Long Road Back from Foot Injury Can Be Blessing in Disguise for Aaron Gordon

Aaron Gordon needed all the developmental time he could get, perhaps more than any other high-profile member of the 2014 NBA draft class.

That’s why, on the surface, his recent battle with the injury bug appears disastrous. With so much left to figure out about himself and his role with the Orlando Magic, the 19-year-old seems to be missing out on a prime opportunity to season his skills.

But looks can be deceiving. As frustrating as his injury might be, it does give him the chance to see where and how he will best fit in the franchise moving forward.

It’s still unknown how long this chance will last. Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel shared the details of Gordon’s injury and noted the lack of a timetable for his return:

Gordon, the fourth pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, was diagnosed with a fractured fifth metatarsal in his left foot after Saturday night’s loss to the Washington Wizards, and he will be out indefinitely, team officials said.

It’s unclear whether Gordon will require surgery to stabilize the fracture and promote healing in the bone, league sources said. He will be evaluated by a foot specialist after the Magic return from their road trip following Monday night’s game against the Detroit Pistons in Auburn Hills, Mich.

Before the basketball world had time to process the injury, Gordon hit Twitter to show he is ready for the long road ahead:

It might be a cliched response, but like a lot of these time-tested sayings, there is plenty of truth at its root.

By most accounts, Gordon entered this league in dire need of seasoning. In July, NBA.com’s Fran Blinebury cautioned that the No. 4 pick was “raw, unsure of himself and likely at least a season or two away from making a significant contribution.”

Gordon remains a mystery, though not for the reasons Blinebury listed. In fact, Gordon had made some of the most significant contributions of any players in his draft class prior to his injury. He had the highest player efficiency rating (15.5) and true shooting percentage (64.5) of any rookie to have logged at least 100 minutes this season.

He’s been an impact player out of the gate, or at least as much as one can be while getting 15 minutes a night. But the question marks stem from his versatility and Orlando’s ongoing challenge to best make use of his natural gifts.

“I have no idea what position Gordon plays, and that is awesome,” wrote Grantland’s Zach Lowe. “He’s clearly a forward, but sometimes he guards wing players—even as the opposing power forward defends him on the other end.”

Defensively, there are obvious perks to being able to deploy Gordon all over the floor. With the strength to stop a scorer on the low block and the quickness to deny dribble penetrations from the perimeter, he can accept and pass whatever defensive assignment comes his way.

At that end, Gordon has already lived up to the Shawn Marion comparisons that followed him throughout the draft process.

That type of ability is critical for Orlando’s future. The Magic are forming their identity as a defensive club (102.3 points allowed per 100 possessions, 12th overall), and Gordon already seems to fit perfectly with that vision.

But the opposite side could be a different story.

To date, he hasn’t encountered nearly as many offensive hurdles as scouts expected. He has put up 14.0 points per 36 minutes while shooting 58.1 percent from the field and 50.0 percent from distance.

Of course, the sample size behind those stats makes them impossible to buy at face value. He has attempted only 43 shots from the field and all of eight triples on the year.

Credit him for converting the looks, but the workload hasn’t quieted the concerns about his future as a shooter.

Gordon, who had an alarmingly low 42.2 free-throw percentage during his lone season of college basketball, explained his shooting woes and how he planned to address them in June, per Timberwolves.com’s Mark Remme:

I overhauled my free throws just because I didn’t have a consistent free-throw shot. I don’t have a consistent jumper or a consistent jump shot. I maybe have three different ones. But that’s not OK. You start with not having a specific jumper, and now I have one jumper that shoots every single time. What’s happening is my free throw was disconnected from my jumper. I was getting to the peak of my shot and then shooting. Now, what I’ve done is I’ve connected my 3 and my pull-up and my 17-footer and now my free throws. It’s all one shot. It’s all connected, and it feels great.

Gordon may have found a functional form over the summer but needs more time to prove it’s a consistent piece of his arsenal. His free-throw shooting still isn’t great (66.7 percent), and he has found a lot of his offensive success around the rim. Of his 25 made field goals, 13 have come from within three feet of the basket.

That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Given how many other things he does well, his shooting may not need to come much further along.

“Gordon was drafted as an elite athlete with the potential to one day be a competent shooter, too,” wrote ESPN Insider David Thorpe (subscription required). “It’s possible that day has already arrived, though, because his shot looks much cleaner than it did in college.”

The Magic won’t know how much they’ll need Gordon to shoot until they decide how to use him. The more time he’ll see on the wing, the more consistent that stroke will need to become.

