With the Orlando Magic set to open the NBA season on Wednesday, fans have two basic questions; are they better than last year and, if so, can they make the playoffs?
The Miami Heat is the perfect opponent to gauge both short-term and long-term improvement. After Miami routed the Magic in the pre-season, the 2016-17 season begins tonight at the Amway Center at 7 p.m.
The same questions were asked last year. Over the course of the season they were answered “yes” and “no,” in that order.
They were coming off a 25-57 season that saw a coaching change. Scott Skiles stressed defense, helping Orlando achieve a 10-game improvement to finish 35-47. Without a totally disastrous January, where they lost 12 of 14 games, “playoffs” was not a ridiculous word to associate with the team.
So here we are a year later. Orlando is again welcoming a first-year coach after Skiles left the team without being fired. Frank Vogel, who was fired by the Indiana Pacers, takes over a decidedly different Magic team.
Two significant player moves change the look of this team. The Magic acquired big man Serge Ibaka from Oklahoma City for the popular Victor Oladipo.
The trade gives up a defensive presence in the backcourt for rim protection, and some scoring, in the front court. He did not earn the nickname Serge “I-blocka” because opponents dunk over him.
Orlando also added a player Magic fans will enjoy. They signed Bismack Biyombo from the Toronto Raptors to come off the bench, give his team a lift, and clean up the offensive and defensive boards. He can be likened to a larger version of the Tasmanian Devil.
Fans will need to wait until the second game for the proper introduction. Biyombo will sit out Wednesday’s game while he serves a one-game suspension for accumulating too many flagrant fouls during last season’s playoffs.
With the Magic strengthening their front court, the recent pressure on Nikola Vucevic to carry so much of the load might be lightened. He will still be a go-to guy, but he now has reinforcements.
Evan Fournier and Aaron Gordon are back on the front line. Swing man Mario Hezonja starts his second pro season with a huge upside. He may spend some quality time at guard.
In the back court, will Elfrid Payton take the next step to be a star? With Oladipo gone, Payton is expected to protect the ball and guide the offense. He is joined by D.J. Augustin and C.J. Watson, both of whom spent time with Vogel at Indiana.
Wednesday’s opponent, the Miami Heat, is going through a huge transition. LeBron James is gone and now so is Dwyane Wade. Chris Bosh’s career is in jeopardy due to blood clots.
With that in mind, Coach Erik Spoelstra is changing the way his team plays. A perfect example came on Oct. 18 when the Heat blew past the Magic 107-77 at American Airlines Arena.
While just a pre-season game, it exposed the Magic as a step slow, at least on that night. How Orlando adjusts to that speed difference will give them a chance to see what they have learned in a week.
Orlando was only 2-5 in pre-season, but played a good schedule. Six of seven were against playoff teams, including the defending NBA Champion Cleveland Cavaliers. Memphis, Atlanta, San Antonio, Atlanta, and Indiana.
Opening Night playing a rival is a great way to start the season.