For a team operating outside the national radar since the Dwight Howard fiasco, the Orlando Magic stir a lot of debate among curious front-office types from the league’s 29 other teams. The Magic in these arguments are either an intriguing young team hoarding a lucrative trove of assets, or an uninspiring collection of pieces with no clear path back to 50 wins.
Orlando is on pace for 24 wins after a 20-win season last year, and everyone involved knew the rebuilding process post-Dwight would be painful. (It would also involve less farting and candy.) Year 3 of rebuilding is often when the facade of promised patience begins to fall apart — when owners, management, and fans who signed up for long-term pain grow restless and agitate for change. “As players, we don’t believe in rebuilding,” says Arron Afflalo, the team’s leading scorer. “But I do think, in Year 3, it starts to escalate with fans, the coaching staff, and management, in terms of expecting to win night-to-night. In Year 3, it builds up. It’s time to get it done.”
A third straight awful season wouldn’t be an unprecedented death knell in the rebuilding process. Ten of the league’s 30 teams have suffered through three consecutive sub-30-win seasons since the 1999 lockout, and some, including the Cavaliers and Grizzlies, have trudged through two such stretches of depression during that time. The pile of sad sacks reveals how easy it is to get stuck at the bottom. Almost every team on that list went through multiple coaching and management changes, and required at least one foundational roster shift to emerge from the dreariness — a massive hit in the right lottery (LeBron James, Blake Griffin, John Wall), a free-agent coup, or an unprecedented spending spree (Brooklyn).
The Magic are guaranteed none of those things, but the team’s management and its obnoxiously young head coach, 39-year-old Jacque Vaughn, remain confident in the process. Business is still booming, says Alex Martins, the team’s CEO. The Magic also have three extra first-round picks coming in the next half-decade, and ownership will spend up to the tax if need be — and over it once the team is near “one piece away” status again, Martins says. There is no push for a specific leap next season. “As long as we’re seeing incremental improvement, we’re going to be happy,” Martins says. “And every single one of our young guys has improved from the start of the season.”
Vaughn, perhaps the most intriguing piece of the team’s organizational puzzle, isn’t even discussing win-total goals for 2014-15. “What we want to do is have growth,” he says. “My job is to get these guys better every day. Where that leads us, I’m not sure. I don’t know what our win total is going to be. I don’t know how the East is going to look, or if it’s going to take just 30 wins to make the playoffs — or if it’s going to take 50.”
You can understand the skepticism some of the league feels about the Magic’s path. Maurice Harkless has stagnated in his second year. He is uncertain with the ball, he rarely shoots, and he has not met the organization’s expectations for him on defense. But he’s not yet 21. Tobias Harris has lost his jump shot and remains a tricky lineup fit. He gives up size at power forward, where he thrived last season during Glen Davis’s absence, and has struggled this season at some of the basic things an NBA small forward has to do. He’s a poor long-range shooter and a shaky ball handler, and he has trouble at times tracking quicker wing players scurrying around the floor. The number of post-up threats in the Magic’s core lineups — Nikola Vucevic, Afflalo, Davis — limits Harris’s chances to bully smaller wings down low. “That’s how it goes,” Harris says. “I have to be patient and not complain. I feel like we’re taking steps in the right direction, and I want to do whatever I can to help us win games.”
Davis and Jameer Nelson are not going to be part of the next Magic era. Ryan Anderson, perhaps the league’s most lethal 3-point shooting power forward, is already gone — signed and traded to New Orleans on a fair contract, with almost nothing beyond payroll flexibility to show for it.
Everyone assumes Afflalo won’t be around long, either, but his game has blossomed as a featured player in Orlando, and he’s the kind of good character guy the Magic value perhaps more than other teams.1 The Magic likely could have dealt Afflalo for some rebuilding fodder by now, but they’ve chosen not to — at least so far, with just 48 hours until the league’s trade deadline. “I love the opportunity this team has given me individually,” he says. “In a perfect world, I’ll continue to grow, the young guys will continue to grow, and I’ll be able to win while being an elite player.”
The Magic are, to some degree, leaning on veterans who won’t be here in two or three years. The young guys have plateaued early, the story goes. But there are two huge exceptions to that narrative: Victor Oladipo and Vucevic. Oladipo is a two-way beast who’s handling the ball more than almost anyone anticipated and showing flashes of being an explosive pick-and-roll creator. His jump shot isn’t great, but it isn’t broken, either. The pessimists see Oladipo as a complementary piece unlikely to ever reach All-Star level. The Magic are cautiously optimistic he’ll be better than that, and with good reason. If you set the over/under on Oladipo All-Star appearances at 2.5, I’d take the over — but barely.
