Posts Tagged ‘Magic’

Five teams already looking ahead

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com

The start of the playoffs is just over the horizon and there will be plenty of unexpected bounces before the 2014 NBA champ is crowned in June.

But you can’t blame a handful of teams from already taking an early peek at what will surely be better times ahead next season:

 


VIDEO: Joakim Noah joins Arena Link after a recent Bulls win

Chicago Bulls – There’ s still plenty of havoc to be made by Joakim Noah and his “no tanking here” gang. Sitting in the No. 4 spot in the East, the Bulls are already shuffling their hooves at what could be another rip-snorting first-round series against the Nets and possibly a chance to put a few bruises on the Pacers or two-time champions from Miami down the line. But while it’s unrealistic to think Chicago can go all the way this season, the title hopes are back in view next October. Starting, of course, with a healthy return by Derrick Rose, the Bulls get their former MVP and most talented player back onto the court to supplement a lineup that has Noah, Taj Gibson and Jimmy Butler.

While the dealing away of Luol Deng didn’t sink the Bulls in the standings, it brought a first round draft choice that the Cavs had picked up from Sacramento. They saved $20 million on Deng’s contract next year, can amnesty the vastly overpaid Carlos Boozer and be at the front of the line to make a recruiting pitch to head of the class free agent Carmelo Anthony. The lure of Phil Jackson‘s zen magic will probably make it tougher to get him out of N.Y., but if he really wants to make a run at a title instead of just being hero-worshipped, Melo would jump at the chance to join the Bulls where a recuperated Rose gives them the 1-2 punch that is almost necessary these days to be elite. As much fun as they’re having now, the real excitement could return next season.

 


VIDEO: Thaddeus Young, Jarvis Varnado discuss the progress and potential of Nerlens Noel

Philadelphia 76ers — It can’t get worse than losing a record-tying 26 games in a row, can it? It will still be only Year Two in general manager Sam Hinkie‘s long-term building project for the future. But at least next season the Sixers will be able to put a team out on the floor that has more than just Michael Carter-Williams, Thad Young and Tony Wroten as real NBA talent that could be part of something positive down the road. Hinkie has cleared out the payroll, but it’s far too early for the Sixers to even give a thought to luring free agents to Philly. They’ll have two lottery picks — their own and the Pelicans’ spot from the Jrue Holiday trade — and go digging for bargains with another pair of picks in the second round.

Of course, there’s the big bonus of finally getting big man Nerlens Noel into the lineup, after he sat out all of this season with a torn ACL. Noel has been champing at the bit to play now, but the team will hold him back till summer league and then turn him loose. Hinkie is positively giddy about what a bulked-up, more physically fit Noel will be able to do. The Sixers are not even dreaming of playoffs, just putting the building blocks in place.

 


VIDEO: Andrew Nicholson talks about staying positive in Orlando

Orlando Magic — Two years ago, Rob Hennigan dealt away Dwight Howard and the instant reaction from many corners was that the rookie GM had been fleeced. Of course, the way things turned out in L.A., Philly and Denver, it seems that Hennigan was the one doing the fleecing, picking up Nic Vucevic, Maurice Harkless and Arron Afflalo, who are now main parts of a young roster on the rise. Mix in last year’s top draft pick Victor Oladipo with Tobias Harris, Kyle O’Quinn and Andrew Nicholson and while the Magic are again near the bottom of the standings with the third-fewest wins in the league, there has been a method to Hennigan. The jury is still out on making Oladipo a point guard, but he’s clearly a talent.

Hennigan is following in the footsteps of his mentor Sam Presti in OKC, constructing a roster that is flexible in terms of both talent and salary. The Magic are not beholden at this point to a single individual and are willing to be in the trade market for any upgrade that makes sense at any position. Then toss in the potential of adding an Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker to the lineup and the Magic are suddenly a team back in the spotlight with a new franchise star and a future that could lead back to chasing the playoffs maybe even as soon as next year in the Eastern Conference.

 


VIDEO: Giannis Antetokounmpo is adjusting to life in the NBA and U.S.

Milwaukee Bucks – As bad and depressing as things got for the Sixers during their 26-game losing streak, the fact is they were never able to drop below the Bucks in the standings. This is the worst team in the league, but it doesn’t have to be this way in 2014-15. For one thing, it’s about timing in the draft. The Bucks have been fortunate enough to win the lottery twice in the past, getting Glenn Robinson with the No. 1 pick in 1994 and Andrew Bogut in 2005. “Big Dog” had had his moments and Bogut is playing nicely these days for the Warriors, but neither was ever the kind of game-changer than can take a franchise to the top.

Now with the deepest lottery in a while, it seems that Milwaukee is in a can’t-miss position. GM John Hammond is said to be setting his sights on center Joel Embiid, who could anchor the middle of a lineup with exciting rookie Giannis Antetokounmpo and Larry Sanders, who hopefully can get his head back into the game and save a career that could go off the rails. Hammond unloaded the contracts of Luke Ridnour and Gary Neal at the trade deadline and would probably like to jettison O.J. Mayo. Brandon Knight has been up and down, but shows that he can score. Rookie Nate Wolters has probably exceeded expectations and creates optimism for the future.

