Opening night is upon us.
With the Orlando Magic coming off their first playoff appearance in seven years, and with the continued development of their young core, there is plenty of excitement and anticipation surrounding the team. But there are also plenty of questions, just as there were last season when we did this same exercise.
To address some of this year’s questions, Zach Oliver, Aaron Goldstone, Garrett Townsend and myself held a roundtable discussion for the annual OPP Fill-in-the-Blank Season Preview….
The Magic’s primary goal this season should be to ______.
Zach: ...make the playoffs. As I mentioned above, their poised to take another step forward. Not making the playoffs would be a failure for them this year. They need to be in there, and maybe be on the brink of getting home court.
Aaron: ...make it back to the playoffs. It’s imperative that the Magic avoid taking a step back in ’19-’20. Making it to the playoffs last year was something they earned by playing well down the stretch, but it was also somewhat expected. The team enters this season with much higher expectations; with expectations comes the possibility of a let-down, and that’s what Coach Clifford has his team must try to avoid.
Garrett: ...consolidate their status as a playoff team. After finally unburdening the shackles of the rebuild it would be a real shame to see the team slide back into the lottery. It’s also important for some of the developing talent that a winning culture be solidified.
Mike: ...make sure they take a step forward. Coming off last season, and with another year of familiarity and development, it would be a major letdown if the Magic don’t return to the playoffs and at least have a competitive series in the first round.
On a scale of 1 to 10, my concern level with the Magic’s struggles in the final few games of preseason is a ______.
Zach: ...a two. I’m not very concerned. They were banged up, with the likes of Nikola Vucevic, Evan Fournier and Terrence Ross all missing time with injuries. The thing that would worry me the most would be Aaron Gordon’s shooting woes, but I think that fixes itself as the team is healthy.
Aaron: ...probably a five. Shooting/scoring has always been a concern for the Magic. I don’t think I saw anything in the preseason to cause me to think any differently about their overall offensive outlook, but I also wouldn’t necessarily say anything I saw in the preseason caused me to have any additional/new concerns about the team either. They are what they are; the overall strength of this roster is their potential defensive ability.
Garrett: ...three. There’s just so much noise during preseason that it’s hard to put too much stock in the outcomes. I think the warmup games just confirmed what we already knew: Orlando are a team that could be great on defense and okay on offense, but that will struggle with consistency at both ends (one end more than the other).
Mike: ...four. I typically don’t put much stock in preseason play, and the Magic really did nothing but show that they are what we thought they are. But, yeah, some of those games were downright ugly. With this team there will certainly be nights like that when the games count, you just hope it’s not too often.
On a scale of 1 to 10, my concern level with Markelle Fultz’s preseason shooting percentage is a _____.
Zach: ...three. I don’t think that it’s that big of an issue right now. Fultz just needs to be out there, and be willing to take jumpers. He’s going to impact the game in a lot of ways, and should be able to get to the basket relatively easily, so when they does happen, I think shots will fall more.
Aaron: ...three. What is there to be concerned with? Did anyone think he was going to shoot the ball efficiently right away? The positive takeaways from Fultz’s first preseason with the Magic is that he was healthy, he played in every game, and he provided the team (and the fans) with a glimpse of what he can do on the floor. Fultz will excel on the defensive end of the floor, pushing the ball in transition, and getting into the lane. I do think his ability to finish at the rim will get better as the season carries on.
Garrett: ...five. Dude couldn’t shoot, like, at all, only 18 months ago, so a figure close to 33% seems like an okay starting point. He only shot terribly in two preseason contests, and undoubtedly has a heap of rust to knock off. Let’s revisit this one at Christmas time.
Mike: ...one. I said it before but I thought the preseason was a great success for Fultz. For most of the summer, I honestly didn’t think he’d even be on the court in preseason. And it wasn’t long ago where his career was in jeopardy and it was a great mystery as to whether he was even shooting at all. He hadn’t played competitive basketball for the better part of two years. And he’s only 21-years-old. He’s in no way a finished product, and I think his shot will improve somewhat as he gets more comfortable. Until then, there are other ways he can have a positive impact on the Magic: defense and playmaking.
After an All-Star season, Nikola Vucevic will _______ .
Zach: ...play well this season. I think Vucevic could see a slight downtick in production, but mostly because of Gordon and Jonathan Isaac taking another step forward on that end. I think both of them will have biggest roles offensively, which obviously takes away some opportunities for Vucevic.
Aaron: ...continue to be the focal point of Orlando’s offense. We saw this preseason how difficult it can be for the Magic to score for long periods of time without Vucevic on the floor. He may not put up the eye-popping career numbers this year that he posted last season, but the ball will continue to be in his hands a lot (high post, pick-and-roll situations, face-ups, trailing for three-point attempts at the top of the key, etc.).
