January 18, 2018

Over the last few weeks, the BBALLBREAKDOWN team have been taking looks at five important questions each NBA team will be facing going into the upcoming offseason, continuing here with the Orlando Magic.

1. Is The Hiring Of Scott Skiles Going To Help The Young Core Take The Next Step?

The rumors swirling early on during the hiring process that Tom Thibodeau was a possible choice to be the next coach of the Orlando Magic made sense in some respects. Thibodeau is a coach that is proven at getting the most of the talent on hand, regardless of shortcomings or injuries. He prides himself on establishing a team mentality focused on hard work and defense and driving his players to execute on each possession during the season. For a team that has struggled in recent seasons on the defensive end and establishing a general identity, Thibodeau would certainly have brought that. But when it comes to developing and most importantly being patient with young talent, hiring Thibodeau would have been sticking a square peg in a round hole.

Scott Skiles, on the other hand, makes perfect sense for this bunch. Sure, he’s a retread who has never gotten past the second round of the playoffs and whose hard-driving attitude has worn quickly after a few years on the job at his previous spots, but he has a number of things going in his favor.

First and foremost, he is one of the most beloved former players in franchise history. The man who holds the NBA single-game assists record – 30 on December 30th, 1990 – and once charged after Shaquille O’Neal during a skirmish in practice didn’t back down from any opponent, an attitude that was needed for an expansion team short on talent early on. He was a true floor general who got by with a speck of the athletic ability of the players around him. When the franchise began to turn things around in 1992-1993 and reached .500 for the first time in history, aided a great deal by the arrival of Shaquille, Skiles was averaging 15.4 and 9.4 assists per game. Surrounded by young players in O’Neal, Dennis Scott and Nick Anderson, things were looking up for the Magic and Skiles, especially after surprisingly being awarded the #1 pick in the 1993 and presumably the prize of Chris Webber. But on draft night, the Magic traded for their “new” point guard of the future, Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway, and Skiles’s fate was sealed. Now, over 20 years later, Skiles has the chance to be the leader of another revival.

The real reason for Skiles’s reemergence in the Magic Kingdom is however much simpler than that: the guy can flat out coach. Everywhere he has gone whether it be Phoenix, Chicago or Milwaukee, his team has gotten immediately better, and by the second season has made the playoffs. In Phoenix, he had a veteran team in their prime led by Jason Kidd, Hardaway and Cliff Robinson that was ready to win. It was in Chicago though that he proved himself to be a coach of the highest quality and the guy that is the best fit for this youthful group on the Magic. After taking over for Bill Cartwright during the 2003-2004 season, Skiles led a Bulls team high on youth and low on expectations to their first playoff birth in seven seasons the following year. Seven of the top eight in minutes played on that Bulls squad were 25 years old or younger, including four rookies (Luol Deng, Chris Duhon, Andres Nocioni and Ben Gordon), and the Bulls have only missed the playoffs once since that season.

The Magic team Skiles will be taking over is not too dissimilar from that Bulls team. Going into next season, they have four foundation pieces (Elfrid Payton, Victor Oladipo, Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon) under contract and four potential rotation members (Tobias Harris, Maurice Harkless, Evan Fournier, Andrew Nicholson) as restricted free agents that could remain with the team. All eight players are former first round picks and all are under the age of 25. Throw in the #5 pick in the 2015 Draft plus plenty of cap room, and the Magic have an interesting situation cooking.

Payton will likely benefit from Skiles’s experience as a point guard, the new head coach will love the energy of Oladipo and Gordon, and the team will play a tougher brand of basketball than they did under Jacque Vaughn and his interim replacement James Borrego. It’s unclear how the talent will ultimately develop or how Skiles’s coaching style wears on players over the course of time, but in the short term, it will be nice for Orlando fans to have a familiar face with a proven track record of maximizing young talent and overseeing quick turnarounds at the helm for the Magic.

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2. How Does Tobias Harris Fit In The Magic’s Future Plans?

The Magic’s top wing player is a restricted free agent and the decision on whether or not to retain his services will be the fulcrum of their offseason plans.

