Last season: The goal was to play the young guys a lot, and by that measure there was some success. Victor Oladipo and Nikola Vucevic each played more than 31 minutes a game, Tobias Harris more than 30 (all when healthy, of course). However, if you judge success by wins, well, it was a rough year as the Magic had just 23 of those with a -5.5 points per 100 possessions net rating (6th worst in the league). The real issue was the offense which put up just 99.3 points per 100 possessions, second worst in the NBA. But since last season was about development, at least there was some of that.
Signature highlight from last season: We could have gone with the Tobias Harris dunk to beat OKC, but if you’re into hope for the future in Orlando, it has to be Victor Oladipo shutting down Damian Lillard on the break (one of a lot of great blocks he had last season).
Offseason moves: The Magic shook up the roster. Gone are veterans Jameer Nelson and Arron Afflalo (as well as E’Twaun Moore, Doran Lamb and Jason Maxiell), who were the heart of what was the Magic’s offense last season.
Drafted: Aaron Gordon with the No. 4 pick, then they traded with Philadelphia to get point guard Elfrid Payton, the No. 10 pick (they gave Philadelphia No. 12 pick Dario Saric in the deal).
Free agent signings: Two surprises on this front, Channing Frye chose Orlando over other options and Ben Gordon signed for $9 million over two years. Both of those guys are as much trade bait as anything else (especially Gordon at that price). Orlando also added Luke Ridnour as the backup point guard and Evan Fournier can play the two off the bench.
Keys to the Magic season:
Victor Oladipo developing at the two guard. Hopefully the drafting of Payton means the “Oladipo as point guard” experiment is over. It may have been worth a shot (and he can handle a little at the two) but not every experiment works out. This didn’t, so the Magic drafted a pure point guard in Payton (don’t be shocked if Ridnour is the starting point guard opening night but Payton takes the job mid-season). Now Oladipo is at the two and needs to show he can work off the ball, shoot better than 32 percent from three (his number last season), and generally become more of a scorer. As a point guard he seemed to think and hesitate, hopefully a move to his natural position and a year of experience changes that and he just attacks. The question remains what kind of player he can develop into, and I’m on board with the Tony Allen comparisons — a lock down defender who can knock down a three and get you some points. Oladipo could be more than that on offense, but he has work to do on that end to get there.
Where do the points come from? Arron Afflalo isn’t really cut out to be a No. 1 option in the league (he’s a much better fit in the Denver team concept) but he still provided an efficient 18.2 points a night. Jameer Nelson, for all his flaws, knows how to run a team and create scoring opportunities off the pick-and-roll. They’re both gone. The Magic don’t have a go-to scoring option on this roster, and it’s safe to say they are not going to have Spurs-like ball movement to create looks. Ridnour and hopefully Payton can create some looks, Oladipo will be asked to step up, Frye and Fournier can knock down some threes. But once again this team is going to struggle to score.
Defensive improvement must continue. This is the side of the ball that kept Orlando in games last season, it’s clearly a priority in their choosing of players — they can’t let things slide back on the defensive end of the floor. The Magic were already a middle of the pack defensive team last season (18th in points allowed per possession) but by drafting Payton and Gordon they clearly made defense the priority (Gordon in particular has a raw offensive game). While the offense will struggle if the Magic can continue to improve in the defensive end they will be making progress.
Can Jacque Vaughn coach these guys up, can he develop them? When the Magic hired Vaughn as coach it was with the understanding that he was going to lose a lot of games the first few years and there was nothing he could really do about it. This is a player development job, similar to what Brett Brown has in Philadelphia. The question is: Are the players making enough development? We’ll get some good tests this year as we see how Oladipo progresses, plus how Vucevic and Harris do in the year before they become restricted free agents. We’re not going to see a lot of wins in Orlando, but we should really start to see some of the development that the franchise has banked on.
Why you should watch the Magic: This is one very athletic team and they will make some entertaining plays. With Frye and Maurice Harkless and Fournier out there knocking down threes it should open up driving lanes for Harris and Oladipo. Gordon is going to throw down some dunks. Plus the Magic have played hard for Vaughn and that should continue.
Prediction: 29-53 and in the lottery again. Which is kind of the plan, the Magic are on the slow rebuild process and while they do have some real nice young talent on the roster nobody expects it to fully blossom this season. That said there are big questions that need to be answered this season, specifically with Vucevic and Harris as they will be restricted free agents next summer (unless an unlikely extension deal is reached before Halloween) and there’s the question of how much to pay them. Vucevic is going to draw interest from other teams, Orlando has to figure out what he’s worth to them. His play this season impacts his future payday.
This season will be rough in Orlando, the Southeast Division has gotten pretty tough with Washington, Charlotte, Miami and Atlanta all likely playoff teams. The Magic are going to finish last in the division again.