Garrett: ...again line up for the East. He plays a position starved of elite quality and serves as the offensive fulcrum for a team that should start pretty well. He’ll again stuff the stat sheet, making it hard to keep him away from the midseason showcase.
Mike: ...have some regression towards the mean. Won’t be a huge drop-off, and a second-straight All-Star appearance is very realistic, but his numbers and percentages could drop slightly after a career-year last season. The offense will once again run through Vooch, but the shot distribution could be different as Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac continue to grow and command more usage.
Wes Iwundu should ______ this season.
Zach: …play this season. Iwundu might not but up the biggest, or most flashy numbers, but he’s carved out a good role, and has turned into a clear rotation level player. He’s sound on the defensive end, and has continued to get better as a three-point shooter. He should be in their rotation from opening night.
Aaron: ...be patient this season. I think Iwundu will probably be the odd man out when the season starts this week, and that’s unfortunate. The third year forward has worked diligently on his craft, all the while giving the Magic versatility, effort (both in practice and when his number has been called), and steadiness coming off Orlando’s bench. Clifford doesn’t like using a ten-man rotation, but injuries throughout a season do happen (unfortunately). When they do occur, Iwundu should be ready to capitalize on the opportunity.
Garrett: ...be ready to pounce when an injury strikes this season. There are only so many minutes to go around during an NBA game, and sadly for Iwundu the nature of the Magic’s roster means that he’s probably going to be left on the outside looking in. The best thing he can do is Khem Birch it when the time comes.
Mike: ...get more minutes than Michael Carter-Williams this season. Iwundu’s shooting gives the Magic some much needed spacing and he just seems a better fit for the Magic than MCW in most situations.
D.J. Augustin as your starting point guard is ______.
Zach: ...fine. I said it before last season, and I’ll say it now, D.J. Augustin starting is absolutely fine. He does just enough, and while I think he will take a step back this season after two of his best as a pro, he’s still going to be a formidable starter. His shooting is so important to the team, and he’s a low turnover guy who’s going to make the right plays.
Aaron: ...fine. He’s the best the Magic have on the roster at the position. Augustin has enjoyed career seasons shooting the basketball in Orlando over the last two years. And Coach Clifford’s defensive system seemed to protect Augustin’s defensive inabilities to a certain extent last season, so there’s that. Augustin is the heart and soul of this team. He doesn’t always play with a lot of pace in the open floor, but he’s exactly the type of half-court point guard that Clifford relies upon to run his offense.
Garrett: fine. And not in a sarcastic meme way! He had something close to a career-year last season, so even if he only gives 85-90% of that production the team will be fine. Fingers crossed those shooting percentages hold.
Mike: ...fine. I was going to say something slightly different but didn’t want to ruin the clean sweep. I think Augustin has given the Magic more than they could have imagined. At his age though, the dependence on Augustin playing big minutes and staying healthy year after year is a little concerning. That in turn puts a lot of dependence on Markelle Fultz in the event of an injury. I was hoping the Magic would target Tomas Satoranksy in free agency to have more insurance at the position.
Markelle Fultz will start _____ games this season.
Zach: 12 games this season.
Aaron: ...five games this season. We talked about this a little bit on the last “Do You Believe in Magic” podcast, but there could be the possibility of Fultz getting an opportunity to start a few games towards the end of the season (for example – if the Magic were in a position where they had already clinched a playoff berth and/or couldn’t improve their positioning any further). Injuries are also a part of the game, and D.J. Augustin is no spring chicken. However, Augustin has been pretty durable for the Magic, and there’s always a chance that Clifford would elect to keep Fultz in his role (as the back-up) and go with Michael Carter-Williams to start at point guard if a minor injury to Augustin were to occur. For those reasons, I kept this number relatively low.
Garrett: ...12 games this season. I haven’t seen enough to suggest that he’s really ready for that this season, nor that he will be at any point. Let’s pencil him in for a dozen though thanks to injuries and rest.
Mike: ...three. I think the Magic will continue to bring Fultz along very slowly and carefully. If Augustin misses a game here or there, I could see starting MCW, just as he did in the preseason. Best case is the number is a lot higher after Fultz plays his way into the starting lineup rather than being forced in out of necessity.
Michael Carter-Williams potentially playing on the wing is _______.
Zach: ...troublesome. I think Carter-Williams is what he is at this point. He’s a good energy guy who’s going to play strong defense. His lack of shooting is the thing that worries me the most. With Markelle Fultz still a slight unknown as a shooter, not having some more shooting ability with him out there, could hurt his production. I think these minutes should go to Wes Iwundu, and I think we’ll see that happen sooner, rather than later.
