Orlando Magic Culture Change (A Modern History)
I wish that I could sit here and reminisce about the Golden Age of Magic Basketball, about the promise that filled a small market team in the center of Florida, with a massive rim-rattling, back board-shredding big man unlike anything ever seen before in Shaquille O'Neal, or the swift craftiness of Penny Hardaway. I can't even begin to talk about the promise that once again filled the air in 2009 when the Magic marched into the playoffs with the knighted man in Orlando Stan Van Gundy, the hero Hedo Türkoğlu and the once beloved Dwight Howard. Although the Orlando Magic fell short during their unprecedented run at the Larry O'Brien trophy falling 4-1 to the LA Lakers it felt like something magical happened in the city beautiful. Before long, Dwight Howard fell from grace in the land of Disney, Stan Van Gundy was relieved of his duties as Orlando Magic head coach and Otis Smith exited stage left. I come in as a Magic fan in 2015 after moving to Orlando, FL from Seattle, WA (Although I am originally a New Yorker who was born in Puerto Rico). I made it to Florida during the Summer of 2015, 3 weeks after Rob Hennigan (GM) drafted Mario Hezonja with the 5th overall pick in the NBA draft. I was excited then, with a backcourt of Elfrid Payton, and Victor Oladipo (I studied highlight tapes) I was beyond elated as I purchased my tickets for opening night.
October 28th, 2015
The Amway was beautifully lit, the fans filled the stadium in their Magic apparel and I could not stop smiling; The excitement was palpable. I rushed to my seat and watched the young Orlando team fight, pretty quickly I noticed the athleticism of Victor Oladipo and Tobias Harris, Evan Fournier was a good 3pt shooter from what I gathered after the first 3 quarters, it seemed as though through work, and development this young team could develop into something more. Ultimately Orlando lost their home opener which was a microcosm of what the next 3 seasons would hold for the lowly magic organization. Tobias Harris, Victor Oladipo, and Elfrid Payton would all be traded away by the mastermind that was Rob Hennigan.
After a litany of bad decisions that ultimately saw Scott Skiles quit the coaching post after one year running the show, Frank Vogel took over the helm in 2016 and after two dreadful seasons that brought about low attendance, low enthusiasm from fans and players alike it felt as though the young talent that was abundant in the organization was being put to waste on a team with no vision of a future. Bad decision after bad decision engulfed the Orlando Magic spirit. There was however a bright spot. After Victor Oladipo was traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder along with our first round pick in 2016 for Serge Ibaka (that was a failed experiment) we traded Ibaka to the Toronto Raptors and brought in a high flying, dunk contest champion in Terrence Ross. We would not see too much of Terrence as he ultimately suffered a season-ending injury in 2017.
During the 2017 NBA Draft, the Orlando Magic led by new coach Frank Vogel drafted Jonathan Issac with the 6th Overall pick and Wes Iwundu with the 33rd pick of the second round. Neither would see much playing time during their first season in Orlando. Issac due to Injury (Undersized for the Big Forward position) and Iwundu fell out of the rotation. The Magic finished the year with the 14th seed (25-57) now six years removed from their magical season.
We bring in Jeff Weltman as the President of Basketball Operations, he brings in the defensive-minded Steve Clifford to run the team and the season started much of the same way it had for so many years since Stan Van Gundy left Orlando. It seemed as though the Magic did not have enough talent on the roster, but somewhere about 2 weeks before the all-star break, Terrence Ross caught fire, Issac, Gordon, Vucevic, and even Iwundu were playing with purpose. We found a starting caliber point guard in DJ Augustin who many in the league wrote off as a second string point guard who could never lead the first unit, but boy was they wrong. We signed an ex-point guard for Steve Clifford during his time in Charlotte in Michael Carter Williams, who injected the rest of the Magic players with infectious energy. The Magic went on a 5 game win streak before the all-star break that put them in an unexpected position. For the first time in 7 years, they were still in postseason contention through the all-star break. Although one of their team captains and starting shooting guard Evan Fournier was having career lows in almost all statistical categories the fire that the human torch (Terrence Ross) caught kept them afloat. After coming back from All-Star break and producing the first Magic All-Star since Dwight Howard in Nikola Vucevic the Magic lost two critical games to the Cleveland Cavaliers and the New York Knicks and once again the Orlando faithful were left worried about falling out of contention.
When things clicked
Midway through March magic filled the Amway Center. Figuratively and literally. The Magic went on a 5 game home win streak and had closed the gap to take the 8th seed in the eastern conference. It felt surreal, unintended, accidental but simultaneously on purpose. They had finally realized their potential. With the second night of a back-to-back, they traveled to South Beach to take on their division rival in the Miami Heat that was half a game ahead of the Magic. That was coincidentally also the night that the Heat was celebrating the career of Chris Bosh. During half time Miami honored Bosh, retired his jersey in an emotional 30-minute ceremony that ultimately hurt the Heat as they lost the game to the Magic. There were 7 games left in the season and the Magic were clinging on to the 8th seed in the east. After going 5 of 7 in there last seven games Orlando not only finished 7th seed in the eastern conference, they also won their division for the first time since 2010.
The Magic would go on to Win the first game of their playoff series against the Toronto Raptors in Toronto on a thriller that saw DJ Augustin hit a 3 pointer at the buzzer stunning the favorites in game one. Toronto would go on to win four games straight and put an end to the fairytale season that had been for the Orlando Magic.
Steve Clifford along with John Hammond and Jeff Weltman has done a wonderful job at changing the culture in Orlando. Steve Clifford has given the young core of the Magic purpose and they now have winning experience. I cannot relate to what was witnessed in Orlando in the ’90s and the 2009 and 2011 seasons but today's Magic team is something to be excited about. With just the right amount of talent, defensive prowess and development the Orlando Magic will once again chase that coveted trophy, only this time they will bring it home to the city beautiful for the first time in its roller-coaster thrill-filled history.
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