by Marshal Patrick and Dante Lima
(2015-2016 Orlando Magic Preview editors note: Marshal Patrick and Dante Lima are life-long NBA fans and current and former Orlando residents who love the Magic. Throughout the season, they’ll be tracking the Magic’s progress and discussing NBA story arcs of interest. Enjoy.)
Marshal: The 2015-16 Orlando Magic might be the most intriguing young team in the NBA this season alongside the Milwaukee Bucks and Minnesota Timberwolves. The team will be unleashing four lottery players (Victor Oladipo, Aaron Gordon, Elfrid Payton, Mario Hezonja), a recently re-signed up-and-coming 23 year-old Tobias Harris, and Nikola Vucevic, 24 who is one of the most skilled true centers in the NBA today. This should be the core the Amway center residents enjoy watching for the foreseeable future. But, before we look forward, let’s take a quick look back.
The last three seasons the Magic has been as bad of a team as you’ll see in the NBA (that doesn’t call the city of brotherly love home). This doesn’t mean they have just lost a ton of games, but the night-in, night-out level of play has been below even the lowest professional standards, which has made it worse. Mercifully halfway through last season, the Magic fired head coach Jacque Vaughn. To say Vaughn and his staff were a little in over their heads would be like saying Donald Trump has a little bit of a sensitivity issue. Under the Vaughn regime, the team was wildly amateurish, underachieving, and rudderless. In all fairness to Vaughn, a first time head coach, saddling him with such a young team wasn’t the most prudent move. An inexperienced coach plus inexperienced players equals three unwatchable seasons of “professional basketball.”
After the end of last season, GM Rob Hennigan and the rest of the Magic brass had to make a potentially franchise transformative decision: Who to hire to coach this stable of exciting and callow mustangs? Hennigan decided to look into the Magic past and plucked veteran coach Scott Skiles. Skiles played five seasons with the Magic, including the inaugural season. As a player, Skiles was an unselfish floor general (he still holds the record of assists in a game with 30). He was hard-nosed, gritty, fearless player and as a coach he has been much the same. His coaching stints in Phoenix, Chicago, and Milwaukee were largely successful making the playoffs multiple times with marginal talent. The knock on Skiles, however is he wears on his players quickly. In Orlando, talent will not be the issue. Let’s investigate what challenges do wait in store for Skiles.
This young team has been embarrassing on defense. Vucevic has been the most frustrating to watch. He has been consistently out of position and late on his defensive rotations which have led to virtual layup lines for opposing teams. For a young, nimble, true 7-footer to offer almost zero rim protection is inexcusable. However, Vucevic is not alone. The team as a whole has played horrific team defense despite some excellent on-the-ball defenders in the backcourt.
The offense has also suffered from a lack of team cohesion. The ball too frequently sticks with one player too long. It’s a recipe for low quality possessions and low percentage shots. Tobias Harris is the greatest offender with an honorable mention to Victor Oladipo. Vucevic on offense is the bizzaro version of his defensive self. Vucevic in the block is the one advantage the Magic have every night in the East. His low-post game and mid-range game is polished and consistent. Too frequently during offensive dry spells, Vucevic gets iced out of the offense, which I don’t believe to be coincidence. When the offense goes through him, good things tend to happen. When the double team comes he kicks out and the ball swings to the open man. That’s good offense.
The troubles that have corrupted both sides of the ball stem from the same exact misunderstanding of how successful NBA teams thrive. The unit must play as one – corny but true. I don’t blame the players because this team by all accounts is filled with high character, hard-working, competitive kids. Jacque Vaughn just wasn’t up for the job. He was like Mickey as the ‘Sorcerers Apprentice’ in Fantasia – clumsily trying to corral an immense amount of forces that he just wasn’t capable of harnessing. In this Magic Kingdom, Scott Skiles will now have the challenge and privilege of donning the sorcerers cap.
I will now toss a few questions about this year’s Orlando Magic to Dante Lima.
1) Can Skiles get this team to gel and improve their team defense, three point efficiency, and more production from the free throw line?
2) How much will international sensation Mario Hezonja contribute to this years’ Magic?
3) Will this team compete for the playoffs in an improving eastern conference?
4) Is this the nucleus of a team that can make a championship run in the next 5 years?
Dante: Well, for starters I think the team defense can be greatly improved just by breaking up the rotational pairing of Channing Frye and Vucevic. Statistically they were the worst front court tandem in defensive efficiency. Judging by the end of last season and the preseason, Dewayne Dedmon is a much better option as a sidekick (and spell) to Vucevic. Dedmon offers more range, more athleticism and better rebounding. He’s also versatile enough to play the 5 and pair with Aaron Gordon if the Magic decide to go small for longer stretches or if Vucevic is in foul trouble.
