Basketball is (almost) back! Like any tragic sports fan I always inevitably find myself daydreaming about the best-case scenario in the weeks leading up to the season opener, crafting absurdly optimistic outcomes for the majority of the Orlando roster. Looking back on 2017-2018 it’s probably safe to say that not one single player met the lofty predictions I made, which goes a long way towards explaining the season’s calamitous results. In fact, a superstitious fan would likely suggest that the whole thing is my damn fault.
Well, instead of trying to pull off the more complicated reverse-jinx I’ve decided to double down this year and formally roll out a set of optimism-fueled guesses that will have Magic fans jumping out of their seats. I’m subduing that nagging voice in the back of every Orlando-devoted head that says to “expect the worst” and simply assuming that this is the year the cookie crumbles in our favor. So settle in with a glass half-full of your favorite beverage and join me as we let the optimism commence with this year’s Positivity Projections!
Cast out of position as a small forward for much of 2016/17, last season started out as a significant bounce back for Aaron Gordon. He came out breathing fire, connecting from deep like a man possessed and notching up a pair of 40-point outings within his first 20 games. However, a series of injuries derailed his momentum, the shooting came back to earth, and the early promise remained largely just that. So, the question remains much the same as it has been since he entered the league: can AG grow into an All-Star level talent?
The answer? Sure! These are the Positivity Projections! Since his attention-grabbing performance in the 2015 Dunk Contest, Gordon has emerged as a regular double-double threat, displaying more confidence at both ends of the court. He has regularly shown an ability to flourish when playing at the 4, where he can more easily leverage his athleticism and cope with the pace of his direct opponent. It’s this correct positional deployment -- in a crowded frontcourt, no less! -- could be the thing that triggers an arrival to the game’s elite for Orlando’s fifth-year player.
Most importantly of all, Gordon needs to demonstrate that last year’s hot start wasn’t an aberration. If he can raise the competency and consistency of his perimeter shooting numbers to something even close to league average it will continue to open up facets of his game that we haven’t yet seen, and help make him a more versatile threat at this end of the court. We already know that he has the necessary tools to defend at a high level, but this could be the year that he becomes a true two-way player. If that does happen, a trip to the mid-season showcase isn’t so far-fetched.
The Seminole’s rookie campaign was ultimately a frustrating one, initially buoyed with promise but eventually sunk by injury. Brittle ankles cost him the chance to establish a real role with the team, but even amid the the disruptions, Jonathan Isaac was able to showcase plenty that left Magic fans excited. He’s athletic and long. He rebounds and hustles. Defensively he’s got the skills and focus that could make him a real defensive terror. He even flashed some glimpses of an offensive game. It remains to be seen how much of the same space and skill set he and Gordon will both occupy, and whether the team can coexist offensively with them manning the forward spots together. However, healthy optimism appears appropriate at this early stage of his career. Isaac may not have been picked at the absolute top of his draft class, but he could potentially be the home-run lottery pick the Magic have been searching for. Now let’s hope his ankles keep up their end of the bargain.
A world exists where Evan Fournier emerges as a 20 point per-game scorer who also acts as a secondary playmaking facilitator from the wing. We know this because there have been regular flashes of it over the last two seasons in Orlando. However, the young Frenchman will need his shooting numbers to continue to become more efficient, to display more patience when asked to create opportunities for his teammates, and to figure out a way to be less invisible when operating off the ball. Oh, and it’s important that on defense he not allow himself to be accurately compared to a sieve. The optimists in Orlando are counting on him to make this a consistent reality.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Summer League and preseason are in the books and a rookie looks good. Pleasingly for fans of the Magic it’s one of theirs that has been impressive, even if it has been in limited minutes of what are relatively low-intensity games. Still, there’s plenty to feel giddy about when watching Mo Bamba play. The dude has length for days, and his agility and defensive acumen already suggests that he’ll figure out how to develop into a real game changer at this end of the floor. Oh, and did I mention that he has already flashed an improved shooting stroke and is hitting three pointers? Be still my beating heart! Bamba’s undoubtedly still a few years away from being a consistent high-level contributor, but it’s easy enough to picture him snagging some votes in this season’s Rookie of the Year race. That would be enough to be a real win for Orlando and their front office.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before: the Magic need shooting in the worst way. When Terrence Ross came to Orlando as the key return from the Serge Ibaka trade it was theorized that he could be the exact type of player the team desperately craved: a dead-eye, volume three-point shooter with some defensive versatility and nous. The numbers from his time in Florida haven’t really shown this to be the case, but that’s not to say that he’s destined to fall further from his Toronto-based averages. Ross is another returning player who had their 2017/18 season wrecked by injury, and as a pending free agent he’ll be keen to show the team that he’s the perfect supporting wing for the modern NBA. There’s a clear role that he can play on this team, and he’ll be given every opportunity to make it a reality.
