It sometimes takes a lot of courage for a front office to admit that a rebuilding process isn’t working. Teams spend years obtaining high draft picks and selecting players they think can lead them to contention, and it’s natural to place lots of faith in those prospects if only because giving them the chance to prove themselves requires sacrificing any hope at staying competitive. Deciding that it’s time to start over when the previous plan never really took the franchise anywhere requires a combination of foresight and impressive self-awareness. Many general managers struggle to recognize their own shortcomings.
In at least one respect, then, the Orlando Magic deserve some credit. Although the likes of Nikola Vucevic, Elfrid Payton, and Aaron Gordon are still at Amway Center, the franchise has made a clear decision to shake things up after a fifth straight season of fewer than 40 wins.
A process that began with trading forward Tobias Harris to the Detroit Pistons in February continued with several high-profile offseason moves. Head coach Scott Skiles stepped down in May after just one season in charge, and GM Rob Hennigan indicated a change of direction on draft night when he traded talented combo guard Victor Oladipo plus the No. 11 pick in the 2016 draft and Ersan Ilyasova for Oklahoma City Thunder forward Serge Ibaka. Free agency brought in Toronto Raptors postseason hero Bismack Biyombo to shore up the interior, as well. Put simply, the Magic look more like a team built to grind out victories, even if their long-term potential is perhaps a little less impressive.
New head coach Frank Vogel is theoretically the right man to lead such a team to its first postseason appearance since Dwight Howard’s last season in Orlando. A mixed bag of an ending to Vogel’s time with the Indiana Pacers did not change the fact that he accomplished a great deal in the job. His presence on the bench brings a new set of expectations regardless of the composition of the roster.
Unfortunately, the players on the court do matter. As it stands right now, the Magic look like a squad that can only reasonably hope to challenge for a playoff spot and perhaps even nab one of the East’s final few berths. That would represent a noticeable improvement on the last few seasons, but it’s hard to say if they’d have anywhere to go from there. Adding veterans to move past a rebuilding process is a nice idea in theory, but it can be its own dead end.
In essence, the Magic may have set a goal that will be both difficult to reach and not especially exciting even if they can achieve it. Their most recent rebuilding process may be over, but a new direction hasn’t changed how much help Orlando needs. Losing so many games for so many seasons was undoubtedly frustrating, but there’s no guarantee that things will get any better in 2016-17.
2015-16 season in 140 characters or less:
Did the summer help at all?
Maybe in the short term, but almost certainly not in a more general sense.
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At least they seem to have made a decent trade at head coach. Skiles left under the reasoning that he had decided he wasn’t right for the job, which could be a nice way of putting all manner of disagreements. However, his point wasn’t wrong even if it was meant as innuendo.
Skiles came to Orlando with a reputation as the sort of coach who gets a team to improve significantly in his first few seasons before his intensity begins to grate. The Magic did improve by 10 wins in his sole season in charge, but the gains were not nearly as impressive as hoped. Orlando finished 21st in offensive efficiency and 17th in defensive efficiency in 2015-16, improvements that did not represent nearly enough to change the team’s basic performance relative to the rest of the league. Whether due to a general lack of defensive talent — for instance, Vucevic is most certainly not a stellar rim protector — or something else, the Magic didn’t look like what we’d come to think of as a Skiles team.
Vogel is also known as a defensive specialist, though not a taskmaster. His Pacers developed young players, many of whom did not have the reputations of top-level prospects, and allowed often peculiar talents such as Lance Stephenson to flourish. There is a hope that he can both continue to solidify the defense and allow players added during Orlando’s rebuilding work to meet their potential. The Pacers certainly produced enough such players to suggest it’s possible.
Yet Vogel was available for a reason, even if his departure from Indiana came as something of a surprise. The Pacers fell apart when they looked to be most ready to challenge LeBron James’s Miami Heat, which raises significant questions about Vogel’s handling of some admittedly complicated personalities. For that matter, last season’s Pacers easily had the worst offense of the league’s playoff teams despite attempts from the front office to improve on that side of the ball. Paul George’s very successful comeback from his gruesome broken leg sometimes overshadowed many problems at play with the squad.
