The Orlando Magic has shown themselves to be a bit of a resurrection story in this 2018-19 early NBA season. However, due to many years of poor decisions, and putrid records, the obvious question must be asked: Is Orlando ever going to be good?
Success begins in the front
Success has vanished into thin air in The Magic Kingdom.
Since 2011-12, the Orlando Magic has failed to register a winning season. Orlando has been lottery bound for the last seven years, spending season after season drafting elite college players, until the inability to develop them forced a regime change. Out went Rob Hennigan, in came Jeff Weltman as the Magic’s general manager. Weltman came to the Magic with a reputation of spotting talent and developing them into real deal NBA players. It was Weltman, then with the Bucks’ front office, who saw the potential in a lanky Greek youngster named Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Now with Orlando, Weltman once again has drafted a skinny, rangy forward with guard skills, Jonathan Isaac, in his first year in charge. Weltman followed that up by drafting talented, raw, extremely athletic 7 footer Mohamed Bamba last summer. Now that Weltman has his fingerprints on the roster, another change was needed.
A Teacher Change was needed
Frank Vogel gained his reputation as a hard working, nose-to-the-grindstone type of coach. After logging a 58% winning percentage as the Pacers head man, he struggled mightily to duplicate that success in Orlando, and was subsequently fired after back to back sub 30 win seasons.
Enter Steve Clifford. Clifford was unceremoniously let go by the Charlotte Hornets after they too made a regime overhaul. The difference is, Hornets owner Michael Jordan has a terrible eye for talent.
Clifford has been a coach since 1983 beginning at the high school level. In 2000, New York Knicks head coach Jeff Van Gundy then with the New York Knicks brought Clifford into the fold, and he has been an NBA coach since. As head coach with the Bobcats (now Hornets), Clifford engineered a 22 win turnaround in his first season. In 5 seasons under Clifford, the Bobcats/Hornets recorded 196 wins to 214 losses; excellent if you consider the previous 5 seasons (141-253).
The Weltman/ Clifford combination immediately started paying dividends. Clifford has the Magic playing with a defensive aggression not dissimilar to his Hornet teams. While the numbers look similar to last season under Vogel, the Magic currently boast a record of 12-15. For comparison’s sake, last year’s squad didn’t record its 12th victory until December 28th and won a measly 25 games all
The established veterans
The key to the Magic’s quick turnaround has been the play of Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic. Both players have established themselves as the top dawgs on this roster, with Vucevic playing at an All-Star level.
Gordon’s move from small forward to power forward seems to suit him perfectly. With the athleticism of a guard and strength of a big man, Gordon is proving himself to be a nightly headache for the opposition. Through 25 games, Gordon has drained 38.1 percent of his threes, making him a viable threat on the perimeter. The 23 year old pogo stick is also averaging career highs in steals, blocks, and assists this season.
Vucevic’s development continues to amaze. For the first time in his 7 year career, Vucevic is a 20 points and 10 rebounds per game player. Vucevic also is a threat from beyond the three-point arc, making threes at a career-high 40.5 percent clip. An All-Star berth possibly beckons (and maybe an All-NBA team) if Vucevic keeps this up.
The Young Magicians
The young magicians continue to develop slowly but steadily. Clifford is not the most trusting of young players so their opportunities are somewhat few and far between. However, Bamba and Isaac slow flashes of brilliance which engenders optimism to fans in the Magic Kingdom.
Currently, Bamba plays 17 minutes per game. With an average of 6.6 points and 4.6 rebounds per game, Bamba most notably also averages 1.3 blocks per contest. Bamba also boasts a Player Efficiency Rating (PER) of 16.1. Keep in mind the league average PER is 15. These numbers are not terrible considering Bamba plays behind Vucevic and Gordon.
Isaac, whose rookie season was shortened through injury, currently averages 8.5 points and 5.2 rebounds while playing 23 minutes per contest. Unfortunately, Isaac’s PER is a paltry 13.1. Defensively, however, Isaac has made his mark. Isaac currently possesses a Defensive Box Plus-Minus rating of 1.7 which compares favorably All-Defensive stud Kawhi Leonard’s 1.3.
Now the bad news
This Magic team as currently constituted has gaping flaws. While the frontcourt appears to be the Magic’s strength, the backcourt is undoubtedly weak. The point guard position is woefully lacking in terms of talent. A position of weakness, the point guard position is manned currently manned by D.J. Augustin and Jerian Grant. Certainly not starter material.
Seventh year wing Evan Fournier’s play has been good at times but resembles his namesake illness ‘Fournier’s Gangrene’ (google if you dare) more often than not. A quick browse of Fournier’s stats shows he’s averaging 15.1 points per game but he currently shoots below league average from three-point land with an overall field goal average of 41.9 percent. Defensively, Fournier is no better. The definition of mediocre, Fournier boasts a PER of 12.3.
Better days ahead
If one takes this Magic situation in totality, they may come to the logical conclusion that better days are ahead. The fact is the Orlando Magic is indeed going to be good and soon. To use Harry Potter as a reference, Weltman is Professor Albus Dumbledore, with Clifford as Professor Snape. The ultimate question: is any member of the current crop of “magicians” Harry Potter? With wins over the San Antonio Spurs, Boston Celtics and twice defeating the LA Lakers, the Magic have shown they’re not to be taken lightly. Expect the Magic turnaround to continue sharply and steadily.