It's the dawn of new day for the Orlando Magic.
In the positionless NBA, the Magic have youth, role versatility and skill adaptability, particularly after drafting Mario Hezonja and re-signing Tobias Harris. With several other talented pieces in place -- Nikola Vucevic, Victor Oladipo, Elfrid Payton and Aaron Gordon -- their time to start racking up Ws is now.
"We want to have a winning record," newly hired head coach Scott Skiles said at his introductory press conference. "I know that's a tremendous jump from where we are. But you have to put that bar up there."
The hiring of Skiles signals a philosophical change for the Magic. Skiles' teams have finished in the top four in defensive efficiency six times in 13 years and have never finished worse than 16th. The Magic were 25th in defensive efficiency last season, so they will have to make an incredible leap forward to land in the top half in the league. But they have the pieces and the head coach to do it.
"We will be a good defensive team. I don't know exactly when, but I know that we will be a good defensive team," Skiles said on radio station 740 The Game. "But it has to be done every single day. It's got to be done live. It's got to be coached, taught all the way down to simple foot position, body position, hand position, just like you would break it down teaching younger kids."
The Magic have a core of young players with immense defensive potential that can be shaped by Skiles' teaching. Oladipo in particular will be a great fit with Skiles' personality.
Last summer, the Magic paired Oladipo in the backcourt with Payton, who is equally feisty as a perimeter defender. Beyond that, Gordon has the potential to be a star versatile defender with his size, athleticism and mindset. Harris and Hezonja are both hot and cold, but Skiles' defense-first environment will get the most out of them.
Vucevic is fixed as the starting center and is only a subpar rim protector, allowing opponents to shoot over 50 percent near the basket. But he has a long 7'5 wingspan and is a terrific rebounder, so the book shouldn't be closed on him as a defender.
The hope is that Orlando can create a scheme that covers for Vucevic's weaknesses. With so many similarly-sized athletes at the guard, wing and forward positions, the Magic should be able to switch on more on- and off-ball screens. This can lead to mismatches, but it can also stall out offenses that make unorganized defenses pay. The switching should cut off dribble-drives, which in turn would put less pressure on Vucevic.
Skiles' teams were consistently in the top half of the NBA in pace because they got stops and created transition opportunities. Under Skiles, Orlando's skill forwards will be empowered to push the ball end-to-end after grabbing defensive rebounds.
The Magic re-signed Harris to a four-year, $64 million contact because of plays like this. With his size, he's a complete freight train on the move. He possesses the quickness and handle to beat the defense in transition.
The 20-year-old Gordon was the No. 4 pick in the 2014 draft and is the youngest player on Orlando's roster. He could be to the Magic what Draymond Green is to the Warriors, not just because of his potential defending nearly every position on the floor, but because of his versatility on offense.
Gordon's jumper has improved significantly since last season. During the Orlando Summer League, he showed off that hard work by splashing perimeter jumpers both off the catch and the dribble. He's also a competent ball handler who can score in the pick-and-roll or distribute.
But at 6'9 with superb athleticism, Gordon can also play power forward and work as the screener in the pick-and-roll.
This type of positional versatility could give defenses nightmares. The Magic could even use small lineups with Gordon playing center, much like how the Warriors use Green.
"You've got to be able to equip your team to face different styles. I think the best teams in the league are ones who have that kind of playing style and versatility," Magic general manager Rob Hennigan said earlier last month. "There will always be certain series in the playoffs where you have to play small, then there may be other series where you play bigger. The balance is critical."
The addition of Hezonja helps with that balance. He's a pure three-point shooter who has knocked down over 37 percent of his triples the past two seasons. He excels scoring off screens, an area where the Magic fared horribly last year. According to NBA.com's Synergy page, they were bottom five in both points per possession and frequency in the off-screen play type.
Alongside Hezonja, Vucevic is also a capable shooter, though the majority of his attempts do come from mid-range. He's a highly efficient scorer in multiple play types, most notably in the pick-and-roll and on the low post.
"When I go roster to roster, I just don't see a lot of the big people who have that type of skill set," Skiles told the Orlando Sentinel. "You've got the Gasol brothers, you've got Vooch and you start running out of names pretty quick. That list is small. So that's an advantage for us and we need to use that."
Vucevic has improved significantly in all three seasons with Orlando. Of the 17 big men this season with a usage above 22 and over 1000 minutes played, Vucevic ranked sixth in effective field goal percentage. He can score efficiently despite a high volume.
When factoring in the addition of Hezonja into the offense and the continued development of Oladipo, Payton, Harris and Gordon, it wouldn't be out of the question for Vucevic to see his usage drop and his efficiency rise this season. He'll be more able to focus on play types that emphasize his strengths.
If all goes well, the pass-first Payton will now be surrounded by competent offensive threats. Payton doesn't need to make every play. He just has to make simple ones and rely on his teammates to go from there.
Payton sneaked to the middle out of the pick-and-roll and kicked the ball out to Gordon. Gordon quickly attacked the closeout, which caused the entire defense to collapse to the paint. Instead of forcing a runner, he delivered an accurate pass to Hezonja in the corner, a flame-throwing shooter from outside.
Now imagine that same type of possession with Vucevic as the screener for Payton and any number of players spotting up on the perimeter. That same exact play could essentially be made by Oladipo as the screener and Channing Frye as the spot-up shooter on the wing.
The Magic have interchangeable parts to play unpredictably on offense and more disciplined on defense. They are miles away from being a championship contender, but they have the pieces to compete for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference next season. As those young players develop, they could become a force for years to come.