Jeff Weltman strolled into this summer as the new Orlando Magic President of Basketball Operations, tasked with righting a ship that struggled to properly evaluate and develop talent, make long-term personnel decisions and find synergy in all parts of the organization.
Eighteen months ago, Orlando’s best player was Victor Oladipo, who the Magic tossed for what turned into a low first-round pick, Terrence Ross and a year of Aaron Gordon at the 3 instead of begrudgingly paying his next contract. It takes something special to remedy that. As Weltman pointed out to Adrian Wojnarowski this summer, “you can’t eat the apple in one bite”.
That’s certainly been echoed in his approach to free agency this past summer, making only smaller waves by going after Jonathon Simmons, Mo Speights, Shelvin Mack and Arron Afflalo. The common thread between those three: a blue collar work ethic to help set a culture of proving people wrong and playing with a chip on their shoulder.
Step one in that process has taken off quicker than many Magic fans could have hoped, sitting atop the Eastern Conference in points per game while boasting big wins over San Antonio and Cleveland. It’s early and October excitement can lead to prematurely-high expectations down the road, but this Orlando team is legitimately fun to watch and has some promise to it.
Aaron Gordon has been outstanding, looking like a legitimate 20 and 10 guy on any given night. Evan Fournier appears more comfortable as a first option in the offense and Nikola Vucevic is bombing threes and playing comfortably from deep. Jonathon Simmons has been better-than-expected on both ends of the floor. Combine all these factors and Orlando is off to a surprising 6-4 start.
The shooting will undoubtedly cool throughout the season. Orlando was shooting 44 percent from three through their first seven games, with Payton, Simmons, Gordon and Fournier all above the 50 percent mark. As those numbers regress towards the mean, how much of Orlando’s performance as a team will drop as a result?
Skeptics began to prop up after Orlando dropped a game by 20 at home to the league-worst Chicago Bulls and reverted back to their poor shooting ways. But it’s one game, and a foolish practice is to invalidate one small sample-size with an even smaller one. If the team can’t eat the whole apple in one bite, let’s not try to do the same in a rush to judgment.
Most importantly, Weltman’s aforementioned quote goes to show the long-term necessities of building this organization go far beyond just competing this year. There’s youth on this roster – intriguing, multi-positional, malleable young guys – but no sense that a true elite-caliber superstar calls the Amway Center home. Will they need to add one of those types of players to truly become an upper echelon team out East, or can Frank Vogel, Weltman and company coax more from some of its young talent?
Vogel’s first season at the helm saw an offense go from previously unimaginative to cluttered and clunky. Spacing was nowhere to be found in super-large lineups he trotted out with Aaron Gordon at the 3, all while Payton served as a non-shooting point guard. For a mediocre assembly of talent to achieve the whole must be greater than the sum of its parts. Somehow it felt like last year’s Orlando team was the opposite. There are good individual shooters, solid one-on-one scorers, above-average defenders and open court athletes. The Magic had zero identity on the offensive side on the ball though, instead trying to shuttle all those pieces together and make it work despite the limitations of the roster.
In a league that values the corner three, Orlando failed miserably there last season, finishing dead last in the NBA with an abysmal 30.2 percent from that zone, featuring only one shooter (the seldom-used Jodie Meeks) who was above 40 percent as an individual. Terrence Ross clanked in less than a quarter of his shots from the corners, while Aaron Gordon was barely better. So much of spacing in the NBA comes from the corners, sucking defenders away from the rim laterally and forcing teams to avoid loading up on the strong side.
Too frequently, Payton found himself bottled up last season as he tried to create offense out of broken plays with no spacing. The Serge Ibaka trade provided a little help in that regard, as Orlando scored over 100 points in 19 of their final 25 games (as opposed to 26 of their first 57). The subtraction of Serge in favor of green-light Terrence Ross added a massive amount of space on the floor and pole-vaulted their starting unit to the tops of the league in offensive efficiency. Only five other lineups posted a higher offensive rating in comparable minutes; all of those five lineups belonged to fifty-win teams.
Perhaps this hot start really is sustainable.
