Do You Believe In Magic: Orlando As A 2017 Playoff Team

Rebuilding in the NBA is exceedingly difficult. Rob Hennigan was in Oklahoma City for four years, a team that had the best possible scenario of any rebuilding team in recent memory. Oklahoma City drafted Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and James Harden and put them in place around Kevin Durant as the Thunder appeared to have the start of a Dynasty. While we know how things in Oklahoma City played out and know in retrospect that Oklahoma City’s talent haul was almost once in generation, Hennigan had some excellent training in trying to build a team.

Within a year of being named General Manager of the Orlando Magic on June 21st, 2012, Hennigan moved Dwight Howard and JJ Redick and added Nikola Vucevic, Tobias Harris, Andrew Nicholson, Kyle O’Quinn and Victor Oladipo. He also hired Jacque Vaughn, a former player who came from the Spurs coaching tree. It appeared to be an excellent kick-start to a thorough rebuilding task. At the end of the 2013-2014 season, Hennigan swapped Arron Afflalo for Evan Fournier and then selected Aaron Gordon and Dario Saric. Saric was quickly moved to the 76ers in exchange of Elfrid Payton.

Going into the 2014-2015 NBA season, Orlando had a legitimate core and tried to surround some young talent with veteran players. The wins did not follow. Orlando went 23-59, Vaughn was fired and the Magic had to regroup. Orlando had talent in place, but as mentioned on the “NBA Open Court Coaches Edition”, it’s especially hard to coach a young team when there isn’t one player who separates himself as the best player. Tobias Harris wasn’t that guy, and neither was Victor Oladipo.

The Magic attempted to pivot in the coaching department by bringing in Scott Skiles, and then drafted Mario Hezonja and signed Tobias Harris to an extension. After a five-game winning streak at the end of November / Early December, it looked like Orlando was finally on their way. Alas, things went way south, and the Magic ended up moving Harris to the Pistons and then Skiles basically walked away. The season culminated with Orlando engaging in a draft-night deal in which they moved a significant amount of draft capital to acquire Serge Ibaka who…is on the last year of his deal.

I’m buying what Orlando is doing, and here’s why.

Coaching Upgrade

You can never believe everything you hear, but this take from David Thorpe about Scott Skiles on the on an edition of the “Lowe Post” from last February (comments start around the 30:00 minute mark) was particularly damning:

Thorpe: “When they hired Scott Skiles, I’ll be honest, I was shocked. I happen to know lots of things behind the scenes from players that played for him that just thought he was the worst coach imaginable.”

Lowe: “Ouch! Ouch I said, that hurt me.”

Thorpe: “I’m just telling you, I’ve been with players that said ‘we never spoke’…what I mean is ‘we’ as in that player and we’re talking about very, very good players for Scott Skiles in different cities who felt like if (they) walked out of the gym and saw coach Scott Skiles, he wouldn’t even greet (them), he wouldn’t even say hello. Now this was years ago, I’ve always contended that players can always get better, players can grow just like humans, regular humans and coaches can too (…) but so far we haven’t seen that with Scott Skiles and I thought this year, earlier this season when I was completely dismissive of the decision to hire him and they were playing okay, I was like ‘well you know what coach’ I was saying to myself ‘you were wrong’ clearly Skiles has gotten better being out a little bit. Well I no longer feel that way, I think that I was right. It’s not gone well (…) athletically and energy I just thought they had something really exciting and I don’t think Scott Skiles is suddenly a guy that comes in and helps you feel good about your shot. He’s not a guy that builds confidence and again, maybe he’s changed and maybe he’ll grow but we haven’t seen it yet.”

What we know about Skiles for sure: he’s been fired twice, he’s resigned twice and his career record is 478-480. What do we know about his replacement Frank Vogel? Vogel was 250-181 in six seasons in Indiana after being named interim coach in 2010-2011. They made the Playoffs in five out of those six seasons. What we can’t quantify is how integral Vogel was or wasn’t in regard to player development in Indiana. Myles Turner improved in a hurry last season, and there’s a history of players developing in Indiana since Vogel has been there, many of whom were selected outside of the lottery.

Roy Hibbert – 17th in 2008

A.J. Price – 52nd in 2009

Paul George – 10th in 2010

Lance Stephenson – 40th in 2010

Miles Plumlee – 26th in 2012

Solomon Hill – 23rd in 2013

In addition to potentially being a real asset on the player development side, Vogel has shown to be a very capable defensive coach. In the five full seasons that he had was head coach, the Pacers never finished below tenth in defensive rating, and were in the top-three in three different seasons, which includes a third-place finish last season.

Diving deeper, Vogel has coached teams that are exceedingly strong at defending the rim. While Roy Hibbert / verticality discussions seems like a legit lifetime ago, from the 2011-2012 to 2014 – 2015 seasons, the Pacers finished seventh, first, first and second in opposing field goal percentage within five-feet of the rim. While they fell to twelve last season in this respect, Vogel has a clear track record of teams of getting teams to the Playoffs, playing stingy defense and defending the rim…and holy hell, this Magic team is going to be able to defend the rim.

