With a quarter of the season in the books, it’s time for us to look back and evaluate what we’ve seen to this point. Welcome to the first installment of ‘Trending in the Magic Kingdom,’ where we’ll be figuring out who’s up, who’s down and whether or not that glass is half full or empty.
If we’re looking on the bright side, what exactly can we find? What’s got hearts aflutter? Is there a trajectory we should be excited about? Who is trending in the right direction?
For the pessimists: any elephants in the room? Is the bottom falling out somewhere? Where are we hiding the bodies? Is anyone suffering through a protracted losing streak?
Let’s dive in and see what stories have emerged from Orlando so far.
Nikola Vucevic’s All-Star case
21 games in and it’s plain for all to see: Nikola Vucevic is having his best season to date. He’s currently putting up career figures in points, assists, steals, field goal percentage, three point percentage and free throw percentage. In terms of both per-game totals and rebound percentage he’s only been more effective on the glass once before. He’s blocking shots almost as frequently as last season when he set a personal best. His PER is more than five full points higher than it’s topped out at in any other season. His true shooting percentage is an absurd .615. And if you remove his rookie season from the equation he’s actually doing it all in less court time than he has averaged throughout his career. The man is straight killing it.
Hold up, what’s that noise? Is it? Could it be?
It’s true (it’s damn true); Vucevic’s fantastic play and the weakened state of the Eastern Conference has him in a strong position to receive an invite to the league’s annual mid-season showcase. LeBron James is gone. Kevin Love has been injured. Al Horford’s production is way down. Kristaps Porzingis hasn’t yet played. Sure Jimmy Butler and Kawhi Leonard now call the East home, and Ben Simmons will be a popular vote (plus he might be a point guard), but it’s starting to feel like one of the frontcourt spots is Vucevic’s to lose.
Orlando’s sometimes-maligned big man is having himself a statistical season to remember. More importantly, he’s solidified himself as the team’s key piece, their offensive fulcrum and serviceable interior defensive presence. He’s been one of the best bigs in the league, as his recent Player of the Week award attests, and is the strongest chance of Magic representation come February. As fans of the franchise we’ve come to expect the wheels to fall off at any minute -- and they yet might! -- but at the moment we should just enjoy the spectacle and, when the time comes, be ready to spam the electronic votes.
Aaron Gordon opened the season with a pretty disappointing stretch. A lot of his known flaws were on full display, and with the team struggling it left some wondering whether or not he could be a part of the solution in Orlando.
Things have taken a turn for the better in the time since. After three single-digit scoring games in the season’s opening eight he’s been much more consistent, averaging almost 20 points per game since and hitting at least a dozen each time (ignoring his injury-impacted night against Golden State). He has continued to pass the ball well, showing a willingness to move the rock rather than clog the offense up with isolation plays. His three-point stroke has also remained pretty constant, hovering around the 36% mark for the season. Even something as simple as the fact that he has recorded more dunks lately is an indicator of the effective and assertive play that the Magic need to see from their fifth-year wing.
There are still plenty of questions regarding Gordon and his best use on this team. Can he play the three or is power forward the only way to leverage his talents? Do he and Jonathan Isaac fit alongside each other long term? Will he develop into the plus defender his athletic talents suggest he could be? Is there another level to his play that would vault him into All-Star consideration in years to come? For now, at least, it’s enough that he’s experiencing this uptick and seemingly headed in the right direction.
Whatever has gotten into Terrence Ross this season has been significantly beneficial for the Magic. He’s been one of the only consistently bright spots for the struggling bench unit, emerging as the team’s ‘sixth starter’ and a key cog in the team’s offense. After last season’s injury-interrupted campaign it’s a welcome sign.
There is one thing that is primarily responsible for Ross’s hot start: his shooting. He’s currently connecting on over 42% of his attempts from deep, a career-best figure for a player who already has a reputation as a long-range threat. When combined with improved finishing in the mid-range it adds up to a healthy true shooting percentage of .586. Chuck in a slight uptick in his passing game and assist rate and you’ve got pretty solid output from a player who hadn’t previously hit his stride in Orlando. Let’s hope there’s even more to come.
As it currently stands a lot of players on the Magic are enjoying their best production in recent memory. Considering the relative stability of the playing roster, it makes sense to look elsewhere for answers as to why this is the case. The most obvious of those? The new face behind the clipboard.
It’s a tough gig that Steve Clifford signed up for. He’s now in charge of unlocking the at times contradictory and redundant rubik’s cube nature of Orlando’s playing list, a challenge he has so far had some success with. He’s empowered Vucevic on offense. He’s deployed Gordon at the preferred four. He’s encouraged passing and playmaking from all positions. He’s found ways to generate space for shooters.
