Monday, March 23, 2015

Lottery Teams We Hardly Knew Ye 14/15: Denver Nuggets at Orlando Magic

Lottery Teams We Hardly Knew Ye returns with a look at the Denver Nuggets and Orlando Magic.

I hadn't thought about it when I decided to cover these teams, but the two franchises have a lot of similarities in their past and present.

Both teams opted to trade their disgruntled superstars for a bevy of  young talent rather than let them hit free agency (Carmelo Anthony for the Nuggets and Dwight Howard for the Magic).

Both teams have seen their former franchise player struggle in their new surroundings.

Both teams fired their coach this season and went into the game with interim head coaches in charge.

Ultimately, the most pertinent similarity between these teams is that despite being loaded with young, talented players, neither one has a true star to build around and elevate them back to relevancy yet.

But let's see what they do have based on this game - which the Nuggets blew out 119 to 100 (but led by as much as 30 for large chunks of the second half).


The thing that jumped out at me about the Magic in this game was that this team can't guard anybody.

I've never seen a team so inept at defending opposition players both on and off the ball.

The rotations were slow or non-existent, the perimeter guys looked like pylons and none of the Magic bigs looked like any threat to protect the rim.

The Magic were missing a few key guys, including Evan Fournier, Tobias Harris and Channing Frye, but this was as sorry a performance as I've seen for a long time.

Unlike the Nuggets, the Magic have already bottomed out and have spent the last two years racking up top-5 draft picks and blooding their young players.

However, despite the opportunities given to them, it feels like they more or less whiffed on both picks in terms of securing a superstar.

Their #2 pick in 2013, Victor Oladipo, is an undersized 2-guard who lacks a consistent jumper, a tight handle and a knack for scoring.

Don't get me wrong, there's a lot to like about Oladipo in isolation, he passes well from the shooting guard position, he plays with intensity, he's a hard-worker who doesn't complain about all the losing and he has enough athleticism to earn the nickname Mr 540.

He managed to amass a decent box-score with 21 points on 8-15 shooting, but it's deceptive because he did most of his work in the fourth quarter against the end-of-the-rotation guys Denver trotted out once the game was already decided.

When the game was still in the air the Indiana product was a no-show, unable to get easy buckets, settling for pull-up mid-range jumpers and just generally looking overmatched.

While it's too soon to give up on Oladipo as a franchise cornerstone, they desperately need someone - anyone - who can be a first option offensively and ease the burden on the second-year guard to create his own shots.

However, Elfrid Payton - aka the guy who cost Orlando a future first-round pick because Philly wanted to be jerks - showed flashes of his potential at the point.

He made smart passes, gave effort defensively with active hands (albeit in vain mostly) and wasn't shy about attacking the rim - despite getting repeatedly blocked by Denver big men.

You have to feel bad for a pass-first guy who doesn't have many shooters around him, but it will get easier for him once his jumper develops.

Nikola Vucevic, a key part of the Dwight Howard trade via Philly, seemed to be a steal for the Magic early in his career.

He put up huge rebounding numbers, showed poise and polish in the post and had the body to bang with opposition bigs without breaking a sweat.

The problem is that he's a huge liability defensively.

Vucevic lacks quick feet, long arms, timing and defensive awareness - things that are pretty important for a guy who is supposed to anchor the D.

It's too soon to give up on him as the team's starting C going forward, but if the Magic get a chance to take a guy like Karl-Anthony Towns, they should almost certainly go for it.

However, I should point out that taking Okafor would be a huge mistake, as he possesses the same weaknesses as Vucevic.

Aaron Gordon, the fourth pick in the 2014 draft was reportedly battling an illness or sorts, but looked lost when he did play.

His shooting range remains extremely limited, he isn't quite big enough to thrive as a defensive player and while he's energetic, that's not really enough for such a high pick in this draft.

I always thought Gordon got a bad rep when people dismissed his upside in the NBA, but it's just hard to see how he fits in as an undersized PF without the jump shot, refined post-game or handle to really contribute offensively.

The league is moving away from post-up power forwards and unless Gordon can make huge strides in the off-season towards playing the small forward, it seems inevitable that he won't live up to his draft position.

Best-case scenario Gordon pans out like a Kenneth Faried, getting by on hustle, rebounding and athleticism.

Looking at the roster, it's hard to see where they are going to get better without giving up on their past investments.

A star small forward who can score in bunches would be ideal, but there isn't really anyone in the lottery that fits that description.

The only SF worthy of a top-5 draft pick is Stanley Johnson, but he's similar to Gordon and Oladipo in that he's a well-rounded player, not a scorer (which is their biggest need).

Finding a power-forward who can cover some of Vucevic's weaknesses and spread the floor seems like a more realistic scenario.

If Towns is out of reach, then Kristaps Porzingis would be an ideal fit.

He stretches the floor, can protect the rim and could co-exist with Gordon, playing PF defensively and SF offensively.

If they can sort out their scoring and shooting issues with Porzingis, then this roster doesn't look too bad.

Tobias Harris is a versatile combo-forward, Channing Frye is a great veteran to have and Evan Fournier is ideal as a sixth man.

