The 2018-2019 NBA season is now half done for the Orlando Magic, which means it’s once again time to check in on some of the trends emerging from the team’s play. We undertook the same exercise after 21 games and, pleasingly, were able to find a fair bit to be positive about. This time?
Let’s just say that it’s been a bit of a tougher process.
Still, the show must roll on! Let’s dive in and check out the (kind of) good and the (alarmingly) bad for the Magic here at the season’s midpoint.
Where exactly would the Magic be without the services of D.J. Augustin? It’s a scary proposition, as he has routinely demonstrated that he’s the only player on the roster with a hope in hell of quarterbacking a somewhat competent offense. He’s also, at times, taken it upon himself to assume the role of lead scorer, dropping a handful of 20 point games recently that gave the a puncher’s chance in tight contests. He’s generating free throws, hitting threes at a solid clip, and making things at least a little easier for his mostly offensively anemic teammates.
Augustin is having one of the best shooting seasons of his career, even after a shaky start across the season’s opening month. When compared to last year his assists are up and his turnovers are down, which is a great combination. It’s also become increasingly apparent that the team’s only chance to win is with him in the line up. Consider this: the Magic are 12.4 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor than compared to when he sits. With Augustin playing the point you can expect Orlando to outscore the opposition by 0.4 points over the course of 100 plays; put someone else in at this slot and that figure drops into the negative at -12. It’s the difference between okay and moribund.
Even as the team seemingly falls apart around him, Augustin largely keeps producing solid performances. In fact, his play has been so good that if the team falls any further out of the playoff race he might just end up the target of some trade calls from contenders looking to bolster their rotation ahead of the playoffs. Classic Magic.
Aaron Gordon (kind of)
It obviously hasn’t been a great stretch of basketball for the Magic over the last few weeks, but the defensive play of Aaron Gordon has been a relative positive amidst the team’s decline. As the season has unfolded, he has started to emerge as the disruptive perimeter presence and topflight stopper that many envisioned he could be when he came out of the University of Arizona in 2014. That it’s been evident even as the team has seen some big scores against is notable.
Gordon routinely matches up against the opposition’s most dangerous wing, a fact which in recent times has seen him lock horns with names like Durant, Leonard, Griffin, and Harris. One-on-one AG has been able to do a good to great job in this role, generally making life difficult for his adversary and in many instances holding them well below their season averages in terms of output and efficiency. His defensive metrics on the season also make for pleasing reading, as he’s on pace to set career highs in terms of defensive win shares and defensive box plus/minus, while his steal and block averages continue to hover just a little above his career average. Importantly, he also looks comfortable in this role.
Gordon has now found himself in the ‘trending up’ category both times this season, initially for his offense and now for his defense. If he’s going to make a real leap, though, he needs to figure out how to ensure things are clicking at both ends of the court at once (while also doing away with those disengaged and disinterested moments he has a tendency to produce when the game slips away). Let’s cross our fingers and hope that the third installment of this column delivers the total package.
Wes Iwundu (kind of)
Okay, we’re officially in deep dive territory now. Although a perusal of Wes Iwundu’s box score numbers don’t exactly inspire elation, his play of late has been tinged with some positivity. Since Christmas he’s been hovering around 20 minutes per contest and getting his hands on the ball more frequently than at other point in his career to date. During this stretch he’s enjoyed a field goal percentage of 44% (a significant improvement over his 39% rate on the season), while his rebounding and assist numbers have also seen a slight bump in the right direction.
To the eye test he also looks a little more comfortable and confident on the court. He runs the floor well and has shown flashes of a competent handle when attacking the hoop. His individual defense has been okay (although he did commit the cardinal sin of losing track of Kyle Korver on multiple occasions in the recent tilt against the Jazz), and he can be counted on to at least play with enthusiasm at this end of the court. On a few occasions he has also busted out a wicked spin move on his way to the basket, combining agility and explosiveness in a way that makes you think the Magic might have found something in 2017’s 33rd overall pick.
Iwundu is still a long way from being anything other than an end of the bench NBA talent, but the last few weeks have at least provided a previously unsighted glimmer of optimism.
The Spirits of Lottery Enthusiasts
After 21 games the Magic were 10-11 and in 8th place in an anemic looking Eastern Conference. Since then they’ve gone 7-13 while also watching Miami and Brooklyn, two of their closest competitors, string together a solid stretch of play. The end result is a 17-24 record, which is 2.5 games out of a playoff spot and only good for 10th in the conference.
Orlando don’t have a particularly difficult remaining schedule (just about every metric ranks them in the league’s bottom half). However, basically every other number that measures team performance is a cause for concern. Their Pythagorean wins are 2 less than what they’ve racked up in reality, indicative of a team outperforming expectations. Their point differential currently sits at -4.3 (and is seemingly getting worse by the game!), which tops out at 25th league-wide. Simple Rating System (SRS) also has them pegged as the league’s 25th ranked team, while ESPN’s BPI Playoff Odds only give them a 9% chance of making the postseason.
All of this is a long way of saying that those fans who enjoy ping pong balls and projections are sitting a little prettier now than they were six weeks ago.
The ‘Jonathon Simmons as Point Guard’ Experiment
In the quarter-season installment of this column, Jonathon Simmons also found himself here in the ‘trending down’ category, a result of his poor shooting and lackluster playmaking. In fact, he had just been briefly excoriated from the team’s rotation for his ineffective play, and it looked like his time in pinstripes might be running out.
