The overwhelming reaction to Rob Hennigan’s active offseason for the Orlando Magic has been “What the heck is this franchise doing?”
While everyone has attempted to make sense of a summer filled with confounding moves, many of those same critics lambasted Nikola Vucevic being featured at the center position due to his lack of defensive instinct, and questioned the sustainability of an Elfrid Payton and Victor Oladipo backcourt. The backcourt was broken up with a superior shooter taking Oladipo’s place, and Vucevic got not one but two defensive stalwarts that love to watch the ball clang off of the glass as they run up court with a finger wag. Still, many questions remain for the talented but scattered Magic roster.
The real crux of these decisions were made with one man in mind: Frank Vogel.
On draft night, the Magic moved Victor Oladipo for Serge Ibaka. The former being a fan favorite that had infectious energy, pesky defense, and a shot soaked with improvement. Unfortunately, he was also the bearer of a few worrying trends -- his dwindling drives to the basket (9.2 a game in 2014-2015 to 4.9 in 2015-2016), a penchant for taking foot-on-the-line long two pointers, a bad finisher, and an efficiency that just wasn’t going to cut it at the shooting guard position with a similarly shot-deficient Payton in the backcourt. Hennigan chose to go with the player that possessed superior court vision and feel for the game, with the added benefit of zero competition at his position in Payton. Enter Evan Fournier, the uber efficient shooting guard that showed less offensive warts than Oladipo, and Mario Hezonja, a maturing athletic sharpshooter that was dog-housed most of his rookie season under Skiles until his defense caught up to the rest of his game.
At first glance, the frontcourt is as packed as a moshpit. The minutes set to be allocated don’t quite add up -- five players that need minutes at the frontcourt positions is akin to a trying to split a bean in quarters with a knife to feed a family. “$70 million for Biyombo to come off the bench? Forcing Aaron Gordon to play out of position? Vucevic not traded yet? Jeff Green in general?” These are just a few of the criticisms I’ve seen hurled at Rob Hennigan.
But the big puzzler for a large majority of skeptics is the “real” position of Aaron Gordon -- to the point where rumors floated around that he could be moved because of the sudden frontcourt logjam, which couldn’t be further from the truth.
To understand Aaron Gordon, you really have to study and dissect his offbeat game. A wide belief among casual and learned NBA fans is that Aaron Gordon cannot play the small forward position whatsoever, but I wouldn’t be so quick to label that a failed experiment before it’s concocted. Hell, it’s already been bubbling.
Aaron Gordon played 40 percent of his minutes last season at the small forward position without much complaint or protest. It’s not a Larry Bird forcing Paul George to play a position he doesn’t feel comfortable in sort of situation. He’s mobile, runs the fast break like a slimmer Blake Griffin, harbors underrated court vision and has an arrhythmic pacing that works in his favor. His impact and advanced metrics surpassed that of pre Detroit Tobias Harris at the SF position (post Detroit Harris is a different story), the main issue is who will be surrounding Aaron Gordon as his game expands.
The most important thing to remember about Gordon is that he’s only 20 years old. He raised his freshman year Arizona free throw percentage from 42% to 72% during his first year in the NBA. His shot, which is far from potent, isn’t broken. It’s still a work in progress, and becoming a mid 30's three-point shooter should be his primary focus. But there is a delicate line that needs to be walked. The Magic shouldn't be hell-bent on developing Aaron Gordon into a 3&D specialist for the simple fact that he has the capability to be so much more than that -- in the mold of a Shawn Marion or Andrei Kirilenko, or even a motivated Josh Smith. The plug-and-playability of Gordon is what will set him apart, whether at SF, PF or small-ball C.
This is without taking into account his bread and butter, defense. Aaron Gordon defends small forwards with the best of them, whereas he tends to struggle against the beefier power forwards of the league. Players like Taj Gibson, Zach Randolph and even Kris Humphries have given Gordon fits because of their physicality, girth and body mass. Gordon’s insane lateral quickness enables him to keep up with the more svelte, elusive players -- the exact body type and skill set that a large number of small forwards fall into comparative to the power forward position.