It’s Antetokounmpo who creates the most excitement with his raw talent and potential. Whether they go with Embild with their first pick or Wiggins, Parker, Julius Randle or Dante Exum, this time the Bucks could get the game changer they need at a time when owner Herb Kohl is trying to sell the franchise. This could be a lineup worth buying and watching next season.

 


VIDEO: Dwight Howard explains why he likes it in Houston

Houston Rockets — Yes, yes, yes. The Rockets are already a top four seed in the rugged Western Conference and have flexed their speed and muscles and shooting prowess against some of the best teams in the league this season. The pairing of Dwight Howard with James Harden has given Houston the 1-2 All-Star punch that was expected. Yet even with some folks tabbing the Rockets as a dark horse threat when the playoffs begin, the truth is their best days are still ahead. Wheeler and dealer GM Daryl Morey knows that his job is not yet done and that’s why he’s played the payroll and salary cap like a Stradivarius and will again have the Rockets in position to make a run at at the biggest names on the free agent market this summer. If he deals Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik ($15 million each next season), the Rockets could offer close to the max.

Howard and Harden are still getting to know each other and this team might need to experience the pain of a playoff loss to get recommitted and take things to the next level. The Rockets could also use another scorer/defender on the wing to go toe-to-toe nightly with the elite contenders. LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Carmelo Anthony? Let us saddle you up as part of the posse, pardner. Of course, it’s unlikely that James is going anywhere. But Anthony would have to have give long and serious thought to Houston if he decides that the magic of Jackson isn’t going to turn the Knicks around in the next year or two. Put Melo in a lineup with Howard and Harden and the 145 points the Rockets rung up the other night against the Lakers could become a nightly occurrence. If not Anthony, Bosh could return home to Texas. The Rockets made a free agent pitch for him several years ago and his adaptable skills could fit in nicely on the front line.

The Rockets will be different next season. They always are. And with Howard and Harden as anchors, now different means better. The start of next season can’t come soon enough in Houston.

Don’t Forget About ‘Dre (Drummond)!

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – While the entire basketball world and the Twitter-sphere were busy going off the rails about LeBron James and his monster, 61-point night, another Eastern Conference human behemoth was busy turning Monday night into his own personal showcase.

Andre Drummond, the Detroit Pistons’ young giant, went to work on the glass in a win over the New York Knicks. He grabbed 26 rebounds, to go with his 17 points, to tie Dwight Howard for the league high this season and the most by a Piston since Ben Wallace grabbed 28 on March 24, 2002.

Drummond, 20, joins Howard as the only players to grab 26 or more rebounds in the game at the age of 20 or younger. The Pistons haven’t had much to get excited about this season, as they have struggled with consistency. But Drummond’s future is bright if he keeps at his overall game and continues to polish his rough edges.

Check out his work against the Knicks …



VIDEO: Andre Drummond goes to work on the New York Knicks

Six Worthy Below-The-Radar All-Stars

DeMar DeRozan is the Raptors' leading scorer, at more than 21 points a game (Rocky Widner/NBAE)

DeMar DeRozan is the Raptors’ leading scorer, at more than 21 points a game (Rocky Widner/NBAE)

We know the fan balloting to select the NBA All-Star Game starters is a beauty pageant more than a referendum on results.

Kobe Bryant, playing only six games this season, leading the balloting for the West backcourt and Rajon Rondo, who hasn’t played at all, ranked in the top six in the East means all that is missing is a sash and tiara.

With less than a week left in the voting for the starting lineups, it will be up to the coaches — they name the reserves — to fill in the blanks and rectify some of the slights. But there’s still more than handful of deserving players who could be left out. We’ll call them the All-Fars, as in too far under the radar:

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Paul Millsap, F, Hawks — When teammate Al Horford was lost for the season with a torn pectoral muscle, it certainly made life a little more difficult for everyone on the Hawks. But it also shed some light on Millsap’s contributions. After six years in Utah, the Jazz let Millsap walk in the name of their youth movement. So he took his lunch-pail attitude to Atlanta as perhaps the best free-agent bargain of last summer. He’s rung up 16 double-doubles in the first 37 games this season and, along with point guard Jeff Teague, is responsible for keeping the Hawks in the No. 3 spot in the East.

Arron Afflalo (Fernando Medina/NBAE)

Arron Afflalo (Fernando Medina/NBAE)

Arron Afflalo, G, Magic — Location, location, location. Afflalo is hardly in the prime real estate spot for getting notice with the also-running Magic. There was a great deal of speculation that he would have to be traded before the start of the season to make way for rookie Victor Oladipo. But the Magic are glad they resisted the urge and kept him around. He’s averaging more than 21 points, four assists and four rebounds per game and shooting better than 40 percent from behind the 3-point line. Is it too much of a stretch to label him the second-best shooting guard in the East behind Paul George? Dwyane Wade certainly gets the notoriety and the votes, but Afflalo has the credentials to be in the conversation.

