When the Orlando Magic introduced Scott Skiles as its next head coach, it was the first sign that tangible progress was quickly going to become an expected part of the continued process.
The Magic have had a top-five selection in the last three consecutive drafts, and that’s not even including point guard Elfrid Payton, drafted 10th overall in 2014. Last season, the team inked Nikola Vucevic—the NBA’s best center nobody talks about—to a new four-year contract. In the offseason, Orlando wasted no time handing $64 million to Tobias Harris for the next four years.
Now, after three straight seasons where the team has failed to eclipse 25 wins, general manager Rob Hennigan is on the clock as his club desperately needs to take the next step in the form of making the postseason.
Even those who watch the Magic from a distance will tell you it’s very hard not to like the individual players on the roster. Guard Victor Oladipo is a star in the making, the highly athletic Aaron Gordon looks like he could be an improved version of Shawn Marion in his prime and Mario Hezonja, taken fifth overall this summer, will be a dark-horse contender for Rookie of the Year if he can earn a larger enough role. If the Magic just had that going for them, they’d be a team worth watching. Factoring in Payton, Vucevic and Harris as well as a group of veterans including C.J. Watson, Evan Fournier and Channing Frye, Orlando offers a level of intrigue that it hasn’t since Dwight Howard’s awkward departure forced the franchise to start over.
Despite the puzzle pieces all belonging to the same box, the Magic are still sorting out the what the finished picture should look like.
There are no shortage of questions about the roster. Does this team have enough shooting? What’s going to be the pecking order when it comes to the offensive end of the floor? Can this young group—one still learning about the NBA and how to play the game—find the type of defensive cohesion that Skiles demands from his teams after ranking near the bottom of the league last season? Finally, with the heat of expectations blazing upon them for the first time since the roster was put together, how will Orlando’s key contributors fare under the spotlight?
Unlike previously, Orlando stayed away from signing veterans to head-scratching contracts this summer. While Watson and big man Jason Smith were both added to the roster, neither came at an inflated rate like we’ve previously seen. Although Frye’s bloated contract remains on the roster, at least he serves a purpose on a team that can use the skill set he brings to the table.
The Milwaukee Bucks should serve as a decent if imperfect blueprint for an Orlando club with similar goals. After winning just 15 games during the 2013-14 season, Jason Kidd took the horns and guided his young Bucks to a 26-win improvement, securing 41 victories and a .500 record. On a team filled with talented but imperfect players who had proven nothing, the Bucks often played as more than just a combination of the individuals all wearing the same uniform on the floor.
In an Eastern Conference that should improve considerably from the atrocity it was last season, the Magic still don’t even have to be anything more than mediocre in order to get to the dance. While the worst thing an NBA team can be is perennially stuck in the middle, making the playoffs—even if only to be eliminated in a four-game first round sweep—would be a sizable step forward.
Hennigan and Skiles, two men whose fates will be tied together, made it clear just how high the expectation bar is raised as Orlando prepares to make magic (via Evan Dunlap, SB Nation).
“Our goal is to make the playoffs,” said Hennigan during the team’s annual media day. “We’re not gonna hide from that. That’s a healthy goal, in our view. Our expectation is to compete for a playoff spot throughout the season.”
“I’d like for us to have a winning record,” Skiles said. “I realize that’s a 17-plus-game improvement, and that rarely happens. The problem is […] if we were 36-46 and made the playoffs […] that’s 10 games below .500. And if you have goals like that you should probably retire and go home.”
With pieces in place and a clear message sent, nobody should be talking about the Orlando Magic rebuilding anymore.