The NBC/ProBasketballTalk season previews will ask the questions each of the 30 NBA teams must answer to make their season a success. We are looking at one team a day until the start of the season, and it begins with a look back at the team’s offseason moves.
Last Season: 29-53, missed the playoffs for the fifth straight season
I know what you did last summer: Orlando fired general manager Rob Hennigan, hired Jeff Weltman and… did little else. The Magic are still jammed with Hennigan’s mistakes. At least they drafted Jonathan Isaac No. 5 and signed Jonathon Simmons, Shelvin Mack, Marreese Speights and Arron Afflalo.
THREE QUESTIONS THE MAGIC MUST ANSWER:
1) Are Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac complementary long-term pieces? Gordon and Isaac are Orlando’s most valuable player. But they also might overlap too much on the court.
Gordon is best at power forward, as last year’s experiment at small forward painfully showed. His ball skills are an asset at power forward, a liability at small forward. He also had a surprisingly tough time defensively at small forward, where he looked uncomfortable chasing smaller players around the perimeter. Get him closer to the paint more often, and Gordon should excel.
Isaac is more of a combo forward, mostly because we haven’t seen him in the NBA yet. He’ll likely play small forward for now, not just because of Gordon, but because Isaac isn’t yet strong enough to handle the physicality of NBA bigs. But long-term, his lack of an advanced handle could push him to power forward.
Maybe Gordon and/or Isaac develop enough perimeter skills to complement each other. Or perhaps Orlando finds guards who can handle the ball enough to relieve the forwards.
Obviously, positional designations can be draconian. But, in broad strokes, the differences between small forward and power forward in the modern NBA speak to a potentially incohesive pairing between Gordon and Isaac.
Though Isaac is just a rookie, Gordon is extension-eligible or headed toward restricted free agency. It’d be nice if the Magic knew whether their two most valuable players can optimize their value together.
2) Is Elfrid Payton worth keeping as starting point guard? Payton is also already extension-eligible, which could delay Weltman from ever putting his imprint on this team. On the other hand, Weltman doesn’t want to lose a good point guard before he breaks out.
A lightning rod for the previous regime, Payton played well enough late last season to instill confidence he might be a long-term starter. He must extend that all-around play over a larger sample to prove it.
If he does, the Magic will have a big decision about how much to pay him (unless they’ve already extended him). If he doesn’t, they’ll have to find a new starting point guard, maybe drafting someone and starting this process over (unless they’ve already extended Payton, which would be a major problem).
3) Will Frank Vogel oversee a top-end defense? The Magic are too far along a win-now plan to punt the season before it even begins. Their path to the playoffs starts with tapping a defensive potential not realized last season.
Vogel’s Pacers defenses ranked ninth, first, first, seventh and third in his five full seasons in Indiana. Despite Serge Ibaka, Bismack Biyombo and Gordon being expected to comprise an elite defensive front line, Orlando’s defense ranked just 22nd last season.
Ibaka is gone, and this team shouldn’t have as many problems with being oversized. The athletic Simmons is built to defend the wing. Starting center Nikola Vucevic has improved defensively under Vogel. The 6-foot-4 Elfrid Payton is big enough to disrupt opposing point guards. The lengthy Isaac should terrorize passing lanes in due time.
It all looks solid on paper, but the same was said at this time last year. The burden ultimately falls on Vogel, who was touted as a defensive mastermind when hired – and, not for nothing, is working for an executive who didn’t hire him.