Here’s a look at our conversation previewing tonight’s game.
1. I’ll get straight to the question most Spurs fans are interested in. Jonathon Simmons is one of San Antonio’s favorite former sons and many a Spurs fan mourned his loss this summer. How has he adjusted to things in Orlando and what have your early thoughts on him been?
Jonathon Simmons is already making a big impact with the Orlando Magic. The Magic needed someone like him who is going to fight and scratch and claw and do all the little, intangible things it takes to win. If anything, he is overeager to do this sometimes and gets himself in trouble for being overly physical. This was the case in the summer and it has continued in the regular season — Magic fans want him to start over Terrence Ross.
Overall though, I think Simmons is still exploring his game. He definitely has more freedom to create with the Magic than he did with the Spurs. There is no getting around that and he is making some of the growing pain mistakes you would expect. He often dribbles the air out of the ball and drives in too deep, or settles for a bad mid-range jumper. His decision making there still has to get better. But I think Orlando expected that, and it feels like Simmons will only get better.
2. It’s still very early, but Orlando is sitting atop the Eastern Conference leaderboard. Regardless of record, this team seems to be different this year. What have been the biggest factors to that change and their early success?
The biggest factor is the team seems to have a step up on a lot of its competition. The familiarity with the players — they started the same lineup they finished last year for the first time in franchise history — and the coaching staff helped the team get a nice jump start. The Magic also seem to have a lot of internal improvement. That is not something that has always happened consistently the last few years. Again, knowing exactly what the coaches will ask of them helps a ton in this area. They fit better because they know what to expect.
3. Aaron Gordon is having one heck of a start to the season and he’s making me regret passing on him in my fantasy league. There is an uptick in minutes, but even that can’t make up the big difference we are seeing in him early this season. What do you attribute to his breakout season thus far and do you expect it to continue?
Aaron Gordon finally got through a NBA summer and training camp healthy. Ever since his rookie year, he has not been able to take advantage of his experience in the offseason. After his rookie year, it looked like he was ready to take a leap with a similar looking performance in Summer League. His broken jaw that summer completely derailed all of his growth. And the Magic’s instability and inconsistency in charting his role did not help matters. Now Gordon has stability and health and it seems like he is finally beginning to cash in on that potential.
4. With Kawhi Leonard out, obviously LaMarcus Aldridge becomes the Spurs’ next best player and he’s having a great start to the year as well. He exploded against Miami, who had Whiteside out. Do you expect the Magic to try to limit him, especially with the wealth of frontcourt talent they have and the ability to give him different looks on defense?
This game is going to be a really interesting matchup between big and small. The Magic want to play small with Gordon at power forward and get out and run. The Spurs will slow it down and try to work Aldridge in the mid- and low-post. Gordon has had his difficulties guarding Aldridge in the past. But there is nowhere to hide him with Nikola Vucevic guarding Pau Gasol. So it is going to be interesting to see how the Magic handle him. I am sure they will try to limit him and they will throw a lot of defenders at him — Orlando loves to switch on almost every screen. But Aldridge has a big advantage in this game. Especially if he can stop Gordon on the other end.
5. Aside from Simmons now being in Orlando, there’s another familiar face on the Magic bench in former Spurs assistant Chad Forcier. What has his addition meant and what has he added to the coaching staff?
Chad Forcier is Frank Vogel’s lead assistant and he has certainly helped carve out this team’s identity. The shooting gains from Aaron Gordon, Elfrid Payton and others certainly has some credit to Forcier. So too does the positive attitude about the team. But the coaching staff had a lot of handcuffs on them last year with that poor roster. I think we will see more of his impact this year with this team.
6. Let’s get to predictions. Do the Spurs suffer their first loss of the season on the road in Orlando, or does Orlando drop their second game of the year?
I think the Spurs eke out this win. Aldridge wins his matchup with Gordon and Orlando’s penchant for fouling comes back to haunt them. This game will be about pace and San Antonio, even without Tony Parker, is masterful at controlling the pace of a game. I think they bog the game down and keep the Magic from getting out in transition, their key to victory and getting Gordon in the mismatches he needs to succeed.