Gordon has spent 73 of his 165 minutes alongside Orlando’s small-ball 4, Tobias Harris. If Gordon cannot hold his defender on the perimeter, then the Magic cannot reap the full rewards of employing a stretchy power forward like Harris.

This time away should help Gordon focus his training on fine-tuning his shooting form, just like Nerlens Noel did while completely rebuilding his shot last season.

Gordon’s defense has already looked as good as advertised, and he has been a promising presence on the glass (7.2 rebounds per 36 minutes). Finding comfort and effectiveness from distance could be the difference between being a glue guy and having a shot at stardom.

The Magic could get a lot out of him as a dominant defender and highlight-dunk artist. But if he can supplement his physical and intangible gifts with more well-rounded weapons, he could become the two-way force Orlando needs to help bring its rebuilding project along.

This indefinite absence will give Gordon the chance to see just what the Magic are missing without him. As much as he could use the on-court experience, his learning process doesn’t have to stop just because he’s been removed from the action.

Having a new perspective might actually be a good thing. The biggest challenge for his rookie year has always been to establish a foundation on which he can build the rest of his career.

“By the end of this season, I want to be extremely comfortable with the NBA game,” Gordon said, per Sports On Earth’s Howard Megdal. “And that’s basically it. I want to learn the nuances, and understand, so that my sophomore season is something to marvel at.”

He can still lay the groundwork for better days ahead.

Rather than filling a specific niche in a crowded Orlando frontcourt, Gordon can address the areas he needs to improve. His motor and athleticism help him hide his weaknesses during games. With nothing more than practice time in his foreseeable future, this is when he should focus on the subtle advancements that could blow the top off his current ceiling.

He can become a more complete player, then worry about finding his place within Orlando’s blueprint.

Gordon doesn’t appear nearly as raw as scouts billed him to be but still needs plenty of polish. This presumed setback could actually be a chance to spring himself forward as a better player and a bigger piece of Orlando’s puzzle.

 

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.

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Cleveland Cavs Finding Their Way, Yet Admit Defense Still Has a Long Way to Go

CLEVELAND — The Cleveland Cavaliers‘ offense, although off to a sluggish start to the season, is expected to eventually become one of the league’s best.

The defense? Not so much.

Heading into a Nov. 10 game against the New Orleans Pelicans, the Cavs ranked 21st in the league by allowing 101.4 points per game. They’ve seen opponents shoot 49.0 percent from the field, just a smudge better than the Los Angeles Clippers for worst mark in the NBA.

LeBron James, typically an all-world defender, has at times looked disinterested during games, admitting to playing “a little passive” during losses to the New York Knicks and Portland Trail Blazers, according to Joe Vardon of the Northeast Ohio Media Group.

Coach David Blatt even made his first lineup change just three games into the year, benching shooting guard Dion Waiters in favor of the defensive-minded Shawn Marion.

Now faced with the challenge of guarding a good young Pelicans team lead by Anthony Davis, how would the Cavaliers fare?

 

First-Half Results

“D up, Irving!”

Pelicans guard Eric Gordon had just blown by the Cavaliers’ floor general, converting an all-too-easy layup at the rim.

While it may have just been one fan’s desperate plea for better effort from the Cavs‘ $90 million man, 20,561 others could almost be seen nodding in agreement.

Gordon’s basket had just pushed the Pelicans’ point total to 51, although the second quarter had not yet concluded.

Two minutes later, New Orleans marched into the locker room up 56-51 thanks to a lackluster defensive effort by Irving and the Cavs.

Ryan Anderson did his best Dirk Nowitzki impression, coming off the bench to score 23 first-half points behind 5-of-7 shooting from deep.

The Cavaliers consistently left him open on the three-point line, even after Anderson had converted multiple times.

Kevin Love summed up Cleveland’s defensive effort on a baseline drive by Gordon. Love didn’t attempt to block the layup, nor did he contest it, instead choosing to stand planted and extend both arms out as a way of supporting Gordon’s aerial drive.

While the Cavs‘ offense looked solid enough, the defense once again looked to be an issue.

 

Second-Half Improvements?

Cleveland buckled down in the third quarter, using an inspired offensive effort from James to ignite the crowd. The Cavaliers in turn enjoyed their best defensive stretch, outscoring the Pelicans 34-23 in the third.

Anderson, who terrorized the Cavs in the first half, suddenly fell silent.

Coach David Blatt did a nice job of mixing his lineup around to one that could handle his outside shooting.

“We were having trouble, obviously, with Anderson the whole night. I really wanted Shawn (Marion) on Anderson because he plays face in and is such a terrific shooter. It’s not easy for bigger players to guard him. I wanted to put a lineup in there that would allow us to defend him, which it did. That was the only quarter that he defended him. The rest of the game he killed us.”

