Tag Archives: Nik Vucevic

What. Is. Orlando. Doing?

That’s the question many NBA insiders and fans around the Nation as well as in central Florida are asking.

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The Magic have quickly gone from a rebuild with young talent, to a jump start with seasoned Vets. Photo Credit: Kyle Jones

Now that the moratorium is lifted and the deals are official, I’ll tell you what they’re doing. What teams in the Midwest and the heartland of America far from the glitz and glamour of the East and West coast have to do. Build a team that is a reflection of the region, city and its residents. Orlando is a young, up and coming transplant city. Meaning many of the people who call it home didn’t grow up in the area, and have migrated here searching for new opportunity and a more laid back life, but still with plenty of variety to suit their many tastes.

That’s what I see in this newly constructed roster. Variety, or in this case versatility, and low key. No All-Stars. No reality TV Stars. No TMZ. Just a bunch of guys who want the opportunity to play ball and be successful at it.

General Manager Rob Hennigan and new head coach Frank Vogel are wise to not waste more time throwing flimsy pipe dreams into the sky hoping they’ll bring back top tier All-Stars in free agency. Nope. Almost three decades of Magic Basketball in central Florida have proven that no amount of talk about no state income tax, great tropical weather, beaches, and family atmosphere pitches are going to sway the premier athletes to come this way. Sure Tracy McGrady did, but remember he was from nearby Auburndale in Polk County down Interstate Four. Yes, perennial All-Star Grant Hill did it in his prime, yet injured when he signed. But, wasn’t his wife, Grammy Nominated Singer Tamia, just as much influential of that decision for her career too? Yes, Rashard Lewis and even Horace Grant made their way to the Magic’s Kingdom, but they came to play Dwight Howard and Shaquille O’Neal, respectively.

The goal is for one of your core young guys to breakout and be the All-Star. Nik Vucevic is a candidate. The high-flying Aaron Gordon is a candidate. 2015 5th overall pick Mario Hezonja is a candidate. And Serge Ibaka, who will turn 27 years old during the season, is a candidate. This is how you attract key free agents, by having a guy already in place that they want to play with.

You also don’t turn things around by holding on to every single draft pick you’ve made. At some point you have to use their value to flip it for something else you value more. Like defensive shot blocking, rebounding and veterans with significant playoff experience. Otherwise you become what the Los Angeles Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers are. Floundering in obscurity and futility.

What Hennigan has done with this roster retooling, is send a message to his young guys to step up or sit down.

Did you notice that the three key free agent signees play the same position as the guys that are perceived to be cornerstone pieces? Nik Vucevic is the best offensive player on the team, but with serious defensive flaws. So, they gave Bismack Biyombo 70 plus million dollars, just in case Vucevic doesn’t step up his defense. Aaron Gordon is the preferred starter at small forward, but they signed Jeff Green to a one-year $15 million contract, just in case Gordon doesn’t capitalize on his breakout second half of the 2015-16 season in the aftermath of his Dunk Contest fame. Elfrid Payton is the guy Scott Skiles and Hennigan reportedly didn’t see eye-to-eye on as a true NBA starting point guard—which ultimately led to the blessing in disguise of his resignation—yet Hennigan still signed 8-year pro D.J. Augustine. Of course this jump-start happened by shipping the face of the franchise (albeit a short run) in Victor Oladipo out of town for Ibaka. The young core of guys better get the message, and quick.

But on another note. What if, the Magic got Victor Oladipo to come back as a free agent when he’s available? Looks sort of promising now that the Oklahoma City Thunder won’t be what we thought they would be when he was traded there on draft night. It’s just a thought, but if the Magic get into the playoffs quickly, like say this coming season, why wouldn’t a talent like Oladipo want to come back and join the uprising? Hmmm.

The Magic Has Returned to Orlando: Analyzing Their 1st 20 of ’15-’16

 

Don’t be surprised when the young Magic make the playoffs. Photo Credit: OrlandoMagic.com

We all know the NBA regular season is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s foolish to attempt to predict a team’s future success by any 20 game stretch, especially the first 20 of 82 with a young inexperienced team. Well, unless it’s the Philadelphia 76ers and Los Angeles Lakers. We know they’re going nowhere but the top two picks of the draft lottery.

In most cases it is difficult, but I’ll judge ’em anyway. Because, how you begin the season is a good indication of how you’ll finish. Look at a young team like the Orlando Magic. 1st-year Magic Coach Scott Skiles’ group is many “experts” sleeper pick to make the playoffs in the improved Eastern Conference. And, so far, they’re making them look good.

