Hopeful Orlando Magic fans have leaned on an optimistic narrative early in the season: If things broke just a little bit better against the Philadelphia 76ers, the Magic could be sitting at 3-1 with wins against three potential playoff teams, including two Eastern Conference stalwarts. This is entirely true, but it also conveniently glosses over several details suggesting the Magic have a long way to go.
For starters, we could very easily flip the close-game narrative on its head and say the Magic are a couple lucky breaks away from being 0-4. What if the Miami Heat’s Josh Richardson didn’t dribble out of bounds on his baseline drive? What if Kyrie Irving or Gordon Hayward hit their 3-pointers on the Boston Celtics’ last possession?
I wouldn’t take the couple close wins as evidence of the young Magic inexplicably developing a clutch gene. If anything, what happened on the court in the last five or six minutes of each game implies the opposite: the Magic have struggled in late-game situations. In order they occurred:
Vs. Miami - Magic lead by 11 with 2:59 remaining, Heat closed within 1 at 0:06.
At Philly - Sixers lead by 11 with 5:02 remaining, Magic closed and lead by 2 at 1:24 before ultimately losing.
At Boston - Magic lead by 7 with 3:19 remaining, Celtics closed within 1 at 0:14.
The Philadelphia comeback was impressive, but the net results don’t favor the Magic. Credit the Magic for building big enough leads to hold onto those two wins, but don’t give them an imaginary win against Philadelphia and pretend they’re 3-1, either.
Regardless, the hand-wringing over the close wins and losses overlooks perhaps the most important game the Magic have played so far. The crushing loss versus the Charlotte Hornets is tempting to ignore as an outlier result given how differently the game played out compared to the other three, but that’s a mistake. The blowout result might actually say more about the Magic than the other three games put together.
How do I know this? I know because, against my better judgment, I fell into that trap two years ago. In the second section of that article, I weighed whether the Magic’s three blowout losses or their three close wins mattered more, and it’s clear I was talking myself into the latter. As it turns out, that season sucked! The big losses showed the Magic’s true strength.
In other words, point differential is important. The 2007 Dallas Mavericks are a famous example of this idea, winning a massive 67 games, but only outscoring their opponents by about 7 points per game (for perspective, the leading team each season often wins by 8-10 points per game). They were a weaker 1-seed than their record suggested, and while the Warriors’ first-round victory was still a massive upset, it was less surprising than one might have thought on the surface.
When you look at the current Eastern Conference standings, you’ll notice a massive outlier in the point-differential column. Orlando’s big, red -6.8 sticks out like a sore thumb compared to the other teams with a few wins under their belt, and overall it ranks as the 6th-worst differential (and the same ranking using pace-adjusted net rating).
Does this mean it’s time to tune out on another lost season? Hardly. The curse of being a stats-oriented writer is that statistics are generally not very meaningful this early in the season, and so I find myself arguing now that everything I’ve written up to this point doesn’t actually mean all that much. Four wins is a minuscule sample size in the grand scheme of an 82-game season, and a month or two from now we may have a very different impression of the Magic. Even that version of the Magic may not reflect how they perform across the whole season.
(Sidebar rant: I’ve noticed a trend among analytical sportswriters of acknowledging small sample size issues, then promptly ignoring them to make a point anyway. The classic line is “This is a small sample size, BUT...”, but there’s other cute workarounds like “This is a data point.” We can do better, stats writers! We talk about small sample sizes being unreliable, but we’re too quick to dismiss that idea when its inconvenient for our own analysis.
Obviously, my method of analyzing the data and then trashing the small sample size is much better.)
Long story short, don’t ignore results just to paint a rosier picture of the Orlando Magic’s prospects. We may look back on the Hornets game as an anomaly, or we may later realize it was a sign of times to come. The important thing is to keep an open mind and consider all the results, good or bad.