The Magic were one of the most confounding teams in free agency this summer. They made a win-now move on draft day, trading a lottery pick and Victor Oladipo for a declining Serge Ibaka and added players who seem to replicate the skill set of others already on the roster with the signings of D.J. Augustin and Jeff Green.
The seemingly strange transactions started last season at the trade deadline when they shipped out Tobias Harris for two veterans who are not with the team anymore. Essentially the Magic had spent the years following the Dwight Howard trade stockpiling young, athletic players only to give up on the plan of building through the draft for a chance at making the playoffs.
Their moves have almost universally been panned, yet zooming out a bit shows that they have in all likelihood improved their roster while remaining very flexible going forward. The way they've done it might not be the cleanest, but the result is not as bad as some are making it out to be.
The old Magic were not special
The first thing to note is that the Magic never really had a core of elite young players. Tobias Harris is very intriguing because of his combination of scoring instincts and athleticism. He's also an inattentive defender who is stuck between positions. Orlando should have tried to get a better haul than Ersan Ilyasova, Brandon Jennings and future cap space for him but they didn't lose a true cornerstone.
The same applies to Oladipo. He's a terrific athlete with two-way potential but struggled with efficiency as a primary scorer, couldn't play off the ball effectively and never truly excelled on defense as his tools suggest he could. He's a good player who should thrive in Oklahoma City if Russell Westbrook stays, but any team that has him as one of its two or three best players is not going far.
The Magic didn't break up a potentially special team that was on its way to contention to get a few more wins. They broke up an underachieving roster filled with ill-fitting parts that was still too good to let them bottom out. Since going back to step one of a rebuilding effort was not an option, they made additions that should keep them in the playoff hunt.
Defense could get Orlando to the postseason
This roster and their new coach should at least give Orlando a fighting chance to make the playoffs in the East. Frank Vogel led the Pacers to the postseason in five out of his six seasons at the helm and he did it by turning them into a defensive juggernaut. Even last season, when they added notorious sieve Monta Ellis and lost veterans David West and Roy Hibbert, the Pacers ranked in the top five. They never finished outside the top 10 in defensive efficiency under Vogel for a full season.
There are some question marks, but the Magic could be that good on defense. Serge Ibaka is exactly the type of player that can mask the deficiencies of a flat-footed center like Nikola Vucevic. Both he and Aaron Gordon should be able to switch if necessary. Evan Fournier competes even when paired against bigger players and Mario Hezonja has the length and mobility to be a plus defender. Even the erratic Elfrid Payton should be better next season, now that he has two years of experience under his belt.
Off the bench there's Bismack Biyombo, which means the Magic will be able to have a good rim protector with mobility on the court at all times. Jeff Green, D.J. Augustin and Jodie Meeks are not good defenders but they are not going to kill Orlando on that end as long as they are not counted on to do too much. A jump from 17th in the league to the top third is really not that crazy to project.
Scoring could be a problem without significant internal development
On offense things are more complicated. Ibaka complained about touches in Oklahoma City and will get a chance to prove his worth as a primary option, yet it's hard to see him becoming a true go-to scorer at this point. Fournier made strides as a shot creator last year but he can't be a team's first option. Neither is Vucevic, despite an impressive arsenal of moves.
Gordon, Hezonja, Biyombo and Meeks are finishers. Elfrid Peyton's lack of range limits his impact on offense. They never got to the line last season and the players they added won't help there. The Magic finished 22nd in the league in offensive efficiency last year and it's hard to see them make a huge leap on that end.
Their best hope is to improve as a three-point shooting team. Orlando took just 22 three-pointers per game last season and connected on 35 percent of those.
Ibaka had a down year last season but is a solid shooter. More minutes for Hezonja should help. Meeks is a specialist and Augustin has made 37 percent of his three-pointers for his career. If Gordon can become a league average shooter, they won't have many liabilities on the roster.
There's plenty of flexibility
This new iteration of the Magic is flawed, there's not doubt about that. The good news is that there are some interesting trade chips at general manager Rob Hennigan's disposal. Vucevic is on a very team-friendly contract and Meeks and C.J. Watson are on expiring contracts. If someone gets buyer's remorse after this offseason of crazy spending (the Mavericks and Harrison Barnes? The Trail Blazers and Allen Crabbe?) Orlando could pounce and add another piece that fits them better.
If they don't, next offseason they could have as much as $24 million in cap space, even accounting for Ibaka's cap hold. It's hard to see them getting a premier free agent but someone like Danilo Gallinari or any other addition who could help on offense could allow for incremental improvement. The Magic can still get better.
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If the mandate from ownership was to improve, Hennigan likely pulled that off. The way he did it might not have been the best but the roster he assembled seems well-suited for Vogel's strengths, should win more games than last season and could sneak into the postseason.
If that seems like a modest goal, it's because it is. Not every team can compete for a title, though, and the Magic seem ready to be content with returning to relevance. After five years of bad basketball, it's hard to blame them
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