5 Things We've Learned About the Orlando Magic, Post-Dwight Howard Era
Young players like Nikola Vucevic and Andrew Nicholson will be given a chance to contribute, while it might take slightly longer for 19-year-old Moe Harkless to break into the rotation.
In an effort to put the Howard era in the past, new head coach Jacque Vaughn is attempting to prove that his team can play tough interior defense without the league's best interior defender.
The expectations have been lowered in Orlando, but optimism remains as the fan base and players have bonded together in an effort to prove that the Magic aren't irrelevant without Howard.
Under Vaughn, the Magic players will fight hard on a nightly basis but will be undermanned in the majority of their contests.
Even if the Magic do have a rough season, there are still plenty of reasons to watch them, as there are numerous story lines to follow.
They Will Focus on Playing Good Interior Defense
The Orlando Magic have boasted one of the NBA's premier interior defenses over the past five seasons due the play of Dwight Howard.
Howard made up for the defensive woes of his teammates, but he won't be there to act as the last line of defense anymore.
When Howard was unable to play due to a herniated disc at the end of the 2012 season, Orlando's interior defense was terrible. Without their star, the Magic didn't have the size and athleticism to stop even the worst frontcourts.
This season, the Magic will be counting on Glen Davis, Nikola Vucevic and Gustavo Ayón to protect the rim. Looking into my crystal ball, I see that being a major problem.
According to Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel, new head coach Jaques Vaughn said the following about the defense:
We really want to restrict guys getting into the paint. If there was one thing, that’s for us. There are going to be some nights where guys hit 3-point shots on us. High-quadrant 3s and long 2s are the worst shots in basketball [for an offense to take], and so we’re geared to give up those shots. Sometimes, I’m going to have to shake the other coach’s hand and say, ‘Good job.’
Restricting opponents from getting favorable positions in the paint is an integral part of playing good defense, but you need the right personnel to make that happen.
The Magic have the right intentions, and I expect them to focus on playing tough interior defense. Vaughn has a youthful energy and will motivate his players to work their hardest, but he doesn't have the athletes to play good interior defense.
Jameer Nelson Is the Team Leader
Jameer Nelson was drafted by the Denver Nuggets with the 20th pick in the 2004 NBA Draft, but he was quickly traded to the Orlando Magic.
That trade paired Nelson with Dwight Howard, whom the Magic had taken with the first overall pick in the draft. From that moment until the beginning of the lockout shortened season in December 2011, Nelson and Howard were the leaders of a very successful team.
Magic fans don't have to be told that Howard was anything but a leader during the 2012 season, and his negative attitude clearly affected Nelson and the rest of the team.
Once Howard was declared out for the postseason due to his back injury, Nelson elevated his level of play and became more explosive on the court.
Nelson also became vocal about how Howard's decisions were affecting the team. As reported by John Denton of NBA.com, Nelson said the following about how the Howard trade saga affected him:
It was just one of those things from (Howard) that I never did understand and I guess some things just aren’t meant for you to understand. I just took the approach to play basketball wherever I was. I knew that I was still in Orlando last year for a reason and that the organization still wanted me here. Really, that helped me kind of get over all of the nonsense that was going around.
The way that Nelson views playing basketball is exactly how fans want their favorite players to think. Few things are more frustrating than watching a player mail it in when he knows that his tenure with his current team is coming to an end.
Nelson is entering his ninth season with the Magic; he signed a three-year contract extension with the team in the offseason. While the re-signing surprised many, Nelson was brought back for his leadership qualities.
The Magic aren't going to be very good this season, but Nelson will make sure that the team plays hard every night.
The Roster Lacks an All-Star
This may seem obvious, but there was once a time that most expected the Orlando Magic to get an All-Star in return for Dwight Howard.
While Arron Afflalo is a good young shooting guard, he would have to regain the defensive form that he showed during the 2011 season while increasing his scoring production by over five points per game over last season's total to make the All-Star game.
Rookies Moe Harkless and Andrew Nicholson have the potential to become great players, but both have a long way to go in order to become All-Stars.
Hedo Turkoglu's game has been declining for years, and Glen Davis has never been a starter over the course of an entire season, so both appear to be extreme long shots to garner any All-Star attention.
Jameer Nelson is the only Magic player that has been voted into the All-Star Game, as he was given the honor during the 2009 season.
Due to the presence of Rajon Rondo, Deron Williams and Brandon Jennings in the Eastern Conference, Nelson will have a hard time getting selected to the All-Star game even if he has a career year.
Teams without superstars struggle in the NBA, as the league is dominated by the league's elite players.
Considering that the Magic roster is without a single player that will be invited to the All-Star game, Orlando will be one of the teams that opposing superstars dominate with ease.
Rob Hennigan's rebuilding plan is to draft potentially franchise-changing players at the top of the lottery in the next couple of NBA Drafts. In order to do that, the Magic will have to be among the worst teams in the league, so having an All-Star on the roster would be counterproductive at that point.
Ish Smith Will Be the Third Point Guard
Ish Smith is a speedy point guard who thrives in high-tempo situations.
Smith's poor shooting percentage kept him from breaking into the rotation in his time with the Golden State Warriors and Orlando Magic.
After the Magic picked him up during the 2012 season, Smith spent most of his time on the bench as the third point guard behind Jameer Nelson and Chris Duhon.
When Duhon was traded in the Dwight Howard deal, it appeared as if Smith was going to have a chance to back up Nelson.
The Magic front office intelligently decided to sign E'twaun Moore to compete with Smith for the right to back up Nelson.
Having had a strong performance against the San Antonio Spurs, Moore has cemented himself as Nelson's backup as the start of the regular season draws closer.
Moore is a better scorer than Smith and is really seeing the floor well in the preseason.
According to Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel, Jacques Vaughn said the following about Moore after his 14-point, 8-assist performance against the Spurs:
That's where his progress is. He's seeing the game better. He has a better understanding of what we're trying to do, and he's really done a good job, especially these last two games.
The way Vaughn feels about Moore won't change prior to the start of the regular season.
Until Smith is able to shoot the ball better from the floor, he will spend the majority of his time sitting on the bench watching Nelson and Moore play the point.
Veterans Will Be Traded Before the Deadline
The Orlando Magic are interested in dumping salary and acquiring draft picks, as GM Rob Hennigan is determined to make the team a true contender again.
JJ Redick has only one season left on his deal and is a very productive player, so you can bet that Hennigan will be taking calls about moving him. While Redick isn't a great athlete, he is a tremendous three-point shooter and is almost automatic from the free-throw line.
I will be shocked if the Magic don't trade Redick before the deadline, because it wouldn't make any sense to keep an asset that won't be retained after the season.
The more financial flexibility that the Magic can obtain, the better. NBA teams can come together quickly, but cap space is needed to make that happen.
As the Magic begin to exit an era in which they grossly overpaid for Rashard Lewis, Hedo Turkoglu and Gilbert Arenas, Magic fans should be thrilled at the lack of long-term commitments.
Orlando will field a drastically different team in two years, and it will have more potential than the current roster.
Hennigan will look to unload Redick, Al Harrington and Glen Davis as the season progresses, and I wouldn't bet against him moving at least two of those players.
Since this season isn't going to be judged based on results, Magic fans need to understand that some of their favorite players might be traded to enrich the organization's future.