Fifteen Feet of Wingspan 

The Magic signed Bismack Biyombo during the off-season, and will have the ability to pair him and Ibaka together up front.

Biyombo (53.4% opposing shooting percentage inside five feet) and Ibaka (54.3% opposing shooting percentage inside five feet)  both excelled at defending the rim last season. Biyombo had a coming-out party of sorts on a national stage in the Playoffs, but when given the chance to start during the regular season, he also was exceptional. Jonas Valanciunas missed seventeen games last season over one stretch from November 22nd to December 26th. Over that period of time, Toronto was best in the NBA at opposing field goal percentage within five-feet, only allowing 52%. I won’t bore you anymore, but basically Frank Vogel has coached some really good defenses when he has robust rim protectors…and he has that in Orlando.

Defensive Versatility 

Elfrid Payton has exceptional length and has the ability to guard both backcourt positions. Aaron Gordon’s defensive potential is the ability to check one-four on the defensive end. Ibaka and Biyombo can at least make things difficult if forced to switch, or can drop back in the screen-and-roll. Basically, this team looks like it’s going to be a total pain in the ass to play against, especially if you’re a team coming to Orlando on the second night of a back-to-back. Like imagine being the Wizards and playing at home vs. Atlanta on November 4th, boarding a flight to Orlando and then having to deal with the Magic on a Saturday night. Orlando was 23-18 at home last season with a +2.0 net rating and they’ll be even tougher this season.

But How Will They Score?

Ah, you were wondering when I would get to this. When I talk to folks about the Magic, they all say it’s a nice idea in theory but they’re spacing is going to be so bad and they’re going to be a total train wreck on the offensive end. While I don’t think they’re going to rival the Warriors or Rockets offensively, I think there are some positive signs for the Magic on that end of the floor.

First off, there’s a clear hierarchy on the offensive end. Evan Fournier (and his new haircut!) is the number-one option. Fournier was fifth on the Magic in usage rate (20.3%) last season, behind Vucevic (26.7%), Oladipo (22.8%), Jason Smith (22.4%) and Andrew Nicholson (20.9%). With Vucevic being in a rotation with Biyombo and Ibaka, it’s really going to be Fournier’s show. For those that are fantasy hoops enthusiasts…Fournier will be a guy this year.

With Vucevic, if he isn’t moved, he’ll have the opportunity to do a number of different things on the offensive end. Vucevic was in the 76th percentile last season when it came to post-ups and was one of the better mid-range shooting bigs in the NBA last season as well, shooting 47% from 10-19 feet.

I’m also betting on a Serge Ibaka bounce-back season. Ibaka was openly disappointed at times last season with the Thunder about his lack of touches on the offensive end. He’s also in a contract year. By giving Serge a few more touches on the offensive end, and with his visions off a massive payday at the end of next season, he’ll be more invested.

Then, there’s Mario Hezonja. He is capable of so many things. The dude is too talented and too cocky to not make an impact of some kind.

The rest of the bench is better than advertised as well. Jodie Meeks is a nice buy-low option, D.J. Augustin and C.J. Watson are both capable at the one, and Jeff Green will explode for a monster game like five times this year…and not do much else most of the time.

This all falls apart however if the Magic don’t get much out of Elfrid Payton and Aaron Gordon. Payton shot 32.6% from three and Gordon shot 29.6% from deep last year. Payton just turned twenty-three back in February while Gordon turned twenty-one in September. With guys that are so young and talented, one can hope for an incremental improvement shooting the basketball.

The spacing is a major question, and there will be some nights that this team scores 85 points. However, the hope on the offensive end is some of the mixing and matching off of the bench can produce some offense. One idea that makes a lot of sense is to stagger Vucevic and Ibaka. If Vucevic starts, take him out at the six minute mark and go Ibaka / Biyombo, and then Vucci man anchors the second unit. An Augustin / Meeks / Hezonja / Green / Vucevic  second unit should be able to score but not be able to guard anyone. This is the question with this team is how the rotation shakes out, but I’m betting on Frank Vogel figuring it out.

The Jeff Green Trade Chip

Orlando signed Jeff Green to a one-year, $15 million dollar deal in the offseason. It was perplexing on the surface, because Green is remarkably inconsistent. However, that could turn into an expiring contract if the Magic decide to put together a package around Vucevic to try an upgrade. If it the season were to fall apart, the Green contract could expedite the Magic to take on a bad contract and receive a first-rounder for their troubles.

The Schedule

 Take a look at Orlando’s schedule through November. After a tough opening stretch of Miami at home, and then a back-to-back in Detroit and Cleveland, it’s smooth sailing in the month of November. At worst, this Magic team is 10-9 heading into December…and I’ll go as far as saying they could be 13-6. If they start quickly, the good vibes could carry over for this team into the rest of the season.

Prediction

I believe in this Orlando team. I think they quickly gain a reputation this year for a team that makes it really hard on opposing teams. It could fall apart if the spacing is a major issue, but I’m betting on incremental improvement from the young players, an Ibaka contract-year revival and the Magic becoming one of the best defensive teams in the league.  Orlando goes 48-34 this season, makes the Playoffs and Frank Vogel wins Coach of the Year.

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