We are on the doorsteps of an immensely critical 2016-2017 Orlando Magic regular season, and the path of the franchise is very difficult to foretell. I’m Adam Papageorgiou, and joining me for this terrific trio of a Part I chat are Brian Serra and Spenser Strode. Before we venture into actual predictions in Part II, we preview some thoughts and questions about this current squad?
What have you been most happy about in regards to Frank Vogel so far? It can be character or game-style related.
Brian Serra: My favorite part of Coach Vogel so far is the simple fact that he seems to be an actual sane, normal human being. After the coachspeakrobotic Jacque Vaughn and the liveuptoyourreputation Scott Skiles, it is nice to just have a coach that sounds and acts like a basketball coach. In a shocking revelation, that seems to have given rise to actual respect from the players on his team. I don’t think we have personally seen enough of the game-style related adjustments or rotation maneuvering to make any definitive statements, though I will throw out kudos for trying to get Mario Hezonja some much needed confidence with plentiful, arguably undeserved, preseason minutes.
Spenser Strode: The thing that has struck me most thus far about Frank Vogel, is his ability to empower his players. This season should truly illustrate the difference between a person in a position of authority, and a leader. Frank Vogel is creating buy-in, and he’s empowering individual players to play with confidence, belief in their ability, and belief in Vogel’s trust and confidence in their individual skills.
Adam Papageorgiou: You guys definitely have Vogel’s character and personality down. I’m just happy that he’s actually allowing the main ball-handler – in this case Elfrid Payton – to actually dribble the ball around. Skiles didn’t want that, and we were sold on the PG’s wings being clipped supposedly being efficient for the offense. As we found out, it just keeps you out-of-sync. Also, this team is actually playing fast and not letting the shot clock go to waste. I’ve haven’t seen this much backdoor cutting per game in ages.
What are you pleasantly surprised or concerned about when it comes to the overall on-court product you’ve seen on display in preseason?
Spenser Strode: The concern is not really all that surprising, it’s the offense. Evan Fournier has become the de-facto number 1 scoring option, and his consistency over the course of an 82-game season has been up for debate over the last few years. There are potential bright spots up and down the roster, but can the Magic generate enough points to win as many games as we think they should? The concern is whether the team can generate enough space to operate on the perimeter and attack the basket, and if they will get enough production out of their paint-touches to make the post-entry worthwhile.
Adam Papageorgiou: The spacing question may be answered by the second unit. We have a more than respectable bench for the first time since ’10-’11. Heck, probably ’09-’10. You have a defensive beast and firecracker of energy in Bismack Biyombo. Jeff Green is going to average double figures and could be in the hunt for the 6MOY award as he’s seeking a long-term payday. If Elfrid Payton suffers injury setbacks again, you’ve got capable PG options in both D.J. Augustin and C.J. Watson. Augustin isn’t afraid to attack the rim, and Watson is showing off his quickness again now that his hamstring has healed. If Mario Hezonja doesn’t make a sophomore leap you’ve got two guys in Jodie Meeks and C.J. Wilcox who are capable of shooting 40% from deep. Orlando went from a team that couldn’t shoot, to now the 13th man off the bench – Damjan Rudez – is going to be able to spread the floor.
Brian Serra: I am pleasantly surprised by the offensive production from the starting (and pseudo starting) unit. I was thoroughly expecting it to be a major struggle to score with lineups consisting of Payton/Gordon/Biyombo all on the floor together. Whether it was Biyombo or Vucevic on the floor, the team seemed to move the ball well and generally be getting good shots when they weren’t throwing the ball out of bounds. Defensively, the hopeful strength of the team, seemed to be well behind where it was expected they would be. While it doesn’t seem to be a lack of effort, the discipline and cohesion was well out of whack. Elfrid Payton is still struggling to keep guards in front of him and the hope of switching Gordon, Ibaka and Biyombo at will still requires a ton of work. While the flashiness of steals and blocks was on display at times, players that shouldn’t even sniff the court in the regular season were getting great looks for themselves and their teammates against the core Magic group all preseason.
Give me a Magic player you have been impressed with over the past few weeks OR one you may be disappointed in.