DeMar DeRozan, G, Raptors — If Afflalo is held back by Orlando being mired at the bottom of the East standings, how much of a bump can DeRozan get from being the lead dog pulling the wagon for the Atlantic Division-leading Raptors? That is odd just to type. But there’s no question that Toronto has come together in the aftermath of the Rudy Gay trade. The 24-year-old DeRozan has ably stepped up to carry the offensive load and has shined in big wins at Oklahoma City and at home over the Pacers. He’s scoring, passing and rebounding. The only thing missing is a dependable 3-point stroke.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Ty Lawson, G, Nuggets — With the injuries to Kobe Bryant and Chris Paul, it seems that the All-Star door is finally going to swing open for Stephen Curry. But that still leaves a gigantic logjam of point guards in the West. Never mind the populist voting that has the likes of Steve Nash and Jeremy Lin in the top 10. Lawson still has plenty of competition from Damian Lillard and Tony Parker, both of whom play for teams that are significantly higher up in the standings. The Nuggets had to do an extreme makeover with the departure of Andre Iguodala and the loss of Danilo Gallinari to a knee injury. Lawson has to carry the lion’s share of the load and is the only player on the roster averaging more than 30 minutes per game. He said he didn’t like coach Brian Shaw’s system at the start of the season, but he has thrived in it.

Nicolas Batum (Sam Forencich/NBAE)

Nicolas Batum (Sam Forencich/NBAE)

Nicolas Batum, F, Trail Blazers — He’s a victim of his own teammates. While the Blazers’ surprising rise in the standings is giving LaMarcus Aldridge his star turn, and Damian Lillard is constantly providing his own end-of-game highlights, the young Frenchman stands in the background and rarely draws more more attention than the wallpaper. He’s still long and lean, but seems to have grown in confidence with his offense. As part of the bombs-away Portland attack, he’s firing up at least five 3-pointers per game and connecting at a 40 percent clip. He’s also playing more of a role as a distributor and remains an excellent finisher on the Blazers’ break with his speed and length. Likely the only way Batum will ever get his due is if he helps take his team all the way to The Finals, where nobody gets overlooked.

Anthony Davis, F, Pelicans — A year ago, it was easy to look past the No. 1 pick in the 2012 draft because his coach did more to stop him with a lack of playing time than any defender on the court. But the reins are off now and Davis has become a real force at both ends of the court, averaging just under 20 points, nine rebounds and more than two blocked shots per game. Coach Monty Williams says there is virtually nothing he doesn’t trust Davis to do on the court now. The 20-year-old, who’s expected to be the foundation of the franchise for the next decade, has had to shoulder even more of the load due to the spate of injuries that have taken down Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans and Ryan Anderson. He’s got a particularly tough road to travel to the All-Star Game in his hometown of New Orleans with Aldridge, Blake Griffin, Kevin Love, Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki, to name a few, blocking his path. Plus, he’s playing in the depths of the standings. But growth in the shadows is still growth.

It’s Time For New Year’s Resolutions

VIDEO: The Starters review the year so far

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Ring out the old. Ring in the new. As the calendar turns, it’s time for resolutions throughout the NBA:

Atlanta Hawks — Look Back to the Future: This was supposed to be the start of a brand new era for one of the NBA’s most moribund franchises, and things were actually looking good until Al Horford tore a pectoral muscle. With their undersized big man done for the season, the Hawks will only stay afloat because they’re in the horrid Eastern Conference. But they’re going in the right direction under GM Danny Ferry and coach Mike Budenholzer, and will get the lottery pick of the sinking Nets, so there’s reason for hope out of a draft class teeming with talent.

Boston Celtics — Move Fast on Rondo: According to the old saying, you’re either part of the solution or part of the problem. When Rajon Rondo is finally able to get back onto the court and prove that he’s close to his old self, rookie coach Brad Stevens and GM Danny Ainge have to find out right away if he’s mentally ready to anchor the rebuilding project. If not, the Celtics could reap a windfall in new pieces ahead of the trade deadline.

Brooklyn Nets — Fuhgetaboutit: OK, it was a nice little pipe dream to think that a couple of old codgers like Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce could shuffle up and down the court in slippers and robes to tangle with the Heat and Pacers. Fortunately, team owner Mikhail Prokorov can afford their salaries with the kind of change he finds in his sofa cushions. Pay them off, send them away and get back to building around Brook Lopez and Deron Williams with players who aren’t signing up for Medicare.

Charlotte Bobcats — Keep Him: For the first time in who can remember how long, Michael Jordan won’t have to spend next summer looking for a coach. The merry-go-round can stop. Steve Clifford has given Charlotte a sense of purpose, respectability and a solid identity on the defensive end. Now they’ve got to work on boosting production out of that woeful offense. One thing at a time.

Chicago Bulls — Play Derrick and the Dominoes: Even Layla couldn’t have knocked the Bulls off their feet like the second straight significant injury to their All-Star, MVP guard Derrick Rose. It might be time to reshuffle the bones on a club that hasn’t even won a conference title and already has significant money locked up in Rose, Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson before re-signing Luol Deng to a big contract.

Cleveland Cavaliers — Stop Winning the Draft Lottery: Of course, that would require the Cavs to actually make the playoffs and not qualify for the lottery. This is a team that was supposed to be on the rise with enough young talent to make LeBron James think about returning, but instead has Kyrie Irving trying to do everything, Dion Waiters angry and Andrew Bynum maybe ready to give up the game. Time for an adult to take control here, coach Mike Brown.

