By John Denton
Sept. 25, 2017
ORLANDO – Out of the playoffs each of the past five seasons, the Orlando Magic’s executives, coaches and players could have come into Monday’s Media Day – a time when optimism tends to run rampant – boasting of postseason promises and making bold proclamations.
Instead, the Magic spoke repeatedly on Monday about there needing to be more of a laser-like focus on process instead of playoffs, commitment and chemistry instead of championships and bonding instead of boastful bravado. Accomplish those missions – giving them the characteristics of good teams throughout the NBA – and then the Magic can seriously give thought to playing in the postseason for the first time since 2012.
“Everyone wants to hear, `Yeah, we’re going to make it to the playoffs! Playoffs! Playoffs!’ Everyone loves to hear that,’’ Magic forward Aaron Gordon said. “But it’s about the day-to-day, it’s about tomorrow and it’s about taking care of the here and now. You need to make sure that you’re ready for (the playoffs). If you’re not ready for it, then you’re not going to get it.’’
Then, there was this from small forward Evan Fournier, who is hopeful that his fourth season in Orlando will go much better than the previous three losing ventures: “As players, we like to (make proclamations), but the day-to-day and the game-after-game approach has to be the mentality right now. We have to get better each and every game. If we’re going to be successful, we’ve got to create something around here and build it from the ground.’’
Those measured words and the commitment to working and building have to be music to the ears of new President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman, new GM John Hammond and returning head coach Frank Vogel. Weltman and Hammond, who have nearly 60 years of combined experience at the NBA, are now leading the front office and they were aggressive this summer in adding veteran talent to a Magic team that slumped to a 29-53 finish last season. Weltman and Hammond tried building a roster where there will be competition and depth at every position and one filled with hungry players known for their fighting spirit. If this team meshes quickly, defends much better than it has in the past and maximizes the talent on hand, then – and only then – can it start to dream about what might be possible this season, Weltman stressed.
“What we really want to address right now is getting talented players here who will play for each other,’’ said Weltman, who took over the basketball side of the Magic’s front-office in late May. “It’s about execution, it’s about discipline and it’s about fighting through adversity. With the people that we’ve assembled in our locker room, it is our hope that if we take care of those basic elements and have each other’s backs, the wins will take care of themselves.
“Right now, I think that’s the proper approach,’’ Weltman added. “I don’t want to place expectations on our guys or make promises at this juncture when it’s really about establishing an identity and finding a way to work together that will get us where we need to get.’’
The Magic will open training camp on Tuesday at the Amway Center with practices in the morning and night. Vogel is eager to get to get to work on shaping a roster that includes a returning core of Nikola Vucevic, Elfrid Payton, Bismack Biyombo, Terrence Ross, Mario Hezonja, D.J. Augustin, Gordon and Fournier. That group will be supplemented – and for that matter pushed daily – by free-agent additions Jonathon Simmons, Arron Afflalo, Marreese Speights and Shelvin Mack. The Magic are hopeful that adding four veterans known for being gritty fighters will help reshape the team’s culture and make Orlando a much tougher team.
“I think they are going to improve the intensity of our daily work and the intensity and toughness of who we are on the court,’’ said Vogel, who is looking for the Magic to be much tougher mentally and physically on the defensive end of the floor this season.
Toughness and fighting spirit were certainly areas of concern last season, and those factors had something to do with the Magic failing to live up to their preseason declarations of making the playoffs. Those struggles, resulting in several lopsided losses and playoff elimination by early spring, motivated many of the Magic’s players throughout offseason workouts.
Said Biyombo: “At the end of the day, last year we were all disappointed. If you weren’t disappointed with that, then you don’t love basketball. I think you’ve got to make your fans proud and make your teammates proud (with your effort) and that’s got to be the goal going into this season.’’
