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Will It Be Disaster Or Breakthrough for the Orlando Magic?

The future state of the Magic depends on their ability to make big decisions this summer; will it be disaster or breakthrough for the Orlando Magic?

When Dwight Howard departed Orlando via trade in 2012, not many would have predicted that they’d actually win the trade. It was a long time coming, and the Magic’s prize asset craved the bright lights of Los Angeles. Before he bolted as a free agent, Orlando jettisoned him to the Lakers in a four team mega trade.

Nikola Vucevic was arguably the jewel in the crown of the Magic’s part of the Howard trade, as well as a 2014 first round pick which became Elfrid Payton. Vucevic is an offensive animal (think Enes Kanter without the narrative) and Payton is a well rounded starting point guard who really needs to develop a jump shot to maximise his potential.

Coming into the 2015/16 season, the Magic had fired Jacque Vaughn after some serious struggles under his guidance. Scott Skiles was hired, and the former Bulls, Suns and Bucks coach has a reputation for serious improvement across the first three years of his tenure before plunging into disaster the season after that.

In fact, per ESPN Insider Skiles teams improve by 13.6 wins in the first year with steady improvement beyond that in the next two seasons before his methods grow weary on his teams. After finishing 25-57 last season under Vaughn, the Magic are 33-44 with five games left. Despite all the issues that still surround his tenure, the Magic have improved.

The question remains though as to whether the former veteran guard is the long term solution in Orlando, or even the short term one. There have been questions if Skiles is a true modern NBA coach, and if there aren’t better options out there. But the Magic are clearly tired of rebuilding and are ready to accelerate the process somewhat.

This was clear when they started the NBA Trade Deadline early this past February, trading Tobias Harris to the Detroit Pistons for the expiring contracts of Ersan Ilyasova and Brandon Jennings. At the time there were skeptics of the trade, and those grew by the end of the deadline when it was clear that the Magic should have gotten something like a future first round pick for Harris.

Trades should not be judged in a vacuum, but it is hard not to in this case. As it stands, it is a bad trade for Orlando. It gives them long term flexibility with Harris’ four-year, $64 million deal off the books. The forward was struggling this season, and whilst he has started well in Detroit his performances were of a lesser calibre in Orlando. But was that worth trading for expiring contracts? It is very hard to justify, especially as Harris’ contract will age well under a ballooning salary cap.

There is another way to look at this though: the trade has been great for the development of Aaron Gordon. The former Arizona forward had his coming out party at All-Star Weekend, putting on a show to remember with Zach LaVine that nobody can forget. His performances since the trade have been elevated with the departure of his former tweener teammate:

  • Pre All-Star: 7.7ppg, 6.1rpg, 1.4apg, 0.8bpg, 0.6spg, 21.8mpg, 5 double doubles in 51 games.
  • Post All-Star: 11.8ppg, 7.4rpg, 2.0apg, 0.6bpg, 1.1spg, 27.8mpg, 7 double doubles in 25 games.

The improvements are moderate, and his overall shooting percentages (48-30-67 respective splits) are nothing to brag about. But that will come with time, as the Magic knew when drafting Gordon his shooting would need serious work. His decision making has improved, and is showing some nice passing in tight spaces.

Earlier in the season he was charging into drives not knowing what he was going to do when he jumped; now he is making smart bounce passes to open team mates. In a modern era of playmaking forwards, it’s an exciting development. Gordon has the potential to develop into a franchise cornerstone player. Gordon’s freakish athleticism can be fostered with the right coaching into something very special.

Here again though is the question of Skiles and whether he is the right man to guide Gordon. Defensively? Sure. Skiles is a master defensive coach and Gordon’s potential on that end is huge, but it’s his offensive game which will need as much if not more attention. This is a question the organisation needs to answer for itself.

What they can also place around Gordon remains a question to be answered. Victor Oladipo is a nice piece to have around him, but hit inconsistent shooting needs to take a leap for him and Payton to share the floor so constantly. Mario Hezonja has potential, but Skiles needs to stop cutting his minutes to find out exactly how good he is. Evan Fournier has had a great season, but how much are the Magic willing to spend to keep him in free agency?

Andrew Nicholson is intriguing, as the Magic are 4.4 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor than off, the best among any rotation player. Oladipo ranks in at 3.1, Gordon 1.1, Hezonja 1.5, Vucevic 0.5. The concerns though? They are 1.2 points better with Payton off the floor, Jennings 2.2 and with Ilyasova they are 17.1 points better with him on the bench. It’s likely the latter two do not stay in Orlando beyond this season though.

This is what makes the Magic’s offseason so interesting though. They only have $35.5 million on the books heading into next season, they could have as much as $54 million in cap space to spend this summer. Now that $35.5m doesn’t include player or team options, almost all of which will likely be declined.

Whilst Kevin Durant isn’t likely to entertain an offer from them, former Florida college players Al Horford and Chandler Parsons are targets definitely worth pursuing. The Magic almost secured Paul Millsap last summer, before a change of heart got him to re-sign in Atlanta. Despite hesitation, there’s almost substance to a Dwight Howard reunion.

With the Magic still rebuilding, all they can do is keep gathering assets for the future. Unless they go crazy with long term overpays on ageing/overrated stars. Short term overpays will not hurt the team in their current state (such as a two year deal for Howard), with most teams preparing for the post-Warriors era and free agent classes of 2017 and 2018.

A pivotal summer awaits, and it’s sink or swim time in Orlando.


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