Dallas Mavericks — Embrace Reality: It’s a bit ironic that a guy like Mark Cuban that has made a name for himself in the world of reality TV shows rarely faces up to it with the Mavs. He’s fun. He’s entertaining. He’ll say anything, such as there’s no telling whether Houston getting Dwight Howard or Dallas getting Monta Ellis was a better free agent signing last summer. Now go get yourself some defense, Mark, before Dirk Nowitzki winds up running on his tongue trying to outscore everybody.

Denver Nuggets — Respect Yourself: There shouldn’t be a decent team that breaks camp without a solid sense of its identity. A year ago with George Karl pulling the strings from the sidelines and Andre Iguodala setting the pace on the court, the Nuggets had that. Now they are often just a bunch that is stuck in the middle of the pack on offense (18th) and defense (16th) and too often can’t defend its home court.

Detroit Pistons — Say It Ain’t So, Joe: A few years ago, it was signing Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva as big-money free agents. This time GM Joe Dumars figured it would be a good idea to upgrade the Pistons by tossing the combustible Josh Smith onto the fire to light up the frontcourt. So, Smith is already calling out coach Mo Cheeks and the Pistons are backsliding from the .500 mark. Things are getting ugly early again in the Motor City. And, oh yeah, nobody is coming to watch the Pistons, who are last in the league in attendance.

Golden State Warriors — Do the American Hustle: Like the hit movie, was last year’s magical little run through the playoffs by Mark Jackson’s team just one glorious con job? Yes, they’ve played a tough schedule, but something is missing. Lack of last year’s bench? A failure to take care of the ball? You get the sense that the Warriors were just trying to pick up this season right where they left off without putting in all of the gritty groundwork.

Houston Rockets — Rebound, Then Run: Everybody loves watching the Rockets run like methamphetamine-fueled hamsters on a wheel. But for a team that has Dwight Howard in the middle, they are horrible at giving up second-chance points to opponents and it has often proved costly. It’s nice to run, but better not to turn your back and head down the court while the other guy is dropping another put-back into the net.

Indiana Pacers — Don’t Stop Believing: The Pacers came into the season convinced that they could live up to the old axiom of playing them one game at a time and that grind-it-out method would eventually deliver the best record in the league and home-court all the way through The Finals. With Paul George tossing his hat into the MVP ring and Roy Hibbert making opponents ears ring with his physical style, it’s working quite well for coach Frank Vogel’s team.

L.A. Clippers — Say Goodbye to Hollywood: The sooner the Clippers can get rid of all the extraneous things in their game — yes, you, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan — and get down to the serious business of playing some real defense around the basket, the sooner we’ll take them seriously as real contenders in the Western Conference. At this point, despite all the good work by Chris Paul, the Clips are still one of those acts that gets eliminated early on “American Idol.”

L.A. Lakers — Lock Up Kobe: Yes, we know he’s the Black Mamba. We know that he’d be the guy standing out in the rain with a fork and still believe he’d quench his thirst. But the Lakers aren’t going anywhere this season and it doesn’t help their cause for next year if Kobe Bryant returns and pushes himself to the limit again in a debilitating run that winds up far short of the playoffs. It’s time to think about the limited — and high-paying — future he has left. Oh yeah, and trade Pau Gasol.

(more…)

It’s Never Too Early To Make A Move


VIDEO: Jameer Nelson talks about sharing the backcourt with Victor Oladipo

The season isn’t even a month old, but there are some places where things are clearly not working and it’s already time for a change. Here are a handful of names that could or should be on the move:

Omer Asik, Rockets — At this point, he should have a moving van at the front door and his luggage packed. It’s only a matter of time before last year’s flavor of the season gets his wish and a ticket out of Houston. Despite his workmanlike double-double consistency in 2012-13, there’s no faulting the Rockets for leaping at the chance to upgrade to Dwight Howard. The twin towers experiment didn’t work. Asik is unlikely to be happy playing just the spare minutes available as a backup and it only makes sense to get the kind of piece missing — rugged, bruising big man or stretch 4 — that can be a more comfortable fit at both ends of the floor. It also wouldn’t hurt to unload that $15 million due next season to Asik. There are any number of places that Asik could help right away. New York and New Orleans immediately come to mind. GM Daryl Morey is in no rush and will pull the trigger when he’s ready on the right deal.

Jameer Nelson, Magic — The handwriting has been on the wall since the Magic made Victor Oladipo the No. 2 pick in the 2013 draft and promptly announced going into summer league play that he would get a run at point guard. That message might as well have been spray-painted in Day-Glo orange on Saturday night when coach Jacque Vaughn removed the veteran Nelson from a winnable game against Dallas and let the rookie run the offense all the way to the end of a 108-100 loss. Oladipo, as uncomfortable as he may often look at the point, is the future of the franchise along with all of the other young parts. In a season when the Magic don’t really expect to win many games, it only makes sense to move Nelson and make the full-time commitment to the rookie. The fact that the $8 million on Nelson’s contract next season is a team option will only make him easier to move for another future asset.

