Orlando Magic Year in Review: A year of transition, questions and urgency
The Orlando Magic entered 2016 with high hopes. They were soon dashed and were left with a year of questions, transition and urgency to produce results.
The 2016 calendar year started with optimism. The Orlando Magic were riding high at 19-13 and sitting firmly in the Playoff race. Not outside of it, they were in the Playoffs. Their rebuild finally seemed to have direction, a developing identity and success to match. Things were going well.
January started with a four-game losing streak. The lone win that broke it was a frustrating and ugly 83-77 win over the Brooklyn Nets. The losses would continue to pile up — an overtime loss in London to the Toronto Raptors disrupted the season’s rhythm — and the Magic never got completely right.
They were 2-12 that month. They fell from fighting for home court in the Playoffs to out of the Playoff race and fighting to hold onto that bit of hope they started the season.
Grasping onto hope and trying to make something of 2016 and produce tangible results became the theme of the calendar year. The Magic’s patience for their rebuild ran out and they demanded results.
The 2016 calendar year was one that proved to be a turning point for the Magic. In what direction is the question.
Will the Magic remember 2016 as the year things started turning for the better, and another run of Playoff appearances? Or will the Magic remember 2016 as the year things turned south again, forcing another rebuild or change in the culture?
One thing is certain, the Orlando Magic will not be same after 2016 than the team was before it.
The poor performance through January led to a panicked trade in February. The Magic’s decision to trade Tobias Harris to the Detroit Pistons for Brandon Jennings and Ersan Ilyasova was sold as a move to add some more veteran role players, get Aaron Gordon more playing time and get the team back into the Playoff hunt. In reality, it was a cap-clearing move.
The Magic decided after the failures of January to speed up their rebuild and push in for competitiveness now.
It was a short-sighted move. The NBA’s salary cap spike was going to give everyone cap space in a summer where there were not a ton of great game-changing free agents. Tobias Harris likely had more value on the trade market around the Draft and this year’s trade deadline as opposed to then.
Whatever the reason, the Magic made that deal, they set the course of their franchise’s future. They made their intentions clear to the league and to their fans. In the 2017 season, nothing short of the Playoffs would be acceptable.
The franchise was seemingly in flux. More flux than it should have been considering the constant improvement the team made. Despite those January troubles and a poor back half of the season, the Magic improved their win total by a not insignificant 10 games.
Everything was turned on its head in May when Scott Skiles announced his sudden resignation. The reasons are not entirely clear why Scott Skiles left the team. Reports pegged it as disagreement with management over personnel — specifically Elfrid Payton. Other reports pegged it as his frustration dealing with young players in the modern NBA.
In any case, with the gauntlet clearly thrown to make the Playoffs, the Magic suddenly had to look for a coach for the second straight summer. It would be their fourth coach in three seasons.
By happy accident, one of the best coaches in the league faced his own uncertainty and became a free agent.
The Magic quickly hired Frank Vogel as their next head coach. Things suddenly looked up again. The Magic had brought in one of the most respected and best coaches in the league. Orlando now had someone with a proven track record of building an identity and getting the most out of his roster — with little baggage or with a poor record of growing young players.
Orlando could now set about taking the next step.
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Quickly in the summer it was clear this would not be merely internal building with a few key free agents added. The Magic were going to remake their roster, creating more uncertainty about the team’s immediate and long-term future.
The greatest symbol of this shift was the Draft-night trade of former second overall pick Victor Oladipo. The beloved shooting guard was seemingly on the cusp of stardom but stagnated significantly in the 2016 season. The Magic could have given him his contract year to see if he could take that next big leap in his growth.
The Magic spent the rest of their summer trying to form fit this defensive identity. They made the surprising move to add Bismack Biyombo with that cap room the Harris trade created.
Orlando entered its 2017 season with an oddly formed lineup. It was loaded with bigs in Bismack Biyombo and Serge Ibaka joining Nikola Vucevic. Aaron Gordon and Jeff Green were versatile forwards who could play some power forward too. The team felt more talented and felt like it had more direction, but still an odd fit. Even with the Magic re-signing Evan Fournier, the team did have a dearth of offensive options.
And the beginning of the 2017 season itself has been a frustrating lesson in inconsistency. The Magic have not seemingly been able to put everything together. Even that strong defensive identity is under question. Orlando is at 15-19 heading to January, sitting outside the Playoff picture.
As December turns to January, the Magic are still feeling the effects and uncertainty 2016 created. Things have not gone to plan.
And 2016 was, for the first time in this rebuild, the first time the Magic actively sped up their plan or tried to force something that was not there. Orlando took advantage of some opportunities to some controversy, but it all had that one short-term goal in mind.
If 2016 was anything, it was the year the Magic dropped the artifice of playing for a championship and building something sustainable. It was the year they gave into the pressures of immediacy and made simply making the Playoffs their goal.
It was a year of transition, shifting goals and uncertainty in the end. One that asks questions of 2017 that will change the franchise’s direction dramatically once again for better or for worse.
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