For a club with this many young prospects, patience would seem to be a necessity. But the Magic are understandably restless—they've endured more losses than any other NBA team over the past three seasons. They're ready to see progress in something more tangible than potential, which is a major reason why Scott Skiles was given the coaching reins over the offseason.
"It's come to a point now where our team is ready to turn the corner," general manager Rob Hennigan said, per Kyle Hightower of the Associated Press. "Our expectation is to compete for the playoffs throughout the season."
That's not quite a playoffs-or-bust ultimatum, but hopes are clearly high for a group that includes eight top-20 picks from the past five drafts, the most recent of whom will define Orlando's success of this past offseason.
- Additions: Mario Hezonja (draft), C.J. Watson (free agent), Shabazz Napier (trade), Jason Smith (free agent)
- Subtractions: Kyle O'Quinn (signed with New York), Maurice Harkless (traded to Portland), Willie Green (unsigned), Luke Ridnour (unsigned), Ben Gordon (unsigned)
Armed with the fifth overall selection, Orlando upped its confidence and excitement levels by snagging 6'8" Croatian swingman Mario Hezonja. The 20-year-old is a walking highlight reel, equally capable of rocking the rim or igniting from long range. He felt that he should've been the first pick and thinks he could survive a one-on-one bout with Kobe Bryant.
"He has a ton of confidence in his shot, in his game," Magic forward Aaron Gordon said, per Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel. "Sometimes he does need to narrow his focus and figure out what's going on right now. But he is a tremendous basketball player and he will be for years to come."
With Hezonja as their risk-reward gamble, the Magic made more conservative investments in proven veterans C.J. Watson and Jason Smith. They also took a flier on 2014 first-round pick Shabazz Napier, who shot just 38.2 percent as a rookie with the Miami Heat but earned All-American honors at UConn the season prior.
The Magic didn't lose any key rotation pieces, though Kyle O'Quinn and Maurice Harkless both leave with a decent amount of upside remaining. Orlando simply didn't have enough frontcourt minutes to help them realize it.
Main Storylines to Watch
Internal growth will make or break this rebuilding effort. The Magic have amassed an impressive collection of young talent, and they're banking on Skiles' coaching touch to transform it into something formidable.
If this is going to work, a star has to emerge at some point. Orlando has a slew of possible candidates: Hezonja, Gordon, two-way shooting guard Victor Oladipo, scoring center Nikola Vucevic, versatile forward Tobias Harris and playmaking point guard Elfrid Payton. Quantity isn't the issue; it's getting elite-level quality out of this group, as CBS Sports' Matt Moore noted:
It's not like how it was with the Thunder early on, where you knew Kevin Durant was going to be unbelievable no matter what. There's no Anthony Davis lurking as a potential future Hall of Famer on this team. However, what the Magic do have are any number of players who could make the leap this season and a number of them that could reliably act as No. 2 option.
Will a No. 1 option emerge, though? Can the Magic find enough shooting around the Payton-Oladipo backcourt? Those are two keys to monitor.
Another is what Skiles can do with a defense that hemorrhaged 105.2 points per 100 possessions last season, the sixth-worst mark in the league. The Magic have a small horde of potential perimeter stoppers, but their only serviceable shot-blockers are reserves Dewayne Dedmon and Jason Smith. That lack of rim protection buried them 28th in opponents' restricted area shooting percentage in 2014-15 (62.6).
X-Factor: Victor Oladipo
Without a doubt, Oladipo's career trajectory is headed in the right direction. He was an All-Rookie first-teamer in 2013-14, then raised nearly every part of his stat sheet last season, save for slicing his turnover percentage from 19.2 to 14.3.
|Trending Up: Victor Oladipo's Rising Stats|
But the climb only gets steeper as Oladipo continues to progress. Going from solid to good isn't easy; the good-to-great leap is the toughest in sports.
He should make more appearances at the free-throw line (career 4.2 per game) given his athleticism, how often he drives and his 79.9 percent conversion rate there. He grinds defensively, but opponents shot 4.4 points higher than their average against him last season. And he's yet to answer any questions about his shooting ability (career 33.3 percent from deep), which could determine his success and that of this backcourt tandem.
"I don't think there's anything wrong with his shot," Skiles said, according to Robbins. "For Victor to shot 33 percent from three, I think he's a much better shooter than that. I think it's more just [making better] decisions [on when to shoot and when not to shoot]."
Making the Leap: Aaron Gordon
Gordon, the No. 4 pick in 2014, impressed as a rookie—whenever his left foot allowed. He fractured it in mid-November and missed 31 consecutive games. He sat out another later in the year with subsequent soreness in it, and he's battled the same issue and dealt with a fractured jaw this preseason.
But if he can just stay healthy, he could be on the verge of a full-fledged breakout campaign.
His athletic 6'9", 220-pound frame is a tremendous defensive asset in today's NBA, capable of seamlessly transitioning through multiple assignments. He has enough springs to spend a lifetime above the rim, and, if his summer league numbers are to be trusted, he's now a legitimate three-point threat.
Skiles brings accountability and structure, both of which help the Magic form a top-10 defense. The offense still ranks in the bottom-third, but three-pointers aren't quite as scarce and Orlando leverages the extra space to net more free throws.
Oladipo's third-year jump puts him in the All-Star discussion, and Vucevic forces his way onto the roster with a 20-point, 10-rebound average. Hezonja doesn't see quite enough minutes to win Rookie of the Year, but his per-minute production gets him in the running.
The Magic claw their way to 40 wins and claim the East's final playoff berth.
Orlando's lack of shooting is a fatal flaw. Dribble penetrations are turned back by multiple defenders, and Vucevic can't breathe on the low block. Hezonja is too erratic to handle major minutes, and Payton becomes an offensive liability. The Magic also find they're still too light on rim protection for Skiles to turn the defense around.
The franchise continues its sluggish climb out of the Dwight Howard era, which isn't necessarily a good thing. The Magic still don't make the playoffs, and their lottery odds are worse than they've been throughout the rebuilding process.
The Magic brought Skiles on board for a reason. His no-nonsense approach has helped build powerful defenses and accelerate rebuilds before. He can wear on his players over time, but he typically provides some instant gratification.
Unfortunately, that reward doesn't seem like it will be more than another season of patience and player development. The defense will improve. Between Skiles' mind and the natural talent at his disposal, Orlando could make the 2015-16 season's highest leap in defensive efficiency.
But a sputtering offense will stop the Magic from gaining substantial ground in the standings. They'll work wonders in the open floor and could dominate top-play rankings. But they'll struggle to stay out of their own way in the half court. There isn't enough shooting for the starting lineup to survive, and Hezonja might have a hard time holding a prominent role if he can't defend how Skiles wants.
Things are looking up in Orlando, and it's not impossible for this young core to make playoff noise already this season. But barring several sizable leaps, the Magic still feel a year or two away from cracking the postseason field. The East looks deeper than it's been in recent years, and Orlando's inexperience could lead to some crunch-time mistakes and too many costly losses.
Final Record: 30-52
Division Standing: Fifth in Southeast
Playoff Berth: No