Orlando Magic’s lack of veteran leadership is team’s main problem

Dec 4, 2016; Auburn Hills, MI, USA; Orlando Magic forward Serge Ibaka (7) forward Aaron Gordon (00) and forward Jeff Green (34) celebrate after a play during the third quarter against the Detroit Pistons at The Palace of Auburn Hills. Magic win 98-92. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 4, 2016; Auburn Hills, MI, USA; Orlando Magic forward Serge Ibaka (7) forward Aaron Gordon (00) and forward Jeff Green (34) celebrate after a play during the third quarter against the Detroit Pistons at The Palace of Auburn Hills. Magic win 98-92. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports /

Is the Orlando Magic’s horrible season and lack of growth due to a lack of age and experience on the team? Veterans have not seemed to help.

Just what is ‘Veteran Presence’?

What is the measurement? What is the criteria? Is there an advanced stat to be found on basketball reference?

Is there a clear effect it has on a team, on a player? Is there a minimum age? Is it actually something real?

The answer is . . . yes and no.

The term itself is one thrown around the NBA for decades and is lapped up as meaning exactly what it means. An argument can be made it is no more than a saying. Others will swear by its effect.

Real or not, it is clear the Orlando Magic, along with much else, do not have it.

At the beginning of the 2016 season, there was much hope around the Magic. Young players were growing. Scott Skiles, a wonder with pushing young teams over the hump, had signed on as coach. The East was wide open.

That, of course, did not turn out well.

At the beginning of the 2017 season, there was much hope around the Magic yet again. Young players had grown even more! Orlando signed other talents from other teams to bolster that youth movement. Plus there was a talented new coach. Fans, as fans are wont to do, ate up the hope.

Yet here we are. At 39 games played, just two short of the halfway mark, the Magic have 16 wins. At 39 games last year? 20 wins. The Orlando Magic have gotten worse. There is not much hope of reaching that 35-win mark the team hit last year, much less making the Playoffs.

But that is not how it is supposed to happen. The whole idea of having a bad team for a few years, telling everyone you are ‘rebuilding’ and flooding the place with near-teenagers is the team gets better and better each year. A team gets out of the basement, climbs the standings, sneaks into the Playoffs and, presto!, becomes a growing team.

Young teams can be exciting, but they are rarely good. Getting older is supposed to help.

And the Magic did get older. Their average age at this point last year was 24.8. This year, it is 26.0 years old. In terms of years played, the number jumped from 3.4 to 4.1 year.

The excuse of yesteryear no longer flies, or at least not as much. After all, those newly acquired assets — Jodie Meeks (29, seven years in the league), Serge Ibaka (27, seven years), Jeff Green (30, eight years), D.J. Augustin (29, nine years) were supposed to bring that veteran presence with them?

Does this automatically make them veterans?

Or is the numerical side of experience not enough? Do we need to be considering the type of games? How many playoff games does it take to achieve veteran status? Must you have reached the Finals? Conference finals?

What kind of experience matters to young players? Is it less about experience and more about demeanor into the locker room to become a leader?

Whether through experience, age or talent, Serge Ibaka was expected to make the most impact for this year’s team. Ibaka has increased his scoring from 12.6 to 15.6 points per game, his 3-point percentage increased from 32.6 to 37.8 percent (with more attempts) and some marginal gains in other categories.

But would fans say he is leading the team? Likely not.

Is this on-court performance? Lack of veteran presence? Both?

Can the Magic’s problems be attributed to the one player, even if he has stepped his game up from last season, and his career averages? Or perhaps it would be more prudent to look to the front office, who advertised Ibaka as more than they should.

Perhaps veteran presence is purely numerical, in terms of age.

Famously, the Orlando Magic only had two players older than 30 on the roster last year: Channing Frye and C.J. Watson. They only played 44 and 33 games respectively — Frye was traded at the deadline and Watson missed much of the season with a mysterious calf strain.

The situation is comparable to this season. Watson remains, while Jeff Green is 30 years old, and that is it, unless Damjan Rudez, also 30, is included too.

So then, a correlation. Both teams struggled, and both teams have a lack of elder players.

No one on this roster has 10 years experience in the NBA. Watson is the closest with nine. No one has quite taken the leadership reigns — young or old.

It would be ignorant to suggest this is the root cause of all the Magic’s problems. But no one can ignore its role in some of the Magic’s problems. The Magic struggle to protect leads. The Magic struggle in the fourth quarter. The Magic struggle to maintain runs of their own or interrupt opposing teams’ runs.

Young Magic players struggle to find their niche or develop at the appropriate rate. A team with strong veteran presence would show some signs of growth in these areas.

Is there a solution open to the Magic? Should front office scour the league for any experienced 30-plus-year-old players who would not mind taking a player or two under their wing?

Well, it could not hurt, especially in terms of looking to the future. The Magic have young talent in Mario Hezonja, Elfrid Payton and Aaron Gordon. Orlando would surely like to see those players continue to grow. And, of course, there is always the risk when a team overloads with veterans it eats away at the minutes available to young players.

The NBA is a tough place to succeed for anyone. For 20 and 21 year olds, even more so. That difficulty is multiplied a hundred fold when the teammates around you are all in the same boat, also looking for that guiding hand.

Next: Orlando Magic at a crossroads

The season is nearly lost. A veteran is not going to change that. But it may be time for the team to learn from its mistakes, and start investing in its future by acquiring people with a larger knowledge of the past and the willingness and outspokenness to share it.