Vucevic is among the most divisive players in the league, and he’s looking at an eight-figure salary when his rookie deal expires after next season. He has worked himself into a versatile offensive player, he’s a killer rebounder on both ends,2 and he has done well containing opposing pick-and-rolls in an Orlando scheme that asks big men to drop back:
But he’s not an explosive athlete, and despite his mammoth size, it’s unclear if Vucevic will ever scare anyone at the basket. “Defensively, he has some work to do,” Afflalo says of Vucevic. “But offensively and with his rebounding, he’s been great for us.” Vucevic knows he has to master timing and positioning down low to emerge as a rim protector worth a major investment. “I’m not the type of guy who’s going to get three or four blocks a game,” he says. “But just being there to protect the basket — that’s what I need to get better at.”
The Magic don’t just want to win 50 games and lose in the second round. They want to contend for championships, and even win one. And almost all of NBA history suggests that to do that, you need a top-10 or top-15 player in his prime. “We’ve had a lot of success in 25 years,” Martins says. “We’ve been to the Finals twice. Not a lot of teams can say that. But that is not our goal. Our goal is to win a championship. And we haven’t been able to sustain our success. We keep getting to the pinnacle, and then something happens, and we’ve got to start over again.”
The top of the draft is the best way to find and keep such superstars, and the Magic will have a high pick in a very good draft this June. But it’s possible the picks that Philadelphia, Denver, and the Lakers owe Orlando will all fall outside the lottery.3 It’s hard to find above-average starters in those draft slots, let alone franchise changers. So what happens if the Magic don’t nail their own pick? Is it just mediocrity into the 2020s?
Those draft picks are more than just picks, of course. They’re currency on the trade market. Cap space can work the same way, and the Magic are flush with that. They’ll have max-level cap space in each summer going forward, even factoring in high salaries for future first-rounders and potential new deals for guys like Vucevic, Oladipo, and emerging backup center Kyle O’Quinn. Like the Suns and Celtics, Orlando would seem poised to chase the rare veteran free agent itching to switch teams — either via outright free agency or trade.
Orlando is a good market with a great basketball facility. Players enjoy it there, and Florida famously has no state income tax. Executives and agents view it as a strong enough draw to attract a second star-level player, provided the Magic somehow land a first star — sort of how Houston used the lure of James Harden to bait Howard.
But landing that first star is going to be an enormous challenge if Rob Hennigan, the team’s sharp young GM, can’t find one in the draft. Boston, Phoenix, and perhaps a few other asset-rich teams can compete for the Kevin Love types on the trade market. The Lakers are in position to chase anyone in free agency. New York is New York. Miami looms as a wild card going forward.
More than that, there just aren’t star-level types available in a way that fits Orlando’s timeline. The Love situation in Minnesota isn’t good, but Love has a player option for 2015-16, which means he’ll essentially be playing under an expiring contract the minute this season ends. With the Lakers hovering over any potential free-agent talks, a midmarket team like Orlando can’t shell out assets for a Love-type rental without a longer-term guarantee — an extend-and-trade, or perhaps Love opting in for 2015-16 as Howard and Chris Paul have done in recent melodramas. Rajon Rondo, who plays a position of need for Orlando, is coming off ACL surgery and working under an optionless contract that expires after next season. LaMarcus Aldridge is happy in Portland.
There might not be a single Harden type available anywhere in the league: a guy on a rookie contract with a history of star-level production, on a team cornered into trading him by the luxury tax or some other factor. Harden hitting the trade market was an anomalous situation, and not enough teams recognized that and acted with appropriate aggression. Teams have been more careful with their cap sheets under the new collective bargaining agreement, leaving fewer of them so desperate to shed money that they’d sacrifice a quality player to do so.
This is why at least one team outside Indiana is going to throw a ton of money at Lance Stephenson in free agency. Stephenson is an unrestricted free agent, and 23-year-olds as good as Lance Stephenson almost never hit free agency unfettered so early in their careers. But the odds are probably against Orlando being one of those teams. Stephenson is a very good player, but there is anxiety around the league that he won’t be quite as selfless, on and off the court, if someone extracts him from the Indiana–Larry Bird cocoon of winning veterans. He also has some positional overlap with Oladipo, though in a modern NBA in which having multiple expert ball handlers on the floor at once is a basic necessity, they could easily function together.
But free agency is a delicate thing for any rebuilding team. Orlando basically punted last summer, signing fringe rotation players in Jason Maxiell and Ronnie Price on cheap deals to provide that magical “veteran leadership.” They barely exceeded the minimum salary floor, a stance that screams, “We don’t really care how many games we win.” If they sign similar stopgap contracts with borderline NBA players this summer, it will be a sign that ownership is indeed onboard with an ultra-patient approach.
