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Orlando Magic Season Preview: Development, not wins, is most important (for now)

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A look at the Magic’s strengths, weaknesses, and goals for SB Nations’s 2018-2019 NBA Preview

NBA: Orlando Magic-Media Day Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

It’s not what Magic fans want to hear as we venture into year seven of the team’s rebuild. But even with core pieces now in place and a true sense of optimism permeating within the organization and fanbase, wins (and the playoffs) won’t be the primary focus this season. The Magic’s success instead should be measured by how players like Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac and Mo Bamba progress and how new coach Steve Clifford balances each to form a cohesive unit. And with that developmental process comes intrigue and promise.


Orlando Magic

Last Year’s Record: 25-57

Key Losses: Mario Hezonja, Shelvin Mack, Bismack Biyombo, Frank Vogel

Key Additions: Mo Bamba, Jerian Grant, Steve Clifford

1. What significant moves were made during the off-season?

The most significant move was the formation of the Magic’s “B.I.G. Three.” With the drafting of Mo Bamba (owner of the largest wingspan in NBA history at 7-10) and the re-signing of Aaron Gordon to a less-than-expected $76 million deal, coupled with the healthy return of Jonathan Isaac, the Magic now boast a frontcourt predicated on length and versatility. So while the rest of the league gets smaller, the Magic have gone bigger. The NBA zigs, Orlando zags. The league is streaming music, while the Magic go back to buying CDs. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing in a league with a cyclical history. While teams attempt to replicate the Warriors, perhaps it will take a team like Orlando to help bring back the big man trend. The man responsible with making it all work and ensuring that the B.I.G. era gets off to a successful start represents the other significant move made by the Magic in the off-season: the hiring of head coach Steve Clifford, who replaces Frank Vogel. Clifford returns to Orlando, where he served as an assistant coach during the glory days of the Dwight Howard era, with a defensive-minded and disciplined coaching style. In addition to implementing the hallmarks of his system, Clifford has the weight of the Magic’s ever-important player development expectations on his shoulders. Lastly, another significant move was one the Magic didn’t make: upgrading at point guard. But more on that later.

2. What are the team’s biggest strengths?

The answer to this question is very much to be determined. On paper, it’s easy to say the the Magic’s strength will be their newly-formed frontcourt and their defensive potential. It’s not so simple though because 1) we don’t know exactly how much B.I.G. will even play together this season as Bamba is brought along slowly, and 2) we still don’t know if the formation will ultimately be successful. The hope is that, defensively, each will offer the length needed to protect the paint, the athleticism to keep pace against smaller up-tempo teams, and the versatility and switchability to combat offenses in a pick-and-roll dominated league. If all goes smoothly, the Magic could develop a pretty damn lethal defensive frontcourt over the next few seasons.

3. What are the team’s biggest weaknesses?

The obvious answer is the Magic’s lack of a true starting point guard. In fact, some have even ranked projected starter D.J. Augustin as the worst starting point guard in the league. Augustin is a career back-up, a reliable and productive one at that, and he filled in well last season after the Magic traded Elfrid Payton. The Magic opted not to bring back Shelvin Mack, who was hilariously promoted as the team’s assist leader, much to the delight of the Internet and social media...

The Magic brought in some depth at the position with Jerian Grant, who was acquired as part of the Bismack Biyombo trade, and former Kentucky Wildcat Isaiah Briscoe. Neither is proven, though some believe Grant has the potential to be more than a back-up. But with a young team and few players who have proven to consistently create their own shot, the Magic will need a facilitator who can get to the basket and find the open man. That could be a challenge this season with the Magic’s collection of stopgap point guards. Beyond playmaking, the Magic also need to find a go-to scorer on what will be a defensive-minded team. The likely candidate is Gordon, coming off a career year in which he jumped from 12.7 points per game to 17.6 and improved from 28.8 percent from three to 33.6 percent. The healthy returns of Evan Fournier (who is neither the problem or solution for Orlando) and Terrence Ross (who will play a key role for the Magic this season), along with continued offensive development and aggression from Isaac, should help with the scoring load and the Magic’s three-point shooting (35.1 percent from three last season, third worst in the league).

4. What are the goals for this team?

Player development. Progress. A step in the right direction. Signs of improvement. A sense of hope. A light at the end of a never-ending rebuild tunnel. You get the idea. The Magic’s goals for this season, in my opinion at least, should not be measured or quantified by their win-loss record. The goal this season is for the organization to lay the groundwork for the future. And it seems the Magic have been trying to do that since 2012 but it’s more crucial than ever this season now that a clear path has been paved with their frontcourt. The Magic must prove that Gordon, Bamba and Isaac can operate as a cohesive unit; that either Gordon or Isaac can play the three; and that whatever plan the Magic front office is executing and whatever system Clifford is implementing will be successful in the landscape of today’s pace-and-space NBA. If the goal this season is for the Magic are to establish an identity, it will have to be created by the young frontcourt the organization has invested so heavily in.

5. Quick, give me five Orlando Magic hot takes for the season...

Sure...

1. Aaron Gordon will be an All-Star: Natural progression, expectations that come with a big contract, and some availability on the East’s All-Star roster should help Gordon take the next step in his career.

2. Nikola Vucevic will NOT be traded: The return won’t be enough to part with Vooch, a free-agent-to-be who will serve as a season-long mentor for Mo Bamba. Maybe the Magic lose him for nothing next summer or maybe be stays in Orlando at a reduced rate to serve as a back-up.

3. Mo Bamba will not meet expectations as a rookie: Perhaps not by any fault of his own. Expectations have been set pretty high for the sixth pick in the Draft. It will be difficult for Bamba to reach them in his first season if the Magic cautiously tighten the reins on him, as many expect them to do while Bamba develops and bulks up. His time will come.

4. Jerian Grant will be the Magic’s starting point guard by season’s end: I think D.J. Augustin is a perfectly capable fill-in for one year, but the Magic are in position to experiment with little consequence. They’ll give Grant an opportunity and they may like what they see.

5. The Magic will make the playoffs...next season: After a season’s worth of chemistry with their core players, another lottery pick, and some free agent additions with the money coming off the cap this summer, the Magic will secure a playoff spot in 2019-2020, ending a seven-year postseason drought.