With training camp well underway and the pre season games coming thick and fast, the start of the NBA season is literally around the corner. The Magic start off their 2018/19 campaign once again with Florida rivals Miami Heat the visitors to the Amway Center on Wednesday 17th October. It’s been a long time coming for a hungry fan base that have been starved for success and any real optimism in the last few years. But that feeling might just be starting to change.
There have been considerable roster changes this off season for the Magic as Jeff Weltman and John Hammond look to make their stamp on a franchise that they took over last summer. At that time, the consensus was that a ‘Period of evaluation’ was required by the front office staff to fully get a handle on the playing and coaching staff they inherited from the Rob Hennigan regime.
After a full season of evaluation and a 25-57 record that was fifth worst in the league, another campaign without play off basketball in Orlando was the outcome. The consequences were that Frank Vogel was let go after 2 seasons as head coach and the Weltman/Hammond era could truly begin.
The search to replace Vogel took longer than most anticipated, but Jeff Weltman refused to be rushed and would strike, only when the right candidate was evident. That candidate was former Orlando Magic assistant and more recently, Charlotte Hornets head coach Steve Clifford. Clifford was a key component of Stan Van Gundy’s coaching staff during the Magic 2009 finals run and beyond. He certainly has familiarity with the organisation and has earned his head coaching stripes admirably with Charlotte over the last few years.
The hope is that Clifford will bring a doggedness and defensive identity that has been lacking in Orlando since Van Gundy and a certain Dwight Howard departed. The buzzword around the club this off season has been ‘accountability’. The front office, coaching staff and players alike have often used the phrase to describe what Steve Clifford brings to the table, and it’s the hope of everyone that his tenure can be the start of a new positive era for the franchise.
One thing is for sure. The Magic are putting their emphasis in development and coaching at this stage to see the club move forward. Most accept that the Magic lack a true star or franchise player that can carry the team on it’s back and into the future, but that’s not to say it lacks talent. On the contrary, the team has a dearth of young talent of which the club hope to grow and build the future around.
Having taken the front office reigns last summer, Jeff Weltman has had his hands somewhat tied by the moves made by his predecessors. Bound by big money on long term contracts, there has been no opportunity for the team to make any significant moves in free agency in the last 2 seasons. But what Weltman and his trusty lieutenant John Hammond are finally starting to do, is shape a roster in their image of how they see the league and the future of Orlando Magic.
Multiple moves and acquisitions this summer have finally started to see a pattern emerge, with the intention of giving the Magic something it’s been sorely lacking since the aforementioned Stan Van Gundy era. An identity. Both Hammond and Weltman are known league wide to favour players with significant length, defensive versatility and upside. As such they are credited with the drafting of players like Thon Maker, Pat McCaw, Pascal Siakam and most famously, Giannis Antetokounmpo.
With his first act as Magic director of basketball operations, Jeff Weltman took 6’11 forward Jonathan Isaac and 6’7 rangy winger Wes Iwundu in last years draft. Then this past June, Hammond & Weltman stayed true to form and drafted 7 footer Mo Bamba with the sixth overall pick. Bamba recorded the largest ever wingspan at the NBA draft combine when he posted a ridiculous 7’10. They used the same draft to select 6’6 small forward Melvin Frazier in the second round. A player (you guessed it) known for his hard nosed defence and his rangy length.
It’s clear and apparent that this roster is being assembled with defensive flexibility, switchability and length at the very foundation of what it’s looking to build going forward.
Although the team currently lacks a bona fide all star, most agree that the closest thing currently is 22 year old Aaron Gordon. There was some speculation this summer as to what the team would do with Gordon after opting not to extend his rookie deal by the earlier deadline and instead letting the market dictate his price.
Drafted by Rob Hennigan, there was no direct tie to the new front office and questions were asked if the Magic would match a max offer for Gordon on the restricted market should he receive one. As it turned out, they didn’t need to as they inked AG to a 4 year $80million contract after only 2 days. With no player option and an annual salary that declines each season until it’s expiry, it’s a piece of business that could well be inspired.
