The Step Back

The Orlando Magic kept their core intact — and it’s paying off

For fans of the Magic, the offseason wasn’t particularly exciting. The team was coming off a disappointing 2016-17 campaign, in which they went just 29-53 and abandoned the Serge Ibaka experiment by dealing him to the Raptors at the trade deadline. Rather than making any flashy moves in free agency, the Magic’s front office chose to keep their core players (Aaron Gordon, Evan Fournier, Nikola Vucevic, Elfrid Payton) intact, and made minor moves to improve the bench, bringing in Jonathon Simmons, Marreese Speights and Shelvin Mack.

None of these were bad moves, but after the misery of 2016-17, you could hardly blame Magic fans for not being too excited about going into another season with a roster so similar to the one that was so uninspiring the year before.

And yet, the Magic are 6-2, and looking like one of the best teams in the NBA. This week, they eeked out a 101-99 win over a tough Grizzlies team, and they’ve also gotten impressive wins against the Cavaliers, Spurs and Pelicans, all of which were by at least 16 points. The Magic are third in offensive rating, 11th in defensive rating and they currently are tied for first in the Eastern Conference with the Celtics. The Magic were generally expected to hang around the lottery another year, but instead, they look like a prime candidate for a playoff spot.

Read More: Aaron Gordon’s 3-point shot looks like the real deal

So, how is this happening? A big reason for the Magic’s improvement is several players who returned from the previous season are playing better. After years of being an alluring dunk machine but not much else, Gordon is finally developing into the NBA player we all hoped he would become. He is averaging 20.7 points and 8.7 rebounds while playing 31 minutes a night, all of which are career-highs. Additionally, while concerns about Gordon’s shooting ability have haunted him for years, he’s been a huge threat from downtown so far — Gordon is hitting an eye-popping 57.7 percent of his 3-point attempts. This number is unsustainable, but the fact still remains that Gordon is a legitimate floor-spacer now.

Gordon isn’t the only Magic big man who’s learned to shoot this season. There’s also Vucevic, who has added the 3-ball to his game, and is currently shooting 40.0 percent from beyond the arc this season. Just as Marc Gasol adding the 3 to his game did wonders for the Grizzlies’ spacing woes, the newfound shooting abilities of Gordon and Vucevic are opening lanes for the Magic that had previously been closed. This is a huge part of why the Magic’s offense has been so efficient this year.

Finally, there’s Evan Fournier, who could be an All-Star in a weak Eastern Conference. Fournier has been the team’s best scorer for the past few years, but this year, he’s stepped up his game to a considerably higher level. Fournier is averaging 22 points per game and has a true shooting percentage of .650. Fournier’s production has increased every year he’s been in the league, and this could finally be the season he evolves from a quietly effective wing into one of the best scorers in the league. He’s certainly off to a rollicking start.

We’ve therefore seen that the Magic are thriving due to the improved play of their core players, but what about the new guys? Jonathon Simmons had looked good in San Antonio, especially in the 2017 playoffs, but signing a Spurs free agent is a bit like bringing one of Tom Brady’s backups — you have no idea how much the elite system factors into his quality of play.

That said, Simmons has been a stud this season, averaging 15.8 points per game, and looking like a Sixth Man of the Year candidate. Simmons is yet another Orlando player who is thriving because they’ve improved on 3s. Over two seasons with the Spurs, he shot 32.2 percent from downtown. In eight games with Orlando, he’s at 45.0 percent. Elsewhere, Marreese Speights hasn’t gotten a ton of playing time (he’s averaging a career-low in minutes at 10.8 per game), but when he’s seen the floor, he’s been quite efficient, hitting 50.0 percent of his 3-pointers along with an offensive rating of 126. Speights is a 10-year vet who embraced being a role player during his time with the Clippers and Warriors. As such, he’s unlikely to raise a fuss over playing time. But if he keeps this up, Frank Vogel will have no choice but to give him more minutes.

The Magic are basically doing well in just about every way, but it’s just eight games, so that begs the question of how real their hot start is. From that perspective, it’s worth noting the team is shooting the ball a little too well right now. Gordon and Fournier aren’t going to keep making over half of their 3s, and Simmons’ red-hot start is also likely to cool down a little bit. That being said, all of these players can shoot, and that’s going to remain true even when they stop hitting quite as many shots. They’re getting a bit lucky right now, but this is a genuinely talented offense, one that should be able to thrive on a pace-and-space approach for the forseeable future.

The Magic are an example of how a boring offseason can still be a productive one. They bet on their young core to improve, and focused on shoring up the bench instead of shooting for the fences like they did with the Ibaka trade. This approach has paid off quite well. Gordon and Fournier look like potential All-Stars, and Simmons and Speights brought the experience and character you want from guys who played for the Spurs and Warriors. Whether or not the Magic can continue to be one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference remains to be seen, but right now, they’re playoff odds look a lot better than they did before the season started.

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