The 2018–19 season marked the end of a playoff drought that lasted seven years. The Orlando Magic have not seen the postseason since the days of Stan Van Gundy. But within all the sub-20 win seasons, there was a sliver of hope, a light at the end of the tunnel. The vision seems to finally be coming to fruition. After years of disappointment, this Magic team is finally on the rise. How good will they be? Let’s find out.
It All Starts On Defense
After years of grading as a below-average defensive team, the Magic really flipped the script last year. On the season, Orlando had a defensive rating of 108.1, which was 8th in the NBA. While that’s a solid mark, the Magic were even more impressive in the second half of the season. After January 31st, this Orlando team held a defensive rating of 105.1, which was actually 1st overall in the NBA.
It was that defensive energy that also fueled them to a 22–9 record after January 31st, which was the fourth-best winning percentage during that stretch. And with their strong play to close out the year, the Magic finished the season 42–40, going over .500 for the first time since 2011.
While there are many reasons for the improvement on that side of the ball, the biggest was defensive intensity. So much of playing defense is effort, and the Magic discovered that quickly. The players started taking pride in their lockdown potential, they rebounded better, and the defensive output led to better offensive looks. It’s a formula that worked.
Steve Clifford’s Impact
A big part of the spike in defensive numbers has to be credited to Steve Clifford. The former Charlotte Hornets head coach had a very successful first year in Orlando. Clifford seems to have pulled the Magic out of the sinking abyss that teams like the Phoenix Suns have placed themselves in.
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While putting an emphasis on defense, Clifford has slowed the tempo down and honed in on the strengths of his offensive talent. He’s done a great job of working with what he has, he understands how to maximize the production of the personnel on his roster.
The Hornets endured the 5th lowest turnover rate in the league last year. Since his days with the Hornets, Clifford’s offenses were known for being careful with the ball while playing team ball. It’s an approach that’s paid dividends in Orlando. After doing an excellent job with Kemba Walker in Charlotte, all eyes will be on Clifford’s ability to develop this young roster.
A Talented Roster
This Magic team is young, athletic and energetic. The roster is balanced. They get contributions from a lot of different players. In Year 1 under Clifford, Nikola Vucevic enjoyed a career year with 20.8 points and 12.0 rebounds while making his first All-Star appearance. The biggest upswing was on the defensive side, however, where he went from liability to stalwart.
He also brought Terrance Ross off the bench, a role he flourished in. Ross put up a career-high 15.1 points while stabilizing the Magic’s second unit. Guys like Evan Fournier (15.1 points) and Aaron Gordon (16.1 points) continued to pitch in strong contributions on both sides of the ball. Even Jonathan Isaac took another leap forward as a sophomore.
This Magic team had only one player over 30, and that was D.J. Augustin at 31. This young roster doesn’t have any true superstar talent, but they have a bunch of solid guys with a ton of different skill sets. But of course, to win in this league you need star power, and it’s going to have to come from within.
Development Is Key
Orlando has put themselves in a position to succeed. While Fournier, Ross, and Vucevic all stand between the ages of 26–28, they have a couple of guys that haven’t even scratched the surface of their potential. Gordon (23), Isaac (21), and Mo Bamba (23) were all lottery picks who still have promising upside.
Development is one of the most difficult things to predict in any sport. It’s almost impossible, frankly. That being said, you can teach skill, you can’t teach length or athleticism. The physical gifts Gordon, Isaac, and Bamba give you is transcendent. Those are three guys with elite athleticism and a sky-high ceiling.
But let’s not forget about Markelle Fultz, who could be the ultimate X-Factor for this team. The former No. 1 overall pick has been ravaged by injury, but he could be the point guard of the future for a team with a gaping hole at the position. At 6’4” with a 6’9” wingspan, Fultz’s combination of athleticism, length and age (21) could prove fruitful for this team.
How this Magic team develops will determine how good they’ll be this upcoming season. Clifford will have to prove he’s more than just a one-hit-wonder by developing a Magic team that’s just oozing with potential.
The Orlando Magic have been a god-awful franchise the past few years, but a strong campaign this season will make everyone forget all that. You don’t hear jokes about the Toronto Raptors choking in the playoffs anymore. The Magic have all the pieces in place to take a huge leap this season. How good they’ll be is up to only them.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.