For a long time, everyone just sort of stopped caring about the Orlando Magic. They were something much worse than simply being bad. The Magic were irrelevant. Never awful enough to enter into the discussions at the top of the draft except for the especially bad 2013 edition. Never good enough to push for the playoffs, let alone actually play meaningful games in springtime. They just kind of were there. An uninspiring NBA team that precious few outside of hardcore fans bothered with. Last year’s spending spree brought fleeting attention, but that’s all it was.
Now the Magic sit atop the Eastern Conference at 5-2 with blowout victories over annual contenders Cleveland and San Antonio, along with solid performances in their other five outings. To tweak the question you might have asked about magic to one you might ask about the Magic “Are they for real? And if so, how did we get here?”
A year ago at this time, optimism was fading in Orlando. The Magic were 0-3 and Rob Hennigan’s offseason decisions seemed ill-fated. Orlando would win the next three to even their record at 3-3, but would then drop three straight and never so much as sniff .500 the rest of the year. They were a poorly conceived group, one that had chosen to go big as the rest of the league went small. And they were a pricey squad too, as Hennigan had committed to over $200 million in trades, extensions and new deals.
Year Five of the post-Dwight Howard rebuild was off to another ignominious start. The Magic were on their third coach (fourth if you count interim coach James Borrego) in as many years and they hadn’t come even close to the playoffs during that five-year stretch.
Then a funny thing happened on the way to another playoff-less finish: Hennigan swung a deal that made sense and set Orlando on an encouraging course. On Valentine’s Day, the Magic sent Serge Ibaka to Toronto for Terrence Ross and a first round pick. At the time, and rightly so, most focused on the Raptors getting Ibaka as a key move in what Toronto hoped would be an extended postseason run. But quietly something positive was brewing in Orlando.
Acquiring Ross allowed Frank Vogel to shift to a lineup that made far more sense in today’s NBA. Aaron Gordon moved to the 4 and Evan Fournier got perimeter help from a second shooter in Ross. All of a sudden the Magic looked like a competent NBA team. They didn’t win a lot, finishing 8-17 after the trade, but the massive blowout losses were a thing of the past, aside from a couple of exceptions. Another high draft pick was coming, along with a whole new front office, but at least the roster made some sense to build around.
A lot is made of the importance of continuity in the NBA, almost as much as is made of the growth and improvement of youth. This year, with a shortened preseason limiting the time teams had to install offensive and defensive systems, continuity might be more important than ever early in the year. But ask any front office member or coach and they’ll say something along the lines of “Continuity is great…if you’re good. If you’re not, all you are is continuing to be bad.”
In the case of Orlando, however, they needed some continuity desperately. Gordon and Elfrid Payton, the centerpieces of the rebuild, hadn’t had the same coach to start consecutive seasons in their NBA careers. Nikola Vucevic had been asked to be a different player in each of his first five years in Orlando. Fournier was pressed upon to be the team’s sole perimeter weapon for large chunks of his time with the Magic.
Enter Vogel, who only once before last year had suffered a losing season, and that came when the Pacers played almost the whole year without Paul George. When asked late last year about being out of the playoff race with a month to go Vogel said “I’m not used to it and I don’t like it. This isn’t anything any of us want. And it is on us to change it.” And while the signs of change were starting to show last year, they’ve really shown up to start this season.
When asked in at Media Day in 2016 what style of play he wanted to have, Vogel said: “I want us to play hard, defend and run.”
The return his first Magic team gave him on those goals was decidedly mixed. They finished 12th in Pace and 22nd in Defensive Rating. There isn’t a statistical measure of playing hard, but Orlando would have finished near the bottom of the league, at least pre-Ibaka trade.
When asked at Media Day in 2017 how he wanted the team to play, a familiar refrain came from Vogel: “I want us to play hard, defend and run.”
To his credit, he acknowledge the failures to deliver on that last year. But this season was set up to deliver the desired results. Vogel had a roster that can deliver what he wants. And deliver they have.
After seven games, the Magic are 3rd in Pace and 12th in Defensive Rating. On top of that, they boast the NBA’s 2nd best Offensive Rating. Before you start screaming about schedule, in addition to wins over the aforementioned heavyweights, the Magic beat the Heat, Nets and Pelicans and both losses were close games.
The Heat game didn’t generate much buzz. Weird stuff happens on opening night, witness the Golden State Warriors dropping home openers in two straight seasons. The Nets loss sparked some “Here we go again!” Then the Magic went to Cleveland without Gordon and Payton and proceeded to hand the Cavs a home drubbing that only the aforementioned Warriors can match. They followed that by exacting some revenge on the Nets, dominated the Spurs from tip to buzzer, dropped a tight one to the Hornets then handled the Pelicans fairly easily, the latter two games on the road.
So, how are they getting it done? Remember when we talked about the roster making sense and continuity? Those two factors have had a major impact. Let’s start with the roster making sense and the biggest beneficiary of that: Aaron Gordon.
When you play Gordon at small forward, as he did for most of the 16-17 season, you negate his biggest strength in his athleticism. He’s not quick enough to beat wings off the bounce and trying to overpower them inside doesn’t work, as he simply draws bigger defenders. The latter is especially true when he had to play with a cadre of non-shooters. But playing Gordon at power forward, where he belongs? Now you’ve got something.