Aaron: ...strange. I know this organization believes in the idea that “you are who you can guard” in the NBA, but I just don’t foresee Carter-Williams playing on the “wing” too often. He would provide the team with zero spacing, and he operates most optimally on the floor when he has the ball in his hands. Carter-Williams may possess the size to guard other wings, but I also think he’s most effective on defense when he’s defending the point of attack. I like him with the ball in his hands (in transition); I like him guarding the ball. I’m not a fan of him playing off the ball whatsoever.
Mike: ...evidence of Steve Clifford’s somewhat unhealthy obsession with MCW. It will be a short-lived experiment.
The biggest challenge facing Steve Clifford is ________.
Zach: ...the rotation. Clifford has been steadfast on a nine man rotation, but this team has better depth than it has in a while. Will he be willing to go deeper into his bench if guys are struggling on a given night? Will he expand and give Iwundu and Khem Birch some time?
Aaron: ...helping the team avoid a letdown. I know, I know. I already mentioned the expectations surrounding this team earlier in this piece. But I feel that strongly about the idea; this team, this city, and this fan-base are expecting big things in 2019-20. We know the Magic were fortunate to not suffer through a significant amount of injuries to their rotation players last season. Even with some perceived improved depth this year, the team will once again have to be healthy, be better/more consistent on offense, and have to get off to a quick start to avoid taking a step back in a re-shuffled Eastern Conference.
Garrett: ...the second round. First he’ll need to get the Magic back to postseason actin. Once there, he’ll have to figure out how to post a PB and see a second series. The Orlando roster is still a bit of a Rubik’s Cube, so the job won’t be easy.
Mike: handling that center rotation. The Magic draft Mo Bamba to be the successor to NIkola Vucevic, then get better when Khem Birch replaces Bamba in the lineup, then give Nikola Vucevic $100-million after an All-Season, then re-sign Birch. Clifford has to balance Vucevic’s role and Bamba’s development while also finding minutes somewhere for Birch, who is the clear odd man out.
Aaron Gordon needs to ______ this season.
Zach: be assertive this season. If Gordon is going to prove he can be the guy this is the year he does that. He’s knocked on the door and tried to be that player, and I think he’s poised to be that guy this season.
Aaron: ...continue to do exactly what he’s been doing (again) this season. I know that’s a strange answer, but I’m just not one of those people that feels like Gordon needs to take another “jump” in his career at this point. Sure, making an All-Star team would be a nice feather in his cap. But I already think Gordon is an extremely useful player for the Magic. I actually worry a bit when he plays like he needs to do more than he’s capable of. He’s one of Orlando’s best all-around players, and I really like the strides he made last season handling the basketball, distributing the basketball, and accepting the challenge of guarding the other team’s best wing player. I would surely welcome Gordon becoming more efficient from the floor (and getting to the free throw line more often; both can be achieved if he plays in the post more often), but I don’t think he needs to make some huge leap. Well, he can continue to make huge “leaps” on fast breaks. Keep doing you AG!
Garrett: ...be selective with his shots this season. When AG plays what’s in front of him and takes what’s on offer he tends to do pretty well. When he falls in love with the three-ball or descends into iso-hell the wheels can fall off.
Mike: ...ignore the leap talk. Just operate within the flow of the offense, don’t force shots, and focus on what he is good at.
Evan Fournier’s shooting percentages will be ________.
Zach: ...42 percent.
Aaron: ...returning to his career marks this season. I’m not the only one that has been banging this drum, but I think Evan Fournier is in store for a huge season this year. I love what he was able to accomplish playing in the FIBA World Cup this past summer. It was a dreadful shooting season for Fournier last year, but I have zero concerns regarding his ability to return to form. I think Fournier will be approaching this season as if it’s a “contract year”, and I fully expect Fournier to produce for the Magic in a big way in 2019-20.
Garrett: ...better. The main problem last season was that he missed more three pointers than ever before, while also less frequently attempting free-throws than any other year. Both feel poised for a bounce back.
Mike: ...back to around the roughly 45 percent from the field and 37 percent from three he has shot during his career. The Magic need him. Fournier seems motivated to make up for last season. I think it works out well for both.
Terrence Ross will hit _____ threes this season.
Zach: 164 threes this season.
Aaron: ...195 threes this season. If he stays healthy, I don’t see any reason why Ross wouldn’t be able to eclipse this number (I actually went a little conservative compared to his success from distance last season). For me, there’s not a lot of guys in the NBA that have the “green light” from their coaching staff to fire up more shots off the bench than Terrence Ross. He’s basically Orlando’s #1, 2, 3, etc. scoring option on the second unit, and he will be afforded every opportunity to continue to pour it in from long range for the Magic.
