Three games into Orlando’s pre-season schedule, the 2017-18 season is already underway for the Magic. Orlando’s 29-win campaign of a year ago is in the the rear-view mirror for this franchise as the Magic look to secure a return trip to the playoffs in the Eastern Conference for the first time since 2012.
Of course, internal improvement by many young players on Orlando’s roster will be needed for this organization to take a next step and thrust themselves into the playoff discussion this season. Most national publications, odds-makers, and prognosticators have the Magic again winning somewhere between 30-35 games.
The Magic return nine players from last year’s team, including seven of the top nine minutes earners.
Three returning starters, Evan Fournier, Terrence Ross, and Nik Vucevic, will look to bounce back into form in ‘17-18 after suffering through a season in which they all shot below their career averages efficiency-wise.
Three former Magic lottery-picks, Aaron Gordon, Elfrid Payton, and Mario Hezonja, will all be looking in ‘17-’18 to continue to improve and progress in their NBA careers. Gordon and Payton are scheduled to become restricted free agents this summer (unless Orlando agrees to extend either prospect early, the deadline is October 17th). Financially speaking, it’s critical for Gordon and Payton to show progression in their play that results in more team success. Mario Hezonja, the former 5th pick in the 2015 draft, will again be competing just to get on the floor in ‘17. Hezonja must find a way to knock-down shots from distance more consistently, as well as continue to develop on the defensive-end.
The Magic also added ten players to the current roster this past summer, both through the draft and free agency. Notable acquisitions such as Jonathan Isaac (6th overall pick), Shelvin Mack, Jonathon Simmons, Arron Afflalo, and Marreese Speights will assuredly help to shore up a second unit that struggled mightily at times for the Magic last season.
Year 2 under Head Coach Frank Vogel is shaping up to be a season of progress, improvement, and continuity. Exactly how much defensive progress, individual improvement from key pieces on the roster, and roster cohesion coming from returning players and new players, will go a long way in ultimately determining how successful 2017-18 will be for the Orlando Magic.
The Orlando Pinstriped Post staff got together to dive deeper into a few questions surrounding this year’s team. Enjoy!
The Magic were one of the worst shooting teams in the league last season (28th in FG%, 29th in 3PT%, 29th in PPS, 29th in TS%). Is there anything that can be done to improve Orlando’s ability to stretch the defenses of opposing clubs?
Cory Hutson (@professorcory): Given the current roster? It’s going to take some creativity, and a few career years from beyond the arc. The best the Magic can do might be to take the inverse approach...relentlessly attack the paint and kick out to shooters if the opposition collapses hard enough. Perhaps it’d be better to call it the inside-out approach.Problem is, the Magic still don’t have the players to knock down those shots. Maybe their metrics tick up if Vucevic has a bounce-back year, and if Fournier can take on less of a ball-handling role and more of a shooting role, but Orlando’s just a fundamentally limited team.
Zach Oliver (@ZachOliverNBA): I’ll echo a lot of what Cory had to say. So much of it is going to come down to how they find those shots, and who's taking them. They need Evan Fournier to have a bounce back year, and they need Aaron Gordon to continue to improve as a shooter. Terrence Ross needs to find a way to get open looks and be close to the shooter he has been for his career thus far.
Some is going to come down to Elfrid Payton and if he’s improved, and if he’s able to keep defenses honest. If they go away from Bismack Biyombo some and play Marreese Speights as the backup-5 then they should see an uptick as well.
Aaron Goldstone (@AaronGoldstone): Let’s face it, the Magic as constructed are never going to be an elite (or even above average) shooting team. However, I do think they at least have a chance to be a “middle of the pack” floor-spacing club, but it may take a creative approach. I wrote earlier this summer about a couple of the options the Magic have when it comes to shooting and floor-spacing here.
D.J. Augustin, Evan Fournier, and Terrence Ross all own career 3PT%’s above 37%, yet none of them reached that mark last season. Even slight increases in efficiency from those three guys would help this season. Couple that with the fact that the Magic added Arron Afflalo (over 40% from “three” last season) and Marreese Speights to the roster this summer, and that leaves the Magic with five proven NBA shooters. Of course, to get more shooting on the floor, the minutes it would take to achieve this would come at the expense of someone else’s defensive or athletic contributions (less minutes for Mack that go to Augustin, less minutes for Simmons that go to Afflalo, less minutes for Vucevic/Biyombo that go to Speights, etc.).
