The Sorcery of Sweat: An Orlando Magic Season Preview
This year, for the first time, Hickory-High will be tackling the challenging of crafting season previews for all thirty NBA teams. Beginning today we’ll be rolling out these previews, one each day, leading up to Opening Night. This was a task of considerable size and complexity and it required the help of every member of our staff. The only guidelines given were that each writer approach team by staying true to their own style and the result is season previews of a difference sort. We hope you enjoy!
I hated the Orlando Magic when I was growing up.
I had been a basketball fan for much longer, but my full NBA-baptism came when I was 12, during the 1993-1994 season. This was Penny Hardaway’s rookie year, Shaq’s second, and the beginning of a beautifully brief flowering of dominance for the Magic. A lack of post-season success makes it easy to forget that they won 157 games over three seasons, with an offense that never finished lower than third in efficiency league-wide. Success wasn’t the turnoff for me, it was the ease with which they found it. The Magic were supremely talented. Often it took nothing more than to show up and throw that talent in an opponent’s face to walk away with a win.
30 Previews, 30 Days
9/29 – Orlando Magic
9/30 – Charlotte Bobcats
10/1 – Cleveland Cavaliers
10/2 – Phoenix Suns
10/3 – New Orleans Pelicans
10/4 – Sacramento Kings
10/5 – Washington Wizards
10/6 – Detroit Pistons
10/7 – Minnesota Timberwolves
10/8 – Portland Trail Blazers
10/9 – Toronto Raptors
10/10 – Philadelphia 76ers
10/11 – Milwaukee Bucks
10/12 – Dallas Mavericks
10/13 – Boston Celtics
10/14 – Utah Jazz
10/15 – Atlanta Hawks
10/16 – Los Angeles Lakers
10/17 – Houston Rockets
10/18 – Chicago Bulls
10/19 – Golden State Warriors
10/20 – Brooklyn Nets
10/21 – Indiana Pacers
10/22 – New York Knicks
10/23 – Memphis Grizzlies
10/24 – Los Angeles Clippers
10/25 – Denver Nuggets
10/26 – San Antonio Spurs
10/27 – Oklahoma City Thunder
10/28 – Miami Heat
I was an Indiana Pacers’ fan, which meant a fundamental belief in the Protestant Work Ethic. Basketball wasn’t supposed to be about talent and fun. It was about which team worked the hardest, sweat the most, left with the most bruises. The Magic and the Pacers ranked low on the national rivalry radar but they played two thoroughly entertaining playoff series during that stretch, including a seven-game theatrical masterpiece in the 1995 Eastern Conference Finals. The Magic ultimately prevailed and I seethed as Shaq, Penny, Nick Anderson and Dennis Scott smiled and laughed their way into the Finals. The epic drubbing they received in a four-game sweep at the hands of the Houston Rockets did little to mitigate my distaste.
Those years of Magic dominance were the bridge between middle school and high school for me and my aesthetic loathing for them transcended basketball. They were the shiny, sparkling students around me for whom social interactions were effortless, grandiose grades came without studying and athletic talent was imbued in their every movement. The Magic were captain of the football team AND the debate team; accepted early-decision to Brown and they took Sharon Stone to the prom.
This brilliant incarnation of the Magic didn’t last forever. They slid back into mediocrity but, for me, never quite shook their diamond-studded aura; especially with Tracy McGrady and then Dwight Howard stepping into the voids left by Penny and Shaq.
But for the first time in two decades, I’m ready to take another look at the Magic.
Over the past two seasons the inside-out Dwight Howard roster has been deconstructed and a more youthful, balanced and self-directed iteration has been cultivated in its place. The front office has used a slow burn team building approach and the results, while not yet complete, are intriguing. They’ve made two significant trades over the past eighteen months, unloading Dwight Howard and then J.J. Redick. Both trades initially looked like underwhelming hauls but they set themselves up with Moe Harkless, Nikola Vucevic, Arron Afflalo and Tobias Harris. The supreme patience with which this rebuild has been undertaken allowed them to lose a ton of games last season in the name of youth and player development. This left them near the top of the lottery where they were able to grab Victor Oladipo with the second pick.
All of a sudden the Magic find themselves devoid of sparkle but flush with youth, talent and flexibility. They’ve carefully trimmed the fat from their balance sheet, but also from their rotation. For the most part there are no veteran supporting players, because the Magic still aren’t sure exactly what they would be supporting. Instead they’ve been collecting potential, and not just the vague, amorphous kind identified by scouting reports and highlight reels. This is potential clarified by effort and intensity, at both ends of the floor, the kind of talent my Puritan Pacers could be proud of.
Legacy, physical gifts, style, construction; this year’s Magic roster couldn’t be further from the one who originally squirted lemon juice in my milk. There is no one on this roster for whom success flows naturally from thought to action. Every piece, from Head Coach Jacque Vaughn down to Romero Osby at the end of the bench, is here because they have clawed, scratched and fought to squeeze every bit of production out of the rock that is their potential. They are a team that is altogether and decidedly un-shiny.
So in some ways we know what this team will be – a full-bore scrapping, clawing, handful with player development as the overarching goal. We also know what they won’t be, which is very good. Clearing the rotation of veteran mediocrity to devote even more minutes to youthful potential will certainly accelerate their goal of development but it probably won’t make much of a dent in their immediate fortunes. They wrapped up last season with the league’s worst record, finishing in the bottom six in efficiency on both ends of the court. Some level of growth seems likely and those bottom six rankings will hopefully be nothing but a learning experience. But there are still a few steps to climb before legitimate playoff contention is a realistic part of the plan.
On offense the Magic have a pool of potent skills to work with but they still lack a binding element to hold it altogether. It will take either a uniquely complex and well-executed system or yet-to-be-acquired offensive talent to create a truly efficient attack. Until those elements are in place they may have to lean a little to heavily on Glen Davis‘ spastic interior game or Harris’ developing one. Attacking in transition and on the offensive glass will help cover some of their half court holes, but it’s still difficult to envision the pieces fitting together into a top ten offense this season.
At the other end of the court there is the potential for something truly special. In Harkless, Afflalo and Oladipo the Magic have a trio of tenacious wing defenders capable of stretching up and down the slate of traditional positional designations. Oladipo, in particular, has the potential to be among the handful of best individual perimeter defenders in the league and is the kind of player who can lift an entire system. However, there are still defensive holes on the interior. As stout as Vucevic is on the defensive glass he still has a long way to go in his ability to keep opponents out of the paint. If another big in the Omer Asik – Marc Gasol mold found their way to Orlando we would be looking at the building blocks of a top-tier defense.
If perfectly-played top-tier basketball is your thing than the Magic might not hold much interest for you this year. Sure, there will be nights that everything comes together and they challenge the league’s best, but those will be few and far between. There will also be nights where they look like a D-League team struggling to maintain their footing. But the in-between is where the fun will really be – the nights where we get to watch an organization breathe life into a commitment to youth and development; the nights where we get to watch gaps in talent be offset by floor burns, effort and will; the nights where, win or lose, we get to watch a franchise remaking itself in slow motion.
Now that’s the kind of Magic I can believe in.