Anderson finished with 32 points on 11-of-19 shooting, including 8-of-12 from deep.

On a team with Davis, Gordon and Tyreke Evans, it was Anderson’s name that kept popping up in the locker room after the game.

“The first half was not pretty for us. We had to make a lot of adjustments. Anderson seemed to just be on fire,” noted Love. “We changed up our coverages on him. I’ve always been a big fan of his game since I played against him in the Pac-10 when he played for Cal. He’s always been a great player, and it’s great to see him healthy again, I just wish he didn’t play so well against us.”

Tristan Thompson, who was tasked with guarding Anderson for a long stretch in the first half, noted that the team struggled initially due to their unfamiliarity with his abilities.

“Ryan is a tough matchup because he’s a 6’10″ forward that shoots the three just as well as any guard in our league,” Thompson said. “In terms of matching up the bigs, that was something different for us, but he was hot in the first half, we made a couple adjustments and kind of quieted him down in the second half.”

Cleveland also struggled to contain Davis, who continues to put up monster numbers in just his third pro season. Despite the loss, he compiled 27 points, 14 rebounds, four assists and three blocked shots.

Given his length, it appeared extremely difficult for any of the Cavs‘ big men to challenge his shots at the rim. Cleveland entered the game allowing opponents to convert 63.4 percent of all shots within five feet of the basket, second-worst in the league (via NBA.com/stats).

Thompson acknowledged the challenge of handling Davis, confirming that he is one of the toughest guys in the league to cover.

“Oh yeah. He’s tough to guard because he’s so long, athletic and active. You’ve got to always know where he is and kind of feel out the area, because if you don’t he’ll get offensive rebounds and alley-oop dunks.”

While the Cavaliers went on to win the game 118-111, it was clear some more work was needed on the defensive end.

 

Concerns Moving Forward

Blatt seemed to have a new favorite word in the postgame press conference.

“I was a little disappointed in the moments of lethargy that we have on defense,” Blatt said. “Our guys need to understand that if we want to consistently beat good teams, we cannot afford to sleep for parts of the game or part of the quarter. That’s disturbing. That’s worrisome. We can’t afford to let ourselves be lethargic on defense at any point during the game.”

Blatt is certainly trying to send the right message, but has it gotten through?

Obviously, the numbers say otherwise right now.

When looking for a veteran’s opinion of the team’s defense, Bleacher Report asked Marion about just how far the Cavs were from where they needed to be.

“A long way. We know it. We show great things at times, but it’s not the system yet. We just got to keep moving in the right direction.”

When asked if this was more attributed to 10 new members on the roster or the plethora of young players, Marion said:

“I think it’s a mixture of everything. You can’t just say it’s one thing. Ultimately, we’ve got to figure it out and get better.”

Now 3-3 on the season and fresh off an 118-point game, the Cavs‘ offense appears to be clicking.

The defense, in the words of Marion, still has a long way to go.

 

Greg Swartz has covered the Cleveland Cavaliers for Bleacher Report since 2010. Connect with him on Twitter for more basketball news and conversation.

All stats provided by Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

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San Antonio Spurs lose to Rockets but win in the long run

The San Antonio Spurs lost Thursday night to the Houston Rockets by the score of 98-81. The Spurs record dropped to 2-2 on the early season, as the team shot a dismal 34.4% from the field, and a woeful 10% (2-20) from beyond the arc. Simply put, this was an ugly game for the Spurs, and one that head coach Gregg Popovich will not let his players off the hook for.
That being said, for anyone who has watched the Spurs carefully over the past five years, Thursday night’s game felt less like a blowout loss to a fellow western conference contender, and more like a small sacrifice for something greater in the long run. Yes, the Spurs were thoroughly outplayed by the Rockets, but the Spurs were coming off a back to back game against the Atlanta Hawks, which they slugged out, and won 94-92. With this in mind, Popovich, keeping in step with exactly what he has done in recent years, chose to rest star players Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili. Without Duncan available to defend Rockets center Dwight Howard in the low post,

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Monson, Long Beach State agree to extension (Yahoo Sports)

LONG BEACH, Calif. (AP) — Long Beach State basketball coach Dan Monson has agreed to a five-year contract extension through the 2018-19 season.

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Gregg Popovich Downplays Opening Night Emotions, Braces for Long Haul

SAN ANTONIO — There are another 81 games before the San Antonio Spurs can even begin thinking about the long road we call the NBA playoffs.

