Cavs top (really bad) Bucks in preseason opener

October 9, 2013

This is Mike Brown’s basketball team. That’s the most important takeaway from Cleveland’s 99-87 win over Milwaukee tonight at The Q, a game that was even more lopsided than the score suggests. Cleveland displayed a defensive intensity from the jump I don’t think we’ve seen since MB 1.0 ended in 2010.

The Cavs forced 23 turnovers — but had 26 of their own — and held Milwaukee to 37.7% from the field and 22.2% from distance. MB’s defense closed well on shooters across the floor, protected the rim and won the rebounding battle 50-38 minus two rotation bigs in Andrew Bynum and Tyler Zeller.  The Bucks managed just 38 points in the first half, and their starters combined for 27 points in 90 minutes, led by O.J. Mayo’s 7 on 3-10 from the field.

Let’s compare this to Cleveland’s 2012-13 D under Byron Scott:

  1. The Cavs allowed opponents 101.2 points per game (No. 25 in NBA).
  2. Cleveland opponents shot 47.6% from the field (No. 30).
  3. Cleveland opponents shot 37.2% from 3 (No. 25).

I’m not saying it’s all peaches and roses, or that the Cavs’ D is suddenly good again. Keep in mind this is a Bucks team without a real offensive threat, outside shooter, except for Caron Butler in the corner, or offensive identity. I’m just saying I like the progress and MB’s attention to detail — he must have called five timeouts tonight after missed assignments handed Milwaukee open shots.

All right, on to five quick observations:

* Dion Waiters impressed on both ends. He abused O.J. Mayo head-to-head. Waiters finished with 12 points on 4-11 shooting in 24 minutes and a game-high +/- of +23; Mayo’s +/- was a game-worst -24 in only 19 minutes. Dion’s shooting form looks much improved, and I loved his willingness to attack the cup. Twice he was rejected by LARRY SANDERS! only for Tristan Thompson to clean up the mess.

** The second unit is in good hands with Jarrett Jack and C.J. Miles. I tweeted during the game the closest thing the reserves had to glue last year was Luke Walton, perhaps the reason why Cleveland lost so many games in the second quarter. Jack’s a superb facilitator — he dished out a game-high 5 assists in 16 minutes — and can score in bunches, as he proved for Golden State in last year’s playoffs.

And C.J. is arguably the team’s fourth-best wing scorer, behind the obvious Kyrie Irving, Waiters and Jack. He drilled two from distance tonight and tallied an efficient 12 points on 4-7 in 19 minutes. Of the three vying for that starting SF spot — Alonzo Gee, Earl Clark and Miles — I think C.J. has the slimmest chance but may be most important to this year’s success. Gee and Clark bring athleticism and length, but C.J.’s the far superior scorer of the three, and this team needs his instant offense when Kyrie and Dion sit.

*** Like Saturday’s Wine & Gold scrimmage, No. 1 overall pick Anthony Bennett started slow. Bennett’s still struggling with his jumper, especially from deep, where he finished 0-3 tonight. Bennett air-balled two 3-point attempts Saturday, air-balled a third tonight and hit nothing but backboard on a fourth. Similar to Saturday, Austin Carr commented he’s fading rather than jumping straight up, much like Dion in his rookie campaign. This guy shot 53% from the field and 38% from 3 last year at UNLV, so I trust he’ll figure it out.

Despite his 2-12 showing, Bennett impressed me inside. He was blocked on his first few interior attempts, but then started attacking his defender. He attempted eight foul shots in 23 minutes; unfortunately, he missed five of them — another issue he’ll need to correct with the coaching staff. Bennett also tied Anderson Varejao with a game-high 10 rebounds, four of which came on the offensive end. The aggressiveness is clearly there; the confidence just has to follow.

**** Of the mop-up guys, Kenny Kadji looked the most NBA-ready … and may very well be playing himself onto this roster. Henry Sims was inserted before Kadji in the first quarter, but Kadji ultimately tallied more minutes, 12; more points, 15; and more rebounds, 5. Kadji almost had a nice chase-down block, too, but was whistled for a first-half foul.

Kadji has a nice inside-out game, can move up and down the floor, is a strong interior presence and possesses a nice frame — 6’10”, 242 pounds. If he doesn’t make it in Cleveland, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s on a 15-man roster in another city by the end of November. (And if that doesn’t work out, he can always go to work for his family at Kadji Beer, the Budweiser of Cameroon!)

