• Kyle Zwiazek

Magic in the Air: Does Orlando Host the Best Basketball in the World?

The season is in its infancy, but the magic in Orlando just might be real. Since April 10th, 2017 the Orlando Magic have lost just five games of basketball — and now they sit atop the Southeast division in a realm outside of all expectations. Our very own OTG Power Rankings had the Orlando Magic ranked 27th in the league heading into the season, and most other sites had them around the same spot. Given the undisputed intelligence of OTG writers, Orlando is obviously the biggest shock of this young season. So what sorcery prompted this enchanted team to defy expert analysis?

Short answer: Frank Vogel, one of the most underrated coaches in the NBA. The 44-year-old from New Jersey has worked in the Association for the better part of the 21st century after learning from the best of the NCAA. Starting as a student manager for the Kentucky Wildcats in 1994, Vogel learned from legendary head coach Rick Pitino. Hopefully, he just learned from the former Louisville coach’s tactics and strategy — not his off-field recruiting. Vogel must have left a great impression on Pitino because he was hired when Rick was in Boston with the Celtics. From there, Vogel has bounced around a bit in the NBA holding various positions until he became the coach of the Indiana Pacers.

While with the Pacers, Vogel successfully got his team into the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals against the Miami Heat. His regular season record with Indiana was 250-181, a winning percentage of 58%. Vogel is the wizard that can stir the Orlando Magic’s brew into a next-level franchise. And their next level is just about wins — Orlando has not been above .500 since the 2011-12 season.

Besides the expertise of Vogel, Orlando has a talented, young crop of building blocks. The group is led by the infamous Aaron-Judge-look-alike Aaron “Air” Gordon. Gordon has taken a big step this season by averaging 7 more points and 3 more rebounds than he did in 2016-17. This is a big step for the young forward because the Magic need action on the scoreboard, and Gordon is delivering. If he can continue this push, AG could lock down an All-Star bid this season. Down low with Gordon, Nikola Vucevic is proving why he should not be one of the most underrated centers in the game. The Swiss big man consistently averages double-doubles. His rebound numbers are a little down this season, but the Magic have not played that many games yet. This scoring tandem in the middle is what coach Vogel is hoping to build around.

At the other forward position, the Magic rely on Frenchman Evan Fournier to score early and often. Fournier has been one of the European revelations in the NBA in recent years and continues to put up great scoring numbers. At age 25, Fournier has consistently improved his scoring numbers every year he has been in the league. Compared to last season, Fournier is averaging 3 more points a game. And his shooting splits have been incredible, even if unsustainable: Fournier is shooting 51% from the field, 47% from three, and 96% from the line en route to 20 points, 5 rebounds, and 4 assists per game. Of course, the sample size is small and he came down to earth a little against the Celtics on November 5th (2-14 from the field, 2-9 from three), but the start to the season has been excellent and worthy of credit. If three players can average close to 20 points a game the Magic will be in for an exciting campaign.

Orlando rounds out their starting lineup with guards Elfrid Payton and Terrence Ross. Payton is one of those up-and-coming young point guards that could be a star in the near future. At this point he is a ball-distributor that can get the Magic close to ten points a game. Payton is the perfect style of point guard for this team because he gets assists consistently and has quick hands for a steal or two every game. He also has really fun hair, so it is easy to root for the guy. Terrence Ross is a nice veteran presence that can be the glue that holds the team together. He will not be too impressive in any aspect of his game, but will be a solid pro every game.

The bench has also played extremely well. One of the top guys off the bench has been Jonathon Simmons. Simmons came over via free agency from San Antonio and has thrived in Florida, averaging 8 more points a game than he has in either of his first two seasons in the NBA while shooting 52% from the field, 38% from three, and 80% from the line. At this point Simmons is one of the more exciting sixth-man options in the league.

When all of these forces are brought together the Magic look less like a group of guys successfully enchanted by short-term spells and more like an actual basketball team with legitimate leadership. It may be too early in the season to see what Orlando is really made of, but fans in central Florida should nonetheless be excited about the prospects of making a playoff run. With how the Cavaliers and Warriors have looked it is easy to not jump to conclusions on the season. Orlando does have a shot to make a playoff run this year and it will be fun to see what their young players can do against some of the top teams in the league.

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