Another season is now in the record books and in central Florida we seem to be humming a familiar tune. The rebuild rolls on without an end in sight, as the scope of the task facing basketball decision makers John Hammond and Jeff Weltman has become increasingly apparent (spoiler: it’s huge). But before we can think about where to head next we need to examine the road most recently travelled. While it’s true we no longer have traditional wins and losses to count, it feels appropriate to grade some elements of the team’s season in a similar fashion. So, without further ado, let’s jump into the first installment of the ‘Winners and Losers: 2018 Orlando Magic Edition.’
Winner: Aaron Gordon’s All-Star bid through December 31
Gordon opened the season en fuego, looking every bit the All-Star hopeful thanks to an apparently improved outside shot and healthy rebounding and hustle stat numbers. He dropped 41 on Brooklyn in just the second game of his campaign, racking up points on a series of confident jump shots (including a perfect 5 of 5 from beyond the arc) and assertive drives that also produced 10 trips to the line (a number he had only topped once in his career to that point). Across five games in October he shot an absurd 59% from deep on 22 attempts, and although it was inevitable that he would cool off from this hot start he still managed to convert threes at a clip of 40% and 36% in November and December, respectively. Come the close of 2017 both Gordon’s shooting stroke and the chance of him making a leap to a higher tier of play looked good.
Loser: Aaron Gordon’s All-Star bid from January 1
Then 2018 rolled around and the wheels fell off. Or, more specifically, the ball stopped going in the basket. Gordon was positively frigid in the month of January, and although his numbers rebounded to a degree in the back half of the season they never again reached the heights he hit in the opening stretch. He hoisted from distance more frequently in January despite only hitting 20% of these shots for the month; he was either firmly entrenched within the scorer’s mentality and determined to shoot himself out of the slump, or planning a small extension to his home with all the bricks he was collecting (hey, I’m here all week, try the veal!).
It would be fair to say that questions arose regarding Gordon’s shot selection, and to the eye test he seemed to become more disengaged as the season wound on. Despite the early season promise he actually finished with the worst field goal percentage of his career (43.4%), while his three point shooting after New Years Day ended up looking a lot like that of previous seasons (27.3%). Gordon was simply never a serious contender for the mid-season showcase once the calendar flipped. This fact certainly won’t stop him seeking a max contract this offseason which the Magic will likely match, if only to avoid the potential for future Oladipo-esque heartbreak. He might not be an All-Star but he is about to get paid like one.
Loser: Elfrid Payton
The good news is that Magic fans never need to have another conversation about whether or not a player could improve simply by cutting their hair. The bad news is that Magic fans might want to take a seat before reading this next bit.
Orlando paid a steep price to get their hands on Payton (the 10th overall pick) in the first place. On draft night in 2014 they got Hinkied, giving up Dario Saric (the 12th overall pick) and a 2015 second rounder (35th overall), while also returning a conditional first rounder they were owed by Philadelphia that tracked back to the Dwight Howard trade. Plenty of people spent plenty of time convincing themselves this was no great shakes, but if I’m reading the conditions and protections right that pick would have been number 26 this year. Which means that the Magic chipped in a future first and a future second for the right to acquire the second-best player in a two-man transaction. Ouch.
Orlando doubled down on this by trading low on their distressed asset, eventually shipping Payton to Phoenix for a second rounder in this year’s draft (35th overall). It’s a minuscule return for a player that the franchise doggedly stuck by for three-and-a-half seasons. Payton wasn’t the Magic’s point guard of the future, and some of the same rumblings are already emanating from the Phoenix fanbase (the only column or fanpost on ‘Bright Side of the Sun’ that even bothers discussing his potential to fill that role for the team going forward is titled ‘I like Payton, but re-signing him is another thing!’ Not a good sign). Succinctly put, this was not the year to be left holding any Payton stock.
Winner: Evan Fournier
There are different degrees of wins, and this is one that definitely only qualifies as ‘mild’. But facts are facts (except for when they are factoids, I guess), and the fact is that this season the Magic were significantly better with Fournier in the lineup than they were when he was out. Orlando’s starting two-guard missed 25 games to injury across the campaign, and in those bouts the team compiled a miserable 5-20 record, good for roughly a 17-win pace. It’s probably also worth noting that three of those wins came against Phoenix, Dallas and New York teams that were, to put it kindly, playing to lose. The offense was 5.4 points per-100 possessions better with him on the court, and although the D got a little worse with him on the perimeter it wasn’t enough to offset the much-needed punch he provided for a woefully scoring-inept squad.
I don’t think it will make paying him $17 million a year until the end of 2021 anything better than a mild annoyance, but it’s something.
Loser: Bismack Biyombo’s trade value
It is not good when a team’s highest paid player averages 5.7 points and 5.7 rebounds a game. It is not good when a team’s offense is over 8 points per-100 possessions worse when said player is on the court. It is not good when a team’s defense is over 4 points per-100 possessions worse when said player is on the court. It is not good when the very way the game of basketball is being played is shifting towards requiring a skill set said player in no way possesses. Good luck trading that contract.
Winner: Mario Hezonja
No doubt about it, the season got off to a less than super start for Mario. On Halloween the front office chose trick over treat when they declined the fourth year option on his rookie contract, a move that ensured the fifth overall pick from the 2015 draft would be an unrestricted free agent this offseason. It made it unlikely that Hezonja will be back with the team next season, and initially it even seemed to be a harbinger to the Croation’s eventual decline into NBA obscurity.
However, because life is unfair this particular story of course ended up having the most Magic of all outcomes. After playing only sparingly in the team’s first 27 games he came to life in early December, and by season’s end it was evident that Hezonja is undoubtedly a legitimate NBA rotation player. Vogel carved out an unexpected niche for him as a small-ball power forward, a fact that allowed him to turn in the best months of his career to date. The numbers paint a picture of improvement across the board: he scored more efficiently, limited his turnovers, contributed more on defense, and generated career-best plus/minus and win share figures. Hezonja turned his kind-of-like-a-prom-date-dumping from the Magic into a season-long audition for a new dance partner. It appears to have worked.
So concludes the first part of the exercise! At the moment the ledger is balanced perfectly at three apiece, and later this week we’ll be back with the Electric Boogaloo installment to determine precisely whether or not the Magic generated more philosophical wins or losses this season. See you then!