These are early days for this particular version of the Magic but long, lean times for the franchise as a whole. It has been five years since Orlando made the playoffs, won more than 35 games, or even reached statistical mediocrity on either side of the ball. Lottery picks have come and gone. Coach after coach has taken the helm only to be dismissed in short order. Frank Vogel now mans that post—one that oversees a roster with size and talent but convoluted internal logic. In order for the Magic to become the best version of their basketball selves, they'll first have to untangle their overlapping skills, spacing, and functions.
That cannot happen in a day—or, in the Magic's case, in two weeks. Orlando is a respectable 3–4 on the season but its only wins have come against the Sixers, the Wall-less Wizards, and the Kings. Everything is a work in progress; it takes work for Vogel to get his group to defend and it will take real development to tease out any kind of functional offense. Even now, a half-decade removed from NBA relevance, the Magic have no choice but to preach patience.
"I talk every day about not getting caught up in results," Vogel said. "This is a journey."
In theory, that journey should be made easier by their veteran additions. Victor Oladipo was moved over the summer for the more experienced Serge Ibaka. Bismack Biyombo was paid big money to stabilize the second unit with his rebounding and rim protection. The Magic signed Jeff Green, now in his ninth season, on a one-year deal to do whatever it is that Jeff Green does. D.J. Augustin inked a four-year, $29 million contract so that Orlando would have a steady hand as its backup point in contrast to the wild youthful flourishes of Elfrid Payton. Yet between all of their arrivals and a handful of others, Orlando's roster turnover invokes the double-whammy of largely new teammates learning a largely new system.
"They're starting to pick up some things but it's gonna be a process. It's gonna be a work in progress probably the first half of the season. We're gonna continue to jell and look at different combinations, how we're using guys. That's natural when you have nine new players and a whole new coaching staff."
The Magic are, as of yet, one of the worst defensive teams in the league. Yet there's a reason why they're joined at the bottom of the defensive standings by six other teams with new head coaches. Vogel and the Magic are banking on the idea that the start of the season naturally works against them—and that, with time to marinate in their concepts, solid defensive personnel can return a solid defensive product.
"If you look at all the teams right now that are the top 12, 13 in the entire NBA, they'll all have returning coaches and returning cores," Vogel said. "That benefits teams early in the season. I think we can win games while we're jelling, like we've been talking about and be one of those teams that cracks the top eight."
That seems like a lofty goal for the Magic considering the way they've defended thus far. Vogel sees in this team the potential to be a dominant defense, but the various individual elements at work within the system have yet to really connect. Too often, defense of the pick-and-roll is reduced to a two-man enterprise with no help whatsoever from a third defender rotating down from the corner. Schematic switching, too, has jumbled the Magic's rotational responsibilities and tested the situational awareness of its wings. They're still adjusting to what will be needed of them when Ibaka, Biyombo, or Nikola Vucevic is stuck out on the perimeter—a harsh learning curve that has surrendered easy look after easy look inside. Only six teams in the league have allowed their opponents to convert a higher percentage of their shots from the restricted area, according to NBA.com, and Orlando defies its plodding pace by allowing those opponents to get deep into the paint far more often than it should.
Ibaka has been noticeably and uncharacteristically off—positioned poorly, out of rhythm in rotation, and offering little resistance at all when opponents attack the rim. It's natural that Ibaka's evolving responsibilities might further mute his shot-blocking numbers, which are hitting career lows; life in the modern NBA, and within this system, specifically, pulls Ibaka further and further from the rim. Yet the idea that Ibaka would struggle so much while defending in space all on the most basic grounds is a big worry for a team that invested in him as a two-way player.
Aaron Gordon, who is now playing small forward on a full-time basis, is still feeling his way through the challenges of defending on the wing. The transition from 3 to 4 is common in a league that has made efforts to get smaller and quicker at every turn in the last few seasons. Gordon, in making the opposite shift, accepts an entirely new set of responsibilities against a new pool of opposing players.
"He's really good on the ball and working hard to contain," Vogel said.
Defending wings means running through more screens than Gordon ever had in his basketball life. Mistakes will be made in that, though the idea of Gordon building out his skill set to acclimate himself to wing play could have real, long-term benefits. Gordon seems like a player destined to ultimately land at the 4. For now, he's dabbling in skills that should only make him more effective in defensive switches while spacing the floor and better understanding what cuts are available to him.
The awkwardness in Orlando's play is self-evident. "Right now, our offensive spacing isn't very good," Vogel said. "Defensively, I think we can be a dominant defensive rebounding team, which we haven't been yet. I think we can be a dominant defense, which we haven't been yet."
The spacing is a problem implicit to the roster, given the concentration of bigs, Payton's lack of shooting at the point of attack, and the fact that defenses don't yet respect Gordon's jumper. Rebounding, though, has been one of this group's more incomprehensible failures to date. The Magic are structured to have a size advantage at almost every position—therein lies the virtue of trying out Gordon as a wing. Biyombo was one of the five best rebounders by percentage last season and Vucevic grabbed a solid 8.9 per game. Even Payton has proven to be a respectable contributor on the boards when invested in the enterprise. Thus far, however, the sum of the Magic's rebounding efforts has yielded one of the three worst defensive rebounding rates in the league and a systematic bleeding of second-chance points.
Even Biyombo and Vucevic have too often watched as opposing bigs maneuver inside to scoop up rebounds. As a result, Orlando has not only given up a crippling number of offensive rebounds overall, but also yielded unusually high efficiency to opponents on their second-shot attempts. It's one thing if a fight for a rebound happens to go the other way. By flatly conceding so many without even challenging their opponents' position, second-chance points are largely a free layup away.
The Magic have to execute the box-out basics more consistently if they're going to give their defense any chance to survive. Their broader defensive work, though, also needs to be cleaned up so that the best rebounders on the floor aren't so often forced to rotate or switch their way out of optimal positioning. "Defensive rebounding," Vogel said, "starts with containment."
Orlando's blueprint could allow for a capable defense, provided that every player involved does his job and understands how his role interacts with the greater scheme. Having size at every spot—along with the flexibility to go small when needed—matters. There's enough athleticism on the perimeter to keep up and prevent easy blow-bys. There's enough rim protection on the back line to ward off drives and carry long defensive stands. Weird as the roster may be, one can see some of what Vogel does in this team and its prospects; there is an actualized version of the Magic that can leverage its length to compete. The only way to know if that possibility can be made real is to wait.
"I think we have good guys that are all trying to do what I'm asking them to do," Vogel said. "We have some ability. I have a lot of confidence in what we can accomplish as a group, but we all have to remain patient that it's gonna take a little bit of time."