A summary of the first quarter, split in two
I already wrote once about the Magic’s propensity to go hot and cold on both ends for extended periods of time, but this is a little bit different. Everyone’s getting their quarter-season summaries out there with 20-22 games played by most teams, but it seems to me that if you think about the Magic’s season, you get a very different sense of it based on which part you focus on.
To that point, let’s pretend we’re recapping the season so far in two ways: if you only looked at the first 11 games (up through Indiana on the 14th), and just the last 11. It’s an arbitrary cutoff, to be sure, but it should be a good demonstration of how much the Magic have changed in this young season.
The Season so Far: Awful Offense and Dreadful Defense Threatens to Doom the Magic
It may be early in the season, but it’s probably safe to say the Magic aren’t sniffing the playoffs anytime soon. The Magic are just 4-7 so far, and that somehow overrates how good they are, given the quality of their competition. With just one quality win and three more of the lowest-possible quality, Magic fans need to brace themselves for the worst when the competition really ramps up in December.
First, the good news: The Magic beat the Thunder thanks to Serge Ibaka having the game of his life. Good job, Orlando.
...aaaaannnnd we’re done with the good news. Sorry Magic fans, but your team just isn’t that good, and as mismatched as the roster is it’s hard to see where they can go from here except straight down to the bottom.
It was practically common knowledge that the Magic’s offense would be bad, and they’ve lived up to that reputation. With a 96.7 offensive rating, Orlando is a bottom-3 offense, per NBA.com, mostly thanks to their league-worst shooting. Field goal percentage, true shooting percentage, doesn’t matter how you slice it, it’s bad. The old players are shooting worse than ever (Nikola Vucevic being the worst culprit at 43%, an unsustainably low number for a team’s center), and the new players are bricking just as badly. Jeff Green looks like a disaster signing already, and at a -17.7 net rating he’s the worst among any major rotation player on the team.
If that’s not enough to raise a red flag, consider that Frank Vogel looked at this situation and thought, “You know what? I think it’s time to bench Aaron Gordon for Green.” Nevermind that Gordon has some of the best advanced plus-minus stats on the team (and Green the worst), you gotta play the vets, right?
Speaking of Vogel, if there was one saving grace for this team, it was supposed to be the defense, right? Well, throw that out the window, because the Magic can’t defend the broad side of a barn...or something. Can you defend a barn? You know what, it’s not important, the point is the defense is bad. Allowing 106.7 points per 100 possessions is bad enough, but to add insult to injury the bugaboo has been rim protection, the one skill the Magic were supposed to excel at above any other with the likes of Serge Ibaka and Bismack Biyombo on the team. If those two can’t stop opponents from shooting less than 65%—nevermind that Vucevic is literally incapable of playing good defense—there’s no hope for this team.
Put it all together, and the Magic have the second-worst net rating in the league. Even that isn’t enough to describe how bad they’ve been. While the OKC win was nice, the three others came against the awful Sixers, the woebegone Kings, and the Wizards without John Wall. Orlando had to scratch and claw for those wins, too. If that’s the best they can muster against the dregs of the league, what could we possibly expect against even average competition?
All in all, it’s time to start thinking less about what seed the Magic can reach in the playoffs, and more about how many ping pong balls they’ll get in the offseason.
The Season so Far: Orlando’s League-best Defense has Fans Thinking Playoffs
It may be early in the season, but it’s probably safe to say Orlando can start making plans in May for their first playoff berth since the Dwight Howard days. The Magic are 6-5, and that somehow underrates how good they are. With a few big wins and only close losses, Magic fans should be excited to see how much this team can continue to improve.
First, the bad news: the Magic just cannot score.
It was practically common knowledge that the Magic’s offense would be bad, and they’ve lived up to that reputation. With a 99.1 offensive rating, Orlando is a bottom-5 offense, due to a combination of factors that includes some rough shooting (though not awful), a few too many turnovers, and not nearly enough free throw attempts. Still, this team has shown they can get hot from downtown, especially with the return of Jodie Meeks to the lineup, in wins over the Sixers and Wizards.
Jeff Green looks fairly unremarkable so far, a decent bench player who isn’t going to hurt you, but his shooting from long range needs to improve substantially for him to be a reasonable threat.
Things got off to a rough start, with two shaky wins followed by four losses against teams the Magic expect to compete with on a nightly basis, but the Magic can take some solace knowing that three of those losses were within five points, and the fourth by just eight.
Frank Vogel, to his credit, looked at this situation and thought “You know what? It’s time to bench Green for Aaron Gordon.” This makes sense, considering that Gordon has had the best net rating of any player on the roster. The decision was aided somewhat by some minor injury trouble for Green that caused him to sit out one game, but Vogel decided to stick with the heavily revamped starting lineup even after the first game didn’t give the best results.
That lineup change has paid off, with the Magic turning what looked like a challenging road trip into a major success, pulling off four of five wins, including a double-digit win against the San Antonio Spurs. The single loss was by just a single point.
Speaking of Vogel, if there was one saving grace for this team, it was supposed to be the defense, right? Well, get excited Magic fans, because the Magic can absolutely defend the broad side of a barn. Better than anyone, in fact, assuming that barns are a thing that can even be defended. Their 95.8 defensive rating is miles above the next best team, and that’s come on the road against some fairly high-powered offenses like the Spurs and Pistons. A big part of that, unsurprisingly, is the stout rim protection provided by the likes of Serge Ibaka and Bismack Biyombo. Orlando as a team is allowing just 45% shooting at the rim over these ten games, second best in the league.
