Denton: Exciting Offseason Ahead for Magic GM, Coaches and Players

Jacque Vaughn and Victor Oladipo

By John Denton
April 17, 2014

ORLANDO – Following two trying transition seasons, the Orlando Magic’s gaggle of young players talked on Thursday of shortening their learning curve the best way they know how – by attacking the summer and making strides before next season.

And most certainly, the work won’t stop just with the players. GM Rob Hennigan and head coach Jacque Vaughn know that the Magic are facing an ultra-important summer ahead. As much as they are depending on players to make personal improvements over the summer, Hennigan and Vaughn know that improvements are needed to the roster through the team’s two lottery picks, potential trades and through free agency.

In the past, Hennigan hit on trades that brought the Magic cornerstone pieces in Arron Afflalo, Nikola Vucevic, Tobias Harris and Maurice Harkless and he wisely plucked Victor Oladipo out of last June’s NBA Draft with the No. 2 pick. Now, he said he’s poised to use any means necessary to make the Magic better while continuing to cultivate the team’s strong crop of young talent.

``It’s never easy when you lose as many games as we’ve lost this year. We don’t want to be doing that very much moving forward,’’ Hennigan admitted. ``I think we’re on plan and I think we’re moving in the right direction. You know us – we don’t typically like to put a concrete timeline on things. But I do expect to see some improvement next year, we all do.

``We expect to be playing more meaningful games next year than we did this year,’’ Hennigan continued. ``We want to continue to grow, continue to get better and believe in the process. If you ask all of the guys, the coaches and everyone in our organization there’s a true belief and a real conviction in what we’re doing and that can be a powerful thing.’’

The Magic made some powerful strides this season and in the process beat many of the league’s best teams, improved by three victories over last season and witnessed some significant growth from several players. But the 23-win season came with plenty of give and takes. While the home mark was much better, the road record was the worst in the NBA. And while the addition of Oladipo was a major plus and the growth spurts of Afflalo and Kyle O’Quinn were significant, it still couldn’t vault the Magic into playoff contention even in the pedestrian Eastern Conference.

``Hopefully, we’ve had a chance to see how dedicated you need to be in the offseason and how much room there is for improvement,’’ Vaughn said. ``Guys will figure out how much they need to work this offseason and a lot can be accomplished.’’

Undoubtedly, the high point of the season came in mid-February when the Magic strung together a three-game win streak that included stirring home victories against Oklahoma City and Indiana – the leaders in the West and East at the time. Wins like those, and other such as when they beat Brooklyn (twice), the Los Angeles Clippers, Portland and Chicago, showed that the Magic have the potential to be difference-makers in the playoffs in the near future.

``We’ve got a lot of film and now we have to go into this offseason and work on our weaknesses and strengthen our strengths, if that makes sense,’’ said O’Quinn, who became Orlando’s most improved player and finished the season as a starter. ``Every day we have to use what we learned from this season and try to get better.’’

Oladipo got better as the season went along, increasing his scoring and shooting percentages, while lowering his turnover rate over the last three months. He’ll most likely lose out the Rookie of the Year award to Philadelphia’s Michael Carter-Williams, but Oladipo still established a solid foundation under him by averaging 13.8 points, 4.1 assists, 4.1 rebounds and 1.6 steals in 80 games.

``It’s kind of surreal waking up this morning and realizing that I’ve gone through a year,’’ said Oladipo, who twice won the NBA’s Rookie of the Month award and scored 30 points twice and at least 20 points 12 times. ``I’m just trying to better myself now and hopefully Chapter 2 will be better than Chapter 1. I think I did OK, but I’d give myself a D-plus or something. I think I did all right, but there is a lot of room for growth and improvement so I’m going to attack the summer with an attitude to get better.’’

Oladipo split his time both as a starter and a reserve this season and as a shooting guard and a point guard. The move to the point was a dramatic one for Oladipo, who was an All-American shooting guard in college. The Magic refuse to pencil him into one particular position, figuring that he can play wherever needed in the future because of the versatility and explosiveness in his abilities.

Said Hennigan: ``Probably both positions (in Oladipo’s future). I think our stance on the infamous question is that he’s a guard. He might play some one, and play some two, but he’s best-served as a guard.’’

Point guard is the position that veteran Jameer Nelson has manned for the Magic for the past decade. He is the franchise’s all-time leader in assists and he’s on pace to move into first in games played next season – that is if Nelson is back. The 6-foot guard, who finished eighth in the NBA this season in assists per game (7.0), has one year left on his contract, but it has a team option qualifier.

Nelson is extremely prideful of the fact that he’s only worn a Magic jersey in his career and he’s hopeful that his career continues in Orlando. The 32-year-old point guard conducted his exit interview with Hennigan and Vaughn on Thursday and he knows his future will likely be up in the air until theJuly 15 deadline to pick up his option or decline it.

``It’s the team’s option, but I would love to continue to play here and see this thing turn around,’’ Nelson said. ``I’ll just keep my fingers crossed.’’

Hennigan had nothing but praise for Vaughn, who has been the Magic’s front man throughout the past two difficult seasons. Hennigan said that he is more sure now than ever that Vaughn is the man to lead this rebuild because of his patient demeanor and his consistent approach to the everyday grind of trying to build a team through young, developing players.

``I’m very pleased with Jacque and pleased with the job he and his staff have done,’’ Hennigan said. ``It’s not an easy task to come in and try and build a team from the ground up. Jacque has been incredibly consistent in his approach and his message and the way he treats the guys. … His ability to challenge guys – sometimes subtly and sometimes not so subtly – it’s good for the group. I think all of our guys got better this year and that’s a testament to Jacque’s approach. He always puts the organization first and that doesn’t go unnoticed.’’

By virtue of having the NBA’s third-worst record, Orlando will enter the May 20 NBA Draft Lottery with a 15.6 percent chance of winning the top overall pick. The franchise has done just that in years past, turning the No. 1 spot into Shaquille O’Neal, Penny Hardaway and Dwight Howard. This year’s draft is considered full of star power at the top and great depth through the first round, which is a good thing for a Magic franchise that also owns a second lottery pick.

In addition to hopefully adding two more college stars, Hennigan said the Magic will be active in free agency. Also, the team will explore the trade market to see if it can add an experienced standout player or two so as to not make the roster overly young.

In all, Hennigan plans to explore every avenue to make the Magic a better team next season. He knows that the team must make significant strides forward next season and playing many more meaningful games.

``If you look back on the year, we made some strides in a positive direction, but clearly the win-loss record was not very good. We’re all aware of that and know that that needs to improve,’’ Hennigan said.

``We’ll continue to do our work to identify the best ways to improve the team. What we don’t want to do is skip any steps,’’ he added. ``We’ll be methodical and very strategic in how we add to the team. The draft is one area to do that. I also think we’ll continue to be opportunistic and exploring what option exist in free agency and trades. We’re not bound to one basket. We’re looking for ways to improve all the way around.’’