Orlando Magic must establish their roles early this season

MIAMI, FL - OCTOBER 08: Head coach Steve Clifford of the Orlando Magic looks on against the Miami Heat during the second half at American Airlines Arena on October 8, 2018 in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
MIAMI, FL - OCTOBER 08: Head coach Steve Clifford of the Orlando Magic looks on against the Miami Heat during the second half at American Airlines Arena on October 8, 2018 in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images) /

During their rebuild, previous Orlando Magic coaching staffs seemed to have struggled to identify player roles. Steve Clifford appears to be changing that during the preseason.

It has been a long rebuilding process for the Orlando Magic.

We are six years, five coaches and two front offices away from the Dwight Howard era. Truly, and agonizingly, it seems as though all of the Magic teams have been more or less the same. A conglomeration of OK players that just really did not feel like they knew what they needed to do to help their team win.

Possibly, one of the largest indictments on the previous coaching staffs and front office was the inability of the entire organization to set clear roles for players. There was no pecking order, no organization and just a bunch of players fighting to prove they should have been the team’s go-to player. It was a problem Victor Oladipo pointed out painfully as he starred for the Indiana Pacers.

The closest Orlando ever got to getting a star was probably Oladipo. But Scott Skiles did not let Victor Oladipo play through his growing pains, instead opting to let Nikola Vucevic and Evan Fournier fight over being the star player. He failed to put players in their best positions and Oladipo went to the bench and started playing angry. Even Tobias Harris seemed a misfit for the team.

Sadly, that decision ultimately cost Orlando dearly, in a myriad of ways. Nikola Vucevic and Evan Fournier have had their careers stagnated as the front office never really gave them a clear direction or set realistic expectations. Victor Oladipo studied under Russell Westbrook and learned what it meant to be a go-to player when his previous Orlando coaching staffs could not do it. Then Oladipo was given the mantle of the go-to player for the Pacers and  had a breakout season.

Guys like Maurice Harkless and Tobias Harris were just asked to go out there and play instead of being given roles. Both Harkless and Harris have since left Orlando, been given specific roles and have prospered.

Now, in new head coach Steve Clifford, the Magic may have found their rock.

Clifford, based on preseason play seems to have identified roles for Orlando’s rotation players. He said he would like to stick to a nine-man rotation, keeping minutes and expectations tight for his key players.

While some roles are obviously more clear than others it seems the Magic may have developed some kind of pecking order. And that should help the Magic play a lot better.

Using his former Charlotte Hornets as a model, it appears Clifford is building his team like this:

Primary Offensive Option (Kemba Walker): Evan Fournier.

Throughout the preseason, Fournier struggled with his shot. It did not seem to be much of a concern for the Magic or the coaching staff. Fournier is a veteran who knows how to prepare himself.

There is little question left about who is Orlando’s go-to offensive player. Orlando runs a lot of sets to get Fournier open and, in reality, it has worked fairly well. Fournier just did not make the shots.

Clifford has identified Fournier as Orlando’s most talented perimeter shot creator and rightfully so. Expect Fournier to be the guy with the ball in crunch time.

Secondary Offensive Initiator (Nicolas Batum): Nikola Vucevic.

Once again, we have found a coach who believes Vucevic should have the ball in his hands and be allowed to create for himself and others. Clearly, Vucevic is a gifted passer and his ability to hit cutters from the top of the key is a valuable skill.

If Vucevic can hit his 3-point shot more consistently and force defenses to respect and actually defend him from there, he may even become Orlando’s primary offensive initiator similar to Nikola Jokic in Denver.

Two-Way Swiss Army Knife (Marvin Williams/Nicolas Batum): Aaron Gordon.

The most important thing Clifford wants Gordon to work on is his defense. He was literally shouting it at him during media day for all to hear.

In preseason we could see Gordon continue to take some bad shots and force some offense. But seemingly he took on that role when he was in with the bench and less with the starters. I think Clifford wants Gordon to focus on being a defender and hyper-efficient scorer with the starters and more of a volume scorer when he is anchroing bench units.

Gordon should get plenty of points running the floor and cutting and slashing to the basket. Especially if his 3-point shooting continues to improve.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

Defensive Chess Piece (Micheal Kidd-Gilchrist): Jonathan Isaac.

It seems clear Jonathan Isaac is going to be a defensive force, provided he is healthy this year. I would be shocked if Isaac does not end up on the opposing team’s best offensive wing on a near nightly basis.

On offense, Isaac will be mostly a garbage man. Corner threes, putbacks, and cuts will likely be his game this year.

Sixth Men  (Jeremy Lamb): Jonathon Simmons and Terrence Ross.

One of the more interesting developments of this preseason was seeing both Terrence Ross and Jonathon Simmons simultaneously becoming volume scorers off the bench. Yes, both of them have previously played this role but I was not sure if they could work together at the same time.

They seemingly can but I would expect one of the two to get traded before the deadline in an effort to let Jerian Grant do more than stand around and play defense.

Pick and Roll Player (Cody Zeller): Mohammed Bamba.

Mohamed Bamba’s task this season seems to be that of a guy who will defend pick and rolls/pops and roll/pop on offense. I wonder if Bamba can prove himself enough to take some playing time away from Vucevic in crunch time when you need a stop. But this is largely a development year for Bamba. Orlando wants to see him progressively improve and flash his talent. They will keep things simple for him and put him in a position to succeed.

General Role Players: D.J. Augustin and Jerian Grant.

While D.J. Augustin will be the offensive initiator more often than not he won’t be a focal point of the offense. He will run an occasional pick and roll but probably be relegated to spotting up a lot.

Jerian Grant will have a similar role off the bench but will likely end up spotting up even more than D.J. Augustin.

Non-Rotation Role Player: Wesley Iwundu

While I do not expect Wesley Iwundu to be in the rotation opening night, I believe he will be the first guy called upon when there is an injury.

Clifford has raved about Iwundu during the preseason and it is easy to see why. Iwundu has carried over his stellar defensive play from last year and improved aggressiveness. If Iwundu steps in he will be a three and d player with the ability to fluidly attack and playmake off the catch.

Undetermined: Khem Birch, Jarell Martin, Isaiah Briscoe, Troy Caupain and Amile Jefferson

There really was not much to go off of in preseason when it comes to those guys. Outside of Jarell Martin, they pretty much exclusively played in garbage time. The priority for these guys is to play minutes in the G-League and continue to develop their games and then hope to develop roles from there.

Bench Cheerleader: Timofey Mozgov

Timofey Mozgov does not appear to have much of a chance to play this year. Hopefully, he will be an entertaining bench cheerleader like Kyle O’Quinn was a few years back.

Will these roles work out? That remains to be seen. But the fact Clifford appears to have given Orlando’s players a role is a far cry from what we have seen recently.

Next. OMD Mailbag: Time to begin anew. dark

That alone should help the Magic make some improvements this upcoming season.