1989 was a good year for me, I was born for one; second, which was unbeknownst to me at the time, was that what would eventually become my favorite team was also starting its first year in the NBA. Growing up in central Florida and being a fan of our closest professional teams often led to more turmoil and disappointment than it did to optimism and excitement. I’m not a fair-weather fan by any means, I will admit to losing interest in teams I was once a fan of, but only because of a loss of interest in the sport or specific league said team competed in. With that said I grew up a Tampa Bay Buccaneers fan, at the time I was very much into the NFL and loved the defensive minded Bucs team that would eventually lead to the franchise’s first ever championship in 2002. Despite a few years of success though most seasons they were the laughing-stock of the league. Being a Magic fan hasn’t faired much better, still no titles after making it to the finals twice (1995, 2009).
On top of just not always having a great team, Orlando fans have had to suffer with being on the wrong side of deals or star players wanting to test the market and leave for greener pastures. Central Florida is the lightning capital of the world, coinciding with this theme the Magic somehow managed to defy the myth that lightening doesn’t strike the same place twice. I knew things weren’t going well with Dwight Howard but surely I thought he wouldn’t end up a member of the Los Angeles Lakers, no way was that going to happen twice. Well, here we are entering the 4th season post Howard, and even though we now have a tremendous center in Nikola Vucevic stemming from the Dwight deal, most fans are eager to get back to the winning ways we grew so accustomed to during his stint as Mickey’s neighbor.
ESPN recently released their predictions for the records NBA teams would have for the upcoming 2015-2016 season. The Magic were predicted to have a 30-52 season, a five win increase from the year before. A very safe bet, positive growth on both a player and team level should coincide with more wins. The hiring of a proven NBA coach who has a record of helping teams get on the right track definitely doesn’t hurt either. A five win increase would be ok, as in at least we didn’t take a step back, but it’s not what we are looking for. Loyal fans need and want the winning Magic back in the Amway, and the ownership should be worried about a very vibrant and proud city fan base trading in its blue and white for purple and gold. Good news, I not only think the Magic can meet the expectations of the fans but I think they could surprise the entire Eastern Conference and show they will be a future force to be respected.
Last season we saw the Milwaukee Bucks hire Jason Kidd as head coach which contributed to what would be a 26 win improvement over the previous season. Without making a splash in free agency this sudden spike in wins was attributed to increased experience from young players and continuity among the team and coaches as a whole. It was easy to see the players buying in to what Kidd was selling; on both sides of the ball it seemed the team was playing a new and more exciting brand of basketball that complimented their size and athleticism.
The Magic are primed to duplicate Milwaukee’s surge in the Eastern Conference standings. I’m predicting a season that will bring their record back to .500, sizable increase with a ton of optimism heading into the following season and playoff hopes in the very near future. Playoffs? I know I’m getting ahead of myself but in the same conference that saw both Boston and Milwaukee sneak in I don’t think it’s necessarily that far out of the picture, and if anything the Magic are better equipped than the Bucks were just a season ago.
Magic loyalists have a lot to be thankful for. Nikola Vucevic is a nightly double-double threat with a variety of ways to put the offense on his back and just dominate games. Whether he’s using his size and speed to work the post or hitting his increasingly consistent mid range jumper that gets closer to the three-point line every season, he has several ways to score. To date his biggest knock has been his defense. The importance in the hiring of Scott Skiles can not be downplayed in how it should help the team’s defense and hopefully help cover up Vucevic’s deficiencies on that side of the ball. Skiles will have players on their toes at all times and will know the best defensive schemes for what he puts on the court. As more teams go to the small ball styles of play, having a tough shot blocker under the basket banging with other bigs is less a priority. With the right system, the lineup of Payton, Oladipo, Gordon and Harris along with Vuc could be match up nightmares against smaller line-ups. Having a center with averages of 19 points and 10 rebounds is a privilege not many teams are privy to.
The re-signing of Tobias Harris was an absolute must in my mind. The dollar amount should have never been an issue since the cap is expected to go up so much next season. However, the Magic are notorious for not wanting to pay players for some reason but there was no doubt of his return due to him always seeming hanging around the city during the off-season. Harris represents a major cog in our ability to score points, having what he brings to the team is even more important as Skiles isn’t exactly known as an offensive savior. I get the feeling that we just have to hope that more time and growth will be enough to bring out a mature and more fast paced style that we witnessed in glimpses last season with the dichotomy of great and terrible results at times. Harris gives the Magic a viable small ball lineup to compete with others. He can play both forward positions, create his own shot off isolations and run the floor, combine all those intangibles along with his steady rise from three-point land along with his age and it’s easy to see why we could expect him to build on his already impressive stat line of 17 points and over 6 rebounds per night.
Some fans and analysts don’t see Victor Oladipo as a potential All-Star player, they couldn’t be more wrong. One thing that all the best players preach is that if you want to be the best you have to be the hardest working. One thing the Rob Hennigan regime and the players it has drafted and traded for have in common are their work ethics. Hennigan talks about always being the hardest working staff, these ideas trickle down to the coaching staff and players alike. During the Scott Skiles intro conference and almost every interview with any of the Magic players you can hear the same words and message being said. Dipo is no different, in fact it could be argued that he is the hardest working player on the Magic. With only two seasons under his belt he has been able to show he can be an offensive force that can build on his game and continue to improve. Since his days at Indiana he has continued to increase his shooting percentages while learning the best way to help his team win. He’s capable of making a top ten defensive block and posterizing some unlucky soul who makes the mistake of getting in the way when he’s exploding to the basket. Victor has shown on a number of occasions that he can handle late game situations and won’t buckle under the pressure. The sophomore was able to put together a stat line of 17-4-4, how does that not scream potential All-Star! Obviously statistics aren’t everything, in fact many players around the league put up similar stats to Dipo. What is going to make him stand out from the rest will be his competitive nature and superb attitude towards always wanting to be the best and to work as hard as it takes to get there. He has shown what he is capable of and I believe he can be the star the city wants him to be while also being the leader and winner the Magic need him to be.