Simmons, who left the San Antonio Spurs to sign with the Magic, might be the poster boy of Orlando’s move toward more toughness and scrappier play. A self-made player who got his NBA career started years ago by paying $150 for an open tryout, Simmons said he is willing to be the player that the Magic can look to for grit and defensive toughness. He certainly showed those qualities last spring when he stepped into the San Antonio starting five in place of an injured Kawhi Leonard and shut down MVP runner–up James Harden in a series-clinching victory.
Bring on the next challenge, Simmons said.
“I love nasty. I love the grit and that’s where I come from,’’ said Simmons, who made it out of a rough section of Houston as a child and had to battle again last month to weather the devastating effects of Hurricane Harvey in his hometown. “(Playing with a nastiness), that’s just a part of me.’’
Quite possibly no one wants to see the Magic have success this season more than Vucevic and Fournier, close friends who are set to begin their sixth and fourth seasons respectively in Orlando. Both have weathered the difficult times of changing coaches repeatedly, long losing streaks and seasons without a shot of the playoffs. Fournier is excited about playing for the same head coach (Vogel) for a second straight season for the first time in his NBA career, while Vucevic worked hard in the offseason to improve his shooting range and defensive agility. The 7-footer went from 267 pounds to 262 pounds by trimming fat and building more muscle – all with the hopes that doing any little thing possible to improve the Magic’s odds of finally getting over the hump this season.
“I want this, and in a way, I want it more than anybody else because I’ve been here the longest,’’ said Vucevic, who admitted that frustrations throughout last season led to subpar production from him last year. “I’m not saying some guys want this less than me, but it’s just that I’ve been here so long and it would mean to most to me if the Magic could get to the playoffs.
“But I’m not going to put any expectations on us,’’ Vucevic added. “The goal for us has to be to work hard and improve on last season. Where that takes us, we’ll see. Obviously, we want to get there (to the playoffs), but it will take time and a lot of work. But I’m looking forward to it and I want to help this team be the best that it can be.’’
Added Fournier, who posted career highs in nearly every major statistical category last season and is poised for more improvement this season after starring for the French National Team: “Going through losing makes you want to win even more. Let’s say 10 years from now I’m playing for another team and I see that the Magic are really successful, I’d be disappointed because when this team is back on top I want to be a part of it.’’
Orlando’s ability to make a major jump this season in the Eastern Conference could be aided by the fact that foes such as the Chicago Bulls (Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler), Indiana Pacers (Paul George), Atlanta Hawks (Dwight Howard) and New York Knicks (Carmelo Anthony) suffered major personnel losses.
Then again, the Magic’s immediate improvement could ultimately come down to something more in-house and directly linked to players already on the roster. The thinking goes something like this: Just how much the Magic can improve will be directly tied to the individual improvements of young players such as Gordon, Payton, Hezonja and No. 6 overall pick, Jonathan Isaac.
“I don’t want to put it all on myself because this is a team sport, but yeah, if I play better, the team will play better,’’ said Payton, who played some of the best basketball of his life over the final 24 games of last season when he compiled five triple-double performances. “I just want to do my best every night and play as hard as I can. I just want to try and win the day every day and then the results will take care of themselves.’’
Again, that kind of process-driven thinking has to be just what Vogel wants to hear. He knows full well that the Magic have lots of ground to make up to make major strides this season – most importantly on the defensive end.
Vogel’s teams reached the playoffs in five of the first six seasons he was a NBA head coach and he admitted that enduring the struggles of last season were especially taxing on him. His hope is that with the new additions to the roster, the steady improvements of the existing players and the team’s renewed spirit that it has what it takes to be a surprise squad.
Like with his players, Vogel’s focus is on the next practice, the next film session and the next game and not a long-range goal such as making the playoffs. Too much work has to be done and too much progress has to be made before that goal is even a consideration, Vogel said.
“We have to start working toward (building unity) and it’s not something you can build in one practice and it will happen over time. There has to be a healthy attitude, a team-first approach and have everybody helping each other and pushing each other,’’ Vogel said. “My message to the guys is that we can’t focus on the end result; we have to focus on the process and the task at hand. That’s how you achieve the results.’’
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