By John Denton
Sept. 18, 2017
ORLANDO – The Orlando Magic had an extremely busy offseason, restructuring their front office, dramatically altering the look of the roster with the addition of several proven veteran players and drafting an elite prospect high in last June’s NBA Draft.
Now, with training camp set to open in a week, it’s time to delve deeper into the roster and evaluate the team’s strengths and weaknesses.
Orlando’s first order of business in the offseason was changing its decision makers in the front office. In President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman and GM John Hammond, the Magic have more than five decades of professional basketball experience on board and two men who have long histories of success.
The Magic then stacked their roster with more experience and talent by signing forward Jonathon Simmons, big man Marreese Speights, wing Aaron Afflalo and point guard Shelvin Mack in free agency. Those veterans will be charged with mentoring promising rookie forward Jonathan Isaac, the No. 6 pick in the draft, and second-round addition Wesley Iwundu this season.
That new group, combined with head coach Frank Vogel and the returning core of Nikola Vucevic, Evan Fournier, Aaron Gordon, Elfrid Payton, Bismack Biyombo, Terrence Ross, D.J. Augustin and Mario Hezonja, gives the Magic the belief that they could be a playoff team this season following a five-year absence from the postseason.
Training camp opens Monday (at the Amway Center), the first preseason game (in Memphis) is Oct. 2 and the regular-season opener (vs. Miami at home) is Oct. 18.
Today, we look at the Magic’s strengths and weaknesses at the center position. How Vogel shuffles the mix of Vucevic, Biyombo and Speights figures to be a primary storyline all season with the Magic. Without further ado, let’s break down how the Magic look in the middle:
PLAYERS: Nikola Vucevic (7-0, 260, 6 NBA seasons); Bismack Biyombo (6-9, 255, 6 NBA seasons); Marreese Speights (6-10, 255, 9 NBA seasons); Khem Birch (6-9, 220, NBA rookie).
PROJECTED STARTER: Vucevic (2016-17 stats: 14.6 ppg., 10.4 rpg., 2.8 apg., 1.0 bpg., 46.8 FG percent, 66.9 FT percent).
PROJECTED DEPTH: Biyombo (2016-17 stats: 6 ppg., 7.0 rpg., 1.1 bpg., 52.8 FG percent, 53.4 FT percent); Speights (2016-17 stats: 8.7 ppg., 4.5 rpg., 0.8 apg., 44.5 FG percent, 37.2 3FG percent, 87.6 FT percent); Birch (2016-17 stats in Greece: 37 games (21 starts), 7.3 ppg., 5.6 rpg., 62.4 FG percent.
STRENGTHS: In Vucevic and Biyombo, the Magic have two starter-quality centers with completely different skill sets. Also, the addition of Speights – one of the NBA’s best reserves for years – gives the Magic tremendous depth and diversity at the position. Birch is a bit of a wildcard after playing professionally in Turkey and Greece. If he makes the team out of training camp, he will give the Magic a quicker, more agile big man capable of combating smaller lineups.
WEAKNESSES: In a league where seemingly every team is going small and using shooters and drivers to space the floor, the Magic are heavily invested in three big men. The Magic are well aware the Vucevic and Speights can score, but they need them to be active presences defensively. As for Biyombo, his strengths lie on the defensive end of the floor where he can block shots, rebound in traffic and switch out onto smaller players in pick-and-roll plays. However, Biyombo struggles offensively and he must be able to finish around the rim and make free throws to stay on the floor. The Magic must be able to find the right mix of offense and defense with their three big men to keep the team strong in the middle on both ends of the floor.
ANALYSIS: It will be interesting to see how the minutes and crunch-time roles are distributed at the center position considering that the Magic will need to lean heavily on the skill sets of Vucevic, Biyombo and Speights.
Vucevic, Orlando’s longest-tenured player, is once again the likely starter in the middle because the Magic will need his scoring and his ability to stretch the floor as a mid-range shooter. Vucevic’s play and production took a major dip last season as he struggled with the team’s rotation at center. The hope this year is that he will return to his form from two seasons ago as the team leans heavily on his shooting and post play. A member of the Magic’s rebuild each of the past five seasons, Vucevic wants to be a part of an Orlando team that makes it to the playoffs and he will be willing to play whatever role is asked of him by Vogel.
The Magic had high hopes for Biyombo last season after signing him as a free agent. However, Biyombo’s impact was limited as the Magic struggled defensively against smaller, quicker lineups. Biyombo has great leadership and toughness qualities and the Magic want him to take more ownership of the team this season. The belief is that surrounding him with more veteran players will help bring out his best qualities as a rim protector and shot blocker.
Speights, who can play both center and power forward, brings a burst of instant offense to the Magic as one of the NBA’s top reserves. He also played for a championship team in Golden State two seasons ago and his experience and willingness to take big shots should be big weapons for the Magic. Also, Speights is living out a childhood dream playing for the Magic as someone who grew up in nearby St. Petersburg. His enthusiasm for being Orlando should energize his zest for playing for the Magic in this his 10th NBA season.
Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Orlando Magic. All opinions expressed by John Denton are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Orlando Magic or their Basketball Operations staff, partners or sponsors.