***** The Bucks are bad. Like really bad. I put out a Twitter message asking Bucks fans to chime in on their team’s offensive identity and/or who’s their primary option. One response read: “Hopefully [Andrew] Wiggins.”

LARRY SANDERS! is LARRY SANDERS! Milwaukee probably has something in Greece’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, who finished with 14 points, but the Kevin Durant comparisons need to stop. O.J. Mayo’s an overpaid volume shooter at $8 million per year on a team where he’s probably the No. 1 late-game option. And Brandon Knight’s done nothing to prove he’s a starting-caliber PG at this level.

MVP OF THE GAME

This award goes to Tristan Thompson, who finished with 17 points and 8 rebounds, 5 offensive, in 25 minutes. Thompson was a vacuum around the hoop; between he, Varejao and Clark, I see no reason why Cleveland can’t lead the league in both offensive rebounds and second-chance points. Thompson’s right-handed foul shot also looked good; he finished 3-4 from the line.

ON TO THE NEXT ONE

Cleveland’s in Orlando at 7 p.m. EST on Friday night. The game’s on NBA TV. A good chance to see Orlando’s young wing talent, particularly Victor Oladipo, who had some, um, not-so-nice words for Cleveland a month ago, and Tobias Harris. I’ll be at a hockey game, but try to catch a replay and blog some observations over the weekend.

Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.

RELATED: KYRIE IRVING SHINES IN CAVS’ WINE & GOLD SCRIMMAGE


Some Cavs schedule notes.

August 7, 2013

The NBA has released its full 2013-14 schedule of games, and the Cleveland Cavaliers will open their season against the revamped Brooklyn Nets in an NBA TV affair on October 30. (Find the full schedule here.)

The Cavs and Nets have been 2 of the league’s most active franchises this summer — Cleveland’s re-hired Mike Brown as head coach, drafted Anthony Bennett at No. 1, and signed Jarrett Jack, Andrew Bynum and Earl Clark to free-agent contracts, while Brooklyn’s hired the just-retired Jason Kidd as head coach, traded for future Hall of Famers Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, and also added a stable of veterans that includes Andrei Kirilenko, Shaun Livingston, Jason Terry and Alan Anderson.

Three years ago this summer, the Cavs opened against KG, Pierce and the Celtics in their post-LeBron debut, scoring a 95-87 win at Quicken Loans Arena. This one’s likely to have a similar atmosphere, and not just because it’s Livingston’s return to Cleveland. The Cavs are 2-1 in home openers in the post-LBJ era.

I like the NBA’s bet here. These are 2 likely playoff teams sure to grab the headlines this year, one for its aging All Stars and the other, if nothing else, for LeBron James’s pending free agency.

Then, there’s the questions. How will Kidd fare in his coaching debut? How will Brooklyn’s starting lineup of 4 superstars — past and present, mostly past — share the ball in the half court? And how will Bynum perform in his first real game action in nearly 18 months?

A few other nuggets on the schedule, in no order of importance.

* I counted 20 back-to-backs through 82 games, with the latter half of 11 of those coming on the road.

* The Cavs have a chance to start fast. Only 4 of the team’s first 13 games are against playoff teams from 2012-13, one of which comes versus a Milwaukee team that lost 3 of its best 4 players, Brandon Jennings (Detroit), Monta Ellis (Dallas) and J.J. Redick (LAC), this summer. That stretch also includes 2 games each against Charlotte, Minnesota, Philadelphia and Washington.

* The longest stretch of road games I counted was 5, from Jan. 10 to Jan. 17, right after which the Cavs return to The Q for 5, from Jan. 20 to Jan. 28, the longest home stretch of the season. The away stretch: Utah, Sacramento, LAL, Portland and Denver; the home stretch: Dallas, Chicago, Milwaukee, Phoenix and New Orleans.

* I only counted 2 other road trips of at least 3 games — Jan. 30 to Feb. 3, at New York, Houston and Dallas; and March 12 to March 16, at Phoenix, Golden State and LAC.

* To the naked eye, the most brutal stretch of games comes Nov. 22 to Dec. 10; the games: at New Orleans, at San Antonio, vs. Miami, at Boston, vs. Chicago, vs. Denver, at Atlanta, vs. LAC and vs. New York. After New Orleans, that’s 8 straight against postseason teams from a year ago, though Boston, Denver and maybe Atlanta are likely to regress.

