Setting Realistic Expectations for the Orlando Magic

A look at the Orlando Magic's position battles, rotations, and setting realistic expectations for their young core.

The Magic had a solid offseason for the most part, keeping all their major pieces. However, a new coach, the 6th pick in the draft, and the overall development of their young talent helped make their summer somewhat entertaining.

There will be a fair amount of uncertainty regarding rotations, especially when it comes to who starts. Another storyline to watch this season is the progression of the Magic's young talent. Guys like Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac should be in line for major roles this year, but their development may hinge on how much faith new head coach Steve Clifford has in them.

Lastly, the tracking of the Magic's success in the LeBron-less east will be something to pay close attention to. They won't be making much noise, but they can be a sneaky team to slip into the eighth seed. There's a lot to dig in to, so if you want an in-depth look into Orlando's upcoming season, you've come to the right place.

How Will Coach Clifford Set His Rotations?

There are a lot of positional battles to be had for starting roles on the Magic, but as of now Aaron Gordon starting at power forward seems like the safest bet. He improved greatly last season, and expectations are that he will only get better this year. Nikola Vucevic is the other strong bet to start in the frontcourt, but chances are that he may be shipped out by the trade deadline. His offensive abilities are valuable, especially when taking into consideration his rebounding, but his lack of rim protection and consistent floor spacing makes his game seem outdated and less valuable in the "unicorn" obsessed basketball era that we are in today.

Making room for Mohamed Bamba will be on the to-do list of the Magic's front office. Whether it means Vucevic playing fewer minutes as the season goes on or trading him altogether, Bamba should be getting the majority of the minutes at center by the end of the season.

The last position that is unlikely to waiver is at shooting guard, where Evan Fournier should be able to beat out Jonathan Simmons for the larger role. He really showed his shooting capabilities last season on a team that was limited with spacing options. He should provide the same type of value this season, and will continue to help carry the offensive burden for this team night in and night out. While Jonathan Simmons' defense will entice Clifford, Fournier's value on the other end will be too much for Clifford to pass up.

Another interesting battle will be at the point guard position between D.J. Augustin and Jerian Grant. Neither are ideal options to start, but obviously one of them has to. Augustin is the far superior shooter and overall offensive player, but the younger Jerian Grant is the better defensive player and better fits the youth movement the Magic are headed towards. After acquiring Grant and subsequently Timofey Mozgov in a deal that also involved Orlando shipping out Bismack Biyombo, it seems Grant may have been a target for the Magic, after striking out in free agency. Then again, they could've been looking to just find a capable backup. It's still unknown as to who Clifford will go with, but odds are that regardless of who starts, the minutes split shouldn't be too drastic.

Perhaps the most intriguing position of all, with three possible candidates, is the starting small forward position. Jonathan Simmons showed what he can bring to the table in a substantial twenty-minute a night role last season. His two-way play is limited, especially offensively speaking, but valuable nonetheless. Terrance Ross is the other veteran name to watch. His 3-and-D ability declined last season, as he had a career worst in both 3P% (32.3%) and FG% (39.8%). He'll hope that he can prove that last season was just a fluke, and will focus on improving his efficiency as well as continue his defensive prowess.

Jonathan Isaac, the favorite to win the role, is the most fascinating of the trio. In his limited time on the court he showed how his defensive abilities are elite, averaging 1.1 bpg, and 1.2 spg in under twenty minutes. His offense left much to be desired, but after his stellar showing in Summer League, where he looked comfortable crossing up opponents and hitting step back jumpers, a massive season is in store for the sophomore.

What Can We Expect From the Magic's Youth?

Although you may not hear much about them in comparison to other young cores, the Magic are quietly building a nice collection of youthful pieces.

Aaron Gordon

Chief among this group is 23-year-old Aaron Gordon, whom the Magic took fourth overall in the 2014 draft. Although he only played 57 games last season, he showed that he was able to take his game up multiple levels beyond what he has previously shown. Further proof of this: he set career highs across the board in every counting stat category last season. Gordon's 17.6 ppg ranked second on the team only behind Evan Fournier (17.8), and his defense started to take steps in the right direction.

