SAN ANTONIO – Nikola Vucevic and Evan Fournier, the two longest-tenured players on the Orlando roster, are as happy and content this training camp as they have been in years and it’s not just because the prospects for the Magic are incredibly high for the season ahead.
In their time with the Magic – seven seasons for Vucevic and five for Fournier – they have played for five head coaches, two front-office staffs and several dozens of different teammates. In years past, it was an all-to-common practice for them to use the September workouts and training camp as ``getting to know you’’ sessions with new teammates and/or head coaches. In addition to that, they usually spent the first few months of seasons adapting to new coaching styles and systems, learning the tendencies of teammates and hoping that chemistry would eventually come.
This seson, however, there are no such concerns for Vucevic and Fournier, two of the leaders on a Magic franchise that returns 13 players from last season’s roster and is experiencing unprecedented levels of continuity and familiarity. President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman, GM John Hammond and head coach Steve Clifford – the architects of last season’s 42-40 squad that finished with a flourish and reached the playoffs – are also back in Orlando, adding to the stability and permanence of the franchise.
``It’s great not having to come in and introduce yourself to the coach, saying, `Nice to meet you,’’’ joked Vucevic, who joined Shaquille O’Neal and Dwight Howard as the only players in the 30-year history of the Magic to average at least 20 points and 12 rebounds a game over a season.
``In the NBA, when you look at all the teams that have had success for many years, they have the same core of players and the same coach,’’ Vucevic continued. ``That familiarity helps a lot. You can make small tweaks here and there, but when the basics stay the same that’s very important. That’s going to help us a lot.’’
Added Fournier, who has played 343 games in his NBA career with the Magic: ``I’m so happy we don’t have to start over. People ask us all the time, `What changed after the All-Star break (during last season)?’ Nothing changed, but it just takes time to adjust to a different system. Not having to start over this season is huge and having the same core is going to help us tremendously. You can’t really put a value on that.’’
The Magic are hopeful that their continuity will allow them to pick up where they left off last season and get off to a fast start this season. Orlando closed last season with a 22-9 flourish, allowing them to charge into the postseason as the East’s seventh seed. This season, expectations are much greater as a Magic team with mostly the same components feels it can be significantly better.
``You look at all the teams in the past like the Spurs who always bring back their same teams and they’re always winning, it’s because they keep their same culture and chemistry. That’s going to be great for us this year,’’ said point guard D.J. Augustin, whose Magic open the preseason in San Antonio on Saturday (8:30 p.m. ET, Magic Radio Network). ``I always say, if we start the way we finished last year, we can do amazing things this year.’’
Clifford, who guided Orlando back to the playoffs in his first season as Magic head coach, has already noticed tangible differences in this training camp with how continuity is helping the club. Unlike last season when Clifford had to spend most of training camp teaching his tactics for the first time – and the team consequently struggled to a 20-31 start – the veteran coach feels his squad is significantly further along this training camp.
``We’re way ahead, for sure. We’ll see more in these next (three preseason games), but we’re far ahead of where we were (last season),’’ said Clifford, who noted that in 25 years of time in the NBA he’s never been around a team that has had so much continuity from one season to the next in terms of the roster, coaching staff and leadership. ``That doesn’t mean we’ll play well (Saturday in San Antonio), but we’re far ahead.’’
The seed work for the continuity that the Magic are currently enjoying was planted in the summer by front office and coaching staffs that desperately wanted to keep together a roster that clicked on all cylinders over the final 2 ½ months of last season. While notching stirring victories against Golden State, Philadelphia, Boston, Miami and Indiana (three times) and winning 22 times in the final 31 games, the Magic ranked first in the NBA defensive rating (104.9 points allowed per 100 possessions) and climbed to eighth overall in offensive rating (112.5 points scored per 100 possessions).
Orlando won Game 1 of the playoffs on an Augustin 3-pointer in the closing seconds, but it was systematically eliminated 4-1 by the eventual NBA Champion Toronto Raptors. Still, Weltman liked what he saw with the chemistry, cohesion, work ethic and promise of the group and wanted to keep it intact.
Then, the Magic backed up those wishes by quickly locking up Terrence Ross and Vucevic in free agency even though the two veterans coming off career years had various offers from other teams.
The Magic were also able to retain center Khem Birch and guard Michael Carter-Williams – two key cogs in the late-season surge. That meant Orlando would return the top nine rotational players from last season’s team, in addition to also getting back injured young players Mo Bamba and Markelle Fultz.
While there is certainly some risk involved in bringing back a team that was just two games over .500 and lost in the first round of the playoffs, the Magic and Weltman believe the franchise has its brightest days ahead of it. Of course, nothing it guaranteed for the Magic just because most of the roster is still intact, but Weltman is a believer in what the franchise has in place.
``If you’ve figured out a way to win, I place a great value in continuity. Otherwise, not so much,’’ he joked. ``Free agency is a two-way street and obviously we stated that we wanted to try and bring (Vucevic and Ross) back, but the fact that they’re wearing Orlando Magic uniforms again is a statement that they wanted to come back. We want guys that want to be here, and we won’t want it any other way. So, that helps build and fortify whatever optimism that he had last season and now we’re just going to try and build on that going forward.’’
That’s great news for Vucevic and Fournier, who struggled through four seasons of struggles in Orlando together prior to the team finally breaking through last season. Their time together through the years has not only allowed them to form a tight friendship, but they also have a distinct on-court chemistry. Of course, it helps that they both speak French, which they use to communicate on the floor so foes can’t pick up on their play calls.
More than anything, an extended period of time together has helped two of the Magic’s primary pillars form a special chemistry on and off the floor. After enduring so much change together in Orlando, Vucevic and Fournier are delighted about the continuity the Magic are now enjoying with their roster, coaching staff and management. Already, both have seen signs that the stability will pay major benefits for the franchise in the season ahead.
``I think it’s going to help us a lot and it’s something that I think is going to be very important to us this season,’’ said Vucevic, who became the Magic’s first all-star since 2012 last season. ``In this league, it’s so important to keep your core together and the coaching staff together, and in our case, we kept almost everybody together.
``That continuity and familiarity is going to help us,’’ the 7-footer added. ``I already see it where last year it took us so long to learn our plays and defensive sets, but this year everything is so much quicker because we already know it. It gives us the comfort, the trust and the chemistry that teams need. We already had a good base and now we can just add to it.’’
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