ORLANDO, Fla. — From general manager Rob Hennigan to coach Jacque Vaughn down to the players who finished out the season, the Orlando Magic insist they have improved from the year before.
But going from 20 to 23 victories doesn’t represent the type of accelerated growth that makes those around the NBA sit up and take notice. And when Hennigan was asked Thursday what Magic fans should expect in 2014-15, his reply of "more of the same" didn’t give any inkling that a return to the playoffs is imminent.
"Clearly the win-loss record was not very good," Hennigan said. "We’re all aware of that. We all know that has to improve. But I think there are some deeper layers to it."
"Overall, our message hasn’t changed from day one," said Vaughn, whose team finished with a better record than only the Milwaukee Bucks (15-67) and the Philadelphia 76ers (19-63). "We talk about not skipping steps. And sometimes those steps are painful. You’re in sports to win, and that’s stated and understood. But at the same time, when you’re trying to build something that has some longevity and some sustainability, then you have to do it the right way."
So here are a few things the Magic are doing right and some areas where they need to improve as quickly as possible:
Victor Oladipo is a keeper.
The second player taken overall in last year’s draft appeared in 80 of a possible 82 games with 44 starts and was second on the Magic only to Arron Afflalo in minutes played. But what is of greater significance is what the guard out of Indiana was able to do during those 2,486 minutes.
Yes, there were games early on in which he was turnover-prone and moving too fast at times for his own good. The encouraging part was that Oladipo seldom, if ever, let a bad performance carry over to the next game.
He averaged 13.8 points a game, more than he did in any of his three years in college, as well as 4.1 rebounds and 4.1 assists. His 129 steals were the most by a Magic player in more than 10 years.
"It was a grind, but it went by fast," Oladipo said. "It seems like yesterday I was sitting in the green room (on draft night)."
It mattered little if he started or came off the bench, or if he was running the offense or being a shooting guard. The Magic knew they were going to get someone with energy and a burning desire to get better.
"There’s a lot of room for growth and a lot of room for improvement," said Oladipo, who turns 22 on May 4. "So I’m just going to attack the summer with an attitude to get better. I’m looking forward to doing that."
"We’re happy with the way Victor played, for sure," Hennigan said.
Jameer Nelson can still play — but where?
Nelson’s 10th season with the Magic ended with him ranking seventh in the league in assists per game. Until the final month of the season, when he was sidelined by a sore knee and then a strained groin, he played and started in 61 of a possible 68 games and was healthier at age 32 than in several previous years.
But he’s entering the final year of a contract in which only $2 million out of the $8 owed him is guaranteed. Since Hennigan was hired in June 2012, he hasn’t hesitated to part ways with high-priced veterans.
Even before Nelson, wearing a coat and tie rather than his familiar No. 14 jersey, gave a brief speech at center court before the start of Wednesday night’s final game, fans were stopping him to get their picture taken perhaps thinking they might not have the chance again.
"I’d be lying if I said to you I didn’t (think that)," said Nelson, who is second only to Nick Anderson in games played in the franchise’s 25-year history with 651.
While he chose not to divulge what he and Hennigan spoke about in his exit interview, Nelson has a genuine affection for the city he has called home for the past decade after joining the Magic the same year as Dwight Howard.
"It’s the team’s option," he said. "I would love to continue to play here and be here and see this thing turn around. I’ll just keep my fingers crossed."
Some young players took noticeable steps forward.
Oladipo was by no means the only under-25 player on the team to have a major impact.
"You can take individuals on our team and see what they were like when we first got them and drafted them," Vaughn said. "Some are able to play 30 minutes in the NBA game right now, which is pretty impressive. So you give those guys a lot of credit, and you give our general manager a lot of credit for getting the right people in the locker room."
The most pleasant surprise on that list by far is Kyle O’Quinn, who wasn’t chosen until well into the second round of the 2012 draft. After serving mostly as an undersized backup center to Nikola Vucevic, O’Quinn was inserted into the starting lineup at power forward March 8 and remained there the rest of the season. He blocked at least two shots in 11 of the Magic’s final 19 games and also recorded 14 points and 13 rebounds in 31 minutes in a victory over Minnesota.
Vucevic, one the league’s most improved players a year ago, missed almost all of January due to a concussion but showed a more well-rounded offensive game when healthy. Maurice Harkless, a first-round pick acquired when the Magic shipped out Howard, regained his confidence after regaining his starting role at small forward shortly after the All-Star break.
While forward Andrew Nicholson and guard Doron Lamb didn’t get the same sort of playing time, Vaughn gave both of them a longer look in April, well after the Magic were mathematically eliminated from playoff contention.
The revolving door at power forward can’t continue.
Hard as it might be to imagine now, Jason Maxiell started at power forward for the first 10 games of the season. Tobias Harris was out with a high left ankle sprain which occurred during the preseason, and Glen Davis was still rehabilitating his surgically-repaired left foot.
While Davis was back on the floor and starting by the end of November, his contributions in rebounding were erratic. By the time he and the Magic agreed to a contract buyout in February, Harris had returned and caught everyone’s attention with 28 points and 20 rebounds in a win over the Los Angeles Lakers.
In an attempt to get better on defense, Vaughn replaced Harris with O’Quinn. The third-year pro who was acquired from the Milwaukee Bucks in February of last year adjusted to coming off the bench without much difficulty and claims he wouldn’t object to the same role next season.
"It doesn’t matter," Harris said. "I’ve shown it throughout this year. Whatever role you want me at, I’m going to excel at it and I’m not going to pout."
That role could be determined by who the Magic take in a draft where they are assured, barring a trade, of picking no later than sixth in the first round.
Winning only four games away from home is inexcusable.
At 4-37, the Magic set a dubious franchise record for the fewest road victories in a season. Only three teams since the turn of the century have done worse away from home in an 82-game season — the 2002-03 Chicago Bulls, the 2002-03 Cleveland Cavaliers and the 2010-11 Washington Wizards, all of whom went 3-38.
After holding on to defeat the Bulls on Dec. 16, the Magic won one of their final 27 road games, with that victory coming Feb. 26 at Philadelphia. Some of those losses were excruciating, particularly an overtime defeat Jan. 2 at Cleveland and a one-point setback March 22 at Utah.
While the Magic were one of the NBA’s youngest teams, the blame for that bad of a record can’t be placed entirely on that.
"It’s important to take your bumps and bruises together and grow together," Nelson said.
Despite the struggles of the past two years, Hennigan remains firmly committed to Vaughn, saying he is "very pleased" with how someone who had no prior head coaching experience can relate to young players and veterans alike.
"It’s not an easy task to come in and try to build a team from the ground up," Hennigan said. "And Jacque has been incredibly consistent in his approach, in his message, in the way he treats the guys."
As the Atlanta Hawks just demonstrated, it’s possible to make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference with a sub-.500 record. While the Magic will be hard-pressed to avoid their first three-year stretch of seasons with more than 50 losses since the pre-Shaquille O’Neal era, the outlook is not entirely pessimistic.
"We expect to be playing in more meaningful games next year than we did this year or the year previous to this year," Hennigan said.