Orlando Magic building something familiar, but still different

LOS ANGELES, USA - JANUARY 08 : Serge Ibaka (7), Aaron Gordon (00) ve Bismack Biyombo (11) of Orlando Magic are seen during a NBA game between Los Angeles Lakers and Orlando Magic at Staples Center in Los Angeles, USA on January 08, 2017. (Photo by Mintaha Neslihan Eroglu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, USA - JANUARY 08 : Serge Ibaka (7), Aaron Gordon (00) ve Bismack Biyombo (11) of Orlando Magic are seen during a NBA game between Los Angeles Lakers and Orlando Magic at Staples Center in Los Angeles, USA on January 08, 2017. (Photo by Mintaha Neslihan Eroglu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images) /

The Orlando Magic two years ago sold fans a team that was defensive minded and would protect the rim. They are doing it again, but with some clear changes.

Two years ago, the Orlando Magic were excited about their offseason. They spoke openly about changing the franchise’s fortunes and had clear playoff expectations with the money they invested and the veterans they brought in.

Then-general manager Rob Hennigan and then-coach Frank Vogel extolled the team’s newfound defensive identity. Who would be able to score on a front line that featured shot blockers Serge Ibaka and Bismack Biyombo? Who would get past the length and athleticism of Aaron Gordon on the wing? The team still had holes, but they were going to be different. And they would win this way.

Vogel said the team, by going big, was going to zig while others zagged. They were going to go against the raging tides in the modern NBA and focus their attention on getting stops, locking down the paint and beating teams in transition.

Despite an early-season surge defensively, the idea collapsed quickly. Orlando was not able to score enough points and teams quickly figured out how to crack the team’s defense. Or maybe the team let go of the rope and the season was lost.

The only time the Magic’s imagined defensive juggernauts made a true impact was when Ibaka and Biyombo blocked seven shots in the first quarter of a win over the Los Angeles Lakers. That was long after the team’s defense betrayed it and the season already looked completely lost.

It is safe to say the Magic are still recovering from that folly.

Enter Jeff Weltman in his second year as president of basketball operations. He is not saying any of the same things. There are no sweeping promises of the Playoffs — only Steve Clifford musing why could the Magic not be the surprise team this year. It is an entirely different outlook.

Yet the philosophy feels the same.

Orlando is building a team that will be far more advanced defensively than it is offensively. The three main players for the team — the “Victorious BIG” — are all defensive minded players. The team seemingly expects Jonathan Isaac and Mohamed Bamba to anchor a top-flight defense under Steve Clifford’s guidance.

While Aaron Gordon is nominally the power forward, the Magic are again building with two near 7-footers to protect the rim and be the basis for their defense. All without a clear offensive creator. At least, for the moment.

A lot of the national media has fixated on the team’s defensive potential. It was on full display throughout Summer League. Jonathan Isaac and Mohamed Bamba’s 14-feet of wingspan quickly became something to gush over.

Gordon could not help himself, adding that the length behind the perimeter defenders will allow them to be more aggressive. Of course, they all might have said the same thing two years ago.

This will be a team that is aiming to win through its defensive will. Length will disrupt offensive rhythm, create turnovers and spark easy offense. Clifford is a known defensive mind who has squeezed a ton out of defensive rosters into, at least, moderate success.

Things feel very similar to the way they did two years ago with the focus so intently on what players can do on the defensive end. And the belief that it can smooth over the offensive deficiencies.

But in many ways, this attempt to play big is different than the last one.

Ibaka was still a strong defender, but not nearly as athletic or versatile as he once was. Or, at least, he proved that in the course of his short time in Orlando. He was not able to switch out onto perimeter players as effectively.

And the Magic’s dream of clogging the paint with two shot blockers came a few years too late. The NBA had already begun its move to the perimeter and the team was built to play in a bygone era. It was not good enough to force the league to change back.

Isaac and Gordon are not Ibaka. Both are capable of playing on the perimeter and keeping guards in front of them and protect the rim. Jonathan Isaac certainly showed that, locking down perimeter players as easily as he locked down Jaren Jackson Jr. and even Deandre Ayton.

Biyombo never lived up to his billing as a rim protector. In his two seasons in Orlando, he averaged 1.1 blocks per game and the team had a 108 defensive rating with Biyombo on the floor, according to Basketball-Reference. Opponents shot 57.0 percent at the rim against him last year and 58.8 percent the year before.

This turned into a defensive team without great defenders and porous rim protectors. Biyombo took advantage of a strong run of play and cashed in. He was not able to step up and command the starting spot or anchor the Magic’s defense.

Hennigan’s gamble did not work and he lost his job for it.

Weltman and Hammond are offering a seemingly similar approach. But with some major differences.

The team hopes Bamba can be the player that anchors the defense in the way they envisioned for Biyombo. His length and natural defensive instincts suggest he can develop into that anchor. And he even showed some athleticism and ability to defend the perimeter. He still has a long way to go and the results will not be immediate.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

Another big difference between this gambit with defensive-focused players is the immediacy for results. The team is not going to put all of its eggs into making the Playoffs this year. The team will give the group the time to develop and grow together. And the team will take the chance to supplement the group they ultimately believe in.

The urgency for success is much lower this time around.

And the athleticism on the perimeter is much better. Not to mention the offensive abilities to shoot from beyond the arc from all of those players, as much of a work in progress as they might be.

Skepticism and healthy skepticism is warranted.

The Magic have tried to sell fans on this idea before. It may not have been Jeff Weltman and John Hammond doing the selling. And they may have a more patient plan to make it work rather than the flash-fried idea Rob Hennigan had to save his job. But it is still the similar idea.

Weltman and Hammond are selling much of the same idea — draft a bunch of athletes with length and a defensive work ethic and let the offense figure itself out.

The team this year is not a complete picture. There will be clear holes the team needs to fill. And Weltman and Hammond are hoping Isaac and Bamba (especially) with Gordon can form the beginnings of a group to build around. From there, the team can fill in the gaps.

Next: Jonathan Isaac has improved offensively

For now, Magic fans will have to hope this time things will be different from the last time the team tried to sell this kind of basketball.