Going into the season, we knew that the Orlando Magic were planning to improve on the defensive end. However, many fans were worried the team would be a mess on offense. While the team is on arguably its toughest stretch of the season--a six-game, 10-day trip out West--we can still take a lot out of their first 19 games of the season. That being said, I have some observations on the first month of the Magic's season.
I hinted at offense as being an issue, and it has been. The Magic currently rank 26th in offensive efficiency, posting 98.7 points per 100 possessions: only the Charlotte Hornets, Detroit Pistons, injury-plagued Oklahoma City Thunder, and Philadelphia 76ers score fewer points per 100 possessions. Head coach Jacque Vaughn has talked about wanting his team to play a bit faster this season, but they haven't done so consistently. They currently sit in a tie for 17th in pace, averaging 95.4 possessions per game, equaling the amount the Los Angeles Clippers and Atlanta Hawks, two projected playoff teams, average.
While the numbers may say the Magic's offense isn't good, they have shown some signs of progress. When things are clicking and they're moving the ball and playing unselfishly, they can be a good on that end. However, that hasn't been the case on many nights, especially since Victor Oladipo has returned from injury.
The Magic have played Oladipo, a natural shooting guard, at point guard for a majority of his time with the team, and he's shown some flashes of positive play, but also had a lot of rough patches. The team seems to struggle getting into their sets with Oladipo running the offense in contrast to Elfrid Payton or Luke Ridnour. It also seems as though Oladipo has been forcing things a little bit on that end of the floor, taking bad shots or not making the right or extra pass to find an open teammate.
I will put this caveat in there with Oladipo: he missed almost all of training camp and preseason, so some of his struggles may come down to knocking off rust. But there comes a point when he needs to be open to finding his teammates, and we haven't seen that from him totally yet.
Another issue with the offense that has stuck out is the increasing amount of possessions that end in isolations. Too often do you see Oladipo, Tobias Harris, or Nikola Vucevic cleared out with everyone else just standing around. That can't happen. None of those guys are true go-to options, and their isos stagnate the offense. That's when the problems begin and continue to grow.
Orlando has had a tough month to open the season, plus training camp filled with injuries, so building a solid, consistent chemistry can be part of the problem, but it's getting to the point where they should all know what their teammates like to do. The offense has some room to grow, and could improve as the season moves on, but the Magic have to buy into playing team-oriented ball.
Injuries, injuries and more injuries
In the 2013/14 season, the Magic lost 107 games due to injury. Through 19 games in 2014/15 they've missed a combined 49 games. That figure does not include preseason, which would push the total up much closer to the 70 games missed mark.
Most of those games come from Kyle O'Quinn, who missed 15 with a sprained ankle, and from Oladipo, who missed nine with a broken bone in his face. The team has also been without Harris for two games with a calf strain, Aaron Gordon with a broken bone in his foot for eight games, Evan Fournier with a heel injury for one, and Channing Frye with a sprained MCL for one. Needless to say, November was an injury-riddled month for the young Magic.
While not having O'Quinn and Oladipo for extended periods hurt the team, the biggest blow might be the injury to the rookie Gordon. He wasn't putting up huge numbers, he brought a lot to the table that the Magic have desperately needed in his absence. Whenever he was on the floor, Gordon would bring energy, and seemingly raise his teammates' level of play with his mere presence. He's also the team's best perimeter defender, and gives it an added level of versatility and athleticism that they've needed against the likes of Chris Bosh, LeBron James, and even Stephen Curry.
Orlando is starting to get healthy, but not having Gordon until most likely the beginning of February is going to be a big blow. They're young and have the talent to put it all together, they just need time with almost everyone back.
The Harkless conundrum
This problem is one that neither fans nor journalists can seem to put their fingers on. Maurice Harkless, who started 100 games for the Magic in his first two seasons, has struggled to get onto the court. There were mumblings from some sources that Harkless was hurt in the preseason, but that's not an issue now, so why isn't he playing?
Harkless, who's played in just 12 of the team's 19 games this season, is one of the better defenders on the team, and matches up with seemingly every small forward in the league. Instead, Willie Green, who's struggled mightily, has been getting Harkless' minutes there, causing a lot of mismatches on both ends of the floor.
Having Harkless out there would also do wonders for the team in a few different aspects. He added some offense off the dribble this offseason, and continued his improvement as a spot up jump shooter. The St. John's product is also a prototypical slasher, which would give the Magic's offense another much-needed dynamic.
It's confusing as to why a third-year guy who still has room to grow can't get on the court. One idea, which Philip Rossman-Reich of Orlando Magic Daily floated me recently, is that the team could be "showcasing" Green to allow him leave and try to sign with a team who could be in the championship running come January. Letting Green go would allow the Magic to sign someone from their D-League team, the Erie BayHawks, or someone from another D-League team to a 10-day contract to see what they could possibly bring to the table. That move, in turn, would open up more minutes for Harkless at the backup small forward position.
That scenario could be one that's on the table, but it's a stretch to think that right now. I think that it's fair to say that Harkless, and not Green, should be getting those minutes if the Magic hope to continue winning.
Payton could be the real deal
When you come out and join the likes of John Wall and Oscar Robertson in your first four games, I think you might be doing something right. Payton joined those two as the only rookies to have seven or more assists in each of his first four games as a pro, so, it's fair to say he got off to a good start. Sure, there have been some struggles, but there's a lot to look forward to with Payton.
While his offensive woes might be an issue right now, he's so unselfish with the ball that he makes everyone around him better. His court vision is incredible, and he's not afraid to attack and dump the ball off in tough situations. He's shown that he can make his floater with regularity, it's just a matter of improving his mechanics and, in turn, his jump shot and free throws.
Outside of finding teammates and scoring, Payton does a lot of small things. He's always in the right place on the defensive end and is great at playing passing lanes and hedging opposing cutters. He's not afraid to go up against anyone, and it's good to see him lock down and try to get things going for himself, and the team, on the defensive end when it might not be going so smoothly offensively. Payton's also shown he's a good rebounder, which can take some pressure off of the bigs, especially Vucevic.
We're only 19 games into his rookie season, but he's been impressive. Yes, he's had a handful of games that haven't been so good, but he's turned it around recently and has really given the Magic a spark off the bench. One would think it's only a matter of time before he's inserted back into the starting lineup.