Last season, the Orlando Magic entered the 2015-16 campaign with increased expectations. For the first time in recent memory, making the playoffs didn’t seem out of the question. The Magic had a new head coach in Scott Skiles, and the organization expected to take the next step in their development.
While posting 35 wins was an improvement from recent years, Orlando fell apart during the new year. The team was in fourth place in the Eastern Conference heading into 2016, but a 2-12 record in January quickly dropped the Magic down the standings and, eventually, they fell out of the playoff race.
After an active offseason that featured plenty of player movement and another coaching search due to Skiles’ resignation, the Magic are hoping to end their four-year playoff drought and return to the postseason under new head coach Frank Vogel.
Basketball Insiders previews the Orlando Magic’s 2016-17 season.
FIVE GUYS THINK
Giving up Victor Oladipo and a lottery pick for Serge Ibaka is forgivable, but turning around and spending $72 million on Bismack Biyombo immediately after that trade is considerably less so. With those moves, the Magic now have one of the deeper (and more confusing) frontcourt rotations in the league, which is great for their ability to defend the paint with some elite shot-blockers, but it hasn’t left the team with anybody capable of actually creating some meaningful offense. Elfrid Payton is the team’s projected starting point guard, but he can’t shoot. Evan Fournier and Jodie Meeks both can pour it in, but neither is known for dominant one-on-one offense. There are going to be many low-scoring games in Central Florida this season, which means it could be another long one for Magic fans.
4th Place – Southeast Division
– Joel Brigham
The Magic spent years after Dwight Howard’s exit sticking to a patient approach to rebuilding their roster. The team was seemingly content building through the draft, letting the youngsters develop and avoiding big free agency expenditures, but the team abruptly changed course this summer. Orlando opened up the piggybank and was active during free agency to bring in veterans Bismack Biyombo, Jeff Green and D.J. Augustin while also trading for defensive-minded forward Serge Ibaka. There’s no question the team has gotten better defensively, which has sort of become new head coach Frank Vogel’s calling card. Offensively, the Magic lack a true go-to scorer when things get tight late in games and this will be the primary source of the team’s struggles to get over the hump.
5th Place – Southeast Division
– Lang Greene
Based on what Frank Vogel was able to get out of the Indiana Pacers over the course of his time there, I think that the young core in Orlando has a capable leader. I like a lot of the pieces on the team and think that Vogel is a capable taskmaster, but it’s the front office that I question. Let’s not forget that the Magic very recently traded the promising Tobias Harris for Brandon Jennings and Ersan Ilyasova. Jennings has since departed for New York, while the Magic packaged Ilyasova with Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis in the Serge Ibaka trade. On paper, you could argue that could be a good trade, but then you can’t help but to question why the Magic signed Bismack Biyombo to a huge deal right after that. Adding those two to Nikola Vucevic and Jeff Green (who was also signed this summer) just leaves me very confused as to just what these guys are doing. I love a lot of the young players in Orlando, but I get the sense that this season is going to be more about figuring who is there to stay and how Vogel will coach these guys than it will be about getting the Magic to the playoffs for the first time since 2012.
4th Place – Southeast Division
– Moke Hamilton
The Magic had an interesting offseason to say the least. Former head coach Scott Skiles unexpectedly resigned and was replaced shortly thereafter by former Indiana Pacers head coach Frank Vogel. The Magic later traded Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova and the rights to Domantas Sabonis to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Serge Ibaka, signed Jeff Green to a one-year, $15 million contract and Bismack Biyombo to a four-year, $72 million contract. They also re-signed Evan Fournier to a five-year, $85 million deal. Giving up Oladipo and Sabonis is a steep price tag for Ibaka, who has declined in recent seasons and could leave after the upcoming year as an unrestricted free agent. The signing of Green is surprising as well considering his skill overlaps talent already on the roster. Additionally, while I like the defensive impact Biyombo can add to the Magic, his contract is pretty hefty (even with the inflated salary cap) considering his limited track record. The Magic seemed to be continuing down the path of auctioning off the young talent they’ve compiled to bring in veterans that can help them compete for a playoff berth now. While I think they have sold low on that talent (see the Tobias Harris trade), I do like the hiring of Vogel. If Vogel can turn this team into a strong defensive unit (something Ibaka and Biyombo should help with), that may help this team turn things around sooner than expected. I like the young talent Orlando assembled in recent years, I just don’t love the deals they’ve made recently to bring in veterans that don’t move the needle enough to compete for anything other than a low-seed playoff berth.
4th Place – Southeast Division
– Jesse Blancarte
While I’m curious to see how Serge Ibaka fits with this Magic squad, I’m also excited to watch Aaron Gordon’s continued development. I interviewed Gordon last week and he made it clear that he expects to play a much bigger role under new head coach Frank Vogel. He has been working really hard this offseason and seems poised for a breakout third season. With the Vogel hire, talented veteran additions and more experience for their young core, the Magic should take a significant step forward this year. With that said, if the Magic lose Ibaka to free agency after this season, the front office will be criticized (and deservedly so) for dealing away Victor Oladipo and lottery selection Domantas Sabonis for a one-year rental who, at best, makes them a fringe playoff team.
