Tag Archives: Victor Oladipo

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.

Oladipo-Ibaka Trade Isn’t a Restart. It’s a Jumpstart

 

New Magic coach Frank Vogel (left) and GM Rob Hennigan pulled off an unpopular trade that should propell the young Magic into the 2017 postseason. Photo Courtesy: OrlandoMagic.com

 
Now that I’ve had nearly twenty-four hours to process it, I don’t like the Magic’s trade for Serge Ibaka in exchange for Victor Oladipo. I LOVE IT! It signals a change in strategy, not a restart of a rebuild. It means Orlando Magic management are seriously making a push for the playoffs now. Not just talking about it, or waiting until whenever the young talent develops.

Let me set this up for you. I’ve always said that what Magic General Manager Rob Hennigan was trying to build in central Florida was the Eastern Conference version of the Oklahoma City Thunder. I have made that comparison for a few reasons.  

One, Hennigan came from there as the Assistant GM to Sam Presti, who came from San Antonio were he was the assistant to GM R.C. Buford. The second was that all three teams are “small market” teams who would have to rely on building through the draft because it was believed to be highly unlikely to get free agents to move to San Antonio, OKC and Orlando in their primes. My third was because Hennigan’s first major draft choice at the helm in Orlando was Victor Oladipo, who is similar to a guy he was instrumental in drafting to OKC in Russell Westbrook. Don’t believe me? Just compare Oladipo’s stats to Westbrook’s after their first three seasons. But now Oladipo is gone to the Thunder where he will likely be Westbrook’s backup, and maybe replace him if he bolts in free agency next summer. 

So what does all this have to do with the Magic? Hennigan has realized that what makes the Oklahoma City and San Antonio model work is they have once in a generation players in Kevin Durant and Tim Duncan that attracted talent to play with them. Orlando doesn’t have that, and won’t have that if they continue to improve just enough to smell the playoffs, yet not get a taste. So Hennigan traded away his “Westbrook” realizing his original plans won’t work, but in hopes fast tracking them to the playoffs by netting his first big free agent of 2017. You read that right. I know it’s still 2016.  

Serge Ibaka will be a highly coveted unrestricted free agent next summer, and Hennigan, who has history with him from their days in OKC, just filled a void that wasn’t going to be available this summer. So why waste another year of being in the bottom of the lottery to only draft a player who wouldn’t make an significant impact, when he could go get a player who is a three-time 1st-team All-Defensive player, in the last year of his deal and motivated to prove he deserves another major deal? 

Hennigan is rolling the dice he can convince Ibaka to stay with the Magic past this season. This move is unpopular with fans, but when playoff basketball returns to central Florida in the spring of 2017 for the first time since 2012, they’ll get over it. Thanks to Hennigan’s success drafting (Elfrid Payton, Mario Hezonja, Aaron Gordon) and acquiring (Evan Fournier) talented perimeter players, the need for Oladipo is lesser than the need was for a defensive stud like Ibaka. We all saw how soft this team was in the middle last season. The only thing softer on Earth was baby food.  

Oladipo may have been Orlando’s most popular player, but Nik Vucevic is their best player. You need to build around him to highlight his pros, yet cover his cons. Ibaka’s strengths are Vucevic’s weaknesses. I equate this move to when the Golden State Warriors traded Monta Ellis in his prime to the Milwaukee Bucks for Andrew Bogut. The Warriors would’ve never won a title without Bogut—as proven in the 2016 NBA Finals—and Klay Thompson would’ve never become the All-Star he is. The Warriors decided their best player was Steph Curry, and decided to build around him. Flipping Ellis for Bogut started their rise to Champions. Ellis is by far a better player than Bogut, but Bogut was more valuable to the Warriors than Ellis. The same is true for the Magic now. Ibaka is more valuable to the Magic than Oladipo due to their weaknesses inside. 

The goal with new Head Coach Frank Vogel, who has a hard-nosed, gritty defensive mindset to go along with an inside-out offensive scheme judging from his days with the Indiana Pacers, is to get to the playoffs now. This newly constructed roster can do that, even if it’s a 7 or 8 seed. Once you’re in the playoffs, you can attract bigger top tier free agents who are interested in your young talent, I.E. the Boston Celtics. 

Will you all be complaining about trading away Victor Oladipo if Hennigan could sway a say, Russell Westbrook or Kevin Durant to Orlando? Remember he was apart of drafting them to OKC as well. It’s not as far fetched as once thought.

Magic Fans, This is the Right Move

Oladipo and Ibaka traded for each other during the 2016 NBA Draft. Photo Credit: Orlandomagicdaily.com

The Orlando Magic and Oklahoma City Thunder stole the show at the 2016 NBA Draft on Thursday night. The two teams agreed to a deal that will send Serge Ibaka from Oklahoma City to Orlando in exchange for Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova and the eleventh pick in the 2016 NBA Draft Domantas Sabonis, the son of Pro Basketball Hall of Famer Arvydas Sabonis, to OKC.

To say this move angers Magic fans is as understated as saying the 2016 Presidential Campaign is a circus. Social media is on fire with fans killing the deal and Magic executives. 

Victor Oladipo is by far the most popular Magic player since, dare I say Dwight Howard. There are several reasons for VO’s popularity in central Florida, but topping the list is his athleticism with his highlight dunks and aggressive defense, as well as being a major contributor to the community since being drafted out of Indiana with the number two overall pick in the 2013 draft. 

The other reason so many Magic fans are sad to see him go is because he was the first major pick after the Dwight Howard saga that tore up an organization that seemed like it was on the verge of delivering a world title that seems to be twenty years in the making. So many relate Oladipo to the new era. And I understand their frustration.  

