Let me take you back to 2009.
Barack Obama had just been inaugurated, people were still scared of swine flu, and Dwight Howard wasn’t yet one of the NBA’s least favorite players.
However, for me, 2009 was arguably one of the greatest years of my life for one reason alone: The Orlando Magic defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers and made it to the NBA Finals.
My mom had actually surprised me with tickets to see Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals, and I remember vividly every basket Howard scored on his way to 40 for the evening. I remember the confetti streaming down from the ceiling as everyone stood and stared in amazement, and I remember LeBron James storming off the court as soon as the game ended, refusing to shake hands with any of the Magic players. It’s amazing to me how much of that night I can vividly recall although it happened over six years ago.
Unfortunately, the Magic were not able to continue their push through the NBA Finals, as the Los Angeles Lakers took out my team in five quick games. The most painful aspect was how easily some of those losses could have been wins. I will never in my life forgive Courtney Lee for missing an easy layup at the end of Game 2. Similarly, as much as I love Jameer Nelson, the memory of him giving Derek Fisher space at the three-point line at the end of Game 4 haunts me when I sleep at night.
Even more upsetting than all of those plays is that the Magic have largely failed to be relevant since 2009. While they returned to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2010, they ended up losing to a retirement home (2010 Boston Celtics), and the ensuing Dwight debacle tore the morale in Orlando apart.
After watching Dwight dart Florida to wear the purple and gold in Los Angeles, the Magic decided to blow up their team and start anew.
This rebuilding process started with the hiring of Rob Hennigan at General Manager. His vision for the Magic mirrored the plan that had built the Oklahoma City Thunder – draft early and draft often. Over the last few years, the Magic have accumulated a wealth of talent, including Victor Oladipo, Aaron Gordon, Elfrid Payton, and Mario Hezonja. In addition to the draftees, the Magic have also gotten solid productivity out of Tobias Harris and leading rebounder and scorer Nikola Vucevic.
This past offseason, the Magic named Scott Skiles as coach. Skiles played for the Magic during his basketball career and set a league record of 30 assists in a game during his tenure in Orlando. While I was initially disappointed with the move, I now believe that his focus on defense and his toughness will help the Magic tremendously. Both Gordon and Payton did not live up to their defensive reputation this past season, something that will hopefully change this season under the defensive-minded Skiles.
While I do not expect the Magic to win a championship this season, I do believe that they will compete in the East. This is a team that knows they have underperformed for the last few years and are ready to change and bring pride back to the city of Orlando. For a team that simply has so much youth and talent, there is no reason for the Magic to not to be competing at a high level this year.
I expect that Oladipo will take the leap this year and establish himself as an All-Star. The rookie Hezonja looked like an absolute stud during summer league. Gordon’s game, and most specifically, jump shot, looked to be much improved during the summer. Payton’s passing rivals that of classic 2010 Rajon Rondo, and I expect him to dice up the East with his court vision. Harris will be looking to prove his worth after signing his new 4-year, $64 million contract and Vucevic won’t stop collecting rebounds and improving in the post. Between these five players, the Magic have a solid young core for the years to come.
While there might not be a parade in Orlando this June, the rest of the league should be scared for the future. The Magic are back, and I could not be more excited.