End to Orlando Magic’s season provided hope and warnings

Mar 22, 2017; Orlando, FL, USA; Orlando Magic forward Aaron Gordon (00) dunks against the Charlotte Hornets during the second half at Amway Center. Charlotte Hornets defeated the Orlando Magic 109-102. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 22, 2017; Orlando, FL, USA; Orlando Magic forward Aaron Gordon (00) dunks against the Charlotte Hornets during the second half at Amway Center. Charlotte Hornets defeated the Orlando Magic 109-102. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

The Orlando Magic seemed to build some offensive momentum to end the season. There was something to build on. But plenty of signs of needed improvement.

By the time the Orlando Magic reached the All-Star Break, there was a sense their season was over. The final 20 or so games for the season would be something of a formality. The Magic just playing out the string.

The team, which started the year with Playoff aspirations, was not about to roll over and tank. The Magic were already playing their young players and they were not for purposefully losing games, hoping to preserve some semblance of a winning culture. Orlando was going to try to experiment and forge something.

The Magic before the All-Star Break were vastly different than the Magic after the All-Star Break. This was mostly a stylistic change. The Magic had to change.

Gone was Serge Ibaka at power forward, freeing up space for Aaron Gordon. In came Terrence Ross to fill in at small forward. The Magic were going to force the tempo and push the pace.

The stylistic change was aesthetically more pleasing and the Magic’s anemic offense became a lot more respectable. The team certainly seemed more capable offensively of scoring consistently.

The Magic would tell anyone who would listen they believed they found something late in the season. They had faith their offense was turning around. And with a summer of building toward this style and practicing and training in this style, it would only get better.

Orlando seemed confident the team has a lot of room for growth in this style.

But with a new president of basketball operations in Jeff Weltman, it is not clear whether the Magic will stick to this style. It is unclear what direction the Magic would grow from.

But all indications from coach Frank Vogel are the Magic plan to go a more modern way. That means playing with more pace, trying to spread the floor with more shooting and playing a more versatile style. Just like they did at the end of the season.

The fit was admittedly not perfect, but it showed signs of progress. The Magic’s offensive rating improved from 100.5 before the break to 102.9 after the break. That is a solid improvement and a positive sign for sure.

But that 102.9 offensive rating was still just 26th in the league in that time. In a league that saw dramatic increases in offense and offensive efficiency, the Magic were still far behind despite these meager improvements.

Elfrid Payton and Aaron Gordon, the Magic’s two key young players, both were stars to end the season. Elfrid Payton recorded five triple-doubles after the All-Star Break. And Gordon’s scoring increased to nearly 17 points per game. Both players benefited greatly from this style. With a team that was retrofitted to play a faster style, the Magic seemed to have some success.

But for every success, there were still a few concerning signs.

The defense somehow got worse after the All-Star Break as the Magic tried to adjust to the team’s new style.

The team finished 8-16 after the All-Star Break. A .333 win percentage equates to 27 wins in an 82-game season. And the Magic still faced several devastating blowouts that characterized their lackadaisical play throughout the season.

The Magic can keep talking about their playing better, but the results did not suggest that. Orlando by record was no better than they were before the break.

Their 3-point shooting remained anemic. The Magic had the third worst effective field goal percentage after the All-Star Break at 48.7 percent. Terrence Ross, a career 37.4 percent 3-point shooter, made just 34.1 percent of his 3-pointers with the Magic.

Orlando still had a lot of bugs to work out on the offense. And on defense. The Magic know they are in need of a talent upgrade.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

What is clear is the Magic, at least if Vogel seemingly could have his way, would like to play this more modern style. The end of the season then was more a preview of what he would like to build next season.

Of course, the Magic’s ability to play that style will be dependent on the kind of players they acquire this summer. That will dictate the direction they go. And that is not in Vogel’s hands. That lies with Weltman and the decisions he makes in charge.

And it is unclear what direction the Magic will go. Weltman, as a first-time executive has no track record for building a team. His Denver Nuggets teams and Toronto Raptors teams often showed balance. He seems like someone who will conform to his roster.

Of course, the Magic thought they had a style that conformed to their roster last year, but their defense collapsed early in the season. It is not as easy to create a style as it might seem.

Even though the numbers did not show a team that had a clear track forward, there was enough improvement to believe the Magic can invest in this style.

If the Magic are picking a player to build around in Gordon, he certainly succeeded. His splits before the All-Star Game were 11.2 points per game and 4.6 rebounds per game. After the break, he averaged 16.4 points and 6.2 rebounds per game. That is a much more encouraging track for the young forward.

And at least the Magic know for sure he is a power forward now — or at least needs a perimeter-capable forward next to him.

The Magic knowing these things now should help guide how they build their team this summer. It is an important lesson for the team to know.

The Magic are most likely going to pursue a more modern style. The team knows it has to find shooting somewhere. It may come from creating a better strategy that uses Evan Fournier and Terrence Ross’ shooting better. It may come from Nikola Vucevic and Aaron Gordon improving their 3-point shooting.

More likely, it will come from some change that comes this offseason. It could be a trade of a core player from the starting lineup to add that shooting. The Magic could choose to spend one of their draft picks on a shooter.

Payton also did his part in driving the Magic’s offensive improvement. But he will remain a flashpoint in the debate over which direction the team should go. His production was stellar after the All-Star Break, but ultimately the team’s record was not. It is unclear how much blame should fall on the point guard for failing to lead his team.

As with everyone on the team, Orlando has to explore making improvements at every position.

The Magic’s closing kick provided some hope. After a struggling season, the Magic seemed to have some success at the end. Orlando can improve upon it with an offseason. But certainly, there is still a lot the team has to look to improve.

Next: Mario Hezonja's last stand

The end of the season was a sign of things to come, but it was also a warning not to believe it too much.