped tremendously. He gives them another big wing who can shoot and is a scoring threat, and before he got hurt last season, he was averaging 20 PPG. While he isn’t at that level this season, he gives them another reliable scoring option that they badly need. Better, it also allows Ingles to remain on the bench, where his playmaking ability can really thrive.

The Jazz have been playing stylistically a little bit different this year and it has worked. They don’t run often but when they do, they have been potent. Playing at the same pace as last season, Utah is scoring almost five more points per game in transition. Additionally, they are taking six more threes a game too. This all amounts to a 6.1 net rating, which is good for fourth-best in the NBA. 

Lastly, their defense has been impossible for teams to penetrate, inviting opponents to try and finish over Rudy Gobert in the paint. Gobert is a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate for a reason – his presence alone almost assuredly guarantees his team will be a top 10 defense, which the Jazz are. Favors’ addition has helped stabilize the defense when Gobert sits, which was a major issue last season. Overall, they are just a very disciplined defense that makes teams earn their points, rarely committing cheap fouls.

As it stands today, the Utah Jazz are solidifying themselves as one of the best teams in the Western Conference. It remains to be seen if the hot shooting is sustainable, but the way they are generating those open looks seems to be. The defense is legit, and if they can remain healthy there’s reason to believe that this team can continue to compete at this level. The Utah starting lineup has outscored opponents by 58 points, but they’ve also had one of the best benches in the league – needless to say, the Jazz’s continuity has been a big part of their early success.

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NBA Daily: Defensive Player of the Year Watch

An inside look-in at the early frontrunners for the Defensive Player of the Year Award.

Dylan Thayer

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In this fresh edition for Basketball Insiders, there are a few players that should be finalists for the Defensive Player of the Year Award. Of course, this prestigious award is given to the contributor who makes the biggest impact on the floor for their team on the defensive side of the ball. In two out of the last three seasons, the award has gone to Rudy Gobert, the rim-protecting center for the Utah Jazz. This past season, Giannis Antetokounmpo won both the DPotY award, as well as Most Valuable Player for a second straight year. Over the past few years, the trending group of finalists for the award has been consistent no matter what the order ends up being. 

Can anyone new break in this year?

Anthony Davis

Anthony Davis will always be in the conversation for this award as he has shown throughout his career that he is one of the league’s most ferocious game-changers. Despite never winning the award before, he has made four NBA All-Defensive teams as well as being the NBA’s leader in blocks on three occasions. Davis’s block numbers are a little lower than they usually are at 1.9 blocks per game this season – compared to 2.4 for his career, per Basketball-Reference. This could be due to the addition of Marc Gasol to the Lakers’ frontcourt, a move that has boosted the team’s rim protection. If Davis can raise his numbers again, he should be in consideration for the award purely based on his defensive presence on the court – but he should still finish among the top five in voting.

Myles Turner

The center for the Indiana Pacers – the former potential centerpiece of a Gordon Hayward trade with the Boston Celtics – has continued to show why the team would not package another one of its top players with him. Turner is the current league leader in blocks with 4.2 blocks per game, elevating his game beyond any doubt in 2020-21. He is one of the more underrated rim protectors in basketball, as he has only one top-five finish in the DPotY voting in his career. Turner has also improved his steals metrics this season by averaging 1.5 per game, thus providing a strong defensive presence alongside All-Star frontcourt mate, Domantas Sabonis. Turner should be the frontrunner for the award as things stand right now, but that could change as the season progresses, especially as his injury impacts proceedings.

Giannis Antetokounmpo

The reigning two-time MVP should always be in the conversation for the DPotY award as he revolutionizes the defensive side of the floor at an elite level. Currently, Antetokunmpo is averaging 1.2 steals and 1.1 blocks per game to go along with a 106.5 defensive rating, per NBA Advanced Stats. It goes without saying, but Antetokounmpo is a chase-down block artist, always there to contest shots around the rim with his long frame. The 6-foot-11 power forward is one of the league’s top five players due to his exceptional play on both sides of the ball and will always be considered for the DPotY award as long as he in the NBA.  

Kawhi Leonard

The Los Angeles Clippers’ superstar has been arguably the best defensive small forward in the game over the past few years. He first gained major recognition for his defense during the 2014 NBA Finals against the LeBron James-led Miami HEAT. Since then, Leonard has racked up six All-Defensive team nominations to go along with two Defensive Player of the Year awards. This season, Leonard remains an elite defender for the championship-hopeful Clippers with 1.8 steals and 0.8 blocks per game – but his defensive rating is the highest of his ten-year career at 107.8. 

Andre Drummond

The current league leader in rebounds for the Cleveland Cavaliers is having a monster season thus far. In a contract year, Andre Drummond is currently putting up 19.3 points per game, 15.8 rebounds per game, 1.7 steals per game and 1.6 blocks per game. He also has a very stellar defensive rating of 105.0, a culmination of points allowed per 100 possessions. Drummond is not on a very good team, but that should not take away from the impact he makes when he is on the floor. As a pure rim protector and rebounding machine, he should finish higher up in the voting results than usual, even if his season doesn’t end with Cleveland. 

Honorable Mention: Tobias Harris

The Philadelphia 76ers have started the season on a very high note at 9-5, all despite loads of COVID health and safety protocols preventing their full team from taking the floor. Tobias Harris has played a major part in their early-season success leading the NBA in defensive win shares among starters who have played at least 10 games with 0.184, per NBA Advanced Stats. Along with that, Harris is also second in defensive rating among qualified starters at 99.6. The veteran forward has averaged 1.1 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. So if the 76ers want to remain at the top of the Eastern Conference, Harris’ overall play will be a huge reason for that success.

 As the old saying goes, defense wins championships – and these players are the type of players that can change the result of a game every night. Keep an eye on these players as the season moves along as they should garner consideration for both All-Defensive team nominations and the DPotY award.

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