By John Denton
Oct. 17, 2017
ORLANDO – If five years in the NBA have taught Evan Fournier anything, it’s that talk is cheap and actions speak louder than hollow blather. Sure, those are oft-used clichés uttered to explain away losses and promise that brighter days ahead, but to Fournier they resonate as his Orlando Magic are starting the regular season.
Rather than make brash predictions or talk openly about Orlando going to the playoffs for the first time since 2012, Fournier has opted for a wait-and-see approach, preferring for the upstart Magic to prove it on the court. Rather than discussing in-depth how much work he’s put in to once again grow his game, the guard/forward wants to show it nightly over the next 82 games. Rather than championing the improvements that the Magic made in the offseason and the optimism gained in a promising preseason, Fournier instead wants the Magic to focus on the day-to-day process and reveal their progress in games – starting with Wednesday’s opener against the rival Miami Heat at the Amway Center.
It’s not that Fournier isn’t confident and eager to for the Magic to show that they can exceed expectations. It’s just that he wants them to be about it and not just talk about it.
“I think the feeling right now is just about working hard and getting better and we’re not thinking about playoffs or what seed we’re going to be or anything like that this year,’’ Fournier said. “But, we’ll see, we’ll definitely see. I feel like the guys are focused and we have confidence in ourselves, but let’s see it. Two years ago, we had a new team and a new coach and we just went out every night and played really freaking hard. We got off to a good start that season and we want to do it again. Let’s do that every night again and see what happens.’’
Eager to fulfill the vast potential and promise on the roster and make the necessary strides to get back into contention, the Magic open the season with a quiet confidence and brimming optimism. They have the same coach returning in Frank Vogel – a first for many of Orlando’s key players – and the core of the roster is mostly unchanged except for the additions of a few veterans (Jonathon Simmons, Arron Afflalo and Marreese Speights) and one promising newcomer (Jonathan Isaac). Returners Aaron Gordon and Elfrid Payton appeared poised for breakout seasons, while franchise fixtures Nikola Vucevic and Fournier remain in place to provide on-court steadiness and locker room leadership.
Seemingly, all the ingredients are in place for the Magic to make significant strides in an Eastern Conference diluted by the migration of several star players (Paul George, Carmelo Anthony, Jimmy Butler and Paul Millsap) to the West. But, again, it’s all about the Magic now proving it on the court and replacing all of that promise with production.
“Come watch us because we’re going to be an exciting group. Nobody was happy with how we finished last year, but I think this is going to be an exciting group,’’ said Vogel, who spent the bulk of his summer studying ways that the Magic can be better this season.
“These things are cyclical in pro sports where teams are down for a couple of years in a row,’’ Vogel added. “The talent level replenishes and things get turned around. I think it’s our time.’’
The Magic will be pinning their hopes of making a big jump this season largely on an improved defense and an offensive attack centered around pushing the pace to utilize the squad’s overflow of athleticism. Orlando switched to that style of up-tempo basketball last February upon trading Serge Ibaka to Toronto for Terrence Ross, and it made the team much better-suited to handle today’s “small-ball’’ NBA lineups.
This preseason, the Magic’s push-the-pace style made their offense more dynamic and one that filled games with flurries of run-out dunks and electrifying alley-oop finishes – the kind of uncontested points the Orlando offense needs instead of having to face set defenses all the time.
“I’m encouraged by the pace that we’re playing and I think it really plays to our advantage,’’ said Payton, who had five triple-doubles late last season and someone who once again be looked to to set the team tempo on both ends of the floor. “I think how we’re playing is fun and everybody is excited about playing that way. It’s playing to our strengths and I think it’s going to be fun to watch.’’
Pushing the pace brought out the best in Gordon and Payton, who played the best basketball of their young NBA careers over the final 24 games of last season. Undoubtedly, both hope to do the same again this season considering that they and the Magic didn’t reach agreements on contracts prior to Monday’s deadline, meaning they will be restricted free agents in July. Obviously, it will be to Gordon and Payton’s advantage if they have career years and it leads to the Magic winning big this season.
“I love this game and I’m going to just continue to play it mindfully and presently,’’ said Gordon, who showed off his progress this preseason by averaging 19.4 points and 7.4 rebounds while shooting 53.6 percent in five exhibition games. “Whatever happens after that, happens. I love the game too much to even think about that (future).’’
As for the Magic’s defense – largely the culprit of last season’s failures – Vogel told the team time and again that its ability to improve in the win/loss column will largely be tied to how well it defends. Last season, while playing with a starting lineup with two big men that often made the Magic clunky and slow, they ranked 22nd in the NBA in points allowed per game (107.6), 25th in field goal percentage allowed (46.7 percent) and 24th in 3-point percentage allowed (36.8 percent).
Focused on reversing those numbers and better containing ball penetration, Orlando switched Gordon to power forward, signed defensive ace Simmons from the San Antonio Spurs and drafted the 6-foot-10, long-armed Isaac out of Florida State. Also, shot-swatting center Bismack Biyombo – Orlando’s prized free-agent find of 2016 – returned following a summer of hard work and promising to be more of a defensive force this season.
The result? Orlando exited the preseason ranked sixth in the NBA in field goal percentage allowed (41.4 percent), sixth in 3-point field goal percentage allowed (30.3 percent), ninth in overall defensive rating (94 points per 100 possessions) and 10th in points allowed per game (96.8). It’s always dangerous to put too much stock in preseason results, but those numbers seem to suggest that the Magic could be noticeably better this season.
“I think we’re better now than we were a month ago and we’re better than we were at the end of last season,’’ Vogel said confidently. “We still have a long way to go. As I watch tape and watch practice day in and day out, we still have a lot of room to improve on – especially on the defensive end. We’ll keep drilling it, practicing it and coaching it and make sure these guys keep working at it.’’
Like Fournier, Vogel has shied away from playoff predictions and prognostications for a win total for the Magic, instead insisting that his team focus on the daily task of incremental improvement. Various national publications have posted computer models predicting that the Magic will win between 37 and 29 games this season. The high end of that projection just might get Orlando into the postseason, while the low end would match last season’s disappointing win total.
For now, however, little of that matters and it’s up to the Magic to take the parquet court at the Amway Center and prove their legitimacy as a basketball team on the rise. After all, actions will ultimately speak infinitely louder than computer models and playoff predictions.
“I’m excited to get going because our guys have worked really hard to cross all our Ts and dot all of our Is to get themselves in the proper shape,’’ Vogel said. “We’ve done a lot of work building the proper habits that we think we need to win games. Now, it’s time to show it on the floor.’’
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