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OPP’s Orlando Magic Mailbag: Volume IV

Welcome to this month’s ‘playoff bound’ edition of questions and answers

NBA: Orlando Magic at Boston Celtics Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Hey y’all! We’re back again with another mailbag, loaded with questions from faithful readers wondering what exactly the future holds for our beloved Orlando Magic. I’m going to be tackling the selection again this month, hopefully finding something at least vaguely insightful to say about those topics that keep the true believers up at night. Things have also been tilted towards the upcoming first round of the playoffs because, you know, THE ORLANDO MAGIC ARE HEADED TO THE PLAYOFFS, BABY!

Before we do, a quick reminder: the responses aren’t exactly the analytical deep dive that some of OPP’s other columns are, but that’s intentional: the aim is to keep the conversation flowing like it would if we were watching a game at the bar, so be sure to sound off in the comments with your own opinions.

With the introduction out of the way, let’s dive in!

~ Are there any low(er)-minute 5-player units with a NetRtg that suggests Clifford should be giving more time to that grouping? Is it small sample size? Or do you think this combo(s) shows skill/player cohesion that contributes to the numbers? (magicfaninTN)

NBA: Orlando Magic at Boston Celtics Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

At this stage of the season I’m not sure how much there is to be gained from combing the limited data related to this, but I really liked the question! So rather than just breaking down the numbers I thought it would be interesting to explore the idea in the spirit it was intended. Are there any line up tweaks that the Magic could take advantage of as we head towards the first round?

Honestly, I think a number of these changes have already been made, and they’re partly responsible for having propelled the Magic to the playoffs. Outside of Terrence Ross, the bench has been a weakness all season long, which Steve Clifford recognized and addressed by staggering the rotations of the starters. After the All-Star break there were very few meaningful minutes played without either Aaron Gordon or Evan Fournier (or both) on the court as the anchors for bench heavy units. This helped to provide a little extra playmaking and scoring punch for a group relatively bereft of it.

Elsewhere there were other small changes that resulted in a big pay-off. It’s a harsh thing to say, but the injury to Mo Bamba ensured minutes went to a more effective player in Khem Birch. The emergence of Isaiah Briscoe and later Michael Carter-Williams (and, of course, the jettisoning of Jerian Grant from the rotation) helped to shore up the worrying backup point guard position. The shifting of Jonathan Isaac’s offensive focus to the corner three coincided with his improved play.

The Magic are still a very thin team in terms of talent, with little depth beyond their top six. Although the rotations typically shorten in the playoffs, the team is going to be asking a lot of untested or previously dismissed players like Carter-Williams, Birch and Wes Iwundu. Even in the playoffs-clinching victory against the Celtics you saw this worry crystalise, with Birch recoring a team worst plus/minus of -11 in 14 minutes, while Jarell Martin’s 2 minute cameo -- which coincided with an 11-3 run in favor of Boston -- legitimately seemed like it was going to swing the result of the game on its own.

The main problem in the way of rotation experimentation (and, potentially, shrewd playoff adjustment) is that the Magic don’t have many places to turn. The limitations of the roster -- long-range shooting, playmaking, backcourt defense -- are what they are at this stage of the season. They’re going to stick with the horses that have got them this far in the race, because there aren’t any other available options. Which, considering the team’s 21-9 record over the last 30 games, maybe isn’t such a bad thing.

~ If, heading into the playoffs, you could add 1 ex-Magic player from each decade of its existence (ignoring 1989, 1 from 90s, 1 from 00s, 1 from 10s), where you can only pick 1 All-star, can only start max 2 players of the 3 and the aim is for the best team chemistry with the current roster playing today’s game, who would you pick to head for the Finals? (jezzerinho)

Tracy McGrady #1

If? If?! I’m not sure if you’ve heard, but THE ORLANDO MAGIC ARE HEADED TO THE PLAYOFFS, BABY!

Now, with that very important statement out of the way, let’s take a closer look at the question. I was tempted to tidy it up a little, but in all honesty it’s the caveats and technicalities that make it so fun! We get to add three players to the rotation, but they’re all from different decades and only one can have made an All-Star team. Additionally, only two of the three can line up with the starters. Let’s see what we can come up with!

Any answer to this question necessarily has to begin with a decision relating to the Mount Rushmore of Orlando Magic basketball: are you taking Shaq, Penny, T-Mac or Dwight? I first ruled out the big guys, because as great as they were in pinstripes we already have an All-Star in the center; that choice would have watered down the value of the current team. That left me looking at Hardaway and McGrady, an almost impossible choice. Each would help to address a major weakness of the team, but it would also chart a course for the remaining two picks.

Ultimately I couldn’t go past T-Mac, whose presence gives Orlando one of the best scorers in the game, a shooter and playmaker from the wing, and a bonafide crunch time superstar. It takes care of our All-Star and ‘00s selection, as well as accounting for one of our two new starters. It also shuffles Evan Fournier to the bench, where his shooting and playmaking will be incredibly valuable going against second units. I feel like this exercise is off to a good start!

Next I wanted to find the team’s second new starter, and it didn’t take long for me to settle on a name. I was looking for someone who could play off the ball and alongside McGrady, knocking down open looks from the perimeter and spacing the floor for our superstar to go to work. Bah gawd, is that the music of a man who once knocked down a then record 11 three pointers in a single game?! Dennis Scott was ahead of his time in regards to his love of long range shooting, and he slots in next to T-Mac to form a potent wing combination. He toggled between starter and sixth-man in his time in Orlando, and could potentially do the same again here depending on matchup. Regardless, he’s a great choice here as a player with an incredibly desirable skill set for both the modern game and this Magic team.