The Cavaliers stand as an example of a rebuilding team that ditched prudent patience to goose the process. They spent big on both Andrew Bynum and Jarrett Jack, and though Bynum’s deal represented an almost consequence-free gamble, the Cavs are already working to get out of Jack’s four-year contract, per several reports that surfaced Monday. Losing hurts. Losing over three or four seasons, leaving cap room unspent, requires a high pain tolerance.
The Magic say they have it. Martins is fond of saying the team is “on plan,” and Vaughn delights, for now, in teaching his young players the day-to-day habits it takes to function in the NBA grind. He’s also discovering, gradually, what kind of coach he wants to be. The Magic are a stodgy bunch on offense, and they don’t look much like the pick-and-rolling, 3-point shooting machine Gregg Popovich built in San Antonio — the team that nurtured Vaughn as a coach.
Orlando plays at an average pace, jacks more midrange jumpers than all but three teams, and attempts a below-average number of 3s, per NBA.com. They sport an idiosyncratic offense built on running Afflalo, Harkless, and Harris through a maze of pin-down screens in all directions, with one player often following another around the circle. Afflalo doesn’t get to run the offense as much as he would probably like, and Vaughn says all the screening is designed in part to free Afflalo for midrange jumpers. “When your leading scorer doesn’t handle the ball as much,” Afflalo says, “you have to go more to pin-downs and post-ups. It’s just the way they use me for the moment. It is what it is, and it’ll work best for Jameer and Victor to have the ball in their hands.”
Vaughn says at this point in his coaching career, he’s catering strategy to personnel instead of fitting players into a rigid system. The team is midrange-heavy because it features midrange shooters in Afflalo, Oladipo, and especially Davis, who enjoys tossing up 18-footers almost as much as computer keyboards. (Sorry.) Vaughn says he’d like to play a more free-flowing style, but not until he has the roster to do so. “I have probably less ego than a lot of people,” Vaughn says. “For me, it’s about maximizing our guys’ talents. Would I like to play faster and get up and down more? Yes. And I think we’ll build that kind of roster. We’ll get there.”
The team is growing on defense, where it ranks 17th in points allowed per possession — not bad, considering the roster. Vaughn has installed a very aggressive help system in which wing players stray farther from shooters than most teams would permit in order to protect the paint. Here’s Nelson abandoning his man, George Hill (in the right corner), to patrol a Paul George isolation:
George skipped the ball to Hill for an open 3-pointer. Here’s Afflalo leaving George in the corner to pester David West on a pick-and-pop as West’s defender (Big Baby) recovers:
They generally creep in from the weak side earlier and farther than most team defenses:
It’s a risky strategy. Teams that move the ball well can swing it around for open 3s as the Magic scramble in help rotations. But not every team is equipped to make those kinds of smart passes, and Vaughn wants to start the process of growing a defense inside-out.
It’s working, to a degree. Only nine teams allow fewer shot attempts in the restricted area, and only three allow fewer points in the paint, per NBA.com.
That’s a start, and the Magic locker room is a strikingly harmonious place — a rare thing for a team featuring veterans who want the minutes they’re accustomed to and young guys chasing numbers and money. The organization credits the positive vibes to Vaughn’s straight talk with each player.
But the Magic have so far to go, and they know it. Finding a star in this draft is crucial for the Magic’s long-term championship aspirations. If they find merely a good player, the road is going to be very difficult.
10 Things I Like and Don’t Like
1. The Terror of Lance Stephenson
You can learn a lot about a team when you’re lucky enough to snag a courtside press-row seat, especially if you’re along the baseline next to that team’s bench. I had such an experience with the Pacers for the first time last week in Orlando, and the main thing I learned is that Lance Stephenson is even more terrifying at close range.
We all know he loves to grab defensive rebounds, turn upcourt, and dribble like a madman down the middle — even if the numbers are against him. The power of that process is an incredible spectacle. Stephenson doesn’t just rebound the ball; he ensnares it with one hand, and then slams it into his other hand with such a loud thwack that it sounds as if someone has let off a loud firecracker. Stephenson is a snarling, speeding bull in the open court. LeBron might be the only player with the same combination of speed, size, strength, and outright ferocity.
Stephenson doesn’t always make the right decision, and as his star has risen over the last couple of months, it seems he is more often choosing flashy highlight-chasing over sound fundamentals in the open floor. That probably drives Frank Vogel mad. But for a neutral observer, it only adds to the terror quotient.
2. Watching the Sixers
The Sixers play at the league’s fastest pace, jack a ton of 3s, and break out something like a full-court press during stretches of every game. It was fun for a while, but they’ve become very hard to watch as we enter the stretch run. Their style of play almost has a numbing effect. “Oh, another missed 3 with 18 seconds left on the shot clock and no potential rebounder under the rim.”
