A month ago the sky was falling.
A fortnight ago the trade market was beckoning.
Now? Well, it’s not quite so clear.
Because, you see, the Orlando Magic have enjoyed a small yet sustained period of offensive success. They’ve seemingly figured out how to pass the ball. And for the time being, at least, the point guard situation doesn’t seem quite as calamitous.
So how, exactly, is this formerly sinking ship now sailing? Let’s dive in and try to figure it out.
It would be remiss to start this discussion elsewhere. D.J. Augustin is the veteran of the Magic roster and the starter at the point, which means that when things were looking pear-shaped he was also the face of the problem. The narrative was that Orlando sported possibly the worst backcourt in the league, with Augustin miscast in the role of starter. After the team went down to the Clippers in deflating fashion -- a fourth straight loss that saw them drop to 2-6 on the season -- it seemed to be a story that made sense. The Magic couldn’t score with any level of efficiency as they lacked the necessary floor general. Bring on the lottery.
But then, things changed. One of those things was that Augustin started to enjoy a little more fluency on offense. His jump shot started falling. His passes started to find able scorers. He continued to protect the ball. Things have been clicking, and D.J.’s been behind the wheel for much if it.
Augustin has always been a score-first guard. His season-to-season assist numbers have never made your eyes pop, although he did enjoy a stretch earlier in his career with a significantly higher assist rate. Still, he’s a player who has made his name primarily as a guard who looks for his shot first and who can convert from deep. It’s also worth remembering that when he first came to Florida it was expected to be in the role of a backup -- remember Elfrid Payton and his shot-blocking hair? -- who could keep the scoreboard ticking over with the reserves. The Magic intended to pay him for points, most of which would likely come from his own hands.
With that in mind, the start of this season made for some tough viewing. Come the end of October, Augustin had shot less than 35% from the field. Most of this was a result of poor finishing at the rim and positively frigid shooting from within the key. His deep ball was connecting at an acceptable 38%, but even this was down by a significant chunk on what he shot from distance last season (42%). The man, like much of the team, was in a shooting slump.
Since the calendar flipped to November, Augustin’s seen a drastic uptick in his numbers. Across the last nine games, he sports a ridiculous .706 true shooting percentage, buoyed largely by his conversion rate of 52.6% from beyond the arc. He’s found more space around the hoop and finished more effectively, boosting his two-point percentage to a number more in line with last season’s career-best output. All of this was on display in the recent home date against the Lakers, a game in which he routinely torched Lonzo Ball and, memorably, Josh Hart’s ankles. He got to the rim, was perfect from deep, and used the space his scoring generated to connect with teammates spotting up. It perfectly encapsulated all that he has been doing well of late.
In terms of passing the ball, Augustin has also been sneakily effective for the Magic across the season’s opening stretch. While he’ll never be mistaken for a classic distributor he has been able to find decent looks for those sharing the floor with the diminutive point guard. Improved team shooting has bumped his assists up to 5.1 per game, which would be his best raw average since 2012. A deeper look at the numbers indicates that he’s also chipping in almost one secondary assist per game -- reflective of the manner in which the whole team is currently moving the ball -- while also generating a healthy number of potential assists (9.3 per game), all in less than 29 minutes of court time.
Best of all, the increased playmaking load that Augustin has shouldered has been partnered with a seemingly air-tight ability to protect the ball. He’s currently coughing up a turnover only 11 times per 100 possessions, which is easily a career-best rate. Additionally, he’s also sitting comfortably within the league’s top ten in both assist-to-turnover rate (4.6) and assist ratio (34.4%). In fact, he’s only had 14 turnovers from bad passes all season long, a pretty good number for a guy who sees so much of the ball.
Augustin isn’t suddenly going to find himself in the running for a spot on the Eastern Conference All-Star team. If we’re being honest, he’s probably still best-suited to a backup role. But across the season’s first 18 games what he has shown is that he can be the competent veteran that the Magic need at the position. For the moment and as a placeholder, he’s fine. Maybe the sky isn’t falling after all.
Wait, no, turns out that on the bench the sky actually is falling. Despite a sense of optimism that lasted throughout the preseason, Jerian Grant has done next to nothing to suggest that he is in any way part of the team’s solution for the backcourt. Many hoped he would eventually emerge as the Magic’s best option to start at the position. However, this is a projection he couldn’t currently be further from after falling out of the second-half rotation in the team’s recent win over the Knicks. Grant’s been a bust.