So while their 101-100 season-opening victory against the Dallas Mavericks lets us forget all about a lackluster 2-5 preseason that included a loss to Alba Berlin, it also reminds us that we’ve really seen nothing just yet.

Well, almost nothing.

As absurdly small sample sizes go, Tuesday night’s game was an encouraging sign for the reigning champions.

They faced the same Mavericks who pushed them to seven games in last season’s opening round, this time with a new-and-improved supporting cast that includes Chandler Parsons, Tyson Chandler and Jameer Nelson—three new starters poised to elevate Dallas to a title conversation from which it was never that far removed.

The Spurs, meanwhile, were shorthanded without NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard (eye infection), starting center Tiago Splitter (strained calf) and backup point guard Patty Mills (recovering from shoulder surgery).

Dallas had the Spurs where it wanted them, leading by eight after the half and getting especially strong play from guards Monta Ellis (26 points and six assists) and Devin Harris (17 points and five assists).  

But San Antonio tied the game with eight minutes and 21 seconds remaining in the third quarter on the heels of a 9-0 run. Chandler and star forward Dirk Nowitzki received technical fouls in the period, expressing frustration amid a flurry of fouls and three-pointers that got the Spurs back in the game.

Six-time All-Star Tony Parker matched a career high with four three-pointers, making all of his attempts from beyond the arc, including a go-ahead bucket with 1:07 remaining in the game. Dallas lost possession with 48.7 seconds remaining when the ball rolled off Ellis’ foot in a close call that required review by officials.

The Mavs got another crack at it when Parsons attempted a three-pointer with a second remaining that wasn’t to be, capping off an icy 2-of-10 debut for the prized new arrival.

When it was all said and done, the Spurs had made 14 of 28 three-point attempts—just another day on the job for a team that increasingly makes its living on the perimeter.

And it was just the first of many steps toward that team’s objective of winning another title.

The Spurs will take the win and make no more of it than they should. As they embark upon a season that will be defined by one—perhaps final—attempt to win back-to-back championships, Tuesday’s opener began with a ring ceremony and the unveiling of San Antonio’s fifth title banner in the rafters of the AT&T Center.

Actor Samuel L. Jackson appeared in a retrospective Finals film and spoke of the Spurs’ historic teamwork. NBA commissioner Adam Silver later talked about the team’s “respect for the game,” an apt description of the artful basketball head coach Gregg Popovich’s ensemble squad delivers on an obscenely consistent basis.

One might have forgiven the Spurs for coming out flat. 

How did the ceremony strike the man who eschews pomp and circumstance?

Really emotional,” Popovich laughingly told reporters after the game.

When asked if it was an emotional experience, Popovich initially said he had no idea how to answer those kind of questions.

Not his department. Nor, really, the Spurs’.  

This is an organization that takes its rings and wins alike in stride. Its aversion in equal parts to highs and lows has become cliche by now, one of the many attributes that’s historically set this club apart. The 2014-15 campaign will have the same ups and downs the Spurs have always weathered—at least another 81 games’ worth of them.

It’s a long march. And it’s one in which the Spurs—as champs—will have targets on their backs, eliciting best performances from their opposition.

And whereas last season’s club could summon the sting of bitter 2013 defeat when in need of motivation, this year’s iteration runs the risk of becoming complacent after a historically one-sided act of Finals vengeance against the Miami Heat.

Manu Ginobili said it was a matter of “fighting satisfaction” after Tuesday’s game, echoing a sentiment his coach also expressed recently.

“I’m worried for one reason,” Popovich told the San Antonio Express-NewsBuck Harvey (subscription required) in September. “They are human beings. They are going to feel satisfied.” 

For his part, the 37-year-old Ginobili doesn’t seem satisfied just yet.

He tallied 20 points, six assists and two steals on Tuesday, nailing a wild off-balance three-pointer in the third quarter and ending the period with a smooth step-back 15-footer. The 12-year veteran remains a heart-and-soul figure for these Spurs, and he appeared determined to get their season off to a promising start.

“Sometimes you don’t play that sharp because it’s the first game of the season,” Ginobili told reporters after the game. “You have to move from the success of the previous season to the new beginning. But it all gets your emotions up so you want to get out on the court and do a lot of things, hustle, jump, run and win.”

The season opener was by no means San Antonio at its best.

Not when you remember those 20 turnovers.

As ProjectSpurs’ Paul Garcia put it, “The turnovers were expected turnovers that were seen in the preseason—players out of position, over-passing, and being careless with the ball. Considering three key players are out and the team still has 81 games left, the turnovers will be something the team can work on.”

It’s one of many items on a to-do list that remains active even in the wake of a season for the ages.