Gordon’s individual production also skyrocketed with the change in lineups and move back to his more natural position. It really shouldn’t be that much of a surprise that he’s playing so effectively right now after the finish to the 2016-17 campaign. Compare his first-half and second-half numbers, via NBA.com’s stats bureau and he looks almost like a different player:
The three-point shooting has been the only consistent area of major concern and Gordon is currently silencing critics left and right. Whether it is improvements to his shooting form or a confidence that gives him the green light to pull from deep, he’s a different and more complete offensive player now that he’s honed his shot. It’s still early to call him an above-average shooter, but he’s earning enough respect to be guarded from deep, which in turn opens up driving lanes against opposing forwards.
Orlando’s second-half surge last season didn’t come from Gordon, however. Long thought to be on the hot seat entering into the final year of his rookie deal, Elfrid Payton posted some insane splits over the final few months of the 2016-17 season. Combine a nearly five-point plus-minus differential with multiple triple-doubles and Payton could have some fooled for an All-Star-caliber performer:
Elf has been on the shelf with a hamstring injury for much of the season, making his production the biggest mystery in predicting just how good Orlando will be. He’s notorious for strong second-half surges, so it’s hard to say last season will be different. As Payton, a restricted free agent at year’s end, tries to redeem himself one last time as a high-quality starter and not just someone who surges when the postseason is out of reach, his play might be the biggest X-Factor moving forward. Improved spacing and an ignition of three-point attempts all around should, in theory, open up the lane for a non-shooter like Payton.
If he doesn’t look like the Payton of last March, expect the Magic to be a dark horse candidate for Eric Bledsoe from Phoenix. Getting Bledsoe without having to face the risk of overpaying Payton this summer would be a safe move. Vogel may also be able to let Aaron Gordon play more with the ball in his hands if flanked by a point guard that stretches defenses away from the hoop. Regardless of any potential trade, we still don’t know what to expect from the 23-year-old point guard, and that’s a dangerous thought to wrestle with.
While the pace has picked up the statistical output for many, no single player has adjusted better than Nikola Vucevic. Long-heralded as a smooth mid-range shooter, Vooch stretched his range this season out to three and it’s been a deadly weapon early in the season. The Eastern Conference is filled with stiff centers like Dwight Howard, Jonas Valanciunas, Enes Kanter… the list goes on. With spacing to the corners and a feared offensive rebounder like Gordon ready to pounce at the rim, simple actions that attack these bigs vertically and simultaneously raise Vooch to the top of the key give him wide-open looks:
Help defense is only effective when there’s a lateral component to it. Straight-line drives to the rim, and relocations vertically to the top of the key, are difficult to guard because there’s no clear rotation for who should jump out at Vooch. If anyone scrambles to him it’s an easy read to find the right player on the court to ping the ball towards for an open, high-percentage shot. For a team that’s struggled so mightily to bang home the corner treys, this middle pick-and-pop is a wonderful counter.
Compare that same play to a season ago, when Vooch was forced to roll to the rim, and the pressure that put on Payton from a spacing standpoint:
The middle pick-and-pop has been a huge part of his game thus far, as have trailer threes. Pushing the tempo and running after a make or a miss scramble defenses before they get set. Rim protectors and centers get baited into dropping back to protect the rim while their man slowly jaunts up the court. Payton and D.J. Augustin have been effective at toying with opposing centers and finding Vucevic in these situations, making defenses pay for clogging the lane in early offense:
Of course, the small sample size police will be all over any and all of Orlando’s hot-shooting metrics. But these are the types of shots that are sustainable since they’re such high-quality, uncontested looks. As more time goes by into this season, the combination of that end-of-season surge last year and a torrid 2017-18 campaign will show a growing amount of promise. Their efficiency numbers are relatively similar to last season, and the decision to increase tempo and play at a faster pace is turning up their raw numbers.
Vogel has accepted the team’s need to increase tempo, arriving at the wholesale change after last Spring’s improvements. It may be uncomfortable for him based on the defense-first, grind-it-out track record that got him within a game of the NBA Finals when he was the Pacers head coach, but good leaders adjust themselves for the benefit of the group instead of the other way around. That tweak has alone made the Magic feel more modern and mesh effectively, as Vogel recognizes:
“Shifting our style of play last year I really feel put the puzzle pieces in place for the way this group needs to play. Evan’s [Fournier] seen benefits from it. Vuc [Nikola Vucevic] has seen benefits from it. Aaron Gordon has seen benefits from it. We’ve just been able to modernize our team. These guys showed some life towards the end of last season adopting this style of play.”
