In Orlando, everyone's back and expectations are high
ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Aaron Gordon doesn't put much credence in outside expectations.
The Orlando Magic weren't widely picked to be a playoff team last season, and then not only did the Magic make the postseason but wound up winning the Southeast Division. It's an accomplishment worth noting since the Magic had finished last in the division for five of the previous six years.
"We're trending in the right direction," Gordon said.
And that's the task for the Magic this year: Continue that trend. For Steve Clifford's second year at the helm in Orlando, the Magic — 42-40 last season after winning 22 of their final 31 games — brought back virtually the entire roster.
That's an unusual perk for any NBA team, especially after an offseason where well over 100 players switched uniforms. It also means the Magic could essentially pick up where they left off last spring with the same group and two new potentially key additions, former No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz (acquired in a trade last season but who didn't play for Orlando after the deal) and veteran Al-Farouq Aminu.
"It's going to help out a lot, just the chemistry alone," Gordon said. "But we've still got to work hard, every day. There's nothing given in this league but that camaraderie, that continuity, that's going to help out a lot."
The Magic used the same starting lineup in 40 of their last 41 games, including playoffs — the only exception being the last game of the regular season, when All-Star center Nikola Vucevic and Jonathan Issac got the night off to rest.
Orlando had nine different starting lineups all year, one fewer than Sacramento for the league low. On average, teams had 21 different lineups; Miami had 29, New York had 30, New Orleans had 31 and Cleveland a league-high 32.
"We have a base and we can build on it," Vucevic said. "Last year, it took us some time to figure all that out."
Clifford said if the Magic handle the continuity correctly, it should be a considerable advantage. But he also warns that it doesn't guarantee anything.
"Last year, it wasn't a coaching thing — it was their approach," Clifford said. "It was a group that had not had a lot of success obviously in the last few years and they badly wanted to win. It was important to them. We have to have that again."
Some other things to know about the Magic going into the season:
Orlando's practice court is sponsored by AdventHealth, and maybe being tied to a health care corporation was the secret last season. Orlando's five leading scorers last season combined to play in 401 of a possible 410 games, remarkable durability in a league where only 4% of players appeared in all 82 regular-season contests.
100 OR LESS
Even as scoring soared last season, the Magic were better than most at keeping opponents in some sort of offensive check. Orlando had 26 games where it held opponents to 100 points or less (tied with Memphis and Miami for fourth-most in the NBA behind Denver's 29, Indiana's 29 and Utah's 28). The Magic were 22-4 in those games, 20-36 otherwise.
Orlando opens with nine of its first 13 games at home, which in theory would provide the Magic a chance to get off to a solid start. Problem is, five of those first nine home games against teams likely to contend for big things next spring — with Milwaukee, Denver, Indiana, Philadelphia and San Antonio among the early visitors to Amway Center.
Here's an oddity — the Magic and geographic rival Miami Heat are playing only once in 2019. The teams had three of their four 2018-19 meetings before the calendar flipped to 2019, and won't meet for the first time this season until Jan. 3, 2020.
For the first time in seven years, the Magic are entering a season with oddsmakers expecting them to have a winning record — which, more often than not in the East, comes with a playoff berth. The biggest key of all this season for Orlando may be how a team that took some big-time leaps forward last year handles the expectation of continuing that momentum.