Frank Vogel Has Trust and Belief in Team's Young Core

By John Denton
April 19, 2017

ORLANDO – The 2016-17 season was a long, torturous one for many of the players on the Orlando Magic because of the team’s extensive struggles and their unmet expectations of reaching the playoffs.

Elfrid Payton, who played the best basketball of his professional career over the final two months of the season, wasn’t one of those players happy that the difficult season was complete. In fact, Payton quietly has his fingers crossed that the Magic squad that finished this season on something of an uptick will still be intact come next season.

“Honestly, I think we’re a lot closer than it seems, especially now that we’ve got the offense going and we were putting up points,’’ Payton said. “We just have to establish a defensive identity. I think we can (make the playoffs next season). If we have summer together, a training camp and a whole preseason, I think we

can do it. I know we can do it.’’

Whether the core group that finished this past season – centers Nikola Vucevic and Bismack Biyombo; shooting guards Evan Fournier and Terrence Ross; forwards Aaron Gordon and Mario Hezonja; and point guard Payton – will get another chance to prove themselves going forward remains to be seen. The architect of that team, Rob Hennigan, was fired last week when the Magic finished just 23-59 and well out of the playoff hunt.

The Magic are currently in search of a new GM, a process that could stretch into the end of June because several of the candidates that they want to interview are on teams competing in the postseason, according to CEO Alex Martins. For now, interim GM Matt Lloyd and head coach Frank Vogel are the ones charged with handling the evaluations of the season and deciding how much of the team’s core is brought back next season.

“They’re still very young and if you look league-wide most of the (teams) winning aren’t doing it with young guys. The book is still out, but I still have a great deal of belief in these guys and what they can be,’’ Vogel said. “They haven’t reached that (elite) level yet, but they’ve shown flashes of it, so we know it’s there and we just have to put it all together and add the right mix that is needed.

“I do still believe in the young core that is here. Not just Elfrid, Aaron and Mario (Hezonja), but Terrence, Evan (Fournier) and Vooch – those guys are still young guys, too,’’ Vogel continued. “This group is about to enter its prime and that’s how we have to look at this. You have a group that is about to enter its prime and those are the groups that go on year-after-year playoff runs where they are in it every year and they have a chance (to win a title).’’

The Magic made major changes to their roster last summer, bringing in nine new faces around a core that has primarily been in place the past three seasons. Even though there’s a sweeping trend throughout the NBA to play with smaller, faster lineups that feature more shooting and speed, the Magic opted to trade for power forward Serge Ibaka and sign Biyombo in free agency. The Magic also acquired veterans Jeff Green, D.J. Augustin, Jodie Meeks in hopes that their experience would help to shape the roster in place.

Little to any of it worked as the Magic were a mess much of the preseason and started slowly in the regular season. As the losses piled up – many of them the lopsided variety – the Magic made the decision to pull the plug on rotating three big men by shipping Ibaka to the Toronto Raptors on Feb. 14.

“You could kind of see the morale of the team turn for the worse, negativity started to creep in and doubt started to creep in,’’ said Aaron Gordon, who had to switch from power forward to small forward for the first 3½ months of the regular season. “There was frustration and a little bit too much finger pointing and that’s when we could tell that it’s tanking.’’

Getting Ross in exchange for Ibaka allowed Vogel – someone who had won previously with two big men in defensive-minded systems – to switch up the Magic’s style of play. With Gordon back at power forward, Fournier at small forward and Ross manning the shooting guard position, the Magic played a style of basketball that was more in line with the way so many others in the NBA are using. No longer were they facing the speed and shooting deficits that they saw far too often early in the season with a sleeker rotation that was being pushed to accelerate the pace.

Payton, Gordon and Ross were big benefactors of the style change. Payton not only compiled five triple-doubles, but he averaged 13.5 points, 8.4 assists, 7.0 assists while shooting 50.8 percent from the floor and 31.6 from the free throw line over the final 24 games – big jumps over the 12.5 points, 5.7 assists and 3.8 rebounds in the first 58 games of the season. Similarly, Gordon reacted well to moving back to his natural position, posting 16.4 points and 6.2 assists while shooting 50.3 percent from the field over the final 24 games – big improvements over his play in his first 56 games (11.2 points, 4.6 rebounds, 42.8 percent shooting).

Hezonja, who was drafted as a shooting guard, made big strides in his all-around play once Vogel had the vision to switch him in to a modified power forward role. Ross, meanwhile, averaged 12.5 points on 43.1 percent shooting from the floor and 34.1 percent from 3-point range in 24 games with the Magic.

Those numbers allowed the Magic to notch big wins against Chicago, Atlanta, Detroit (twice), Brooklyn, Phoenix and Philadelphia down the stretch. While the Magic’s defense still left a lot to be desired, those late-season victories boosted hopes that a brighter future is ahead while playing in a more up-tempo offense.

“We’ve got a lot of pieces that can help us, a lot of talent and a lot of guys who can play ball here,’’ said Ross, who compared Orlando’s young talent to the base in Toronto that has helped the Raptors become a postseason fixture. “It’s just a matter now of figuring out how to make it all work and really embracing this new style of ball that we’re playing. There’s a bright future here and we just have to take the right steps to get there (to the playoffs).’’

Change is almost inevitable in the NBA, especially among teams that don’t win. Changes have already started at the top with Hennigan and Assistant GM Scott Perry losing their jobs. Players such as Payton and Gordon are highly hopeful that there isn’t too much change among the roster and that the squad gets another shot next season to prove that it has what it takes to be a playoff team going forward.

“Hopefully we keep at least the majority of the core of this team together,’’ Ross said. “We just need to get more players in here who can help us play this small-ball style because I think we can be really good next year.’’

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.

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