ORLANDO – As the Orlando Magic head into their opener on Wednesday night and into a season they believe will defy outside expectations, new head coach Steve Clifford is demanding that the team play with toughness, discipline and intensity on a nightly basis.
With those principles firmly in mind, the Magic have new team captains in place for the season who embody those characteristics in leading the team.
In Nikola Vucevic, Evan Fournier and Aaron Gordon – captains chosen by Clifford and announced to the team recently – the Magic have three long-standing fixtures who will be looked at to provide leadership and set the pace for the squad throughout the NBA’s marathon-like regular season. Vucevic is the Magic’s longest-tenured player and is heading into his seventh season in Orlando, while Fournier and Gordon are beginning their fifth seasons playing for the Magic.
``It means a lot. It’s a responsibility that I am proud to have,’’ Vucevic said on Tuesday – the eve of Wednesday’s home opener. ``You have to make sure that you lead by example. That’s the main thing – you can say all of the right things, but at the end of the day, if you do the right things, that shows the most and makes other guys respect you the most. That’s something I’ve been doing all these years – leading by example – and I’m going to try and keep doing that.’’
The Magic will need big production and plenty of leadership from that trio this season, which opens for Orlando on Wednesday night at the Amway Center against the rival Miami Heat. It is the third consecutive season that the Magic and Heat will open the season in Central Florida with Miami winning two seasons ago and the Magic hanging on to get the victory last season thanks to a strong closing kick from Fournier.
``(Opening Night) is the most beautiful thing in the world,’’ Gordon said. ``Just going out there with my teammates competing, being back in that uniform, seeing all of the bright lights and the people and the competition – there is nothing more beautiful than the game of basketball.’’
Orlando is hopeful that the combination of a strong, veteran core combined with an injection of youth and athleticism and Clifford’s no-nonsense coaching style will help the franchise finally break its six-year playoff drought. The Magic haven’t been in the playoffs since 2012 – the year when Clifford last worked in Orlando as an assistant coach under former head coach Stan Van Gundy. While he is far more focused on daily improvement, Clifford said there is no reason at all why his Magic team and the franchise’s loyal supporters can’t dream about a playoff run this season.
``The biggest thing is you’re just anxious, more than anything, to see where we’re at – offensively, defensively and rebounding – so that we can get a gauge of what we have to do to get better,’’ Clifford said. ``These first four (games) – in this league you always have to know what’s ahead of you – and we’ll play four games with little practice time against very good competition. The thing you want early in the year is playing against the better teams because that’s the best way to make improvements.’’
Quite possibly, no one would like to see the Magic make the playoffs more than Vucevic. He was acquired in the 2012 trade that involved former Magic franchise center Dwight Howard and he is the only player of the 12 involved in that massive four-team transaction that is still with his same team. He endured rebuilding seasons under head coach Jacque Vaughn, interim coach James Borrego, Scott Skiles and Frank Vogel while racking up big numbers and never wanting to leave Orlando. Vucevic, the 7-footer from Montenegro, has led the Magic in rebounding each of the past six seasons and he is hopeful that a strong 2018-19 will help him earn the long-term contract extension that will keep him in Central Florida for years to come.
``If we’re winning all of these years that I was here and all of the numbers that I had been putting up, I’m sure I’d be talked about in a higher way because I’d have the winning to back it all up,’’ said Vucevic, who still holds the Magic record for rebounds in a game with 29. ``Winning just changes everything for the better. Hopefully, this can be a year that we win more and we do turn things around. All of the individual stuff would mean much, much more when you win than when you lose.’’
The Magic bet big on Fournier in 2014, trading away their leading scorer at the time – Arron Afflalo – for the largely unproven French guard. Steady improvement each season has allowed Fournier to lead the Magic in scoring each of the past three seasons in Magic pinstripes. Now, he is hoping to become more of a leader for Orlando.
``I feel like I’m ready to have an even bigger role,’’ said Fournier, who noted that his improved grasp of the English language helps him be more of a leader. ``I’ve been one of the main scorers the last couple of years and I feel like I’m ready to do even more. I feel I can be an efficient player on the floor with even more (leadership) responsibilities off the floor. I’m ready to embrace that bigger role.’’
Gordon, 23, was guaranteed a bigger role as a player and a leader this summer when the Magic showed their faith in him by signing him to a long-term contract. Gordon has grown up as a basketball player with the Magic, going from the raw 19-year-old who was selected No. 4 overall in the 2014 NBA Draft to the player who posted career highs in every major statistical category last season in his fourth NBA season. He said he will be the type of leader who will command respect from his teammates with his daily work habits.
``To me, leadership is always by action,’’ Gordon said recently. ``To stand here and say, `I’m a leader’ with him words is meaningless. I want to make it evident that I am somebody who will lead by example.’’
Gordon is hopeful that Orlando’s combination of veteran experience and leadership, the injection of youth from players like Jonathan Isaac and Mohamed Bamba and Clifford’s expertise will lead to a big season in Orlando.
``We’re ready and it’s going to be a tough home stretch here,’’ said Gordon, whose Magic host Southeast Division rival Charlotte on Friday. ``These first 10 games are going to be very telling of how much momentum we can build, how far we’ve come and how much further we need to go. But we’re ready for this.’’
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