SB Nation Orlando Magic season preview: Team continues reaching for respectability

Nik Vučević - Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The Magic were the NBA's worst team a season ago. In their 25th campaign, they'll look to avoid another trip to the cellar.

Background

Team name: Orlando Magic
Last year's record: 20-62, fifth in the Southeast, 30th in the NBA

What significant moves were made in the offseason?

Despite having the best odds to do so, Orlando didn't win the NBA Draft Lottery, but it came away with the best possible parting gift: the second overall pick, which general manager Rob Hennigan, now in his second season with the team, used to select Indiana shooting guard Victor Oladipo. The Maryland native is renowned for his defensive intensity and athleticism, but also for his work ethic, which helped him go from scoring 7.4 points per game for a 12-20 Hoosiers club as a freshman to averaging 13.6 per game for a top-seeded NCAA tournament team as a junior... while picking up co-Defensive Player of the Year honors.

The Magic took the unusual step of playing Oladipo, a natural shooting guard, exclusively at point guard in the Orlando Pro Summer League, and it's become clear that the team plans to use him at that spot extensively in the regular season as well. Though Oladipo doesn't have natural playmaking instincts or a tight handle, Hennigan, coach Jacque Vaughn, and other important members of the organization believe his athleticism and quick first step will serve the team well in a lead-guard capacity; in the preseason and in Summer League, Oladipo managed to create offense for himself by getting into the paint and scrambling opposing defenses. Building on that skill--by adding a floater, by improving his vision in recognizing when a teammate has snuck behind the collapsing defense, by varying his handedness and the angles at which he attacks--will turn Oladipo into a feared offensive player. He's already a terrific off-ball cutter and finisher.

Positions are more fluid now than they were even five years ago, and the Magic have seen players similar to Oladipo's size and approximate skill-set--players like Eric Bledsoe and Russell Westbrook, to name but two--excel at the NBA level. Neither is a so-called natural point guard, but both use their athleticism, handle, and size to get defenses off balance. That is the direction in which the Magic see the league moving.

In the second round of the Draft, a round in which Hennigan was only looking for "a human being to take," he came away with Oklahoma combo forward Romero Osby. He's joined the team for training camp and is hoping to stick close to home. "I got a daughter," he said at Media Day, when asked about the possibility of playing overseas. "I got a family here in Orlando, in the United States, and I wanted to be able to stay close to my family."

In free agency, Hennigan elected not to make any big-ticket moves. He fortified Orlando's front line with the addition of Jason Maxiell--whom his assistant general manager, Scott Perry, knows well from his time with the Detroit Pistons--a wrecking ball of a power forward whose leadership style should help bring the Magic's youngsters along. That he intends to wear Horace Grant-like goggles is merely a happy accident.

Shortly after bringing Maxiell aboard, Hennigan inked Ronnie Price, another well-respected veteran. Price can play emergency point-guard minutes in a pinch, but one gets the impression that Orlando values his off-court contributions more highly than it does his on-court ones.

On the loss side of the ledger, Orlando let DeQuan Jones and Beno Udrih sign elsewhere as free agents, and it waived Al Harrington to reduce the guaranteed dollar amount on the final season of his contract. The veteran big man did not figure into the team's future plans.

Nor does Hedo Turkoglu. The veteran forward is technically still under contract, but the team is negotiating a buyout with him and has invited him to stay home until it completes said buyout. His Magic career, and perhaps his NBA one at large, is over.

Keep up with all of our Magic coverage

What are the team's biggest strengths?

"I think the more versatile you can be, the better you are to be prepared for anything that gets thrown at you," Hennigan said at Media Day, and the roster he's assembled lends itself to that idea. Vaughn indeed has a great deal of flexibility in his lineups. We've already discussed Oladipo's ability to man both guard spots, but he's not the only Orlando player with that sort of potential. Maurice Harkless, a natural small forward, worked on his handle and outside shot to become an option at shooting guard, while Tobias Harris can already shift between both forward spots. Andrew Nicholson projects solely as a power forward at this point in his career, but his addition of a three-point shot gives Vaughn the option to play him inside--where his patience, footwork, and touch make him arguably Orlando's best scorer--or outside, depending on what the team needs.

This sort of positional fluidity could ultimately lead to Vaughn using what many Magic fans believe to be the team's most exciting lineup: the 6-foot-4 Oladipo at point guard, with the 6-foot-9 Harkless and Harris duo on the wings, the 6-foot-10 Nicholson at power forward, and true seven-footer Nikola Vucevic at center. Orlando fans covet that lineup for its youth, sure, but also for its defensive potential. Nicholson and Vucevic must seriously improve their technique and awareness when it comes to protecting the paint, but at least Vucevic, the league's second-leading rebounder a year ago, has proven adept at ending possessions just by grabbing the ball off the iron.

What are the team's biggest weaknesses?