* Immediately after this stretch comes a 2-day Florida sweep: at Orlando on Dec. 13 and at Miami the next day.

* Ironically, the Cavs’ second home game against Brooklyn, whom they open the season with, is the last game of the season on April 16.

* LeBron’s return to The Q comes early this year — on Nov. 27, the day before Thanksgiving. Miami returns to Cleveland on March 18.

* Andrew Bynum doesn’t have to wait long to play his most recent team, the Philadelphia 76ers … and Philly fans don’t have to wait long to boo. Cleveland and Philly play a home-and-home on Nov. 8 and Nov. 9, the first of which comes at Wells Fargo Center in a Friday night slot that I’d guess could be a national TV affair.

* Jarrett Jack doesn’t return to the ORACLE until March 14, but Golden State travels to Cleveland on Dec. 29.

* The ex-Lakers contingent of Bynum, Mike Brown and Earl Clark returns to L.A. on Jan. 14. The Lakers travel to Cleveland on Feb. 5.

* With Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings in the fold, Detroit figures to compete for a low playoff seed, potentially against the division-rival Cavs. Two of Cleveland’s last 10 come against the Pistons, including an April 9 affair at The Q. The other 2 meetings are Dec. 23, at Cleveland, and Feb. 12, at Detroit.

Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.


Andrew Bynum to Cavs: All reward, no risk

July 12, 2013

Andrew Bynum is your newest member of the Cleveland Cavaliers. The news of an incentive-laced 2-year, $24-million deal, first reported Wednesday by ESPN’s Chris Broussard, brought out excited Cavs fans on Twitter. And why not.

Admittedly hesitant at first, here’s why I love this deal.

Not a lot of financial risk.

$6 million guaranteed in Year No. 1, Year 2’s a team option. Sign me up!

If Bynum flops, Chris Grant lets him walk next summer and maintains flexibility to sign a max-contract player, such as a LeBron James. Even after the signings of Earl Clark and Jarrett Jack, the Cavs needed to spend to reach the $52-million salary floor. Why not spend it on a 7-footer who’s still only 25 and has averaged double-figure scoring every year he’s played since 2007-08, all while carrying the burden of being Shaquille O’Neal’s successor in L.A.

If Bynum plays well, Grant owns a team option for an affordable $12.5 million, barely $1 million more than DeAndre Jordan and JaVale McGee are scheduled to make, next season. Trade Anderson Varejao and decline team options on Clark and Alonzo Gee, and, boom, you’ve got your max slot again!

Or, Grant could pick up Bynum’s team option and then shop him. L.A. picked up Bynum’s option last summer, only to deal him to Philadelphia in the Dwight Howard trade 2 months later.

The injury history is real, but doesn’t bother me.

Not every day does a team add a 19-point, 12-rebound-a-night center. Those were Bynum’s stats in 60 games in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 campaign, under current Cavs coach Mike Brown, while sharing touches with Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol. He’s a 2-time NBA champion with 74 postseason games under his belt, easily the most among any current Cavs player barring a Luke Walton return.

Sure, Bynum’s a health risk. He’s played only one 82-game season throughout his 8-year career, and he’s missed at least 15 games 5 out of 7 times since he started earning meaningful minutes in 2006-07. Much is made of how Bynum’s knees, re-aggravated during a November bowling injury, kept him out of all last season in Philly, and how many, including Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, have questioned his work ethic.

But now, Bynum’s legitimately playing for his NBA career. If he flops in Cleveland, and if the knee issues return, he’s going to have a hard time finding anything more than veteran-minimum dollars in free agency next summer.

Look at this roster. This is a playoff team.

There’s five teams in the Eastern Conference above everyone else — in no particular order, Miami, Brooklyn, Indiana, Chicago and New York. Boston traded 2 of its 3 best players, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, to Brooklyn, sent their Hall-of-Fame coach to L.A. and could be shopping Rajon Rondo. Atlanta lost Josh Smith to Detroit, and Milwaukee’s likely to lose Brandon Jennings, Monta Ellis and J.J. Redick.

I see the Cavs, next to Washington and Detroit, competing for those 6-8 playoff spots, along with Atlanta, maybe Toronto and whatever Boston throws on the floor.

The Cavs needed an offensive punch, so here comes Bynum, Jack and No. 1 selection Anthony Bennett. The Cavs needed a defensive mentality, so here comes Mike Brown, Clark and Jack.