He'll likely become Orlando's definitive primary option this season, but efficiency remains his largest weakness on offense. Gordon's struggles are most clearly seen from behind the arc; although last season he took a significant step forward, he still only shot an overall 33.6% from deep. His scoring package comes with a diverse and wide array of moves from post-ups to mid-range jumpers to threes. He can do it all.

Shooting will be a strong focus for him this season, and if he is able to show that he has made strides in that department, an All-Star appearance is well within reach. A strong creator for himself, Gordon is also a capable creator for his teammates, although he hasn't really been put in a position that allows him to show that aspect of his game. He doesn't have strong vision, but for his size, he is great at collapsing the defense and finding the open man or making the hockey assist. Hopefully, coach Clifford is able to better showcase this aspect of Gordon on offense.

Jonathan Isaac

The other major prospect is Jonathan Isaac, who turns only 21 this season and has tons of promise. Playing only 27 games during his rookie campaign, Isaac made a major impact on defense, showing that he may be in the running for an all-defensive team as early as next season. Tied for 29th and 31st in steals and blocks per 36 minutes, Isaac proved that he has as high a defensive ceiling as anyone. His elite defensive instincts and physical gifts allow him to create plays on the less glamorous end. Disrupting passing lanes, closing out on opponents quickly, and rotational IQ all play a part in his defensive portfolio.

However, as great as he is on defense, he struggled mightily on offense, showing how raw he is in many areas. His overall offensive IQ was poor, as he took ill-advised shots, had a negative assist to turnover ratio, and struggled with efficiency (37.9 FG%). Despite his overall FG% being critically low, his percentages from three (34.8%) and the free throw line (76%) were not nearly as alarming, which makes it difficult to judge his outlook as a shooter. Based off of what we were able to gather from Summer League, Isaac looked much improved and much more confident, taking and making shots that would have been unthinkable for him a year ago. It's only Summer League, but the hope is that same confidence he demonstrated carries over to the regular season, where big things could be in store for him.

Mohamed Bamba

The last major piece fitting into this youth movement is the newest member, Mohamed Bamba. There was much speculation that the Magic would take a point guard with their 6th overall pick in the draft, but instead, they ended up with a center in Bamba. The 20-year-old 7-footer has as high a defensive ceiling as anyone from his draft class, with his insane 7'10" wingspan (longest wingspan to ever be taken in the first-round) that provides the tools necessary to be an elite rim protector.

Strength is an issue for him, specifically in his lower body where opponents will try to abuse him in the post. But with NBA training regiments he should be able to beef up significantly over the course of the season. Rumblings of a three-point shot are in the works, and if they are legitimate, we could be talking about an elite "unicorn" prospect that is so highly coveted in today's NBA. He will start off in a limited role behind Nikola Vucevic, but as the season goes along and his role expands, he may end up looking like the superior starter. It's important to note that while he can shoot and is a more than viable lob threat, he is one of the worst passers from the draft and struggles to pass out of double teams and pick-and-rolls.

There will be plenty of opportunity for all three of these guys this year, and the hope is that Clifford uses them as much as possible as they seem to be the future of this organization. While they are all poised to progress substantially over the course of this season, they still have a lot of work ahead of them, and a lot more potential to reach.

What Does All of This Mean for Orlando's Record This Season?

It's not exactly a secret that heading into this season the Magic aren't exactly the most talented team in the league, or even their conference. While they don't have any superstars yet, they do have plenty of above average role players and contributors who collectively provide enough talent to possibly sneak into the playoffs. I realize this may sound crazy, but once you start to dig into it, their chances begin to look more realistic. The Celtics, Raptors, 76ers, Bucks, Wizards, and Pacers all seem to be playoff locks at this point in time, leaving the seventh and eighth seeds wide open to the other nine teams, two of which are unlikely to have much of a chance (Hawks and Knicks). This leaves the Nets, Heat, Pistons, Hornets, Cavaliers, and Bulls as their competition, all of which the Magic have an avenue to beat out for a playoff spot.

While this opportunity will by no means come easy, it is doable, which is more than Orlando could say the past couple of seasons. A new head coach, fresh faces, returning steady veterans, and developing young guys, will all play important roles for the Magic this season. If it all comes together they could be looking at something between 35-40 wins, but if disaster strikes and injuries and chemistry become major issues, they could be looking at another high lottery pick. Chances are they'll fall somewhere in the middle, an admirable finish for a team that is pivoting in the right direction.

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