Will Ogburn (@geauxsohard): In sports, the teams that can exploit market inefficiencies are often the ones that have success.
For a Magic team that doesn’t have a ton of shooting on the roster, it would be foolish to conventionally lineup against the best teams in the league and hope for the best.
What they do have, though, is a ton of wing depth. Frank Vogel has shown that he isn’t afraid to get creative with the lineups, much to the ire of Magic fans last season. The goal should be to squeeze as much shooting onto the second unit as possible, while maintaining defensive integrity.
To me, a player like Biyombo is basically useless. He is awful at many things and kind of okay at a few things. If the Magic want to compete in a way that involves scoring points, they’re going to need to sneak as many wings on the court as possible and win the battle of second units.
Things like Aaron Gordon at center with Isaac at power forward, or even brief stretches of Fournier at the point would do a lot to change the math that’s currently tilted away from Orlando.
In your opinion, which Magic player’s performance this upcoming season will be the most critical towards ultimately deciding the overall success of the team?
Hutson: Elfrid Payton. Aaron Gordon is a tempting selection, and he’s still the Magic’s best player, but their success ebbs and flows more with the Magic guard than any other player. If Payton finds a way to harness his ever-growing ability to weave into the paint, it could unlock a whole new level for this team. If his inability to shoot ultimately dooms the offense yet again, then it’ll be the latest sign that it’s time to move on.
Oliver: While I agree with Cory, I’ll take Evan Fournier. I don’t think Evan was necessarily bad last season, but the Magic needed more from him. If he can return to something close to the player he was two years ago, that would be big for the Magic. He’s not a star, but he can have a profound impact, especially if he’s able to knock down the outside shot consistently.
Goldstone: I’m tempted to go Elfrid Payton here as well, only because of how important the point guard position is in today’s NBA in determining the ultimate success an organization has.
But I think Aaron Gordon’s play is actually the most critical this upcoming season. One of the many knocks on the Magic and the way this roster has been assembled is that it lacks a star, or anyone that even resembles more than a complimentary player. While the NBA performance “ceilings” of some other guys on the roster (notably Elfrid Payton, Evan Fournier, Terrence Ross, Nik Vucevic, and Bismack Biyombo) seem somewhat clear and apparent at this time, I think we still don’t know what the Magic have in Aaron Gordon. In other words, I think Gordon has more room than anyone else on the roster to continue to grow, improve, and perhaps thrive in the very near future (of course, that’s not including Jonathan Isaac, who is just 19). Heading into restricted free-agency next summer, this is a critical year in Aaron Gordon’s career; his improved play could make a huge difference for the Magic this season.
Ogburn: Fournier and Gordon. Both were asked to step up last season, each failed pretty much universally, and as a result, we are still entirely unsure of what they are capable of.
Going into last season, I said that Fournier needed to be a top-five shooting guard for the Magic to make the playoffs. That argument was centered in how efficiently he was able to score in 2015, and how well-rounded his game could be. He then proceeded to turn in his least efficient year in pinstripes by basically every metric. He became exactly what I thought he would never be: a ball stopper with a career-high usage rate and a career-low three-point percentage.
To be fair, Evan was put in a situation where defenses knew that locking him down would put the offense in quicksand, and his skill level just wasn’t enough to overcome that. If he can return to the player he was two years ago, he could be the most important player on the team offensively.
Gordon is obvious. We’ve heard about it for so long, now let’s see it. Just like Evan, Aaron was put in a bad situation last year and asked to do too much. But also just like Evan, Aaron’s own limitations and decisions were the reason why.
The modern NBA star is one that is essentially limitless. Players like Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant, LeBron James, and Giannis Antetokounmpo show on a nightly basis that NBA players are more diverse and skilled than ever.
Gordon has already shown that he is limited – that he probably won’t be one of those guys. The question is just how limited he is, and how the Magic can most effectively use him without getting marooned by expecting too much. Will he be an All-Star one day? Maybe. Will he be forever doomed as a dunker and defensive specialist? It’s possible. But the team needs to know now.
The Magic added a handful of players to the roster this summer, through the draft as well as through Free Agency. Which Orlando newcomer do you think is poised to make the biggest impact in ‘17-’18?
Hutson: Jonathan Isaac has the largest long-term upside, but even the best rookies almost never make a positive impact on their team. Instead, I’ll pick Jonathon Simmons. He’s got the defensive credentials to shore up the Magic’s perimeter problems, he can plausibly start in the event of injury, and he adds some much-needed athleticism to the bench. He’s the perfect Frank Vogel-type player.