Orlando finished the first quarter of the season 11-9 after losing to the Los Angeles Clippers 101-103 on Saturday night. That record includes a 5 game winning streak, which is their longest since a 9-game run during the 2010-2011 season.

11-9 may not sound so great, but this is huge progress for a franchise that has missed the postseason the past three seasons. From 2012-’13 to 2014-’15, Orlando was 8-12, 6-14 and 7-13 in their first 20 games. This is the deepest into the season the Magic have been over .500 since 2011-2012.

These young Magic just finished November with a record of 9-6, their first winning month for the franchise since March 2012.

The Magic are 5-1 with Oladipo coming off the bench. Photo Credit: OrlandoMagic.com

The 9 losses have come by a combined 56 points (6.2 average), two of them went into overtime, with another going to double overtime.

Those opponents were, you ask? Four playoff teams from last season (Washington twice, Houston, Chicago & Cleveland) and a favorite for the 2016 NBA title (Oklahoma City). So why do I, and others believe this team is playoff bound?

First–and probably most important–defensively this group is vastly improved, which is to be expected of a Scott Skiles coached team, considering his tenure with the Phoenix Suns, Chicago Bulls and Milwaukee Bucks. Two major indicators of a strong defensive team is, rebounding and opponents field goal percentage. Orlando is 5th in total rebounding (46.6 pg), 11th on the defensive backboards (34.4 pg). They’re a strong rebounding team overall, coming in 3rd on offensive glass (12.2 pg), which has led to them being the 6th best team in 2nd chance points (14.5 pg).

Magic opponents are shooting 42.2% against them, that’s 4th best in the NBA behind notably strong defensive teams the Miami Heat, Chicago Bulls and San Antonio Spurs. How improved are they? Last season the Magic allowed teams to shoot 46.3%, that was 3rd worst behind the L.A. Lakers and the Minnesota Timberwolves, the teams who had the top 2 picks in the 2015 NBA Draft. The Magic are also only allowing an 11th best in 99.5 points per game.

They’re also doing a better job of protecting the paint. So far in 2015-2016, they have 3 games of 10+ blocks. They had 4 such games in 2013-2014 & 2014-2015 combined.

This is a very unselfish team, a sign of great maturity amongst a roster thats average age is 24.6, with 10 of the guys at age 25 and below. They’re 9th in assist, averaging 22.4 a game, and can score in multiple ways. 60.6% of the total points come on 2 pointers, with another 24.1% coming on 3’s and of those 2’s, 18.2% come off opponents turnovers.

Fournier leads the Magic in scoring at 16.3 ppg. Photo Credit: OrlandoMagic.com

Starting shooting guard Evan Fournier, who’s in a contract year, leads the team in scoring at 16.3 points per game, but 4 others also average double figures and they’ve had 8 different leading scorers.

After juggling his lineup for much of the first 10 games  this season, Coach Skiles appears to have found the right mix. The lineup of Elfrid Peyton and Evan Fournier in the backcourt, with Tobias Harris, Nikola Vucevic, Channing Frye in the front court, is 6-2. They’re also 5-1 with former number 2 overall draft pick, Victor Oladipo, coming off the bench for the first time in his pro career.

At this pace, the Magic will finish 45-37. Last season, 38-44 was good enough for the 8th seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Right now they’re holding the 8th spot in the conference, two games back of Southeast Division rival the Miami Heat for first place in the conference. That’s how close the East is this season.

After three years of rebuilding the Kingdom that Dwight Howard tore down on his way to L.A. then Houston, the Magic has finally returned to Orlando to one of the most crazed fan bases in the league. Take notes, that’s how it’s done Philadelphia.

The Much Improved Orlando Magic

The 2015-2016 Orlando Magic will make the postseason! You can book it, guarantee it, bet on it, whatever.

The young Magic are poised to bring playoff basketball back to Central Florida. Photo Credit: @OrlandoMagic/Twitter.com

Yes, I’m aware we are only two games into the season. You’re correct, they lost them both. And, I know they haven’t made the playoffs since the 2010-2011 season. I’m well aware that they’ve had 3 consecutive 50+ loss seasons (62 losses in 2012-2013.) All those are very important points. But, I trust my eyes, and after watching this team struggle the last three years of the post-Dwight era with a lack of talent, then a lack of chemistry and confidence, I now see they’ve reached a breakthrough point.

