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NBA PM: Playoffs or Bust For the Magic

The time is now for the Orlando Magic to make the playoffs, according to the team’s players.

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Playoffs or Bust For the Magic

The Orlando Magic are approaching the fourth year in the post-Dwight Howard era. Since Howard departed Central Florida, the team has posted a 68-178 record and have stockpiled first-round draft picks and young talent.

The team has brought in a number of different players as they try to find their core. They’ve had three different head coaches (including interim head coach James Borrego) since parting ways with Stan Van Gundy three years ago.

Rob Hennigan was hired at that time to steer the Magic in the right direction and one day return to the top of the Eastern Conference. There was no question that when the team traded away Howard they’d be taking a step back. Hennigan admitted as much, but added that the team would be “taking a step back with a vision.”

That vision has led us to where we are today.

The Magic now have their best roster since they last made the playoffs in 2012. That year, the team was led by Howard, Ryan Anderson, Jameer Nelson, Jason Richardson and J.J. Redick.

Every player from that playoff team is long gone by now, but they played a role in the rebuild by being traded or let go to create cap space. Hennigan and the rest of the front office have assembled a young core of players that has many fans in Orlando excited for the future.

While the future may seem bright for this group, the roster is far from a finished product. Teams are constantly looking for ways to further improve their roster and are always prepared to make changes when necessary.

NBA: Orlando Magic at Phoenix SunsAnd until the Magic return to being a top team in the league again, their work to improve the roster will continue. With the players they’ve already added, expectations are beginning to rise and the team understands the time to compete is rapidly approaching.

“We need to get to the playoffs this year,” point guard Elfrid Payton told Basketball Insiders earlier this month. “There’s no more time for, ‘Next year… Next year…’ The time is now. We need to step up our games and be ready to play.”

After drafting Payton and Aaron Gordon in last year’s draft, the team was expected to show signs of improvement. But the team got off to a 15-37 start under Jacque Vaughn last season and the team was forced to make a midseason change at the position.

Borrego took over as the interim head coach after serving as Vaughn’s lead assistant and led the team to a 10-20 record. While Borrego showed positive signs coaching the team, the Magic were said to be seeking a more seasoned candidate and opted to hire Scott Skiles.

The addition of Skiles gives the team a head coach with plenty of experience who figures to bring stability to the position for years to come. His time as a player earned him the reputation as a hard-nosed guy.

The former point guard played in the league for 10 years, including a five-year stint with the Magic in the 90s, and set the NBA record for assists in a single game with 30. That record still stands today.

As a coach, he demands a lot from his players. Even though he’s yet to coach a game with the Magic, Skiles is already beginning to make an impression on his new players.

“I think it was a great move,” Payton said. “I’ve heard a lot of great things about what Scott Skiles has done with point guards. We’ve already been talking and getting on the same page so I think he can just help me elevate my game, help me see how he saw the game, and use what I got to help us.”

“He’s an intense guy and I am too when it comes to basketball so we’re going to fit perfectly,” Gordon said.

Skiles has long been known as a defensive-minded coach, as none of his teams in 13 seasons of head coaching have finished below 17th in the league in defensive efficiency. The Magic have yet to finish better than 17th in each of the three seasons since trading Howard.

The team seems poised to improve upon last season’s 25th defensive efficiency ranking with Skiles in charge. He inherits a roster with several players with defensive upside as Payton, Gordon, Victor Oladipo and Dewayne Dedmon all have proven already to be sound defenders during their short careers.

While the defense figures to be improved next season, Skiles will also be tasked with improving the offense. The team finished 27th, 29th and 27th in offensive efficiency during the past three seasons. After drafting defensive-minded players in the past couple of drafts, the Magic went all-in on offense in this year’s draft as they drafted Mario Hezonja from Spain and Tyler Harvey from Eastern Washington.

Hezonja is known as a scorer who can get to the rim and create his own shot. He can shoot from three-point range as well and impressed in his two outings at the Orlando Summer League.