The Magic could start make the playoffs soon, but it's still hard to see them competing for a championship with this group without a Hawks-like effort from everyone on the team.


Let me start by saying that the Nuggets were extremely impressive in this game.

However, it doesn't change the fact that the roster doesn't quite fit together.

Denver is loaded with players who are rotation guys on good teams and it was this depth that let them earn a 3-seed in the 2013 playoffs before they were bundled out by the Warriors.

But role players aren't enough without either an incredible system like the Hawks (who even then have Al Horford on the roster) or a star to bring out their best.

The problem to me is that the Nuggets are building around fundamentally flawed players in Kenneth Faried and Ty Lawson.

Faried was a great value draft-pick for the Nuggets and he looked amazing playing with the US National team last year, but it doesn't change the fact that he's undersized, lacks the ability to create his own shot, has no range on his jumper and can't protect the rim.

Faried has the athleticism to block shots, but because he needs to use his vertical leap to contest shots in the paint, it's easy to throw him off with a simple pump fake.

He wasn't able to use his quickness to play the passing lanes of his bigger opponents either and while Denver looked amazing, they were at their best with Faried on the bench.

He certainly has a place on the team, but the front office should be careful about putting too much faith in a guy whose intangible strengths can't make up for his tangible weaknesses.

Lawson went scoreless against the Magic and it highlighted his limitations when he's supposed to be a team's first or second best player.

He struggled to blow by his man, his jumper wasn't there and at his size, his ability to defend is a struggle.

He's not a natural passer, despite dishing out eight assists in this game and the offense just seemed to flow better with him off the court.

However, while most of the spoils from the Carmelo trade haven't panned out, Danilo Gallinari offers hope.

He was simply sublime tonight, using his sweet shooting stroke, surprising handle and toughness to drop 40 points on the hapless Magic.

He's the sort of player every team could use, with legitimate power forward size, both in height and build, but the offensive skills of a small forward.

He's not a great defender, but he's smart and works hard on that end.

After being hit with injury the last couple of seasons, it's great to see the Italian forward back on the court again.

Unlike the other Nuggets vets, his strengths won't fade with age or declining athleticism and at 26, he could be productive for another decade if he can stay healthy.

His contract is up next season and there will be plenty of suitors for his services, but Denver should do their best to keep him on board.

While the Magic draft picks have been low-value for their draft position, the Nuggets have done an excellent job getting the most out of their picks, with Faried and Lawson good examples.

But it's Jusuf Nurkic who has been their true draft steal.

The Bosnian rookie has the quick hands and nimble footwork to be a terror defensively.

While he fouled out in 21 minutes, it was easy to see why the team traded Mozgov to give their young C more playing time.

Despite his broad frame, Nurkic is light on his feet on both ends, with promising touch in the post for a player his age.

In a redraft of the 2014 draft it's hard to see Nurkic falling out of the top 10 now that NBA teams have seen his huge upside.

His foul count will need to come down, but he has great chemistry with Gallinari on the court and the pair make a formidable frontline going forward.

Will Barton was the other standout young player for Denver.

I've long been a fan of Barton's and kept waiting for Portland to give him a chance, but he seems to have found his niche in Denver.

The Memphis guard is the ideal sixth man, bringing energy, toughness and amazing vision.

He always seems to know where people are on the court and it was his playmaking for Gallinari in the second quarter that really broke the game open for the Nuggets.

His jumper is still a bit shaky, but certainly not broken, and his inability to put on weight is a concern, but he makes up for it with grit and surprising hops.

The 6'6 guard was a rebounding machine in college and he displayed that same knack for offensive boards against Orlando.

Barton is similar in a lot of ways to Lance Stephenson in Indiana, with similar court vision, rebounding ability, transition scoring and toughness.

But he lacks Stephenson's volatile temperament and if he doesn't get lost in the crowd of guards on the Nuggets roster he might finally live up to the hype he generated coming out of high school.

Looking forward, the Nuggets already have pieces that are critical for a rebuilding team - a centre who can anchor the team defensively and shows signs of offensive ability and a stretch power-forward.

Guards are a dime a dozen but the frontcourt is crucial.

Taking a small forward or a shooting guard with shooting range is the logical move for the Nuggets in the draft, with Hezonja, Winslow or Oubre possibilities if they don't win the lottery.

Finding a star player will remain the challenge in Denver, but if they find the right coach who can institute a more egalitarian offensive system then the team can fill the void when older teams like the Mavericks, Spurs and Grizzlies start to drop off.

Speaking of the right coach... Ettore Messina should be at the top of their wish list.

This one got away from me again, will try to cut it down next time, but I hope you enjoyed it.

Feel free to comment or disagree, I'm happy to defend my positions.

The next teams I'll be covering are Heat and Celtics on Wednesday (or Thursday for Australians).


Both teams are stuck in the NBA equivalent of no-man's land, but with the right draft picks in this year's draft, they could start building towards a Toronto Raptors level team.

In a pinch, I'd take Denver over the Magic going forward, simply because of the rarity of a player like Nurkic.

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