By John Denton
Aug. 1, 2017
ORLANDO – At this point in Arron Afflalo’s career, some 10 seasons and 709 games in, some might assume that the 31-year-old shooting guard signed with the Orlando Magic merely to milk a few more years in the NBA and serve as a rah-rah mentor for the team’s younger players.
But the ever-prideful, always-competitive Afflalo has a bold message – both to opposing players and even to his new teammates on the Magic: He’s here to compete and show that he still has plenty of fight and grit left in his game.
“I’m not here to stand around and cheer; I’m here to compete,’’ Afflalo said with conviction when addressing the 15 pounds he’s dropped this offseason in grueling three-hour daily workout sessions.
Afflalo’s pointed comments speak to one of the Magic’s primary goals of the offseason which was to make the youth-filled roster much more competitive, deeper and diverse. One of the most basic building blocks of teams who compete and fight on a nightly basis is possessing a roster with competition. When players are forced to battle daily for their starting spots and their places in the rotation, competition often trumps complacency. When injuries and/or slumps hit, there isn’t as much of a drop off when changes to the rotation are made. When there is quality depth, more options present themselves when foes counter with outside-the-box approaches.
Without question, Orlando improved the competition within the roster, broadened the flexibility available and added proven depth with free-agent additions Jonathon Simmons, Marreese Speights, Shelvin Mack, Khem Birch and Afflalo. Add in the youthful energy and enthusiasm of draft picks Jonathan Isaac and Wesley Iwundu and the Magic should have a variety of weapons to throw at teams in the season ahead.
“Something that all good teams strive for is to have roster balance and create competition at every position,’’ said Magic President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman, who was hired on May 22 and has worked for months to remake the team’s roster. “It makes practice better and it makes the players better. It creates options for game-time decisions for the coaches.’’
Magic head coach Frank Vogel should have a host of options when he looks down his bench next season. Orlando already has a solid core of Nikola Vucevic, Evan Fournier, Aaron Gordon, Elfrid Payton, Bismack Biyombo, Terrence Ross, D.J. Augustin and Mario Hezonja. Now, with additions of scrappy veterans such as Simmons, Speights, Mack and Afflalo, the Magic should be able to go at least 10-to-11 deep without much of a drop off in production. No, this team still doesn’t have one, dynamic superstar, but it does have a host of players who figure to compete and battle on a nightly basis.
“Competition is good because it builds character and it builds fire,’’ said Afflalo, who is in his second stint with the Magic after first playing in Orlando from 2012-14. “In this league, you have to have that passion and fire to win or you get rolled over. So, the more competition that we can have in practice and translate it onto the court, the better.’’
Realizing that the NBA is quickly becoming a game more centered around drive-and-kick and space-and-pace action, Weltman strategically loaded the Magic’s roster with wing players capable of playing both ends of the floor. As important as being able to make shots from 3-point range, defending slashers and 3-point shooters has become a top commodity in the NBA.
Simmons, formerly of San Antonio, showed his defensive ware in the playoffs last spring by frustrating MVP runner-up James Harden. Afflalo and Mack have long been considered plus defenders, while holdovers Gordon and Biyombo should benefit defensively from having teammates more focused on getting stops.
“Going small has become so commonplace where it’s not a strategy, but like the accepted norm,’’ Weltman said. “The goal is to have players who can defend multiple positions, but also offensively pose threats attacking the rim and stretching the floor. All of that stuff is just kind of more arrows in a coach’s quiver. The more you have like that, the better. Then, when you have to adjust on the fly, you feel better about looking down the bench and feeling like you have guys that can adjust and win the game.’’
Loading the roster with depth and versatility is hardly a strategy unique to the Magic, but Weltman is eager to build a culture of competition. And he wants to provide Vogel with a roster full of players who will battle to the very end every night.
“Hopefully as the team comes together, Coach (Vogel) feels that way about our group,’’ he said. “I know that (Simmons, Afflalo, Mack and Speights) have all been fighters who have matured as players and people as their careers have gone on. We want them to give Coach Vogel what he feels he needs to win.’’
Afflalo, now the oldest player on the team, wasted no time in heating up his competitive fire by going to work on his body as soon as last season ended. By working some 90 minutes a day on his body and another 90 minutes on his game, Afflalo has already dropped 15 pounds and is back to the 205 pounds that he played at three years ago for the Magic when he had the finest season of his career. Afflalo hopes that his offseason work ultimately serves as a message to his teammates that he is fully committed and here to compete daily for a spot in Orlando’s rotation.
“I’m definitely going to be here to push guys in a positive way and hopefully that can lead to more wins on the court for us this season,’’ Afflalo said.
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