How fast are they playing this season? Through their first 10 games, the Magic are fourth in the league in pace, coming in with over 102 possessions per 48 minutes, per bball-reference metrics. That’s faster than last season’s Houston Rockets (100 possessions per 48 minutes) under D’Antoni, and any team’s season-totals in NBA history. The game has changed drastically – the 2004-2005 “Seven Seconds or Less” Phoenix Suns would be in the bottom-third in pace this season. Everything is faster, not just the Magic, making their shift to playing at the speed of light is all the more impressive.
Vogel’s starting rotation has stabilized a bit thanks to their go-go mentality, but it has neither added the team a necessary superstar nor tightened up a leaky bench. Depth is a massive factor at play for Orlando, who had the league’s worst net-rating off the bench in the NBA last season. Their -11.1 net rating was nearly twice as poor as the Philadelphia 76ers (-6.0), who were 29th. That would neutralizes any positive effect even a super talented starting group would have, let alone Orlando’s.
The bench has been sturdy this year, no longer ceding the prime leads taken by the starting unit. Rookie Jonathan Isaac will be special some day but is still ironing out some of the kinks. Playing Mo Speights over the offensively-challenged Bismack Biyombo keeps their offense flowing but hurts their D (Magic announcers are already counting how many seconds into a game it takes him to launch his first shot). Speights can hit those same trailing threes as Vooch when Orlando pushes the ball with ferocity up the sidelines. When Payton returns from his injury and D.J. Augustin slides back with the reserves we’ll get a more accurate portrait of Orlando’s true second unit.
Simmons has been the anchor though, and probably the team’s best playmaker in the absence of Elfrid Payton. Vogel has been intent on using Simmons in ball screens, and he’s led the team thus far with more than six possessions per game as the PnR ball handler, per NBA.com’s player tracking data. He’s been excellent with the ball in his hands, putting pressure on both primary and help defenders to generate easy buckets with some nifty dimes:
The gem that the Spurs found is simply a good basketball player. He shoots above 50 percent from the field and is always looking to score, so he’s a relatively difficult cover in the PnR. Most of all, he stabilizes their defensive rotations and executes with his length and physicality. Orlando has been utilizing some ice coverages on the defensive side of the floor, and the Magic tend to counter it by switching. Their big man will take the tiny ball handler, daring him to play in isolation pinned to one side of the floor. Simmons, with his gaudy frame and smarts, is ready to pounce on bigs who pop. His hands are some of the quickest in the league:
In Vogel’s five seasons as a head coach with the Pacers, he never had a team finish outside the top 10in defensive efficiency. Last year’s Magic finished 22nd. The new front office helped their sideline savant by signing Jonathon Simmons to a very team-friendly three-year deal. While shifting Aaron Gordon back to his natural position may help matters most (and allow the Magic to defend most mobile 4-men throughout the league), having an above-average wing defender will help keep guys like Evan Fournier and Terrence Ross from getting feasted upon by the league’s best scorers.
You can already see the benefits of having Simmons on the floor defensively, but the team is still likely to hover around league average at best. Vucevic still gets his feet crossed guarding ball screens, and Fournier and Ross can take the more-than-occasional nap away from the ball. Their defensive efficiency numbers are a bit skewed, too. Opponents are shooting a league-worst 30 percent from deep against the Magic. Part of that is obviously their defensive principles and emphasis, but luck plays a big role. Those numbers may stabilize while Vogel and company are concerned about fixing the team’s biggest defensive flaw.
Rim protection has and will continue to be a struggle for the Magic. Vucevic in particular struggles (this was part of the reason Henigan threw a boatload of cash at Biyombo 18 months ago) despite a decent frame and long limbs. He’s yet to master verticality and he’s grounded by nature, so it’s difficult for him to liftoff and challenge anything at the rim.
