The Orlando Magic last year suffered a major logjam in the front court, creating an identity crisis for their roster. This year, the Magic are more settled.
In their years of rebuilding, the Orlando Magic have constantly struggled in one key area: Identity.
Since Dwight Howard left, the team has lacked a star to lead them. When a team lacks such a star, they need a common identifier to hang their hat on. Whether it is being the running team, the defensive team, even if it is being a team of dunkers, multiple NBA personalities have often spoken about the importance of identity. They need a unique identifier to differentiate them from the pack and for the players to buy into.
Over the past few seasons, the Magic could only rustle up one: youth. And this not much of an identity, it is just a fact. They were the young team, stacked with potential, sure to mature into a playoff team within a few years.
It has not evolved in the way a fan might hope.
The roster changes, coaching changes and front office changes have all contributed, but the idea of collecting a lot of potential has only resulted in one thing, time and time again: logjams.
Two years ago, at the height of the “youth” initiative, the problem manifested itself in the backcourt. The team had Victor Oladipo, Elfrid Payton and Evan Fournier all vying for starter’s minutes, before the addition of Brandon Jennings and the return of C.J. Watson from injury. Then-coach Scott Skiles certainly did not help matters with his constant switching of roles.
Management tried to rectify the issue by hiring Frank Vogel and shipping out Victor Oladipo to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Serge Ibaka. This was meant to help the Magic establish a defensive identity.
Unfortunately, instead of solving the problem, it just shifted it a few feet down the hardwood. Last season the logjam was built among the bigs, with Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon, Bismack Biyombo and Serge Ibaka all spending most of the season trying to find some room in that compacted key.
Having found the pattern, is it possible the Magic will have a repeat of the problem in the 2018 season? Or have they finally learned their lesson?
A look at the roster should provide answers. And a certain amount of “logjams” are normal. that is the price of depth. And they are sometimes good problems to have. But it is still important for the team, especially a rebuilding team, to feature its young players and ensure they get their time.
Those issues may still remain.
The Magic backcourt remains largely unchanged from last year. And it seems somewhat settled.
Elfrid Payton and Evan Fournier are slated to start next to each other for a third straight season and should be used to each other by now. D.J. Augustin has spent enough years coming off the bench to be comfortable with the role now, although he will face competition from free agent signee Shelvin Mack.
Still, there are questions. Notably about the second shooting guard position.
The Magic have glued Mario Hezonja to the pine for most of his short career. While many fans have shouted out for him to receive playing time, he has struggled to hold his own on the floor.
The problem grows now that the Magic have added Arron Afflalo. While Arron Afflalo holds the size (6-foot-5, 210 pounds) to play at small forward, his skills better match that of a two-guard. His game is actually very similar to Fournier, which could be a blessing or a curse for Vogel.
There is also the possibility management will finally lose faith in Payton being a starting point guard. The young point guard has developed but still looks odd in comparison to most NBA starting point guards. If the Magic season does not go as planned, much of the blame may be laid at his feet.
It seems the Magic have a settled rotation here. But they could easily use some of their wings to fill some minutes. There are a lot of players who should clamor for minutes.
Running the sidelines this year will be Terrence Ross, Jonathon Simmons, Aaron Gordon (possibly) and a likely mix of Arron Afflalo, Mario Hezonja, Evan Fournier or whoever is not playing shooting guard that day.
The wing position is slightly harder to overload, seeing as the listed players above are normally large enough to play some minutes down low, or lithe enough to spend some time at the two. Versatility is a key trait the Magic are looking for.
It seems like the Magic are pretty set. They can choose whether to start Ross or Simmons and have the other come off the bench for a quick punch.
The difficulty will likely come in spillover from other positions. If there is not enough time in the backcourt, expect to see the three mentioned above shifted into a small forward role. The same could be said for Gordon. But given the commotion last time he was kept out on the perimeter, that should be unlikely.
Aaron Gordon is likely to spend more time at power forward than on the wing — although everyone will want to see Gordon pair with Jonathan Isaac at some point. The bigs rotation seemed to straighten out after the trade.
To be completely fair, the rotation does seem set under the basket. Nikola Vucevic, looking for a bounce-back year, is going to start and likely remain the team’s offensive anchor. Beside him will be the young Gordon, trying to regain the momentum he experienced last season after the All-Star Break.
The Magic picked up veteran Marreese Speights in a much-approved move and can pair him with Bismack Biyombo off the bench. With Marreese Speights an offensive spark, Bismack Biyombo a defensive one, and both more than capable of rebounding, they should be comfortable in those roles.
The question here is to see where Jonathan Isaac fits. Speights might be the player who can produce the most immediately, serving the team’s still-present win-now mentality. But Isaac is undoubtedly the team’s future. Orlando is likely to prefer playing Isaac and giving him an opportunity. But if games get tight or the Playoff race tightens, Speights could push for minutes if the team needs the scoring.
Here the Magic’s depth could create an issue if they do not have their priorities straight.
That is not to see these combinations are certain to be a success. Many have questioned whether Gordon and Vucevic can survive next to each other in the modern NBA. But at the very least the rotation should be clear.
But the team seems to have at least identified the problem and approached it with their roster. The roster seems much more balanced than it has been in recent years. And this is likely why there is some cautious appreciation of the new front office.
Injury can upturn even the best-laid plans. Change always happens. Vogel still has a large task in being able to turn a balanced roster into wins. But he should at least find it easier this season.
If the Magic continue to struggle, it may be that they can no longer blame identity or logjams. Maybe they have to look at the players themselves.