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Among league insiders, the Orlando Magic are drawing a lot of comparisons to the Utah Jazz. Both are unglamorous teams in the middle of multiyear rebuilds, centered around piles of draft picks and young players that haven’t yet yielded a foundational superstar.

The Jazz, however, got a head start by leveraging the desperation of the New York teams and snagging picks that became Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors, both borderline All-Stars now. Then, in 2013, Utah nailed the draft by nabbing “the Stifle Tower,” Rudy Gobert, at no. 27.

Gobert’s massive Year 2 improvement has presented Utah with a new long-term challenge: squeezing enough offense out of lineups built around two big men, Favors and Gobert, who do their best work around the basket. And it seems fitting that the Magic are facing the funhouse-mirror image of that challenge: squeezing offense from lineups built around two guards with shaky or nonexistent perimeter shots, Elfrid Payton and Victor Oladipo.

In trading a first-round pick back to the Sixers for Payton, the Magic made a massive bet that in the NBA of 2015 — where spacing and shooting are more important than ever — a team built around two non-shooting guards can still win. “I really do think this can work,” says James Borrego, the team’s interim head coach. “With their combination of defense and penetration, there really is room to grow here.”

Orlando GM Rob Hennigan has tried to mold a culture of grit, hard work, and defense. It’s an old-school bet that a championship-level franchise can’t grow unless those things take root first; a bet that coaches can gradually turn bad shooters into decent ones, and that management will find the right supporting shooters on the open market — even if a lot of those shooters will have to be big men, since the guard positions are taken. Hennigan’s a smart dude, and it appears (via Josh Robbins at the Orlando Sentinel) that the Magic will extend Hennigan and give him the chance to see his vision through — always an exciting thing.

Payton and Victor Oladipo are dripping with talent. Payton is irresistible, a preternatural basketball genius with rare vision, a tricky arrhythmic dribble, and hair that blows in the wind when he sprints up the court. Oladipo is a power running back learning to harness his speed. On their own, Payton and Oladipo each intrigue scouts and league executives. But there is a burbling skepticism about whether they can win together. If you’re looking for a good reason to watch some random lottery team slog through April, Orlando is what you want: a franchise that has banked everything on a quirky backcourt, trying to see what the hell it has.

March was an encouraging month for the Magic, even if it’s also a time to avoid overreacting to trends that emerge as teams play out the string.1 Oladipo just wrapped the best month of his career, and the Magic scored 104.6 points per 100 possessions with their backcourt of the future on the floor — a mark that would rank about 11th overall for the season. Payton notched triple-doubles, Oladipo nailed 43 percent of his non-corner 3s, and the two showed a deeper understanding of how to play off of each other.

“We’re still just getting used to it,” Oladipo says. “It’s barely been, what, half a season? We can complement each other.”

Oladipo is not officially a point guard, and with Payton at the controls, he’s going to have to add a dash of Dwyane Wade’s cutting to his game.

“I’m just a basketball player, man,” Oladipo says. “Whatever position they put me at, I’ll do my thing.”
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