Harris is an extremely talented player who has already been in the league for four years, but is still just 22 years old with plenty of room for growth. His game brings plenty to the table, but leaves plenty off of it. He’s a slasher who can attack the basket and score with his back to it, but rarely draws fouls to get to the line. He seems to have the physical tools to play defense, but is not especially adept at it. He’s dangerous with the ball in his hands, but doesn’t work particularly well without it. He has the range to hit the long distance shot, but the consistency is lacking. However, with the growing importance of lineup flexibility created by length and the skillset to play multiple positions, Harris is a commodity, a potentially untapped one at that. Harnessing that potential and creating an environment that will allow it to grow is the job of his next head coach.

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This is where Skiles comes in. Skiles was Harris’s first head coach with the Bucks, and things didn’t work out well the first time around. Harris found himself buried on the bench behind Mike Dunleavy and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, two players that were ready to contribute to a potential playoff team. Granted, Harris was 19 years old with a lot to learn; on a team that is competing and with multiple capable veterans blocking the path to the rotation, player development gets pushed to the back burner in favor of winning. Yet Harris was traded away to the Magic where he has had the opportunity to flourish, which benefited his career development immediately. Skiles iterated at his introductory press conference that there ought be no hard feelings, stating, “I was instrumental in drafting him. Tobias is a very, very good person and a very, very good player. That combination isn’t always easy to find.”

On this Magic team, with two years of starting experience in his back pocket, Harris won’t find himself behind ready-made replacements, but are the Magic willing to pay what he is worth or what he thinks he is worth?

The cap is set to rise by about $20 million after next season thanks to the league’s new television contract kicking in. At that time, the Magic will only have about $34 million allocated when taking into account team options for players on rookie contracts. The team showed by inking Nikola Vucevic to a long-term deal that it’s not afraid to pay young talent ,even though they haven’t reached their developmental apex and still have significant warts in their game (notably Vucevic’s defense). The potential is there, but the question of whether or not it will come out consistently make a true valuation of Harris difficult. He was one of only six players this past season to score 15 points per game, grab six rebounds per game and shoot 35% from 3-point range (others were LeBron, Millsap, Love, Bosh and Durant). He is also the only one of those players to not make an All-Star team or display those numbers over the course of multiple seasons.

Was his performance a sign of things to come, or empty stats on a bad team? In today’s NBA, Harris is not a max player, and he’s not as strong of an overall player as comparable multi-position forwards/wings like Gordon Hayward, Chandler Parsons (both signed last offseason), Draymond Green and DeMarre Carroll (both free agents this offseason). Those players may be two to four years older than Harris, but they are far closer to their peak performance level as players than he is. But looking at the future of the NBA, when salaries will skyrocket, a number of teams with cap room this offseason (looking at you, new Knicks) will be willing to take a risk on a 22-year old that could eventually be better than all of them. And the Magic should show no hesitation in extending an offer to Harris.

GM Rob Hennigan says they will match any offers that come across his desk, but when a $15 million per year contract comes, will he put the money where his mouth is?

Five Questions: AtlantaBostonBrooklynChicagoClevelandDenverDetroitIndianaL.A. LakersMemphisMiamiMilwaukeeNew YorkOklahoma CityOrlandoPhiladelphiaPortlandSan AntonioToronto

3. What Direction Will They Go In The Draft?

If we are to assume Karl-Anthony Towns, Jahlil Okafor and D’Angelo Russell will all be off the board by the time the Magic pick at #5, and that the selection of Emmanuel Mudiay would create unnecessary redundancies on a roster with two glaring holes – shooting and rim protection – there would appear to be four options for the Magic. One of these options is ill-fitting, given their current roster construction, while the other three remain viable matches for the needs of the team.