Transition defense is an area where the Magic have given up far too many looks at the rim. Usually communication is at fault in these situations, and twice against the Hornets Vooch got hung up between switching matchups while chasing the ball down the floor. Both times Dwight Howard got wide open dunks:
These are the type of plays that drive a coach absolutely berserk. Schematically, there are ways to combat a lack of rim protection from a center – ice defense being one of them – but the players aren’t holding up their end of the bargain from an effort standpoint. A huge worry for these Magic is that, once the shots aren’t falling at this high of a rate, the flood gates will open on the other end when their defense has fewer opportunities to get set.
November’s schedule difficulty will amp up here, with the Magic logging eight of their next 11 on the road. After that stretch, they play host to Oklahoma City and Golden State before things stabilize in early December. Check back on their defense after that stretch.
Weltman and company have some decisions to make as they move forward in rebuilding a team that’s been stuck in that phase for more than half a decade. First and foremost are the contracts of Aaron Gordon and Elfrid Payton, two restricted free agents next summer. If the front office is satisfied with the individual and group growth shown this season, there’s a good chance both will be back. Gordon is a special player who impacts the game in many ways; Weltman won’t be rooting against him, but the better he plays this year the more expensive he’ll be come next July.
Orlando is now in a difficult situation as they sort through the next moves in their rebuild. The Hennigan regime showed the danger in hitting lots of singles and no home runs; that elite players don’t suddenly blossom from the safe, mundane picks. But Weltman, who has spent time in front offices without free agent track records like Toronto and the Clippers, knows all too well that small market teams can’t swing for the fences each year and expect not to strike out hard eventually. Somewhere in the middle there’s a balance that must be struck.
Gordon and rookie Jonathan Isaac are fluid pieces for their frontcourt, with versatility and oodles of upside. Perhaps the future revolves around them as a switching, blitzing 4-5 tandem once the rook fills out his body and learns the tricks of NBA rim protection. Isaac is getting some run early in his career and looks the part of a promising, largely-untapped keg of awesomeness that is still figuring out how to combat the speed of the game. What’s best for Isaac, and the team long-term, is if their resident rubber-band man only plays the minutes that he carves out for himself.
The rest of the roster has some average versatility to it – at least when it comes to the younger pieces. Terrence Ross is long for a guard. Jonathon Simmons will move about on the wings and defend multiple types of scorers. Hopefully that’s enough to make up for the constant losing gambles of Evan Fournier, who seems to always go for a steal and miss. Vooch is compensating for his lack of defensive prowess by making himself into a mismatch inside-outside threat. If that three-point percentage stays above 35 then he’ll be a juggernaut of a matchup for many of the centers in the East. Still, it feels like Orlando is now relying on outscoring people to win games instead of finding ways to generate quality stops. That’s a poor recipe for a young team.
For all the upside their youngsters still provide, Weltman must trim a ton of fat eating up their cap space. Bismack Biyombo somehow makes $17 million a year until July 2020. Fournier is on the same deal until 2021 and is nearing his ceiling. D.J. Augustin is under contract until 2020 while making little impact. No one of those deals is a killer, but the summation of a few starts to add up.
Orlando is sitting on a stockpile of draft picks… second round picks, that is. Their only incoming first-rounder, Oklahoma City’s 2020 first, is top-20 protected and may be pushed back due to other obligations the Thunder must fulfill before conveying the pick to the Magic. Not to poo-poo the value of a good second-rounder, but this is a team in dire need of some star power. A glut of seconds can help a team, but do very little in the pursuit of a franchise player.
Overly focusing on this hot start and 2017-18 season to the neglect of the franchise’s long-term needs would undermine the reason Weltman was brought into Orlando in the first place. He and Vogel seem to have figured out, very early in their tenure together, how to maximize the group they have and prioritize internal player development. Overhauling their offense and changing their frontcourt has been a brilliant coup that has risen Orlando above most expectations set for themselves.
There’s no reason to get satisfied here. The makeup of the roster still has to change a little. Whether it’s trimming some of the larger contracts or using the trade market to bring in the top dog (something Weltman has a ton of experience in), this roster still has to evolve to get Orlando to take the next step in the East.
So while we can get mildly excited about the progress this group is making, the long-term need for a superstar limits just how seriously we can take the Magic this season. Ten games in they look much-improved and straight-up fun. For a fan base starving for any identity over the last few years, a little bit of fun is much needed.