New Year, New Me?
The Magic are in one hell of a funk. After a hot start the team has cratered, compiling a 3-18 record since November 11. There are a number of factors that have contributed to this slide -- a tough schedule, an avalanche of injuries, shooting regression -- but the fact remains that the team now almost certainly finds itself in an impossible position regarding the playoff chase. The rebuild will roll on.
Accordingly, the most important questions for the team going forward are about how they should hope to navigate the current tailspin. Are the factors fueling this stretch terminal, or is a course correction possible? Can the season be salvaged, and what might provide a tortured fan base with a sense of optimism moving forward? Let’s dive in and see whether or not we can find any light at the end of the tunnel.
Could the team play better?
The simplest explanation is often the correct one, and in this case it’s absolutely true: Orlando’s performance has suffered because the individual players are struggling. Before we even get to the injury outlook, a scan of the roster reveals that just about everyone has seen a dip in their statistical output, perhaps most notably in terms of raw shooting percentages. Those watching the team regularly knew that some reversion to the mean was imminent after the season’s opening month, but it’s been a perhaps shockingly brutal adjustment for the Magic.
A look at the team’s foursome playing the most minutes -- Aaron Gordon, Evan Fournier, Nikola Vucevic and Jonathan Simmons -- reveals field goal percentages that have plummeted anywhere from 6 to 12 whole points from the October to November games. There’s an even bigger discrepancy when it comes to the three ball; both Gordon and Fournier, for example, converted from distance at a clip approximately 20% worse in November than during their hot start. This is a simple analysis, obviously, but it goes a long way towards explaining how Orlando’s at-one-time elite offensive rating has dropped all the way to the 20th rank: the team has simply forgotten how to shoot (or, more harshly, remembered that they never knew how to in the first place).
A few players have been able to buck this trend (Elfrid Payton and, most notably, Terrence Ross come to mind here), while others like Vucevic had been creeping back to their previously established levels when you isolate the December games. However, it hasn’t been enough to arrest the slide experienced by some of the heaviest possession-finishers on the team. Ultimately, it’s one of the primary contributors to a team-wide point-scoring malaise.
In addition, some other familiar deficiencies have also reared their heads since the losing stretch: ineffective rebounding and an anaemic free throw rate are both factors that have made it hard for the team to succeed. The Magic are giving up second chance opportunities at one end of the court and then failing to generate easy points at the other, a fatal combination for a team struggling to stay afloat. Add in some porous defense and you’ve got a recipe almost certain to fuel an extended slump.
At this point it would also be fair to begin asking some questions of the strategy employed by the team. A reliance on floppy action to spring players like Fournier and Gordon at the top of the arc is perhaps becoming predictable as it is better scouted by opponents. Curious decisions in terms of talent deployment -- like any of the possessions Payton plays as an off-ball guard -- don’t seem to be putting players in the best position to succeed. Poor performers seemingly stay in the rotation too long (Mo Speights, for example, has been an absolute train wreck recently), while a willingness to experiment with different units and looks has also been lacking. With losses (and injuries!) continuing to pile up necessity may helpfully emerge as the mother of invention.
The good news is that each of these identified factors can be overcome. Shooting figures are notoriously volatile, but we’re starting to see some of these settle in between the scorching and frigid extremes experienced already by the Magic. Coach Frank Vogel is undoubtedly still trying to untie the knot that is Orlando’s roster, with some potentially effective changes peeking out of the game plan more recently. To the eye it would also seem that despite a lack of friendly whistles the team is continuing to attack the basket more frequently than in seasons past; this is something that should eventually receive its just reward.
Perhaps most importantly, we know the Magic can play better because we’ve literally already seen it. They’re not going to come out and march towards a conference-topping record like they did in the first few weeks, but when at full strength, should that day ever come, they should be able to at least move closer to the standard they established early. Even just the slightest of team-wide improvement would undoubtedly see Orlando secure a healthier number of wins in the new year.
Could players returning from injury help?
The Magic have been decimated by injury over the last few weeks, with it seemingly impossible for more than a handful of games to go by without someone else succumbing to a stint on the sidelines. Rookie Jonathan Isaac, sidelined for almost a month with an ankle sprain, was the first to drop, and he has been followed for varying amounts of time by Gordon, Fournier, Payton, Ross, DJ Augustin, and most recently Nikola Vucevic among others. Each of these players are essential cogs for Orlando in their own way, and their respective absences have been distinctly felt.
