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The Optimist’s Case for the Orlando Magic

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Everything is great!

Orlando Magic v Charlotte Hornets Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

If you read yesterday’s full-on-pessimist’s take on the Orlando Magic, you might be considering burning your Mo Speights jersey already. Don’t do it! For one, there are several more worthy targets of your wrath, like your C.J. Watson jersey or your Gilbert Arenas bobblehead. Besides that, though, not all hope is lost. It’s optimism day, baby!

In similar fashion as the curmudgeonly argument, this is pure, unadulterated optimism. No “unfortunately”s or “however”s necessary on this hype train!

Here’s five big reasons this will be the best Magic season in years:

The Magic know who they are now

Among many frustrations with last season, the sense that the Magic just weren’t playing to their strengths ranked high on the list of aggravations. The Aaron Gordon small forward experiment was the centerpiece of that problem, but playing big lineups to counter small-ball was another fundamental failure.

The Magic have learned their lesson. Gordon will be no doubt be the starting power forward on opening night, getting the chance to play alongside a group of small ball run-and-gunners that proved successful at the end of last season. Small sample size might seem like an issue, but there’s reason to weigh those results more heavily besides mere recency.

Consider that the switch to full-on small ball happened midseason, with little opportunity to pivot the offensive scheme in a meaningful way. In other words, the players had to operate off pure instinct. With a proper training camp designed to practice that style of play, there’s plenty of reason to think they’ll improve on that performance, not regress.

The bench really does matter

Unlike that Negative Nancy on Tuesday, I happen to think the Magic’s bench upgrade is the best thing they could have done this offseason. Given how bad last year’s reserves were, having even an average bench would go a long way.

Furthermore, adding those players cements an identity the Magic have struggled to achieve up to this point, that of a smart, defensive team. Even if players like Shelvin Mack and Jonathon Simmons aren’t transforming the offense, they’ll be crucial parts of what could be among the best defensive benches in the league. Between the two of them, Jonathan Isaac, and perhaps even Bismack Biyombo, the Magic have the chance to put a lot of very switchable players on the court together, a crucial skill for modern NBA defenses.

This will give us a chance to see what players like Elfrid Payton and Aaron Gordon are really made of. Gordon and Jeff Green playing together was decidedly unfun, but Gordon running up and down the court flanked by Simmons and Isaac is much more interesting. Giving Payton a few more lob targets doesn’t hurt, either.

Expect bounce-back years from key players

We already expect a lot more from Gordon this season, playing his proper position. Payton, too, should continue to benefit from the switch to a spaced-out style that suits his game.

They aren’t the only players who could see big comebacks, though. Evan Fournier had a down season by his standards, dropping under 36% 3-point shooting for the first time in his career, while also being forced to take on an oversized role as an offensive playmaker. Nagging injuries dogged him throughout the season, as well. It’s not like he’s hit his ceiling, either, at age 24. This coming season should easily be better than last for the Frenchman.

Bismack Biyombo had his own struggles too. Offense will never be better than mediocre for him, but his defense fell below the lofty standards he set in Toronto. Forget the contract: he’ll never live up to that money. Instead, just focus on the bounce-back potential for a player who, until last season, proved he could always provide certain defensive skills at an elite level. Biyombo didn’t just become a bad defender overnight, and with a second season under Vogel and a better defensive plan, Biz could easily do what he was brought to Orlando to do.

Speaking of a second season under Vogel...

Playing under same coaching staff will make a huge difference

Continuity counts. Many of the Magic’s core players have never never played multiple seasons under the same coach. Payton and Gordon got a half-season of Jacques Vaughn before playing the rest of that year under James Borrego. Scott Skiles was supposed to stick around longer than a year, but a tumultuous season led to his quick resignation. Frank Vogel was their fourth coach in three seasons.

Evan Fournier is in the same boat, too. He played his rookie season under George Karl in Denver, and played the next under Brian Shaw before being traded into the same situation as Payton and Gordon. That makes six coaches in five seasons for the Magic’s lead wing.

This will mark the first time in any of these player’s careers that they’ll have spent multiple offseasons with the same coach. Even if you think Vogel is merely average—and the majority of his coaching history suggests otherwise—that should be a huge difference maker for everyone on the team. Even Nikola Vucevic should benefit, given that the only repeat coach he ever had was Vaughn.

Despite numerous setbacks, important Magic players have improved every year

Gordon has had fairly bad luck throughout his young career. Every offseason he’s been hit with a flukey injury that kept him out of training camp. He was put into a position where he had to become Paul George 2.0, when that’s really not his destiny. He’s had to deal with a new coach every season.

Despite these conditions, he’s found a way to improve every season, even if it’s not totally obvious in the box scores. In fact, his box score stats probably obscure his actual improvement on the court. For example, his field goal percentage suggests he took a step back from year two to year three, dipping from 47% to 45%. Context is important, though. Gordon played the entire year from a perimeter perspective, rarely getting inside the paint to do what he does best. Playing as a tertiary ball-handler put him in plenty of awkward situations as well, leading to many an ill-fated pull-up jumper.

The improvement is much more obvious when you look how he performed when he did things he’s actually good at. Post-break Gordon shot 50% from the field, mainly thanks to taking about 75% of his shots from 2-point range instead of the roughly 65% he took before, per NBA.com. He upped his free throws, too, from 4.3 attempts per 100 possessions to 5.0 attempts.

Payton’s advancement is more obvious. A lot of attention is paid to his poor long-range efficiency, but that obscures his steady rise inside the arc, from 43% shooting as a rookie to 50% shooting last season. What was once a great weakness of his, finishing around the rim, has now become an important strength. His free throw shooting came up fairly significantly as well, from about 59% to 69%.

Point guards are often notorious for being slow to develop, especially in the modern NBA when the position is more demanding than ever. In all likelyhood, we haven’t even come close to seeing the best version of Elfrid Payton. The triple doubles are somewhat a product of the modern age of basketball, but it’s also not an accident that Payton’s already the all-time franchise leader in the category. Like the rest of the team, there’s plenty of hope for him, too.