NBA PM: Playoffs or Bust for the Magic?

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In Basketball Insiders’ latest podcast from the weekend, one topic discussed was teams that must make the playoffs this season. Many factors played a role in this discussion, such as roster moves that were made with the playoffs in mind and teams that feature talented players.

Teams like the New York Knicks, Chicago Bulls and Washington Wizards were thrown around as teams that must make the playoffs this season. With the Knicks adding a lot of veteran players, the team has gone all in with their roster in order to make the playoffs now.

The Bulls added veteran players in Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo with the intent of remaining competitive in the Eastern Conference. The Wizards are an interesting read heading into this season given their recent additions of Jason Smith, Andrew Nicholson, Ian Mahinmi, Trey Burke and others. With John Wall putting up career numbers and with Bradley Beal set to return, do they have enough to compete?

Another team mentioned in the podcast was the Orlando Magic. The team was extremely active this summer in free agency and took full advantage of the rising salary. A number of their moves came with some questions — it still seems unclear at this time how everything will eventually come together.

The team may have caught a blessing in disguise at the beginning of the summer, when former head coach Scott Skiles announced somewhat suddenly that he was resigning from the position. Orlando moved quickly and named Frank Vogel as head coach, which is a great addition on the surface considering the success Vogel experienced with the Indiana Pacers.

In the weeks leading up to the start of the offseason, Vogel and the Magic remained extremely confident in their vision. Vogel said numerous times during his introductory press conference in May that he believes the team will be successful this season and will make the playoffs. He mentioned the team’s pitch to prospective free agents would include winning expectations right away.

On draft night, the team traded away fan favorite Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova and the rights to Domantas Sabonis to the Oklahoma City Thunder in exchange for Serge Ibaka. Looking back on that trade now, the move seemed to be the first of many intended to help the team win now and solidify their place in the playoff race.

In addition to the trade, the Magic signed Bismack Biyombo, Jeff Green and D.J. Augustin in free agency and also re-signed restricted free agent Evan Fournier. They committed a lot of money to players in free agency, something the team hasn’t done to this extent since beginning their current rebuild four years ago.

As head coach of the Pacers for five full seasons, Vogel’s teams performed exceptionally well on the defensive end. During his time in Indiana, he proved able to get the most out of his players. In each of Vogel’s five years on the job, the Pacers finished inside the league’s top 10 in defensive efficiency, including two seasons with the top-ranked defensive unit.

Looking at the moves the Magic made during this offseason, it seems as though each were made with defense in mind. Ibaka is as accomplished as they come defensively, a three-time NBA All-Defensive First Team Player who led the league in total blocks four straight times before finishing fourth during the 2014-15 season and third last season.

Biyombo stepped up in a big way on the game’s biggest stage last season during the postseason for the Toronto Raptors. While he averaged just 6.4 points, 9.4 rebounds and 1.4 blocks in 20 postseason games, it was his time as a starter that helped earn Biyombo a four-year, $72 million deal with the Magic. He set a Raptors playoff record with 26 rebounds in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers, while also adding seven points and four blocks.

In addition to Ibaka and Biyombo, the team has other defensive-minded players in Elfrid Payton and Aaron Gordon on the roster. They’re hoping that Ibaka, Biyombo, Payton and Gordon can help anchor the team to another top-10 defense under Vogel. 

Given the team’s activity level this summer, it seems as though a playoff-or-bust type of mentality is present in Orlando heading into this season. It began with Vogel’s comments stating the team will make the postseason, and it continued with the money they committed in free agency. Teams simply don’t hand out long-term money like that without lofty expectations.

Brass in Orlando has created a top-down culture with the playoffs as the ultimate goal. The front office certainly believes they can win, and the players are beginning to buy in as well. It seems as though everyone is on the same page and ready to end the longest playoff drought in franchise history.

“We are a playoff team,” Gordon told our own Alex Kennedy last week in a Q&A. “I haven’t stepped foot in the gym with everyone yet, but just through our text messages and calls, [the playoffs are] where everybody’s mindset is at. They’re ready, and I’m ready as well. Really, we have to play present. We need to take each game and play it like it’s our last. If we do that, we’re going to have a very successful season.”

With so many defensive-minded players on the roster, there are questions with how the offense will come together. The team still didn’t address its need for a star player who can be counted on in crunch time, and their leading scorer last year was center Nikola Vucevic, who averaged 18.2 points per game.

While Vucevic has demonstrated that he is one of the league’s best offensive centers, can he lead the Magic again? Fournier is arguably the team’s best all-around offensive player now, but hasn’t yet averaged over 15.4 points per game during his short career. Ibaka and Green have proven to be solid scorers during their careers, but it still remains to be seen who will be the top scorer next season — and whether the team as a whole will have enough offensive punch.

While Orlando feels as though they’ve upgraded the roster as best as they can to make the playoffs, it’s clear that there is still plenty to figure out before they can reach that point. The pressure is mounting on this young Magic team to take the next step in their development, even if it doesn’t seem at all likely that Vogel is coaching with any looming expectation in his first year.

From a national standpoint, the playoffs may seem out of the question for the Magic. It’s clear, though, that they’re very much in play within the organization.