NBA Blog Preview: Orlando Magic looking to turn a corner

Every year, our pal Jeff Clark of Celtics Blog gathers the NBA blogs of the universe together to preview the NBA season. You will the links to those pop up here every weekend until the season starts — you can view the Central and Northwest Division previews here. Today is our turn. Be sure to check out the other Magic preview over at Orlando Pinstriped Post.

Team Name: Orlando Magic
Last Year’s Record: 23-59
Key Losses: Jameer Nelson (waived to Dallas), Arron Afflalo (trade to Denver)
Key Additions: Aaron Gordon (draft), Elfrid Payton (draft), Channing Frye (free agent from Phoenix)

1. What Significant Moves were made during the off-season?

The biggest moves made this offseason were the players the team got rid of and what direction that symbolizes for the organization and the franchise. The final remnants of the old regime and the old era of Magic basketball was cast off along with its leading scorer and strongest locker room presence.

Jameer Nelson was the last remnant of the Dwight Howard era and the last remaining player from the 2009 Eastern Conference Championship team. He was the heart and soul of the team for a decade. He and the Magic were both at a point where they needed to cut ties though.

It was clear the losing was weighing on Nelson and that the Magic wanted Victor Oladipo to play more at point guard and become the team’s face.

Afflalo too seemed to be phasing out as well. He ducked his head and did his work, providing a good example in the locker room. But he was taking minutes away from Oladipo and some of the other young players. The Magic had to move him, even if it was for 75 cents on the dollar in Evan Fournier (maybe, I am being generous), to free up time for the young guys that will be part of the Magic’s future.

That is what this season is really about. The Magic are handing the team over to the young guys and figuring out who fits into the team’s long-term plans.

2. What are the team’s biggest strengths?

There is a lot of promising young talent on this team. And they all fit kind of the same mold.

The Magic have looked to collect guys who want to work hard and are hungry to improve. They are selfless and humble. That is a good place to start when building the foundation of a team. Orlando has put a lot of its faith in a whole bunch of young 20 year olds. That is an incredibly risky proposition and could easily implode.

Yet, you feel the Magic have some form of direction. All the players have that single-mindedness to continue to improve and continue to get better. They are much more mature than that.

That is why this young team feels so different. Player after player talks about how the team is going to be committed to the defensive end of the floor. It is so incredibly difficult to get young players to commit to defense. Often that commitment to defense is what derails young careers and young teams.

The Magic are going to sneak up on teams because they are willing to play defense. And they have the athleticism and length to be decent defensively even if they make mistakes that you would expect a young team to make. Teams are going to get frustrated at times that they will not be able to crack the never-ending exuberance this Magic team displays each night.

3. What are the team’s biggest weaknesses?

There are a lot of question marks offensively.

The team’s two leading scorers last year were Afflalo and Nelson. They are both gone. Victor Oladipo, Nikola Vucevic and Tobias Harris will have to take on the scoring load. They are good in spurts, but none of those three players is going to strike fear into anyone’s hearts.

The Magic last year actually finished 17th in defensive rating but were near the bottom of the league in offensive rating. Adding Channing Frye should help space the floor more, but there just is not a lot of 3-point shooters teams have to respect and nobody knows whether any of the young players can consistently put things together on the offensive end.

Barring some Spurs-like cohesion on offense (mind you, they still have Tony Parker and Tim Duncan and Kawhi Leonard), there are going to be nights where the Magic just cannot put the ball in the basket.

This inconsistency on offense is going to be maddening at times. There will probably be nights where the Magic blow out some really good teams. And then there will be nights the team struggles to score and gets blown out when it should not. That is part of the learning and growing process.

4. What are the goals for this team?

The goal is to get a better sense of the big picture for this franchise.

This is Year Three of a rebuild. Rob Hennigan has had the chance to clear the decks and make the team from the ground up with his principles in place. He gets forgiveness for not getting a bigger jump in wins this year thanks to crapping out in the Lottery last year (the fourth pick was probably the worst place you could be, and then Hennigan took a long-term project in Aaron Gordon).

But now it is time to start building back up. Hennigan has to figure out which players are worth keeping around when the team is good again and which ones it is time to start cashing in or outright discard.

Wins would be nice. Everyone expects the Magic to pick up more wins this year — 43 wins in the last two years is not creating a lot of new fans. But winning is not the end goal.

Orlando wants to exit 2015 with a better sense of the program’s identity and which players fit into that identity. Cap room is coming, and it will soon be time to make that jump or else risk falling into the trap of perpetual losing.

Victor Oladipo played slightly out of position in learning how to play point guard last year. Photo by John Geliebter-USA TODAY Sports

5. Does the Victor Oladipo point guard experiment end?

This has been the big question for the Magic the last two years. Everyone was kind of shocked when the Magic announced they would do this experiment before last season.

Oladipo had his growing pains as he tried to learn the position and learn how to run a team, but the experiment was a moderate success. Enough to continue doing it.

It seems clear with the drafting of Elfrid Payton that the Magic are not going to have Oladipo as the primary ball handler in the starting lineup long term. That is not an abandonment of this grand experiment. Oladipo needed to learn these skills and he is a better player for it. But he is also a really effective player off the ball and the Magic have to find that balance.

So this question has two sides. It is also: When does Elfrid Payton get into the starting lineup?

This seems pretty inevitable. Payton has great floor vision and is good at getting into the basket. He is really athletic and wants to push the pace, something that is part of the Magic’s new identity it would appear.

He is a great fit next to Oladipo. His insertion into the starting lineup — and the unofficial end of the Oladipo point guard experiment — will come when he is ready and has acclimated to the NBA game. The Magic are going to take things slow with him. But the Magic appear to have their backcourt set for a while.