The Orlando Magic's season is over, and most everyone can agree it didn't go as well as the team hoped. After adding two promising rookies in Aaron Gordon and Elfrid Payton and lavishing a valuable contract on Channing Frye, Orlando certainly hoped to improve its win total by more than two games.
What we said:
Orlando finishes the season with a 27-55 record for a modest, but not insubstantial, four-game improvement. It'll still bring up the rear in the resurgent Southeast--the Washington Wizards and Charlotte Hornets sure did get good in a hurry, didn't they?--but won't finish last in the conference.
How it went: I overestimated Orlando, albeit by only two games, so I feel okay about this part.
The Magic at least avoided the East's cellar, winning seven more games than the purposefully awful Philadelphia 76ers and eight more than the accidentally-awful-but-then-intentionally-awful New York Knicks. Orlando's probably in better shape than those two clubs going forward, depending on how the NBA Draft Lottery shakes out, but we ought not count besting the Sixers and Knicks as a real accomplishment.
For the third straight season, the Magic finished dead last in the Southeast.
What we said:
Despite the best efforts of [Evan] Fournier and Frye, Orlando can't keep the floor spread consistently enough, leading to a bottom-third finish in offensive efficiency.
How it went: Right again, but I underestimated how putrid the Magic's offense would turn out to be. Even with Payton proving an excellent playmaker--I did not count on his learning the speed of the NBA game so quickly coming out of the Sun Belt--Orlando finished 27th in the league offensively, mustering just 99.6 points per 100 possessions. That's up three-tenths of a point from a year ago, but it's not the sort of improvement the team and its fans expected after adding Frye and Fournier.
The prevailing wisdom was that adding shooting around Victor Oladipo and Payton would open the floor for those two to drive to the rim. And while they drove lots, the results were middling. The Magic still have a horrific spacing problem, one which Rob Hennigan absolutely must address in the near future if the team is to become respectable at that end of the floor.
Nik Vučević's emergence as a low-post scoring threat gave the Magic some good nights, though it's fair to question the value of a back-to-basket scorer in today's pace-and-space game. Tobias Harris quietly put up some big nights while playing more small forward than he had previously in pinstripes, an encouraging sign in his development. Still, until this team adds at least two more competent outside shooters to its rotation, it's going to be difficult to watch its offensive possessions, no matter how fun some of Payton's passes are.
What we said:
On a more positive note, the backcourt tandem of Payton and Oladipo proves pesky enough to help lift Orlando into the top half of the league on defense.
How it went: Not well!
Arguably the most disappointing development in Orlando's 2014/15 campaign was its failure to make any improvement on the defensive side of the ball. It's easy to overlook that, for all their losing, the Magic put together an OK defense in the 2013/14 campaign: its defensive rating of 104.8 tied for 18th in the league. In theory, adding Payton and Gordon--two defensive-oriented perimeter players--to the mix, plus accounting for natural improvement in the team's incumbent players, would lead to a stronger overall defense, one which could bail Orlando out every now and again when it can't buy a bucket at the other end.
Instead, Orlando got four-tenths of a point worse and dropped to 25th in the league as a result.
It all starts in the middle. For all the good his long arms do for Vučević's rebounding, they don't help him block shots: among 25 qualified seven-footers only two blocked a lower percentage of opponent two-pointers than he did, according to basketball-reference.com. Pairing him with Frye, as coach Jacque Vaughn did prior to his February dismissal as Magic coach, made matters worse, as the team yielded 110.5 points per 100 possessions with its two highest-paid bigs sharing the floor. James Borrego, Vaughn's replacement, reduced Frye's role and gave more minutes to more traditional, defensive-oriented fours. That idea worked a bit better: in 283 minutes together, the combination of Vučević and Dewayne Dedmon surrendered just 99.6 points per 100 possessions.
But given the degree to which playing a lunchpail guy next to Vučević cramps Orlando's already cramped spacing, playing the pair together doesn't seem to be a long-term solution. Magic fans like to discuss the possibility of pairing Vučević with a power forward who can shoot threes and block shots, but such players are exceptionally rare.
I'm not sure a modern NBA defense can succeed without having someone--regardless of position--who can defend the painted area. That means blocking shots, yes, but also deterring penetration in the first place. Even the best perimeter defenders get beat, and when that happens, someone has to be there to make the offensive player think twice about taking that ball all the way to the cup. At present, Vučević is not that someone.
Whomever coaches the team next season, be it Borrego or--far more likely--a new hire with prior NBA experience, has solid raw tools with which to improve the defense. Gordon and Payton get after it, and someone will eventually unlock the potential of Oladipo and Maurice Harkless on that end. It's also encouraging that the Magic rank in the middle of the pack in attempted corner three-pointers allowed; they at least know to take away the game's most valuable non-layup shot.
But back to defending the middle. Assuming the Magic don't sell high on Vučević, next season's coach will have to devise some sort of scheme which can mask his considerable limitations. If he doesn't, it's tough to envision the Magic taking the next step at that end.
The author consulted NBA.com/stats in researching this story.