Danny Granger, Pacers — The fact that Granger has not yet come back from a calf injury more than three weeks into the season hasn’t stopped the Pacers from running out to their league-best 10-1 record, which matches the Spurs. In fact, it could mean that coach Frank Vogel will have to disrupt the humming of a well-oiled machine when he eventually has to find the minutes and shots that Granger will surely want when he’s back in the lineup. Can he really afford to give up a single possession by MVP candidate Paul George? Lance Stephenson has fit quite well into the starting lineup. The Pacers pushed the Heat to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals without Granger last spring. By moving his desirable expiring contract they could add another valuable piece to the bench.

Thaddeus Young, 76ers — The long, versatile forward does not shoot well from behind the 3-point line, but does so many other things that make him desirable and valuable on the court. Considering the fact that the Sixers are still several years away under GM Sam Hinkie’s total reconstruction program, it doesn’t make sense to keep Young around for another $19 million over the next two seasons. Hinkie would probably like to get rid of Evan Turner first, but Young is the player that other clubs are most interested in and could bring in return the kind of asset that Philly wants and needs for the future.

Anybody But DeMarcus Cousins, Ben McLemore, Kings — It might be time to set up the folding tables and the hand drawn price tags in the parking lot at Sleep Train Arena and hold a flea market to clean out the locker room. As Scott Howard-Cooper pointed out, the Kings have already benched Marcus Thornton, John Salmons and Patrick Patterson and are ready to make a full-time commitment to the future by sweeping the locker room clean. Cousins may have his own baggage, but he is putting up solid numbers of 21.5 points and 9.9 rebounds per game. Despite all of the optimism that the “saved in Sacramento” Kings brought into this season under new coach Michael Malone, losing seven of their first nine games delivered a heavy dose of reality.


VIDEO:
Danny Granger speaks on Nov. 13 about progress with injury

Thursday Night Lights On TNT




VIDEO: Clippers coach Doc Rivers breaks down his team’s loss to Orlando

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – If the Los Angeles Clippers are using these early season games as measuring-stick contests to see where they stand against other members of the NBA elite, tonight’s game in Miami against the Heat will serve as the ultimate examination.

In fact, tonight’s TNT double-header — Clippers-Heat at 7 p.m. ET and Dwight Howard and the Houston Rockets facing the Los Angeles Lakers at the Toyota Center at 9:30 p.m. ET — should have been dubbed Thursday night lights, given all of the star power that will be on display.

The Howard-Lakers saga has been overcooked for months now and we’ve done our fair share of cooking around here. Howard has clearly tried to move on, while the Lakers are doing their very best to do the same, sans Kobe Bryant, for the time being. Howard needs to get on the floor against the Lakers for the first time since he bolted via free agency to give us all a little closure on the entire mess … at least until they meet again.

Howard will have the home crowd on his side tonight, he can expect a much different environment when he returns to Los Angeles to face the Lakers at Staples Center. But Dwight and the Rocket have moved on and are thriving early on this season.

Meanwhile, Clippers coach Doc Rivers continues to vet his team. He has to find out if they have the championship mettle needed to finish the journey while the Heat don’t have to worry about that. They know what’s at their core. Of all the teams on the big stage tonight, the Clippers are the ones with the lingering questions.

They’ve been overwhelmed and worked over twice already this season by teams that were not supposed to be their equal. The Lakers ambushed them on opening night and Nikola Vucevic and the Orlando Magic got them Wednesday night.

Is this going to be a recurring theme for the Clippers, playing down to the competition?

Will Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan continue to get outplayed by guys like Vucevic, grinders who are not wowed by the shock and awe of the Lob City duo’s highlight work?

The Clippers lead the league in scoring (119 points a night) while also leading the league in points allowed (just over 112 points), making them the most exciting and vulnerable team in the league at the same time. Rivers knows better than to allow his team to continue down this path, as he explained to reporters after the loss to the Magic.

“I thought we were very casual in our approach tonight, and that’s me,” Rivers said. “I’ve always got to get them ready and I didn’t … Offense is always fool’s gold. You got to defend to win. The good part about tonight is that it was proof. When we started to get stops, we started scoring. It’s difficult to run when you’re taking the ball out of bounds every time.”

Battling the Magic is one thing. Trading blows with a Heat team that has been on red alert for statement games night after night over the past three seasons will take a colossal effort from Chris Paul and his crew. The world will be watching to see if the Clippers are up to the challenge. The Heat recognize the world is always watching to see if there will be any chinks in their armor that gets exposed by another “contender.”

The fact that we get all of that, with the Howard-Lakers drama as a nightcap, is a bonus for everyone watching.

Thursday night lights on TNT … it has a nice ring to it, no?

Vucevic Wears Scars Of Progress

Coaches are always looking for those signs of production that go deeper than stats in a box score. Scratches on the back. Black and blue marks on the shoulders. Welts on the chest or even the side of a face.

Nikola Vucevic probably couldn’t have looked more beat up if he were a crash test dummy, and that had Magic coach Jacque Vaughn grinning from ear to ear.

