The Los Angeles Clippers leave the state of California for the first time this season tomorrow, headed for the frigid fall air of ... Florida! The Clippers open a three game trip with a visit to Orlando to face the surprising Magic. Heading into the season, the Magic were assumed to be one of the weakest teams in the league, sitting in year two of a rebuilding project. A rebuilding project that is going well, but a rebuilding project all the same.
But the Magic have opened the season strong, with respectable losses in Indiana and Minneapolis and a couple of big home wins, including one over the supposedly powerful Brooklyn Nets. Great. With the Clippers in an incredibly difficult section of their schedule, this was supposed to be the easy game!
I had a chance to ask some questions of Evan Dunlap, the longtime editor of SBNation's Magic blog Orlando Pinstriped Post. Evan watched J.J. Redick for seven seasons with the Magic, so he's got some nice insights there, and in general he'll catch you right up on everything you need to know about the Clippers' next opponent.
Steve Perrin: Lost amid the shock surrounding the 3-0 start of the Sixers is the very solid start of another supposed bottom-feeder, your Orlando Magic. A respectable showing on the road against undefeated Indy, an OT loss on the road to Minny -- followed by a pair of impressive home wins. What's going on down there? Are the Magic -- dare I say it -- good?
Evan Dunlap: The Magic's season is only four games old, but yes, they certainly look good so far. A big key to their surprising start is defense. Through Monday, they have the league's ninth-best defense on a per-possession basis, and in their two wins they've limited their opponents to below 40 percent shooting. Coach Jacque Vaughn talked throughout training camp and the preseason about the importance of digging in defensively and playing with physicality and aggression on that end, and so far they've succeeded on that front. The standings bear as much out.
"Defense does matter for our team to be successful," Vaughn said Saturday. "And that goes for every guy. When different indivivudals accept that, a lot of times a team can flourish."
Offense has also played a role in Orlando's early success. Andrew Nicholson's three-point shooting--he's 4-of-11 from deep this year after not attempting any threes as a rookie--has helped space the floor, and Arron Afflalo is out of his mind, averaging 20.3 points per game on 57.4 percent True Shooting.
Sum it up and Orlando's 2-2, although we must caution that we're less than five percent through the season. Its fortunes could change. But there is a sense around the team that this 2-2 start is more real than last year's.
SP: Let's see, Dwight Howard is in Houston; Andre Iguodala is in Oakland; Andrew Bynum is in Cleveland. Everyone knew that four-team trade was incredibly lop-sided -- they just got the side with the lop completely wrong. With three solid players on the roster and three first rounders still to come, in your wildest dreams did you ever think the Howard trade would work out so well for the Magic? Especially as compared to the other teams involved?
ED: The Howard trade absolutely worked out better than expected, especially when you consider the early reaction to the trade was overwhelmingly negative. Arron Afflalo? Nik Vučević? The rookie Maurice Harkless? None of these guys was considered a worthy return for a future Hall-of-Famer, but here we are. It's interesting how perspectives can change.
The surprisingly strong seasons Vučević and Harkless put together were remarkable enough, but you're right: the fact that the other teams in the deal didn't fare so well only makes the Magic's haul look even better by comparison.
SP: Vučević and Nicholson have looked great this season, to say nothing of the currently injured Tobias Harris. The future of the front court in Orlando is the young guys, which leaves the currently injured Big Baby Davis as likely trade bait. What do you think the Magic can get for him? The Clippers desperately need a third big, but they wouldn't want his $6.4M salary.
ED: I think it's fair to say that Davis' Orlando future is up in the air. A good showing once he returns from a July surgery--itself to address a problem his first surgery in February caused--will certainly juice his trade value, and I think it's fair to say that the Magic would move him for the right price.
The fact that Davis' contract isn't expiring might help his value a little bit; teams can trade for him in, say, February and know that he's not a rental. Then again, I don't know how much more value his contract really adds, considering that he's a high-usage big guy with a True Shooting mark below the league average. There is something to be said for his effective low-post defense, both individually and within the larger team context, but I think Afflalo is a more likely trade piece.
SP: We all know that the NBA is a superstar league, and as solid as Vučević and Nicholson and Harris appear to be, it doesn't seem like any of them are destined for superstardom. And then there's Victor. I know it's early and he's only 21, but from what you've seen of him so far, is Oladipo a superstar in the making?
ED: I think it's too soon to evaluate Oladipo's potential for superstardom. He's made some dazzling plays -- this dunk against the Spurs in the preseason, this driving slam over Ronny Turiaf, this 360-degree throwdown against Brooklyn -- and his aggressiveness driving the ball to the basket adds another dimension to what has been, in the past, a stagnant Orlando offense. There are some problems, such as the frequency with which he gets his shot blocked and his propensity for committing turnovers or otherwise losing his handle.
But Oladipo has already, at 21, shown the potential to be a game-changing force at both ends of the floor. Whether he'll be able to do that on a nightly basis and at a superstar level is an open question, but he might be able to get there. I don't think it happens this year, or maybe even the next one. The fact that he's getting so many reps already--his usage rate is 28 percent and he's playing 28 minutes per game--bodes well for him; the more chances he has to make mistakes, the more chances he has to grow so he can better handle that same workload, or an even greater one, in the years ahead.
SP: J.J. Redick played most of his first seven seasons with the Magic where he was a strong contributor off the bench. The Clippers executed a sign-and-trade to bring him in this summer and have inserted him into the starting two guard role. After watching J.J. for many years, how do you expect him to play with the Clippers? Is he suited to be an NBA starter, or is he better suited to a bench role?
ED: First, I have to say that I loved the move the Clippers made to get Redick. He's such a great fit with them, with his shooting, alongside Chris Paul. Now I know that Paul, as the greatest point guard in the universe, can make anyone look good, but Redick isn't just anyone: he's one of the greatest shooters alive, and his tireless work off the ball and the improvement he's made as a playmaker give him have added some dimensions to his game.
Moving on to the point about starting versus coming off the bench: I think he can do either. He doesn't strike me as the sort of guy who would grouse about that sort of thing, though he did clash with Jim Boylan in Milwaukee about minutes, which is a separate and yet related issue.
Redick would probably tell you himself that what's most important to him is winning. The Clippers figure to do a lot of that this year regardless of Redick is. But I think the more minutes he plays alongside Paul, the better. Then again, there might be merit to putting him on the second unit with Darren Collison to help alleviate some of the playmaking responsibilities, but that sort of change is something Doc Rivers doesn't have to make until the situation absolutely calls for it.
That Dwight Howard trade is still absolutely amazing to me. At the time, I said that all three of the other teams got better -- which had to mean that the Magic had gotten much, much worse. But even taking into consideration current versus future value, Orlando is already the undisputed winner of the trade -- with Vučević and Harkless figuring to get much better and three first rounders in the bank. Wow.
Thanks to Evan for providing these terrific insights into the Magic. I love his perspective on Redick; the Paul-Redick partnership certainly seems to be going well so far. Be sure to visit Orlando Pinstriped Post for the Magic perspective on the game, and be on the lookout over there for my answers to his questions.