One option would be the selection of Kristaps Porzingis from Latvia. There are rumors that he may fly off the board to the Philadelphia 76ers at #3 or the New York Knicks at #4, but if there at #5, Porzingis would be the one prospect that checks both boxes for the Magic’s biggest needs. A seven-footer with tremendous length and athleticism, he possesses range beyond the three-point line and the rim protecting ability to play well next to the slow-footed and close-to-the-ground Vucevic, who averaged only 0.7 blocks per game last year. The problem with Porzingis is two fold. One is that the Magic would essentially be using the first year to get Porzingis NBA-ready, working on his physical strength and understanding of the NBA game. The other is that they Magic already have a number of “tweener” players that would require minutes at the “four spot”, the only position where Porzingis can contribute. Channing Frye was signed last offseason to a four-year contract to provide veteran leadership to a young roster and to fill a role as a stretch four. If Tobias Harris is re-signed, his skill set would provide advantageous matchups in certain situations at the four. And the Magic have yet to find out what they have in last year’s first round pick Aaron Gordon, a player who doesn’t shoot well enough to play on the wing and who spent 66% of his minutes last season at power forward (according to Basketball-Reference.com). For these reasons, I don’t like the fit for Porzingis.

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A better European option might be sharp-shooting Croatian wing Mario Hezonja. Like Porzingis, Hezonja would face a steep learning curve entering the NBA needing to strengthen his body and defensive awareness, but Hezonja would also give the Magic something they have been sorely lacking: a player that can drain a three and attack the basket, while playing well as a guard next to Oladipo and/or Payton or as a forward on the wing. Like any European prospect, there is doubt as to how his game will translate, especially with Magic fans who can still recall Fran Vazquez. He has played fairly regularly this season for FC Barcelona, averaging 15 minutes and six points per game for one of Europe’s top clubs teams, but on Friday night Hezonja became the youngest player to score 18 or more points in a ACB League Final game. One performance won’t subdue the doubters, but Hezonja has already been tabbed by many as one of the cockiest prospects to enter the NBA in recent years. Talent, confidence and opportunity could provide big returns for the Magic if they’re willing to pull the trigger.

The rim-protection problem could be solved by selecting Kentucky’s Willie Cauley-Stein. He’s a true seven-footer who will be able to provide the interior defense the Magic are without. Despite playing only 26 minutes per game as a junior, due mainly to the overwhelming talent on hand in Lexington, Cauley-Stein was named the National Defensive Player of the Year and a First-Team All-American. His blocks per game saw a significant dip from 2.9 to 1.7 per game, but this decline was due to the arrival of Karl-Anthony Towns and his use as the primary rim protector with Cauley-Stein’s quickness and awareness being used to defend pick-and-rolls. Raw offensively, but with the ability to jump out of the gym, Cauley-Stein’s skill set resembles that of DeAndre Jordan when he came out of Texas A&M. Any concerns about his selection creating a clogged lane on offense should be reminded that Magic center Nikola Vucevic averaged 9.1 feet per field goal attempt last season and only 2.9 free throw attempts per game, a clear indication he chose to get his offense further away from the basket than Cauley-Stein likely would.

The most intriguing scenario in my opinion would be for the Magic to ignore their need for a deadly shooter or top notch rim protection in lieu of Duke’s Justise Winslow. Winslow is an athletic, long-armed wing who can get to the basket, draw fouls and defend three different positions, allowing the Magic to deploy some insanely athletic lineups, if they were to be that bold. Imagine a lineup with Payton, Oladipo, Winslow, Harris and Gordon getting after it on the defensive end. Unless a true back to the basket center is in the game, that lineup is a viable option. With Vucevic, Frye, Evan Fournier and some defensive minded post free agent likely filling out the regular rotation, the Magic would be able to run out Winslow at shooting guard, small forward or even at a stretch four creating more interesting lineup scenarios. Winslow hit 41.8% from the college three-point line last year, but would need to show consistency in this area to be considered a long term threat. Given the improvements Harris has shown in his shooting, it’s not impossible to believe a 19-year old with Winslow’s drive and ability could become a legitimate outside threat for the Magic. Already, Winslow is a lock-down defender and team player with a penchant for getting to the rim and the energy to become a new favorite toy for head coach Scott Skiles.

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4. Where Will The Internal Improvements Come From?

Naturally, with any young team, there will be growing pains that a patient front office and coaching staff will need to suffer through in order to get to the finished product they envision. With this Magic team, there are a number of simple basketball, evolutionary developments that will be necessary for the Magic to take the next step.