Vucevic blocks Howard

Vucevic blocks Howard (Bill Baptist/NBAE)

“I love it,” Vaughn said. “He has a bruise on his arm and under his eye a little bit, so that means he came to play. You should go home every night with some sort of scar, scab or Band-Aid to prove that you came to play. So he got a couple of bruises and I loved seeing it.

“He just has to understand that [physical play] is part of the game. Everyone understands that when you are a big there is more contact down low than there is up top, so accept that that’s the way it is and embrace it. Just do what you have to do to survive in this league and he’s learning to do that.”

As the Magic continue to shape and establish a roster that is full of solid, athletic, potentially explosive prospects at forward and guard, it is the development of Vucevic in the middle that will likely determine how fast Orlando returns to the playoff race.

The 22-year-old center has already shown in his first two NBA seasons that he has offensive moves around the basket and was a surprise last season as the league’s second-leading rebounder (11.9 per game). But there remained questions about his ability to defend the rim and not get outmuscled in the paint.

So it was nothing less than a revelation Wednesday to see Vucevic go toe to toe with the big man he’s replacing in Orlando, more than holding his own against Dwight Howard. He opened the night by blocking Howard’s shot in the low post on the Rockets’ first possession and then played aggressively by fronting and denying passes.

“You’ve got to do your job early against a guy like Dwight because he’s very physical,’’ Vucevic said. “If you let him catch it deep there’s not a lot that you can do. So I was trying to be as physical as I can be. I tried to make him catch it as far away as I could and my teammates did a great job of helping me on the backside when I was fronting him. I tried to limit him as much as I could and still help on the guards when they drove.’’

It was more than just limiting Howard to a 2-for-6 shooting night. It was the way that Vucevic never backed down from the rippling muscles of the would-be Superman.

“I am going to have to play physical against a player like Dwight, against all of the best big men in the league,” Vucevic said. “It is not trying to feel comfortable playing a physical style. It is just what I must do.”

The Magic, of course, have already received credit, though a year late, for getting the most out of the complex deal that sent Howard out of town. They are the only team that has any of the principals left from the trade — Howard gone from the Lakers, Andrew Bynum from the Sixers and Andre Iguodala from the Nuggets.

It figured that Orlando was getting a potential scoring piece on one wing in forward Maurice Harkless, but Vucevic was more of a question as someone who might give up on defense anything that he added offensively. In his first two seasons in the league, he had a tendency to avoid contact.

If that can change, so can the character of the young Magic. That’s why standing in and standing up to Howard was so important.

“It tells me I can go against the best players in this league,” Vucevic said “I think I held my own pretty well. I think I limited him pretty well. Obviously, it wasn’t easy. It took a lot of energy to do it, but it showed me that I can do it. I’ve got to keep building myself, keep going and keep working. When I go against the best guys, it’s only going to make me better.”

Those scars and bruises are signs of progress.

T-Mac Provided Sizzle, Little Substance

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HANG TIME, Texas —
When word spread that Tracy McGrady had announced his retirement, how many folks went straight to YouTube?

There were those 13 sizzling points in 35 sensational seconds that defined a career. Memorable and yet fleeting.

For 16 tantalizing NBA seasons, he was never the main event in the center ring under the big top when championships were to be decided, but always in a booth just outside on the carny midway — T-Mac next to the bearded lady.

Oh, there was never any doubting his ability to put the ball into the basket from any angle and from anyplace on the court. He was a deft and willing passer, could be a strong rebounder for a guard and could get after it defensively out on the wings.

Yet after all those years we’re left with a legacy that is lighter than cotton candy and with just as much substance.

While making the announcement on ESPN and looking back on his career, McGrady made the Hall of Fame case for himself that at one point in their careers there was debate about whether he or Kobe Bryant was the better player. And that is exactly the point, there came a fork in the road and their resumes went in distinctly different directions.

The price of admission to the Hall of Fame should not merely be the gaudy jewelry of a championship ring. But it should matter that a perennial All-Star performer, a franchise’s foundational player lifts his team up in the playoffs and, despite a scoring average that often increased in the playoffs, McGrady could not do that. Not in Orlando, not in Houston, where he had his chances.

Until he was a decorative ribbon on the Spurs’ machine as they marched to The Finals last spring, McGrady was the only NBA scoring champion (two times) to never advance past the first round of the playoffs.

For all of the improbable 3-point shots he made, high-rising slam dunks he threw down, thread-the-needle passes that he delivered right on the money, what McGrady could never do was close the deal. He was the front man of teams that blew 3-1 leads in Orlando and Houston and another pair of 2-0 leads with the Rockets.

“It’s all on me,” McGrady said prior to the 2007 series against the Jazz.

“It was never on me,” he said when the Rockets lost.

McGrady never understood how or what it meant to lead, even though he pretended to embrace the role.

It is not enough to say that, because another prolific scorer from another era — Walt Bellamy – was eventually voted into the Hall of Fame, McGrady should be, too. It would be wiser to see Bellamy’s inclusion as a mistake and move on.

Indeed, there were injuries to his back and knees. But there was an ugly end to McGrady’s tenure in Orlando when he sat out the end of a 21-61 season and the microfracture surgery that signaled the end of his relevance as a star or even as a starter in Houston came again with much recrimination and little remorse.

