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2018 NBA Playoff competitors: Orlando Magic might be finally on the right track

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If this is the team we saw in the second half of last season, they certainly are.

NBA: Detroit Pistons at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

It’s amazing what dumping a terrible general manager can accomplish.

Rob Hennigan was a trainwreck as a GM yet he somehow managed to last five years despite never putting together a coherent roster and only cracking 30 wins once when they managed 35 in Scott Skiles’ lone season as head coach. Skiles, of course, noticed Hennigan was a disaster and resigned.

Frank Vogel had a mess of a roster to deal with last season, but he’ll have a much more logical and balanced group of players to sort out this year. For the first time since Stan Van Gundy was running the show in Orlando, the Magic could realistically be a .500 plus team.

Our old friend John Hammond is handling the personnel in Orlando these days and he had a nice, if understated, first summer in Florida. He landed Jonathan Isaac with the fifth pick in the draft, a player who has some traits similar to his star he drafted in Milwaukee, Giannis Antetokounmpo. After Hennigan spent $99 million to bring in Bismack Biyombo and D.J. Augustin, Hammond signed Arron Afflalo and Marreese Speights for $5 million.

That’s some nice shopping.

But importantly, Hammond is working the rebuild strategy that Hennigan couldn’t commit to and working it right.

One of the biggest problems of last season for Orlando was Serge Ibaka. It was an odd draft day trade where the Magic sent out Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova, and a first round pick, thinking Ibaka could be the piece that gets them to the playoffs. Of course that was a pretty deluded idea and the Magic finished south of 30 wins yet again.

Aside from the issue of the departure in strategy, Ibaka was a problem because his presence forced Vogel to start Aaron Gordon at small forward. Gordon isn’t a small forward. So in addition to not being able to identify when their young talent is ready to compete for the playoffs, they also screwed up developing them.

Oh yeah, and Jeff Green was also around, getting $15 million to not be good and convolute the rotation even further.

Once the Ibaka experiment ended with him being flipped at the trade deadline, Gordon exploded.

Pre-All Star break: 11.2 points per game, 50 percent true shooting, 4.6 rebounds
Post-All Star break: 16.4 points per game, 58 percent true shooting, 6.2 rebounds

A full season in the right role could see Gordon as a contender for Most Improved Player.

Then there’s Elfrid Payton.

Whenever you’re watching the NBA Draft and you watch that guy you really want to see in a Pistons uniform go two spots before the Pistons pick and you scream at the television about what an idiot the front office is for not trading up for your guy, remember Rob Hennigan.

In the 2014 NBA Draft, Elfrid Payton was a fast riser and the Magic were infatuated with him. So Philadelphia 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie drafted him first at the 10 pick, two spots before the Magic were to draft. He held Payton ransom for the 12th pick in that draft, where they were able to get the guy they actually wanted in that draft in Dario Saric, a 2015 second round pick that turned out to be an interesting prospect in Willy Hernangomez, and a 2017 first round pick that turned out to be De’Aaron Fox.

Then two and a half seasons after so desperately moving up for Payton, Hennigan pondered trading him at the trade deadline. He really was a lousy general manager.

Payton has generally been a pretty underwhelming prospect, but down the stretch for the Magic last season it looked like it had finally come together for him. In the final 24 games of last season he averaged 13.5 points on 55.6 percent true shooting percentage, 8.4 assists, and 7 rebounds per game. He posted five triple-doubles over that stretch. He only had three triple-doubles in his entire career prior.

If that’s the kind of Payton we’ll see in 2017-18, the Magic can be a dangerous team.

The complementary players around Gordon and Payton make sense too. Evan (Don’t Google) Fournier, Terrence Ross, and the newly acquired Afflalo and Jonathon Simmons can all help spread the court around them. Nikola Vucevic and Bismack Biyombo could theoretically make a competent, if grossly overpaid, offense/defense platoon at center. Maybe it’ll even turn out that Mario Hezona has a pulse.

This could work. Sustained improvement from Payton and Gordon is the key, but it’s reasonably realistic.

Then there’s the lottery ticket of Jonathan Isaac.

To be honest, I didn’t get the appeal of Isaac early on in the draft discussion. His numbers were ok, but 12 points and 7.8 rebounds per game didn’t scream “superstar potential.” Seeing him play, he has that kind of potential.

Playing alongside Aaron Gordon, if Isaac is able to develop into the type of player he has the potential to be, those two could form a terror. They’re both elite athletes though with contrasting frames, but a style of game and mentality that does the stuff it takes to win.

At just 19 years old, Isaac doesn’t stand to contribute much to this season. But Hammond is back to working a logical strategy for the Magic. He’s identified the core, built around it in a way that makes sense while continuing to add young talent to potentially improve that core.

The Magic aren’t expected to be contenders for the playoffs this season, their opening over/under line set at just 33.5 wins. But they’ve got one of the smartest coaches in the game, a lineup that makes sense, and some decent talent. Don’t be surprised if this is the year they wind up making that leap to playoff contender.