The 2017 offseason was the wildest in NBA history. LeBron James and Kyrie Irving are now Eastern Conference rivals. Out West, Chris Paul joined James Harden, while Paul George and Carmelo Anthony united with Russell Westbrook. Ten recent All–Stars changed uniforms, and we haven’t even gotten to Kevin Durant’s strange summer, so let’s get to previewing. The 2017-18 NBA season is finally upon us.
2016-17 finish: 29-53, 13th in the East
• Offensive rating: 101.2 (29th)
• Defensive rating: 108.0 (24th)
Did the summer help at all?
Let’s be optimistic and say yes. None of the vets Orlando shed made a significant difference for them last year. Injuries limited hoped-for floor-spacer Meeks to just 36 games, while Green and Watson both shot under 40 percent from the field on reserve units that got roundly torched. Their replacements have their flaws, but all could serve as credible enough rotation mortar for a team looking to nudge its way out of a half-decade of NBA irrelevance.
Simmons is an athletic, defensive-minded wing who’s capable of slotting in at three different positions. Mack’s more serviceable than superb, but he’s solid enough to push D.J. Augustin for the backup point guard spot behind Elfrid Payton. Speights should offer a decent pick-and-pop perimeter compliment to elbows-and-in centers Nikola Vucevic and Bismack Biyombo. Afflalo’s a solid shooter (39.3 percent from 3-point land over the past two seasons) and source of supplementary post-up offense for a team that’s ranked in the bottom third of the league in points scored per possession in every season since Dwight Howard left.
With the possible exception of Simmons, though, those are on-the-margins tweaks. As has been the case for the last couple of years, Orlando’s best chance of climbing out of NBA purgatory and up the Eastern standings remains getting better play from its recent lottery picks.
After an early-season experiment at small forward aimed at expanding his game and zagging with size while the rest of the league went small, Aaron Gordon returned to power forward after the All-Star break. He averaged 16.4 points, 6.2 rebounds and 1.7 assists in 31.2 minutes per game in the second half, shooting 50.3 percent from the field in what head coach Frank Vogel eventually admitted was his best position.
The team as a whole benefited. Orlando, outscored by 6.8 points per 100 possessions over the course of the full season, played opponents just about even in Gordon’s minutes after the break. Its two most frequently used post-All-Star lineups — Gordon at power forward, Payton at point, and Evan Fournier and midseason acquisition Terrence Ross on the wings, with either Vucevic or Biyombo at center — both posted positive net ratings.
Neither configuration presents perfect balance. Lineups featuring Payton, Gordon and Biyombo feature three shooters defenders can shade away from on the perimeter; those problems compound if they’re working with iffy marksmen like Simmons and 2015 No. 5 overall pick Mario Hezonja. On the other hand, what those featuring Vucevic in Biyombo’s stead gain in offensive oomph, they give back in interior defense.
But with Gordon in his natural spot and sweet-shooting slasher Ross in the fold, the smaller, more athletic lineups played faster, fit more cleanly, scored like gangbusters, and just flat-out worked better. A lot of the credit there belongs to Payton, who thrived in the more spaced-out setting, posting five triple-doubles after the All-Star break.
Bounce-back seasons from Ross (a 38.4 percent shooter from deep during his last three full seasons in Toronto before hitting 34.1 percent in Orlando) and Fournier (38.9 percent over the previous three seasons, a career-worst 35.6 percent last year) combined with steps forward from Gordon, Payton and Hezonja (who might not actually exist) could help mitigate those shooting woes. It’s tough to bank too must on post-All-Star numbers from a going-nowhere team that was all but earmarked for the lottery before Valentine’s Day, but if Vogel and the Magic stick to the plan of replicating the smaller style, if Gordon and Payton (two very intriguing rookie-contract extension candidates to keep an eye on before the Oct. 16 deadline) carry over their late-season progress, if Simmons and Hezonja offer something on the wing, and if live-wire 2017 lottery choice Isaac can chip in as a multi-positional defender and source of offensive spark, the Magic might just have enough to approach .500 and make the playoffs in a bombed-out East.
A lot has to go right. But with things going wrong just about everywhere else you look in the conference and a gifted grinder like Vogel at the controls, why not the Magic?
Best-case scenario: Gordon finally flashes the game to go with his Dunk Contest fame, and looks like a star in the making. Payton proves he’s a legitimate orchestrator and takes enough of a step forward as a shooter to keep defenses honest. Hezonja reminds us he is not, in fact, a ghost, and teams with Fournier, Ross and Simmons to give Orlando a seriously intriguing core on the wing. Isaac looks like the future made flesh, Biyombo contributes at least what he did in Toronto to get paid, and Vogel successfully tinkers until he’s got an average team on both ends. In the East, that nets 40 wins and a sixth seed.
If everything falls apart: Nobody pops. Gordon sputters, Payton passes up shots, Hezonja looks like he’ll be headed back overseas on the first thing smoking and Isaac looks at least a couple of years away from mattering. There’s not enough shooting, finishing or defensive steel to make any hay, even in such a down year for the bottom of the conference. As we enter the second half of the first post-Dwight decade, the Magic still lack a single foundational player worth building around.
Oh, well. With a new front office in place, at least there’s a chance that the next plan for finding one won’t wind up going viral.
Best guess at a record: 26-56
Read all of Ball Don’t Lie’s 2017-18 NBA Season Previews:
Atlanta Hawks • Boston Celtics • Brooklyn Nets • Charlotte Hornets • Chicago Bulls • Cleveland Cavaliers • Detroit Pistons • Indiana Pacers • Miami Heat • Milwaukee Bucks • New York Knicks • OrlandoMagic • Philadelphia 76ers • Toronto Raptors • Washington Wizards
Dallas Mavericks • Denver Nuggets • Golden State Warriors • Houston Rockets • Los Angeles Clippers • Los Angeles Lakers • Memphis Grizzlies • Minnesota Timberwolves • New Orleans Pelicans • Oklahoma City Thunder • Phoenix Suns • Portland Trail Blazers • Sacramento Kings • San Antonio Spurs • Utah Jazz