The Orlando Magic have done an admirable job of rebuilding since they traded franchise player Dwight Howard in the summer of 2012. While mired in losing, since then, their future is promising and a return to their glory days is eminent.

Build Up To The Rebuild

At least in the NBA, one of two separate occurrences commence a team’s rebuilding processes:

  1. Years of mediocrity springs the team to move in a brand new direction (Sam Hinkie’s Philadelphia 76ers).
  2. Loss of a key player via free agency (Cleveland and LeBron during the 2010 off-season) or trade (Minnesota Timberwolves after Kevin Love trade).

The Magic follow in the second category.  From the late 2000’s through early 2010’s, the team had an ample amount of success, as they made six straight playoff trips that included a trip to the NBA Finals during the 2009-10 season. However, after failing to relive the accomplishment of that season, All-Star center Dwight Howard became extremely impatient with the direction that the Magic was going.

In a November 2014 interview with ESPN’s Marc Stein, Howard stated the following about that 2011-12 season and his relationship with Van Gundy.

I think that our coach has lost his touch with the team. Great coach, but I think he’s lost his touch, I think he’s lost his voice. And I think it’s time that you guys get a new voice.’ I said, ‘I love him as a coach, but I think we need a new voice.’ … Six weeks [later], they finally respond [and say], ‘We’re gonna keep Stan.’ So I’m like: ‘OK. That lets me know how you guys feel about your leader expressing how to make the team better.’ ”

In that same interview, Howard addressed the team’s unwillingness to drop Van Gundy pushed him to demand a deal.

“That summer I just thought about what I needed for my career. And when I got back [to Orlando], I let those guys know that I wanted to be traded. … I just wanted a change for myself. I didn’t want it to be done publicly. I just wanted it to happen silently. And I’d go to a new team, start fresh. Well, it didn’t happen that way. … The season comes around and they asked me to come to the office, shook my hand and they said, ‘We’re gonna trade you tomorrow.’ The next day the trade didn’t happen, but they came out and said I wanted to be traded. And that’s when everything went downhill. And I feel like I should have came out and said some things at that point to let people know what was going on, but in that situation I really didn’t know what to do.”

 

Start of The Rebuild

Even after the Magic let go of Van Gundy after the season was over, Dwight Howard still focused on leaving town, with the preference of heading to the Brooklyn Nets.

However, while the defensive powerhouse ended up moving out of Orlando, a team on the opposite coast was his preferred destination. On August 10th, the Magic dealt Dwight Howard to the Los Angeles Lakers in a four-team deal that included the Denver Nuggets and 76ers. In the deal, the Magic acquired a package that included Arron Afflalo, Moe Harkless, Nikola Vucevic, Josh McRoberts, Christian Eyenga and a slew of future draft picks.

Among that crop of players, Afflalo, Harkless and Vucevic stood as the main focal points of the deal. Afflalo—one of the biggest pieces behind the top-ranked Nuggets squads in 2010-11 and 2011-12—was the most recognizable among that trio.

Vucevic showcased a lot of promise with the 76ers. He demonstrated innate skill as an offensive rebounder (averaging 1.7 offensive boards in 15.9) and as a floor spacer (shot 37 percent from between 16 feet and the three-point line). Moe Harkless entered the league with a lot of promise due to his defensive potential and the unlimited energy that he brought to the court.

Although the Magic immediately became an Eastern Conference cellar-dweller during the 2012-13 season, that core made their mark on the team. Afflalo transitioned into the role as the team’s top player. He maintained a 22.5 usage percentage during his debut season, averaging 16.5 points and 3.2 assists. (both career highs) on 43 percent shooting.

Vucevic exhibited the potential shown in Philly in a more prominent role. As Orlando’s new starting center, Vucevic had a stellar debut season, averaging 13.1 points on 51 percent shooting and 11.9 rebounds. That made him one of 12 players that averaged a double-double during that season.

While Harkless was unable to play during Summer League or training camp due to a sports hernia, he had a pretty solid rookie season. In 26 minutes per game, Harkless averaged 8.2 points and 4.4 rebounds shooting 46 percent from the floor.

Overshadowing Harkless’ solid rookie season was a trade deadline deal that the Magic made with the Milwaukee Bucks. Orlando sent three-point marksman J.J Redick alongside Gustavo Ayon and Ish Smith to the Bucks for Tobias Harris, Doron Lamb and Beno Udrih.

At least for the Magic, Harris stood as the undeniable centerpiece of the deal. Despite having a limited role with the playoff-bound Bucks, Harris still had lots of potential based on his “jack of all trades” offensive approach and defensive potential.

