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Orlando Magic 2015-16 Preview

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The Orlando Magic are coming off of a 25-win season, but their talented young core is on the rise and the organization is headed in the right direction.

Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

2014-15 IN REVIEW
25-57
5th in Southeast Division
13th in Eastern Conference

When you're in a rebuilding phase like the Orlando Magic, you're going to have to go through some growing pains in the wins and losses columns. Last season was a prime example of that, as Orlando went 25-57 while the majority of their focus was realistically less about winning and more geared towards the development of youth.

Things were not working and the team was not responding to head coach Jacque Vaughn as well as they would have liked. As a result, Vaughn was fired 52 games into the season with an atrocious 15-37 record, and was replaced by James Borrego for the remainder of the season. Under Borrego, the Magic hardly improved their winning percentage at all as they went 10-20 to close out the year.

On the bright side, they've got a pretty good cast of talented young players. The best of all of them right now is likely multidimensional center Nikola Vucevic, who put together his best season as a pro while posting a career high 19.3 points per game to go along with 10.9 rebounds. Celtics head coach Brad Stevens even cited him as the biggest Eastern Conference All-Star snub, as Vucevic's versatile inside-outside skills have helped him grow into one of the best young centers in the league.

Sophomore guard Victor Oladipo came into his second year knowing that he was going to be asked to accept more responsibility, and he answered the call by playing more minutes, shooting the ball more efficiently and improving from 13.8 points per game as a rookie to 17.9 last season. For a second year player, Oladipo is an impressive competitor who possesses leadership qualities that most players his age simply do not. He's a two-way impact player and he is only going to continue to get better as time goes on.

In his contract year, Tobias Harris played his best basketball as a pro, putting up career highs in minutes played (34.8 mpg), scoring (17.1 ppg), assists (1.8 apg) and steals (1.0 spg) while becoming a more reliable outside shooter, making a career best 87 three-point shots and burying them at over a 36% clip. In January, he even had a dominant 28-point, 20-rebound outing against the Lakers.

Rookie point guard Elfrid Payton showed a great deal of promise in his first season as a pro, as well. As a starter in 63 games, Payton averaged 9.5 points, 7.1 assists, 4.6 rebounds and 1.9 steals per start and proved that he can affect a game in a number of different areas. He played so well that he finished fourth in the NBA's Rookie of the Year voting, falling behind Andrew Wiggins, Nikola Mirotic and Nerlens Noel. Payton still has some growing to do and he has a long way to go in terms of developing a consistent jumper, but he sports a unique skill set and in a lot of ways, is somewhat reminiscent of a young Rajon Rondo. He definitely has a cooler hairstyle, though.

Between Oladipo and Payton, Orlando has one of the most promising young backcourt tandems in the league.

Fourth overall pick Aaron Gordon, however, would not have such a hot start to his career. Just 11 games into the season, he fractured his left foot and spent a large portion of the year on the sidelines. In fact, he only appeared in 47 games all season and was never able to establish a rhythm due to the injury and the fact that he only played a small role when he finally got healthy.

With that said, Gordon is an extremely intriguing prospect and a special kind of physical specimen that leads you to believe a freak athlete with his high motor will turn into something good down the line.

Receiving more opportunity than ever before in his young NBA career, Evan Fournier had some good moments for the Magic last season and put up a career high 12 points per contest, while dropping 14.2 in 32 games as a starter.

This Magic team is not ready to win a lot of games just yet, but they are scrappy and fun to watch as we watch this young core progress. Nobody feels comfortable winning only 25 games, but things are headed in the right direction down in Orlando.

SUMMER OF 2015

Key Additions - Scott Skiles, Mario Hezonja, Jason Smith, C.J. Watson
Key Losses - Ben Gordon, Kyle O'Quinn

In late May, Orlando went in a new direction in terms of coaching and went after a more experienced guy in Scott Skiles. Of course, Skiles also has a history with the Magic as a player from 1989-1994, where he averaged 12.9 points per game with 7.2 assists while posting the NBA's single-game assist record by dropping 30 dimes in one game. As a coach, he should fit in well as a strict, no-nonsense disciplinarian that always gets his teams to play hard for him and generally improves his club's situation when he changes locations.

As far as the roster is concerned, the Magic didn't make a ton of moves but it was important for them to retain versatile combo-forward Tobias Harris. Orlando and Harris ended up coming to terms on a four-year deal worth $64 million, an average of $16 million per year.

