It’s a week after the All-Star break, and the success of the Orlando Magic continues to be the surprise story of the NBA. Their 32-27 record is good enough for fifth place in the East, and the goal of a playoff berth is well underway.
Offseason acquisition Serge Ibaka is fresh off of his first All-Star game. His late inclusion due to the injury of Cavaliers forward Kevin Love gave Orlando their first participant in the event since Dwight Howard in 2012.
It’s safe to say that the front office’s decision to make Ibaka the Magic’s franchise player has paid off. He has transformed from the spry, raw, defensive presence that he was in Oklahoma City to a crafty offensive force. Ibaka’s 18.2 points per game are a career high, and an NBA All-Defensive Second Team selection, behind the likes of Kawhi Leonard and Draymond Green, is firmly in his sights.
The Congolese big man embodies what it means to be a veteran on this formerly young team; he runs the floor, coordinates the defense, and provides a consistent scoring option when the offense sputters. Most of all, he is a leader. He is always the first to talk to the media when things go wrong, and the last to point the finger at his teammates.
Speaking of defense, for the seventh-consecutive year, coach Frank Vogel’s squad is sitting firmly in the top-10 league-wide. This is mainly due to Ibaka, and free agent acquisition Bismack Biyombo, who has taken the huge step forward that the Magic hoped for when they inked him to a four-year, seventy-two million dollar contract. His position as the Magic’s starting center has given them speed out of the gate, and a scoring force off the bench in Nikola Vucevic.
Though Biyombo isn’t exactly a force on the offensive end, the physical double-double machine does enough on the defense to more than make up for it. His main source of scoring comes from putbacks, as well as perfectly-timed alley-oops from point guard Elfrid Payton, which have become more reliable over the year as Biyombo’s hands have improved.
Under Vogel’s leadership, Payton has finally found a defensive mind that can unlock his potential. The former Lefty Driesell Award winner in college turned the corner in early December and has been a nuisance on the perimeter ever since – locking down the opposition’s best guard to begin Orlando’s stifling defensive sets.
Though his shot is still progressing, Payton’s drive has become more effective. Due to the amount of offensive options that surround him, defenses scramble when the aggressive guard attacks the rim, leading to plenty of fouls and easy buckets.
The real lynchpin of the versatile Magic attack, however, is newly-minted small forward Aaron Gordon. The high-flying forward has capitalized on a strong finish to last season by taking on even more responsibility in year three. A bit of a tweener, Gordon uses his size on small lineups and his speed against big men on switches.
Gordon’s biggest asset, however, is his ball handling. He often brings the ball up the court just like the elite forwards in the league that he has modeled his game after. Year one of the Aaron Gordon as Paul George experiment has seen its share of hiccups, but his undeniable athleticism and high basketball IQ have painted over the gaps where his shooting and passing are still developing.
In fact, the Magic have an abundance of ball handling, as Payton, Gordon, Evan Fournier, C.J. Watson, and D.J. Augustin can all initiate the offense. This versatility is met by equal flexibility on the defensive end, as the Magic’s nimble big men are adept at switching screens and smothering pick and rolls.
Evan Fournier had the smallest adjustment to make over last season, and he has extrapolated his efficient scoring from 2015-16 to carry well into 2017. Though his usage rate has increased, his turnovers have stayed low and his decisions have remained quick and precise. This fluid Magic offense has taken some of the scoring burden off of Fournier, allowing him to use his both his 41 percent three-point shooting, and his effective slashing when the moment presents itself.
By this point in the season, veteran forward Jeff Green has taken more of a mentoring role to the young core of Aaron Gordon and Mario Hezonja. The nuances of how to be a pro that Green has gained during his five stops in the league are proving valuable to the pair, who combine for only five years of NBA experience.
As Mario and Aaron have grown, the on-court need for Green, who is a shade past his prime, has decreased. With Hezonja now backing up Gordon, and Meeks subbing in for Fournier, Green comes in when needed as a glue guy, but hardly an essential part of the Magic attack.
This big, athletic Magic team is causing debates across the NBA, with talking heads claiming that the age of “twin towers” isn’t dead yet – and it’s not even finished building. With Jeff Green coming off the books this summer and tradable assets across the roster, this offseason factors to be even bigger than the last as the Magic will try to add a star.
In hindsight, it makes sense that the actual Orlando Magic have fallen short this season. Though even the most pessimistic pundits may have not predicted their defensive struggles, Orlando’s 22-38 record makes perfect sense when taking into account the expectations placed on each player.
When looking at it now, it becomes clear that a Magic team that featured Serge Ibaka as its star would need a lot of things to go their way. When the front office made these moves this past offseason, they were expecting, not hoping for six-to-eight players to grow into roles they had never occupied before. When players do grow, it is because of opportunity, not expectation. This expectation, combined with pressure from management to “win now” put this newly-formed team on a track for failure before it ever tipped off.
Hopefully, the organization has learned from its mistakes, because this type of environment with this level of talent will never produce different results.