Brian Serra: Let’s get this out of the way, because I think it will be unanimous… Mario Hezonja. It definitely doesn’t seem to be a lack of confidence, because he is firing away, but it is absolutely a lack of execution. Turning the ball over on offense, gambling for steals on defense – and putting up brick after brick. His play is certainly not indicative of his potential or his expectations. Meanwhile, the alpha-dog assertiveness on offense from Evan Fournier is quite refreshing. He no longer is sharing any role with Victor Oladipo and he seems to be reveling in it.
Spenser Strode: The answer for me is Mario Hezonja. It’s a small sample size, and he played some nice basketball this summer for Croatia during the Olympics, but he hasn’t shown anything during the exhibition season that would indicate he has taken a step forward in his development. The team needs shooting, and he’s a shooter, but if he can’t take good shots, or make the ones that he takes, he’s still a defensive liability at this point in time. Unfairly, Hezonja’s development, or lack thereof, will point towards Rob Hennigan’s inability to cash-in on early lottery selections, especially with Victor Oladipo already traded away.
Adam Papageorgiou: I’ll lay off Mario for now and give the Croatian kid some time. Plus, you know I prefer positive thinking. I almost went with Jeff Green or Serge Ibaka, but I’ve honestly been most impressed with Bismack Biyombo. Does he have Rony Seikaly hands and the most inconsistent touch around the rim in basketball? Oh yeah. But that doesn’t matter, because that’s why Biz isn’t going to be on the floor much in critical offensive moments of games. He’ll be the fan favorite this season. Biz is going to play his 25-30 minutes, cause havoc to his opponents, fly around the floor, swat 2-3 shots, wave a finger here and there, and he’s going to do it with a big smile and more charisma than can be contained within the arena.
What’s the Magic’s best 5-man lineup, and what makes it so good? Also, you’re down 1 point with 4 seconds left: Who are you giving the ball to?
Adam Papageorgiou: I’m going to go a little crazy here. Evan Fournier, Aaron Gordon, Jeff Green, Serge Ibaka, Nikola Vucevic. No one is shorter than 6’7″. For what may be lacking in recovery speed you more than make up in size and length. Defensively, it’s a solid group. Offensively, you eliminate the free throw shooting concerns you would have if Elfrid and/or Biyombo were on the floor. Both Evan and AG can handle the ball. Here are some fun 3-point percentages from the preseason: Fournier (50.0 3PT%), Ibaka (45.5 3PT%), and Green (42.1 3PT%). AG and Vooch are capable if you give them an open look. You have great cutters. You can open up the middle of the lane by putting Nik and Ibaka on each side of the paint.
I’m giving the ball at the end of the game to Vucevic if he’s 1-on-1. If Nik’s being doubled, then it’s all Evan.
Brian Serra: Payton/Fournier/Hezonja/Gordon/Ibaka. This may surprise you, and I am a bit surprised myself, this is the best VERSION of a 5-man lineup the Magic can produce in crunch time minutes. Noticeably absent, the player best able to score in the paint and the player best able to defend the paint. The Hezonja wild card, after I just called out if she could even be getting minutes or not, offers the best chance to create spacing and, in theory, shooting on the offensive end while providing the length and speed necessary to switch on defense. The best alteration of this unit is to sub out Elfrid Payton, inserting Vucevic/Biyombo on the respective offensive/defensive end and letting Fournier and Hezonja alternate as a “point guard” for limited stretches. CJ Watson and Jeff Green could theoretically be useful for their versatility, but I just can’t bring myself to consider this a reality.
Spenser Strode: The best 5-man lineup for the Magic in a vacuum is: Elfrid Payton, Evan Fournier, Jeff Green, Serge Ibaka, and Nikola Vucevic. The problem is that Jeff Green isn’t always good Jeff Green, and you HAVE to start Aaron Gordon. My concern is that playing Gordon at the 3 creates a problem of diminishing returns as he shares the floor with both Ibaka and Vucevic/Biyombo. That being said, the Magic have a ton of lineup flexibility and should be able to mix and match accordingly throughout the course of a game and season.
I want the ball in Fournier’s hands in crunch time, with time for a big to tip-in a miss.
Be on the lookout for Part II of our preview as we put on our prediction hats.