Harris immediately displayed himself as a solid offensive player alongside Arron Afflalo, as averaging 17.3 points and 8.5 rebounds on 45 percent shooting. In a way that will eventually be commonplace for the Magic, Harris was an offensive force, using quickness and athleticism to cut to the paint whenever he desired.

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Building Of Assets

Following an awful 20-62 season, the Magic continued their rebuilding process by drafting Indiana guard Victor Oladipo, who made his impact on the Indiana Hoosiers with athleticism and sheer tenacity on both ends of the court. During his senior season with the Hoosiers, Oladipo averaged 3.2 steals per 40 minutes, which was the second-best average among NBA Draft prospects,  behind only current Bucks guard Michael Carter-Williams.

Oladipo immediately made his impact on the Magic, averaging 13.8 points, 4.1 assists and 1.6 steals on 41 percent shooting.  Oladipo highlighted his rookie year with a near triple-double performance against the New York Knicks, with 30 points (on 11-23 shooting), 14 assists and nine rebounds (three offensive).

Alongside Oladipo, Afflalo stood out based on his scoring prowess. While Afflalo had a fantastic debut season with the Magic, his performance during the 2013-14 season arguably had a career year based on how he efficient he was. He averaged  18.2 points and 3.4 assists and shot for a team-high 57.0  true shooting percentage.

Because of the performances of Afflalo and Oladipo, along with the improvements of Vucevic (14.2 points on 50 percent shooting and  11.9 rebounds) and Tobias Harris (14.6 points and 7.0 rebounds on 45 percent shooting), the Magic improved slightly, finishing with a 23-59 record.

While the trio of Tobias Harris, Nikola Vucevic and Victor Oladipo laid the groundwork for the rebuilding process, the 2014 Draft was the key behind Orlando’s young core meshing.

By using one of the draft picks acquired in the Howard trade, the Magic were in possession of two lottery picks (4th and 12th overall picks). With them, the Magic continued their pattern of selecting athletic, defensive-minded prospects by drafting Arizona forward Aaron Gordon (Arizona forward) and Elfrid Payton (Louisiana-Lafayette guard).

In the jam-packed 2014 draft, Aaron Gordon was looked at as the most athletically gifted player. Standing at 6’9, Gordon displayed an ability to defend against a multitude of positions, as he can go out to the perimeter and defend against wings or hang inside with power forwards. On the other end of the court, he was similar to Tobias Harris, possessing the ability to cut towards the rim whether he’s working on or off-ball.

Payton  spent the majority of his college career being under the radar, based on playing for the obscure  Louisiana-Lafayette University. That changed after a strong junior season, where he averaged 19.3 points, 6.3 rebounds and 5.6 assists on 50 percent shooting. And, while he was one of the leading scorers during the 2013-14 college season, Payton worked best as a facilitator.  He used his 6’4 frame to see over the defenders, whether he was working out on the perimeter through pick-and-rolls or cutting towards the paint.

Transitioning over to the NBA, Payton’s shift to the Magic rotation was much smoother than Gordon’s, which shouldn’t come as a surprise considering that the rookie guard spent two more seasons in college ball than the former Arizona forward.

Payton’s extended experience was evident as the rookie season went on, especially during the second half of the year. Post All-Star break, Payton averaged 11.3 points, 8.3 assists and 5.3 rebounds per game on 43 percent shooting.

During that time, Payton made history, becoming the first rookie since Antoine Walker in 1996 to put up back-to-back triple-double performances. He accomplished that feat in early March matchups against Portland (22 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists) and Dallas (15 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds).

The mid-major alum was able to accomplish that because of his sheer fluidity working on either end of the court. When he’s moving with the ball, Payton can change speeds and directions on a dime, which allows him to get to the paint whenever he desires. He seems to have an innate ability to know where the teammate will be before the ball even leaves his hand.

Meanwhile, Gordon struggled get on the court on a consistent basis during his rookie season, averaging 17 minutes per game. Despite that lack of playing time, he was still able to flash glimpses of what he could potentially be. As evident in the video below, Gordon just has a relentless nature to the game. He just doesn’t appear to give up on a play until he either puts the ball in the rim or gets charged for a foul.

Due to the additions of Gordon and Payton, and the growth of Vucevic, Harris and Oladipo, the Magic finished the season with an improved 25-57 record.

