Reactions to the Orlando Magic’s hot start generally fall into two categories: reasoned concerns about the sustainability of the offense, and hyperbolic jokes about the Magic’s inevitable run to the NBA Finals and whether the Brooklyn Nets can stop them. Personally, the only teams that worry me are the Pistons and Grizzlies, but it’s a long season, and a lot can change.
(Exaggeration about the Magic’s championship chances: Check)
The most important question is, of course, whether this can continue. Are the Magic really among the Eastern Elite? Are they even good? Is this all just a huge fluke?
To answer that question, let’s play a little game of Buying or Selling. If I think a trend is likely to continue, I’m buying. If the Magic have merely conjured an illusion, I’m selling.
(Magic-themed pun: Check)
Orlando Magic: Eastern Finals Contender
Let’s not go crazy now. Even if we go with the charitable “Might get a chance to get stomped by LeBron James in the East Finals” interpretation of the word “contender”, a leap like this would be virtually unprecedented in NBA history, especially without adding at least one All-Star player. The Magic are on pace to win 58 games, which they almost certainly will not do, nor are they likely to even reach 50. I don’t think anyone’s seriously considered the Magic’s chances of a deep playoff run, but it’s worth noting the Magic aren’t going to be juggernauts the whole season.
Orlando Magic: Playoff team
This, however, is much more reasonable. In fact, they arguably are likely to make the playoffs. Consider their Simple Rating System score, as calculated at Basketball-Reference. SRS considers average point differential and strength of schedule and uses that to calculate the points above or below an average of zero. Orlando currently sits at a +5.88, good for 6th in the league. The question is whether this reflects their “true” strength. This score is comparable to the Houston Rockets’ +5.84 from last season, and the Magic probably aren’t that good.
The good news is that they might have shown enough to prove that they’re, at minimum, above-average. Consider this chart I got from Ben Taylor on Twitter:
If you’re interested in how predictive the first 7 games are: pic.twitter.com/UVquS2DicK— Ben Taylor (@ElGee35) October 31, 2017
As he notes, about 95% of teams are within 4 points of their true SRS after playing 7 games. That means that, at the very worst (95% of the time), the Magic’s true SRS could be around +1.88. That’s still pretty good! They’d be somewhere in the range of Boston/Washington from last season with that score.
In other words, unless the Magic are in that unfortunate 5%, they’ve probably showed enough to suggest they’re a playoff caliber basketball team.
The Orlando Magic are the best 3-point shooting team in the league...
...but they’re still much-improved.
If you’re skeptical about the Magic’s playoff hopes this year, you’re probably worried about unsustainable 3-point shooting, for good reason. The Magic’s ascent to the top of the conference is shocking enough on its own, but the means by which they’ve routed the opposition is even more unlikely. Fans know well-enough that the Magic have been among the very worst 3-point shooting teams
since 3000 BC since the rebuild started in 2012.
(Remark about the interminable rebuild: Check)
They Magic are shooting 3-pointers more accurately than anyone else. They cannot continue to shoot this well the entire season. It would be an all-time sports anomaly, a team that went from worst-to-first in a category without adding a single above-average player in that skill (Is Mo Speights the exception?). Aaron Gordon will not shoot 60% from distance. Evan Fournier will not shoot 55%. Jonathon Simmons will not shoot 50%. Nikola Vucevic probably won’t shoot 40%.
At the same time, anyone who’s paid close attention to the process has to feel good about the direction the Orlando Magic are trending. Gordon’s shooting mechanics are significantly improved, and he takes shots with confidence. Vucevic’s destiny has always been to stretch out beyond the arc. Fournier’s shooting woes last season were an anomaly for an otherwise great long-range player.
If you’re the sort of person that believes in an “energy” that comes from a team playing the right brand of basketball, full of speedy passing and unselfish decision-making, then you have to imagine that helps make the ball go in when a series of furious drive-and-kicks finds an open man.
If you lean analytical, you’re pleased to see the Magic are taking 56.4% of their shots open or wide-open, compared to 47.7% last season. You’re also glad they’ve traded some of their mid-range shots for better looks (18 midrange shots per game compared to 21.5 last season, a differential that would be even greater if not for the Magic’s increased pace).
Either way, you recognize that the Magic are forcing hard decisions, creating situations where there are no good choices. Last season, there were only good choices, because the Magic weren’t going to score regardless. It’s impossible to say how good the Magic really are at scoring, but there’s little doubt they’re better.
Jonathon Simmons and Jonathan Isaac have only one weakness as a duo: the separate spellings of their names are a bane to sportswriters everywhere. Hence, The Jons, a pair of athletic, defensive, dynamic basketball players.
Simmons has been a revelation, and his $6.3 million-per-year contract feels criminal compared to the paydays the 2016 free agent class got from the Magic. It would be unfair to call him a glue-guy, both because it seems to undersell his importance, but also because it’s an opposite description of his function on the court. SImmons doesn’t make everything stick together, but instead makes it all move. He is the oil in the well-oiled machine, the player who greases the rusty gears. When Simmons is on the court, everything just works.
San Antonio players have a mixed history of success upon graduating from Spurs University, but Simmons has carried over all the lessons he picked up with them, and then some. He handles the ball, creates shots, is a vicious driver, and can make a pass. The Magic’s metrics don’t suggest they turn pass-happy when he’s on the court (the opposite, really), but I suspect that’s because of two factors. First, he plays with a lot of bench units that lack the same chemistry as the starters (as well as the skill level to make passes), and second, because he so frequently takes the ball into the teeth of the defense on his own, usually fairly successfully.
Isaac brings excitement in his own gangly-armed way. His ability to erase shots out of nowhere is already terrifying, and I already think we’ve seen enough to know that, with time and experience to work out the kinks, Isaac should be one of the league’s premier defenders. He still gets rook’d on occasion, but he’s already come a long way since the first game of the season versus the Heat. I don’t think he would have won the Magic the game against the Hornets, but it feels like he would have helped, right?
With the news that the Magic will not exercise Hezonja’s fourth year option, the writing is on the wall. Unless he breaks out in a big way, his time with the team is quickly running out.
There are signs of life. The ridiculous spree of 3-point shooting has infected him, too, and he in fact possesses the highest long-range accuracy of any player on the team (62.5%, on a very limited number of shots). If he becomes an ace 3-point shooter all of a sudden, he might have a chance.
Even still, it’s not a pretty picture. He still struggles with defense and finding his way on the court, he still can’t finish, and the team is still markedly worse when he’s on the court.
My prediction: Mario gets signed to a two-year minimum deal by a mid-tier team like the Wizards or Timberwolves, or maybe a team like the Kings, with a team option on the second year. That team will not exercise that option, and Hezonja will look for work in Europe.
It makes me sad.
The Orlando Magic are fun again
There’s reason to be leery. Everyone knows the shooting can’t continue. Two injuries at the same time could derail everything when Arron Afflalo has to get big minutes. Defense is a concern too, especially since the Magic’s opponents have shot so poorly from distance themselves (more a factor of luck than the Magic’s own ability to defend on the perimeter).
That’s not the most important development, though. The Magic are fun again! The Magic are relevant again! Players are finally making the proverbial leap, becoming versions of themselves we always knew existed, but were never sure would ever become reality. The team is finally playing with the energetic style that suits the roster.
The city is dying for something to root for again, and will happily return to watch a run-and-gun team trade blows with the league’s best, even if the Magic only end up being about average. The 2017 season finale against the Pistons, in a meaningless game the Magic might have preferred to lose, proved to me that Orlando faithful can still cheer like the best of them.
Now, they finally have something to cheer for.