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In his rookie season, point guard Elfrid Payton showed that despite playing against inferior competition at the college level while playing for Louisiana-Lafayette, he was able to direct and manage an NBA team. However, improving his shooting, both at the free throw line and from the field, will determine whether Payton will become a top level point guard or an offensive liability. Shooting guard Victor Oladipo has shown he has the athletic ability to get to the basket and become a top tier defender, but has yet to connect consistently enough (33.9% in ‘14-15) from deep to space the floor like most capable shooting guards. Power forward Aaron Gordon will need to prove he’s more than just an athlete playing basketball in his second year while also staying healthy and on the court.

While the improvement of the aforementioned group of former first-round picks is important, it’s the continued development and maturation of the Magic’s two big money players, Tobias Harris and Nikola Vucevic, that will mean the most to their future. If Harris is retained, it will be for a lot of money. For a 22-year old still in the early stages of his career, he will face the pressure to justify his contract which means becoming consistent on defense and continuing to hone his three-point shooting. Going from 25% to 36% in the course of one season is a pretty good start, but the defense is a concern. His length, athleticism and expressed desire to become a great two-way player combined with a defensive-minded head coach could mean great things for Harris in 2015-2016.

For Vucevic, his necessary improvement area will depend on how the team chooses to compliment him in the front court. If they get a rim protector, Vucevic will have to prove he can defend away from the basket against the pick-and-roll and in space. If the Magic continue to have Vucevic man the middle without a true threat to opponent’s drives, he will need to improve on the 53.1 FG% against shots at the rim and 59.1% on shots within six feet of the basket. He will never be an interior defender the likes of Dikembe Mutombo or Ben Wallace, but given the improvement he has shown in his offensive game, extending his range and becoming one of the league’s most dangerous pick-and-roll players to compliment his back to the basket offense, it’s more than likely he can get better soon on defense as well.

5. Can Victor Oladipo And Elfrid Payton Co-exist?

The short answer is, we’ll see.

The long answer has many layers. Payton and Oladipo certainly proved last season that they have just scratched the surface of what they are capable of doing as running mates. Of the 52 guards in the NBA last season that started at least 41 games, Payton and Oladipo were the only backcourt duo to each average at least 1.7 steals. Despite only standing 6’4’’ each, their long arms and athleticism tormented opposing offensive players. This is a trait that I’m sure will resonate with their new head coach. Payton is the true point guard, but Oladipo can certainly spot him creating greater lineup flexibility. The pair also showed a knack for getting to the free throw line, each getting to the line at a greater rate than stars like Damian Lillard, Chris Paul and Stephen Curry. And with their field goal shooting numbers, they better get to the line frequently.

However, the duo combined to make only 1.3 three-point field goals per game, and in that same group of 52 guards, Oladipo finished 35th and Payton finished 48th in effective field goal percentage. Teams don’t need both backcourt players to serve as knockdown shooters, but the successful teams, more often than not, have at least one. Oladipo has shown improvement but is not consistently deadly from long range, whereas for Payton, the same questions that surrounded his ability to shoot entering the 2014 NBA Draft (30 three pointers made total in three years in college) are present now. Rajon Rondo has shown that you don’t need to be a good shooter to excel in the NBA, but you had better be outstanding at every other area of the game. Rondo is probably Payton’s ceiling.

The more plausible scenario for Magic success with their pair of young guards is starting Payton and Oladipo together to begin the game, rotating in shooters to play at shooting guard while each one gets time at point guard in the second and third quarters, with them coming back to play together in the second half of games that they have the lead. Playing these two together in comeback scenarios would not be optimal due to floor spacing, but the Magic’s hope is that their playmaking and defensive ability result in very few of these situations.

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Jeff Feyerer

Jeff is a former basketball coach, sports marketing professional and writer, currently working as school financial administrator in Chicago. In addition to work for BBALLBREAKDOWN, he writes for Nylon Calculus, plays with spreadsheets, tries to defend college basketball and looks forward to the Fred Hoiberg era. Follow his musings on Twitter at @jfey5.

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