Withstanding the physical toll of the NBA grind also ranks high on that list.

As has become the norm, there will be questions about whether Ginobili can remain healthy and fully effective—particularly when it matters in April, May and June. Naysayers will similarly worry about the 38-year-old Duncan. 

On that front, Spurs fans will take some solace in Leonard’s imminent return.

“Don’t take this to the bank,” Popovich said Tuesday, “but I’m guessing [Leonard] is probable for Friday. Tiago and Mills will be out, but Kawhi might be back.”

Even when healthy, other challenges will emerge along the way, particularly in a stacked Western Conference that remains as competitive as ever.   

These Mavericks will be no exception. They proved as much on Tuesday.

And while we might like to imagine a postseason rematch between these friendly rivals, we’ll have to wait a very long time.

In the interim, don’t expect the Spurs to take anything for granted. Their work has just begun.

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Dirk Nowitzki: NBA season is too long, should be trimmed

The NBA already is experimenting with shortening the length of its games. Should it look at trimming the length of its season, too? Dirk Nowitzki thinks so. The Dallas Mavericks star told reporters Wednesday that he believes the league’s current 82-game schedule is too long. “I think you don’t need 82 games to determine the best eight in each conference,” Nowitzki said, via ESPN.com. “That could be done a lot quicker, but I always understand that it’s about money, and every missed game means missed money for both parties, for the league, for the owners, for the players. I understand all that, and that’s why I don’t think it’s going to change any time soon.” The biggest qualm most players seem to have with the schedule as it’s currently constituted is the number of back-to-backs, which can lead to fatigued lineups and sloppy basketball. Rather than squeezing in 82 games, Nowitzki said he’d recommend playing somewhere in the “mid-60s.” “Last year, some teams get here for the fourt

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Sixers guard Casper Ware sinks long distance buzzer-beater (Video)

Philadelphia 76ers guard Casper Ware sank a long-distance 3-point buzzer-beater that was launched from 65 feet away to end the third quarter of Wednesday night’s preseason game against Charlotte.Ware took the inbounds pass with 1 second left on the clock and heaved it up from 65 feet away…and his prayer was answered.Ware scored 14 points off the bench as the Sixers beat the Hornets 106-92.Video via NBA.
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Derrick Rose’s Long Journey Back to Superstardom Is Only Just the Beginning

For Derrick Rose, winning a gold medal at the 2014 FIBA World Cup of Basketball came with a silver lining—and not the good kind, either.

Following a strong training camp that had even Team USA head coach Mike Krzyzewski declaring the Chicago Bulls star and former MVP had returned to being “elite,” per ESPN.com’s Nick Friedell, Rose’s tournament performance left us with far more questions than answers.

Chief among the latter: After sustaining a pair of knee injuries that kept him out for the better part of two full NBA seasons, Rose’s road back to superstardom is only just beginning.

Of course, that he’s even on that path at all is a testament to both the miracles of modern medicine and Rose’s own unimpeachable determination, facts that the three-time All-Star heartily acknowledged in a post-tournament interview with NBA.com’s Sam Smith:

I think this was just a preparation test for me. Just coming here, really learning my routine, becoming a pro. I’m going to transfer this onto the next season with the Bulls because I think this really helped me with recovery wise, taking care of my body, eating right…I still have to get my rhythm back. But as far as I’m concerned, I think performed good.

“Good” might be a bit of an overstatement: In eight FIBA appearances—all off the bench—Rose registered a mere 4.8 points and 3.1 assists on 26 percent shooting, hitting just one of his 19 three-point attempts in the process.

That’s not to say there weren’t bright spots. Rose was steady-solid in his team’s quarterfinals win over Goran Dragic and Slovenia (12 points on 6-of-10 from the floor), and for the most part, he seemed comfortable careening around the court in his typical frenzied fashion.

But with just two weeks remaining before the start of Bulls training camp, it’s become increasingly clear that Rose’s game is still very much a work in progress.

Luckily for Bulls fans, the pressure about the shoulders of Chicago’s resident Atlas stands to be measures more manageable with the arrival of a player for whom FIBA served more as a renaissance than a rite of recovery: Pau Gasol.

Gasol, who signed a three-year, $22 million tender on July 14, was easily one of the tournament’s most incendiary performers. And while Spain’s gold-medal gambit fell short in a shocking semifinals loss to France, Gasol—who averaged 20 points and 5.9 rebounds on 64 percent shooting—proved he remains one of the game’s elite big men.

