Last season: 25-57, 13th seed in the East
This season (projected): 32-50, 12th seed in the East
Additions: Scott Skiles, Mario Hezonja (drafted), CJ Watson (signed), Jason Smith (signed), Shabazz Napier (acquired through trade)
Losses: Moe Harkless (free agency), Kyle O’Quinn (free agency), Luke Ridnour, Willie Green, Ben Gordon (all unsigned)
MANILA, Philippines – The Orlando Magic were supposed to take a leap in their development last NBA season, but instead of contending for one of the lower playoff seeds in the weaker Eastern Conference, Orlando found itself losing more games than anticipated, and it eventually led to the firing of head coach Jacque Vaughn.
Hired during the offseason, journeyman coach Scott Skiles now calls the shots for these Magic, with the franchise hoping to do better than the last 3 years, in each of which they won less than 30 games.
There’s no denying the team has a young nucleus that’s talented and going to be exciting to watch – not just now, but also for the years to come.
Sure, they would have been better if Paul Millsap chose to accept their 4-year, $80 million offer during the offseason as he could have provided some veteran leadership in addition to his obvious on-court contributions, but Orlando will just have to get that from other sources while hoping some of their incumbent players make major leaps.
“Our goal is to make the playoffs, but our expectation is that we’re in the playoff mix, from start to finish,” Magic GM Rob Hennigan said.
Here are questions surrounding Orlando heading into the season:
1. How exciting exactly is their roster?
That depends on your goals for the team. Do you expect them to be NBA title contenders? Then their lineup certainly doesn’t jump off the page. Do you think they need to make the playoffs? There are some concerns, but it’s possible. Are you just looking at them as a team on the rise, maybe a year more away from returning to the postseason? Then you’re in for a treat.
Victor Oladipo was a stud in his second season last year, averaging 18 points, 4 rebounds, and 4 assists a game. There’s no reason to believe he won’t just get better this season, with even a potential All-Star selection on the horizon.
Elfrid Payton Jr. averaged 8.9 points, 6.5 assists, and 4.3 rebounds a game in his rookie season, good enough to make the All-Rookie team. His 3-point shot (26%) needs drastic improvement, but he’s already displayed the potential to be a potent starting point guard in the NBA, not to mention a pesky defender for opposing playmakers as well.
We know what Nikola Vucevic (19 points, 11 rebounds a game last season) can do. Ditto for Tobias Harris (17 points, 6.3 rebounds a game last season), who was re-signed to a 4-year, $64 million deal in July.
Aaron Gordon averaged just 5.2 points and 3.6 rebounds a game last season, but he was hindered by an ankle injury. He’s already displayed superb athleticism and a potentially good jumper, so that should make Magic fans eager for a healthy season out of him.
There are other young potential there as well, with Shabazz Napier being acquired from the Heat and Mario Hezonja being taken fifth overall in the 2015 NBA Draft. There’s also some veteran presence with Channing Frye still in the lineup, plus the additions of Jason Smith and CJ Watson.
Will those guys be enough to steer this young roster into a potential postseason berth? It’s possible, but difficult given that many Eastern Conference teams have improved.
But will they be fun to watch? You bet.
2. What should you expect out of Hezonja?
Hezonja is easily the most compelling rookie out of this year’s draft class.
He won’t end up being the best from them, but he’s certainly already the cockiest, which always makes for good television.
For instance, the 20-year-old Croatian was once asked if he went to go see football legend Lionel Messi play for FC Barcelona. His response?
“Let Messi come to see me.”
This is coming from a guy who averaged just 5.7 points and 2 rebounds a game playing in Europe. Maybe he’s just arrogant?
If that’s the case, why did the Magic draft him so high? Simply because there’s too much potential to pass up on.
He’s already a fantastic long-range shooter. He’s a great athlete, with the abilities to cut explosively, slash quickly to the hoop, and leap high to the rim. He’s 6-foot-8 tall. He’s long. He can play from the perimeter. He has a shot off the dribble. He’s tough to stay with off ball, as he constantly moves around, looking for screens to get open.
There are some weaknesses, of course: he can get lazy on defense and is turnover-prone. He needs to improve his ball handling as well. He can get indolent when going for rebounds.
But the best part about the kid? He’s competitive and has the nerves of steel.