We expect that kind of defense from those two players, but Nikola Vucevic needs to be lauded for his strong defense. No, not just good by his standards, not just mediocre, but actually, legitimately good defense. Whether you use the eye-test or the metrics (he has the best individual defensive rating on the team), it’s clear that Vucevic has transformed himself into an asset on that side under Frank Vogel. While he’s not skying through the air to stuff layups, he’s almost always in the right spot to contest shots, and with his length often that’s enough.
Put it all together, and the Magic have a +3.3 net rating, good for 10th in the league. Some of their losses were against teams the Magic expect to beat like the struggling Wizards, but some of those wins came in situations that would have seemed unwinnable going into them, especially dominating the Spurs on their home court, something Orlando hasn’t done since 2009. In other words, the Magic have shown that, thanks to their defense, they have the potential to hang with anyone. They won’t always win, but they’ll often have a chance.
All in all, this odd collection of players has a chance to accomplish their stated goal coming into the season: make the playoffs. If they can keep doing what they’ve done so far, they should stand a pretty good chance.
Obviously, there are some pretty extreme results depending on which part of the season you place more importance on, and part of that is because 10 or 11 games isn’t really enough to judge a team by. The truth, as it often does, lies somewhere in the middle...or maybe it doesn’t. Maybe the Magic undergo another transformation over the next 10 games and discover their long-lost offense, or maybe this stretch of literally-the-best defense is too good to be true. That’s why we play the games, right?
How’s that lineup change working out?
Gordon replacing Green in the starting lineup is, of course, something I’ve strongly advocated for since, well, Green replaced Gordon. The Augustin shift was somewhat surprising but ultimately a foreseeable result, given some of Payton’s struggles and on-and-off play. Biyombo coming in for Vucevic was a surprise to a lot of folks.
How’s it all working out? Well, if we judge just by the road trip, pretty darn well. No matter what had happened on Tuesday night against Washington, the rest of the trip has to be considered a success, just based on trouncing the Spurs, blowing out the Sixers, cooling off a red-hot Pistons team, and barely losing to the Grizzlies.
The new starting lineup...actually isn’t doing so hot. The Augustin-Fournier-Gordon-Ibaka-Biyombo group is rough so far, not doing anything to boost the scoring of the team but also standing as a big departure from their otherwise excellent defense (though they did fare quite well in the Tuesday win over Washington). You’d think with a below-average lineup starting the game, the Magic shouldn’t be winning the way they are, but there are a some mitigating factors. This group has only played about 11 minutes a game, and a lot of that comes in first quarters. Throughout the majority of the game, Vogel uses a mishmash of starters and bench players.
Switch Biyombo for Vucevic, and you get a group that’s played 27 minutes and is outstanding on both ends. The bench mob of Vuc-Biyombo-Green-Meeks-Payton is good, too. Looking down the list of five-man lineups, there’s a lot of groups that have played well with just a little time. It’s also worth noting that only the starting lineup has played in all six games since the shift. Vogel’s changing the rotation up night-to-night (partly because of the return of Meeks), and so far it looks like it’s working.
Some warning signs for the defense
I’ve gushed plenty about the defense lately throughout these observations, so it’s fair to take stock of anything that looks like it might be unsustainable. After all, that was ultimately a big part of Scott Skiles’ undoing with the Magic’s defense last season, which relied on opponents being more unlucky than anything, shooting poorly from long range even while taking a large number of attempts. When opponents’ 3-point accuracy reverted to league-average, the whole defense fell apart in January and beyond.
The bad news is the Magic might be riding that same good luck right now. So far, opponents are shooting just 33.7% from downtown against Orlando, the fifth-lowest figure in the league. It’s one thing when you’re a team with outstanding perimeter defenders, like Kahwi Leonard with the Spurs or Paul George with the Pacers, but the closest the Magic have is Aaron Gordon. For most teams in the league, that sort of thing tends to revert back to the mean eventually. In other words, the best way to defend 3-pointers is to prevent opponents from ever taking them in the first place.
Here’s the good news: the Magic are very good in that category, too. They allow 24.5 3-pointers per 100 possessions, 6th lowest in the league. That is a much more sustainable way to play defense on the perimeter, and it’s not at all surprising when you think about how Frank Vogel’s teams have always played defense. As I wrote in May, “My favorite part of the best Pacers teams was the way they defended 3-pointers, or more specifically, prevented 3-point attempts.”
In other words, even if other teams start shooting better against the Magic, it may not matter, because Vogel’s defensive schemes are specifically designed to take those shots away. Along with their strong rim protection, that kind of statistic suggests this defense should be more sustainable that last year’s.
That one time Aaron Gordon punked Marcus Morris
What’s coming up next?
12/7 - Magic vs. Celtics - Another difficult test of the Magic’s defense versus a top-10 offense. Boston is a difficult team to peg right now: they’ve had a lot of struggles that few people expected, but they’ve also played without some of their most important players, including Al Horford, for long stretches of the season. I could see this game going a lot of different ways.
12/9 - Magic @ Hornets - Unlike the Pistons, who had looked scarier as of late before the Magic were able to take the road win, the Hornets have been on a downswing since their hot start. Still, Kemba Walker is shooting a career-best 47%, and I think high-octane point guards may be one of the Magic’s few defensive weaknesses (see: John Wall), given that Augustin isn’t going to fare well in 1-on-1 situations and Payton only a little bit better.
12/10 - Magic vs. Denver - Three pairs of back-to-back games in a row is pretty brutal, so it wouldn’t surprise me if the Magic slow down by the time Denver rolls into town. Thank goodness it’s not being played in Denver. The matchup of the trio of bigs from both teams—Ibaka, Biyombo, and Vucevic versus Nurkic, Jokic, and Faried—should be a pretty fun one, assuming Jokic has recovered from his bum wrist by then.