4th Place – Southeast Division
– Alex Kennedy
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Evan Fournier
After parting ways with Victor Oladipo, Fournier steps in as the team’s best offensive weapon given everything that he can do. Although it was center Nikola Vucevic who led the team in scoring last season, expect Fournier to take over as the team’s top offensive player. Last year was the most productive of Fournier’s four-year NBA career, as he averaged a career-high 15.4 points, 2.8 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.2 steals per game. Fournier led the Magic in scoring 19 times and 24 outings with 20 or more points (including two 30-point efforts). He can finish at the rim and create his own shot. Like Manu Ginobili, his Eurostep remains one of his most effective moves. He averaged 5.7 drives per game last season, which ranked inside the top 50 in the league. He also figures to be one of the team’s best shooters next season; last year, he knocked down 40 percent of his three-point shot attempts, which was tied for 21st among qualified players.
Top Defensive Player: Serge Ibaka
There is no question who Orlando’s best defender will be this season. The team desperately wanted to add a defensive-minded big man next to Vucevic in the starting lineup and that’s what they’re getting in Ibaka. The reaction to the trade that brought Ibaka to the Magic was a bit mixed, as some believe Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova and the rights to No. 11 overall pick Donatas Sabonis was too much to give up for Ibaka since he’ll be an unrestricted free agent next summer. However, it’s clear that the Magic love Ibaka’s game and feel he can take them to the next level. He has been selected to three All-Defensive First Teams and has led the league in total blocks four times. Ibaka is a great rim protector, which is exactly what the Magic have needed since Dwight Howard left town. Ibaka held opponents to 43.6 percent shooting at the rim last year, which ranked among the best in the league. His 1.9 blocks per game ranked seventh in the NBA and he was third in total blocks with 148. The Magic haven’t had a player average more than 1.5 blocks per game since Howard in 2011, so Ibaka gives them a much-needed interior defender.
Top Playmaker: Elfrid Payton
As the team’s point guard, Payton is our pick for top playmaker. He is the player who touches the ball most frequently on the team and is in charge of running the offense. Last season, Payton averaged 10.7 points, 6.4 assists, 3.6 rebounds and 1.2 steals per game. Payton averaged 74.1 touches per game last year. He’s shown that he’s comfortable passing to set up his teammates or keeping the ball to get to the rim, as he averaged 7.8 drives per game last season. What makes Payton such a weapon when he drives are the different head fakes, ball fakes and hesitation dribbles that he uses to keep defenders guessing. He’s a guy who can be a triple-double threat – he’s recorded three during his two years in the league and has come close a number of other times. Payton has shown a lot of promise so far during his career and many believe that he can be a dangerous point guard once he develops a consistent jump shot. He made big strides from his rookie to sophomore season in that department and it seems as though the 22-year-old is poised to be even better next season.
Top Clutch Player: Nikola Vucevic
Although a case can be made for Fournier here, we’re going to highlight Vucevic’s clutch play. It may seem odd to name a center as a team’s best clutch player, but that’s exactly what the Magic have with Vucevic. He hit two game-winning shots for the Magic last season – one against the Los Angeles Lakers on Nov. 11 and one against the Atlanta Hawks on Feb. 7. Vucevic just edged out Fournier in total points scored in the final five minutes of close games (with neither team ahead by more than five points). Vucevic recorded 78 points in those situations, compared to 76 points for Fournier. One of the most impressive aspects of Vucevic’s game is his mid-range shooting. Last season, he averaged 2.2 made shots per game between 15-19 feet from the rim, which ranked second in the league; he shot 50.3 percent from that distance. Vucevic has proven to be one of best offensive centers in the league and he figures to be a guy the team can continue to count on down the stretch.
The Unheralded Player: Mario Hezonja
Hezonja played sparingly during his rookie campaign, but he left a lasting impression on fans when he did see the court. Many people in Orlando are excited about his potential, especially on the offensive end. He appeared in 79 games last year and averaged 6.1 points, 2.2 rebounds and 1.4 assists in just under 18 minutes per game. He elevated his production to 11.1 points per game in nine starts. What is encouraging for Hezonja fans is the fact that Coach Vogel loves his game. During his introductory press conference in May, Vogel said he is excited to help Hezonja develop. He loves Hezonja’s confidence and his ability to shoot the ball, while also saying that Mario’s skillset and style of play fits with how he wants to run the team. While it doesn’t seem as though Hezonja will find himself in the starting lineup very often, it does seem like he’ll be playing more than the 18 minutes he averaged last season.
Top New Addition: Serge Ibaka
Ibaka experienced great success during his time with the Thunder, so he could emerge as a leader for the Magic and help build a winning culture in Orlando. In addition to everything he brings on the defensive end, he also provides a scoring punch and stretches the floor. Ibaka averaged 12.6 points on 48 percent shooting from the floor and 33 percent from three-point range last season. His numbers were down a bit compared to previous seasons, but that’s likely because the Thunder experimented with getting big men like Enes Kanter and Steven Adams more involved. In Orlando, Ibaka is in a great position and he’ll be one of the team’s top scoring options. Coach Vogel has indicated that Ibaka will be relied on more than he was in OKC. Ibaka is in a contract year and will surely be looking to put up big numbers so that he can cash in when he hits unrestricted free agency next offseason.