Anything related to putting the ball through the basket. Orlando was a dreadful offensive group a year ago for a number of reasons, chiefly that it drew fouls at a historically low rate; rarely made or attempted three-pointers; and converted in transition at a league-worst rate.

Looking up and down Orlando's roster, it becomes clear why it struggled so mightily to score in its first post-Dwight Howard year. Without a reliable one-on-one scorer, the Magic had to work exceptionally hard on every possession just to create a mediocre shot attempt. And because there are so many moving parts on a given Magic possession, one slip-up can derail the entire enterprise. Some teams can afford a handful of broken plays per game because they have All-NBA-caliber scorers who can get buckets in a one-on-one setting. The Magic's solution in those cases was to clear out for Arron Afflalo, whose inability to create separation from defenders off the dribble became burdensome as the season progressed.

Afflalo is working to become more efficient; he was not prepared for the defensive attention he received a year ago as the most dangerous offensive player on Orlando's roster, but he's more ready now. One hopes that Orlando doesn't ask Afflalo to create quite so much for himself in his second season in pinstripes, and that it instead lets him play off the ball, getting him open on the weak side off ball-reversals and draw-and-kicks. Alternatively, the Magic can station him in the post, as matchups permit; the UCLA product has a surprisingly refined and balanced back-to-basket game, plus the shooting touch and confidence necessary to bag fadeaways over smaller defenders.

Defense, particularly on the inside, is also a real issue for this team. The Magic have a good habit of not fouling, but rarely force turnovers and do not have a rim-protecting presence. Glen Davis' return to health will bolster the interior D, as will the presence of Maxiell.

What are the goals for this team?

The Magic are preaching patience, and with good reason: no one, apart from some of the team's younger players, expects Orlando to compete for a playoff spot anytime soon.

The idea, then, is to simply get better, to see incremental growth from each member of the team's young core. Harkless needs to become a more reliable shooter; given that he's unlikely to make significant strides as a rebounder, Nicholson must defend more physically and intelligently; Vucevic has to use his impressive frame and natural "good basketball feelings" to become a defensive stalwart; Harris must choose his shots more wisely, especially if he wants to fulfill his goal of becoming an NBA All-Star; Oladipo ought to be a better point guard in April than he is now.

The cynical NBA fan will tell you that Orlando's goal is to lose as many games as possible in order to better its Draft position. I don't wish to use this space to discuss the merits of tanking, because that is beyond the purview of this season-preview post, but I will say that there is no one in the Magic organization who wants this team to lose games. Losing can create bad habits, like playing in a way that doesn't align with the team's concepts, or not devoting one's full attention to preparing for the day's opponent. Plenty of young, developing teams have become footnotes in NBA history because they lacked discipline, focus, and unity of purpose.

Make no mistake: Orlando is not striving to become a footnote.

What are the best- and worst- case scenarios for this team?

The best-case scenario is that Oladipo, Harris, and the rest of Orlando's young core make strides in their games while the veteran trio of Jameer Nelson, Afflalo, and Davis stays healthy enough to contribute efficiently and reliably on a nightly basis. Even assuming good health and reasonable growth from the kids--I will add here that Orlando's core desperately needs a nickname--the Magic won't come near the playoffs, so in this way the team will have won some games while also securing a future lottery pick with which to build the team.

(We acknowledge that some Magic fans believe winning games would be the worst outcome for the coming season. We respectfully disagree with these fans and hope they will reconsider their choice to cheer for their sporting idols' continued failure.)

The worst-case scenario is that none of Orlando's core makes significant strides and that Oladipo's adjustment to point guard shakes his confidence. Such a season would effectively mean a stalled rebuilding effort. Even if the payoff is a high lottery pick in 2014, the Magic need to continue building on what they have now, in terms of both on-court skill and off-court approach. From a development standpoint, every game counts. Every practice counts. Every film session counts. Help may be on the way in 2014, but the Magic can't let that knowledge hamper their approach to the season ahead.

Predictions

The Magic finish 23-59--a three-game improvement from their 2012/13 campaign--but do not seriously contend for the league's worst record, owing to the Philadelphia 76ers' depleted roster. They will again bring up the rear in the Southeast.

With Davis and Maxiell in the fold, plus Oladipo and Harkless developing on the perimeter, the team makes strides defensively, but still finishes in the bottom third of the league. The offense continues to stagnate and the team finishes in the bottom five on that side of the ball.

Harris thrives in a sixth-man role, using a more patient offensive approach to knife up opposing second units on a consistent basis.

Hennigan deals, in descending order of likelihood, Afflalo, Davis, or Nelson to a contender in need of stability and productivity off its bench. The upshot for Orlando: freeing further cap space and adding at least one future asset.

Oladipo finishes the season with nearly as many turnovers as assists, but comes away from the experience a more versatile and confident player for it.

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