Barring any other major moves or injuries, that’s a rotation of Kyrie Irving and Bynum, 2 of the league’s top 30 players when healthy; Tristan Thompson, Dion Waiters, Bennett, Jack, Clark, Tyler Zeller, C.J. Miles, Gee and maybe Sergey Karasev. That’s 11 quality NBA talents.

And when they need buckets, a 3-guard lineup of Irving, Waiters and Jack, coupled with Bynum and Bennett would give defenses a lot to handle.

Yeah, I really like this team.

Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.


3 reasons to love the Earl Clark signing

July 5, 2013

About 86 hours into free agency, Chris Grant made his first move. Enter Sporting News’ Sean Deveney.

And TNT’s David Aldridge.

Boom. And here’s 3 reasons why I love this deal.

1. It’s all about the $.

A team option for year No. 2 of this deal means zero risk for the Cavaliers, a team clearly trying to preserve at least enough cap space for next summer to make a run at a max free agent. If Clark fails to meet expectations, Grant can easily wash his hands of the former Louisville product a year from now, and we’re right back where we started.

Should he so desire, Grant could still throw $15 million a year at a Nikola Pekovic, Paul Millsap or Andre Iguodala and remain firmly under the cap, though I’d guess those are unlikely. Or, Grant could fill out his roster with short-term deals and rookie contracts, then leave ample room for a major splash next summer, should LeBron James explore the market. Until this year’s rookie class is signed, the Cavaliers actually have $0 on the books for next season, just team options.

On Clark’s end, after a breakout year in an ugly situation, I expected more potential suitors. Clark had never played more than 12.5 minutes per game before last season, and still only averaged 7.3 points with the Lakers. But his age, 25; size and versatility, 6’10” and can play the 3 or 4; and range, 34% from 3 last year and improving, make him an appealing target.

Now, he’s in Cleveland on essentially a 1-year, $4.5-million deal. And you know he’ll work his ass off because it’s very much a contract year.

2. Versatility, baby.

That Mike Brown loved this kid enough to help lure him to Cleveland, after coaching him for only 5 regular season games in L.A., tells me a lot. Mike D’Antoni said last year that Clark could guard all 5 positions. With Tristan Thompson and Anderson Varejao at the 4, early reports indicate the Cavs plan on using Clark at the 3. Clark should compete with Alonzo Gee and No. 1 overall pick Anthony Bennett, another stretch 3-4 at 6’7″, for a starting spot.

A thrown-in part of the Dwight Howard deal, Clark averaged a very respectable 11.4 points and 8.6 rebounds per 36 minutes. L.A.’s most commonly used 5-man lineup — Clark, Howard, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace and Steve Nash — left Clark at the 4 for close to 340 minutes. D’Antoni loved Clark so much, he started him in 36 games, often over 4-time All Star Pau Gasol.

Clark immediately becomes the best perimeter defender on the Cavs’ roster. In a conference with LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Paul George, Paul Pierce and Joe Johnson, he’ll draw a range of assignments.

Consider these words from ESPN L.A.’s Dave McMenamin, who covers the Lakers.

3. Another weapon for Kyrie, Cavs.

Just add another face to a team loaded with young, quality talent. I’m not suggesting Clark is as important to Cleveland’s long-term future as Kyrie Irving, Thompson, Bennett or even Dion Waiters, but it’s not every day you add a playoff-caliber role player. (I’m not concerned with his dismal postseason stats against the Spurs — 3.5 points, 3 rebounds and 37% shooting — given how short-handed L.A. was for that series.)

I anointed Clark one of my 5 second-tier free agents to watch last week, before I knew Cleveland had interest. If there was any doors open on a Luke Walton or Omri Casspi return, those are, thankfully, shut. With team options on both for 2014-15, I’m guessing Clark and Gee will spend 2013-14 fighting for one spot, unless the Cavs strike out next July.

This move was made because of Clark’s defensive prowess. But he can grow as a 3-point shooter — hopefully enough to stretch the floor for Kyrie-AV pick-and-rolls and Tristan post-ups — and rebounder.

By no means is this a blockbuster move. But be excited, fellow Cavs fans.

Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.