The second most discussed issue is finding an adequate amount of playing time for Biyombo while Vucevic is still on the roster. The Magic paid a huge price in free agency for Biyombo, and many project that to mean an immediate starter position. It’s tough to imagine Vucevic getting extended minutes at power forward, so it’s almost a guarantee that these two players will never start together.
While the Vucevic and Biyombo fit is less than ideal, the Biyombo acquisition lessens the potential sting of an Ibaka loss, as Serge is set to be a RFA in the summer of 2017. Ibaka leaving would be a huge blow to the Magic organization, essentially gifting Victor Oladipo and a lottery pick to the Thunder for a year of Serge Ibaka. Not good.
Age jokes aside, Biyombo is still young (23) and is just beginning to carve out his role in the NBA. He was acquired for peanuts by Toronto -- $10 million over two years after a solid yet unspectacular stint in Charlotte. Four years of starter pay doesn’t mean he’s going to play four years as the starter, and on the other hand, if he begins his Orlando Magic career as a backup, it doesn’t mean that he’d stay four years as a backup. There are a lot of interesting combinations that the Magic can run with Payton, Fournier, Hezonja, Gordon, Vucevic, Biyombo, Ibaka, Green, Meeks, and Augustin.
Ibaka is the player least worried about his role -- it’s safe to say he’ll be penciled in as the starting power forward with spot minutes at the center position. He’s a mid-range assassin that can hit the three with semi-regularity and is a known defensive commodity. But one intriguing story-line to keep an eye on with Ibaka is his expanded offensive role and his overall impact for the Magic, where he will undoubtedly be hungry to prove that his decline isn’t due to age issues or regression, and more to do with the Oklahoma City offense catering to the Westbrook/Durant duo. Contract years are always so interesting to examine, and this one is no different.
There is an immediate tangible gripe on the Magic roster, and his name is Jeff Green. He’s by far the funkiest fit without even watching a game. There are two positives to Jeff Green’s presence: A movable contract that could be used as a trade chip since he’s only on a one year deal, and the potential of a “Good veteran, I’ll give you 15 millions reasons to accept your backup role” scenario. He’s also a fail-safe in case the Gordon experiment goes horribly wrong, although I would argue that Jeff Green presents similar “Gordon” problems at the small forward position with less of the appealing positives.
There are several teams this offseason that have invested sizable contracts in frontcourt depth -- the reason why the Magic are getting the most attention for it is because they are all talented players that deserve more minutes than they’re projected to get. It’s not the worst problem for the Magic to have, and the front office has to realize that they can afford to wait and see how things play out with the roster constructed as is. You never want to project injuries or foul trouble, but they will occur and suddenly a perceived logjam becomes a depth godsend.
Orlando hasn’t given up on their young talent, they’re simply rolling the dice on the players with the highest ceilings while attempting to forge a known identity. An identity ironically being challenged at a time where the skies haven’t been this clear since Dwight Howard was romping around without frustration.
The past few seasons have showcased rosters with seven young mouths to feed, continuity error coaches in Jacque Vaughn and Scott Skiles, an offense predicated on mid-range jumpers and a defense that would tease you with a glimmer of hope and then disappear back into the abyss. With Frank Vogel at the helm, a renewed sense of confidence and accountability, and a pecking order that doesn’t have every player trying to get theirs, the future doesn’t seem so bad for Orlando. There is bound to be half-court issues that will need be addressed, but for a team that was consistently in the middle of the pack in most shooting categories last year, the offensive woes are a bit overblown. It is no secret however that this team will prefer to get out in transition and run you into the ground, where defense is essentially this team's offense and the lob might just be a featured play in the Vogel offensive system.
The Magic aren’t expecting their starting lineup to come together as seamlessly as the serifs on the intro to “Stranger Things”, but then again, stranger things have happened.