While the performance on the court was at center stage for the entire season, the Magic did face some turmoil as the season wore on. On February 5th, they fired Jacque Vaughn from his positioning as head coach, after spending two-and-a-half seasons in that spot. Long-time assistant coach James Borrego took over the reigns of the Magic for the rest of the season as an interim head coach. Under Borrego, the Magic finished 10-20, which was a significant improvement over the 15-37 record that Vaughn possessed before he was let go.

 

Scott Skiles

While Borrego was able to improve the team, like most interim coaches, his time with the team came to an end once the season closed. On May 29th, the Magic announced that former Magic guard and long-time head coach Scott Skiles was going to take the reigns. The hiring of Scott Sklies appeared to make perfect sense, as the former coach of the Chicago Bulls and Bucks was known for pushing those teams into being playoff contenders in a relative short period of time.

The biggest example of that is when he took over as the head coach of the Bulls during the middle of the 2003-04 season. Taking over from Bill Cartwright, Skiles immediately implemented the groundwork to form the Bulls into a young defensive-minded squad, centered around the quartet of Ben Gordon, Tyson Chandler, Kirk Hinrich and Luol Deng.

With that core intact, the Bulls improved from 23-59 in 03-04 to 47-35 in 04-05. Following that, the Bulls made it to the playoffs for the succeeding three seasons, which included a trip to the semifinal in 2007 season. During that span, the Bulls were top-10 in defensive rating each year and led the NBA in 2006-07.

However, that solid run with the team came with some controversy, as Skiles reportedly had issues with players like Eddy Curry and Tyrus Thomas. Those issues combined with a disappointing 9-16 pushed the Bulls to fire Skiles on Christmas Eve of 2007.

It didn’t take long for Skiles to get back on his feet, as the Bucks hired Skiles on April 21, 2008, merely four months after the Bulls let him go.

Skiles’s stint with the Bucks was nearly identical to that run with the Bulls, as he was able to push the team from being a cellar dweller (34-48 during the 08-09 season) to making a surprising playoff run during the “Fear The Deer” season in the 09-10 campaign. Similar to how Skiles used Hinrich and Chandler to be a dominant defensive unit, he was able to do the same with the core of Andrew Bogut and rookie guard Brandon Jennings. 

Skiles and the Bucks failed to build on or even duplicate the success that they had in that first year. A lot of those struggles were because of Andrew Bogut—who led the league in blocks in 2010—suffered a shoulder injury and didn’t return to the same defensive prominence until this year with the Golden State Warriors.

Additionally,  Skiles faced a handful of other issues towards the end of that Bucks run, including  problems with Samuel Dalembert, Beno Udrih and Tobias Harris, and not being able to coach a team led by  the backcourt of Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings. After three seasons of mediocrity, the Bucks let Scott Skiles on January 8th, 2013, thus ending his five-year stint as the Bucks head coach.

 

Look Into The Future

More than two years later, the Magic have hired Skiles to help rejuvenate and grow the team’s young core in the same way he did to that “Baby Bulls” squad in the mid-2000’s. Similar to that young core, every one of the current Magic, with the exception of Vucevic, are defensive-minded players who were just looking for a coach to help mold them into a cohesive unit.

Following the hiring of Skiles’ the Orlando looked to continue building its young core, drafting brash European guard Mario Hezonja with the 5th overall pick. Unlike in prior drafts where the Magic seemed to be in search of athletic, defensive-minded players, Hezonja was arguably one of the best scorers in the 2015 draft.

During his time with FC Barcelona, Hezonja consistently showcased  beautiful perimeter touch (he shot 38 percent from beyond the arc) and breath-taking athleticism, which could create some exciting transition players with either Victor Oladipo or Aaron Gordon.

While we’re still three months away from seeing the team enter into the beginning of the Scott Skiles era, we should have at least some idea of how the Magic will be run. 

At least during the Borrego era, the Magic’s offense was based in the HORNS system, lead by primarily by Nikola Vucevic and Channing Frye. While the team’s offense was one of the worst in the league (they finished 27th in the NBA with a 101.6 offensive rating), there’s still a lot of potential with a team running an offense through those two players.

Both Vucevic and Frye have displayed an ability to spread the floor in an extremely efficient manner. In 2014-15, Vucevic shot an extremely efficient 46 percent  from between 16-23 feet. As for Frye, he’s always been the prototypical “stretch 4”, as he shot 38 percent during his nine-year career and 39 percent during the prior season.

Those skills have allowed both players to be extremely efficient roll men off pick and rolls. According to Synergy Sports, Vucevic averages 1.01 points per play (PPP)  in that scenario, which put him in the 66th percentile. That efficiency is made possible by him being able to drive towards the paint and his ability to hit the mid-range jumper, as indicated by his shot chart at NBA.com.