“I think he’s very talented,” Payton said of Hezonja’s game. “He could help us space the floor, he could shoot the ball, and he’s another guy I could drive and kick to. He’s also athletic so when we get the ball out on the wing, I know he’s going to finish it. He can go get a lob so I think it was a great pickup for us.”

Meanwhile, Harvey was the NCAA Men’s Division I scoring champion last season, leading all scorers with 23.1 points per game. He averaged 10.6 points per game in the Summer League and shot 50 percent from three-point range (11-of-22).

The Magic will also be counting on Tobias Harris and Nikola Vucevic to take the next step in their development. The two will be playing in the first year of their new four-year deals that made them the team’s two highest-paid players.

Harris is coming off of an inconsistent 2014-15 campaign that saw him begin the year as a starter and then spend some time playing off of the bench. He finished third on the team in scoring last year at 17.1 points per game, but figures to improve that number after now having a defined role on the team upon signing his near-max deal this month.

Vucevic, on the other hand, turned in an All-Star caliber season after leading the Magic in scoring at 19.3 points per game. He’s become the team’s most reliable scoring option and one of the most productive players on the floor after recording 45 double-doubles last season in 74 total games. Both players will have the benefit of focusing on just basketball, without the distractions that come with playing for a new contract.

Orlando remained relatively quiet this offseason after missing out on free agent Paul Millsap. The addition of Millsap likely would have made the team an instant playoff contender in the Eastern Conference. But Millsap ultimately agree to stay in Atlanta, and that forced the Magic to add a couple of other veterans to the roster.

They elected to sign free agents Jason Smith and C.J. Watson to bolster their second unit. The two players will also give the locker room a veteran presence that can help mentor the younger players. Smith, Watson and Channing Frye are the team’s only players over the age of 26 years old.

The Magic have seemingly put themselves into position for a successful season. With the new coaching staff and the younger players continuing to develop, this is likely the season in which the Magic begin to show signs of life. While it’ll be a tough task to return to the playoffs, everyone on the roster seems focused on that goal and ready to do whatever it takes to get there.

Byron Scott: Kobe Bryant Will Probably See Minutes at Power Forward

Kobe Bryant has spent the bulk of his 19-year career playing shooting guard or small forward, with some minutes spent as a point guard. Now, he could add playing at power forward to his resume before he retires.

Los Angeles Lakers head coach Byron Scott shocked many on Monday after he told NBA.com that Bryant could see minutes at the four.

“Kobe can play one, two and three,” Scott told NBA.com. “There’s no doubt in my mind. And there’s some games, against some teams, where he’ll probably play four. With his tenaciousness, the way he guards people and when his mind is set, if I say, ‘Kobe, you’ve got him,’ he takes that as a challenge. You know how he is. He’ll compete.”

While the idea of Bryant playing at the four seems odd, teams have started going smaller. The center position has been eliminated from the All-Star game and teams have elected to go with smaller lineups in an attempt to play at an up-tempo pace.

The stretch-four position has become prevalent as ever in the league with teams opting to add big men that can shoot on the court over the traditional post player. The idea of putting smaller players at the four has gained traction, especially this summer after Larry Bird told reporters that the Pacers will experiment with Paul George playing power forward in smaller lineups.

Scott may also elect to use Bryant at the four in an attempt to help save Bryant’s legs.

“I don’t think he needs to be using up the whole 94-foot floor,” Scott said. “If we can cut that down some, I think that saves his legs as much as possible. But if we can get him where he operates best, which to me is elbows on each area, top of the key, at the pinch post, at the mid-post, then I think he can be real effective for us.”

Bryant will be heading into his 20th season in the NBA and has played in a combined 41 games over the previous two seasons after suffering multiple injuries.

Cody Taylor is an NBA writer in his fourth season with Basketball Insiders, covering the NBA and NCAA out of Orlando and Miami.

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