Friday night this team went toe to toe with the last two NBA scoring champs, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, and the team many “experts” have picked to represent the Western Conference in the 2016 NBA Finals. Even though they lost 139-136 in double overtime, It’s very likely that last season’s team, or the last three for that matter, wouldn’t have even been in the game to force overtime to begin with.

Victor Oladipo registered a triple double, 21 points, 13 rebounds, and 10 assists. Photo Credit: @OrlandoMagic/Twitter.com

6 players reached double figures—in regulation—for the Blue & White. 4 had 20+, with Tobias Harris leading the way with 30. The Magic have shown—through two games—they can get easy buckets inside by playing through center Nik Vucevic, who made his first 9 shots and finished 10-14. Victor Oladipo and Tobias Harris continue to slash defenses for lay-ups and mid-range jumpers. This team can also stroke the three ball with Evan Fournier, Channing Frye and rookie Mario Hezonja.

Coach Scott Skiles has them playing with the tenacity and hustle that he was known for during his 10 year playing career. There was no slouching  when the Thunder cut their 18 point 4th quarter lead to force overtime. Then, they kept fighting in the first OT down five points with no made field goals before Victor Oladipo tied the game with a three at the buzzer.

Defensively they are a better team. They forced the Thunder into 20 turnovers and the Washington Wizards into 17 on opening night.

The Magic’s biggest weakness right now is defensive rebounding. Oklahoma City beat them up on the glass 62-49. Against both OKC and Washington they had significant 4th quarter leads before ultimately losing in the last moments. Learning to hang on to them will come with experience as they’re in more close games. That wasn’t the case in season’s past because they were getting blown out.

Again, I know it’s only two games, but something is different with this team. You can’t tell me you don’t see it. Maybe, just maybe, this Orlando team will be this season’s Milwaukee Bucks of a season ago or the Boston Celtics, and bring playoff basketball back to the Magic Kingdom. The schedule doesn’t get any easier. Next up for the Magic, at trip to the Windy City to face Derrick Rose and the Chicago Bulls. Orlando’s next four games are against playoffs teams from last season.

How to Fix: the Orlando Magic

The Orlando Magic’s 2014-2015 season comes to an end tonight. This is the third consecutive season they’ve finished with one of the top five worst records in the league. But hey there has been a little improvement. 20 wins in 2012-2013, 22 in 2013-2014 and 25—before tonight’s game at Brooklyn—this season. Can you sense the sarcasm?

This third season in the rebuilding of the Magic Kingdom in the aftermath of the Dwight Howard implosion/indecision was supposed to bring at least a lower seed playoff spot. But, the losses have piled up while the wins are more scarce than snacks at a Fat Camp. This was the year the Magic were supposed to be what the Boston Celtics are right now, battling for a lower seed well into the final week of the season. 

A couple of years ago, the organization  used the slogan “The time is now” in its marketing campaign; they may want to revisit that one, because there are several key pieces already in place that can and should jolt them into an Eastern Conference playoff team. Still, there are a few missing variables that need to be filled before that playoff equation can be solved. 

• First, no more experiments with first time head coaches. Three years ago this job was a perfect place to groom a rookie, but in order to move from rebuilding to winning, you need a veteran. Just like you need them in uniform and on the court, you need one patrolling the sideline and leading the huddles. My choice: Mark Jackson.

Jackson rebuilt the Warriors from the Western Conference pit, to the penthouse. Courtesy: Getty Images

With the way the Golden State Warriors have flourished in the aftermath of his mutual parting of the ways, firing or whatever you want to call it, many seem to have forgotten the job Jackson did turning a 23 win team in his first season (2011-12, which was shortened by the lockout) into the Championship contender they are now. His second season he led them to 47 wins and a first round playoff series win in the vaunted Western Conference. His third and final season produced 51 wins and another playoff berth. Overall he is 121-109 (.526),  not bad for a guy who took over a franchise that made the playoffs once in seventeen seasons before his arrival.

It’s his foundation that has allowed the “Splash Brothers” of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson to blossom into the All-Star backcourt they’ve become. Jackson also can be credited with the steady improvement of Draymond Green, who is a key contributor for the Warriors and will be a highly sought after free agent this summer. I bring up Jackson’s Warriors past to highlight his great ability to groom young talent, which Orlando has plenty of. 

In Victor Oladipo and Nik Vucevic, the Magic have two budding stars with All-Star ability. Rookie Elfrid Payton, who is a triple double waiting to happen, has the look of a young Rajon Rondo and is the kind of facilitating point guard that Jackson, a former point guard can help accelerate his growth.
The wings are loaded with long, agile, athletes in vets Channing Frye and Tobias Harris (more on him later), Maurice Harkless and rookie Aaron Gordon. All of these guys—except Frye—are in their mid 20’s and younger, perfect for what Coach Jackson has proven he relates to.

