Most successful NBA teams have at least one player that ends up being a leader. Being a "leader" of a basketball team can be subjective, and of course not everything is absolute when it comes to traits that cannot be measured with statistics, but there does seem to be a dynamic that presents itself quite often:
A player getting the most attention from the media when things are good, or is held accountable and questioned when things are at their worst.
This player is often the best player on the floor, but that may not be clear for this season’s Orlando Magic team. In addition to that, the "face" of this team isn’t exactly clear either after the departure of Victor Oladipo.
If Frank Vogel was the type of coach to get the most out of the likes of Roy Hibbert and Lance Stevenson, Magic fans are right to be trafficking in hope after the offseason moves of the franchise.
Frank Vogel also had Paul George, the team’s leader. Though he has made comparisons to Aaron Gordon, there is still plenty to play out in terms of a leader establishing himself.
Below are a few likely candidates to take on that role, in no particular order, with a case made for each.
Since his arrival, Nikola Vucevic has, arguably, been the leader of this Magic squad. One could make the case that Vucevic is defending his role as a leader on this team rather than establishing it.
However, the new roster additions along with a new head coach raise questions regarding, not only his role as a leader, but if he even fits into the equation moving forward.
Vucevic has made a habit of exceeding expectations since arriving here in Orlando. At the time of Dwight Howard’s departure, Vucevic was faced with the task of replacing Orlando's second coming of Shaquille O’Neal.
While his pick and roll defense and rim protection have always been criticized, there are some who make the case that his defense is a result of attempting to compensate for the defense of others, and will improve dramatically with the new additions to the roster.
It isn’t all good news for Vucevic, though. One of those new additions to the roster is a defensive minded, rim protecting specialist center that happens to be the newly crowned highest paid player on the team.
Vucevic will have to take a step forward this season. He will need to improve his defense to ensure that he is able to produce on the offensive end without being a liability.
In addition to his ability to already produce on the offensive end, his attempt at extending his shooting range to three-point territory further increases his value on the court.
Off the court, Vucevic’s leadership can be summed up with leadership by example and a public relations department’s dreams come true. Some could argue that he comes off as timid or that he lacks the chip on his shoulder that accompanies a leader so often, but nobody would argue that a demeanor similar to Tim Duncan’s would be welcome if it came along with enough wins to lead to a playoff appearance.
Serge Ibaka has been a low usage rate for the majority of his career and will be looking to earn his next contract, be it with Orlando or another team. Ibaka will be looking to prove that he can be a veteran leader for a team that will command the highest salary possible.
Ibaka has been waiting for an opportunity to be a team’s best player. Now that he is in Orlando, we will find out if he can thrive without two full-blown superstars propping him up.
He is clearly the veteran presence on this team now. If the Magic make the playoffs as some expect them to, his playoff experience will benefit the rest of the team.
His presence is also a big reason that we will likely see better defense from both Vucevic and Elfrid Payton. He will serve as a security blanket at the rim that can be trusted in a way that provides for more aggression.
What Ibaka brings was arguably the Magic’s biggest need last season, and was a huge draft day victory for the Magic, highlighted by a Rob Hennigan high-five fest. Unless they were really happy to be getting rid of Victor Oladipo, you would not have that reaction without a certain level of expectation.
It is clear that a big part of Frank Vogel’s vision for the future of the Magic includes Aaron Gordon. In fact, Vogel envisions using Gordon similarly to the way he utilized Paul George.
Based on his viral performance in the dunk contest and recent appearance in a commercial broadcast during the Olympics, it is becoming easier and easier to point to Gordon as the Magic’s most marketable player on the roster.
This will be Gordon’s first season with such pressure placed on him prior to the start of the regular season, and it will be one where he is playing small forward, a position that will provide its own challenges for someone who has played the four his entire career.
The reports from the U.S. Select team seem positive, which is great news, because this new defensive identity is going to require more than ten points a game from its leader.
It remains to be seen how close Gordon will come to stepping into the role that coach Vogel envisions for him, but if he does, it is hard to imagine him not becoming the leader of this team.
In a poll conducted by the NBAPA, Elfrid Payton was voted the Orlando Magic’s best teammate. An interesting development considering the rumored dynamic between Payton and former Magic head coach Scott Skiles, which had been questionable at best.
In addition to the recognition of his on the court peers, the front office recently included him in the recruiting effort for Bismack Biyombo.
"It was definitely an experience," Payton said when asked about the meeting. "Definitely a sign of respect that they asked me to come with them. I’m grateful for that."
Inviting Payton places a certain level of value and faith in his ability to represent Magic basketball.
According to the Orlando Sentinel, Payton was key in conveying the team’s defensive direction, how Biyombo would fit into their plans, and the expectations for Biyombo if he were to sign, which he ultimately did.
It is reasonable to expect a healthy Payton to take a step forward this year. What remains to be seen is exactly how big of a step it could be. Could it be a huge leap? Will we see the defensive ability that led Rob Hennigan to draft him in the spot that he did?
If he can do these things and improve his shooting percentage in a way that can make opposing defenses respect his jumper, this team could see Elfrid Payton at its helm.
In addition to those that are likely to take that next step forward, it is entirely possible that someone else can take that step that we aren’t anticipating.
Evan Fournier played well last season, out playing Victor Oladipo for different stretches throughout the year.
It is hard to find anyone with very much bad to say about Fournier, and he seems to be happy to be playing in Orlando, which has always made players popular here.
He was just awarded a new contract and his competition for the starting two guard spot was just traded to OKC, putting him in a prime position to take a step into a leadership role in the near future.
Bismack Biyombo is going to feel the pressure of living up to his contract, while more than likely coming off the bench while trying to earn a starting spot. If plays his way off the bench, and into a starting role, the momentum could put him in the spotlight and thrust him into a position of leadership.
It makes one wonder how often Nikola Vucevic was mentioned while Elfrid Payton and Aaron Gordon were having dinner with Bismack Biyombo during their recruiting pitch.
Mario Hezonja has played well in the Olympics, considering how he is utilized, and he would be a welcome addition from left field. Who wouldn’t love a huge leap under the development of Frank Vogel?