How very fitting then, for comparison’s sake, that McGrady’s retirement comes within days of Allen Iverson calling an end to his career. They entered the NBA a year apart and for nearly a decade they were the yin and the yang of the league for nearly a decade. Passion and passivity. Fire and ice.

Iverson was the rail-thin waif that seemed to be held together by pipe cleaners who threw himself into every game he ever played and constantly went crashing to the floor like grandma’s finest china, only to always pick up the pieces and come back even stronger. Iverson was voted MVP of the league in 2001 when he carried the Sixers to The Finals with an indomitable will. McGrady was cooler than an ice cube, but just as prone to melt.

The Hall of Fame should be a place for enduring greatness, a career masterpiece like the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

We looked up at T-Mac like fireworks on the Fourth of July. Oooh, isn’t that pretty?

Good thing we’ll have those 13 points in 35 seconds on YouTube to remember him.

Summer Dreaming: Comeback Player

HANG TIME, Texas – Officially, the NBA has not recognized a Comeback Player of the Year since the 1984-85 season.

But these are the dog days of August, this is just an exercise in summer daydreaming and that means, well, we can pretty much do whatever we want.

Besides, it’s so rare that we have so many big name players on the mend, several with a chip on their shoulder and something to prove.

So grab a seat in the shade and let’s run my top candidates for a make-believer honor — the 2013-14 Comeback Player of the Year:

Kobe Bryant, Lakers – Yes, it’s still all speculation at this point, and even Bryant has said that he’s not sure he’ll be ready yet for opening night. But if, at 35, he somehow gets back onto the court less than a year after tearing his Achilles’ tendon and manages to come close to being the beast of his former self, Kobe will have eclipsed Adrian Peterson as a modern medical marvel and raised his already considerable legacy way past Michael Jordan‘s “flu game.”

Dwight Howard, Rockets – Can a guy who averaged 17.1 points and led the league in rebounding (12.4 rpg) last season really be considered a comeback candidate? He can if he’s this guy, who could only have taken more abuse if he’d played every game with a “Kick Me” sign taped to the back of his jersey. A return from back surgery and an in-season shoulder injury contributed to Howard’s lost season in L.A. A healthy and happy season in Houston could produce fireworks.

Derrick Rose, Bulls – He hasn’t played in an NBA game since April 28, 2012 and he may not return immediately to his old MVP form on opening night. But there are reasons to expect that Rose will want to use this season to make a loud statement about himself as a competitor and warrior. First of all, he is both of those things. Second, he heard all the sideline critics complain that he was soft or afraid or something less than a team player by not returning at the end of last season. If anyone has a point to prove about who he is, it’s Rose.

Kevin Love, Timberwolves – Flip the calendar back 12 months and there was so much for Love to anticipate in the year ahead, especially coming off his success at the World Championship. Not the broken right hand in training camp. Not breaking it again in January. Not the surgery on his left knee that ended any chance of a late return. Love averaged 18.3 points and 14 rebounds in the 18 games he played. Teammates Ricky Rubio, Nikola Pekovic, Andrei Kirilenko, Brandon Roy and Chase Budinger all suffered injuries in a lost season for the Wolves. Now it’s Love who’s champing at the bit to lead the comeback that could get Minnesota into the playoffs for the first time since 2004.

Rajon Rondo, Celtics – When he gets back out onto the court, should we start calling him “Domino?” After all, think of all the dominoes that fell after he tore his ACL and had to be shut down for the season in January? That’s the way former teammate Paul Pierce views it. Rondo’s injury ended the Celtics’ real hopes of being playoff contenders or at least spoilers. Rondo’s injury likely led to the trading of Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry to the Nets. Rondo’s injury led to coach Doc Rivers wanting out of a rebuilding project. Rondo’s injury brought rookie coach Brad Stevens to Boston. Now Rondo gets to be the big dog who runs his own show and there’s no doubt he’ll bark loud.

Danny Granger, Pacers – On a team that already pushed the Heat to a seventh game in the Eastern Conference finals and is feeling more confident from the experience, how much of a boost could they get if the former All-Star forward can return to form? Granger played only five games last season after having surgery for patellar tendinosis. He said he expects to be back in the starting lineup. But even if he winds up coming off the bench, a Pacers team that sometimes had trouble putting points on the board will welcome the help.

Russell Westbrook, Thunder – Sure, it happened in the playoffs. Sure, he had never missed a single game in his NBA career until that night when he had the run-in with the Rockets’ Patrick Beverley. That doesn’t make it any less significant. The loss of Westbrook ended any real hope of the Thunder getting back to The Finals and maybe it quieted some of the carping complainers who love nothing more than to pick at the flaws in his game. Will the torn meniscus slow down any of his freakishly physical play or seemingly superhuman sorties to the rim? Doubt it.

Anderson Varejao, Cavaliers — With all the attention focused on free agent Andrew Bynum and No. 1 draft pick Anthony Bennett, the return of Varejao to the Cleveland lineup could be just as critical at making a run at the playoffs. The 30-year-old was averaging career highs of 14.1 points and 14.4 rebounds in 25 games last season before tearing a quadriceps muscle in January and then requiring further surgery when a blood clot developed in his lung. Coach Mike Brown says the perpetual motion machine might start at power forward and that could get him back to making a run at his first All-Star berth.