Philly simply doesn’t have the talent to compete this way, or any way. The Sixers’ bench is a D-League team, and both Michael Carter-Williams and Evan Turner have been slumping from the field for weeks. Their press functions more as a mechanism for easy opponent layups.
The Sixers insist playing fast isn’t a tanking ploy, and I believe them. There are those around the league who argue playing fast and launching 3s is the wave of the NBA’s future, and that it will make the league more exciting. I can see that. But a bad team playing this way is horrid to watch.
3. The Kyle Lowry Pass-and-Cut
Lowry’s not the only guard who regularly turns an “Uh-oh, I picked up my dribble” crisis into an instant give-and-go, but I’m not sure anyone does it more often:
He’s a wonderfully creative player on both ends, doing things just a hair differently than the typical NBA guard might — passing the ball a beat later, dishing it from a weird angle, crashing down into the paint unexpectedly on defense, etc. It’s insane he wasn’t in the All-Star Game. Insane. The coaches should be ashamed.
4. Very High Pick-and-Rolls for Melo
The Knicks are still a dangerous offensive team when they take even the tiniest steps to vary their boring isolation-heavy attack, and doing that involves using Carmelo Anthony in lots of different ways. One I really like:
That’s a classic high pick-and-roll with Melo as the ball handler, only the Knicks will sometimes have Tyson Chandler set the screen a few steps closer to midcourt than most teams would. It gives Melo more space before he hits the first layer of help defense, and thus more of a head of steam, and he can absolutely kill big-guy help defenders in space with the lefty hesitation move he uses here.
Hey, Knicks: PLEASE PLAY FUNCTIONAL BASKETBALL MORE OFTEN.
5. Marcus Thornton’s Defense
It just hasn’t happened for Thornton, whose contract is now one of the very worst in the league. His shooting has been a disaster this season, and he has never improved as a defender. He still gets lost away from the ball, and he’s always spacing out or ball-watching as his man cuts behind him. He has never shown any organized commitment to team defense or help schemes. He’s just not a useful NBA player right now.
6. The Wolves’ Monster Handoff
Ladies and gentlemen, the most unfair dribble handoff in the NBA:
First of all, a dribble handoff from one big to another is so rare that it will almost automatically catch a defense off guard.
But there is even more going on here. Before heading over to Nikola Pekovic, Kevin Love sets a down screen for Kevin Martin on the right wing:
Minnesota has no other player on the right side, meaning Love’s guy, Pau Gasol, has to sink down to account for Martin’s cut. That tiny pause puts Gasol way behind Love as Pekovic prepares the handoff, leaving Jordan Hill to figure out what is going on here and (if he does figure it out) try to fight through a very scary pick from a very scary man:
Just a beautiful use of three skilled players.
7. Kevin Seraphin’s Hook Shot
It’s a useful shot, and Seraphin has a soft touch with either hand. But it sometimes seems as if Seraphin would rather shoot hooks than do anything else, regardless of where he is on the court. “I’m posting up 17 feet from the basket at a weird angle? HOOK SHOT, BABY!” “I’m directly underneath the rim, in dunking range? FIRE UP THE HOOK!”
The hook addiction is one of many reasons Seraphin has never gotten to the line or passed the ball enough to be a reliable post player. He has 43 combined free throw attempts and assists this entire season.
8. George Blaha–isms
I’ve praised Blaha, Detroit’s play-by-play man, before, and specifically for his use of the term “glasser” to describe a bank shot. But Blaha’s entire arsenal of catchphrases just gets more and more endearing. He calls the 3-point arc the “long line,” as in, “Josh Smith, again, from behind the long line.” A 3-point shot might be a “long gun.” And instead of announcing that there are “two minutes and 45 seconds left,” or the simpler “two forty-five to go,” Blaha might add a little flourish: “two and 45 left.”
I just like this guy’s style.
9. The Instant Steal-Shot Sequence
A pet peeve: when a little guy grabs a steal in the backcourt, usually right after an inbound pass, and immediately attempts to shoot it, regardless of the situation. I admit, it’s a great way to shift the momentum and demoralize an opponent — following one gut punch by landing another right away.
But the pursuit of the double highlight often involves a little guy flinging a wild layup over two defenders, including a bigger player who likely just inbounded the ball and is lingering nearby. There are times to pull it out.
LeBron stole this post-shot taunt from Nick Van Exel, though he admits the plagiarism. It was apparently Van Exel’s attempt at an inverse of “raise the roof” for use in road games, symbolically quieting enemy fans after a big shot.
I love it. It’s powerful and emphatic, and anyone can imitate it. It should be approved for gratuitous and silly use in pickup games.