Magic Will Have to Improve Offensively This Season to Make Another Major Jump

by John Denton

ORLANDO – In order to pull off last season’s largest win total improvement in the NBA – a whopping plus-17 in victories – the Orlando Magic had to dig in defensively and climb from 20th in that category in 2017-18 to eighth in 2018-19.

To make another significant jump in wins – one that could potentially make them contenders in an Eastern Conference some consider to be wide open – the Magic will likely have to show a similar amount of improvement on the offensive end of the floor in the season ahead.

An Orlando team with 12 players returning is hopeful that its unprecedented continuity, combined with some subtle tweaks in terms of pushing the pace more and getting more dribble penetration from one specific newcomer, will aid an offense that at times struggled to muster enough potency last season.

When the Magic open the regular season on Wednesday at the Amway Center against the Cleveland Cavaliers (tip time: 7 p.m., TV: Fox Sports Florida), they are hoping to resemble the squad that closed last season 22-9 instead of the one that lost 4-1 in the playoffs to the eventual champion Toronto Raptors.

Over the final 2 ½ months of last season (from Jan. 31 to April 10), Orlando paired its NBA-best defense (104.9 points allowed per 100 possessions) with an offense that ranked eighth in the NBA (112.5 points scored per 100 possessions) and shot well overall (46.6 percent, 14th in the NBA) and from 3-point range (37 percent, 10th in the NBA) while scoring at a higher clip (112.3 points per game, 16th in the NBA). Those numbers mostly took a nosedive in the playoffs against the rugged Raptors, but the Magic are vowing that they will use the lessons learned from that series to be better offensively going forward.

``I actually think we were lucky to play against the champs because (the Raptors) showed us what it’s like to be a championship team. They played with such an intensity and were so aggressive,’’ said Magic shooting guard Evan Fournier, who spent much of his offseason working on bettering his shot to help his team’s offensive efficiency. ``They showed us what it’s like to be a champion. I think we’re ready to go through that and that’s what we’re bracing ourselves for this season.’’

Orlando returns many of the offensive weapons that made it dominant late last season, namely all-star center Nikola Vucevic and reserve guard Terrence Ross. The two key cogs in the offense posted career years last season and quickly resigned with the Magic after becoming free agents in July. Vucevic joined Shaquille O’Neal and Dwight Howard as the only Magic players to ever to average at least 20 points (20.8 points per game) and 12 rebounds (12.0 rebounds a game) in a season, while Ross became the first player in NBA history to make at least 200 3-pointers (217 threes) without starting a game. Both have said there’s no reason that they can’t be just as productive, or even better, in a stable Magic offense going forward.

The Magic are also hopeful that young wings Jonathan Isaac and Aaron Gordon can show the kind of offensive strides that will make them as effective as they are defensively. The nearly 7-foot Isaac shined last season in a role where little was asked of him and the Magic are hopeful that he can become even more assertive and effective following an offseason of work to grow his game. As for Gordon, he is hoping to follow up his best all-around season with one where he is even more dominant as a bruising post-up player against smaller foes.

Gordon said if last spring’s playoff loss taught him anything, it’s that the Magic will have to be better offensively against the NBA’s elite defensive teams if they want to evolve into true contenders.

``In a playoff series like we went through, the best players have to make plays – that’s what it really comes down to,’’ said Gordon, who averaged a career-best 3.7 assists last season to go with his 16 points and 7.4 rebounds a night. ``When you scout the offense and everybody knows each other’s offense and things bog down, then it comes down to one-on-one plays, drawing two (defenders) and making the right read.’’

One potential impediment, of course, to Orlando’s desire for offensive growth is the fact that it doesn’t possess a high-scoring, superstar player who it can lean on to carry the team. Instead, the Magic must make things happen offensively as a collective unit, head coach Steve Clifford stressed. They can do that by moving the ball effectively, playing off one another with screens and movement and playing with a purpose while attacking the defense. And Clifford spent the preseason emphasizing to his team that it can be better offensively just by making slight improvements in areas such as side-out-of-bounds plays, second-chance points and by converting turnovers into points.

``To me, we’re going to need good pace of play with great ball movement and we need to develop more ways – within sets and offensive concepts – to put more pressure on the defense,’’ said Clifford, who hopes his team can boost last season’s offensive rating (108.2 points per 100 possessions, 22ndin the NBA) to a top-15 level this season.

``Look, the best playoff offense is Kawhi (Leonard) with the ball, LeBron (James) with the ball, Steph (Curry) with the ball and (Kevin Durant) with the ball,’’ the veteran coach continued. ``The hardest thing to guard in basketball at any level is a great player in the middle of the floor … the guys who can go get good shots consistently without the aid of a pick. Now, we don’t have that, so we’re going to have to be very cohesive and coordinated in ways of having a pick-and-roll game and a post-up game. We have enough talent to do those things, but it makes it a lot harder (without a dominant superstar).’’

One player who could evolve into being a difference-maker in the Magic offense is point guard Markelle Fultz, who has proven himself to be completely healed from the nerve and blood vessel malady in his right shoulder that marred his first two seasons in the NBA. Playing as the primary backup at point guard to starter D.J. Augustin, the 6-foot-4, 210-pound Fultz has already displayed a knack for being able to get just about anywhere he wanted on the floor with his dribble penetration. If Fultz can continue to penetrate into the paint – and ultimately put pressure on defenses to collapse around him – he could be potentially be a playmaking X-factor who elevates the efficiency of the Magic’s offense.

``I think that (ability to drive) is one of the big things in my game, and one of my favorite things to do is be a playmaker for others,’’ said Fultz, who averaged 4.0 assists a game in the preseason. ``I have the ability to draw two defenders and then I can get my teammates easy shots. That ability to get in the lane and get to the rim just helps us create space and I think it can help the team.’’

Can it ever help the Magic? Just listen to Gordon, the recent recipient of a no-look pass from the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft after he had commanded the attention of four defenders on a drive to the hoop: ``’Kelle is a problem (for defenses), just being a big guard and his game is very smooth and he has a great feel for the game. His play-making ability and vision are going to be really helpful to us. I think everybody is going to realize how special of a player he is (with) the more comfortable he gets.’’

Make an offensive jump similar to the one that they pulled off defensively last season and the Magic just might be a force to be reckoned with in the Eastern Conference, several Magic players noted. Gordon said the Magic showed off their enormous potential over the final 2 ½ months of last season – when they whipped Golden State, Philadelphia, Indiana (twice), Miami and others – and now the mission is to play that way over the course of the 82-game season ahead.

``We’ve got talent on this team and we’ve got a lot of high-IQ basketball players,’’ Gordon said. ``We lock in and execute the way that we know how, we’ll be a tough team to beat every night.’’

Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Orlando Magic. All opinions expressed by John Denton are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Orlando Magic or their Basketball Operations staff, partners or sponsors.

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