30 Teams in 30 Days: Can Mo Bamba become franchise player Orlando Magic need?
Magic hoping their new center can help spur a long-sought turnaround
That’s a question many fans ask as the flurry of trades, free agent news and player movement seems to never stop during the summer. Since the Golden State Warriors claimed their third title in four years back on June 8, NBA teams have undergone a massive number of changes as they prepare for the season ahead.
With the opening of training camps just around the corner, NBA.com’s Shaun Powell will evaluate the state of each franchise as it sits today — from the team with the worst regular-season record in 2017-18 to the team with the best regular-season record — as we look at 30 teams in 30 days.
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Today’s team: Orlando Magic
2017-18 Record: 25-57, did not qualify for the playoffs
Who’s new: Coach Steve Clifford, Mo Bamba (Draft), Jerian Grant (trade), Jarell Martin (trade), Timofey Mozgov (trade)
Who’s gone: Coach Frank Vogel, Mario Hezonja, Bismack Biyombo, Shelvin Mack
The lowdown: The misery continues for the Magic, even after the Dwight Howard era went up in flames six years ago. Orlando hasn’t made the playoffs since then and more depressingly hasn’t gained significant traction over that span, either. The club seems stuck in a perpetual rebuilding holding pattern, still trying to get it right, still in search of a star to replace Howard.
To date, the Magic lack a true franchise player despite cashing in multiple lottery picks, although Aaron Gordon finally showed signs of being a borderline star by improving his shooting range (33 percent from deep). Troubled by years of questionable trades, Drafts and free-agent signings, the Magic showed deficiencies at almost every position. Their 2017-18 season was doomed by an early-season stretch that saw them lose 15 of 16 games as they again fell into the depths of the Eastern Conference standings.
A second offseason under new brain trust John Hammond and Jeff Weltman saw the Magic change coaches and use their lottery pick on a raw center. And while nobody in Orlando is raising visions of the playoffs for next season, it could be a start of stability and growth — something Orlando has lacked since the Howard and coach Stan Van Gundy days.
Orlando’s No. 1 pick was used on Bamba, a bouncy, athletic seven-footer whose wingspan stretches from Pensacola to the Keys. Bamba arrives already somewhat polished as a shot blocker. In today’s NBA — where offense is mainly concentrated at the 3-point stripe and the rim — the value of defensive big men who can shadow the basket remains at a premium.
His offensive instincts and footwork need polish as the late-blooming Bamba spent just one year in college at Texas. Bamba, 20, has time to grow into his game and is already more advanced than former Magic center Bismack Biyombo. The Magic are buzzing about a frontline of Bamba and the 6-foot-10 Jonathan Isaac (who was Orlando’s top pick in 2017). If these guys click, they’ll be a combo forevermore known as “Mo-Jo.” Limited to 27 games his rookie season because of injuries, Isaac did impressive work in NBA Summer League play and elevated expectations.
Clifford becomes Orlando’s fifth coach overall since Van Gundy as the Magic have seemingly spent their time since then spinning their wheels. Vogel’s Pacers teams of the early 2010s stared down LeBron James and the Heat’s Big Three. But the, ahem, magic didn’t follow him to Orlando.
The new coach arrives off a somewhat turbulent season in Charlotte where Clifford dealt with health issues (taking a leave of absence) and oversaw a Hornets team that was a mild disappointment. One could argue neither was Clifford’s fault, and anyway, Hammond and Weltman favored his communication skills and basketball acumen.
Clifford’s hiring didn’t raise many eyebrows around the NBA. He was well-liked in the Charlotte locker room and apparently convinced Orlando that his health issues shouldn’t be a concern.
Another order of business was with Gordon, a restricted free agent and someone the Magic wanted to keep. Gordon cashed in despite a somewhat tight market for free agents, getting four years and $84 million to stay, which was his preference. It’s a steep price for someone who hasn’t lifted Orlando from the lottery or fits a true frontcourt spot, but Gordon is just touching his prime years and could be flexing for a breakout.
With Gordon, Isaac and Bamba on the front line, Orlando is giddy about this potential foundation. This could finally be the core the Magic will use to return to relevance.
Meanwhile, the Magic weren’t so generous with another former lottery pick. Hezonja was projected as the team’s swingman of the future, especially after Orlando lost patience with Victor Oladipo and traded him two years ago (oops). Hezonja only teased Orlando with his potential and, in free agency, opted to sign with the Knicks.
They also erased one of their bigger mistakes by dumping Biyombo in a three-team deal. During the NBA’s wasteful summer of 2016, they gave Biyombo four years and $72 million based on one good playoff series he had that spring vs. Cleveland, where he grabbed 26 rebounds in one game. In Orlando, Biyombo’s flaws resurfaced and the center barely cracked the rotation, averaging just 20 minutes, six points and six rebounds a game.
The Magic also swung deals for Grant and Mozgov. Those were mainly done as a salary-cap shell game, although Grant could play his way into a supporting role at point guard.
This is roughly the third rebuild attempt by the Magic since Howard left. Orlando is proof that pressing the reset button doesn’t always come with guarantees or a turn-the-corner deadline. Only proper Draft decisions combined with front-office stability can foster a rapid rebuild. That didn’t exactly happen here.
Once again, there’s a plea for patience in Orlando, where loyal fans are rightfully wondering: Will they get it right this time?
Coming Next: Sacramento Kings
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