Magic's Five Key Storylines Entering 2018-19 Season

by John Denton

ORLANDO – With the passing of Labor Day and the arrival of Orlando Magic players back into Central Florida to continue voluntary workouts, training camp can’t be far off now.

With that thought in mind, here is a look at five storylines facing the Magic as they prepare for their Sept. 25th start of training camp at the Amway Center.

1. CLIFF IN CONTROL: Long-time members of the Magic are no strangers to having to adapt to a new head coach and coaching staff and Steve Clifford makes it five coaches in seven seasons for the franchise. This time around, however, feels a bit different with a veteran head coach leading a seasoned core that is firmly in place. Clifford and his gritty, no-nonsense style of coaching are actually quite familiar to the Magic considering that they faced him four times a year while he was leading the Charlotte Hornets.

Clifford’s return is undoubtedly a bit sentimental for him considering that he was a part of the Magic coaching staff from 2007-12 – one that helped get the franchise to the 2009 NBA Finals, the 2010 Eastern Conference Finals and five straight berths in the playoffs. This time around, however, Clifford has his work cut out for him in finding ways to help a Magic squad that hasn’t been to the postseason since 2012 discover success.

Clifford’s first mission, undoubtedly, will be addressing a Magic defense that lagged often the past two years. He will likely be unforgiving when it comes to that end of the floor, benching players who don’t defend with the same vigor that they play with offensively. That approach has brought Clifford – someone who is thought of by many in NBA circles as a defensive guru – success in the past and the Magic are hoping he can transform their defense as well.

It will be particularly interesting to see how Clifford doles out playing time as it relates to his best defenders (Mo Bamba, Jonathan Isaac, Jonathon Simmons and Jerian Grant) and players who are better on the offensive end (Nikola Vucevic, Evan Fournier, Terrence Ross and D.J. Augustin). Fix the defense and find a perfect balance of scorers/defenders and Clifford could have the Magic in the playoff chase late into the season.

2. CENTERS OF ATTENTION: Orlando’s front office was absolutely delighted when it was able to select the 7-foot Bamba – owner of the longest wingspan in NBA history at 7 feet, 10 inches – at No. 6 in the June draft. The hope is that Bamba’s off-the-charts length, high basketball IQ and surprising lateral quickness will help transform the team’s defense for years to come.

One potential problem is that Vucevic – the longest-tenured player on the Magic – is still on the roster and will need to play big minutes because of his steady contributions on the offensive end. Vucevic once again proved last season that he is one of the game’s most skilled offensive centers, averaging 16.5 points, 9.2 rebounds and a career-best 3.4 assists a game. Because Orlando doesn’t have a dominant, go-to scorer, it will likely need similar production from Vucevic to keep pace from an offensive standpoint.

How Clifford juggles Vucevic and Bamba could be a big factor in the Magic’s success this season. Vucevic often struggles defensively in high pick-and-roll plays – situations the Magic feel Bamba will be able to defend because of his length and agility. Offensively, Bamba’s game is still incredibly raw despite months of work with famed skills coach Drew Hanlen and weight room-work to pack on muscle. Even with those improvements, Bamba is still much better facing the basket and shooting instead of commanding the ball in the post.

One thing that could potentially alleviate the stress of the decision is the versatility of Vucevic and Bamba. Vucevic made a career-best 64 3-point shots last season and has every intention of shooting better than the 30.8 percent he connected on last season. Also, Bamba showed a comfort level on the perimeter when he knocked down a couple of high-arching 3-pointers in summer league action.

Vucevic is the veteran and he’s more motivated than ever to have a big season as he’s headed into the final year of his contract. He’ll likely start and see the bulk of the minutes early in the season, while Bamba plays off the bench. But don’t be surprised if-and-when the coaching staff switches those roles – especially if the Magic struggle defensively.