Skiles to the Suns, Bulls and Bucks to the playoffs in his 13 years as a coach. Courtesy: Bucksbasketball.com

If you can’t get Jackson, former Magic point guard Scott Skiles (1989-1994) would also make a great coach for this young squad. In his time in Phoenix, Chicago and Milwaukee, he revived those struggling franchises and led them back to the playoffs while compiling a record of 443-433 (.506). 

Skiles played five seasons in Magic pinstripes. Courtesy: NBA.com

Skiles is known for having a tough defensive minded philosophy that is similar to the style in which he played during his ten-year career. This Magic team desperately needs an infusion of that.

I hear the Billy Donovan rumors and supporters wanting to try this union again, but this is like an ex-boyfriend and ex-girlfriend that’s considering a reconciliation; there’s a reason why it didn’t work out the first time. As Drake and Jay said on the Blueprint III album, “On to the next one.”

• Orlando will likely be selecting in the top five of the draft again come June. The Magic’s biggest need is a tough defensive minded, agile post man who does the dirty work, like Draymond Green is to Golden State, DeAndre Jordan is for the Clippers and Tyson Chandler is for the Mavericks, you get my point. 

Unless they get some magic… I said unless the get some magic, it won’t be a top three pick, so that means no Jahlil Okafor from Duke or Karl Anthony Towns from Kentucky, the top rated big men in this class. But that’s okay, because there is another guy who fits Orlando’s need and will be a perfect complement to fellow post man Nik Vucevic.

In order for this team to make the playoffs in 2015-16, It’s imperative that this selection is someone who you can plug-in as a game one starter. Willie Cauley-Stein the Junior 1st Team AP All-American big man from Kentucky can be that guy. And if by chance the ping-pong ball doesn’t bounce Orlando’s way to a top five selection, WCS is likely to still be available around picks number 6,7 and 8 according to the multitude of mock drafts available via the Internet. 

 

At 7-0 240 pounds, Cauley-Stein is the elite shot blocking, defensively versatile big that Vucevic isn’t. He can guard centers and stretch power forwards and stick with guards in the pick and roll game, plus he has superb leaping ability to control the defensive backboards and get after it on the offensive glass. Maybe he and Elfrid Payton can mimic the “Lob City” play Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan have perfected in Clipperland.

 

The negative on Willie is his unpolished offensive skills, but that won’t be as highlighted or a team weakness playing next to the current dominant big man in central Florida. There’s a possibility organization brass will let backup power forward/center Kyle O’Quinn walk in free agency, so this selection would kill two birds with one stone.

The current mock drafts—there are more than two handfuls—are split between the Magic selecting Stanley Johnson a 6-7 forward out of Arizona or the 7-0 Kristaps Porzingis stretch power forward out of Latvia if they earn a top four pick. Both players are more known for their offensive skills and could be a key in stretching the floor for Vucevic to dominate the post without double teams, while also keeping driving lanes open for Oladipo and Payton to slash. 

The only concern selecting another wing would be a log jam at the four spot. The Magic’s hope is to keep Tobias Harris, and you also have Channing Frye and their top pick from last year in Aaron Gordon who all play that position. But, when you’re picking in the top five three years in a row, you need all the talent you can get.

• As soon as possible, resign Tobias Harris. Harris was a steal for the Magic when they began this rebuilding process (acquired 2/21/13 from Milwaukee for J.J. Redick). 

While Harris has been often injured in his short time in central Florida, his skill set is just the type that causes matchup nightmares night after night. He has an inside-outside offensive game that compliments both cornerstones in Oladipo and Vucevic. 

 

Defensively he has the ability to guard a Kevin Durant or LeBron James on the perimeter and in the post. Harris gives the Magic versatility that more than half the NBA covets. 

The other key variable about Harris is he’s a vet, and this roster doesn’t have many who are actually playing major minutes. You need that experience on the court as much as his physical ability.

The Magic have potential and talent that GMs across the league salivate over, but there needs to be a breakthrough in development individually and collectively in order for this team to accelerate this rebuilding process or they’ll be back to square one. They’re already one step closer having bounced their coach.  If the Magic don’t make a significant jump in this coming fourth year of rebuilding, it may be time to push that big reset red button and start from scratch, again.