By John Denton
Oct. 4, 2017
ORLANDO – Fans filling the Amway Center for Orlando Magic preseason games on Thursday and Saturday nights might not fully recognize the home team even though head coach Frank Vogel and much of the core of the squad are back this season.
That very well could be a good thing for the Magic considering what a sometimes difficult watch they were during a disappointing 29-53 2016-17 season. Now, when the Magic host the Dallas Mavericks on Thursday (7 p.m., no local television broadcast) and the Miami Heat on Saturday (7 p.m., Fox Sports Florida), Orlando should look different in their plan of attack, defensive aggressiveness and effectiveness in today’s ever-changing NBA style of play.
Gone is the plodding, two-big-men-at-a-time style of play and it has been replaced by a much sleeker and faster attack that prefers to push the pace after makes and misses. Among the many new faces, Jonathon and Jonathan – Simmons and Isaac, respectively – bring a distinct defensive toughness and both have the ability to reshape the Magic’s culture with their willingness to get after foes. Put it all together and Vogel thinks it is going to be a new style of play that Magic fans will enjoy.
“We just want to connect with our fans … and then have them be able to watch us play the game, pass the ball, share the ball and show the chemistry that we’ve been developing with all the work that we’ve done,’’ Vogel said of the two home preseason games ahead. “We’ve got an exciting brand of basketball with this group and we’re going to play up-tempo, attacking and shooting threes. We’ve modernized our team to be more fit to compete in today’s NBA. We started doing it at midseason last year and we’re carrying it over into this season. Hopefully, we’ll have a much stronger showing than we did last year.’’
Some of those hopes for improvement are tied to Aaron Gordon, a holdover who is something of a poster boy for the type of versatile player needed to play in today’s space-and-pace, small-ball NBA. In the current system, the 6-foot-9, 220-pound Gordon is able to play power forward – the position that allows him to outrun bigger foes down the floor, attack the rim relentlessly and get the most out of his breathtaking athleticism.
Gordon is a big fan of Orlando’s wide-open style of play because it gives players freedom within the offense as long as they are willing to share the ball and help get their teammates open.
Some of benefits of the free-flowing style were on display in Monday’s 92-84 loss to the Grizzles in Memphis. Orlando racked up 26 assists even though the starters played just a half and the team as a whole made only 36.4 percent of its shots. That number of assists should regularly sky-rocket into the 30s – an almost unthinkable number for much of last season – once the Magic get better in sync and their legs aren’t so wobbly from the rigors of training camp.
Gordon, for one, can’t wait for the Magic to show off their semi-new style of play to their fans.
“Everybody is so interchangeable and everybody is doing a lot of different things now,’’ said Gordon, who played the best basketball of his career over the final 24 games of last season after the Magic shifted to a faster pace. “Our offense is structured to where there aren’t really set spots and (point guard through power forward) can take the ball and push and even (the center) can space it out. So it’s really nice to be up to date now.’’
Magic fans might be most interested in seeing Simmons and Isaac, the two most promising offseason additions. Isaac, who just turned 20 on Tuesday, was the No. 6 pick in last June’s NBA Draft and he wasted no time in showing off his vast potential by pumping in a team-best 15 points in his NBA debut. As for Simmons, who had the NBA’s best individual defensive rating last season while playing for the San Antonio Spurs, he completely changed the tenor of Monday’s opener by stripping Memphis’ guard Wayne Selden of the ball at midcourt and then dunking on the other end.
Simmons needed just 16 minutes on Monday to stuff the stat sheet with nine points, three assists, two steals and three thunderous dunks. It’s just a snippet of what Simmons can do, Vogel said, and the coach thinks Magic fans will quickly fall in love with the gritty guard’s infectious style of play.
“Defense to offense – that’s what Jonathon does for us,’’ Vogel said following Orlando’s workout on Wednesday. “He did it again in practice today and it raised the level of practice. That’s why we’re all excited about him.’’
Nikola Vucevic, the Magic’s longest-tenured player, is plenty excited about the changes made to the team’s style of play and roster composition and he’s hopeful they will be enough to get Orlando back into playoff contention. No one has suffered through the rough past five seasons more than Vucevic and he is extremely hopeful that the Magic can provide their fan base with a winner this season. He hopes that with this week’s games the Magic can start to show off their vast promise to loyal fans.
“It’s my sixth season here and every year has been the same – fans really support the Magic,’’ Vucevic marveled. “Wherever you go, people can’t wait for the season to start again. It’s exciting. … I can see people writing at me (on Twitter). It’s always good to know we have their support.’’
Undoubtedly, that’s an addition that the Magic are excited about having on their team for the season ahead.
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.