Oliver: I like Jonathon Simmons a lot, but I’m going to go with Shelvin Mack. This one might be a little out of left field, but the Magic haven’t had consistent production from the point guard spot, let alone the backup point guard spot for a few years. I think Mack has the potential to be a calming influence on the team and the second unit. I think it’s going to be important for the Magic to find some consistency off the bench, and that will start with Mack.
Goldstone: This question seems like a “gimme”, it has to be Jonathon Simmons.
However, I’d have to say that I’m just as excited about the re-acquisition of Arron Afflalo. I think Afflalo has a chance this season to make a sizable impact. He fits the profile of a typical NBA “veteran-leader” (so cliche, I’m sorry), he seems to want to be in Orlando, and I think he will afford the Magic a lot of lineup versatility. While no longer a starter, Afflalo can allow for the Magic to split-up Fournier and Ross for certain stretches within the game without losing a whole lot of shooting from the outside. He can play either wing position, and I think he compliments Orlando’s other newly acquired wing (Simmons) quite nicely.
Of course, I’m also extremely excited about Jonathan Isaac’s long-term potential, I just have my expectations for him this season tempered a bit.
Ogburn: Going to cheat here and say “the bench.” While I don’t think any player that the Magic added this off-season is a game changer, they can, as a unit, add up to a world of difference from last season. Hennigan’s Hail Mary off-season in 2016 resulted in a lot of bad moves, and that led to the Magic probably leading the league in minutes played by bad basketball players.
Though holdovers like Biyombo and Augustin remain, their roles will be greatly reduced (hopefully) by players like Shelvin Mack, Mo Speights, and Khem Birch.
I really cannot express enough how there was no reason for players like Jeff Green, C.J. Watson, D.J, Augustin, Damjan Rudez, Mario Hezonja, and Bismack Biyombo to see the kind of minutes they did last season, let alone on one team.
Jonathan Simmons, Arron Afflalo, Shelvin Mack, and Mo Speights probably won’t make a single All-Star team in Orlando, but each has an NBA skill. That is something that cannot be said for last year’s group above.
And let’s not forget that Jonathan Isaac could be a superstar one day.
It’s always fun to brainstorm about potentially interesting lineups that could come to fruition at some point in the season. Provide one interesting or unique lineup that you would like to see this year.
Hutson: This is well within the “never gonna happen” category, but an ultra-small lineup with Gordon at center could be fun. Throw in the starters plus Simmons or Isaac and just blitz up and down the court full-tilt. Payton’s best work has come in small-ball lineups, and the abundance of alley-oop targets should, at the very least, liven up what’s been generally dreadful basketball the last few seasons.
Oliver: This kind of plays off of Cory some, but I want to see some crazy, ultra athletic team that’s going to get out and run a ton. Something along the lines of Payton-Ross-Simmons-Gordon-Isaac would be a lot of fun, and potentially have okay balance offensively. They’d try to dunk on everyone in sight, but Ross and Isaac and even Gordon could step out for a three from time-to-time. Also, ultra switchy on defense and that would be really interesting to see.
Goldstone: I’m going to take a slightly different approach here. I’ve resisted this idea in the (recent) past, partly because I haven’t been crazy about the depth or talent at the position, but I would like to see Augustin and Payton play together. Not for too many minutes at a time, but hear me out. I could envision a scenario where Augustin plays off the ball on offense, letting Payton run the point, while Payton checks the opposing team’s shooting guard on defense.
Why not? Payton hasn’t found a lot of success guarding the other team’s point guard, perhaps he would find some confidence guarding shooting guards. He’s 6-4, he’s plenty long enough to defend the position, and he’s gained a considerable amount of strength/muscle since entering the league three years ago. Maybe towards the end of the third quarter, when most of the starters are resting, try to space out the other team’s second unit by surrounding Payton with Augustin, Afflalo, Hezonja, and Speights. Not a lot of defense to speak of, but I could see that lineup getting hot for a couple minutes at a time.
Ogburn: Fournier, Ross, Simmons, Isaac, Gordon. World-ending lineup. Yeah, I definitely just said that it’s not fair to expect Fournier to be a primary ball handler, but throw this lineup out there and pull the plug if they fail.
Everyone can shoot (by Magic standards). Everyone can defend (except Evan). Stick them out there, run a ton of motion and create mismatches. I think these are the Magic’s five most skilled players (other than Vucevic), and it would be fun to watch other teams chase them around.