That's one hell of a price tag, but welcome to the new age of NBA finances.

With the eighth pick in the draft, Orlando went international and took Mario Hezonja. Don't worry, this is no Fran Vasquez situation; Hezonja is actually going to suit up for the Magic this season. At 6'8," he's got a very intriguing arsenal of attributes with great size for a wing, excellent athletic ability, a good-looking stroke on his jumper, a competitive edge and a lot of potential to develop into a quality player. On top of that, his outside shooting will be a breath of fresh air for this Magic team that has struggled from the outside.

Hezonja is still ripe and will take some time before he truly comes into his own, but he should get a chance to show what he can do as a rookie.

To strengthen their bench, Orlando signed veteran C.J. Watson to a three-year, $15 million contract to come in as their backup point guard and provide some extra depth in the backcourt. The 31-year-old is coming off of an excellent year in Indiana, where he put up 10 points and 3.6 assists per game as a part-time starter for the Pacers last season.

As Kyle O'Quinn moving on to New York, the Magic replaced him by signing Jason Smith to a one-year, $4.5 million deal. The seven footer finally put together a full 82-game season last year after missing an accumulated 82 games in the two seasons prior from 2012-2014. When healthy over the last four years, however, Smith has produced 8.7 points and 4.3 rebounds per game as a serviceable big who plays smart basketball and provides a mid-range shooting threat up front.

PROJECTED DEPTH CHART
C
- Nikola Vucevic / Jason Smith / Greg Stiemsma
PF - Channing Frye / Aaron Gordon /Andrew Nicholson
SF - Tobias Harris / Evan Fournier
SG - Victor Oladipo / Mario Hezonja
PG - Elfrid Payton / C.J. Watson / Shabazz Napier

X-FACTOR - Player Development
Once again, the Magic would love to compete in the playoffs but they've still got a long way to go. Orlando isn't realistically focused on hanging any banners in 2016, but the season would still be a disappointment if their young core came back and showed minimal signs of improvement.

Regardless of their record, this season can still be viewed as successful if guys like Victor Oladipo, Aaron Gordon, Elfrid Payton, Tobias Harris and Evan Fournier improve on their 2014-15 campaigns while Mario Hezonja puts together a successful rookie year.

This isn't a team that has a handful of veterans getting in the way of these young players on the depth chart. They will all get an opportunity to get better, now it's about going out there and doing it.

WHAT TO EXPECT IN 2015-16
Everybody within the organization is running with the idea that their primary goal is to make the playoffs. That should be every team's goal, but it will be very difficult to transform from a 25-win team into a competitive postseason threat overnight. Chances are, they will wind up as a lottery team for the fourth consecutive season, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing during this time in their franchise reconstruction.

It's very reasonable to expect Orlando to get better under Scott Skiles, however, because they've got a good group of hungry competitors that are not only talented, but want to improve. They will still experience plenty of ups and downs, but this young nucleus is starting to come into their own and they might have a chance to jump up a couple of spots in the standings.

With that said, don't expect any kind of historic turnaround. The Magic may win some more games, but it's unlikely to be enough of a difference to lock up a low seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

PROJECTED STANDINGS
5th in Southeast Division
12th in Eastern Conference

Orlando gunning of winning record, playoff berth - Orlando Pinstripe Post

Skiles' defensive acumen and attention to detail could reverse Orlando's defensive fortunes. On paper and in theory, Orlando's roster--with the speedy Payton and Oladipo, the versatile Harris and Aaron Gordon--ought to be better defensively than it was a season ago. And similarly the team is built to run, a strategy Vaughn eschewed, for the most part, in favor of running straight post-ups for Vucevic and pick-and-rolls for Oladipo and Payton.

NBA Blog Preview: Orlando Magic - Orlando Magic Daily

The realistic expectation, the baseline to judge the season as a “success” or “failure,” is to be competitive deep into the season. The Magic this year do not want to be sitting around counting ping pong balls in February like they have the last three years.

The Eastern Conference undoubtedly got better. There are a lot of teams that are going to be fighting for those spots and six East spots seem already taken with Miami likely to take another if they are healthy. So it is not as simple as getting 15 more wins, already a tall task.

The Magic just need to be better. They need to reward the confidence the front office has put into building this team and prove that they belong together for the long term.