5 second-tier free agents to watch

June 30, 2013

NBA free agency officially kicks off at 12 a.m. EST Monday. The class is not nearly as strong as next year’s, but does include franchise players Chris Paul and Dwight Howard. Paul’s likely to remain with the Clippers following the Doc Rivers trade; as for D12, if his meeting schedule is any indication, Howard could very well leave L.A. — he’ll meet with the Rockets, Hawks, Warriors, Mavericks and Lakers before Tuesday’s over, according to reports.

But what about the other guys? Here’s 5 under-the-radar — calling them second-tier may be a bit of an overconfident stretch — free agent acquisitions that could make a key difference with whatever team signs them, in no particular order.

No. 5: Carl Landry, 29, PF, Golden State Warriors

Jarrett Jack gets a lot of the credit, but Landry was a fine free agent acquisition last summer. For the 4th straight year, he averaged double-figure points (10.8), even in the lowest minute totals (23.2 per) since his sophomore season. He played in 81 games, easily a career-high, and shot a respectable 54% from the field and 82% from the foul line. In 12 postseason games, his minutes went down (20.5) — largely thanks to Andrew Bogut’s return — but his scoring went up (11.8).

Per 36 minutes, Landry averaged 16.8 points and 9.3 rebounds, just below All Star teammate David Lee’s 18.1 and 11; Lee (14.4) also attempts close to 3 shots more per 36. And Landry’s 17.6 player-efficiency rating finished 3rd on Golden State last season, trailing only Stephen Curry (21.3) and Lee (19.2).

Landry opted out of the final year of a 2-year, $8-million deal, well below his market value. With Bogut, Lee, Andris Biedrins and Richard Jefferson due a combined $48.1 million next year, Golden State simply doesn’t have the cap flexibility to re-sign Carl. His quality mid-range game and motor will, for sure, be of use to one of 29 other teams.

No. 4: Marco Belinelli, 27, SG, Chicago Bulls

Despite his abysmal 10.43 PER for the 2012-13 season, Belinelli showed flashes of gaining Tom Thibodeau’s trust … and cracking his thin, injury-riddled rotation. For the season, he averaged only 9.6 points per game, his lowest since ’09-10, and shot a career-low 36% from 3. His postseason was more of the same, though he did drop 24 points in a Game 7 road win vs. the Brooklyn Nets, with the Bulls minus All Star SF Luol Deng.

Belinelli’s a creative scorer with an ability to get hot … and is worth $3-5 million annually on the right contender looking for a punch off the bench. Aside from one year in New Orleans with Chris Paul, in which he shot 43.7% from the field and 41.4% from 3 in 69 starts, Belinelli’s never had the fortune of playing alongside a playmaker at the point.

Per 36 minutes in Chicago, the Italian still managed to score 13.4 points. Chicago already has $73.2 million tied up in 8 guys next year, so it’s unlikely Belinelli’s back in the Windy City.

No. 3: Wayne Ellington, 25, SG, Cleveland Cavaliers

Ellington proved his worth following a January trade to Cleveland. In 38 games for Byron Scott, he averaged 10.4 points, and shot 38% from 3, 44% from the field and 90% from the stripe. During that time, he also averaged career-highs in rebounds, assists and steals. Per 36 minutes, the former UNC product netted 14.5 points.

Ellington, in his 4th season in the league and playing for his 3rd team, played like a guy fighting for his NBA life … and may have just well saved his career. He showed a surprising ability to create his own shot from the outside; for his career, he’s a very healthy 38.2% 3-point marksman.

The Akron Beacon Journal‘s Jason Lloyd surprised Clevelanders on Saturday, when he reported GM Chris Grant decided not to extend a $3-million qualifying offer, making Ellington an unrestricted free agent. With more than $20 million in cap space, barring a major free agent acquisition or contract-heavy trade, I expect Ellington to return to northeast Ohio.

No. 2: Earl Clark, 25, SF, Los Angeles Lakers

Hardly an afterthought in the D12 blockbuster, Clark broke out in his 4th year in the NBA. For much of the season, head coach Mike D’Antoni was starting him over 4-time All Star Pau Gasol. He has great size, 6’10”, for a 3 and agility for a 4, with an ability to knock down the outside shot, though he finished sub-34% from 3 on the year.

In addition to Gasol, Howard, Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant, Clark had his own injury problems, missing 23 games. But the former lottery pick out of Louisville still managed a career-high 7.3 points and 5.5 rebounds in 23.1 minutes, with career-bests in rebounds, steals, assists and blocks. Per 36 minutes, Clark chipped in 11.4 points and 8.6 rebounds.

