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Defensive uptick needed if Magic are to rise East ranks

POSTED: Oct 21, 2015 11:15 PM ET

By Sekou Smith

BY Sekou Smith

NBA.com

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Magic Season Preview: Expectations

With Scott Skiles at the helm and a promising roster, expectations for winning and player development are high in Orlando.

After three seasons worth of carefully-crafted baby steps in an extreme franchise makeover, it's time for a culture change. And that change comes in the form of a familiar face to the Magic: new coach Scott Skiles, who made his bones as a player in the pin stripes. But even with his wealth of coaching experience around the league, Skiles has not faced a challenge like this. He inherits a team that has won a total of 68 games the past three seasons, a team without a defensive identity -- and the expectation is that he'll turn things around immediately and push this crew into the playoff hunt.

ICYMI

Rookie swingman and No. 5 overall Draft pick Mario Hezonja made an impression with his fearlessness (shooting, driving and finishing and simply attacking) during Summer League play. ... Former LeBron James-fave Shabazz Napier was acquired in a trade with Miami to provide point guard depth behind starter Elfrid Payton and veteran newcomer C.J. Watson. ... The Magic avoided the drama in July by signing then restricted free-agent forward Tobias Harris to a four-year, $64 million deal. ... Aaron Gordon underwent surgery July 14 to repair his fractured jaw, an injury he suffered while roughhousing with his brother. ... Evan Fournier, who started 32 games last season for the Magic, helped lead France to a bronze medal at EuroBasket 2015.

THREE POINTS

1. For a team with so many talented individual parts, the Magic's defensive struggles just don't add up. The starting backcourt of Payton and Victor Oladipo possess as much physical talent as anyone could ask for, but neither one of them would rate as anything close to a stopper at their respective positions. Same goes for Nik Vucevic and Tobias Harris up front. Any culture changing in Orlando must start with upgrades in defensive focus across the board.

2. The Magic allowed more than 110 points per 100 possessions with Channing Frye and Vucevic on the floor together last season, by far the worst on-court defensive rating for any pair of big men were on the floor for at least 1,000 minutes. But it goes deeper than that for a team that ranked 25th in defensive efficiency, and ranked in the bottom three in field goal percentage defense at the basket and at the 3-point line.

3. Magic GM Rob Hennigan has held true to his plan to build through the Draft and with young assets instead of the quick-fix that free agency can be when executed properly. He did, however, pursue Atlanta All-Star Paul Millsap in July and almost pulled it off. It was a move that would have weakened a division rival and given the Magic a go-to-guy in the lineup that is still missing.

MAN ON THE SPOT

Make no mistake, Scott Skiles is the man on the spot and will be until things change in Orlando. Each and every time he's taken over a team during his coaching career the progress has been evident, starting with the defensive identity. His teams have ranked in the top six in defensive efficiency in all but two of his eight full seasons as a coach. The question is whether or not his gruff, hard-charging style will resonate with a group that didn't get anything of the sort from Jacque Vaughn. Skiles wants a team that reflects his own attacking, in-your-face style. And he's willing to poke, prod and even shove, if needed, to get that out of his team.

STARTING FIVE

Elfrid Payton | 8.9 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 6.5 apg
Impressed as a rookie and will only get better with time and tutoring from Skiles.

Victor Oladipo | 17.9 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 4.1 apg
An athletic marvel who checks all of the boxes on the stat sheet every night.

Nikola Vucevic | 19.3 ppg, 10.9 rpg, 2.0 apg
One of the most consistent, productive and reliable bigs in the league.

Tobias Harris | 17.1 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 1.8 apg
As productive as he's been, he's only scratched the surface of his potential.

Aaron Gordon | 5.2 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 0.7 apg
Early promise derailed by injuries. Plenty talented, though, just needs time.

KEY RESERVES

C.J Watson | 10.0 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 3.6 apg
The ideal backup point guard for a team that needs improved scoring off the bench.

Channing Frye | 7.3 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 1.3 apg
A floor-stretcher that should fit much better coming off the bench.

Evan Fournier | 12.0 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 2.1 apg
A pleasant surprise last season when pressed into a starting role.

THE BOTTOM LINE

The GM and new coach are talking playoffs. That's a bit ambitious for a team that simply has not exhibited the consistency to warrant such talk, not yet at least. Baby steps means a jump of 10-12 wins with the postseason still just out of reach.

Sekou Smith is a staff writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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