2018-19 Season Preview: Orlando Magic

NBA.com Global on Oct 15, 2018 09:05 AM
2018-19 Season Preview: Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic center Mohamed Bamba reacts during the fourth quarter of a preseason NBA basketball game against the Miami Heat in Miami, Monday, Oct. 8, 2018. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com

Orlando Magic fans know the story well: the team drafted a potentially transcendent young talent near the top of the lottery. He, plus the team's talent and youth, will end the franchise's long playoff drought. Yet no team in the Eastern Conference has spun its wheels the way the Magic have recently, running through lottery picks, coaches and front-office personnel in their pursuit of the synergy and success they enjoyed after drafting Dwight Howard in 2004. Orlando has only won 30 or more games once in the six seasons since Howard left in 2012. The Magic have that young potentially transcendent talent again in the form of rookie 7-footer Mohamed Bamba, the sixth pick overall in the June draft. They’ve got a budding star in power forward Aaron Gordon and a new coach in Steve Clifford who will attempt to succeed where everyone else before him has failed. Maybe the story has a different ending this time.

ICYMI

The Magic took care of their own business in free agency over the summer. They needed roughly 21 hours to come to an agreement on a four-year, $76 million deal with their restricted free agent forward Gordon, who took a major step in his development last season … In what seems like a never-ending search for the right point guard fit, the Magic acquired Jerian Grant from Chicago in a multiplayer deal that also saw Timofey Mozgov join the Magic after they sent Bismack Biyombo and second round picks in 2019 and 2020 to Charlotte … The Magic added a former first-round pick in Jarell Martin in a late July trade with Memphis. A 6-foot-10, 240-pound power forward, Martin averaged a career-best 7.7 points and 4.4 rebounds while starting 36 games for the Grizzlies last season.

THREE POINTS

1. Clifford knows his competition. His familiarity with the rest of the Southeast Division provides the Magic with a coach who is well-versed on the teams that will be fighting to dig out of the cellar in the conference. His teams in Charlotte couldn’t overcome injuries and locker room drama (courtesy of Howard in his lone season with the Hornets), issues that should not be an issue in his new job. He’s working with an eager bunch this season and can point to his previous playoff work in Charlotte as proof that his system works when executed properly.

2. Jonathan Isaac’s development seems to be on track. The second-year forward was noticeably bigger and stronger at Summer League than he looked throughout his underwhelming rookie year. He played with a patience and force during his Summer League stint that has to inspire confidence that he’s well on the road to being the player the Magic front office envisioned when they selected the Florida State product with the sixth pick in the 2017 draft.

3. Jonathon Simmons is always ready to go. He was an impact player in his first season with the Magic after two hard-scrapping seasons fighting for time in San Antonio. Simmons is the sort of high-energy, two-way player Clifford will need to help transform the Magic into a defensive-minded group. Attitude is everything when it comes to making that transition and Clifford will find he has an ally in Simmons.

MAN ON THE SPOT

Nikola Vucevic has weathered all challenges to his hold on the center position for the Magic with the sort of grit and determination you’d expect from a player who wears his 260-plus pounds like a coat of armor. He’s been a consistent double-double performer in his six seasons in Orlando. Clifford is known for his preference of building around a dominant big man, and he would appear to have exactly that in Vucevic, who has been slow to stretch his game out beyond the 3-point line. He did average 3.6 attempts from deep last season, a career-high. But as the Magic’s younger big men continue to develop, the need for him to operate in that space won’t be there. That means Clifford can focus on Vucevic diving back into being a dominant low-post presence, even though he’s not an elite shot blocker in a league where those types of players are far and few between. If there is room for Vucevic’s game to grow at 28 years old, a big man tutor and specialist like Clifford is sure to help bring it out of him. And with Gordon ready to take off and talented youngsters like Isaac and Bamba pushing for time in the frontcourt rotation, Vucevic will have to reinvent himself to maintain that hold on his position.

STARTING FIVE

Jerian Grant | 8.4 ppg, 4.6 apg, 2.3 rpg
Has the size and athleticism to be an impact player on the defensive end as well as a competent distributor/playmaker.

Evan Fournier | 17.8 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 2.9 apg
Team struggles in recent seasons have overshadowed his rise as one of the more consistent shooting guards in the East.

Nikola Vucevic | 16.5 ppg, 9.2 rpg, 1.1 bpg
The Magic’s anchor in the middle for six seasons (and counting) will get a boost from new coach and big man guru Clifford.

Terrence Ross | 8.7 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 1.6 apg
Injuries prevented him from showing off the full scope of what he brings as a two-way wing.

Aaron Gordon | 17.6 ppg, 7.9 rpg, 2.3 apg
Poised to take off now that he’s got a new contract and the confidence and security that comes with it.

KEY RESERVES

Jonathon Simmons | 13.9 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 2.5 apg
No-nonsense performer will be a tone-changer off the bench or as a starter if Clifford goes that route.

Jonathan Isaac | 5.4 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 1.1 bpg
Kid gloves will come off now that Isaac has grown into his frame a bit more and is playing more physically.

Mohamed Bamba | 12.9 ppg, 10.5 rpg, 3.7 bpg (Texas)
Rookie is more advanced offensively and should immediately be a rim-protecting presence with his elite length and timing.

THE BOTTOM LINE

The Magic will spend the early part of the season digesting a new system, so patience will be needed. They are not equipped for a giant leap in the standings, as they simply do not have the pieces for that step right now. But if they can develop some chemistry among their core group, including impact minutes from both Isaac and Bamba, they’ll be on the right path. Frank Vogel never did capture the locker room in Orlando. That was clear in how unevenly his teams performed. Clifford should not have that problem as the Magic claw their way to a 32-50 record.

Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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