To call Gasol an upgrade over the recently amnestied Carlos Boozer would be a criminal understatement. Indeed, pairing Gasol with Joakim Noah not only gives the Bulls one of the NBA’s most dynamic frontcourt duos, but it affords head coach Tom Thibodeau an offensive dynamism that was utterly lacking in Rose’s absence.

Recently, Bleacher Report’s Kelly Scaletta broke down the two’s considerable statistical upside:

The other thing, and perhaps the hidden beauty to the Bulls’ thinking here, is the pairing of Joakim Noah with Gasol in the paint. Among forward/centers last season, the two were first and third, respectively, in assists per game. That’s quite a passing tandem to have up front.

For all Chicago’s recent success, Rose has never had a sidekick as seasoned or as versatile as Gasol, who—even at a twilit 34—still remains a fantastic facsimile of his once dominant self.

By running part of the offense through Gasol, the Bulls would necessarily be sparing Rose the wear and tear of so many limb-twisting forays into the paint.

Shortly after Gasol’s signing, Bleacher Report’s Dan Favale underscored how the move served to both help Rose and hedge against his possible slide into replacement-level mediocrity: 

This is no longer a Bulls team desperate for Rose to be healthy. Well, it is and it isn’t.

Superstars like Rose are indispensable. The Bulls cannot replace what he does, the offense he brings, the hope he inspires. But increasing their Rose-less ceiling is the next best thing.

More than anything, that’s what Gasol does: improve the Bulls no matter what.

Parlaying FIBA legwork into improved NBA production the following season is, at this point, a time-tested tale. Gasol might not be the player he once was. But as a five-tool force whose game has never been the stuff of jaw-dropping athleticism, he’s eminently capable of playing a scintillating second fiddle.

As for Rose, the adjustments are sure to be both welcomed and challenging. Welcomed because his basketball immortality has already been laid bare. Challenging because recognizing one’s immortality is different than heeding it on the hardwood.

At this point in his career, it’s incumbent upon Rose that sheer athleticism becomes an element of his game rather than what defines it. This is what makes Gasol and Noah so crucial to Rose’s recovery. For it’s through them that reinvention becomes possible—even if the late-night highlight reels run short of dunks from No. 1.

No one expects Rose to morph into mid-career Steve Nash. What he can do, however, and what he should make his high-hung goal, is approach the next stage of his career less as a basketball berserker and more as a full-fledged floor general.

FIBA was the first in what’s sure to be a series of humbling episodes for the former MVP, glorified training camp though it may have been. Playing Team USA backup to Kyrie Irving and Stephen Curry, with John Wall and Damian Lillard looming just beyond the shadows—the footsteps are there, booming forth with a force and confidence Rose has yet to fully rediscover.

To recapture that confidence demands Rose forge new footsteps of his own, even if the path on which they fall feels far longer than it should.

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What’s Taking Andray Blatche so Long to Find His Next NBA Home?

Despite a winless run by his adopted Philippine national team, Andray Blatche has easily been one of the standout performers at this week’s FIBA World Cup in Spain—first in rebounds, fourth in points and second to none in sheer associative intrigue.

All the while, the polarizing forward remains in NBA limbo, still without so much as an offer sheet a full two months into the league’s free-agency period.

The reasons, it seems, are as complicated as the man himself.

By most accounts, Blatche’s last two years with the Brooklyn Nets were his most efficient to date, particularly the 2012-13 season, wherein Blatche authored career highs in player efficiency rating (21.9), true shooting percentage (55 percent), total rebounding percentage (16 percent) and win shares per 48 minutes (.153).

But despite the promising production, Blatche’s Brooklyn wasn’t without the kind of off-court incidents that marred the versatile forward’s eight years with the Washington Wizards, the most high-profile run-in being a 2013 police questioning stemming from an alleged rape which Blatche apparently witnessed.

It’s that kind of baggage of which teams are understandably wary. That he hasn’t so much as received an offer to rival the meager two-year, $2.5 million tender he netted in Brooklyn goes to show just how toxic Blatche has become.

It’s a far cry from the promise Blatche exuded when he was selected by the Wizards with the 49th overall pick in the 2005 NBA draft. Even then, Blatche‘s game possessed a poise and maturity that belied his age. To be sure, it’s a skill set—deft on the low block, enviable vision and a smooth jumper to boot—that compelled the Nets to take their flyer in the first place.

For the most part, Blatche didn‘t disappoint; as Brook Lopez‘s principal backup, Blatche helped anchor a Nets second unit that emerged as one of the best in the NBA. When Lopez sustained a season-ending foot injury last December, Blatche, together with standout rookie Mason Plumlee, answered the call.