Too much was asked of Clark last year in L.A., but he proved, for the first time in his career, he’s a capable 2nd or 3rd guy off the bench. Despite their cap limitations, all indications point to Clark returning to L.A. on a modest deal, especially if D12 signs elsewhere and/or Pau’s traded. Cleveland, coached by former Lakers head man Mike Brown, will show interest, but Clark told Lakers’ beat mean Mike Medina in April he’d consider returning to L.A. even if less money’s on the table.

No. 1: Martell Webster, 26, SF, Washington Wizards

In career-high minutes last year in Washington, Webster averaged 11.4 points, 3.9 rebounds, and shot 42% from 3, 44% from the field and 85% from the foul line. It was the first year Webster averaged double-figure scoring since ’07-08 in Portland, and it was the first year he played in 75+ games since ’09-10.

After John Wall returned in January, Webster scored 15+ in 14 games, including a 34-point effort in a March 16 win over Phoenix, in which he drilled 7-of-10 3-balls. For a guy signed to a 1-year, $1.6-million deal, that’s incredible value.

Buyer’s beware: Webster’s missed 170 games in 8 NBA seasons, including all but 5 minutes of the ’08-09 campaign. But now that Washington has a young core of Wall and Bradley Beal in the backcourt, and veteran pieces Nene, Trevor Ariza and Emeka Okafor, the playoffs are within reach, assuming full health. And Webster’s only 26.

CSN Washington reported after season’s end there was a mutual interest in a Webster return. Thursday, the Wizards drafted Otto Porter, Jr., a SF, No. 3 overall, so if there’s room for the sharpshooter Webster, it’s likely off the bench, something he said he’d be OK with 2 months ago.

Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.


30 in 30: ORLANDO MAGIC

February 24, 2013

When the Orlando Magic shipped superstar Dwight Howard to sunny Los Angeles in August, everyone knew the Magic’s immediate future was, well, not so sunny. In that deal, Orlando acquired 5 draft picks, 3 first-rounders and 2 second-rounders, Arron Afflalo, Al Harrington, Nikola Vucevic, Josh McRoberts, Christian Eyenga and rookie Moe Harkless in exchange for Howard and cap fillers Chris Duhon, Earl Clark and Jason Richardson. GM Rob Hennigan was ripped in the national press for the return, or lack thereof, as the Magic netted cap relief, some picks and a quality 2-guard in Afflalo, but none of the deal’s 3 stars — Howard, Andrew Bynum and Andre Iguodala — came to Florida.

Not so fast, my friend. Howard’s impending free agent status is still very much uncertain in the midst of a made-for-TV nightmare season in L.A., and Bynum’s yet to log a minute of game action for Philly. Thrust into the primary scorer role, Afflalo has responded better than I anticipated, averaging a team- and career-high 16.8 points per game on 45% shooting, showcasing abilities to not only be a lockdown defender on one end, but an isolation scorer on the other. And Vucevic, an afterthought in the deal, is turning in a double-double per night, at 12.4 points and 11.5 boards, on 52% shooting. His points and rebounds have more than doubled over last year, when he started 15 games in Philadelphia. His player-efficiency rating, 17.7, is the team’s 2nd-best.

ALSO: 30 IN 30 — OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER

Sure, since a better-than-expected 12-13 start that had some in Orlando pondering playoffs in mid-December, the Magic have only won a horrific 3 of 31. At 15-41, Orlando’s boosting its lottery chances, only besting the 13-43 Bobcats thus far. And Orlando’s roster is chock full of young guys who’ve yet to prove themselves in the NBA; 8 guys are 23 or younger — Vucevic, Harkless, Tobias Harris, DeQuan Jones, Andrew Nicholson, Doron Lamb, Kyle O’Quinn and E’Twuan Moore.

Watching all these young guys play the Cavaliers on Saturday, they’re sometimes hard to distinguish. I’m really high on Nicholson, the 23-year-old rookie out of St. Bonaventure — a very solid around-the-basket forward with an excellent PER, 15.58, and very nice scoring numbers, 8.1 points in less than 17 minutes on 53% shooting. O’Quinn’s another capable rookie bruiser, at 6’10”, 240, who scores 3.1 points per in less than 8 minutes; his 19.30 PER, albeit in limited minutes, is a team-high.

