2016-17 NBA record: 29-53. 13th in the Eastern Conference.
Transactions: The Magic are very much a team at a cross-roads. Entering the off-season, they didn’t have a ton of cap space to make a huge move in free agency, but also had the opportunity to use the space they had to potentially jump ahead of some of the teams looking to go deep into the tank in a very weak lower half of the Eastern Conference.
They started the summer on a very promising note by hiring John Hammond, the architect of the Milwaukee Bucks current success as the organization’s new general manager and former Raptors GM Jeff Weltman as the new President of basketball operations, which was a great sign for the team as their former GM Rob Hennigan had embarrassingly leaked a white board containing all of the organization’s free agency and trade targets via twitter.
Hammond and Weltman come from two organizations who were once in the same position as the Magic are now – perennial out of the playoffs and somewhat directionless – and played key roles in building two of the best teams in the East. The Bucks have become poised to compete for years to come due to Hammond’s asset management shrewd drafting while Weltman worked with one the best management minds in the NBA, Masai Ujiri to turn the Raptors from an afterthought to a 50 win team that is has been one of the top squads over the past four seasons.
Having stability in the front office is important to the success of any team and Orlando now has a tandem with an impressive team-building resume. While it may not pay off immediately, the Magic will have a blueprint for success in the long-term.
In the short-term, attracting any free agents seemed like an impossible task. Getting even a meeting with potential free agents proved to be challenge and the best the Magic could do was a meeting with Andre Iguodala that ultimately went nowhere.
The team finally made its first signing of the summer by adding Shelvin Mack on a 2 year, $12 million deal. The 26 year old is likely looking to compete for a starting role after averaging 21.9 minutes off the bench with the Jazz last season and while he’s a competent back-up, has performed better as a starter over his career and should at the very least help push Elfrid Payton to harder to keep the top spot.
Jonathan Simmons is an NBA feel good story. He’s a player who spent $150 of his own money to try out for the San Antonio Spurs before really breaking out in last season’s playoffs with a bigger role on the team due to injuries to Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard that resulted in a run that saw him put up 10.5 points in 20.4 minutes off the bench. The playoff run included an especially impressive 15.4 point average on 45.7% shooting against the Golden State Warriors.
Being able to perform at that level when the stakes are the highest made Simmons a very attractive free agent when the Spurs renounced his rights and the Magic were quick to sign him to a 3 year, $20 million deal.
At 27, he doesn’t have nearly the miles on his body that most players his age do as a result of his unorthodox road the NBA. He will immediately be one of the better defensive players for Orlando. Gregg Popovich would not have trusted Simmons with such a major role in the playoffs is not for his D. Simmons is a very good wing defender and will elevate what was a very poor perimeter defense for the Magic last season.
Marresse Speights was a puzzling signing for Orlando. They’ve already got a crowded big man rotation and unless they’re planning on moving Nikola Vucevic or Bismack Biyombo, Speights could end up taking minutes from Jonathan Isaac which is not the direction that the team should be heading in. It wasn’t a big signing on the veteran’s minimum but one that didn’t make a whole lot of sense on the court.
Off the court, however, Speights can be an asset in a mentoring role. He’s got championship experience as the result of his stint with the Warriors and can offer rookie Jonathan Isaac some solid veteran advice.
Veteran swingman Arron Afflalo is back with the team he enjoyed his best years with. I don’t see the 31 year old taking the starting spot from Terrence Ross or Evan Fournier, but he’s still a hot hand off the bench who shot 41.1% from three point range last season. He offers much needed stability off the bench and like Speights will be looked at as a veteran leader in the locker room. He’s also Edwards’ favourite NBA player.
The Magic further crowded their big man rotation by signing Khem Birch from overseas. There is hope that the 25 year old can become a diamond in the rough. This signing as well as that of former Timberwolves big man Adreian Payne to a two-way deal also seems to indicate an uncertain future for Vucevic.
2017-18 NBA Draft: With the 6th overall pick in the NBA Draft, Orlando selected Jonathan Isaac out of Florida State who can add a lot of flexibility to the team and help to modernize the Magic line-up.
Isaac stands 6’11” with a 7’1” wingspan but the speed and footwork of a guard. On the back-end this means that he can guard four positions on the floor and if he is able to fill out his 205 pound frame can likely guard opposing centres as well. He can keep up with point guards, chase around wing shooters, fight through screens, stay in front of iso scorers, cover ground on close outs and rotate off the ball to protect the rim with his length.
On the offensive end, he can grab-and-go and handles the ball well for his side, hit spot up threes consistently and has an excellent mid-range game, but he needs to get more comfortable with asserting himself offensively and not be willing to fade into the background as much as he does. He’s also got work to do if he’s going to play on the wing at the NBA level.
Isaac is going to offer the Magic the ability to offer a more modern line-up. His ability to defend multiple positions and his shooting range will make him an idea stretch four or even stretch five if he’s able to fill out. His defense and rebounding are excellent and will keep him on the floor while he develops his offensive game.
I wouldn’t look for Frank Vogel to give the rookie too much to do at the early going, but Issac is the best prospect that the Magic have drafted in years and will really offer a lot to the team in terms of versatility and the all important spacing that he brings to the table.