Garrett: ...lots of threes this season. If he plays a full slate of games I would once again expect him to be dropping 200+. As the key piece off the bench he’s going to get his fill of attempts, and despite a down year in 2017/18, he’s also been remarkably consistent across his career. Flame on.
Mike: 200 threes this season. Ross established career-highs for threes made and attempted last season and his role this season doesn’t change in the slightest. I’ll factor in a slight drop in his efficiency but, barring injury, he should be right around where he was last season.
On a scale of 1 to 10, I would give the job that Jeff Weltman and John Hammond have done so far a ______.
Zach: ...seven. I think they’ve done a good job overall, and brought in a good culture and changed things that needed to be changed. They’ve kept together their core, and added some nice complimentary players to them. I knock a few points off from not taking a player who could impact the team this season in the draft, and their seeming intent on zigging while the rest of the league zags, but I think overall they’ve done a good job.
Aaron: ...six. I like most of the things Orlando’s management group has done over their two seasons in town, although their use of draft assets outside of the lottery has been questionable at best (in my opinion.
Garrett: ...six. They’ve made some nice picks, wrangled some decent trades, and effectively navigated the re-signing of players. However, it feels like they’ve occasionally left some points on the board, and basically all of the acquisitions are recent enough that no final judgement can be drawn at this point in time. I like what I’m seeing, but we can’t plan the parade just yet.
Mike: ...six. They have the organization on the right track, but I’m still not sold on the Al-Farouq Aminu signing or the pick of Chuma Okeke when the Magic clearly had more pressing backcourt needs.
The most under-appreciated player on the Magic is _______.
Zach: ...Wes Iwundu. He does a lot of little things that helps a team win, and was part of the group that spearheaded their surge last season. He’s the kind of player you need in your rotation.
Aaron: ...Aaron Gordon. This is a no-brainer for me. Nikola Vucevic had an incredible season last year and was recognized by coaches in the conference for his outstanding play. For that reason alone, I can’t label Vucevic as underappreciated. And because of the long-term potential that both Jonathan Isaac and Mohamed Bamba show (at times) on the floor, I certainly don’t feel like they are underappreciated – either by the organization or the team’s fan-base. But I do think it often gets overlooked how much effort it requires for Gordon to guard at the level Clifford expects of the young forward at the defensive end, while also doing a multitude of things on the offensive end to help the team win games (corner three’s, running the floor, finding open teammates, serving as a secondary scoring option, etc.). He was Orlando’s most outstanding player in the playoff series against Toronto last year, primarily going against the most outstanding player in all of the league (in the playoffs) last year – in Kawhi Leonard.
Garrett: ...probably DJ Augustin. Outside of his ice-cold dagger in Canada he was never the talking point after a game, but the fact is that last season’s team success wouldn’t have been even remotely possible without his contributions.
Mike: ...Aaron Gordon. Sometimes we all get wrapped up in what we want a player to become rather than appreciating a player for what he is. He does a lot of things well for the Magic and that can often be overlooked....
Y’all sleep media’s pulling from nationaly televised games only... not enough to be lockin down on your local stations... not a single vote? Bet. https://t.co/x9ZlKB7CTU— Aaron Gordon (@Double0AG) May 22, 2019
The player on the Magic most likely to surprise this season is ________.
Zach: ...D.J. Augustin. I think he does take a slight step back this season, but I think overall his production will still be there. Many are expecting him to take a sizable step back, but he’ll still be good for them this year.
Aaron: ...Markelle Fultz. I think this answer has to be Fultz. He may never play in the NBA at the level he was playing at during his lone season in college, but he can still do a lot of positive things for a basketball team on the floor. I think he will be an above average defender, will get in the paint, and will be a difference-maker playing in transition. Because so many fans around the league have pretty much written his career off already, Fultz seems like an easy candidate for “biggest surprise” on the team.
Garrett: ...Wes Iwundu. It feels like we know what to expect from most of the contributors on Orlando’s roster, and a leap from either Bamba or Isaac shouldn’t be discounted based on their pedigree and projections. But Iwundu continuing his strong play from the end of last season and forcing his way into the rotation is a surprise that also wouldn’t totally shock.
Mike: ...Markelle Fultz. The expectations are pretty consistent for most players on the Magic. For Fultz, there is a wide-range of opinion, with some who say he’ll be an All-Star and others who believe he’ll never be more than he is now. That leaves a lot of room for surprise and I think he is going to prove a lot of doubters wrong as the season progresses. Although last season for this question I said Jerian Grant, so...
Check back tomorrow for Part II, where we discuss Jonathan Isaac, Mo Bamba, those orange jerseys, and much more....