Magic Disappointed They Weren't Able to Sustain Strong Start to Season
ORLANDO – Nikola Vucevic has been through the drill six years in a row, while Aaron Gordon is in season four of feeling a similar frustration. While there is a definite sameness to the disappointment of the Orlando Magic missing the playoffs again, Vucevic and Gordon agree that this particular regret is the most maddening yet.
Both standouts expected the Magic to make major strides this season, and the stellar 6-2 and 8-4 starts back in October seemed to only confirm those beliefs. This season, both players confidently thought, would be different than the previous ones where Orlando never won more than 35 games and missed the postseason.
As it turned out, the strong start – one that included the Magic leading Cleveland by 37 points and beating San Antonio by 27 – proved to be a mirage. Not long after, a series of injuries hit just as the schedule grew teeth, sending the Magic into yet another spiral that sabotaged their season for a sixth straight year. The way it all played out proved to be especially cruel, Gordon and Vucevic agreed.
``Oh man, this is by far the most disappointing season for me,’’ a disappointed Gordon said on Monday following Orlando’s 57thloss. ``Personally, my statistics were better, but in terms of the win/loss column, this was very disappointing.’’
Then, there was this from Vucevic, who will wrap up his sixth consecutive losing season in Orlando on Wednesday night: ``I felt like we had a chance to get something going and a good start like we had always helps to kick-start a season and I thought it was going to happen for us. ``… I really thought we were playing some good ball, but I thought we went away from what worked for us. We had a couple of stretches where we had a lot of losses in a row and it’s just tough to recover from those. But I just felt like we went away from what worked for us in those first 15 games or so.’’
The continued losing has taken a noticeable toll on Orlando’s veterans and head coach Frank Vogel. The Magic were 29-53 with a mismatched roster in Vogel’s first season and the coach thought the team would be significantly better this season after re-working the offense to bring it up to speed with today’s small-ball style of play.
On Nov. 10, those changes looked like strokes of genius as Orlando routinely battered foes with its 3-point shooting and infectious ball movement. At that time, Orlando sat at a promising 8-4 overall and an impressive 4-2 on the road. However, what happened next – two nine-game losing streaks within a 21-game stretch and a bevy of injuries to their key players – sent the Magic careening downward once again.
Having such a good start followed by such a poor run still baffles Vogel to this day. In some ways, it just doesn’t seem to add up because players such as Gordon, Mario Hezonja and Jonathon Simmons made huge individual strides, while others such as Vucevic (3-point shooting), Evan Fournier (playmaking) and D.J. Augustin (consistency as a starter) showed marked improvement in various facets of their games. Still, all those individual gains didn’t add up to team success.
Said Gordon: ``We’re lacking defensively, and we can’t get stops. Night in and night out, we just don’t get stops. If you don’t do that, you can’t even be in the race.’’
Vogel doesn’t want to use injuries as an excuse, but he is well aware that Orlando went into Monday’s next-to-last game of the season first in the NBA in games lost (204) to core players averaging at least 19 minutes a night. That injury bug has hardly spared anyone with Gordon (25 games out), Vucevic (25 games out), Fournier (24 games out), Terrence Ross (58 games out), Jonathan Isaac (54 games out) and Simmons (12 games out) missing significant chunks of time.
``As I recall, we started off 8-4 and we got (former Magic guard) Elfrid (Payton) back and then we went through the hardest 10-game stretch of our season and we did poorly,’’ Vogel said. ``Then, when the schedule lightened up, that’s when we got drilled with all of the injuries. When we did get some easier games, we couldn’t keep our heads above water because that’s when we were so injured.
``I was encouraged with what we could potentially be, but, honestly, we still have some work to do in terms of building this team,’’ Vogel said of the reconstruction of the roster that is bound to take place in the days, weeks and months ahead. ``Definitely, when we’re at full strength, we’re a much better team than our record suggests. But, like I said, we still have work to do.’’
That difficult task falls on the capable shoulders of President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman and GM John Hammond, two long-time NBA executives who have proven histories of rebuilding downtrodden teams into winners. Weltman and Hammond worked together previously with the Clippers, Nuggets, Pistons and Bucks and made the personnel moves that helped those franchises ultimately become fixtures in the playoffs.
Weltman, who worked previously in Toronto and played a major role in the rise of the East-leading Raptors, vowed back in September that he would use this season as an evaluation period. He seemed to nail his first big decision in drafting Isaac, someone who seemingly has game-changing defensive skills if he can ever shake the injury bug that derailed most of his rookie season. Also, Weltman acted quickly in free agency in snagging guard Simmons, who averaged a career-best 13.9 points per game in his first season in Orlando.
At the trade deadline in February, Weltman showed his willingness to shake things up by dealing Payton to the Phoenix Suns. Payton’s inability to defend and his lack of improvement in shooting the ball proved to be major impediments for the Magic once again, and Weltman made the move in ridding one of the franchise’s fixtures over the previous 3½ seasons.
Said Weltman at the time of the trade: ``Certainly, as we grow the team, there are certain principles and cornerstones that we want to build with. These all go into the mix of free agency, the draft and the timing of where we are as a team. Do we want to lock in financially to a team that struggled in recent years? These are all factors that figure in.’’
Many of the Magic players realize already that they likely have played their last game with some of their teammates, knowing that change is inevitable when teams lose games.
Those changes could even hit Vucevic or Gordon, two of the team’s long-time fixtures. Gordon, 22, will be a restricted free agent in July, meaning he can sign an offer sheet with any team he wants. The Magic will have the right to match and retain Gordon if they so choose.
Before that time comes along, Gordon will continue to contemplate where everything went wrong this season following that promising 6-2 start.
``Going into the season, I had a different feeling. As it turns out, it wasn’t any different,’’ said Gordon, a fourth-year pro, with a sigh. ``Obviously, every season is different, but in terms of wins and losses, we were much more hopeful at the beginning of the year.
``Complacency, that’s kind of what happens to a young team when you get early wins,’’ he continued. ``We got complacent and we went away from what was working for us and that was sharing the ball and getting open looks for everybody. Everybody was playing to the best of their abilities and we started to overanalyze everything.’’
Vucevic, the longest-tenured player on the Magic’s roster over the past six seasons, has done lots of analyzing through the years to try and figure out what the franchise could have done differently to win more. Vucevic said he was confident that the Magic were headed in the right direction three seasons ago when the squad made a 10-win improvement and the victory total climbed to 35 by the end of the 2015-16 season.
Subsequent trades of Victor Oladipo and Tobias Harris backfired, and when the Magic whiffed on some of their personnel acquisitions, it left them – and their 7-foot center with the sweet shooting stroke – reeling.
``We had something going, but the last two seasons have been steps backward,’’ Vucevic said candidly. ``A lot of moves were made last year that didn’t work out and now we’re kind of stuck and it’s hard to see what we can do to get better.
``Before, we had so many young pieces and I always felt that we were going to get better and grow together and get somewhere,’’ Vucevic continued. ``It happens sometimes where you trade a couple of pieces for a good veteran. But the moves we made didn’t work out for us. You look at Vic (Oladipo) and Tobias (Harris) and how they’re playing now, it’s very tough to deal with all of that when you think about where we could be at and where we are. It takes a big toll mentally on you, especially for me, because I’ve been here so long. The last two seasons have been the hardest for me and I’ve had a hard time dealing with it.’’
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