What a long and trying first half of the 2017-18 NBA season it has been for the Magic. This year has been filled with injuries and severe let downs. After an 8-4 start, the Magic have now lost 26 of their last 30 games. Ouch! The Magic have now officially crossed the midway point of their season. Next stop, the lottery.
I kid, I kid. There are still games to be played this year and improvements that can still be made by a few of the young prospects on Orlando’s roster. There’s no telling what the second half of this season holds for the Magic. Will the roster get broken up before the NBA Trade Deadline? Will the Magic get Jonathan Isaac or Terrence Ross back before season’s end?
Let’s re-visit who on the roster has been pulling their own weight and who needs to start playing better sooner rather than later. As a teacher who is used to assessing on a regular basis, this is right up my alley! Included in this midterm report are statistics from the first 42 games, along with some comments from yours truly that hopefully explain why I graded the guys the way that I did.
In the comments section below, please feel free to agree or disagree with any of my assessments, or simply just let me know if this is something that interests you. Credit for statistics goes to Basketball Reference and NBA.com as always. Enjoy!
Aaron Gordon (33 GP), Grade: A-
At age 22, in his fourth NBA season, Gordon is having a breakout year. In ‘17-’18 thus far, Gordon is achieving career best marks in the following areas: 3PT% (48% from the corner), PTS per/36, PER, and TS%. Through 42 games, Gordon has not only established himself as a perimeter threat shooting the basketball (averaging a career long 14.4 feet of distance per shot attempt, 40% of FGA’s are 3PTA’s), but has emerged as an elite NBA finisher at the rim as well (FG% of 80% inside of 3 feet).
With last season behind him, Gordon has settled in this year at the power forward position and has produced at a borderline all-star level (missing games due to injury, along with a lack of team success, makes a bid for Gordon as an all-star to be unlikely) . He has eclipsed the 30-point mark four times this season, including two 40 point games.
If you’re looking for anything to nitpick in Gordon’s game, it’s his defense this season that has been slightly below par. Gordon’s Defensive Rating (while not a perfect metric, a few team factors that affect the rating) this season is higher (worse) than seasons earlier in his career. According to Basketball Reference, Gordon is currently performing slightly below league average players defensively (Defensive Box Plus/Minus, -0.6). His defense hasn’t been horrible this season, I’m not saying that. Just surprisingly not at the level Gordon has been playing offensively.
Another area in which he must improve is shot-selection and picking his spots within the flow of the offense (and the flow of the game).
Gordon’s best game so far this season:
40 points, 15 rebounds, 4 assists, 4 steals vs. Oklahoma City (November 29th)
Evan Fournier (34 GP), Grade: B-
Evan Fournier has had a nice season offensively for the Magic in ‘17-’18. He’s been very steady; Fournier has (so far) avoided any kind of significant shooting slump like the ones that have plagued his time with the Magic in the past. He has failed to score in double-digits only twice this season, and has scored 20 or more points on fourteen different occasions. That’s what the Magic need from Fournier, to be a consistent shooting/scoring threat every night. Fournier’s three-point and true-shooting percentages this season are higher than his career averages with the Magic.
But as it goes with Fournier, it’s his defensive game that ultimately hurts the Magic. Fournier currently sports a Defensive Rating and Defensive Box Plus/Minus estimate that overshadows his offensive contributions (to a certain extent). That’s not to say his offensive production hasn’t been really good this season. It would just be more beneficial for the team moving forward if Fournier could find a way to consistently be at least league-average defensively.
According to ESPN Hollinger statistics such as “value added” and “estimated wins added”, Fournier has been producing this season at a level outside of the Top-10 small forwards in the NBA (just outside however, he ranks 11th). Keep in mind, Fournier also missed eight games in December.
Fournier’s best game so far this season:
28 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 steals vs. Brooklyn (October 24th)
Nikola Vucevic (34 GP), Grade: A-
I realize that Nikola Vucevic is one of the more polarizing figures on Orlando’s roster; feelings among Magic fans regarding Vucevic’s worth are all over the place. I think I’m going to be met with a lot of resistance from people on this one, but I’m fine with that. Try to bear with me here, but I feel very strongly about being able to defend the claim that Nikola Vucevic has been just as valuable to the Magic as Aaron Gordon this season. In fact, I am willing to go as far as to say he’s clearly been Orlando’s best player.
NBA Math is a wonderful resource which has disseminated team-by-team “total points added” graphs after every NBA regular season game this year. As you can see, Nikola Vucevic is clearly the only Magic player whose production this season has comfortably placed him in the upper right-hand quadrant (positive offensive points added, positive defensive points saved); Vucevic has been alone in this quadrant since mid-November.
Vucevic has rebounded this season from the horrendous shooting season he endured last year. After connecting on a career worst 48% of his two-point field goals last year, Vucevic is now shooting a career-best 55% on two-point attempts. Of course, Vucevic has also embraced the three-point shot this season, firing away at a rate of five three-point attempts per/36. The extra floor-spacing Vucevic has created has not come at the cost of a lack of efficiency on his part either. Vucevic has a TS% of just under 56% this year, a career best. As a secondary (and sometimes primary) facilitator within Orlando’s offense, Vucevic is posting a career high 4 assists per/36 as well.