ALSO: 30 IN 30 — NEW YORK KNICKS

At the 3, Orlando’s acquired 2 pieces, Harkless and Harris (via Thursday’s J.J. Redick deal), with exceptional athleticism and the ability to attack the cup. Harkless, 19, and Harris, a 2nd-year player at 20, are both non-lottery 1st-round selections with field goal percentages in excess of 46%, yet both (21% for Harkless, 33% for Harris) are limited from 3-point range. Harkless especially is a strong rebounder, at 4.1 per 20.5 minutes. Harris, who reaches the FT line just as much as Harkless in half the minutes this year, is an 89% shooter; Harkless is 57%.

If I’m head coach Jacques Vaughn, himself a youngster at 38, I see 26 games left in the 2012-13 season to get all these guys some valuable game experience. And it helps to have intelligent veteran leaders, like an Afflalo or a Jameer Nelson, who’s still going strong at 14.5 points, a personal best since 2008-09, and 7.4 assists per, strangely a career-high sans Howard. At the 4, Glen Davis is also still productive, with a career-high 15.1 points and 7.2 rebounds per, though he’s already missed 22 games and is out for the season with a broken left foot.

ALSO: 30 IN 30 — NEW ORLEANS HORNETS

Assuming Hedo Turkoglu picks up his $12 million player option — a good bet since he’s only appeared in 11 games this season and is currently serving a 20-game suspension for violating the NBA’s anti-drug policy — Orlando’s already looking at about $53 million in contracts committed for 2013-14. And that ignores the $22.35 million the team’s paying Gilbert Arenas, currently playing in China, who was amnestied in December 2011 (of course, that money does not count against the cap).

Once 2014-15 hits, Orlando has less than $23 million committed to Al Harrington, yet to play this year due to a staph infection, Afflalo and Davis, with a reasonable $8 million team option on Nelson and much more affordable ones on essentially all the young guys. With a deep free agent class that summer, maybe that’s the time Hennigan makes a splash and tries to acquire a 2nd-tier max player to pair with his young core.

ALSO: 30 IN 30 — MILWAUKEE BUCKS

Right now, Orlando’s lacking points. At 93.8 per game, they’re tied for 24th in the league in points, and are 28th in 3-point percentage, which will only worsen given Redick’s departure. Vaughn’s bench is 19th in scoring at 30.4 points per game, again largely thanks to Redick’s 15.1. Defensively, they’re not much better — the Magic force a league-worst 6 steals per game, surrender a 20th-ranked 99.4 points per game and are 22nd in opponent’s FG percentage.

No one said the transition to the post-D12 era would be easy in Orlando, especially as the Magic are set to miss the playoffs for the first time since 2005-06, Howard’s 2nd year in the league. Vaughn has a handful of pieces to tinker with, but for this team to have any success, someone has to ascend and replace D12 as the Magic’s new face.

Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.

FULL COVERAGE: ARMCHAIR 3’S 30 IN 30 SERIES


30 in 30: LOS ANGELES LAKERS

February 16, 2013

This team’s disaster of a season has been the subject of so much national media attention, I hesitated to even write this piece. But, hey, it’s the ’30 in 30′ for a reason, so I’m obliged to provide my 5 readers with analysis of all 30 teams. (Plus, I think there’s a small part of all of us non-Lakers fans who derive a small bit of pleasure from their struggles.)

So let’s break it down. After a 24-point home loss to the Clippers on Thursday night, the Lakers are 25-29 and 3.5 games out of the Western Conference’s No. 8 seed. Sure, the playoffs are still within reach, with Golden State, Utah and Houston, the West’s No. 6-though-8 seeds, relatively untested and not immune to a late season collapse. And the Lakers are on the cusp, or at least that’s what we’ve been saying for weeks now; after all, they are the NBA’s only non-playoff team to be outscoring their opponents thus far this season.

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Schedule-wise, L.A. has 14 home and road games remaining, each; they’re 16-11 at home, but 9-18 away from Staples Center. 14 of those games are against likely playoff teams, and two are against Portland, currently the only team standing between them and 8th-seeded Houston, whom the Lakers play in their regular season finale April 17. My bet is still on L.A. not earning a postseason bid, but should one of those 3 teams start to skid, Mike D’Antoni’s team is the logical choice to slide into that final spot. (But, hey, nothing’s been logical about this team this year!)