Now, after putting the finishing touches on a two-year renaissance, Blatche is once again trying to prove to would-be suitors that his best days—and his best-behaved ones as well—lie ahead.

Not that the lanky big has fallen off the NBA radar completely, of course. The Miami Herald’s Barry Jackson recently reported the Miami Heat—still picking up the pieces following LeBron James’ departure—have made “preliminary inquiries” into the forward, along with fellow veteran Jason Maxiell.

At this point in Blatche’s career, it’s no surprise teams would proceed with caution, particularly after reports from ESPN New York’s Mike Mazzeo that general manager Billy King—miffed, perhaps, at Blatche having opted out of the final year of his three-year contract—wasn’t interested in bringing the scoring forward back into the fold.

Indeed, even if Blatche ends up inking an NBA deal, it’s unclear whether he can garner the kind of payday the stats would seem to warrant. The potential distractions are simply too dire, and the PR headaches too throbbing, for many teams to offer anything more than an unguaranteed deal.

This makes Blatche’s FIBA participation all the more important. Say what you will about the Syracuse native’s propensity for poor decisions, but aligning himself with the Philippine national team was the smartest thing Blatche could’ve done basketball-wise.

In taking his talents to the international stage, Blatche isn’t merely showing off for potential NBA suitors; he’s giving himself options the world over, ones that could be more lucrative than anything coming down the pike stateside.

However, as Grantland’s Rafe Bartholomew recently wrote, Blatche’s FIBA performance is a weapon with more than one edge:

It’s possible that performing well in Spain will impress NBA front offices and help Blatche, who’s currently an unsigned free agent, land a better contract before next season. It’s also possible that GMs will look at his play at the World Cup and say, ‘That’s nice, but I’m not sure how Blatche playing point-forward and averaging 14 rebounds per game on a team with two 6-foot-5 power forwards and three sub-6-foot point guards translates to our league.’

Bartholomew raises an interesting point: In joining a team as flawed as the Philippines, Blatche risks coming off as a shameless stat-padder, a guy whose strategic endgame is so obviously transparent you wonder how his agent didn’t put the kibosh on it in the first place.

Then again, desperate times call for desperate measures. If Blatche believes his only path back to the NBA lies in proving his mettle as a reliable leader, even on a team on the brink of bowing winless on the world stage, then that’s the path he should take.

To his credit, Blatche has approached his stint with the Philippines as more than just an opportunity to guarantee NBA bullion, in the process endearing himself to a team in one of the most basketball-crazy countries anywhere in the world.

“Coming in, I had my doubts about Andray,” Chot Reyes, the Philippines’ coach, told Bartholowmew. “I thought he would be always away from us, but he’s actually thrown himself into the process. When people saw that he was a legitimate NBA player who was willing to be just one of the guys…there was a palpable sigh of relief.”

Blatche is bound to field an NBA offer or two sooner or later. Whether that offer trumps what Blatche might be able to fetch elsewhere on the international market—as the unquestioned star of the Philippine Basketball Association, perhaps—is a different question.

At 28 years old, Blatche still has plenty of gas left in the tank. Just don’t blame NBA teams for worrying about Blatche tossing in the lit match himself.

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How Long Before Orlando Magic Catch Eastern Conference by Surprise?

It’s around this time each summer when NBA prognosticators posit a handful of teams worth keeping half an eye on—not contenders, not guaranteed bottom-dwellers, but the purgatory-bound upstarts with the potential to shake things up a bit.

The New Orleans Pelicans, the Detroit Pistons, the Milwaukee Bucks: You’re liable to hear these names bandied about quite a bit in the days and weeks ahead.

The Orlando Magic? They haven’t registered quite as high on the sneaky-sexy scale.

Ignore them while you can, though, because this might be the last summer you’ll be able to.

From the outside looking in, any team that finishes with the third worst record in the NBA—playing in a historically weak East, no less—wouldn’t seem the stuff of upstart promise.

The fact that Orlando recently jettisoned starting point guard and long-standing veteran Jameer Nelson, forcing it to rely on the steady but hardly spectacular Luke Ridnour, doesn’t exactly help the cause.

What the Magic have, however, is a youth-imbued core capable, with the right care and coaching, of catching its conference superiors asleep at the wheel.

Had it not been for Michael Carter-Williams’ incendiary start to last season, Orlando’s own sophomore sensation, Victor Oladipo, might’ve stolen Rookie of the Year right out from under him.

Despite the slight, Oladipo is a star in waiting—a two-way force with the athleticism of Dwyane Wade, the defensive tenacity of Tony Allen and the work ethic of young Kobe Bryant.

