The Orlando Magic on the Rise
*Photo via USA Today
The Magic are now in the midst of their fourth season since the Dwight Howard/Stan Van Gundy era, and the team finally appears to have turned the corner. The past three seasons the Magic have finished last in the Southeast division with 25 or fewer victories. This season, their first with former Magic point guard Scott Skiles as head coach, they are 20-18 and look like a legitimate playoff contender. Orlando’s futility on the court the past few seasons has paid off in the form of high draft picks. Now that the Magic have so many young and promising players on rookie contracts, Orlando looks like a team on the rise.
Orlando only has four long-term contracts (not including rookie contracts) on its books. This offseason Orlando signed veteran guard CJ Watson (3 years, $15 Million) to backup Elfrid Payton at the point guard position. Watson suited up the first 8 games of the year and has since been out with a calf injury, making it hard to judge the contract. Watson has proved to be a serviceable backup, but his signing now seems a bit unnecessary with the acquisition of Shabazz Napier. The Magic made a great deal to acquire Napier for practically nothing from the division rival Heat. He is only on the second year of his rookie contract and could still pan out to be a solid NBA player. Perhaps the Magic would not have signed Watson if they knew they would be able to trade for Napier. Either way Watson’s contract shouldn’t be much of a burden to the team’s cap space. Big man Channing Frye is now in the second year of his 4-year $32 Million contract. Frye has been a big disappointment for the Magic and clearly looks to be a bad signing. Frye is still a lethal shooter as a big man, but he hasn’t had the same impact for the Magic as he had for the Suns. Frye could be yet another player whose stock went up due to Steve Nash and the up-tempo system ran in Phoenix.
*Photo via ESPN
Orlando’s two biggest contracts deservingly belong Tobias Harris and Nikola Vucevic, perhaps the team’s two best players. Vucevic, in the first year of a 4-year $48 Million deal, has an outside chance of making his first All-Star team. Vucevic’s stats are down, but he has played smarter and more efficient basketball that has helped the team’s success. Vucevic will likely never wow anyone as a defender, but he can hold his own on that end of the court. Offensively Vucevic is one of the most gifted and fundamentally sound players in the league. Vucevic can make jumpers, post up, and is a good passer. Many fans may look at Tobias Harris’s decline in scoring as a signal of regression, but it is just the opposite. In the first year of a 4-year $64 Million contract, Harris has become less of a volume scorer and a more well-rounded team player. Harris has always had the size to play both forward positions offensively, but this year he is proving he can guard both spots as well. At just 23 years old, Harris still has plenty of time to further refine his game. Don’t be surprised if Harris becomes an All-Star in the near future.
The biggest change Scott Skiles has made is separating young guards Elfrid Payton and Victor Oladipo by moving Oladipo out of the starting lineup. Oladipo and Payton are both very young and athletic guards that the team hopes will be able to form a lethal duo. For now it is hard to play the two extended minutes together because of their poor shooting. Payton is a promising second year point guard that has shown great court vision and defensive potential. Holding Payton back is his shooting. Payton simply can’t shoot; he has made less than 60% of his foul shots and less than 30% of his three point attempts. Until he becomes merely an average shooter he will remain in the bottom half of the top starting point guards in the NBA. I also feel the need to mention that Payton is my vote for worst hair in a league full of awful hairstyles. The guy looks like he has a palm tree on top of his head. Oladipo is not as bad of a shooter as Payton, but he is still a below average shooter. Oladipo does nearly everything else well, but coupling the shooting deficiencies of Oladipo and Payton in the same lineup is difficult in today’s game.
Fortunately for the Magic, they have another impressive and young shooting guard in Evan Fournier. Fournier is another good defender for the Magic, and he is posting career highs in nearly every major statistical category. Fournier, a restricted free agent this offseason, will almost certainly receive a big contract. It will be interesting to see how highly the Magic value Fournier given their plethora of young players. Another surprise for the Magic has been the mini resurgence of former first round pick Andrew Nicholson. Nicholson has shown the ability to be a reliable stretch 4 off the bench. Nicholson, like Fournier, will be a restricted free agent this summer.
*Photo via USA Today
The most astonishing part of Orlando’s success is that they have received very little contributions from who I believe to be their two most promising players: Aaron Gordon and Mario Hezonja. The 20-year-old Hezonja was the 5th pick in this year’s draft out of Croatia. Many European players are given the stereotype of being soft upon entering the league, but Hezonja seems to be quite the opposite. Leading up to the draft many scouts described Hezonja as having a swagger to his game and maybe being even a bit over confident. Hezonja looks ready for more minutes, but unfortunately they are not available with the likes of Oladipo, Gordon, Fournier, and Harris on the roster. Gordon, in his second season, is also stuck behind many players in his quest for more playing time. In a league full of incredible athletes, Gordon is almost certainly in the top-10 most athletic players in the game. Gordon possesses the athleticism to guard nearly any player at any position in the league. Defensively he has the potential to be similar to Lebron James. Gordon’s problems come on the other end of the floor. Gordon is a bit undersized as a big man and doesn’t have much of a post game. On the flip side Gordon is simply nowhere near skilled enough as a shooter to play as a wing. Despite their individual upsides, it’s hard to imagine Gordon, Payton, and Oladipo ever playing well together due to the lack of shooting.
Overall the Magic are in very good shape as a franchise. They are filled with young and promising talent throughout the roster and at every position. There are no terrible contracts on the books, and they own all of their first round picks. They may even be receiving a future first round pick from the Los Angeles Lakers. If the Magic do make the playoffs this season it is hard to imagine them winning a series. Nonetheless it would be great experience for their young players. The Magic will certainly be a team to reckon with for the foreseeable future.
Stats courtesy of basketball reference