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2015-16 NBA Preview: There’s Finally Hope For The Orlando Magic

We’re inaugurating our NBA player projection system, CARMELO, with 2015-16 season previews for every team in the league. Check out the teams we’ve already previewed here. Learn more about CARMELO here.

It hasn’t always been easy for the Orlando Magic, transitioning between the Dwight Howard era and, well, whatever you want to call the franchise’s past three seasons. Since the 2012-13 campaign, no team — not even the tank-tastic Philadelphia 76ers — has recorded more losses than the Magic, which averaged nearly 60 defeats per season over that span. Departing amidst the mounting failure was Jacque Vaughn, in hopelessly over his head as a first-time head coach, along with one-time cornerstone guard Jameer Nelson, forwards Hedo Turkoglu and Glen Davis, sharpshooter J.J. Redick and various other stalwarts of the Howard regime. But with all the churn comes the hope of rebirth, and that’s exactly what the Magic might have this season, thanks in no small part to the talented young backcourt duo of Victor Oladipo and Elfrid Payton. CARMELO doesn’t go so far as forecasting a .500 finish — it says Orlando will go something like 37-45 — but our projections do consider the 2015-16 Magic a marked improvement over the team’s recent iterations, perhaps enough so to even make a playoff bid in the mediocre East. While it took several years of relentless losing, the dark clouds of the post-Howard period may finally be clearing in Orlando.


Here’s what to expect from the Magic’s key players in 2015-16 (you can find every Orlando player — and the rest of the NBA — here):


The Magic’s turnaround starts with Elfrid Payton, one of the most promising young guards in the league today. Like top comps Rajon Rondo and Ricky Rubio, Payton isn’t much of a shooter, but he is tremendously athletic and a skilled passer and defender. He has the potential to be a two-way star at the point for years to come. Stay tuned.


Let’s be honest: Some of Oladipo’s top CARMELO comps were flat-out duds. (I mean, Quintin Dailey? Ben Gordon? Really?) But some, like Ray Allen, were very good — and therein lies the fascination and frustration with Oladipo. He clearly has talent, but his first two seasons have been so hard to get a bead on that you can peg him for just about any future you want. Aside from protecting the ball, Oladipo hasn’t really done anything poorly. But to truly live up to his pre-draft billing, he’ll need to give the Magic more than that — especially on defense.


One of Orlando’s few holdovers from the early days of the post-Howard tribulations, Nikola Vucevic has firmly established himself among the game’s most reliable big men in the years since. CARMELO thinks his dependability will continue into the franchise’s next era; it doesn’t project his performance to dip below average for another six seasons. That means you’ll have plenty more time to appreciate Vucevic’s game — and there aren’t many centers who can rebound, score, defend and pass like this.


Originally, $64 million for four years for Tobias Harris struck me as a colossal overpay for a guy who’s been well below average so far in his career. But at 23, he’s also younger than you’d expect from a player already in his fifth NBA season. So when we crunched the numbers using a beta version of CARMELO, Harris’s new contract — surprisingly — appeared to be right on the money (so to speak). Our final CARMELO model, however, takes more of the original tack: It thinks Harris will produce just eight wins above replacement (WAR) — or $32 million in value — over the next four seasons. Harris isn’t notably bad at anything, but other than scoring, he’s not good at very much either. For that price tag, you want your presumptive franchise wing to do a lot more passing, three-point shooting and defending.


Some one-dimensional players are so good at their speciality that it makes up for their shortcomings. Evan Fournier isn’t one of those players. Mainly that’s because an OK offensive game can’t offset dreadful defense and nonexistent rebounding. Scanning well down the comp list, CARMELO offers some hope in the forms of Mike Miller, Peja Stojakovic and Reggie Miller, but it’s more probable that Fournier will turn out like his top comps, a collection of limited players whose strengths never could overcome their weaknesses.


Speaking of one-dimensional players, Channing Frye’s continued NBA employment relies heavily on his reputation as a big man who can shoot. It’s generally well-deserved, and he’s also useful enough on defense to justify keeping his shooting on the floor. But Frye does very little else on offense or the glass (particularly considering his size). With comps who almost uniformly faded into oblivion as they approached their mid-30s, Frye’s big spike in WAR two years ago may represent the last truly good season of his career.


After five years of decidedly mediocre basketball, C.J. Watson arrived in Brooklyn for the 2012-13 season and suddenly transformed himself into an efficient shooter and passable defender, cementing his status as one of the best backup guards in the league. The Magic signed Watson over the summer with that role in mind, but CARMELO is wary of his archetype — many of Watson’s most similar historical comparables started to fade shortly after turning 30.


Like top comp Marvin Williams, Aaron Gordon was a high draft pick on the basis of a single NCAA season, only to struggle as a 19-year-old NBA rookie. Ultimately, Williams never lived up to his draft position, though he has managed to carve out a decent niche for himself in the pros. Orlando is hoping Gordon aspires to more than that, and his rookie season offered plenty of hope that, at the very least, he’ll grow into an impactful defender. Whether his offense can ever catch up is in far greater doubt, although CARMELO thinks Gordon will top out as an average offensive player in about five years.

Read more:

All our NBA player projections

All our 2015-16 NBA Previews

Neil Paine was the acting sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.