“He never takes a day off,” Oladipo‘s collegiate coach, Tom Crean, said of his former charge in an interview with the Orlando Sentinel’s Josh Robbins.

“He really worked as hard as he possibly could, and if the gym was going to be open, you knew you could count on Victor being there,” added Oladipo’s high school coach, Mike Jones. “He kind of became like the Pied Piper. When Victor worked out, other guys wanted to work out, too. His outlook and his approach are definitely contagious.”

After averaging 13.8 points, 4.1 rebounds and 4.1 assists on 42 percent shooting during his rookie campaign, Oladipo stands as one of the upcoming season’s biggest breakout candidates. More encouraging still for Orlando fans, he’s by no means alone in this regard.

Oladipo may well be the Magic’s star of the future. But it’s in the frontcourt trio of Tobias Harris, Nikola Vucevic and the newly acquired Channing Frye that Orlando may find its steadiest, sturdiest anchor.

Entering his fourth year, Vucevic is already a double-double machine, and has improved almost across the statistical board in each of his three seasons. With another mini leap, we could be talking about an All-Star caliber center by January. At that point, Orlando has to start thinking about how much it’s willing to spend beyond the burly center’s $4.1 million qualifying offer next summer.

And while Harris’ first three seasons have been beset by minor injuries, his steadily developing offensive versatility is poised to be a focal point of Jacque Vaughn’s Spurs-inspired offense this season. That the 22-year-old Long Island native carved out some summer free time to work out with Carmelo Anthony at the New York Knicks star’s Midtown Manhattan gym (via the New York Post’s Marc Berman) only adds to the intrigue.

Frye, meanwhile, gives the Magic something they haven’t had since Stan Van Gundy left town: consistent outside shooting. The four-year, $32 million tender might seem steep now, but Frye’s veteran leadership is a necessary quantity for any team with grander designs on the horizon.

And that’s before we even get to Aaron Gordon, the 6’9” athletic specimen out of Arizona and the fourth overall pick of June’s draft. Gordon’s offense remains very much a work in progress, but the defense—think Shawn Marion in terms of positional versatility—is nothing if not NBA-ready.

Round it out with the 21-year-old Moe Harkless, the savvy-skilled Andrew Nicholson and the bruising Kyle O’Quinn, Orlando’s frontcourt depth will be an indispensable part of the team’s rotational strategy.

The backcourt, on the other hand—particularly in the wake of Arron Afflalo’s departure—presents question marks aplenty.

If rookie Elfrid Payton’s summer league showing is any kind of harbinger, the Rajon Rondo comparisons might not sound so hyperbolic. Still, Payton’s sheer rawness—particularly in terms of scoring—is bound to be a short-term hindrance to Orlando’s offense. Even if Payton earns the opening-night starting nod, expect a heavy dose of Ridnour as the season progresses.

Make no mistake, the Magic offense is nowhere near a top-tier attack. In fact, given their next-to-last finish in efficiency a season ago, it’d be a minor miracle for them to claw into the top half.

Still, the rudiments of an upstart are there, in the youth-laden talent, considerable cap space and a coach in Vaughn who, as Grantland’s Zach Lowe highlighted back in February, appears to have the confidence of board room and locker room alike:

The Magic locker room is a strikingly harmonious place — a rare thing for a team featuring veterans who want the minutes they’re accustomed to and young guys chasing numbers and money. The organization credits the positive vibes to Vaughn’s straight talk with each player.

But the Magic have so far to go, and they know it. Finding a star in this draft is crucial for the Magic’s long-term championship aspirations. If they find merely a good player, the road is going to be very difficult.

At this point, any one of Oladipo, Gordon, Payton, Harris or Vucevic has a chance—however varying in probability—to emerge as a bona fide cornerstone. That general manager Rob Hennigan and Co. have spread their gambles across all five positions speaks to an organizational philosophy at once sensible and intriguing.

But with the Philadelphia 76ers, Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks each adhering to a similar rebuilding timetable (and strategy), Orlando’s margin for error might not be as vast as fans would like to think. Sooner or later, Hennigan must begin shifting his focus from Ping-Pong balls to proven talent to capitalize on the Magic’s massive cap space by bringing in players capable of accelerating the rebuilding process.

With a slew of team and player options on the horizon, the Magic have a bevy of blueprints at their disposal, from maintaining its current core to reinforcing with veterans on the fringes and just about everything in between.

More importantly, they have the means necessary to begin their standings ascent—if not this season, then certainly by 2015.

Tempting as it might be to remain bolted to the basement, the time is nigh for Orlando to grasp a central truth of today’s NBA: Realizing you’re ready is just as important as the process of getting there.

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