Vucevic is never going to be the sexy defensive anchor that swats opposing attempts into the first few rows. But within Coach Frank Vogel’s defensive scheme, Vucevic’s positioning and defensive fundamentals have been more than adequate the last couple seasons. He paces Orlando at the midway point in the ‘17-’18 season in the following categories: Defensive Rating, points per/36, PER, Defensive Win Shares, Win Shares (tied with Gordon), Defensive Box Plus/Minus, Box Plus/Minus, and VORP (Value over a replacement player).
My only complaint this season about Nik’s play is the same one I’ve had about him since he’s been in pinstripes. He rarely gets to the free throw line, it’s maddening.
Of course, Vucevic is sidelined at the moment with a broken left hand. Due back at some point in February, it remains to be seen if Orlando has any intention of trading Vucevic before the NBA Trade Deadline (February 8th).
Vucevic’s best game so far this season:
31 points, 13 rebounds, 10 assists at Atlanta (December 9th)
Elfrid Payton (33 GP), Grade: C+
Speaking of enigmatic fan relationships and varying appreciation of Magic players, does it get anymore polarizing than one’s opinion of Elfrid Payton? I feel like I could write an article that simply states in four words “Elfrid Payton plays basketball” and it would probably garner over two hundred comments on this site. Easy.
Payton started the year off slowly in ‘17-’18, as he’s done every season in his four-year career. In reality, it’s incredible that Payton’s numbers are where they are at this moment in the season, considering his play in November. With Aaron Gordon, Nikola Vucevic, and Evan Fournier all in and out of the lineup, it’s been the Elfrid Payton show in Orlando for the last month. Of course, this “show” hasn’t led to a lot of wins, but the numbers look solid enough.
You can’t argue that Payton hasn’t improved slightly (offensively at least). Need proof? He’s currently producing career-highs in FG%, Offensive Rating, TS%, FG% inside 3 feet (69%), “corner three’s” (39%), and Offensive Box Plus/Minus. Less than 20% of Payton’s FGA’s are three-point attempts, and I’m actually fine with that. It’s not ideal that he’s not a floor-spacing lead guard, but that’s not really where Payton hurts the Magic the most.
The fact is, Payton has continued his poor defensive play this season to the detriment of the overall team’s success. His defensive metrics have slipped every season he’s been in the league. He lacks defensive awareness guarding the pick-and-roll, he needlessly gambles too often, and constantly finds himself out of defensive position. This year, Payton’s DRtg of 111 is the worst he’s posted in his career. According to Basketball Reference, Payton this season has been a net negative Defensive Box Plus/Minus guy (-0.5). Believe it or not, the Magic have been worse with Payton on the floor (+/- per/100 possessions of -9.2, -6.2 worse than when he’s off the floor) than other guards on the roster (namely D.J. Augustin and Shelvin Mack).
Payton’s best game so far this season:
30 points, 10 assists, 5 rebounds, 4 assists at Washington (December 23rd)
Jonathon Simmons (41 GP), Grade: D+
Simmons has taken full advantage of his increase in opportunities this season with the Magic, he’s attempting a career high 14.5 FGA’s per/36 (to go along with a career high in scoring). Simmons’ shooting has fallen flat, but that was to be expected after the start he got off to this season. He’s now regressed to near his career averages in most shooting metrics, which is not a great thing.
Simmons wasn’t brought to Orlando to lead the league in three-point percentage anyhow. He was signed to provide the Magic with energy, effort, and a defensive mentality on the wing. I can’t fault his effort on most nights, but his execution has often been lacking.
I find Simmons to be a ball-stopper, I feel he dribbles way too much. He commits excruciatingly careless turnovers. And his defense has not been good. Like at all (Defensive Box Plus/Minus of -1.6, DRtg of 113).
Things really went south quickly in Orlando when Terrence Ross went down with his knee injury. This pushed Simmons into the starting lineup where he’s been ever since, and I think playing with the first unit has exposed Simmons in a lot of ways. I was actually going to go with an even lower grade for Simmons here, but I took into account that his role over the last twenty games has put more responsibility on his shoulders than is probably fair to place on him.
I still love his contract, and I still like his upside down the road as a second unit guy. I just don’t think he’s been that great thus far in ‘17-’18. To his credit, he has scored over 20 points in a game eight different times this season.
Simmons’ best game so far this season:
27 points, 4 rebounds, 4 steals at Charlotte (October 29th)
Bismack Biyombo (42 GP), Grade: C-
I don’t know where to start with this progress report, so I guess I’ll start here: The Magic are -14.6 per/100 possessions with Biyombo on the floor this season, which is significantly worse (-13.3 per 100 possessions worse) than when he’s on the bench. Comparatively, the Magic are a +1.3 per/100 possession team with Marreese Speights on the floor (significantly less overall minutes played, but still).
Biyombo is shooting 69% on the season from 0-3 feet away. Considering he only averages about 4-5 feet on collective field goal attempts, that doesn’t sound awful, right? Well, shooting 69% inside of three feet ranks Biyombo 6th on the Magic, slightly lower than guys like Mario Hezonja and Terrence Ross. Yikes.