But this is the right basketball move. Domantas Sabonis is an unknown so there’s no need to cry over that spilled milk. The Thunder probably won’t use him for another three years while he develops. That would’ve very likely been the case if he stayed with the Magic. Ersan Ilyasova was brought in for the sole purpose of catering to former head coach Scott Skiles because of their history with the Milwaukee Bucks, which I believe is the same reason that got they guy he was traded for, Tobias Harris, sent to the Detroit Pistons. Ilyasova did nothing of value in his 22 games with the Magic. He averaged 8.1 ppg, 9.7 rpg. He was a throw in as far as I’m concerned. 

What this deal really comes down to is trading Ibaka for Oladipo.  

This move fills the hole at the power forward position that has been a weakness since former All-Star Rashard Lewis was traded away during the 2010-2011 season. General Manager Rob Henningan has been in desperate need of someone to be a reliable defensive inside presence to pair next to Nik Vucevic. Ibaka is ONLY 26 years old, even though he just finished his seventh season. The three-time 1st-team All-Defensive Team member blocks 2.5 shots a game for his career while pulling down 7.4 rebounds a game. He’s the compliment to Vucevic that had many wondering if a reunion with Dwight was imminent. This move rules that out. That should be enough to satisfy Orlando fans. 

While Ibaka will clean up several defensive mistakes by his new teammates, offensively he will also open up room for “Vooch” to work on the blocks. Using advanced stats, Ibaka’s win share was 5.5 in 2015-2016, and he averaged 12.6 ppg while shooting 48% on 2-point field goals on 9.9 shooting attempts per game, his second lowest total in his career. Remember, he played with Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, he didn’t get as many opportunities in his last few seasons with the Thunder as many would’ve liked. When they used him, he produced. 

The Magic also had to solve their logjam on the perimeter. When you draft in the lottery four consecutive seasons, you should have acquired some desirable talent. GM Hennigan did that, now you have to flip that to get out of this tailspin. 

Now you get to resign Evan Fournier who had a career year last season. 2015 top pick Mario Hezonja gets more minutes and so will new fan favorite Aaron Gordon. The wing players still on the roster can supply the necessary offensive duties Oladipo left behind. What Ibaka brings, you weren’t going to find in this draft or in this upcoming free agency period. How about this for a starting lineup on opening night of the 2016-17 season; Elfrid Payton (PG), Evan Fournier (SG), Aaron Gordon (SF), Serge Ibaka (PF) and Nik Vucevic (C). Orlando’s path back to playoffs just got brighter.

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.

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.

5 takeaways From the Magic’s 1st Win of ’15

A matchup of 0-3 teams is not usually tantalizing to hoop fans, but the game between the Orlando Magic and New Orleans Pelicans was. With New Orleans, you have a top three player in the Association in Anthony Davis who is making his case to be number one. For Orlando, a stable of young, athletic talent looking to take the next step in their development and earn a playoff spot for the first time in three seasons. The Magic got the better of it, with a 103-94 win for their first W of 2015.

Here are 5 key takeaways from Tuesday night’s victory:

1. The Magic can dominate the paint, even when they’re playing against one of the league’s best big men.

Coming into Tuesday’s game, Orlando averaged 48 points a game inside. Against New Orleans, they got 56, 10 of those on fast breaks, created by 14 Pelican turnovers. Nikola Vucevic got the better of the big man matchup with Davis (14 its, 9 rebs.) He scored 22 points on 10/21 shooting and grabbed 13 rebounds for his 2nd consecutive double-double.

2. The Magic have several scoring options.

Fournier scored a career high 30 points vs. New Orleans. Photo Credit: @OrlandoMagic/Twitter.com

 They’ve had 3 different leading scorers in their 4 games. Victor Oladipo had 17 game one against the Washington Wizards, Tobias Harris with 30 in the game two double overtime thriller versus the OKC Thunder, and Evan Fournier has led the team twice. 19 against the Chicago Bulls and a career high 30 on 12/20 shooting, 4/9 from 3 point land versus the Pelicans.Head coach Scott Skiles’ squad also produced 22 points off the bench. That helped them hit their season average of 103 points per game.

3. They still commit too many turnovers.

The Magic handed New Orleans the ball 18 times on the night, 12 times in the first half alone. On the season they’re averaging 17 a game. But, I guess that’s to be expected from a young team. The positive is that they cut out those mistakes in the second half, allowing them to escape the 504 with the W.

4. Dwayne Dedmon and Aaron Gordon need more playing time.

The Magic were +10 in the 12 minutes he played. Against New Orleans he had 6 points, 4 rebounds, a block and changed several other shots at the rim. I sincerely believe Dedmon can be groomed into a Tyson Chandler/DeAndre Jordan type of player. A hustle & heart player who can clean the offensive and defensive glass, hold his ground in the post on defense, block and change shots and get easy dunks on the offensive end. Let me make this clear, he’s nowhere near that yet. But, remember what they were at this stage of their career.

Orlando was also +3 in Gordon’s 4:28 minutes of action. In the first two games of the season he was seeing key minutes and was very active on both the offensive and defensive backboards, while contributing effectively on the offensive end. On the season he’s averaging 10.3 ppg and grabbing 5.7 rpg in 19.7 minutes.

5. The Magic have had double-digit leads in three of their first four games.

On Tuesday, Orlando led by as many as 18 points, and 17 at the half. But, they allowed New Orleans to cut it to 6 midway through the 3rd, and led by only 9 going into the fourth.

The positive, unlike against Washington and OKC, every time the Pelicans cut the lead to single digits, the Magic pushed the lead back to double digits before winning by 9. They’ve clearly learned from the mistakes made in those first two games.

Next up for Orlando, James Harden, former Magic superstar Dwight Howard and the 1-3 Houston Rockets, Wednesday night in Southeast Texas.

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.