Gordon is a tireless worker and has improved each season he’s been in the league. He was hampered by false starts and injuries through his first 2 seasons and then an experiment in his third year which saw most of his playing time at small forward. An experiment that most seem to concede was largely unsuccessful.
Last season however, he had a breakout season, and although has yet to make that next level jump to All Star and franchise player, at 22 years old and an unrivalled work ethic, having him tied up for the next 4 years could well see him flourish to be everything that we want and more in Orlando.
A lot of noise coming out of training camp from coaches and players alike have sited second year forward Jonathan Issac as a potential X factor for the Magic. Having struggled with several ankle problems in his rookie campaign, we didn’t get to see anywhere near as much of Issac as we wanted. But a season in the league and a full summer to work on his body and his game have many people salivating at the prospect of what he can bring defensively.
Recent media day photos show he is now clearly 7 foot plus and with a mobility and defensive instinct that could see him as a major weapon for the Magic this season. He showed glimpses of a more polished mid range game in summer league and looked confident with the ball in his hands, and although that’s not likely to be the role the Magic have planned for him, I don’t think it’s any secret that Isaac figures to be a key player for the team this season and for the future.
And this brings us nicely onto the Magic’s latest draftee. At a time when much of the league is going smaller, with a greater emphasis on shooting, Orlando used their 5th pick this summer to select 7’1 Mo Bamba. Similarly to Isaac, Mo Bamba has the physical tools to be a real difference maker right off the bat.
With a freakish wingspan and fluid mobility he has every opportunity to cause real problems as a rim protector and shot changer. However, much like Isaac, it’s widely accepted that Bamba will need to add significant bulk and muscle to his current slender frame to be able to complete with physical bigs on the interior in the NBA.
Nobody is expecting all defensive honours in his rookie year, but as his body develops and his understanding of the game sharpens, the ceiling for Mo Bamba is as high as anyone in the 2018 draft.
The Magic are bucking the current trend somewhat and going bigger at a time when the league are going smaller, but in Isaac and Bamba they have two long, athletic and mobile big men who can in time, have the aptitude and versatility to switch on the perimeter. In the modern NBA that could well be a very intriguing prospect.
So what can we expect from the Magic next season. I think a few things are certain and few are not.
I’d expect to see the identity of a hard working, defence oriented team that is very difficult to score against start to develop. Players will look to take on more responsibility and ownership of the situation. Six losing seasons is enough and although this season will likely see the same, I’d expect a jump on last season’s 25 win season. With a Lebron-less East I’d expect a 32-35 win season for the Magic depending on injuries.
I think both Isaac and Bamba will see considerable playing time and there is a huge amount of intrigue to see if and how the trio of Gordon, Bamba and Isaac can play together. Defensively it has the potential to be dominant and could be the foundation on which this franchise moves forward. Ironically playing time together could well see AG spend more time at small forward, so that’s one to watch.
For now the line out of the club is that Nicola Vucevic is still a key part of the teams plans, and it’s a no brainer that the team is going to need his scoring this season. The Magic have little to no players who can create their own shot and have huge offensive nights regularly, so Vooch’s consistency will be much needed. But drafting a new center in the mould of how you want to move forward is hardly a vote of confidence. With the coming season being his last under contract, I think it’s highly likely that Orlando start shopping him for the February trade deadline.
Above all though, I think what we can expect to see this season is the start of something. Of what we cannot determine yet, but I’m confident that a new sense of optimism and progress will be at the heart of what we take from this season. Will the Magic finish with a winning record? No. Will they make the playoffs? Probably not. But I firmly believe that this time next year, we’ll be further down a clearly marked out path and that path will have a specific intended destination.
The fans are desperate not for success, but for a plan and for progress. And I think that’s what we’ll see. A chance to think that someday soon we’ll no longer be on the outside looking in. A chance that someday soon, our season doesn’t finish in April. And a chance that finally after what feels like an eternity we can look at the franchise and it’s future and confidently and defiantly say that we believe in Magic.