Year of the Weird-Ass Orlando Magic

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(USA TODAY Sports)

Rob Hennigan made one thing clear this summer: he’s sick of losing. The team has been largely irrelevant since the Dwightmare of 2012. They’ve won more than 30 games once in four tries. Pieces were in place, some nights were fun, but were they actually going anywhere? There seemed to be no team identity, and perhaps too many overlapping pieces.

To change that, Hennigan went out of his way to turn the Magic into a playoff team — or at least what he thinks is a playoff team. The action started last February.

The overhaul began by moving Tobias Harris — who was blocking Aaron Gordon from starting. Hennigan wanted him out of the way so bad, he took back Brandon Jennings and Ersan Ilyasova from Detroit. So, basically, he gave Harris up for cap space. Trading him made sense, but the return was underwhelming. Jennings was a pending free agent, and Ilyasova wasn’t in the long-term plans either.

Approaching a summer where everyone had cap space, the trade was puzzling. But nonetheless, the first young asset was out the door.

After finishing the season with 35 wins, the Magic could have added the final piece to their core through the lottery before chasing the eighth seed. Instead, they shipped out the second young asset: Victor Oladipo.

Along with Oladipo, 2016 11th overall pick Domantas Sabonis and Ilyasova went to Oklahoma City in exchange for Serge Ibaka.

Initial reactions were a resounding victory for the Thunder. They just got a lottery pick and a stud two-guard to slot in between Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. Ibaka wasn’t fitting in anymore anyways, and Steven Adams is now the stud big man in their front line.

Things have changed a bit since late June, however. Durant isn’t there anymore. That doesn’t change how good or bad the trade was, but it is certainly less exciting for Thunder fans. And Ibaka has looked pretty damn good in Orlando during the preseason.

This trade will need to be revisited after the regular season to determine the true winner. Whoever makes the playoffs may end up the victor, as both teams are not locks to make or miss the postseason.

Joining Ibaka in the frontcourt now is Bismack Biyombo, coming off a productive season in Toronto that netted him a four-year, $68 million deal over the summer. It’s not clear who starts between Biyombo or Nikola Vucevic, which could have a dramatic impact on both sides of the ball.

With Biyombo, Orlando projects to be an offense that runs the floor, establishes a low-post presence early in the shot clock, and dumps the ball down low a little more often than modern NBA teams do. On defense, they boast versatility and shot-blocking for days.

With Vucevic, the offense gets a little stretchier. Not quite to the three-point line, but the mid-range jump shots may be flying with this team. They look a bit more modern, and have a higher ceiling than with Biyombo.

In this sample, Vogel uses Vucevic in the high-post and flanking off the ball in mid-range territory. Lanes open up off of pick-and-rolls, and Vucevic’s ability from the mid-range draws a second defender, opening up Augustin for wide open look.

This may not be used as often if Vucevic were to start next to Ibaka, as he is playing next to Biyombo in this clip.

On defense, Ibaka has to cover for Vucevic at the rim and they lose the versatility.

The problem Orlando has no matter who starts at center: Aaron Gordon has to start at the three.

Frank Vogel would just love for Gordon to be Paul George in this situation, but unfortunately, he’s not. He doesn’t provide the same savviness and shooting on offense that would make this whole thing work. At 21, he’s still raw and has room to grow. Perhaps he grows into what Vogel wants him to be — and perhaps that is Paul George — but that will not be now. And now is when they want to win. Gordon had a slight uptick in his three-point percentage from his rookie to sophomore season, but he still got to just below 30 percent. That would make Ibaka — 32.6 percent last season — the most reliable three-point shooter in the frontcourt, which is a problem.

Making matters worse is that starting point guard Elfrid Payton also shot 32.6 percent from three last season. Luckily, the fifth starter — Evan Fournier — shoots the three extremely well, making 40 percent of them last season.

It’s just hard to see this starting unit succeeding in today’s game with one good three-point shooter. It is not likely that either of the other guys makes a major jump in percentage, and especially not likely that more than one does it. Teams really need a bare minimum of three starters that can shoot above 35 percent from three to be a successful offense, with four being preferred.

One thing Vogel has proven, though, is that he is not afraid to sacrifice offense for defense. On last year’s Pacers, he middle-fingered Larry Bird’s small-ball dream by starting two bigs for 58 games when the defense started to slip.

Still, Hennigan has a chance to flip a third young asset mid-season for a starter better suited to play with the current lineup and redeem himself for past questionable moves (I made a thread addressing some of those here).

My dream trade is a trade centered around Payton and Suns’ point guard Brandon Knight. The money gets weird, as Knight makes about $10 million more than Payton and Orlando cannot take in that much salary. Throw in Jeff Green from the Magic and P.J. Tucker from the Suns and the money gets close enough to work.

This move working out would rely on Knight returning to his 2014–15 Milwaukee form, where he shot 40.9 percent from three (on 4.9 attempts) through 52 games before being shipped to Phoenix at the trade deadline. There is no evidence to suggest Knight could do this — his second best shooting season was his rookie year (four years ago) with Detroit where he shot 38 percent from three.

Hennigan would have to believe Knight has a better chance at returning to that point than Payton ever getting there to make this move. Knight has shown he is capable, though, and would have more than three seasons under Vogel’s tutelage before again becoming a free agent. Vogel developed players in Indiana quite well, and with Knight still just 24, he still has room to develop. That is also a case to stick with Payton, though, at just 22 years old and even more room to develop. However, if Orlando is interested in winning sooner rather than later, Knight is a much more established player and fills some gaps offensively.

The cheaper, easier option would be to just start the guy already on the roster, D.J. Augustin, a 37.4 percent career three-point shooter. That may have to be considered if the offense bogs early on. Or, as The Ringer’s Kevin Clark notes here, give Mario Hezonja some run!

Orlando may be good this year, may be fun. But there is one thing they will be for sure: weird as hell.

Written by

Sports Journalism Graduate, IUPUI. Writing about money, business, electric vehicles, and more.

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