3. THE FUTURE IS NOW: The Magic showed their belief in Aaron Gordon’s bright future by signing the high-flying forward to a long-term contract extension in early July. Similarly, the Magic displayed a large amount of faith in Isaac in mid-July when they turned their offense over to the second-year forward in Summer League play.

Gordon, who is headed into his fifth NBA season, had a career year last season by averaging 17.6 points and 7.9 rebounds while shooting 43.4 percent from the floor and 33.6 percent from 3-point range. In some games, he seemed to simply overwhelm foes with his energy, strength and length, while his improved shot from the perimeter helped immensely in others.

Now, the Magic are hopeful that Gordon can grow his game even more – while doing so in a team-first manner. Making others around him better is a next step for Gordon, who seems to still be finding his footing as a playmaker. If he can become a dominant scorer and even an adequate playmaker, Gordon could have the Magic in contention and have himself in position for a potential all-star berth.

Isaac, the No. 6 pick from the 2017 NBA Draft, had much of his rookie season cut short by a variety of injuries. However, he showed in the summer that he is much better equipped now with more muscle and is finally beyond the maladies that plagued him a year ago.

Orlando sees Isaac as a Swiss Army knife type of player in that he can swat shots, rebound, run the floor, patrol the passing lanes and smother foes with his expansive length. A lineup including Bamba, Isaac and Gordon – affectionately nicknamed B.I.G. by some fans – should give Orlando plenty of length, strength and shot-blocking abilities. The only questions will be whether or not that grouping can score enough and shoot well enough to make it work?

4. POINT OF CONTENTION: Orlando ended last season with Augustin as its primary point guard and it will go into this season the same way. The Magic resisted the notion of addressing their depth at the position in free agency and cut ties with steady reserve Shelvin Mack. Instead, they traded with the Chicago Bulls to land the long-armed Grant and inked Isaiah Briscoe – a European standout last season – following a strong showing in the preseason.

Augustin, 30, played well after the All-Star break – and after the Magic dealt Elfrid Payton – averaging 12.8 points and 5.0 assists in 28.4 minutes over 25 games. However, there are concerns going forward about whether the 6-foot, 183-pound Augustin can hold up physically and defensively as a starter.

The 6-foot-4 Grant, nephew of Magic legend Horace Grant, averaged career highs in points (8.4), assists (4.6), rebounds (2.3) and steals (0.9) last season with the Bulls. However, major questions about his shot-making abilities have always lessened his effectiveness. He’ll certainly get plenty of chances in Orlando to show that he can knock down shots and potentially unseat Augustin as the starter.

5. COME-BACK KIDS: Fournier and Simmons ended last season on the inactive list because of injuries, while Ross saw much of it wasted for him because of a November knee injury. Now, the Magic need all three to return to form to give the team plenty of depth and firepower.

Fournier, arguably the Magic’s best player each of the past three seasons, was in and out of the lineup because of issues with his ankle and knee. He showed no ill effects of those injuries last month when he played in the NBA Africa Game 2018 and should be full strength come the start of training camp. Orlando desperately needs Fournier to get back to the highly efficient player he has been in the past and they will also lean heavily on his shot-making abilities in the clutch.

The Magic took a chance on Simmons last summer, and the guard delivered in a big way with a strong first season in Orlando. He averaged career highs in points (13.9), rebounds (3.5) and assists (2.5) before missing the final 12 games with a right wrist injury that ultimately required corrective surgery.

Simmons, like Ross, is likely best-suited as a reserve. While playing off the bench, Simmons will have the ball in his hands more and create situations where he can get to the rim for point-blank looks.

Ross, who has split time throughout his career as a starter and a reserve, missed 57 games because of a sprained MCL in his right knee. He did return late in the season for two games, proving the knee to be sound. Ross has played plenty of basketball this offseason as he looks to regain the explosiveness and swagger that once made him one of the game’s top reserves. This season, he’ll be in a fight for playing time – often with Simmons – and Ross will have to have a big bounce-back season to crack the regular rotation.

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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