1. Both Memphis and Orlando have been among the biggest surprises this season, leading their respective divisions early on. Do you believe that the Magic will be able to sustain this level of play, or will they regress closer to how they played last season?
Mike Cali: The answer lies somewhere in the middle. It’s unrealistic to think the Magic are going to remain the top team in the Eastern Conference, score over 110 points every game as they have so far this season, and shoot the three with the success we have seen in the early going. But based on their early play, it appears that a young team has benefited from the continuity that came from under a second year of Frank Vogel and from returning the same starting lineup they ended the season with.
Combine that with the addition of Jonathon Simmons and some veterans that have improved the bench, and there is no reason to believe the Magic will be the lottery team that they were last year (and every other year since Dwight Howard left).
2. Several players have been huge catalysts to the Magic’s impressive start such as Evan Fournier, Aaron Gordon, Nikola Vucevic and Jonathon Simmons. Is there one player that you can most attribute to Orlando’s early season success, or do you consider it more of a collective effort?
Mike Cali: Definitely a collective effort, combined with improved pacing and spacing. But if I had to pinpoint one player in particular, I would highlight Nikola Vucevic for the way he has improved his three-point shooting and helped stretch the floor for the Magic. Last season Vucevic hit just 23 threes. Through seven games this season, he has made 13 and is shooting just over 40 percent from long range. Just by adding the threat of the long ball, Vooch has helped open lanes and pull opposing centers away from the basket. Aaron Gordon has improved his shot selection and perimeter shooting. Evan Fournier has been extremely efficient on the offensive end. Jonathon Simmons has given the Magic a player who can create off the dribble and get to the free-throw line. So the credit for the Magic’s success so far must be shared.
3. There’s no doubt that the Eastern Conference looks very different than it did last year. With Kyrie Irving in Boston and Lebron and the Cavs slumping early, the East looks more wide open than it has in quite some time. Do you like the Magic’s chances of staying in the hunt for the playoffs or are they not quite there yet?
Mike Cali: I believe this will be the year the Magic bring an end to their post-Dwightmare playoff drought. Part of that is aided by the weakened Eastern Conference, but the team’s development is the bigger reason. Seven games, of course, is a small sample size, but with the Magic’s up-tempo offense and shooting ability, the offense has some staying power. Assuming Cleveland, Boston, Washington, Toronto and Milwaukee are the consensus top-five in the East in some order, that leaves three spots for teams like the Magic, Pistons, 76ers, Hornets, Heat and Pacers. With the Magic’s talent, chemistry and improved depth, there is reason to believe they will have a better season than many, if not all, of the teams that will be battling for those final few playoff spots. Judging by the Magic’s 5-2 record, and factoring in the expectation that they will come back down to earth to some degree, I expect the Magic to finish a few games over .500 and make the playoffs as a six or seven seed.
4. What are reasonable expectations for Orlando’s 1st round draft pick, Jonathan Isaac?
Mike Cali: As a rookie, to provide energy off the bench, help the Magic on the boards and be a defensive presence, which is precisely what he has been in the early going. NBA Math released a graphic today showing that Isaac is one of the Magic’s top defenders in terms of defensive points saved per game. He has great length and, even as a rookie, has great instincts on the defensive end, whether it is providing help defense or closing a passing lane. Ultimately, with his outside shooting touch, he should develop into a reliable stretch-four and a prototypical 3-and-D player capable of protecting the rim and defending multiple positions.
5. What’s your official game prediction?
Mike Cali: It’s a marquee showdown between the Magic and Grizzlies, just as we all expected! With arguably the two most surprising teams in the league so far this season, this is a tough one to call. The Magic are one of the league’s fastest teams in regard to pace. The Grizzlies are among the slowest. The Magic trail only the Warriors in points per game. The Grizzlies allow among the fewest points in the league. The Magic have wins over the Cavs and Spurs. The Grizzlies have beaten the Warriors and Rockets. But unless I’m forgetting something, it’s gotta be close to 10 years since the Magic won a game in Memphis. Magic are due for a rough shooting night, particularly while at the end of a road trip, and it could come against a good defensive team like the Grizzlies. Prediction: Grizzlies 107, Magic 101