Perhaps most importantly, he’s begun to establish a culture of responsibility. He’s been consistent in his public comments about the expectations he has of all players and their performance. He has called the team out after bad losses, challenging them to respond the next time they take court. He’s ruled out the enjoyment of moral victories.
Clifford hasn’t punched the team’s ticket to the NBA Finals just yet. But he does seemingly have the team playing consistently hard and the right way, which is a major improvement over some of the more bleak stretches of recent years. It might be one small step for man, but it feels like a giant leap for residents of the Magic Kingdom.
I don’t mean to keep piling on him, but it’s been a pretty tough start to the season for Evan Fournier. The Magic really need his shooting and playmaking on the wing, and at the moment he’s only been able to contribute the latter. The former? The dude is ice cold.
Fournier is currently shooting 29% from deep and 41% from the field on the season, both of which would comfortably be the worst figures posted in his time in Orlando. The expectation is that these numbers will bounce back and edge closer to his career averages, but it’s not a guarantee. Some of the attempts just feel a little wonky, whether they’re taken under pressure, early in the clock, or from an off-balance position (particularly as he navigates out of a screen hand-off). If he’s going to get his groove back he probably needs to start by locating more effective shot selection.
The recent loss to the Warriors felt like we might have hit the bottom. His low-percentage contributions in the second half aided in crippling Orlando’s offense, playing a key role in the 24 point swing the team gave up. He missed all five of his attempts during the third quarter (and all six in the second half), none of which could have been described as the optimal chance for that possession. There were ill-advised drives, clunky mid-range attempts, and weird threes taken after shuffling out of an open opportunity. After the game Clifford said that he’s carrying an injury; if true, it might be best to shut Fournier down until he’s 100%.
Everything I just said about Fournier? Apply it to Jonathon Simmons as well. Through the season’s first 21 games he’s barely been able to hit the side of a barn when letting fly with the ball (32% from the field). Worryingly, he’s only been a little better when operating as a playmaker for the team.
The low point came during the team’s game against the Raptors. Benched for the second half, he also found himself out of the team’s meaningful rotation in the next game against the Nuggets. Clifford never explicitly aired the reasons, but it’s a safe assumption that his inefficient dominance of the ball and frustrating tendency to attack the defense on his lonesome was at the root of his brief relegation.
Simmons is back in the rotation now -- in fact, he started against the Warriors -- but a message of sorts has been sent. The team has prioritized cohesion and effective ball movement, and a failure to buy-in looks like it briefly forced him out. Orlando undoubtedly need more from Juice going forward. Can he be the bench spark plug the team need him to be?
I’ve spent a decent amount of time already this season digging into Jerian Grant’s statistics, and the best thing I can say about him is that his nickname is apparently ‘Bam-Bam’. If that sounds harsh, it’s because it is. He’s been bad.
Courtesy of an early cold streak opposing defenses are playing way off him, sagging into help positions and daring him to shoot. Grant hasn’t been able to make them pay, and as a result teammates have seen lanes to the hoop and the space needed to get a step on their man dry up. Add to this the fact that, when compared to last season, he’s passing less effectively, turning the ball over more often, and basically not getting to the free throw line. In short, he’s not really doing any of the things that are expected of the point guard position.
The Magic have been really bad in the time that Grant spends on the court. His plus/minus mark of minus-9.8 points per 100 possessions stands out as particularly awful, and is debilitating for a team trying to stay afloat in the race for the eighth seed. Not all of the blame for this lays with him, but at this stage it’s hard to make an argument for him to stay in the rotation beyond a lack of other options.
Jonathan Isaac’s ankles
An 18-point, 12-rebound double-double. Five blocks in 16 minutes. The tantalizing prospect of B.I.G. Hustle, energy and enthusiasm in spades. It’s early in the season, but already the glimmering potential of Jonathan Isaac’s game has been evident.
Six missed games. A minutes limit. Ankle braces. Anxiety-inducing deep dives with experts. It’s early in the season but already the worrying nature of Isaac’s persistent ankle injuries has been evident.
The latest injury is hardly a death sentence, but it certainly is dispiriting for Magic fans who were hoping to see more of Isaac on the court in season two. Instead, it’s felt like a false-start already, with the interruption costing him both his starting position and envisioned role in the rotation. The team isn’t really any closer to knowing how his and Gordon’s games will mesh, a major question mark for the franchise moving forward. The fact that we’re already talking about his lower extremities is a trend we must hope becomes a thing of the past.
The season is still young but already certain trends -- both good and bad -- have started to emerge for the Magic. Even the 10-11 record that the team sports is evidence of the ups and downs experienced to this point. We’ll be back after the next twenty games to determine which way the wind is blowing as we reach the halfway point, but before then be sure to jump into the comments and give us your take on the team’s pulse.