Magic Look to Build On Chemistry and Togetherness

by John Denton

ORLANDO – Among NBA teams, chemistry and togetherness can sometimes be as elusive and difficult to find as hearing country music blaring in a postgame locker room. Also, teams don’t always know how they develop chemistry or necessarily hang onto it, but they’re usually fully aware when it has vanished.

For the first time in years, the Orlando Magic clearly found something special within their team late last season, and it showed both on and off the court. Time and again, they rallied for wins and rallied for each other. Clearly, Orlando’s talent and togetherness and chemistry and cohesion played major roles in it going 22-9 over the final 2 ½ months of the season – the NBA’s fifth-best mark over that time. And when the Magic won on April 7thin Boston to clinch the franchise’s first playoff berth since 2012, there were as many tears and hugs as there were fist pumps and chest bumps because of the unadulterated joy shared among the group.

Like Magic fans who filled the Amway Center with noise and energy during the run to the postseason, President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman sensed something special brewing with the dynamics of the team. He saw how the team responded to head coach Steve Clifford and responded to the pressure of a playoff race. He saw how the parts on the team played together and played for one another. He saw the collective will of the team push it to the playoff promised land.

It was roughly then, during the Magic’s best stretch of basketball in the past seven years, that Weltman basically came to the conclusion that Orlando’s front office had to do everything in its power to keep the team together. Then, once the flag dropped on free agency on June. 30, the Magic went about making that happen by re-signing all-star center Nikola Vucevic, record-setting shooting guard Terrence Ross, defensive-minded point guard Michael Carter-Williams and promising center and restricted free agent Khem Birch.

Now, with the NBA’s free-agency period mostly wrapped up, the Magic begin to look toward next season knowing that they will have at least 12 returning pieces back from a team that notched an NBA-best 17-win improvement last season. The hope among Magic circles is that the team going forward will be able to recapture the same chemistry that it had late last season. Weltman and Magic ownership has given the team the chance to do that be ensuring that the core of the squad remains intact for the foreseeable future.

``It’s everyone’s goal in this league to figure out, `What is your path to winning? How does that work for your team?’’’ said Weltman, who has used his nearly 30 years of experience in pro basketball to reshape the Magic’s culture. ``Our guys showed that (winning style) at the end of last season, and once you establish that then it’s our responsibility to recognize that and try and build upon it. And it’s the players’ responsibilities to get better and not be satisfied.

``For sure, the way that we finished the season last spring that was an indication that the team was coming together and that there was still room for growth,’’ he added. ``Our goal then was trying to bring the same team back the best that we could.’’

Possessing the same front-office leadership and head coach for the first time in five years, the Magic are also hopeful that their on-court continuity will be of benefit to them at a time when there’s never been more roster turnover in the NBA.

In the Eastern Conference alone, the reigning champion Toronto Raptors lost Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, while the Milwaukee Bucks were unable to hang onto Malcom Brogdon and Nikola Mirotic. Philadelphia no longer has Jimmy Butler or J.J. Redick, but it added Al Horford and Josh Richardson. Boston lost Kyrie Irving and Horford, but snagged Kemba Walker and Enes Kanter. Brooklyn acquired Irving and Kevin Durant, but the Nets will have to wait a season on Durant as the two-time NBA Finals MVP works his way back from an Achilles’ tendon tear. The arch-rival Miami Heat – who will be without retired guard Dwyane Wade for the first time in years – lured Butler to South Beach, but at the cost of several other key pieces.

As for the Magic, not only will they return their top 10 scorers, but they will have 94.1 percent of their point production and 90.6 percent of the minutes played last season returning. There’s also a belief that those numbers could climb even higher what with 23-year-old forward Aaron Gordon, 22-year-old forward Jonathan Isaac and 21-year-old center Mo Bamba poised to make leaps following productive summers. Also, Vucevic – who registered career highs in every significant statistical category last season – believes he is just now entering into the prime of his career at 28 years old.

``The way I see the game now, it comes to me easier than ever now,’’ said Vucevic, who has played seven of his eight NBA seasons in Orlando. ``I think as a big man, sometimes it takes more years to get to that peak performance and I think I am finally getting there. There were a lot of factors in my success last year. Having (head) Coach (Steve Clifford) and the way we were able to play as a team played a role in me having success. But the experience that I have now, it helps me to be a better player. And the success that I had last year just motivates me to go and play even better now.’’

That’s just what Clifford wants to hear, saying that the pressure is on his team to work throughout the summer so as to return ready next season. Prior to the Magic’s stirring 22-9 closing kick, they were a disappointing 20-31 at one point in late January. Now, Clifford said, the Magic will have to display more improvement to prove that they can play a full season like the team that finished 22-9 instead of the one that started 20-31.

``We’re hopeful that that (continuity) will help a lot,’’ said Clifford, an assistant coach on the Magic teams that reached the playoffs from 2008-12 and again in 2019 as the franchise’s head coach. ``I think, also, the fact that (the returning players) are good players in the prime of their careers, they played well last year, and I think they can play even better this year.

``(Improvement) all depends on how we use the offseason,’’ Clifford stressed. ``I think the misconception in this league is that only young players have to get better, and nothing is further from the truth. The best players in our league, if you really watch them closely, they get better every year. Guys like (Vucevic) and Terrence, they’re not going to make the giant step that a 20-year-old makes, but they know this – because they’re good workers – but it’s important that every guy gets better.’’

Bringing back as many players from one season to next as the Magic have done isn’t new in the NBA, but recently it’s had mixed results. According to Elias Sports Bureau, three teams that reached the playoffs in 2018 – the Celtics, Heat and Jazz – each brought back 13 players for the 2018-19 season. Miami missed the playoffs all together this past season, while Boston and Utah failed to advance as deep into the postseason as they did the year prior.

Weltman, the architect of last season’s playoff team and the ultimate decision-maker on bringing back the core for next season, warned that the Magic can’t take being a playoff team in 2020 for granted. He stressed the importance of Magic management and the players continuing to work throughout the summer to get better before the start of training camp in September. Then, once the season begins, the Magic will have work to try and recapture the same sort of chemistry and togetherness that became helped them close the season on a positive note, and something that played a major role in the core of the team being kept together. Just because the heart of the team is back, nothing will be a given, Weltman stressed.

``I think you have to be careful about assuming that just because you have the same team that you will have the same momentum next season,’’ Weltman warned. ``It has to be reestablished and it takes hard work, pulling together and building the same tightness of the group that went into the closing of last season, that has to be re-earned.

``I will say that it’s abnormal the extent that this team will be the same again next season,’’ he added. ``It doesn’t happen too often that you’re able to bring back pretty much the same team. I think that continuity will serve us well. That being said, just because you have the same roster, it doesn’t mean that you get to carry that momentum from four or five months ago into next season. So, you have to really challenge yourself to reignite the things that got you going in that direction in the first place.’’

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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