To prepare for the Clippers vs. Magic matchup tomorrow, I reached out to Evan in order to answer some questions about all things Magic, including Vucevic, Harris's contract extension, and living post-Dwight. For a more in depth look at the Magic, head over to Orlando Pinstriped Post.
Larson Ishii: First off, it's a real shame to hear about Aaron Gordon's stress fracture injury this early in the season. He's looked to be promising if a little raw so far this season, what have you seen so far that has impressed you with Gordon's game?
Evan Dunlap: Gordon's defense, as I highlighted here, has been as superb as advertised. At that end, he's surpassing expectations thanks to his athleticism and good instincts. His ability to contest shots without fouling is a real asset. Further, his ability to stick with the game's best wing scorers--the Magic put him on Joe Johnson in crunch time against the Nets earlier this season for example, and he did an excellent job--gives Orlando some room to get creative defensively. He's nominally a combo forward, but defensively he can handle positions two through four. It's interesting to see.
But Gordon is also doing good things offensively, which is a bit of a surprise. His poor shooting at Arizona stood out as a red flag, but so far at the pro level he's playing within himself and not forcing the issue. As a result, he's shooting 58.1 percent from the floor. Admittedly, he's not lighting anyone up--he rarely shoots--but that he's not been a liability on offense comes as a pleasant surprise. I'm certainly curious to see what he can do with a few more touches as the season wears on.
Ishii: Staying on the topic of the Magic's first round draft picks, do you feel that Elfrid Payton and Victor Oladipo can work together as a backcourt in the future for the Magic? Or do they just fit better with one coming off the bench?
Dunlap: It's a bit too early to say: in the three games Oladipo has played since returning, Payton's played a total of 43 minutes, and of those 43 only six have come with Oladipo on the floor. For now, coach Jacque Vaughn appears to preferLuke Ridnour to Payton as Oladipo's backup.
While I don't doubt that Oladipo and Payton will play more together as their careers advance, I do wonder if they can anchor the same backcourt. Neither is a proven outside shooter, and Payton's struggled to finish inside as well. Right now, his only proven NBA skill is keeping the ball moving; until he's a threat to either sink a jumper or finish on the drive, defenses don't really have to account for him at all. That's a problem. Fortunately, both he and Oladipo are young enough that they can continue to grow together as the Magic rebuild, but I'm not sold on the idea that a backcourt devoid of perimeter shooting can cut it at this level.
Ishii: One of the reasons why Payton has moved to the bench has been the recent emergence of Evan Fournier. Many people questioned the Magic this summer for trading Afflalo for Fournier and a pick, but Fournier has been producing. What has led to Fournier's hot start?
Dunlap: The Magic are giving Fournier the ball, for one thing: Denver miscast him as a standstill shooter, and while he's certainly a reliable marksman, that role doesn't suit him because it confines him to playing off the ball. The Magic call on Fournier to initiate a lot of their offense, and while he's not a consistent playmaker just yet, and does suffer from tunnel-vision occasionally, letting him handle the rock has empowered him to probe defenses off the dribble, drawing fouls and otherwise creating shot attempts at the rim.
By necessity, Afflalo developed into a competent ballhandler in his own right while he was with Orlando. But Fournier seems a bit more reliable at creating his own shot, and at getting into the lane, than Afflalo did in pinstripes, and he's younger. I'm not sure if he's Orlando's long-term answer at shooting guard--that's where I envision Oladipo playing most of his minutes--but I like him as a go-to scorer off the bench on a good team. He won't continue to hit half of his threes, as he has in the early going of the 2014/15 season, but he should hover around 40 percent. The threat of his outside shot will keep driving lanes open for him. And even if his shots don't fall, his willingness to create and absorb contact on his drives should keep his efficiency above-average.
Ishii: The Magic gave Nikola Vucevic a big contract extension this summer in hopes that he can be the man in the middle. While Vucevic has always been a capable scorer and terrific rebounder, what other improvements have you seen from him this season? Can he be good enough defensively to dominate?
Dunlap: Vucevic has indeed improved on offense, as the Magic hoped he would. What strikes me the most about his strong start is his patience with his back to the basket. He seems more willing to take what defenses will give him, rather than simply attacking and hoping for the best. He always had the tools--the size, the soft touch--to be a solid offensive player. Now he appears to be putting it together. Combining his low-post game with his reliable mid-range shot makes him a tough cover, and he's always going to get a handful of extra opportunities per game from his offensive rebounding.
