By John Denton
Oct. 1, 2017
ORLANDO – Even though the Orlando Magic’s exhibition season opener on Monday will almost certainly at times have the feel of a light scrimmage and a trial-and-error dress rehearsal, the game also signifies the starting point of what coach Frank Vogel expects to be major improvements this season.
Vogel has said it time and again already this preseason that if the Magic are to make a major jump in the standings this season and get back into contention for a playoff spot, huge strides must be made in a variety of different areas. After all, when the starting mark is last season’s disappointing 29-53 finish, the Magic are going to need far more than incremental gains to make up major ground on the rest of the Eastern Conference.
Starting with Monday’s 8 p.m. (E.T.) game in Memphis against the Grizzlies (0-0), Vogel will be looking to his Magic (0-0) to show much more vigor and fight on the defensive end of the floor, better pace and space offensively and the chemistry of a team that should enjoy a bump from the continuity on the roster and with the same coaching staff.
“We’ve got to take a big jump if we want to consider ourselves competing for a playoff spot,’’ said Vogel, who figures to have every player except Arron Afflalo (back stiffness) available for Monday night’s game. “We weren’t close last year and we didn’t make a bunch of changes. So the improvement has to come from within. It has to come from player development. That’s the task that has been put in front of me and that’s what I’m embracing.’’
New President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman and GM John Weltman were limited in the changes they could make to the roster by salary cap constraints. Still, the Magic’s new brain trust did add players they feel can make major differences in shaping the team’s on-court play and its off-court culture. In Jonathon Simmons, the Magic added the player who had the NBA’s best defensive rating last season – a welcomed addition to a team that slumped badly on that end of the floor last season. And in Afflalo, Marreese Speights and Shelvin Mack, Orlando added veteran players known for their mental and physical toughness and reputations for fighting through adverse situations.
The hope is that the addition of the new (rookies Jonathan Isaac, Wesley Iwundu and Khem Birch) and the old (veteran free agents) will fortify a core of Nikola Vucevic, Evan Fournier, Bismack Biyombo, Aaron Gordon, Elfrid Payton, Terrence Ross, Mario Hezonja and D.J. Augustin. Again, big strides need to be made and it’s up to the Magic to start now making up ground. Even though it’s still early in the preseason, it’s never too early to start laying the groundwork on how this team needs to play on a nightly basis.
“We definitely want to set a tone for how this season is going to go,’’ Payton said of Monday’s mission. “Compete, play at a high level, play hard and play through mistakes – things are going to happen, we’re going to turn the ball over, miss shots and miss defensive assignments, but we have to play through it and not make repeated mistakes.’’
Simmons, who left the San Antonio Spurs to sign with the Magic in the offseason, returned to practice on Sunday after battling through some tightness in his hip flexor. Simmons became a postseason star last spring when he stepped in for an injured Kawhi Leonard and had success defensively against MVP runner-up James Harden. Vogel has used training camp to get to know more about Simmons, and he thinks the gritty wing player can influence the Magic’s culture with his fighting spirit.
“He’s a tough-minded guy who works hard on the defensive end and he’s really explosive attacking the basket,’’ Vogel said. “He’s a confident driver, which should help us on the offensive end.’’
Nikola Vucevic, the longest-tenured Magic player, feels this season will be different than his previous five in Orlando and there is plenty of reasons for optimism. Vucevic likes the continuity that the Magic possess now with the same coaching staff and much of the squad’s core back. The 7-foot center, who dropped five pounds in the offseason in an effort to become more mobile, likes the team’s vibe in training camp and he feels there’s a collective mission to be significantly better.
“We have to be better about sharing the ball, being more aggressive and not overthinking things a lot of times,’’ said Vucevic, who will most likely start on Monday alongside of Payton, Fournier, Gordon and Ross. “Last season, we told ourselves that we had to make the playoffs and once that things started not going our way, we let the frustration sink in and we didn’t play to the level that we could. For this season, it’s important to learn from what happened and leave last season behind us. We have to come in with a positive mind, improve, stay positive and work hard.’’
Orlando’s ability to make a major jump this season could be directly tied to the promising potential of Gordon and Payton – two players who are entering their fourth seasons and are expected to have breakout years. Both players had their finest stretches of basketball over the final 2 ½ months of last season after the Magic shifted to a more up-tempo and attacking offense.
Shifted back to power forward where he can better use his breathtaking athleticism to attack the rim, Gordon averaged 16.4 points, 6.2 rebounds while shooting 50.8 percent from the floor over the final 24 games of last season. As for Payton, the floppy-haired point guard had five triple-doubles – tied for the fifth most in the NBA – over the final two dozen games. He averaged 13.5 points, 8.4 assists and 7.0 rebounds and shot 50.8 percent from the floor in the final 24 games as opposed to the 12.5 points, 5.7 assists and 3.8 rebounds and 45.7 percent shooting in the 58 games before the all-star break.
The goal now, Payton said, is to pick up where the team left off last season and establish an identity for how it wants to play every night. Play faster on offense and tougher on the defense and the Magic should be able to make a major jump, Payton predicted.
“I think so, but we’ll see and only time will tell,’’ Payton said of carrying over last season’s progress to this one. “We were playing at a high speed (late last season) and Coach (Vogel) is encouraging it again. I think we play better like that and we’re trying to just pick that up where we left off.’’
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