The good news for Vogel is that he has a wealth of interior talent to work with. The still just 27-year-old Ibaka was the biggest addition of the summer and will be asked to do more as a scorer and defender than he was with the Thunder. His talent suggests he will be up to the task. Ibaka has made great strides as an outside shooter — he shot 44.9 percent from long range on nearly four attempts per game in the playoffs — and remains an excellent shot blocker. That last quality could mean a lot to the Magic and Vucevic, the sort of center who needs a great defender at power forward to take some pressure off him.
That said, Ibaka will have to be something of a different player than he was with OKC to make the impact Orlando hopes he will. The 6-foot-10 forward has drifted out to the perimeter more with every season and sometimes appeared to be little more than a spot-up shooter for the Thunder, especially as Russell Westbrook turned into an overcaffeinated hellbeast. It’s too much to say that Ibaka looked disengaged, but he certainly wasn’t the very active, springy big man he was in his first few seasons. It’s possible that ceding so much responsibility to Westbrook and Kevin Durant had an effect, in which case he could reassert control with the Magic. Ibaka certainly looked like his old self when it really mattered against the Golden State Warriors last May.
If Ibaka disappoints, he’ll be free to leave as an unrestricted free agent next summer. The same cannot be said of big free agent addition Bismack Biyombo, who signed for four years and $72 million. Biyombo earned much of that contract during his stellar postseason for the Raptors, because his regular-season averages of 5.5 points, 8.0 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks in 22.0 minutes per game don’t exactly scream “pay me.” Biyombo can rebound, block shots, and dunk quite well, but he’s never proven he can play more than backup minutes. Whether that makes him worth $18 million per season is unclear, but this offseason certainly featured worse contracts.
The frontcourt is now quite deep, but the backcourt could be a problem area. Trading Oladipo was an unpopular move, but he was perhaps miscast as a lead perimeter scorer and should fare better as a second-in-command to Westbrook. Unfortunately, the Magic did not get anyone to fill his role. Evan Fournier re-upped on a five-year, $85-million contract that will increase his responsibilities, but he already did plenty for this team last season. Otherwise, inexplicable Charles Barkley favorite Jeff Green and journeyman guard D.J. Augustin are the Magic’s new perimeter threats. It is not an inspiring situation.
Potential breakout stud:
Aaron Gordon burst onto the national scene with his scintillating performance at All-Star Saturday’s dunk contest, but Magic fans had reason to get excited about him throughout the season. Gordon averaged a modest 9.2 points and 6.5 rebounds in 23.9 minutes per game, but he made strides as the season went along and impressed with his obvious athleticism, versatility at both ends, and raw talent. Orlando hopes that he can be a future star.
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It’s difficult to predict if that will happen for the same reasons as with anyone. What Gordon has going for him, though, is youth — he turned 21 just a few weeks ago — and the good fortune to not have too much placed on his shoulders too early. While Gordon figures to play a lot of small forward for a team that has Vucevic, Ibaka, and Biyombo manning the paint, that presence of that trio also ensures that Gordon won’t be asked to do much. He can develop at his own pace, find out which areas he’ll truly excel in, and grow into a role as the team’s star. Trading Harris was the first step toward allowing Gordon to flourish, and it’s possible that this season will allow him to take another big leap forward.
Ibaka proves a perfect fit with Vucevic as each player’s strengths amplify the other’s and covers for his weaknesses. Gordon takes another meaningful step towards stardom. Fournier plays well enough that fans begin to forget Oladipo. Biyombo suggests that his postseason play is his new normal. Vogel shows that his last few seasons were an aberration and reasserts himself as one of the league’s best coaches. The Magic grab one of the East’s last few playoff spots on the strength of their young stars and look set to make greater strides in 2017-18.
If everything falls apart:
Ibaka doesn’t take to playing for a non-contender and looks disengaged regularly. Gordon’s development stalls and his dunk contest return goes terribly wrong. Fournier looks more like a sixth man than a long-term starter. Vogel never gets the offense humming and gets relatively little from the defense. The Magic never make a serious challenge for a playoff berth but don’t lose enough to get lucky in the lottery.
Kelly Dwyer’s Best Guess at a Record:
32-50, 12th in the Eastern Conference
Read all of Ball Don’t Lie’s 2016-17 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 • Orlando Magic • 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
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