I'm less sold on Vucevic's defense. He's blocking 1.2 shots per game now, a career-best, but it seems to me a seven-footer playing nearly 37 minutes per game ought to block at least that many. NBA.com's player-tracking data indicate his opponents are shooting far worse against him in 2014/15 than they did a season ago, but I'd prefer to wait a bit longer to see if those numbers are noisy.
Vaughn has always praised Vucevic for having quick hands, an asset in defending pick-and-rolls because they can deflect or intercept passes to the roll man, and I don't dispute that assessment. But I do want to see Vucevic hold his ground a bit better in the post, and I also think he can do more to contest when he has to defend a driving ball handler in space, without weak side help.
If the player-tracking data hold, then Vucevic certainly has the look of a guy who can competently defend the middle. But for now, I still think Orlando needs to pair him, long term, with a power forward, or even a wing, who can defend the rim from the weak side. Kyle O'Quinn has excellent size and shot-blocking instincts. When he returns from injury, I'd like to see Vaughn pair those two players, though doing so might be difficult with free-agent signee Channing Frye logging 30-plus minute per game at the four.
Ishii: Along with the extension talk this summer, the Magic were unable to reach a deal with Tobias Harris. There has been some rumor about Harris possibly wanting to leave for different reasons. What do you see as Harris's future in Orlando?
Dunlap: Harris' future is tough to peg; a lot of Magic fans on Orlando Pinstriped Post seem to think he'll get a rich offer in free agency which Orlando won't match. The Magic spent big on Frye and used the fourth overall pick in the Draft on Gordon, so they have other power forwards on the roster, ones in whom they might be more invested.
But Harris, since Frye's arrival, has played almost exclusively at small forward. I prefer him at the four, where he can use his quickness advantage to blast past opposing bigs and get to the paint, but he's acquitting himself at the three. He's making nearly half of his two-point tries and his three-point percentage is at 40, albeit on low volume. Always a solid scorer, Harris continues to rebound well for his position, and his ability to take it up the court himself after hauling in defensive boards enables the Magic to get into their stuff quicker because it cuts out an outlet pass.
These skills are all valuable, and I do think keeping Harris around is in Orlando's best interest. Even if it's not sold on him as a long-term part of his future, signing him to a reasonable contract could make him a valuable trade chip to offer the next time a superstar expresses dissatisfaction with his current club. As we know, the surest way to ensure year-to-year competitiveness in this league is to have at least one superstar. I'm not sure Harris has superstar potential--though he very well might!--but I do think some teams might be willing to take that chance. So I say keep him. If a superstar hits the trade market, you've got a young, versatile scorer and rebounder around whom to build a competitive offer. If one doesn't, then you've got a young, versatile scorer and rebounder you can play 35 minutes a night and not regret.
Ishii: Finally, the Magic seem to have collected a bunch of talented pieces in the post-Dwight rebuild. How much longer do you think before the Magic are really competing in the Eastern Conference, and do you believe Jacque Vaughn is the coach to lead you there?
Dunlap: Before this season began, I might have said another three years-plus. The team didn't have a superstar and didn't look to have a surefire way of getting one. It'd take several seasons' worth of player development, and high lotto picks, to restock the proverbial cupboard.
Now? I'm willing to be a bit more optimistic. It's early, yes, but the team looks good at 5-7, winning games it should and mostly hanging tough in its losses. The Magic still need that star, sure, but they look like they can at least stay competitive and respectable even without one.
And yes, it's early, and fortunes can change, especially given the Magic's tough, road-heavy schedule. In the first year of the post-Howard rebuild, for example, the Magic started 12-13 and looked like a fringe playoff club. They went 8-49 the rest of the way, finishing with the league's worst record. This start feels a bit different because the club looks a bit more mature and composed.
As far as Vaughn: the jury's still out. I know a lot of my readers aren't impressed with him, particularly for the way he handles rotations and seems to give veterans more leeway than rookies, but someone has to get the credit for the way Vucevic, Harris, and even Oladipo have refined their games. Even if, say Maurice Harkless is losing minutes to Willie Green, it's tough to argue too much with how it's translated into wins so far.
I want to thank Evan so much for giving such awesome answers to all my questions. If you have any other questions that i didn't think of to ask about the Magic, leave them in the comments before the game. Hopefully if Evan gets a chance, he will be able to answer them.