Now, necessity is often recognized as the mother of invention, and for a brief moment the resuscitation of Simmons’ season seemed possible thanks to the terrible performance of Jerian Grant (who has now basically played his way out of any meaningful minutes when the team is at full health). With limited options, head coach Steve Clifford turned to Juice to fill the role of backup point guard, and it’s one that he initially seemed to do okay in. In the first three injury-free games after the rotational tweak he averaged over 5 assists a game, and some of the inefficient isolation play he’s known for was minimized in his game. Instead he kept the ball moving, finding opportunities for teammates to finish. So far, so good, right?
Well, it didn’t take long for the wheels to fall off. Remember, last year Frank Vogel tried the same thing, with the same outcome. It was a desperation move, sure, but one that reinforced what we already knew: Simmons ain’t cut out to be a primary ball handler, even in a reserve role. Clifford was quick to acknowledge as much, saying after the loss to the Kings that Simmons has “been great about it, but he’s not a point guard. You’re putting him at a position he’s never played much at all. It’s not easy.” When you combine this with shooting percentages dredged from the depths of hell it’s easy to see why Simmons’ season to date continues to trend in the wrong direction.
The Passing Game in General
One of the early stories of the Magic’s season was the success the team was having passing the ball. On November 21, the team ranked third league-wide in assists, ninth in turnovers, first in potential assists, fifth in secondary assists, and, most impressively, first in adjusted assist to pass percentage. There literally wasn’t any other team in the league more likely to see a pass lead to a basket for a teammate. Basketball in Orlando was saved!
Yeah, we got ahead of ourselves. Since then the bottom has fallen out of the Magic’s passing game, with their current rankings in key categories showing the extent of the decline. The team has slipped to fifteenth in assists per game (24.3), nineteenth in secondary assists (2.9), and tenth in adjusted assist to pass percentage (9.9%). The turnovers have remained stable and infrequent, but the ball isn’t moving in the same efficient and effective manner that it was earlier in the season. It’s a key factor in the team’s brutal 28th-ranked offensive rating of 105.3.
To watch the team play at the moment is to watch players frequently attack out of isolation, pounding the rock as they search for space to beat their individual defender. It’s ugly hero ball, and it seemingly rears its head in the second half when the opposition locks in on defense. But it’s made more difficult by the fact that the Magic don’t have enough players creating space with the threat of shooting, nor do they have players who are able to generate meaningful separation as they attack the rim. It would instead behoove them to rely on a crisp passing game, but when the going gets tough they lean away from this previously successful style of play. It’s frustrating, and emblematic of the struggles that the team is currently submerged in.
NBA observers have long known that margin of victory is generally a more accurate indicator of a team’s performance than even their win-loss record, a fact which has already been identified as an area of concern for the Magic this season. Well, the bad news is that things certainly haven’t gotten any prettier on that front for the team.
An unfathomable 10 of Orlando’s last 11 losses have been by double digits, including 5 that eclipsed the 20-point mark. The other loss during that stretch was a game they dropped at home to the NBA-worst Phoenix Suns. It feels necessary to also point out that in a number of these games they somehow built a double-digit lead of their own in the first half that they would fumble away, which speaks to the futility and hopelessness of this recent stretch. It has been a prolonged period of non-competition that one would expect from a team jostling for lottery position at the end of a wasted season, not a team that genuinely speaks of the playoffs as a legitimate goal.
Interestingly, Orlando somehow only has three one-possession losses on the season, another number which almost beggars belief. This isn’t because the team is eking out the close ones thanks to competent playmaking and timely stops down the stretch, no; when they lose, they crumble in a heap.
On the season, the Magic’s average margin of victory has blown out to -4.3 points per game, good for sixth-worst league wide. Disappointingly, it’s looking like they were the team we thought they were -- and that the underlying numbers said they were -- all along.
Recent Lottery Talent
Our own Mike Cali already shared some thoughts related to this entry, and it’s something that I also looked at in some depth: Jonathan Isaac’s lack of confidence is killing both him and the team at the moment. He’s been a ghost in some of the Magic’s most recent games, looking completely lost on offense and ineffectual on defense. His shooting numbers are ghastly, and there continues to be compelling evidence to suggest that it doesn’t make much sense for him to play alongside Aaron Gordon.
The site has already spent a good amount of (digital) ink exploring this topic over the last week so I won’t continue to flog a dead horse, but it’s clear that Isaac’s stock is currently trending in the wrong direction.
The other number six pick on the roster, Mo Bamba, has also seen his play do a little spiraling of late. He suffered through a wretched December in terms of his offensive output, shooting just 38% from the field, 23% from deep, and a miserable 46% from the line across the month. Those numbers have bounced back a little since the new year, but not in a meaningfully significant way. At the moment he just looks outmatched and overwhelmed with the ball in hand, which, to be fair, isn’t entirely unexpected for a rookie as raw as he is.
While a lot of his individual defensive numbers have remained solid (particularly his defensive rebounding and block totals), it’s also evident that the team is defensively suspect when Bamba is on the court. His individual talents haven’t yet transferred to the team game, with help rotations and pick and roll management both areas of relative weakness at this point of his career. It’s also no secret that the vast majority of Orlando’s worst five-man lineups feature the rookie big man. This says more about the team’s depth and bench play than Bamba alone, but it’s still a worrying indication of where his game is currently at. The best chance the Magic have of winning is without him on the court.
Orlando are currently riding a four-game losing streak, part of a worrying slump that has seen them drop 9 out of their last 12 contests (and 12 of the last 17 if we wind it back even further). During any such stretch it’s going to be a difficult job to extract some positive trends, but there are some faint glimmers.
Ultimately though, it feels like the tough upcoming run over the next week and a half will determine the fate of the season: can the team collectively shift a gear to get back into the playoff race? Or are we headed for another tank run?
Time -- and trends -- will tell.