Three weeks into the 2017-18 season, the Magic were sitting atop the Eastern Conference after winning eight of their first twelve games.
November must feel like a lifetime ago for players in Orlando’s locker room that went through the disappointment and disaster that was this past season. The Magic went 17-53 after November 10th, finished the season with the second-worst record in the conference standings (fifth-worst in the league), and are once again headed towards the lottery for a sixth straight year.
Injuries wreaked havoc on Orlando’s season, causing nearly everyone on the roster to miss time at one point or another due to varying reasons. Now that the ‘17-’18 campaign is complete, it’s time to look back on each player’s individual season. Let’s revisit who pulled their weight this year, and who needs to put this nightmarish season behind them as quickly as possible.
As a teacher who is used to assessing on a regular basis, this is right up my alley! Included in this report are season statistics along with some comments from yours truly that hopefully explain why I graded the guys the way that I did.
Three weeks ago, I assessed the play of Jonathon Simmons and Evan Fournier; two weeks ago, Aaron Gordon and Mario Hezonja; and last week, I assessed D.J. Augustin and Shelvin Mack. You can read those pieces here (Simmons/Fournier, Gordon/Hezonja, Augustin/Mack).
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!
Nikola Vucevic (57 Games Played, 57 Games Started)
What is it about Nikola Vucevic that makes him such a polarizing figure? The organization has been a mess for six years; Vucevic has been one of the constants that’s been around since things started to go south. I understand the connection.
But why so much hate? Is it because he now occupies the position once dominated by the franchise’s all-time premier defender? Who could fill prime-Howard’s shoes?
We’ve seen Vucevic in a Magic uniform for over 400 games now, he is who he is at this point. He’s not feared as a rim-protector by anyone around the league. He doesn’t demonstratively swat his opponent’s shots into the stands. That’s not Vucevic, and it never will be.
The Magic have lost hundreds of games playing with #9, there’s no denying that. He deserves his fair share of blame for Orlando’s continuing struggles, I acknowledge that. But it’s not Vucevic’s fault that the organization has been reconstructed at the top, nor was it his doing that led to Victor Oladipo and Tobias Harris being given away. The Magic haven’t found a way to effectively develop any of their recent lottery picks, that can’t be blamed on Vucevic. And the ever-changing of coaching staffs, that’s not on him. Why does the Montenegrin big man get so much attention?
What does Vucevic do that hurts the team at such a higher rate than anyone else? It’s not his defense, not anymore. In Coach Vogel’s system, Vucevic improved his team defense (positioning, awareness) to the point that he’s at least passable. In fact, Vucevic led the team this year in Defensive Win Shares and finished the year trailing only Jonathan Isaac in Defensive Box Plus/Minus.
I’m not wild about a 7-0 center who gets to the line as infrequently as Vucevic does (FTr of .11, lowest rate of his career), that’s my big qualm with him. Vucevic did cut down on his long two-point attempts this season, stretching his range beyond the three-point line (4.4 3PTA’s per/36). I would like to see him cut down even further on his 10-16 foot attempts next year, while possibly getting back to posting smaller centers up deep in the paint (career high 74% FG% from 0-3 feet last season, but these opportunities accounted for a career low 21% of his attempts).
A broken hand in late December derailed what at that point was looking like a career year for Vucevic in ‘17-18. Vucevic returned in late February after missing 22 straight games, but he really wasn’t the same player to close out the season.
He still finished the season as Orlando’s leader in PER, DREB%, Box Plus/Minus, and VORP (value over a replacement player). Vucevic also averaged a career high 3.4 assists this past year (career high 19.9% AST%), a complimentary part of his game that continues to progress.
Vucevic recorded 29 double-doubles (and one triple-double) in ‘17-18. The Magic were -1.6 per/100 possession with Vucevic on the court this past season, which was +6.2 per/100 possessions better than when he was off the floor.
Heading into the final year of his contract next season, it will be interesting to see what Orlando does with Vucevic (if anything) this summer.
I couldn’t find it in me to reward anyone on Orlando’s roster with an “A” this season, not with the way they collectively played. Vucevic had his moments, both good and bad. He’s not a prototypical center a team builds around, I get it. But he’s a useful player who had a good year (considerably better than last season). I chose to reward him for it.
Jonathon Simmons drains a 3 with an assist to Nikola Vucevic, giving the @OrlandoMagic big man a triple-double on the night! Watch the final minutes of action from Atlanta live now on FOX Sports Florida! #PureMagic pic.twitter.com/ilhKGCPYND— FOX Sports Florida (@FOXSportsFL) December 10, 2017
Best game of the season: December 9th @ Atlanta Hawks (Atlanta 117, Orlando 110)
31 points (13-18 FG, 4-6 3PT), 13 rebounds, 10 assists
Bismack Biyombo (82 Games Played, 25 Games Started)
I find it so difficult to assess Biyombo’s play without considering his contract, a contract many consider to be one of the worst in the league.
But to be fair, I must consider Biyombo’s contributions this season compared to other back-up centers around the league, regardless of how much he’s paid. That’s who Biyombo is, a solid yet very limited backup center in a league that now requires from it’s big men skills that Biyombo just doesn’t possess.
Biyombo, the only Magic player to appear to every game this season, actually played slightly less minutes this past year than he did last season. His per/36 numbers of 11.3 points, 11.3 rebounds, and 2.3 blocks this season were pretty pedestrian, but slightly improved compared to his contributions in ‘16-’17.
Biyombo is one of Orlando’s strongest defensive players who excels on the boards. Those skills are reflected by the fact that Biyombo led the Magic this past season in REB’s per/36, REB%, BLK’s per/36, and BLK% (he tied with Vucevic for second in Defensive Box Plus/Minus behind Jonathan Isaac). According to NBA.com, Biyombo held opponents to a field goal percentage of 55% in the paint this past season (inside of six feet).
However, the story with Biyombo has always been his anemic offensive skill-set; that story hasn’t changed after two seasons in Orlando. Whatever positive contributions Biyombo provides on the defensive end are far overshadowed by the struggles he creates for the team on the floor when he’s on offense (OBPM: -3.7). He’s a guy that can basically be ignored by opposing defenses outside of five feet, and the Magic just don’t have the offensive personnel on the rest of their roster to account for that kind of completely one-sided production.
Realistically, Orlando seems to be stuck with Biyombo for two more seasons. His contract is guaranteed next season, and Biyombo holds a player option for the ‘18-’19 season (which he absolutely will opt into). Trading Biyombo this off-season is pretty much off the table. I’m not saying his contract is completely untradeable, stranger things have happened. But the Magic would have to give up something of significant value to include in a Biyombo trade, and I just don’t see that happening.
What will be interesting to monitor next season is if Biyombo gets buried down Orlando’s depth chart in favor of Khem Birch. The Magic seemed to play significantly better last season with Birch on the floor as the team’s backup center.
Biyombo recorded seven double-doubles in ‘17-18. The Magic were -12.8 per/100 possessions with Biyombo on the court this past season, which was -12.3 per/100 possessions worse than when he was off the floor. That my friends was (by far) the worst on/off split by any Magic player last season (Simmons, with an on/off of -4.3 per/100 is the next worst).
I went back and forth with Biyombo; does he deserve a “C-” or a “D+”? I wavered, but his putrid on/off numbers pushed me towards the latter.
Best game of the season: January 12th @ Washington Wizards (Wizards 125, Magic 119)
21 points (8-9 FG, 5-6 FT), 13 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 blocks
Let’s hear from you Magic fans. Where did I go wrong? This concludes my four-part series of player evaluations. I hope you enjoyed them, on to draft preparations!