LAS VEGAS – Whereas there has been much change among the teams thought to be the top squads in the Eastern Conference this offseason, the Orlando Magic have given themselves the chance of benefitting from continuity after aggressively retaining their core talent in free agency.
According to reports, 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. Boston lost Horford and Kyrie Irving, but snagged Kemba Walker and Enes Kanter. Brooklyn snared 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.
As for a Magic team that closed the regular season on a torrid 22-9 run and reached the NBA playoffs for the first time since 2012, the franchise returns all-star center Nikola Vucevic and record-setting reserve guard Terrence Ross after Orlando worked to re-sign them early in the NBA’s free-agent courting period. The two franchise fixtures officially signed their multi-year contracts on Saturday and those signings will be celebrated at a news conference in Orlando on Monday (streaming live at 3 p.m. ET on OrlandoMagic.com and televised by Fox Sports Florida).
Orlando’s roster continuity and stability in the front office with President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman and GM Jeff Weltman gives head coach Steve Clifford – another holdover from last season’s success – great hope that the Magic will thrive in the upcoming season.
``We’re hopeful that that (continuity) will help a lot. I think, also, the fact that (Vucevic and Ross) are good players in the prime of their careers, they played well last year, and I think they can play even better this year,’’ Clifford said on Sunday from Las Vegas where the Magic are competing in the MGM Resorts NBA Summer League.
``For me, offseason improvement is always about external development and internal development,’’ Clifford added. ``Hopefully, if you have the right kind of work going on, the internal development and the continuity pieces will work together. … Those are all things, again, that the better teams do.’’
That Magic have high hopes of being a better team than the one that won 42 games, captured Game 1 in the playoffs against the eventual champion Raptors and played at an impressive .710 win-percentage clip after Jan. 31. In addition to bringing Vucevic and Ross back, the Magic further fortified their frontline with the signing of nine-year veteran Al-Farouq Aminu in free agency. Pairing the 6-foot-9 Aminu with the 6-foot-9 Aaron Gordon and the 6-foot-11 Jonathan Isaac should make the Magic even more versatile and lengthy in today’s world of small-ball basketball, Clifford said.
``(Aminu) plays in a manner that you have a chance to execute on both ends on every possession. He’s smart, he has high IQ, positional size and he’s a very good defender,’’ said Clifford, who noted that he’s spent a chunk of his downtime in Las Vegas watching game film of Aminu in action last season with the Portland Trail Blazers. ``To help your teammates play better that doesn’t mean that every time you drive into the paint you kick it out so they can take the shot. It means that you execute, you understand coverages and understand offensive execution. When you watch (Aminu) play, he plays mistake free and he’s very high IQ.’’
That same description could apply to Vucevic and Ross, both of whom are coming off career years while playing in Clifford’s system for the first time.
Vucevic, Orlando’s longest-tenured player at seven years in Magic pinstripes, averaged career highs in scoring (20.8), rebounding (12.0), assists (3.8), blocks (1.1) and 3-point shooting (36.4 percent) this past season. In addition to making the NBA All-Star Game for the first time in his career and joining Shaquille O’Neal and Dwight Howard as the only Magic players ever to average at least 20 points and 12 rebounds a game in a season, Vucevic ranked eighth in the NBA in Real Plus-Minus (on-court impact measured in point differential per 100 possessions). That ranking was just a spot behind superstar forward Anthony Davis and one slot ahead of four-time MVP LeBron James.
Clifford said all the credit for Vucevic’s success belongs to the 7-footer with the soft shooting touch and the deft passing eye.
``I love it when people say, `He plays well in your system.’ In essence, I do far less for him that I do for three or four of the other guys,’’ Clifford said with a chuckle. ``He doesn’t get a ton of play calls. We play very conceptually when he’s on the floor and he does have the ball a lot because he’s such a good decision-maker. But he’s much simpler to coach offensively than a number of other guys. He constantly says that I put him in position, but most of his baskets are just playing ball. We post him some, but – to be honest – I’ve watched most of our games (from last season) and one of the first things I’d say is, `he should have posted more.’ This thing of him playing well because of me, I’d (like to) take the credit, but it’s not what I see.’’
What Clifford saw from Ross was the more consistent and productive season of the guard’s seven-year NBA career. Ross, 28 just like Vucevic, posted career-bests in scoring (15.1), rebounds (3.5) and assists (1.7). Additionally, Ross became the first player in NBA history to make at least 200 3-pointers (217) without starting a game. He had 20 games with at least 20 points. He had two instances early in season where he scored 20 points consecutively (22 on Nov. 11 in New York and 21 on Nov. 12 in Washington; and 26 on Feb. 5 in Oklahoma City and 32 on Feb. 7 vs. Minnesota). Then, he closed the regular season with the best basketball of his career to help Orlando qualify for a playoff slot. Over the final four games of the regular season, Ross went off for 23 points (vs. New York), 25 points (vs. Atlanta), 26 points (vs. Boston) and 35 points (vs. Charlotte).
Said Clifford of Ross’ success: ``I would think it’s just that he’s older and more experienced. As much as anything, in my opinion, it was that he set himself up to have a tremendous season by the work that he did in the offseason. He put so much time in and, again, that’s the way it works – the guys who spend the most time in the summer are going to give themselves the best chance to play well during the season and that’s what he did.’’
Clifford strongly disagrees with one theory populated on social media that the Magic might have stunted the growth of their young players by retaining veterans such as Vucevic and Ross. Promising 7-foot center Mo Bamba, for example, is likely headed for another season as a backup with Vucevic manning the middle for the Magic. That should be a good thing, Clifford stressed, for the 21-year-old Bamba, who is still trying to add strength and is being brought along slowly after seeing his rookie season cut short because of a stress fracture in his lower left leg.
``Mo is working and he is in a good place with his strength level and he’s worked as hard as he’s can. We’ll look for a role that he can play well in – that’s the way it always starts,’’ Clifford said. ``What you want to have in the NBA is you want to have as many good players as you can and we’re in a place now where it’s about winning (and not simply developing young players).
``I’d say this to any fan: If you can give me a guy who can average 20 (points) and 12 (rebounds) (such as Vucevic) and give me some intelligent reason why a team wouldn’t bring him back, that would be a very creative thinker,’’ Clifford said with conviction. ``I’ve been doing this a ton of years, so I think (Vucevic) is good for Mo, Mo has a chance to be a very good player and I actually think it’s good for him (to play behind Vucevic for now).’’
More than just the Magic feeling the positive effects of the continuity of having Vucevic and Ross back, Clifford said the return of two of the team’s key players shows a cohesion and a belief that is coursing throughout the franchise. With Vucevic and Ross vowing that their first options all along were to return to the Magic, it shows that the Magic are doing things the right way and could be on the path to more success in the very near future, Clifford said.
``I think at the end of the (season), for almost all of the guys, the thing that I felt good about is that they all talked about how everybody is on the same page, starting with Jeff (Weltman) and John (Hammond) and it works all the way down,’’ the coach said. ``That’s the way it works. (Former Knicks and Rockets coach) Jeff Van Gundy always said, `Your team chemistry is greatly determined by your (coaching) staff chemistry and your (coaching) staff chemistry is greatly determined by your organizational chemistry.’ (Weltman and Hammond) set the tone and it’s important that we continue to build upon that.’’