– Cody Taylor
WHO WE LIKE
1. Aaron Gordon
After becoming a household name following his incredible performance in February’s Slam Dunk Contest, what’s not to like about Gordon? The most remarkable thing about Gordon is that he’ll be turning 21 years old later this week, meaning he still has plenty of room to grow as a player. In his second season, he averaged 9.2 points, 6.5 rebounds and 1.6 assists per game. His per-48 stats offer a look at what he could produce given an increased role: 18.5 points, 13.1 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.4 blocks. It can be quite exciting to watch Gordon play since his athleticism allows him to make impact plays all over the floor. He has a great understanding of the game and has one of the best work ethics in the league. Oh, and his confidence is through the roof. He’s much more comfortable entering this campaign and many are expecting him to have a breakout season.
2. Frank Vogel
Was Scott Skiles’ unexpected resignation in May actually a blessing in disguise for the Magic? Vogel was among the top candidates remaining at the time and the team moved quickly to hire him as their next head coach. Given his success with the Indiana Pacers, the hiring of Vogel looks to be a great move. Vogel consistently put the Pacers in great position to be successful and his teams were always known to be very good defensively. Vogel has already set the bar high for next season, stating that the team will make the playoffs.
3. D.J. Augustin
One of the biggest areas of concern for the Magic last year was the backup point guard position. The team tried to address that issue prior to last season by signing C.J. Watson, but he played in just 33 games after battling a calf injury for much of the year. The team then traded for Brandon Jennings, who left to join the New York Knicks this summer. Now, the Magic have brought in Augustin to bolster their backcourt depth. He will give the second unit some much needed shooting; he’s a career 37-percent shooter from three. Augustin also brings a ton of experience to the team and has played on plenty of contenders. It remains to be seen if it will be Watson or Augustin who will ultimately backup Elfrid Payton, but the Magic have legitimate options at the position for the first time in a long time.
4. Bismack Biyombo
Whether or not you agree with Orlando’s decision to give Biyombo a four-year deal worth $72 million, it’s evident that Biyombo can make a big impact for the Magic. He helped his league-wide perception last year with Toronto Raptors – particularly during the playoffs – by making hustle plays and defending the paint. He pulled down a franchise record 26 rebounds against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals, which was impressive. It appears Biyombo will be counted on to anchor the Magic’s second unit and that could be a role he flourishes in. It’s clear that the front office is in love with Biyombo judging by the contract they gave him. Coach Vogel’s teams have always been great defensively and Biyombo looks like he’ll fit right in with what the team wants to do.
– Cody Taylor
SALARY CAP 101
The Magic have had a busy offseason, acquiring Serge Ibaka via trade and then going under the NBA’s $94.1 million salary cap to sign players like Bismack Biyombo, Jeff Green and D.J. Augustin. The team also re-signed Evan Fournier, locking in at least $104.8 million in salary on 13 players. Orlando invited six players to camp, all on non-guaranteed summer contracts, to compete for two open roster spots. The Magic also have their $2.9 million Room Exception available.
Next summer, Orlando may reach $29 million in spending power under a $102 million salary cap. That assumes the team picks up the rookie-scale options on Aaron Gordon, Mario Hezonja, C.J. Wilcox and Elfrid Payton. Only $1 million of C.J. Watson’s $5 million salary is guaranteed for 2017-18. While Ibaka is eligible to have his contract restructured and extended, the Magic do not have the necessary cap space to get that kind of deal done.
– Eric Pincus
The theme of the Magic’s offseason was adding defense. They have a great defensive mind in Vogel on the sideline and they added a couple of very talented defenders in Ibaka and Biyombo to help the team improve on that end of the court. The Magic improved to 17th in defense last season under Scott Skiles, but they clearly would like to be significantly better this season. In addition to Ibaka and Biyombo, Payton and Gordon have emerged as great defenders as well.
– Cody Taylor
As strong defensively as the Magic may seem on paper, there are plenty of questions about their offense entering this season. The team failed to add a star through free agency and now they must decide who will become the squad’s go-to option. Vucevic led the team in scoring last season at 18.2 points per game, with Fournier next down the list at 15.4 points per game. Key players like Payton, Gordon and Biyombo are not known to be great scorers, which begs the question: Where will the scoring come from?
– Cody Taylor
THE BURNING QUESTION
Can the Magic finally break through into the playoffs?
With his bold statements, Vogel has set a playoff-or-bust atmosphere in his first season as Magic head coach. The team made a number of moves that signal their desire to win now and return to the postseason. While it seems as though the team’s defense will be much improved, there are still a lot of unanswered questions when it comes to how these pieces fit together. While the Magic certainly have the potential to improve their win total this year, it wouldn’t be all that surprising to see them miss the playoffs for a fifth-straight season.
– Cody Taylor
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