51Q: Can Elfrid Payton handle Orlando’s expectations yet?

Grant Halverson/Getty Images
1 Comment

We continue PBT’s 2016-17 NBA preview series, 51 Questions. Between now and the start of the NBA season we will tackle 51 questions we cannot wait to see answered during the upcoming NBA season. We will delve into one almost every day between now and the start of the season (we’re taking some weekends off).

Scott Skiles resigned as Magic coach for numerous reasons, but a key factor: Management viewed Payton as a franchise point guard, and Skiles didn’t.

Well, Skiles is gone. Payton and general manager Rob Hennigan remain. And Orlando bolstered its frontcourt in front of Payton with Serge Ibaka, Bismack Biyombo and Jeff Green

Is Payton ready to deliver?

At this time last year, we wondered how the Magic would respond if they improved from the prior season but still missed the playoffs – which is exactly what happened. Orlando continued its upward arc: 20 to 23 to 25 to 35 wins. But the Magic finished nine games out of the postseason.

Pressure to reach the postseason has only increased. Orlando has missed the playoffs in all four of Hennigan’s seasons. He made a big trade this summer to land Ibaka on an expiring contract, and retaining the big man in unrestricted free agency will in part dictate whether the deal succeeds. Though the Magic can offer more money, a winning season would also go a long way.

That puts a heavy load on Payton.

He’s just 22, and he has looked somewhere between good and promising as a defender. His passing is also a plus skill.

But his poor outside shooting threatens to limit the entirety of his contributions.

Payton made just 30 3-pointers last year, shooting 32.6% from beyond the arc. His low free-throw percentage, 58.9, doesn’t indicate an easy fix. Until Payton becomes more of an outside threat, opponents will go under pick-and-rolls and make life more difficult for every Magic player – including Payton.

Still, Orlando appears set on riding Payton. His backups, D.J. Augustin and C.J. Watson, are uninspiring. At minimum, Payton’s minutes will help him develop into the player management apparently expects him to become.

But how does that play on a team with playoff hopes? The Magic are tired of their longest playoff drought, matching the first four seasons in franchise history. Hennigan’s job might depend on reaching the postseason.

Orlando still has some young players – including Aaron Gordon, Evan Fournier, Mario Hezonja and maybe Biyombo – who can share Payton’s likely timeline. But others – like Green, Ibaka, Vucevic and maybe Biyombo – need the point guard to make a huge leap sooner than later.

Is Payton ready?