These injuries have wreaked havoc not just thanks to absence; the increased presence of role players forced into larger duties has also made things difficult for the club. Their improved depth was a boon at the start of the season, but it’s been stretched thin in recent contests. In a recent game against the Clippers the team started both Wesley Iwundu (fresh from the G-League) and Mario Hezonja (fresh from the doghouse), playing each in excess of 30 minutes. Although both actually showed enough flashes to suggest there's a place in the rotation for them, such a forced deployment is not a likely recipe for success.
Alongside the overall lower quality of player that Orlando have been forced to put on the floor during this stretch is the impact on rotations and schemes that this change in personnel results in. Each game seemingly involves a slew of defensive miscommunications and errors, which realistically is to be expected with so many players in new roles. With the ball in hand the team has also become more stagnant and predictable, and a number of possessions feature little ball movement before ending with one player ultimately attacking out of isolation. The flex scheme and floppy sets of the early season are simply much less frequently seen thanks to this unfamiliarity.
Getting healthy personnel back on the court will undoubtedly help the Magic during the games to come. They’re missing key players who fill important roles, while also being forced away from the combinations that were clicking during the first few weeks. It’s not an absolute fix to the current woes, but it will allow for a more accurate display of the team’s potential to emerge. However, with Vucevic now expected to be out until the All-Star break courtesy of a broken hand such health could become a best-case scenario that simply never emerges. It puts Orlando’s decision makers in a very tough spot.
Could the opposition get worse?
There’s also another potentially simple fact that could help the Magic bounce back from their current quagmire: the quality of the opposition. Through to the start of December the team had played one of the hardest schedules in the league, and it is only a recent softening that has shifted their league-wide rank to 13th in that category. It’s unfortunate that some of the more recent winnable games have clashed with the current injury crisis, but it does suggest that the team should expect to have a slightly easier go of things moving forward.
Orlando have more games remaining at home than on the road, and only one long stretch to come in early March away from Florida. And although their final three games are against teams who will almost certainly be entrenched in the playoff picture, the seven preceding that are all likely lottery candidates. This means there is a distinct possibility that the team, should they have avoided the urge to roll out the tank job by that stage, could be banking Ws right up until the very end.
Do they even want to win?
And now we reach the question beating at the heart of this discussion: should the Magic even be looking to finish games on the right side of the ledger? At this point it would take a sporting miracle to vault the team back into meaningful playoff contention, so to what extent should the team’s decision makers be looking to prioritise the collection of (figurative) ping pong balls?
This is a tough question to answer because the associated discussion pretty closely resembles a two-sided coin. One should also keep in mind that for every Philadelphia there exists a Sacramento. As a franchise the Magic are well aware that there are no guarantees when it comes to the lottery, so a race to the bottom of the standings might not even have the desired outcome. Similarly, there’s always the possibility of vaulting up the board on draft night - it may be that this is the year the karmically-inclined basketball gods choose to smile on a team that nabs a few competitive wins at a time when they are incentivised to lose! However, despite the draft being an event influenced by luck, there also exists an action with a specific outcome that minimises the impact of chance. Applying cold logic to the situation makes it pretty difficult to argue for anything other than the losses to pile up.
Logic, however, is not always the driving force when it comes to decision making in sports. There are players with competitive instincts who want to win. There is a coach who might be feeling the heat and wants to keep his job. In this specific instance there is a long-suffering fan base desperate to again support a competitive team. It’s easy to sit back, aim for the longest view in the room, and call for the team to ‘blow it up!’. But this is an organisation made up of real people, and real people are complicated and not immune to the pull of emotion. Logic can be a tough sell in such an environment.
Ultimately, the debate around tanking is one that usually comes down to a matter of opinion. How willing are you to stomach current misery for a better chance at an improved tomorrow? It’s a question that the Magic are undoubtedly going to be grappling with as the calendar flips to a new year.
It’s easy to assume that the grim results of the last month are the new norm for the Magic, particularly when the hot start is only the dimmest of memories. But a measured look at both their current plight and the circumstances that are likely to change moving forward provides at least some belief that better times aren’t that far away. However, if the front office decides to go all-in on positioning themselves for the upcoming draft the team might find itself deliberately spiralling further. Either way, Orlando will soon have to pick a path that will go some way towards determining if 2018 is the year that their seemingly never-ending rebuild finds a purposeful direction.