The Orlando Magic don’t have super-high expectations for the upcoming season, but it’s time for their promising young core to take a step forward under new head coach Scott Skiles, and a playoff berth isn’t out of the realm of possibility.
What Happened Last Year
Last season was the third season in general manager Rob Hennigan’s far-sighted rebuilding plan, and was the first year in which the plan took significant and worrying steps backwards.
It’s clear now that Hennigan erred when he hired Jacque Vaughn to be Orlando’s head coach, which happened about a month after Hennigan himself was hired in the summer of 2012. Even though Vaughn had a sneakily intriguing NBA career, playing backup point guard on some of the game’s smartest-ever teams — first the Stockton-Malone Utah Jazz and then alongside Tony Parker and Tim Duncan with the championship-winning Spurs — he was totally unable to teach strong defense as a coach. In his three years in Orlando, the Magic finished 25th, then 17th, then 24th in terms of per-possession defense. What makes those well-below-average marks even worse is that Hennigan was supplying Vaughn with players who were offensively limited and defensively focused, like Elfrid Payton and Aaron Gordon.
As the Utah Jazz just experienced with Tyrone Corbin, or like the Denver Nuggets just experienced with Brian Shaw, hiring the wrong coach can make an already-lengthy rebuilding process essentially jog in place for a full season-plus. The 2014-15 season was another year of experience for Orlando’s ever-growing group of intriguing 25-and-under players. A successful rebuilding team, though, should probably be more proactive in multi-tasking with its time at the bottom of the standings.
Regardless, the team extended Hennigan’s contract through the end of the 2017-18 season just as this regular season ended, perhaps a sign that both ownership and the front office are looking further out on the horizon than we are. (Seeing as Vaughn has already been hired back by the Spurs, perhaps installing Vaughn as a head coach before the age of 40 was just putting a “young” dude too far in over his head.)
What Happened This Summer
The first key decision that Hennigan faced was who to hire as the team’s head coach. It was somewhat surprising, then, that Hennigan — who’s still under 35 — decided to hire Scott Skiles, a coaching journeyman who comes with about as old-school a mentality as it gets. While there’s nothing sexy about the selection of Skiles, his hiring effectively serves as a clear sign that the Magic want to have a defensive identity going forward.
For the first time in Hennigan’s tenure, there were many key decisions that faced him and the team in free agency. The Magic elected not to retain the highly efficient center Kyle O’Quinn in restricted free agency, actually facilitating a sign-and-trade for O’Quinn to the New York Knicks on a four-year, $16M contract. The team did decide to retain Tobias Harris in restricted free agency, which came at a much higher fee: four years, $64M.
Orlando made a strong and surprising early push for unrestricted free agent Paul Millsap. While I see how Millsap on the Magic would be an excellent stylistic fit, it’s also not terribly surprising that Millsap elected to stay with the fabulously successful Atlanta Hawks on a three-year, $58.9M deal. In the end, the largest contract that Hennigan agreed to in unrestricted free agency was with journeyman backup point guard C.J. Watson, on a three-year, $15M pact. The team also made the apparently annual shuffling around of end-of-bench veterans: out went Luke Ridnour, Ben Gordon and Willie Green, and in came Watson, Jason Smith and Greg Stiemsma.
Hennigan also had a huge decision to make from the top five picks in the draft, as he also had from the two years previously. The team chose the fiery Croatian Mario Hezonja, who’s likely already one of the team’s more capable three-point shooters.
While it’s a small move, Hennigan also managed to swing an extremely one-sided trade with the Miami Heat: the Magic acquired Shabazz Napier for a future protected second-round pick that’s unlikely to convey. Why the Heat were willing to essentially dump Napier after just his rookie season is puzzling, but kudos to Hennigan for working the phones and picking up some phenomenal potential value.
Key Player: Aaron Gordon
I think a lot of the descriptions that you can apply to Gordon apply to the Magic and their rebuild in general: he’s extremely young (just turned 20 before this year’s training camps), is extremely focused as a person and as a player, and has potential that’s both sky-high and not yet fulfilled.
Gordon was the fourth pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, and submitted an entirely un-star-like rookie year stat line: 17 minutes, 5.2 points, 3.6 rebounds per game. Much like the Magic’s entire rebuild project, Gordon hasn’t necessarily busted — his rookie year was interrupted with a broken foot, limiting him to just 47 games — but it’s certainly going to take a significant amount of time to develop. Hennigan has very intentionally filled his team with players of a high work ethic — many of Gordon’s rookie year highlights are directly the result of pushing through with phenomenal effort — and the idea is that work ethic will start to pay dividends under a demanding coach like Skiles.
Having never really been a fan of the Magic in the past, I’ve really started to enjoy the team after seeing the many incrementally advantageous moves that Hennigan makes. I always think back to the trade that sent Dwight Howard to the Los Angeles Lakers, which Hennigan made just a few months into his tenure. At the time it happened, everybody hated the trade for the Magic: “They didn’t receive a star player in return for Howard” was the main critique.
Three years later, Howard and the other two stars involved in the four-team deal — Andre Iguodala and (what?!) Andrew Bynum — are long gone from the teams they were traded to, and in the meantime the Magic have Nikola Vucevic, Elfrid Payton, Evan Fournier (who they acquired by trading Arron Afflalo, another player received in the Howard deal) and a forthcoming first-round pick from Los Angeles. It took some time to realize it, but the Magic didn’t emerge with the worst return from the trade: they clearly emerged with the best.
I think a lot of Hennigan’s moves work in the same way: they look small, maybe even directionless at first — but then time passes, players develop and it turns out that that initial decision was a good one. Last year was the first time that Hennigan’s project took meaningful steps backward — but I don’t think the years of work have been totally derailed. I feel that Hennigan has made too many little smart moves in the past for them not to pay dividends. That’s why I think the Magic will be a surprise young team in the East, much like the similarly young and defense-oriented Milwaukee Bucks were last year: a 41-41 record, the seventh seed and a short, experience-building playoff berth.