Team defense is a hard thing to quantify from a coaching standpoint. Skiles has the exact same core Vaughn did, minus Hezonja. The entire core is still in its prime athletically so this question largely comes down to whether the Magic’s defensive problems over the past few years were schematic or roster related. My gut feeling is this roster is composed of solid, if not talented individual defenders, but suffered last year from a lack of in-game adjustments from the coaching staff. Too often, the Magic would get beat with high pick-and-rolls, get confused on switches and in general allow far too much dribble penetration to be considered sound in scheme. Skiles, with his track record as a defensive minded coach, should be able to patch up some of those problems. But I do have concern that size wise, there are major issues against bigger front courts, especially bigger small forwards and stretch 4s. The Magic don’t really have a banger on the roster and certainly don’t have an eraser when the floor gets spaced like in the Dwight era. There’s inklings based on the preseason that backcourt ball pressure is going to be a greater emphasis.
The three-point efficiency is another tough call. This roster is no doubt shooter deficient. I think all Magic fans are crossing their fingers Hezonja can be the cold, confident shooter we’ve been desperately needing since J.J. Redick left town. Outside of Mario, even the best scorers on the team (Dipo, Harris) are streaky at best from distance. The efficiency can improve if the ball movement improves, which remains to be seen. But there does seem to be a commitment to shooting the 3 more under Skiles. Judging by the eight preseason games, the Magic are averaging 25.1 3PT attempts per game (up from 19.5 attempts per game in 2015-2015), which shows some commitment to increasing the volume of threes. That would have put the Magic in the top 10 league-wide in attempts by last year’s regular season metrics, just ahead of the Suns and Raptors. As far as percentage goes, the Magic averaged 35.8% in the preseason – up slightly from 35.1% last year. But, the increased volume combined with same shooting %, (if we can assume the trend will continue under Skiles in the regular season), should increase the 3PM/game to 9, over the 6.8 mark the team had last year. More scoring is never a bad thing.
In regard to Mario Hezonja, I see him playing a lot. Perhaps I’m being a homer here, but he should be the first man off the bench, and if the organization is truly interested in evaluating what it has going forward Mario should play more than more experienced players like C.J. Watson and Evan Fournier who can fill the same roles. All interviews within the team suggest the players love his swagger and energy. The Magic have needed a player with an edge for a long time. We’ve been long plagued by guys afraid to talk trash, afraid to get in the mix, and at times afraid to take on big shots and big players in big games. I think Mario adds that instant confidence you need to succeed in the NBA. I’m hoping he’s a big hit. The buzz among NBA dorks is also high, partly because of these kind of flashes:
Free-throw efficiency has been a problem for the Magic for a decade – both in creating attempts and making them. A lack of efficient shooting has been one problem (among the league worst 72% in 2014-2015), but the disparity really comes in attempts. The Magic were rock bottom last year at 19.1 attempts per game. Somewhere James Harden is laughing his ass off. That’s a night at the office for him. Lack of attempts comes down to style of play. The Magic (last year especially) were content to settle on offense. Long twos, contested pull-ups, sticky ball movement, poor play construction – there’s a million reasons why dribble penetration didn’t happen consistently enough. The progression of Elfrid Payton and Victor Oladipo should change that. Both have a slasher’s mentality, and coupled with Skiles verbally emphasizing FT disparity as a coaching point, I expect to see both attempts and FT percentage rise. The preseason indicated that it could, with attempts per game at 24.2 and FTM% up slightly at 73.5.
Playoffs? Playoffs? (In Jim Mora voice) Sorry, I had to. The playoffs this year may still be out of reach. It’s hard to envision a win increase of 16+ games from the 25 the Magic notched last season. I can definitely see a jump into the mid-30s on coaching alone, but the overall depth of the East has improved slightly. There’s going to be 3-4 teams, namely the Pacers, Magic and Celtics all fighting for the last spot. I hope I’m wrong, but a winning record would be an extremely successful season to me. My main hope for this season: Bring some respectability back to the home court. Last year we were 13-28 at home. Home court is where the young players are supposed to be comfortable, not losing two-thirds of the time. I want excitement back in the arena. Magic games used to be so fun. I remember truly incredible home environments even in the dismal T-Mac years. Get these young kids running. Get them entertaining. Get the fans back in the fold, and if that home court turns into a strength, the season’s potential dramatically increases.
A championship run in the East is not out of the question given the career arc of the young nucleus is pointing straight up. But I’ll reserve answering this question in greater detail until I see more on the court. I’ll give you a rain check for the All-Star break.
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