This left me with one final choice to make, with the restriction that it had to be someone from the most recent decade and a player who would be filling a bench role. I didn’t want to cheat by demoting someone who traditionally started, which actually ended up making the job a little easier. The aim was to address either the point guard or backup center position, although a dearth of choices in the backcourt simplified the dilemma. We’re putting the Polish Hammer back in pinstripes, where he can be thoroughly overqualified to play 16 minutes a game and pulverize fools who dare drive the lane when he’s patrolling. Marcin Gortat also gives the team a slightly different look should they need it, with the ability to play a down and dirty physical game. The dude also waves a mean towel.

Let’s take a quick moment to check out how the depth chart looks now:

PG: Augustin / Carter-Williams

SG: McGrady / Fournier

SF: Scott / Ross / Iwundu

PF: Gordon / Isaac

C: Vucevic / Gortat / Birch

This exercise was an absurd amount of fun, and one could probably spend hours coming up with trios just as good and even better than what came to mind for me. How about Hardaway, Hedo Turkoglu and Ryan Anderson? Or Shaq, Trevor Ariza and Jason Richardson? You could even get funky and throw out Scott Skiles, Mickael Pietrus and Victor Oladipo. Sound off in the comments and let everyone know who you’ve got.

~ What are the top five positives you take from this Magic season? (Mike Cali)

Orlando Magic v Miami Heat Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Hold up, Ed’; this season ain’t over just yet because THE ORLANDO MAGIC ARE HEADED TO THE PLAYOFFS, BABY!

Mike’s right to ask though, because there’s been a lot to like about Orlando’s season, even if I’m going to keep my fingers crossed and hope that there are some additions still to come to the following selections. So what are the developments of 2018/19 that have warmed the hearts of those that sleep in pinstriped pyjamas?

It would be remiss to start anywhere other than the playoffs themselves, and the tangible growth and development that this achievement represents. The Magic have been starved of success since the Howard years crumbled, plagued by poor on-court play and highly questionable decision making in the front office. Many of us thought this core would never get there, having been forced to endure the stain of losing for too long. Yet it came together this season, with some of the longterm fixtures -- Vucevic, Gordon and Fournier chief among these -- being the ones to lead the way. It was less than twelve months ago that the rebuild seemed interminable; now there’s a definite light at the end of the tunnel.

Speaking of growth and development, we had better show the man in charge some love. In his first season Steve Clifford has managed to steer the team to relevancy, forging a defensive identity for the side and finding ways to help some of the mismatched parts of the roster shine. He established a tone and culture early that was different from years past, demanding results, improvement and, most important of all, accountability. He kept tinkering on the margins, eventually hitting on the combinations and rotations to allow the team to succeed. After years of bad hires, necessary firings, and unexpected early exits related to the coaching chair it’s clear that the Magic have someone they can stick with for a while yet.

The greatest beneficiary of Clifford’s arrival in Florida has undoubtedly been the man in the middle, Nikola Vucevic. He really has been the face of the rebuild since joining the team in the Howard trade, so to see him recognized as an All-Star this season is a fantastic achievement. Vooch has steadily made incremental improvements to his game at both ends of the court over the last six years, establishing himself as one of the best centers in the game. It’s a great result for a player who on occasion must have wondered if he would need to escape Orlando to taste success.

Alongside the veteran core of the Magic is their lottery picks from the last couple of drafts, potential-laden talents grabbed as a result of long and unsatisfying seasons. For Jonathan Isaac, this latest campaign has been one that suggests he might one day emerge as the type of player that can make a difference on a legitimate contender. His season’s second half has been a truly positive development, with his impact being felt all over the court. It still comes and goes from time to time, but there have been short stretches where he is legitimately the best player on the court. The stroke from three is improving, he’s finding the ball in advantageous positions, and defensively he’s a whir of movement and disruption. Add to that the fact that he’s been able to stay healthy and you have something that all Magic fans must be feeling pretty good about.

There are a number of worthy nominations for the fifth and final positive in this exercise. Isaiah Briscoe was the most pleasant of surprises before injury cruelly ended his season. John Hammond and Jeff Weltman have seemingly done a good job of identifying talent and working the trade market. DJ Augustin has made almost everyone forget that the Magic kind of don’t have a starting-caliber point guard. But ultimately I’m going to go with the continued growth of Aaron Gordon’s game. He’s slowly become the type of do-it-all player that his skill set always suggested he could be; he’s finding ways to score, playing solid defense, improving as a passer and playmaker, and snagging his fair share of rebounds. Considering his favorable contract and complementary play style we might now be getting an accurate feel for what he can be for the Magic going forward.

~ When will Fran Vázquez, our 2005 1st round pick, be joining the team? (juststains)

I just flicked him a text message and he replied with this link.

Volume IV of the OPP Mailbag is now officially in the books, much like how -- officially -- THE ORLANDO MAGIC ARE HEADED TO THE PLAYOFFS, BABY! Let’s hope the positivity and momentum of the last few weeks has a little more juice left in it yet. On to the ‘offs!