Last Summer brought even more excitement with the team welcoming rookies Aaron Gordon (drafted 4th), Elfrid Peyton (drafted 10th) and Devyn Marble. Picking Gordon fourth overall threw everyone off. However, it later became clear that the Magic’s interest in Payton before the draft must have been more obvious as the Sixer’s supposedly picked him with the tenth pick just because they knew Orlando wanted him bad enough to trade for him. His first season in the NBA had its usual rookie high’s and low’s. He was able to show glimpses of what he was capable of early on as then head coach Jacque Vaugn made Elfrid the starter not long into the season. As the season went on fans were able to see why Hennigan was so high on him. Payton proved to be a solid floor general and was often the motor behind the team’s ability to play fast and smothering defense. He played all 82 games and started 63 of them. By the end of the season he had collected two triple-doubles, in back-to-back games, and proved he could take over games on defense and offense despite his poor shooting stroke. The quiet point guard plays an unorthodox style of basketball, just watch a few of his games and you can see how differently he sees passing lanes and the way he moves around the court. Watch some highlights of his rookie season and you will see him get countless easy baskets based solely on the defensive player trying to guess where Payton was gonna go. He has proven at times to be almost unstoppable on the court, having on more than one occasion putting the team on his back and being responsible for come backs. After closing out what seemed like an insurmountable lead that gave the Magic a much deserved win against Houston, Dwight Howard gave all the credit to the point guard with the crazy hair. Dwight didn’t know his name at the time but he and the rest of the league are learning quickly to not sleep on Elfrid Payton.
Payton pretty much showed what he was about last season, we know what to expect out of him for the most part. His first round partner is a different story. Aaron Gordon is almost as much of a mystery as he was last year. An injury sidelined Gordon for most of the season. Although, he didn’t quite seem to find his way after coming back from injury, he was able to put together a positive stretch before getting hurt. Aaron represented the youngest player in the league at the time and yet he still managed to lead rookies in PER before his injury. Based on the small sample size we got to see of Gordon last year it was hard to predict what his role this season would be and what type of player he can truly be. Gordon showed everyone during the Summer League in Orlando what he has been working on and I don’t think anyone predicted he was going to be so dominant. The confidence and willingness to score and take any shot was on full display. His size matched with his ability to put the ball on the floor and take his defender to the rim was a skill he relied on last year, however during summer league he constantly showed off unknown tools that had Magic fans salivating. All of a sudden last year’s 4th pick is this exciting mystery that is showing signs of living up to the hype that comes along with being drafted that high. Aaron is the ideal image that represents what type of player Hennigan has tried to collect in the draft. He is an insane athlete with a great attitude towards learning everything he can about the game while being a multi-positional player. The immediate impact Gordon has is his ability to defend. He was often set to defend the opposing teams’ top scorer and gave the future ROY winner Andrew Wiggins a fit late in the season. Now granted, it was just summer league, but if Gordon can become a more consistent scorer and show he can compete against NBA level talent in the same manner he did during the summer then he adds another major weapon to our lineup that the Magic didn’t have last season.
After the hiring of Scott Skiles the next major question was who Orlando would draft. Based on needing multiple holes filled and the draft possibly going a number a different ways it was hard to narrow down one player the Magic wanted. Eventually they landed on Mario Hezonja, which seemed to be who Hennigan and company wanted from the start. A short video showed the excitement the staff seemed to have when they knew Hezonja would be their pick. Not much was known about Hezonja before the draft to the casual basketball fan as he had only played overseas up to that point. Watching highlights of Hezonja shows that he’s willing to shoot and drive to the basket. He not only has the talent to do both at a high level but also has the confidence you would want a go-to scorer to have. Before the draft many analysts dubbed him cocky, his confidence can seem extreme at times even for a league that consists of multiple players who can make an argument for their claim of being the best player in the world. The Croatian is a 6-8 shooting guard that will likely play some small forward this season and looked at to be the spark of our bench. The ceiling of talent that SUPER MARIO represents could be the final piece of the puzzle the Magic will eventually need if they are to compete for a championship one day.
Free agency brought with it the additions of C.J. Watson and eventually Jason Smith. Not really sure what type of effect Smith will have but the Watson signing was very important in my eyes. A clear upgrade from an aging Luke Ridnour, C.J. represents a savvy and reliable back-up point guard to starter Payton. He is a player who can defend, make threes and run an offense with experience in the playoffs. On top of the new additions I look for Channing Frye to bounce back from a lackluster season and be a more consistent three-point shooter. I think adding Hezonja and Watson to the bench alongside Evan Fournier and Dedmon should greatly increase the impact our second unit can have on games.
I’ve listed a lot of what-if scenarios and ideal situations for the Magic. However, I also predicted that they could reach a .500 record next year too, and if I am to believe they can reach that goal then I also have to believe that they will have at least a few of their projects pan out. I believe the stars have finally aligned for the Magic to make a substantial jump in the win department. Realistically, I think somewhere in between 30 wins, which ESPN predicted, and the 41 wins I can foresee is where they could end up. Payton during an interview said that the time to win is now, no more excuses. A sentiment that the rest of the team, including new coach Skiles, agree on. I’m buying in, just hope it’s not more fools gold.