Shotchart_1438537689852

As for Frye, he averaged 1.10 PPP, which was mainly based off his perimeter prowess. Alongside that, both Frye and Vucevic have consistently displayed an ability to be able to facilitate out of the high post, which is key for a team that’s built around athletic players who love to cut towards the paint.

While the HORNS system creates a wide-open offense that thrives on perimeter shooting, the Magic haven’t benefitted from it. Coming into the season, the team only has four players (Fournier, Frye, Harris and Oladipo) who shot better than 30 percent  from beyond the arc. However, incremental growth from their core, and he additions of Hezonja and C.J Watson, should allow the team to fully utilize the spacing created by Horns.

Another way that the HORNS set works for the Magic, is that the created spacing allows the team’s set of athletic players to either move and drive off-ball or use the screens that were set by the bigs. Both Oladipo and Harris relied heavily on that spacing, as they’re both capable of driving towards the rim whenever they desire.

As for Elfrid Payton, he’s most comfortable with working around that off-ball screen, working his way into the teeth of the defense and then facilitate it to a teammate. That ability is evident by Payton averaging 14.9 assist opportunities per game (according to SportsVu), which is a higher average than Damian Lillard, Brandon Jennings and Kyle Lowry. Another additional benefit to Payton’s facilitating abilities pertains to how the team’s perimeter shooting improved once Payton was on the court. When Payton was on the court, Orlando shot 36 percent from beyond the arc, compared to 33 percent when he was sitting on the sidelines.

Peyton should be even more impactful in this way with the additions that the Magic made, and with the likely improvement of the perimeter shooting of Oladipo and Gordon.

While the possibilities surrounding Orlando’s offense is definitely intriguing, it’s their potential on the defensive end that’s even more fascinating. The combination of Skiles’ excellent track record and  the team’s  athletic, defensive-minded core creates a lot of great possibilities.

As we’ve seen in the past with how Skiles ran both Chicago and Milwaukee, he has a very unique defensive mindset that revolves around three different factors: high ball pressure, switching and having their guards funnel the opposing guards to the paint where they’re met by a rim protector.

Those first two factors shouldn’t be a problem for this Magic squad, primarily with players like Oladipo, Payton and Gordon. Oladipo and Payton have shown that they can be tenacious on-ball defenders that stick on their opponents like velcro. Both players have  an innate ability to be able to quickly switch off when it’s needed. Gordon has a knack to either go out to the perimeter and defend wings or stay down low against  power forwards. His ability to guard multiple  positions should allow Gordon to be Skiles “swiss army knife” on the defensive end.

Skiles biggest hindrance to duplicating the defensive success he had with Chicago and Milwaukee pertains to the team’s lack of rim protection.  According to NBA’s Stats Database, opponents shot 61 percent  from inside the restricted area against the Magic, which was only topped by Minnesota and Sacramento.The Magic were also the only team in the NBA that didn’t have a player average at least one block per game.

Orlando’s main front-court player, Nikola Vucevic, continues to sturggle on the defensive end. The Magic center appears to be extremely tentative in all facets of the game, especially when he’s defending against the pick and roll. In those situations, Vucevic doesn’t seem to know whether he’s supposed to close in on the guard or move with the roll man. That tentativeness is evident both by the video below, and the fact opponents averaging .85 PPP against him in the pick-and-roll, according to Synergy Sports. 

Vucevic also has lapses where he tends to lose focus. While Skiles’ defensive system would seem to allow Vucevic to stay in the middle of the paint while the guards funnel opponents into him,  Vucevic will at least need to be able to recognize the situation before he pounces on the cutter with a block or uses verticality to prevent the shooter from getting a clear look.

 

….

Going into the third season of their rebuilding process, it seems that the Magic have a core of players in place which will  grow and develop for 2015-16 and beyond. While it may be a while before they’re in the hunt for the playoffs, at least they created an identity, which isn’t necessarily common for most lottery-bound teams.

Another uncommon aspect of the Magic compared to other lottery teams is that their core of young players is athletic and defensive-minded. That mindset, combined with Skiles’ experience of pushing teams to be defensive powerhouses, gives them lots of potential. It remains to be seen if that potential will be realized when the team starts the 2015-16 season, but it should be a joy to watch their continued growth.

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Dakota Schmidt

Basketball writer based on Wisconsin that spends way too much time watching basketball film. In the times where he's not watching tape, you can see him working on becoming a veterinary technician or hanging out with his dog, who is the subject of many pictures taken by his owner.

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