Biyombo has recorded his fair share of blocks (2.4 per/36, leads the team), and has been very solid defending in the paint. Among Magic players, Biyombo is near the top this season (alongside Vucevic and rookie Jonathan Isaac) of the following defensive metrics: Defensive Box Plus/Minus, Points Saved, and Defensive Rating.
Unfortunately, Biyombo’s defensive contributions aren’t outstanding enough to overshadow the disaster he’s been this season on the offensive end. Biyombo’s Player Efficiency Rating, a metric that’s even heavily weighted by his rebounding contributions, is lower this year than it’s been since his age 20 season (‘12-’13). His FG% has slightly dropped this season from 53% to 51%, while his turnover percentage has increased. Biyombo currently owns a team worst -4.5 Offensive Box Plus/Minus estimate.
I feel bad for Biyombo in a sense, because he’s never really been in his NBA career anything but what he is right now. You can’t fault him; just another case of #ThanksHennigan. This grade could have been worse too; four of Biyombo’s most productive games this season have come in the last couple of weeks.
Biyombo’s best game so far this season:
13 points, 17 rebounds, 3 blocks at Brooklyn (January 1st)
D.J. Augustin (35 GP), Grade: C
I’m pleased with the season D.J. Augustin has had so far. This kind of play has to be what Rob Hennigan envisioned when he signed Augustin a couple summers ago. He’s a very poor defender, but he’s always been a lackluster defensive player his entire career.
At least this season, opposed to last year, he’s shooting the basketball at a high rate (FG%, 3PT%, TS% all above his career averages). 42% from the field may not sound super efficient, but you have to remember, Augustin takes more than half of his attempts from behind the three-point line. Augustin leads the Magic through the midpoint of the season in Offensive Rating and true shooting percentage. He’s scored in double-figures 13 times this season.
Besides his defensive struggles, Augustin has also been really bad at finishing at the rim (just over 50%, only Speights has been worse this season). Twenty-four percent of Augustin’s attempts from the floor come inside of three feet; that number needs to be much lower. To his credit, he does have a knack at getting to the line (well, compared to some other guys on the team).
Augustin’s best game so far this season:
19 points, 6 assists, 3 steals vs. Brooklyn (October 24th)
Mario Hezonja (35 GP), Grade: B-
Mario is alive. His ‘17-’18 season has been defined by the fact that new Orlando management decided not to pickup the fourth year of his rookie contract (‘18-’19). Did this light a fire under Mario? Coach Vogel is playing Hezonja a lot at the power forward position this season, and that seems to be working out for Mario. His lack of possessing elite NBA athleticism and ball-handling ability isn’t exposed playing a bigger forward position (opposed to SG/SF), and believe it or not - his individual defense this season has slightly improved (or at minimum, it hasn’t gotten any worse).
Hezonja, who found himself completely out of the rotation to begin this season, has taken advantage of the playing time afforded to him due to numerous injuries to key Orlando players throughout the year. His FG%, TS%, REB% and rebounds per/36, points per/36, and Offensive Rating this season are all career highs. Hezonja has also (moderately) cut-down on his bone-headed turnovers this season (although, his 4-on-1 between his legs mishap against the Pistons was something).
Let’s not put him in the All-Star game just yet, I don’t want to seem like I’m overreacting or reaching here. I’m only saying that Hezonja, who at one point may have seemed like a candidate to be out of the league after his first contract expired, has now risen his play to the level of an NBA rotational player.
I want Hezonja to keep getting as many minutes as he can handle for the rest of the season, the team is already 17 games under .500. Let’s see what comes of it, he’s playing the best basketball of his career at this moment. While unlikely, it’s not impossible that the Magic end up deciding to re-sign Hezonja this summer.
Hezonja’s best game so far this season:
28 points, 6 rebounds, 3 steals at Detroit (December 17th)
Coach Frank Vogel, Grade: B-
How can you not feel for Frank? Injuries have ravaged his rotations this season, his roster hasn’t been at full strength since Opening Night.
The Magic are a bottom-5 NBA team in both Offensive and Defensive Rating now halfway through the ‘18-’19 season. They have been a disaster on the boards all season, they’re allowing opponents to shoot 47% from the floor (38% from three), and they’ve already suffered through two different nine-game losing streaks.
On a few occasions this season, one could argue that Vogel went with lineups for too long that lacked shooting, lacked defense, lacked whatever. But again, he’s been handcuffed mightily.
I don’t think Vogel has been the problem, far from it. But still, it’s concerning that two years into Vogel’s tenure with the Magic, he’s still talking about guys failing to be aggressive, failing to buy-in, and basically lacking toughness at times. Remember, Vogel wasn’t hired by Jeff Weltman and John Hammond.
I think Vogel’s job is safe, I’m not insinuating anything. It’s just something to keep in mind.
Okay Magic fans, lets hear it. Where did I go wrong? Am I too easy of a grader? My students would probably concur with that sentiment. Was I too harsh with anyone? Leave your comments below!