A great outcome would be Jerian Grant ending the Magic’s seemingly interminable search for a backup point guard, a position of weakness for quite some time. He was a low-risk acquisition in the deal that jettisoned Bismack Biyombo, but could yet emerge as the key return for an Orlando side desperate for competent leadership for the second unit. Grant seemingly has the physical skills required to succeed, and in limited opportunities during his time in Chicago he flashed some real potential. He’s long, makes plays for others, protects the ball, and has made some development as a shooter and scorer. He might just be the man for the role.
A perfect outcome, however, would be Grant flourishing in Central Florida and eventually taking over from D.J. Augustin as the starter. He’s the right age to grow with the Magic nucleus, and his emergence as a starter-level talent could elevate the ceiling of this squad both for this season and beyond. Let’s dream big and cross the fingers.
There are two keys to unlocking Nikola Vucevic’s full potential. Firstly, he has to continue to make steady improvement at the defensive end, demonstrating at least some ability to effectively protect the rim. He’ll never be a Mutombo-esque shot blocker, but he doesn’t have to be; over the last few years his improved positioning, use of body, and footwork has become enough for him to begin to sniff serviceable. He needs to consolidate these gains and definitively remove himself from any ‘NBA’s worst defenders’ conversations.
Secondly, he needs to continue to shoot the three ball. Basketball is pivoting away from the traditional big man and, if we’re being honest, Vooch never really fit that mold anyway. Shooting, and the space it creates, is at a premium, and for an offensively-challenged team like the Magic it’s more essential than ever that they generate some kind of advantage out of at least one position on the court. Vucevic could be that man! Last season he hoisted up more than three times as many long range attempts per-game than he had at any other point in his career, connecting at a pretty decent clip. If he can nudge these numbers even further in the right direction there could yet be another level to his play.
Realistically, though, the most positive contribution Vucevic could likely make this year is as a featured piece in a trade that brings back a promising asset.
For the man behind the clipboard, this coming season will be deemed a success based almost solely on wins. Outside of injuries one of the biggest contributors to last season’s disappointing campaign was the mismatched nature of the roster and the lack of on-court cohesion. If Steve Clifford is able to get the players into roles and lineups that leverage strengths and minimise flaws he’ll be well on his way to getting more out of the team. It’s also essential that he find the time and opportunity to continue to develop those players who may yet be a part of the team’s potential long-term success. As presently constructed the Magic roster is a basketball version of the Rubik’s Cube; it’s Clifford’s job to solve the puzzle. A world exists where he does just that and -- for the first time in very long time -- the Magic play meaningful games in April.
Rapid fire! Jonathon Simmons emerges as the reliable playmaking fulcrum that the second unit needs. Wesley Iwundu carves out a role by proving he’s a legitimate NBA talent. D.J. Augustin manages to break the trend of alternating good shooting seasons with bad and continues to convert at a rate close to his career-best. Khem Birch continues to block everything when given the chance. Isaiah Briscoe provides value at the deep end of the rotation. Timofey Mozgov hones his towel waving ability and isn’t forced into action. Orlando makes a run at the eighth seed.
A fan in mid-October can talk themselves into just about anything. A career year for a favorite player. A deep playoff run. A title. And although it’s unlikely that Orlando reaches any lofty heights this season there’s still plenty to be said for looking on the bright side. Sports are meant to be fun! They’re meant to inspire awe and aspiration, but instead we -- the collective basketball fanatics -- seem to spend most of our time worrying about how things could be better. We’ll undoubtedly hit that point of the season (probably all too soon!), but for now I’m just happy to put my unfiltered optimism front and centre.
Onwards to game one!