Tag Archives: Tobias Harris

Magic’s Up & Down 1st Half of ’15-’16

Coach Skiles has this young team headed in the right direction, UP. Photo Credit: Orlando Magic.com

The Orlando Magic finished the first half of their season Wednesday night with a record of 20-21 after a 96-87 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers at Amway Center. While the All-Star break on February 12-14 is the NBA’s official mark to the end of the first half of the season, Orlando has already completed the first half of the 82 game schedule.

This season has already been filled with a handful of ups and down. Win 6 of 7, then lose 8 of 9. There has been a max win streak of 5 games, and two 4 game losing streaks. With a young team—Orlando is the 5th youngest in the league with an average age of 24.9—you have to expect several growing pains. But, there have been more positives than negatives. 

For perspective, the Magic didn’t win their 20th game last season until game 63 on March 6th, 2015. They finished the season with 25 wins. Check this out from the last 3 seasons:

  • 2014-15: 20th win came in game 63 on 3/6/15, and they were 14-27 after 41.
  • 2013-14: 20th win came in game 72 on 3/25/14, and they were 11-30 after 41.
  • 2012-13: 20th win came in game 79 on 4/10/13, and they were 14-27 after the first 41.

Matter of fact, they haven’t won 20 or more games this early since the lockout shortened season of 2011-2012 when they went 37-29 the last season Stan Van Gundy and Dwight Howard were in the Magic Kingdom. After that season, Coach Van Gundy was fired, Dwight was traded, and the rebuilding process began.

The Magic are on pace to win 40 games, a mark the franchise hasn’t reached or passed since the 2010-2011 group that won 52 games. Currently this team sits one game out of the 8th and final spot in the Eastern Conference playoff hunt. If they make the playoffs, they would avoid tying the longest playoff drought in franchise history from 1989 to 1993, which was their first 4 seasons in the NBA.

Their December record of 10-5 was good enough to earn 1st-year Magic Head Coach Scott Skiles the honor of Eastern Conference Coach of the Month. At the end of November on the 25th, they started a 5-game winning streak, their longest of the season thus far, that ended on December 5th.

Nik Vucevic is the budding All-Star at the forefront of the Orlando rebuild. Photo Credit: Orlando Magic.com

Fans of the NBA outside of central Florida may be wondering who is their star. The last time Orlando had success, they were anchored by a budding superstar in Howard, and he was a known commodity before the three Defensive Player of the Year awards, Dunk Contest Championship, playoffs and NBA Finals appearance. He had become a marketing magnet that even the casual NBA fan knew about.

Ironically or not, the face of this rise in the Magic Kingdom is another big man, the one in which Orlando got in exchange for Howard, Nik Vucevic.

“Vooch”, as he’s known by his teammates and Magic fans, scores 16.8 points a game while shooting 51.5% from the field and pulls down 8.5 rebounds a game. He is a double-double machine. This season he already has 17. Last season he finished the season with 45, which was good enough for 5th in the Association, and in 2013-2014, he had 36 in the 57 games he played. He was 3rd in the NBA during the 2012-2013 season with 46 out of 77 games in his first season in Orlando.

“Vooch” is surrounded by versatile players who can either knock down threes in the case of Evan Fournier (13.6 ppg, 37.9% 3PT) and Channing Frye (40.7% 3PT) or slashing playmakers in Tobias Harris (13.5 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 2.2 apg), Elfrid Payton (11.2 ppg,5.2 apg), Victor Oladipo (13.5 ppg, 4.9rpg, 4.0 apg) and Aaron Gordon (7.2 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 48.6% FG). This group is loaded with long, athletic talent. They could be this season’s Milwaukee Bucks.

Payton sets the table for this young talented team. Photo Credit: Orlando Magic.com

Unlike many young teams, they have shown no signs of selfishness. The Magic are 9th in assists per game at 22.5, and have 5 guys averaging double figures with Vucevic being the leading scorer.

Expectantly, under the defensive minded Skiles, the defense is drastically improved. The Magic are 7th in the Association in opponents points per game at 98.7 and 11th in forcing turnovers at 15.1 a night. They’re also holding their opponents to 44.2% shooting from the field and 34.% from 3 point range which both are good for 12th in the NBA.

Unfortunately right now they’re in one of those down periods. Since the calendar turned to 2016, they are 1-8, and in the midst of their second 4 game losing streak of the season. This is the first time they’ve been under .500 since November 25th when they were 7-8. In the month of January, they’re only averaging 88.7 points per game, which is down from 100.1 ppg in December, 100.6 in November when their record was 19-11 in that 30 game span.