So what is going wrong in Southern California? Here’s a team that, after the Steve Nash and Dwight Howard acquisitions, almost everyone was penciling into the Finals against Miami. Metta World Peace even speculated in September that L.A. could tally an NBA-record 73 wins. (If L.A. were to win out, they would finish with 53.) But the crazy thing is, with a starting lineup of Nash, Kobe Bryant, World Peace, Pau Gasol and Howard, four of whom are likely Hall of Famers, that mark seemed within reach, at least on paper.

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The Lakers fired Mike Brown after 5 games, only to hire Brown’s coaching opposite, D’Antoni, less than a month into the season — a move with which I cautiously expressed concern at the time. In a roster with two talented post players, I still do not quite understand the move to hire such an up-tempo offensive coach. D’Antoni is by no means the sole reason for this sinking ship, but an insistence on starting Earl Clark over Gasol, as well as a borderline criminal misuse of Howard, though still not healthy, has to be seen as head-scratching in NBA circles.

L.A. puts up a 6th-ranked 101.6 points per game, but surrenders a 23rd-worst 100.9 to opponents. This summer, the Lakers brought in Antawn Jamison, Jodie Meeks, Clark and Chris Duhon, as well as re-signed Jordan Hill, to improve upon their 30th-ranked scoring bench from a year ago, but this year they’ve only climbed 4 spots to 26th, with Gasol’s 7 games as a reserve padding those stats. Nash, a 2-time MVP in Phoenix and this generation’s preeminent passing point guard, has been relegated to an off-the-ball spot-up shooter, contributing to his lowest assist numbers (7.4 per game) since 2002-03. As a team, the Lakers are 15th in assists, even with Kobe’s recent emergence as a facilitator, and the pick-and-rolls, staples of a Nash and D’Antoni offense, just aren’t there with a slow, ailing Howard.

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Health is a major factor outside of L.A.’s control. Howard’s still recovering from back surgery that prematurely ended his 2011-12 season in Orlando and has yet to resemble his explosive, dominating self this year. A torn labrum has limited Howard in recent weeks, even prompting Bryant and Nash to essentially say, ‘Hey, suck it up!’ Gasol’s torn plantar fascia should keep him out of the lineup well into March. Nash missed 24 games early this season with a left leg injury, Blake has only played 17 games due to abdominal surgery, and Hill has already been ruled out for the rest of the season due to hip surgery. Bryant is the only Lakers player to suit up in all 54 games.

Kobe is, from an efficiency perspective, playing some of the best basketball of his career. His 12th-ranked PER is tops on the team, and despite all his struggles, Howard’s 19.2 PER is ranked 41st. Bryant’s scoring has hardly dipped over last year, yet his 46.4% FG percentage is his best since 2008-09, and his 5.6 assists per are his highest since 2004-05; in his last 10 games, Bryant is averaging 7.4 assists.

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Defensively, though, L.A. has issues. Nash, 39, is and always has been a liability, especially against the West’s faster point guards. (Lakers’ opponents drill 7.2 3-balls a game, showing how slow they are in spaces on the perimeter.) Howard, a 3-time Defensive Player of the Year, is clearly hampered by health issues, though he still leads the league in rebounding, 11.8 per game, and is 5th in blocked shots, 2.33. Bryant and World Peace are both capable defenders, though Metta has seen his lateral quickness slow with age. Jamison, the team’s leading scorer off the pine, has always been a poor defender, adding to just how much the Lakers miss Hill’s athleticism.

Financially, L.A.’s even more of a mess than on the floor, with a league-high $100+ million on the books this season. Howard’s a free agent this summer, and whether he sticks around remains to be seen. General Manager Mitch Kupchak’s stuck paying Pau’s $19.3 million next year, since his injury and shattered confidence equals little trade value, and World Peace’s $7.7 million player option expires in the summer of 2014. The Lakers owe a combined $8 million to backup 1-guards, Blake and Duhon, next season, and another $9+ to Nash through 2015. But, fortunately for L.A., even if Howard is lucratively re-signed, Nash is currently the only contract on the books for 2014-15, meaning a run at LeBron James or another max free agent is plausible, if not probable.

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Future aside, this year has to go down as one of the most disappointing seasons in the history of professional sports, should the Lakers not earn a postseason berth. This would be the first time since 2004-05, a team that starred Kwame Brown and Smush Parker, the purple and gold have failed to make the playoffs. No pressure.

Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.

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