“No, I never had respect to anybody on a basketball court,” Hezonja was quoted telling Sportando. “I heard about, ‘If they smell bood, you get eaten.’ I’m not like that. I don’t care. Whether it’s a veteran or a young player standing in front of me I always have the same goal: I want to run over everybody.”
He certainly did that during the summer league:
“He’s a great guy,” Oladipo was quoted saying about Hezonja. “He’s right next to me in the locker room. You can just tell he has great energy. But when it comes to the court, he’s all about winning, and that’s perfect. We need that.”
3. Can Oladipo be the one to make that leap?
One of the comparisons made to Oladipo out of Indiana University was to a young Dwyane Wade. For argument’s sake, let’s compare the two’s statistics.
Year one: 13.8 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 4.1 APG, 1.6 SPG, 0.5 BPG, 3.2 turnovers per game, 42% FG, 33% 3PT FG, 78% FT
Year two: 17.9 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 4.1 APG, 1.7 SPG, 0.3 BPG, 2.8 turnovers per game, 44% FG, 34% 3PT FG, 82% FT
Year 3: to be determined.
Year one: 16.2 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 4.5 APG, 1.4 SPG, 0.6 BPG, 3.2 turnovers per game, 47% FG, 30% 3PT FG, 75% FT
Year two: 24.1 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 6.8 APG, 1.6 SPG, 1.1 BPG, 4.2 turnovers per game, 48% FG, 29% 3PT FG, 76% FT
Year 3: 27.2 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 6.7 APG, 1.9 SPG, 0.8 BPG, 3.6 turnovers per game, 49% FG, 17% 3PT FG, 78% FT
You can look at these two ways. First, it’s just that Oladipo doesn’t deserve to be in the same ball park as early-career Wade. Or second, the Magic star just hasn’t made that leap yet.
Oladipo is already a much superior 3-point shooter than Wade was and is, so that should help him a lot in the modern NBA. Both stand at 6-foot-4 and display the same athletic prowess in the early stages of their careers. Oladipo is already as talented a defender as Wade was early on. So, why can’t Oladipo have the same Hall-of-Fame bound career Wade is enjoying?
That question can be answered this season, and if Oladipo does show serious improvement over the next few months, it will greatly benefit the Magic as they aim to make the playoffs.
Orlando has other guys that can make that “leap” into stardom, but Oladipo is the one best equipped to do so. Gordon and Payton’s offensive arsenal are still too limited. The 24-year-old Vucevic, I feel, has already topped out unless he can suddenly become a reliable defensive force. Harris has issues on defense too, and there’s still questions if he’s really a 3 or a 4.
Oladipo can play both the point and shooting guard positions and guard them as well on the other end. His jump shot is still improving, and he is already absolutely relentless when it comes to attacking the rim, finishing layups, and getting to the line.
4. Who are candidates to get traded?
If a star suddenly becomes available in the trade market – the best bet for this? Carmelo Anthony – expect Orlando to pounce on that opportunity by dangling draft picks and some of their young talent.
The 22-year-old Evan Fournier, who averaged 12 points and 2 assists a game last season, is the likely choice to be dealt, since the Magic are already set with the 3 positions he plays: point guard, shooting guard, and small forward. Orlando could also include Gordon, Napier, or maybe even Harris to spice up the deal.
Right now, only 3 guys should really be considered as untouchables in their roster: Oladipo, Payton Jr., and Hezonja.
5. What kind of personality will the Magic have?
Skiles’ past stops as head coach (Phoenix, Chicago, Milwaukee) saw him mold teams into being tough defensive squads. Considering the Orlando Magic gave up an eighth-worst 101.4 points a game last season, that should be a good sign for the team.
“We really wanted to find a coach who embodies the type of culture and identity that we’re trying to build here in Orlando,” Magic GM Rob Hennigan said. “We feel that [his] toughness, humility, and attention to detail personifies the types of values that will help define our program.”
“At some point it [losing] has to turn into ‘it’s not all right any more,’” Skiles said to the Orlando Sentinel.
The good news for him is that it seems like his players are adapting to the same line of thinking.
The fact that they’re a young team? That should no longer be a reason for losing, Oladipo believes.
“We’re never saying that ever again,” he told the Orlando Sentinel.
“The times around here for excuses are done. It’s time to get it done right now. It’s time to win.”
Those are exactly the quotes you want to hear if you’re an Orlando fan. Now, they just have to walk the talk on the court.
Statistics mentioned above were taken from ESPN and basketball-reference.com.
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