Orlando Magic: playing a dangerously short-sighted game
A fundamental aspect of successful team building is being able to both identify and remedy your team's problems. More importantly, the aim is to identify and remedy your team's problems without creating new ones.
The Orlando Magic came into this offseason having disappointed in the previous campaign. They started the 2015-16 season well, getting out to a 19-13 record, but then they lost their way. Head coach Scott Skiles made a power play for full control of the team, lost it, lost his enthusiasm for the job, and eventually quit after less than a year in charge. The Magic lost 15 out of the next 17 games after that hot start, never truly threatened the playoff seedings again, and limped to a 35-47 final record.
Outside of the Skiles discord, outlined elsewhere, there were obvious problems with the playing personnel. The problem was not so much a lack of talent, but a lack of cohesive talent. Elfrid Payton and Victor Oladipo did not mesh perfectly together, both being sub-par shooters much better when working with the ball in their hands in half-court situations rather than moving around off of it. This was somewhat masked by their own individual offensive talents being sufficiently good to make for a fairly productive pairing anyway, but more disturbingly, the Oladipo and Payton backcourt was woefully inefficient defensively, and it was not trending the right way. (A Rajon Rondo/Dwyane Wade backcourt is about to have similar problems in Chicago. But the Bulls aren't basing their future on that pairing having success.)
Not helped by the Oladipo/Payton pairing, the Magic were one of the poorer three-point shooting teams in the league and were even worse from the free throw line, ranking last in the NBA in makes. Evan Fournier is one of the league's better three-point shooters, but he was not nearly as effective in a three guard lineup as he was in a more natural lineup, and thus was fighting for time with Oladipo. Skiles did what Skiles does, and instilled a decent half-court defence (ranking 16th in the league, up from 24th the previous season), but at the expense of a far too mid-range-heavy offence that belied, diminished and (most notably in the case of Payton) wasted the talents involved. Orlando's offensive rating under Skiles actually improved to 21st in the league, up from a dismal 27th the year before. But while the offence was not as slow and predictable as it had been under Skiles's predecessor Jacque Vaughn, it was still all too often guilty of being slow and predictable.
Up front, for all his offensive talent, Nikola Vucevic does not protect the paint especially well. Nor did one of his backups, Jason Smith, and alongside them at power forward, Ersan Ilyasova was worse, as was Channing Frye before him. Opposing big guards who could get into the paint found relatively easy pickings once they got in there. Between the weak interior defence and limited scoring, the Magic threw away much of their good work - a 10 win improvement is not insignificant, but the hot start showed what they were capable of, and they underperformed relative to that.
In their offseason moves, then, the Magic and GM Rob Hennigan sought to address the above.
Smith left in free agency, as did Brandon Jennings, and Oladipo was moved on with Ilyasova via trade. In return for that pairing and the draft rights to Domantas Sabonis comes Serge Ibaka, an elite rim protector and increasingly-stretch power forward, who should thus help in both aspects. Alongside him, a lot of money was spent on Bismack Biyombo, a breakout player who will now have to break out again to live up to the $72 million price tag, but who offers yet more quality interior protection, pick-and-roll defense and consistently elite rebounding. Biyombo will need to become much more competent on the offensive end to justify the price tag, but aged only 23, he might do so.
Skiles was replaced by Frank Vogel, whose offences have never been especially dynamic, but who nevertheless has a good track record for getting results and maximising players' talents.
D.J. Augustin, a capable shooter and playmaker, was signed to replace the departed Jennings and assist the ailing C.J. Watson. And picked up in trade was Jodie Meeks, a shooter who will fill the shooting guard minutes opened up by Oladipo's departure without affecting Fournier or Mario Hezonja's minutes, providing some floor spacing and bench points. Teams can never have too much of those things, and Orlando certainly had too few.
Once too small of a team with a cluster in the backcourt, the Magic are now going to go big. One-time power forward Aaron Gordon will supposedly now largely play small forward, with Biyombo, Vucevic and Ibaka sharing the vast majority of the frontcourt minutes in some fashion. Gordon at small forward weakens the spacing somewhat unless he develops a much better shooting stroke over the offseason, but Fournier over Oladipo offsets it, and the bench reinforcements further add to that.