One of the major problems with his game so far to date has been his inability to shoot the ball. Although this has afflicted much of the team at various points, the fact is that opponents have been sagging way off him on the perimeter, muddying up the paint and closing both driving and cutting lanes. He’s been dared to shoot and he’s largely missed. Even a recent spurt of relative competency from deep (10 of 15 across a 7 game stretch) hasn’t helped, because the damage is already done. Teams don’t show him any respect when he’s got two feet planted behind the arc.
There are also other causes for concern. He’s failed to offset his sputtering jumpshot with trips to the line, as his career-low free throw rate of .133 will attest. His assist percentage is down almost a whole eight points from last season to 22.9%, while his turnover rate is up by an even greater margin to 21.5%. That’s a turnover on one out of every five possessions! Let’s do a quick equation: inefficient scoring + less clean looks for teammates + more instances of gifting the opposition the ball = ouch. It’s understandable why head coach Steve Clifford decided to, for one night at least, pull the pin and go with the untested Isaiah Briscoe. If things don’t change this could become the norm for the bench unit.
Away from the backup point guard spot there’s actually a lot to like when the Magic have the ball in hand. Their recent emergence as a cohesive passing unit isn’t solely down to the performance of the team’s primary ball handlers. In fact, looking up and down the roster you can find any number of players who have seemingly bought into this new style of play. The team routinely tilts the court by swinging the ball from one side to the other. Everyone seems to be looking for the extra pass to open shooters. Swift movement on the perimeter and energetic off-ball cuts has worked to create extra space that the players haven’t seen in seasons. Things have been clicking.
At various times each of Evan Fournier, Aaron Gordon and Jonathon Simmons have been asked to fill the role of playmaking wing, and by many measures they’ve responded. All three are currently sporting career best assist rates, and it’s evident when watching the games that they’re looking to find their teammates in advantageous positions. In seasons past all three have shown a tendency to go into isolation mode, and although this is still frustratingly evident at times it is steadily becoming the exception rather than the rule. The Magic are currently getting almost 10 combined assists per game from this trio of secondary playmakers, a fact which is certainly providing fuel for the recent winning run.
And then there’s Nikola Vucevic. Fairly or not, the stench of recent losing seasons have clung to Orlando’s big man, with many assuming his tenure in Florida had an imminent expiry date (hell, my first column for OPP asked whether it was time to trade him). But the man in the middle has perhaps been the most important part of the Magic’s offensive resurgence.
Vooch has always enjoyed long jumpers, but over the last two seasons he’s stretched those attempts from 18-feet to out beyond the arc. The Magic now seem to be experiencing the full benefit of this. Although he’s actually shooting slightly less frequently from deep this season than last, the quality of these looks is higher. With more player movement and a whirring ball Vucevic is finding himself with a little more time and space to get the shots off. He’s not going to keep it up over the entire season, but his current conversion rate from deep of 42% has him looking like the complete offensive package.
The other benefit of these forays away from the basket comes thanks to his ever-improving vision. Vucevic has steadily developed into an under-rated passer, one who is willing to move the rock and who possesses an excellent eye for the lanes and seams that develop off-ball. Clifford is effectively using him as the fulcrum for much of the offense, and the Montenegrin big man has responded with career-best passing figures. He’s currently assisting on 20.4% of all teammates’ field goals when he’s on the court, with his passing directly generating almost nine points per game for the Magic. That’s great production out of the center position.
Ultimately, the key to Orlando’s improved offensive output really seems to be cohesion. There’s a better understanding from the players of their role. It’s clear that the game plan is being followed. The ball is being passed not recklessly but with purpose. League wide the team currently ranks third in assists per game (26.1), ninth in turnovers (13.0), first in potential assists (49), fifth in secondary assists (3.2), and first in adjusted assist to pass percentage (racking up a dime on every 10.7 passes). Considering the sludge of season’s past this is a minor miracle.
They’re great numbers, reflective of the team wide commitment on offense. Everyone is involved and engaged. The ball moves. Everybody eats. More importantly, everybody also does their fair share of cooking.
The major question now for Magic fans is whether or not this is the new norm or if the team is about to start tumbling back to earth. Things are going to undoubtedly get tougher, with some of the league’s best defensive outfits on the upcoming schedule. It’s also reasonable to expect some of the recent hot shooting to settle. When that happens, will the team be able to persevere and sustain their improved habits? Time will tell.
Plus, you know, there’s the ever-present rumbling of rumors -- Wall, Fultz, the as-yet unknown -- that might change the current dynamic.
Again, time will tell.
Until then, enjoy the offense.