Just before the start of a new NBA season, young teams often talk about long-term goals. Rather than talking about securing a playoff seed or making a deep postseason run, the usual response from players on young teams are things like taking a step in the right direction, building chemistry or developing an identity. That may have been the case for the Orlando Magic in recent seasons, but not anymore.
On Friday, the Magic held their annual media day, where Tobias Harris and Victor Oladipo spoke to Basketball Insiders about their personal development, their goals for this season and playing for a new coach in Scott Skiles among other things.
Harris, who signed a four-year, $64 million contract with the Magic this offseason, is a natural scorer and a force on offense. However, his defense has been a weakness up to this point in his career, which is why he spent the offseason working on that part of his game, especially with Skiles being a defensive-minded coach.
“I told a lot of my teammates that we really got to be locked in defensively from the start of training camp, and that’s what coach is about and I think everybody has that mindset and has that attitude,” Harris told Basketball Insiders. “I work the same way every summer, just as hard as I can to be the best I can be. Definitely was doing a lot of yoga this summer to get more flexible, to get more mobility just defensively, so I think that definitely helps me a lot. But overall I think our team is ready.
“[Defense is] going to be the next step for me and I think it’s something that I really worked on throughout the summer. Even playing pickup with the guys is something that I’ve taken on as a challenge and guarding [Victor Oladipo] is pretty tough in pick-up. But I’m really just looking at little things that I can get better at and I really took a focus on that and that’s the next step and I think I’m really in the right direction at getting a lot better at that.”
The Magic talked a lot about improving defensively at last year’s media day as well, though the results were less than encouraging. Orlando finished 25th in defensive efficiency last season, giving up 105.2 points per 100 possessions, which, among other things, led to the dismissal of former head coach Jacque Vaughn. With Skiles now in charge, the Magic have a hard-nosed coach to lead them out of the NBA cellar.
Skiles has historically had success in his first season taking over as the head coach of a new team, which the players are hoping will be the case this season.
“We have a great chemistry with the guys we have, a new coach, which I think is going to be great for us,” said Harris. “Just his mindset, his demeanor, I think it’s going to be good for our unit. Like I said before, it’s just going to be on us really going out there and doing this thing together and buying into everything that we have to do, so it should be a great year for us.
“Like I said in the meeting before, it’s about consistency and it’s about being consistent with our effort every single night. Being consistent offensively and defensively. Consistency really comes from having that mental edge. I think as we continue to get older as a team and as we’ll grow throughout the season with coach, I think that will be a thing that will help us.”
It is notable that Harris speaks so positively about Coach Skiles considering their prior history together. Harris spent his first two seasons in the NBA with the Milwaukee Bucks, who were coached by Skiles at the time. Harris was often buried on the bench, which played a part in his eventual trade to the Magic. Based on this, rumors spread that there was a rift between Harris and Skiles and that Harris was looking to sign elsewhere this offseason, which Harris continues to refute.
“This is a place that I love,” said Harris. “You know what happens, a lot of rumors go around throughout the season and a lot of rumors did fly around last season and none of them came from my mouth, but they [came from] somewhere and got some traction, but this is where I wanted to be and once we hired Coach Skiles and a lot of guys were coming back and we have the same unit, same guys, same chemistry, it’s just a perfect fit obviously and it’s going to be a great year for us.”
While Harris has past experience playing for Coach Skiles, his teammate Victor Oladipo does not. But considering Oladipo’s effort and emphasis on defense and competitive nature, it’s likely that the two will get along just fine. Oladipo finished last season on a strong note, averaging 20.3 points per game after the All-Star break and posting 38 points against the Phoenix Suns. Oladipo has never lacked confidence and is looking forward to playing even better moving forward.
“I expect from myself much more than year one and two,” Oladipo told Basketball Insiders. “I mean, now that I experienced the league, pretty much experienced everything that I need to, why not? You know, why can’t I come out here and play at a high level? Why can’t I be one of the best players in the league?
“Now I just got to do it. And at the end of the day, there’s going to be nights where it’s going to be really hard, but I got to figure it out. I just got to simplify the game, be precise, realize that I need my teammates to win, and in order to win at a high level we need each other. So that’s what it’s all about.”
If those quotes seem familiar, it’s because that is almost exactly what Derrick Rose said before the start of the 2010-11 season; the same season he won the MVP Award. This isn’t to say that Oladipo is likely to win the MVP Award this season, but it shows that he has the confidence that any top-level athlete needs to become an elite player. However, in his short time in the NBA, Oladipo has struggled being a vocal leader for his team, which is something he thinks he is improving on.
“It’s something that I’ve gotten better at,” said Oladipo. “I feel like people thrive off my energy and I feel like my energy is contagious. So, I feel like when I’m vocal and when I go out there and let my game speak for itself, then I think people are ready to play off that. So I got to be ready to play, I got to set the tone.”
Over the last three years, the Magic have failed to win more than 25 games in a single season. But with a defensive-minded coach, internal development and a young core that features Nikola Vucevic, Elfrid Payton, Aaron Gordon, Mario Hezonja, as well as Harris and Oladipo, the Magic are primed to improve significantly this season. Whether they have enough collective experience to make it to the postseason is unclear, but they won’t be an easy out for opponents each night as they have been in the past. Despite the uphill battle, Oladipo insists now is the time for the Magic to make a move for the postseason considering the team’s talent and continuity.
“Now that we have that chemistry and we got guys who have been here for a couple of years and have been playing with each another for a while, it’s huge. So we need to just get the job done now. It’s enough about talking about what we need to do, what we should have done and it’s just time to do it.”
Harris echoed Oladipo’s sentiments regarding the team’s chemistry and insists that he is going to also take on a leadership role for his young team.
“I think early on, especially now getting the guys together, us building chemistry early on is going to help us,” said Harris. “I’m going to be a leader on this team, I’m going to lead the guys that we have, but I’m not going to do it myself. I’m going to bring everybody along with me and we’re going to do this thing together. That’s how it has to be done.”
While the Magic may again miss the playoffs this season, this should be a positive year for the team. After years of losing and the team stockpiling assets, Oladipo and Harris are ready to put an end to Orlando’s postseason drought.
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