Aside from the free-throw thing, Orlando addressed its on-court weaknesses directly this summer. There will (or at least, must be) continued internal improvements from all the young players mentioned, yet the Magic have gone for a clear-cut direction – choose a Payton/Fournier backcourt, bring Gordon out to the wing, completely rebuild the interior defence, add some shooting and create some harmony for the first time since the Dwight Howard era started to go wrong.
Which is all fine in theory.
The problem comes in the way it was compiled.
The biggest problem is in the biggest trade. Oladipo may not have been the most pliable of pieces, his pull-up-heavy playing style requiring quite a specific degree of spacing around him to be successful in a team set-up. He was, however, probably the Magic's best individual talent. And headed into only his fourth year in the league, he was under team control for the forecastable future.
In trading him, Ilyasova (not hugely significant but not insignificant) and Sabonis (definitely not insignificant) to the Oklahoma City Thunder in exchange for Ibaka, the Magic relinquish that control. Ibaka is an unrestricted free agent next summer when he will be 27 and about to enter his prime years. He will look for, and get a massive pay day. There is no practical way for the Magic to be able to extend him prior to that – there might have been, had they used the cap space on a renegotiation and extension of his deal instead of signing Jeff Green – and thus they have one year to woo him before going to the same bidding market as everyone else. Had they used the post-Biyombo cap space to increase Ibaka’s salary instead of acquiring Augustin, Meeks or Green, even if it did not come with a concurrent extension, they might have bought themselves some leverage. We’ll never know.
Trading Oladipo was fine, in itself. Precisely because of that degree of control, his value was high, his cost low, and Fournier had arguably proven himself to be a better player than he (and certainly a better fit). But in trading and adding other significant assets for Ibaka, the Magic may have given up some of their best pieces for a rental. We cannot know for sure. Nor can they. And that is the problem.
Further to that, the free agency contracts handed out to Augustin (why such a long deal?) or Green (why so big?) do not make much sense. Green, in particular, is a poser - in nine years in the NBA, Green continues to be held in a regard far higher than his actual impact as a player would suggest, as evidenced by the high sums he receives in free agency and the significant prices paid for him in trade. He is a capable backup and spot starter, but he is also a journeyman. Even in this new economy, journeymen should not receive $15 million a year. And if you value them enough to give them that much, why do you not value him enough to keep him for more than one year? Doing so keeps cap space alive in 2017, but if cap space is more valuable than Jeff Green, why did you sign Jeff Green with cap space?
There is such a thing as a bad one-year deal, and this is it. If $15 million in cap space is valuable to have, more valuable than Jeff Green, valuable for its versatility in trades and renegotiations as well as in free agency, why use it on Jeff Green in the first place?
In a sense, Orlando and Hennigan are all in. And in some ways, they are all in correctly. They are committed to Payton and Fournier, especially Payton, and they are committed to giving Gordon a damn good go at being the internally grown superstar they otherwise lack, hoping he breaks out offensively like Kawhi Leonard once did. They are all in having acquired proven veterans of various calibre to address known weaknesses with little upside for the future, Biyombo excepted.
However, they are also all in with 35 wins. They are all in after pretty much gifting away Tobias Harris, potentially giving up Oladipo for a rental, and after spending a combined $45 million in 2016-17 salary alone on four backups. They are all in without having a go-to player, and with having fewer assets to work with the day this go-to player comes available than the myriad other teams who will also be bidding for him. They had more assets, but now they have spent them.
The good thing is the commitment to Fournier, and also to Gordon (whom I would suggest really ought be destined for the power forward spot long term, but to whom they seem committed anyway). There is also something to be said for having a clear idea and pursuing it aggressively, early – having not had an identity or clear-cut direction since the Stan van Gundy days, it is refreshing to see one now established. But an identity alone does not suffice. Ultimately, although they have talent, they need a lot more.
The thought process may be based upon Biyombo eventually winning the spot from Vucevic, upon possibly dealing Green at some point in the near future (he does have a remarkable trade record of soliciting first round picks, after all), upon Gordon’s ascent to stardom, and upon Hezonja and Payton picking up their levels of play. However, that is a lot of ifs. The knowns are that the Magic have not maximised the value of their assets. The future is not entirely dependent on being able to re-sign Ibaka, but if they cannot, then Orlando have wasted a huge number of assets, and will still be stuck in the doldrums. In trying to alleviate logjams, address weaknesses and balance a roster, the Magic have instead centred much of their short and medium term futures on the whim of one player.
I don’t think Jeff Green will help to change that.