With the 33rd pick in the draft, the Magic again drafted with positional versatility in mind when they took Wesley Iwundu out of Kansas State who is an incredibly lengthy swingman with his 7’1” wingspan on a 6’7” frame.
Iwundu is a fluid athlete with good quickness who has all the physical tools necessary to be an NBA-level swingman. He also brings with him solid play-making ability as he handled the ball in the pick-and-roll and pushed the play in transition and often operated as the point guard for Kansas State as they didn’t run their offense through one play-maker. He’s also got a greatly improved shooting range having hit 38% from downtown as a senior. He does have work to do his mid-range game and grow into a more reliable and prolific shooter from different spots on the floor.
Defensively, the 22 year old has the length and lateral speed to guard multiple positions. He likely will struggle against stronger opposing wings as he works on asserting himself physically, but has the natural ability that will help adapt quickly. He’s an excellent rebounder as well and has a ton of potential on the back-end overall.
The Magic also shipped pick 25 to the Philadelphia 76ers for a first and second round pick in 2020 and sent pick 35 to the Memphis Grizzlies for a future second rounder.
Outlook: The Magic are likely going to use this season largely to evaluate where the team is now talent wise and make decisions for the future.
One of the players that will be under close scrutiny is 22 year old Croatian Mario Hezonja. Part of the country’s “Golden Generation” of basketball stars, he has failed to live up to his “Super Mario” hype and could soon find himself off the team if he isn’t able to make a big leap this season. Especially after he regressed rather than improved in his sophomore year.
The team will also be looking for more from starting point guard Elfrid Payton. Frank Vogel often pulled the 23 year old point guard when his shooting went cold and he will need a much more consistent effort offensively with Shelvin Mack waiting in the wings to take the starting job. Payton did look much stronger over the second half of the season than he did in the early going with 13.5 points on 50.3% shooting to go along with 8.4 dimes and 7.0 rebounds which is far above his season averages of 12.8 points, 6.4 assists and 4.6 rebounds. His three point percentage plummeting to 27.4% from 32.6% the season before is quite concerning and a trend that he’ll have to reverse in order to hold on to his starting spot.
Nikola Vucevic’s future with the Orlando Magic seems very uncertain as the team has added players to an already packed front-court and trade rumours continue to swirl around the 26 year old big man which is unfortunate as he really improved on the back-end under Frank Vogel. His offensive play did take a hit, however, especially in the post as he struggled to share the lane with Serge Ibaka. Things did start to get better with Ibaka’s departure and Aaron Gordon as the starting power forward which should give Vucevic more room to operate.
The Magic’s centre is an almost guaranteed double-double and even with decreased offensive production he still averaged 14.6 points and 10.9 boards. Numbers that should increase now that he will likely have more post-up opportunities sharing the front court with Gordon which should restore his scoring to the 18 to 19 point range of the last two seasons.
As for Aaron Gordon, the 22 year old should break out this year and he will be playing his ideal power forward position for an entire season. After the Ibaka trade, Gordon’s numbers exploded to 16.4 points and 6.2 rebounds which was way up from 11.2 and 4.6 at the small forward spot. If he can improve his outside shooting, expect those numbers to climb even higher if he can blossom into an athletic stretch-4. As it stands he’s still one of the most exciting players on the team with his explosive finishes and spectacular dunks.
Evan Fournier averaged a career high 17.2 points per game but saw a major drop in his efficiency including his three point shooting going down to a rather frigid 35.6%. Perhaps it was the pressure of the big five year, $85 million contract he’d signed last off-season or just simply trying to do too much, but the Magic are going to need the 24 year old swingman to have a better shooting year this season. If he can attack the gaps and be patient for better looks, he should be able to recapture the form that lead to his big contract in the first place.
Terrence Ross similarly needs to establish some consistency, especially with Jonathan Simmons able tot challenge him for a starting role. Ross is showing more versatility in Orlando than he had in Toronto as he’s been able to operate in more areas on the floor as opposed to just being used as a spot up option with the Raptors. T-Ross has been able to show some skill as a ball handler and showed some good decision making skills with his drives and also some previously unseen passing ability. He’s got to get that three point shot falling more consistently though as he only 34.1% after coming over.
I like the Magic’s depth a lot especially in the East. New additions Shelvin Mack, Jonathan Simmons and Arron Afflalo give them a lot of versatility and the ability for different looks off the second unit in terms of shot-making and spacing. Bismack Biyombo may be incredibly overpaid but his defense and rim protection still makes him a valuable commodity for Orlando’s second unit as well.
In a weakened East, the Magic’s depth as well as the lack of any major changes in the line-up provide them with some nice continuity from last season which should keep them above some of the other teams in the conference looking to bottom out. With the added pieces on the second unit, they are much better team than last year and being able to play Gordon at the 4 makes them a more mobile and modern team in terms floor spacing. It will also be a lot of fun to see how Jonathan Isaac and Wesley Iwundu fit in and to watch the rookies progress throughout the season.
I don’t believe that Orlando has improved enough to make the playoffs and this season will largely be about what evaluating what they have in order to make decisions for the future, but they likely are still the best of some very bad teams and won’t completely bottom out as in past seasons.
There’s a lot more to like in Orlando than there has been in a very long time.
Prediction: 33-49. 10th in the Eastern Conference.