You can’t really blame the Orlando Magic for their offseason roster upheaval. The team had looked to build through the draft in the wake of Dwight Howard’s departure years ago. But the players they selected never panned out as planned, either fitting together badly or not reaching their potential quickly enough for everyone’s liking.
A four-year absence from the playoffs complicated things considerably, making the team’s front office more than a bit desperate.
The team began tearing at this blueprint when they traded away the versatile Tobias Harris for, effectively, salary cap space midway through last season. Then they ripped it to shreds this summer by shipping Victor Oladipo to Oklahoma City for Serge Ibaka, as well as signing Jeff Green, D.J. Augustin and postseason wunderkind Bismack Biyombo to lucrative contracts.
It was a reversal of strategy unlike any seen in the NBA, the antithesis to “trusting the process.” If Orlando’s rebuild was akin to their top brass making plans for a cross-country trip that included stops at every roadside attraction along the way, then their summer of change was them discovering that they get carsick far too easily and booking a flight instead.
Perhaps the most peculiar passenger on this journey to the unknown is Green, the eight-year veteran that signed with Orlando after stints with the Clippers and Grizzlies last season.
Acquiring Ibaka and Biyombo may seem redundant at first, but there’s belief that new head coach Frank Vogel will find a way to make them the centerpieces of a tight defensive unit that makes scoring a nightmare for opponents; Ibaka himself referred to it as a “block party” during the Magic’s recent media day. Augustin had bright moments with the Thunder and Nuggets last year and fills an obvious need at backup point guard.
As for Green, understanding his deal is not as easy. It’s certainly a nice payday for him ($15 million), but he hinted to reporters at media day that he received other profitable offers this summer. And it’s length — just one year — doesn’t leave him much time to prove that he can be a major contributor.
On why Orlando made the most sense, the veteran forward explained, “It’s family…just the atmosphere here.” He spoke on his familiarity with Rob Hennigan, the team’s general manager, and their shared time with the Oklahoma City Thunder. He spoke highly of Vogel, who he met through former Pacers center Roy Hibbert, a teammate of Green’s at Georgetown University.
Clearly, there’s a comfort level in place, even if it’s just one that’s off the floor. As for his productivity on the court? That remains an area of concern for many Magic fans.
At 6-9 and 235 lbs., Green has the size and length to fill holes in Vogel’s revamped roster. “I’m a guy who can play multiple positions,” said Green, “a lot of things I can do out there on the floor” He’ll get time at both forward positions, using his size to overpower smaller defenders and his quickness to blow past larger ones.
Unfortunately, that’s where the on-court superlatives end for Green. He’s not a particularly strong shooter, connecting on just 43 percent of his attempts last season, including 31.5 percent from 3-point range. From nearly everywhere on the floor, he’s below-average:
His passing and rebounding are adequate, but neither moves the needle in terms of overall impact. Defensively, he’s a body, one that can come up with the occasional steal or block (he’s averaged 0.8 steals and 0.6 blocks through 636 career games) but more often than not is out of position and rendered ineffective.
The same strengths that work in his favor on offense are weaknesses on defense; he’s too slow to guard smaller forwards and not strong enough to handle bigger ones.
Even Green’s fit in Vogel’s eventual lineups seems questionable, considering Orlando’s glut in the front court. Nikola Vucevic is slotted to start at center despite his defensive lapses; he’s just too good of a scorer to keep rooted to the bench. Ibaka and Biymbo will get considerable playing time, with both capable of alternating in to provide perimeter defense as well as rim protection.
Orlando’s most talented player, Aaron Gordon, is likely to start the year at small forward but has been most effective at power forward throughout his short career.
So much is riding on this season — Gordon’s evolution as a versatile playmaker, Ibaka’s free agency looming large, all compounded by the desperate need to reach the postseason — that Green becomes a man displaced, a square peg being crammed into an exponentially shrinking round hole as the season progresses.
Yet Green doesn’t flinch at the risk, focusing instead on the opportunity. “We have the right group…good personnel, great coach, and the front office supports us. So we have a great shot at making the playoffs.”
This, and perhaps only this, is where Green can truly leave his mark. His on-court numbers will be an issue, as they have throughout his career; even a younger, more agile version still struggled with consistency. But eight years of seeing everything the NBA has to offer?
That’s where Green can thrive, by sticking around long enough to bear witness and share what he’s learned.
“The experience factor…there’s a couple of guys who have been to the playoffs — myself, Serge, Biz — have been to the playoffs numerous times. But that experience is big, so we gotta do the best we can to teach and get guys that haven’t been that far ready for that.”
This is absolutely a crucial area of need for the Magic. With the exception of Ibaka, no projected starter has ever reached the playoffs, much less been a part of a deep run. Green’s addition helps change that.
When asked how he’d help teach a team that has youth and potential but not much success, Green’s answer was a direct one:
“How we work…and then just communication. Holding each other accountable. I can’t speak for how things were before I got here, so I’m not going to touch on that. But all I can do is just continue to communicate and make sure everybody is doing what it takes, sacrifices for the team to be in a position to make sure that we are in the playoffs.”
Green spoke in hallowed terms of former teammate Kevin Garnett (whose retirement was announced just days earlier) providing a sharp contrast to his younger teammates. Players like Vucevic, Gordon and Elfrid Payton have been trapped in Orlando’s bubble of defeatism; Green has played alongside Garnett, Kevin Durant and a slew of others whose whole careers have been defined by greatness.
His presence isn’t meant to stunt Gordon’s development but further it along, adding that he sees the duo as “a 1-2 punch” regardless of playing time. “Aaron and I, our job is to push each other, make each other better. I’m going to support him no matter what — not just Aaron but the whole team. How the minutes going to be played out, who starts, who don’t…that’s not my call. But I’ll just have to stay prepared, make sure I’m ready.”
Attitudes like this are a confident reply to critics who weren’t quite sure if Orlando’s retooled roster was built with any sort of purpose. Players can still have value away from the hardwood, even if it comes at a cost as high as Green’s.
The Magic may ultimately fall short of the playoffs, as most national pundits have predicted they will. But there’s a difference in this group, both tangible and not, from previous versions of the team. An overturned roster makes for a more established, proven team than ever before. But the byproduct of that success is a confidence that is more than empty talk, as it has so often been in the past.
This team has struggled in recent years to sustain success. Succumbing late in games or over the course of the regular season, they’ve looked to each other for leadership and found the same hollow glare staring back at them. Green’s impact may not always be visible on the floor but his experience makes him a vital part of Orlando’s updated plan to reach the playoffs.
Look no further than his succinct answer on how Orlando can “shut the critics up” and defy the odds: “Win.”