If every team has an identifying question that can be attributed to them as we start the 2017-18 season then it wouldn’t be wholly unfair for “Do they have any good players?” to be the question for the Orlando Magic.
They aren’t totally void of talent; they have more intriguing players on their roster than three or four teams in the league. But good?
Fans and followers of the NBA have a uniquely responsible way of avoiding black and white generalizations compared to other professional sports. To label someone either a “good” or “bad” NBA player ignores valuable context and is so simplistic we almost never do it.
But it’s not impossible or even all that difficult to do, even if we considerately add the caveat that it’s all subjective. Harrison Barnes, for example, is a good NBA player, even if you have negative things to say about his game. The same is true for Pau Gasol. A player might be tremendously skilled, but not perfectly in-sync with the current state of basketball (Kevin Love). They are still “good.” Or they might be less talented but prove to be exceptionally useful in their current system (Clint Capella). They are also good.
Some players are “bad.” Andre Roberson is a “bad” NBA player because his one skill doesn’t make up for all of his deficiencies. Post-2015 DeMarre Carroll is bad because he is slow and rarely accomplishes the things that he is trying to accomplish on the basketball court. So on and so forth.
Somehow, Orlando's future and present are tied to two players who aren’t currently good and don’t have long to prove they’re not bad.
Elfrid Payton and Aaron Gordon have to start making each other better, because so far, they aren’t making the Magic better. Both were drafted in the lottery and neither seems capable of delivering on the franchise-player responsibilities that preclude their team from continuing to pick in the lottery.
Even if Jonathan Isaac shows signs of someday being that player, Payton and Gordon have to become a net positive. You can’t move forward with a starting point guard who can’t shoot. You can only sell so many jerseys of a player based on a Slam Dunk Contest runner-up performance two years ago.
They might have to turn to each other to find their NBA footing. They’ve each showed NBA skills and positive attributes. They just haven’t produced results. They’ll have to make up for their deficiencies by seeing the opportunities they can create for each other.
Most starting point guards are better three-point shooters than Payton. Without that threat from a primary ball handler, the entire offense is hindered. But most point guards don’t have a big man capable of jumping as high as Gordon. Actually, he might be the only one. When you factor in height and leaping ability, Gordon might jump higher and with more damaging consequences than any player in the NBA.
Payton is quick, strong, and doesn’t have much trouble getting past the guy defending him. We should have been seeing more successful lobs between he and Gordon. Their third season together could be when that threat becomes a reality. Speed and athleticism at the point guard and forward/center position can be deadly if the other three players on the court offer spacing.
Gordon’s skills aren't refined enough for us to know what exactly his best role should be, but he should still wreck havoc in the meantime. He needs more opportunities to face up slower defenders. It’s easy to focus on Payton’s flaws, but he’s an unselfish guard, which should be great for a developing talent like Gordon, who can give the ball up and get it right back in better position to score. He and Payton need to find those positions that Gordon is most effective. They need to cut off the ball and play less structured at times. Give-and-go’s aren’t complicated; they’re a lot more likely to work when both players involved are faster and more athletic than the guys wearing different colored jerseys.
Both Payton and Gordon both have a lot of defensive potential as well. They can guard multiple positions, and more importantly, they’re the type of players that can turn stops into momentum plays. They can both get out and run. No one should be able to stop Gordon running the lanes in transition. That versatility goes to waste if they don’t use it.
“When Aaron Gordon’s bringing the ball up, Elfrid Payton’s filling the corners or running for layups,” Magic coach Frank Vogel told RealGM. “That’s kind of what we’re trying to build."
Payton was drafted with a bigger, stronger Rajon Rondo in mind. The NBA is changing in a way that should suit Gordon. His ceiling could be a Draymond Green type who dunks over other Draymond Green types.
Neither has delivered on those projections, but they might be able to help each other get a little closer.
If Orlando's identity is wrapped up in the individual success of either Payton or Gordon then the franchise will more than likely be a depressing affair for at least another couple years. But if Gordon and Payton can play off each other in a way that creates a more specific identity, then that’s something the Magic can work with.
Otherwise, we’ll take be forced to take a black and white look at two of the Magic’s core players. And if they’re not “good” then, there’s really only one other thing they can be.