January is a month for resolutions. It’s a time when people imagine what things could be like if they were different. If they were better. What does the best version of ourselves look like? What negative characteristics or circumstances would we do away with?
It’s also a time of broken promises. Of forgotten diets. Of empty savings accounts. Of unused gym memberships. Resolutions are hard!
For the Magic, current holders of the tenth spot in the Eastern Conference with a record of 16-20, there’s probably plenty that they would like to change. But if we could guarantee the perfect delivery of one resolution for each member of the rotation, what would it be? What’s one sure fire change we could make to ensure that the end of the 2018-2019 season tops the start of it?
We’re going to roll through the roster and come up with an idea for everyone - let’s dive in!
Aaron Gordon - Time Away
Specifically, time away from Jonathan Isaac. It might seem like a harsh statement to open with, but a closer look at the numbers seems to bear it out. The Magic have rolled out different line-ups as the season has demanded (injury, form, experimentation), but the most successful ones have largely been those that have split Gordon from Isaac.
A common lineup for Orlando has involved Gordon, Isaac, Nikola Vucevic, D.J. Augustin and Evan Fournier, a five-man unit that currently sports a +/- of 3.8 over 100 possessions. Now, this probably doesn’t appear to be much of a problem at first glance; I mean, how bad can outscoring the opposition really be? Well, let’s make an adjustment: if you replace Isaac with Terrence Ross -- a natural three whose presence shifts Gordon unquestionably to the four -- you’ll end up with one of Orlando’s most effective five-man units (out of those commonly played). This particular group? They’re stomping opponents by 14 points every 100 possessions.
Now, this isn’t intended as a condemnation of Isaac. In fact, want to know something interesting? Flip Gordon out instead of Isaac and you end up with another five-man unit that is also rolling over the opposition, this time to the tune of 6.8 points per 100 possessions. What the evidence seemingly suggests is that the team might be best-served separating these two young talents. Why might this be the case?
If you just went by the team listing Gordon has spent basically all of his time this season at power forward, but possession to possession it hasn’t really been the case. He’s largely matched up defensively with opposing 3s on the wing, while on offense he is being deployed as a playmaker and scorer in the traditional small forward mold. If anyone is hearing alarm bells and experiencing a sense of deja vu, congratulations: you’re still with us after surviving Frank Vogel’s ‘AG00 is Orlando’s version of PG13’ fever dream.
The reason for this, of course, is the presence of Isaac. Although they are two very different players, particularly at this stage of their careers, they both want to occupy similar space on the court. This positional overlap is felt most keenly at the offensive end, where the lack of lights out shooting from the pair makes it tricky for their play to be totally compatible. From experience we also know that Gordon is best deployed at the four, even despite the continued growth of his game.
Magic fans have desperately been hoping that this season would be the one to feature a bonafide leap from Gordon. We’re not there just yet, but perhaps the odds would improve with some adjustments to his deployment.
Evan Fournier - A return to career average shooting from deep
You’ve got to dig a fair way into the numbers to find any shred of positivity when it comes to Fournier’s shooting this season. The Frenchman has been mired in a seemingly never-ending slump, with figures consisting of 42.5% from the field (an Orlando low), 33% from deep (a career low), 76% from the line (his worst mark across the last four seasons), an effective field goal percentage of .502 (which he’s only just recently dragged back above .500), and a staggering free throw rate of just .152 (a catastrophic career low). It’s been rough.
However, it is possible to scrounge together some optimism. Fournier’s two-point percentages have been surprisingly good; inside the arc he’s converting at a rate better than his career average from every distance. The problem here, of course, is that he’s taking less of these shots and instead attempting a greater number than ever from the area where he’s hurting the most: beyond the three-point line. Just over 46% of his total shot attempts, 6.2 per game, have come from deep, and it’s this inaccuracy that is almost entirely responsible for the dip in his production this season.
Maybe the recent game-winner against Detroit -- a nice runner in the lane after attacking the basket in the game’s dying seconds -- will be the thing to prime his confidence and bust him out of this rut. Fingers crossed.
Nikola Vucevic - An All-Star jersey
This entry is going to be a whole lot shorter than the previous one. The only change we want to make for Vooch in 2019 is the addition of an Eastern Conference All-Star jersey to his wardrobe. If the big man keeps playing like he has been -- averaging career highs in a stack of categories, scoring more efficiently than ever, dropping 30-20-8 games, churning out kids -- this outcome will be but a formality. Let’s hope that the start of 2019 continues on much like the end of 2018, but with an extra level of recognition for the Magic’s center.
Jonathan Isaac - Consistency
Honestly, it’s been a pretty solid season so far for the Magic’s second year forward. Isaac has shown improvement in basically every statistical measurement of his impact on the court, including scoring numbers, free throw rate, rebounding percentages, assist totals, and turnover likelihood. Granted in most cases it’s been a shuffle forward as opposed to a great leap, but for a player who still has less than 60 career games in the bank it’s a pleasing thing to note.
In terms of what to change for him going forward, this means we’re really looking for something that will help sustain this type of trajectory. Namely, consistency. A study of Isaac’s game log reveals a season of bursts, small stretches of games where it all seems to come together followed by a period of relative invisibility in the boxscore. After an 18-12 outburst it took him seven more games to again top 10 points. He had two double-figure performances sandwiched around a 33 minute, zero-point outing against the Spurs. Multiple games without a steal or a block, which seems unfathomable for a player with his skills and energy.