Andrew Bynum, Cavaliers – If any player ever needed a comeback, it’s the big man who was a key part in the four-team trade between the Lakers, Magic, Nuggets and Sixers in the summer of 2012. Those chronic knee problems that had always made his future a big question mark in L.A. kept him on the sidelines but not out of the limelight all last season in Philly. He showed off flashy hairstyles. He went bowling. He just didn’t play. Now that Jan. 7 cutoff date to be on the Cavs roster that guarantees the other half of this season’s $12.25 million contract should be some real motivation.

PREVIOUSLY: MVP | Coach of the Year | Sixth Man of the Year | Defensive Player of Year | Most Improved Player | Rookie Of Year

Summer Dreaming: 2014 Rookie Of Year

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HANG TIME, Texas — Maybe it’s the heat. Or the humidity. Or those icy margaritas that have been sipped by the pool.

The beginning of August gets the mind to wandering in all sorts of different directions. Sure, it’s tempting to start thinking about the season openers that are barely three months away. But why stop there? Let’s wander all the way out to next spring when the 2013-14 season is over and get a head start on candidates for all the awards.

Today we’ll look at my hot fun in the summertime top five picks for Rookie of the Year. Send me yours.

Victor Oladipo, Magic The No. 2 pick in the Draft showed in the Summer League that he has a long way to go to run an offense as a point guard. But that doesn’t mean Oladipo won’t get plenty of chances to shine as the young Magic just turn him loose. Arron Afflalo will have to move on in order to let Oladipo fully blossom. However, the nonstop, high-energy guy with the first-class defensive chops will thrive in the transition and find plenty of opportunities to get to the basket with the floor spacing in the NBA. In a Draft that seemed to jump the rails right from the first pick, Oladipo was the player the Magic targeted to be a star for the future. There’s no reason to think that he won’t get off to a fast start on a young team that craves a leader.

Ben McLemore, Kings He came out firing unconscionably and mostly missing in his first two Las Vegas Summer League games, but give him credit for not reacting by crawling into a hole and becoming shy. By the end of the his desert run, McLemore was as hot and flashy as anything on the Vegas strip. The long-suffering franchise wants him to run the floor, use his athleticism and fill up the basket. He’s got a sweet stroke, plenty of range and now that Tyreke Evans is gone to New Orleans, he should have plenty opportunity. The lesson learned from Vegas is not to paint himself strictly as a long bomber and work to improve the other areas of his game. It’s also about his attitude. There is a reason that some folks had him tabbed as the No. 1 pick and could be part of the road back for a Kings franchise that will celebrate staying in Sacramento.

Cody Zeller, Bobcats Zeller was a standout in Las Vegas, showing all the hustle, smarts and athleticism that made him a star at Indiana. Never mind that his arms are short and some think he’ll have trouble on the inside at the NBA level. Playing for the hapless Bobcats, Zeller is going to get all the time he needs to figure things out and find a way to get off his shot. This is the umpteenth time that Michael Jordan’s Bobcats are starting over and rookie coach Steve Clifford will be happy to plug the Zeller’s intelligence and skills into the lineup and let him complement free-agent signee Al Jefferson.

Anthony Bennett, Cavaliers There’s a chance the Cavs will bring the No. 1 pick in the Draft along slowly. That’s especially likely since he is a frontline tweener (6-foot-7) who will have to learn to maneuver around the bigger bodies in the NBA and learn how to get off his shot inside (since he’s not especially mobile). He’s 3-point range and while he may struggle to find his place in the offense, Bennett has a nose for rebounding and could make his presence felt by going to the glass. That’s a good way to make an impact, put up numbers, get attention and maybe even work his way off the bench by the second half of the season.

C.J. McCollum, Trail Blazers Can the Blazers go back-to-back on Rookie of the Year winners? After Damian Lillard practically went wire-to-wire to claim the award last season, Portland went out and almost drafted a clone. The conventional thinking is that McCollum will get stuck on the bench playing second fiddle to Lillard and that will limit his production. But there is really no reason to think the Blazers were drafting a sub at No. 10. They’re gonna find a way to get their pair of ball-handling scorers on the floor together as much as possible. There are plenty nuances of the game McCollum has to learn, but he’s got the swagger to take on anything thrown at him and find a way to shine.

Rudy Gobert, Jazz OK, he’s No. 6 and is a longer shot than a mule winning the Kentucky Derby. But give me a personal indulgence after watching the 7-foot-2 Frenchman with the 7-foot-9 wingspan and 9-foot-7 reach — that’s five inches below the rim — swat down everything that came into his airspace in the Orlando Summer League. He’s raw and must bulk up to eventually thrive in the NBA. But he’s only 21 and defensively has a nose for the ball that says he’s going after every shot. Of course, the shot-blocking Gobert will get time sparingly this season, but I’m telling you he’ll be fun to watch whenever he’s on the floor. Besides, you’ve got to love a guy who’s already picked up a classic nickname — the Stifle Tower.

PREVIOUSLY: Sixth Man of Year | Defensive Player of Year | Most Improved Player