The book on Gordon is to let him hang out on the perimeter and shoot. Lay back so that otherworldly athleticism for a guy his size can’t overwhelm you. After three years, we all know this story. To start this year, Gordon has taken out those pages and torn them to shreds. He’s hit 13-of-22 from behind the arc to start the year, which is a decided lift from his career record of less than 30 percent from three.
More importantly though is how Gordon is getting those jumpers. He’s not just sitting at the arc waiting for kick outs, although he’s had a few of those. Instead, he’s making things happen. He’s shooting off the run in transition. He’s taken a couple of step-backs. After the Spurs rout, Gordon said his new favorite is “Getting the big on his heels and pulling up for the jumper.”
He’s hitting these jumpers because his balance has changed on his shot. He’s almost always squared up to the basket and has great balance in his legs as he shoots. He’s not leaning one way or the other. He’s also shooting at the top of his lift, as opposed to on the way up or down. Balance and timing plagued him as a shooter his first three years. It’s come together now.
This all started late last year, when only beat writers and diehards were bothering to watch the Magic. The seeds were being planted for a fourth-year guy, who is still only 22 years old, to make the leap. Gordon at small forward is just another guy. Gordon at power forward is a blossoming All-Star and the player we all hoped he would become. Gordon is often compared to Blake Griffin and in many ways, in his fourth year, Gordon is already becoming the player Griffin is just now becoming in his eight season.
But to give all the credit to Gordon is to short some others, who have shown growth and skills we never knew they had. Evan Fournier has become Orlando’s closer. He’s the guy with the ball in his hands to make plays down the stretch, and he’s delivering. Again, this started last year. With room to make plays, because the team had proper spacing, Fournier started to show signs he could close games with the best of them. Vogel recently said “To have Evan have the confidence to take over when we need him to, and know he’s going to make a play, is huge for our team.”
So, Gordon and Fournier are both becoming the players many hoped they might become. But no player has shown more growth than the longest-tenured member of the Magic: Nikola Vucevic. As a second year player in 12-13, Vucevic burst on the scene averaging 13 points and 12 rebounds per game. He then climbed all the way to 19 points and 11 rebounds per game in 2014-15. Yet, as the team continued to struggle, the old adage of “good stats/bad team guy” started to be bandied about. And it was hard to argue it, especially when everything fell apart last season, as Vucevic had his worst year since his rookie season.
Vogel’s system asks a lot of his center, especially on defense, and Vucevic was never all that highly regarded on that end. Paired with two other bigs, everything was a mess for him. He was tentative on both ends, never quite sure what to do exactly. He tried to extend his range, but it always seemed forced, as if he was acquiescing to letting Gordon and Ibaka have the paint. Vucevic’s confidence seemed shot, most telling by his free throw percentage dropping under 67 percent for the year. Yet, once again, the post-trade Vucevic showed signs of life once again. With the block back to being his, he put up a string of double-doubles and his defensive responsibilities finally seemed to click.
This year, Vucevic has averaged 20.7 points per game on 55.5 percent shooting. He’s also all the way up to 40.6 percent on three-pointers on 4.6 attempts per game. The shots never seemed forced now either. And he’s playing the best defense of his career, anchoring the backline with the type of vertical defense Vogel wants from his center.
Gordon, Fournier and Vucevic are unquestionably Orlando’s three most important players. But a bad team doesn’t turn it around on the back of three players only. Enter Jonathon Simmons, who has known nothing but hard work and winning in his career. Simmons wanted a bigger role than the one he had in San Antonio and Gregg Popovich agreed with him that he should find it. The Magic were happy to oblige. Jeff Weltman and John Hammond wanted to rebuild Orlando around hard workers who want to win and Simmons more than fit the build.
As self-made a player as any in the NBA, once paying for his own NBA D-League tryout, Simmons promised to “unleash the animal” in Orlando. And he’s more than delivered, scoring 14 points per game on 50 percent shooting off the bench. The minute he hits the floor, generally late in the first quarter, the energy level changes. He’s on the attack on offense and defense at all times and gladly takes on all challengers. One of Simmons’ favorite plays is to linger along the baseline, waiting for his defender to turn his head, and then all of a sudden he’s putting a big on a poster. For just over $13 million guaranteed over three years, the Magic are more than getting their return on their investment.
Speaking of investments, Weltman and Hammond seem to have hit on a keeper with their first draft pick in Orlando in Jonathan Isaac. Both of the front office members are known to have an affinity for length, especially Hammond who tabbed both Giannis Antetokounmpo and Thon Maker. Isaac rivals both with his ridiculous size. He’s listed at 6’10’’, but he’s as much 6’10’’ as Kevin Durant is or as much as Kevin Garnett was only 6’11’’. Most importantly, he knows how to use that size. He gets low in his defensive stance, while spreading his pterodactyl-like limbs, making it virtually impossible to drive past him. Try and rise up to shoot over him, and he immediately straightens up and blocks out any open path to the hoop. He still gets lost occasionally on defense, especially off the ball, but that is common for young players. But when he’s paired with Gordon and Bismack Biyombo that makes the Magic an incredibly hard group to score on.
You never want to overreact to a small sample size. Nor do you want to get too excited over anything that happens before Halloween. Two years ago, Orlando hung around .500 until the calendar turned from 2015 to 2016, then went on an epic slide. That said, the Magic should be excited. For too long the Magic weren’t only bad, they were forgettable. For at least the first couple of weeks of the season, the Magic are relevant again. So, forgive everyone in Orlando if they believe their team is for real. It has been a long time.