None of this is really unexpected. Isaac is a young player with a raw offensive game, who more often than not is the team’s fourth or fifth option with the ball in hand. His defensive instincts and one-on-one capabilities are great, but it takes time to learn the intricacies of the team game. Still, if we’re projecting for the perfect new year this might be what we need to see for the former Seminole. At this point in his development the confidence that would come with consistency seems like the thing to keep him moving in the right direction.
D.J. Augustin - A growth spurth
Augustin has been really good so far this season, particularly of late. Vucevic gets most of the attention, but in a lot of ways it’s the diminutive point guard’s play that has allowed Orlando to experience what success they have had. But that’s just it - he’s diminutive. Across the last 35 games (he missed the most recent tilt against Charlotte with injury) Augustin has produced to a higher than expected standard, but his size and style ultimately make him better suited to a bench role. Which, to be fair, is what the Magic envisioned for him when they signed him back in 2016.
Augustin has done an admirable job helming a position at which the Magic are, to put it politely, incredibly thin. But if he were a little taller he’d be better equipped to get into the lane and draw contact, to find teammates over the outstretched hands of defenders, and to stymie the opposition at the other end. Sadly, I don’t think a growth spurt is coming. Are bigger shoes a possibility? Oh well, you can’t win them all.
Jonathon Simmons - Improved decision making
The obvious answer here might have seemed to be better shooting numbers. Because it’s true: Jonathon Simmons had a putrid time shooting the ball to close 2018. His field goal percentage on the season is a ghastly 37%, he’s making only 23% of his three point attempts, his free throw rate has precipitously dipped to .254, and both his true shooting and effective field goal percentages are by far career worst marks. By comparison he’s making Fournier’s season look like a Stephen Curry highlight reel.
Yet, a more beneficial change for his production would be if he were to become a more efficient and effective decision maker with the ball in hand. Previously mentioned was the paucity of the Magic’s point guard rotation, a fact which has recently thrust Simmons into the role of backup point guard. It’s a solid idea; on reserve units he’s a decent ball handler, and his score-first instincts theoretically help keep the offense ticking over. But what Orlando need now more than ever is someone that can make plays for others, keep the ball moving, and identify the right area from which to attack the opposing defense.
Simmons is a decent passer at times. He’s already had seven games this season with four or more assists, and the recent tilt against the Raptors showed what he’s capable of when asked to quarterback the bench unit (six assists against his two turnovers. Oh yeah, and a terrible shooting night!). But, as we know, he does have a tendency to submit to tunnel vision when the ball hits his hands, which inevitably leads to either overly-telegraphed plays or, worse yet, inefficient hero ball. If 2019 sees him embrace his inner-Penny we might be onto a winner.
Mo Bamba - Blocks on Blocks on Blocks
All things considered, Mo Bamba has had a reasonable rookie season to date. He’s not setting the league on fire like Luka Doncic in Dallas or inducing waves of giddy optimism like JJJ in Memphis, but he looks a lot like what was expected: a big guy with oodles of defensive potential, an intriguing three-point shot, and really no idea yet of how to play in the NBA. He might get there, but it was never going to happen straight away. We’re going to be riding this out for a few seasons to come.
So, if we’re searching for a development or change, what might it be? How about we double down on the thing he already does the best? I want to see Bamba swat everything in sight, putting that awe-inspiring wingspan to use on every single possession. Make no mistake, he’s already doing pretty well in this regard. He blocks 6.7% of all shot attempts when he’s on the court, is sixth league-wide in blocks per 48 minutes at 3.79 (having played in 70% of games to qualify), and is even thirteenth in terms of blocks per foul, a number which currently sits at 0.58.
They’re good numbers. He’s already sharing some space with the best-established shot blockers. But I want all that the wingspan promises. I want a never ending block party. I want to see the pain of rejection plastered across the faces of the opposition.
I guess I just like blocks, and Bamba is the man to deliver them.
Terrence Ross - A return to the flamethrower ways of November
Starting on November 4 and continuing for over a month, Terrence Ross ripped off a streak of 17 double-digit scoring performances from 18 games. He routinely looked like he was out there playing NBA Jam, with flames shooting from his fingertips as he drilled 45 three-point makes across the stretch. Impressively he did this despite topping 30 minutes of game time on only five occasions, and by converting at a rate of 50% or greater from the field in 12 of these contests. He was doing it both effectively and efficiently.
His shooting, however, has really cooled off over the last ten games, a fact which is to be expected of just about any high volume jump shooter; it’s a style of play that’s prone to streakiness! Still, it’s no surprise that the Magic almost immediately went into a spiral as Ross’ percentages came back to Earth. The team needs his scoring, particularly for the offense-starved second unit, and it often seems that their fortunes are tied with his. A check of his win/loss splits highlights just how much more accurate his shooting has been in the games Orlando have won.
If 2019 looks more like November instead of December for Ross you’ll see smiles across the face of many in the Magic kingdom.
The start of January has long been a time for promises of personal growth and dreams of development. But how likely is it that the eight changes I’ve outlined might come to fruition? What would you be hoping to see out of Orlando’s personnel in 2019?
Be sure to let us know your Magic resolutions in the comments.