Like most inexperienced teams, they have a losing record on the road at 8-11, and of their 21 losses, 7 (Washington (4), Phoenix, Sacramento & Philadelphia) have come to teams with worse records than them.

If this team is going to make the playoffs, possibly before, or at the trade deadline on February 15th, they will need to add a veteran to help this young unit become more consistent and climb higher in the Eastern Conference seedings. Adding key veterans from 2006-2009 like Tony Battie, Adonal Foyle, Anthony Johnson and Ty Lue helped this team make the postseason six consecutive seasons. And fans in central Florida may remember, the 2008-09 Magic that made the NBA Finals, added established veterans like Rafer “Skip to my Lou” Alston mid-season, along with the aforementioned vets to mix with the young talent in Howard, Jameer Nelson, Courtney Lee and J.J. Redick to help aid their growth.

I’m not saying this team is ready to compete for an NBA title, but so far the rebuilding process that started three seasons ago is working. The playoffs are in clear sight, and General Manager Rob Hennigan should do whatever is necessary to see that the fans in central Florida get a chance to witness postseason basketball A.S.A.P. It’s time to reward their patience.

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5 Takeaways From Magic vs. Bulls 

The Orlando Magic fell to the Chicago Bulls Sunday night 87-92. All of their losses are by an average of 3 points. Even though they’re 0-3, this team is right there. Here are my takeaways from Sunday’s game.

1. The double overtime thriller against the Oklahoma City Thunder may be worth two losses for the Magic. The heavy minutes, combined with the travel to the Windy City, showed as the team looked more and more sluggish as the game wore on. After scoring 26 points in the first quarter, they were only able to muster 14 in the second quarter which led to a 14 point halftime deficit. The shooting was atrocious, as they hit only 38.9% of their field goals, 30.4% from three and an abysmal 58.8% (10-17) from the free throw line; Chicago made 19 of their 22 freebies for 86.4%. You could say the game was lost at the charity stripe.

Vucevic has turned himself into one of the NBA’s best bigs. Photo Credit: @OrlandoMagic/Twitter.com

 
2. Nikola Vucevic is now one of the premier bigs in the NBA. He can score at will from either block and elbow against anyone. While he only scored 15 points in 34 minutes, he went at future Hall of Famer Pau Gasol with a foray of offensive moves. He also pulled down 11 rebounds, 3 on the offensive end.

3. Aaron Gordon needs more minutes, especially with the first unit guys. He’s active on both the offensive and defensive boards (7 rebounds vs. Chicago), blocking shots (2 vs. Chicago), he’s hitting perimeter shots to stretch the defense, and he’s another ball handler who can make plays for others.

In the first quarter he grabbed a defensive rebound and pushed it up the court for a lay-up when no Bulls defender stepped up to stop him. His activity through these first three games has been key in sparking the second unit. A lineup of Elfrid Payton, Tobias Harris and Victor Oladipo plus Gordon make up a quick, versatile unit that is difficult for many teams to matchup with. Especially on the defensive end where their athleticism would allow them to switch seamlessly.

4. Head coach Scott Skiles isn’t married to a particular rotation and is willing to adjust on the fly. Against the Bulls he played twelve guys, two of them for the first time this season (Channing Frye & Andrew Nicholson.) Sunday night in the third quarter he trotted out the biggest lineup we’ve seen in this young season. Vucevic at center, Jason Smith at power forward and Gordon at small forward.

Skiles even switched up his back-court rotation, going with Shabazz Napier—who played only 30 seconds this season, before Sunday night—as his first point guard off the bench to replace Payton. In the first two games, C.J. Watson was his first choice. We also saw less of rookie Mario Hezonja. Hezonja had played 25:16 and 14:16 minutes per game in the first two; only 5 minutes Sunday night.

5. This team will never quit. While they had the lead for most of their first two games against the Washington Wizards and OKC, when the going got tough they did not fold. Down 17 points in the 4th quarter to the Bulls, the Blue & White went on a 14-0 run to cut the lead to 82-83 with a little over 4 minutes remaining. The only starter on the floor during the run, Victor Oladipo. They outscored Chicago 47-38 in the second half, 24-17 in the fourth.

I’ve said it before, this team will make the playoffs. For now, disregard the 0-3 record and just look at the quality of teams they’ve faced. 2 teams that made it to the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs in 2014 and a team that very well could’ve competed for a NBA Championship had it not been stricken with the injury bug. The schedule makers have done no favors for the young Magic, and it won’t get easier over the next three games; at Anthony Davis and the New Orleans Pelicans, at James Harden and Dwight Howard and the Houston Rockets before returning to central Florida to face the Toronto Raptors. It’s a tough road to haul, but these are the games that will build the character they’ll need to finish 2015-2016 with a playoff trip.

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.