The trip north was a tough one for the Magic.
Both Nikola Vucevic and Aaron Gordon went down with ankle injuries, a proposition that will make things significantly more difficult for Orlando in the weeks to come. After being diagnosed with a right ankle contusion, AG’s absence will likely be measured in days. The news regarding Vooch, however, was significantly worse: the MRI revealed a right ankle sprain that will need to be reevaluated in 7-10 days and that is expected to keep him sidelined for a month. The pair join Michael Carter-Williams on the shelf, who himself is currently sidelined with a minor hip complaint. Losing 30% of the team’s current nightly rotation is a bitter pill to swallow for a side that was just looking like it had gathered some momentum.
Perhaps the biggest question facing the team now is related to who will step up. In the same way that injuries can disrupt and perhaps even derail a season, so too can those same maladies provide opportunities; a chance for a player to shine in a bigger role, or for someone deeper down the rotation to emerge as a valuable contributor. Who on the Magic’s roster might be able to seize the moment?
There’s an All-Star sized hole in Orlando’s rotation for the foreseeable future, and it’s likely that one player will take over the bulk of those minutes as opposed to any sort of committee approach. I’m considering Khem Birch most likely to take that opportunity because of a past record of success, and because the idea of Mo Bamba playing heavy minutes still scares me. The recent lottery pick just hasn’t demonstrated that he’s capable of shouldering that burden. Check out our Editor-in-Pinstripes’ take on Bamba’s opportunity.
So the attention shifts to the Canadian smasher of all things. Birch has seen limited opportunity this season, playing just 66 total minutes across 5 games. With the team’s sizeable investment in the center position he’s had to bide his time, much like he has in seasons past. His per game averages -- 3.2 points and 2.6 rebounds in about 13 minutes of action -- certainly don’t scream for more playing time, although to be fair it’s hard to generate much momentum in spot duty. Instead, it would be more instructive to look at what he was able to achieve last season when tasked with higher duties.
When injuries hit and he was called on to take over the back-up center role, Birch performed admirably. He was a key contributor to the team’s successful playoff push, buoying a second unit that had previously been a detriment. From February onwards he was playing close to 16 minutes a game, with averages of around 6 points, 5 rebounds, an assist, and a stock (combined steals and blocks). He provided a higher level of defensive intensity and intelligence for the side, as well as being a capable pick-and-roll partner and dangerous offensive rebounder. Perhaps the easiest measure of his positive contribution is this: once he hit the rotation Orlando started scoring more points while also restricting the output of opponents. Turns out that leads to winning games.
Birch will find the sledding slightly tougher this time, simply by virtue of matching up against starters instead of backups. Still, there’s plenty to indicate he’s capable. He’s about to take the rare jump from third-stringer to starter, but it’s a move he’s uniquely positioned to handle as a luxurious insurance policy. When the Magic re-signed him it would have been with circumstances just like this in mind. Now’s the time to prove the front office correct.
One could make the argument that Jonathan Isaac is already making the most of the opportunities this season has presented. His boxscore production is up across the board. His free throw rate has experienced a slight uptick. He’s improved his accuracy on shots between 3 and 16 feet of the hoop. His effective field goal percentage is the best of his career. Importantly, he looks more confident and decisive at this end of the court.
Most impressively, Isaac has also continued his development into an all-world defender. He currently leads the league in block rate with a figure of 8%, an absurd number for a rangy forward who spends as much time on the perimeter as in the paint. He’s racking up more blocks and steals than ever before (2.8 and 1.3 per game, respectively), snaring a higher percentage of defensive boards (19%), and recording the strongest defensive box plus/minus of his young career (5.5 points per 100 possessions). If the season ended today, he might be the first picked for the All-Defensive team.
So how do these recent injuries present an opportunity for a player who is already clearly on the ascent? It may, once again, be a function of fit. The numbers have always been wary when it comes to Isaac and Gordon playing together, suggesting that the pair might be more effective when separated. Interestingly, the data could be leaning that way once again in 2019/20.
Orlando’s most commonly played lineups feature the duo alongside Vucevic and Evan Fournier, with either Markelle Fultz or DJ Augustin at the point. The unit quarterbacked by Fultz have posted a positive net rating of 7.8, a figure the team would certainly be happy with from their preferred starting five. And while that number looks good, it’s interesting what happens when you make one small change: inserting Al-Farouq Aminu for Isaac bumps the net rating up to 17.4, while a substitution of Chief for Gordon raises it all the way to 18.9. These sample sizes are understandably small, but the current results reflect a trend we have seen in previous seasons.
Could Isaac flourish if separated from AG for a few games? Can he maintain the defensive intensity when asked to shoulder an increased load at the offensive end? Could we see him steal some spot minutes at centre with Vucevic ailing, and will he be effective in the unfamiliar role? There’s a chance that the mini-jump we’re already witnessing the third-year lottery pick take becomes a full-fledged leap. The opportunity is now.
After a strong finish to the 2018/19 season, Wes Iwundu would have been hoping that he was that much closer to locking down a spot as an NBA-rotation regular. Instead he saw the team invest further in the forward position while also bringing back each of the primary contributors on the wing. These decisions effectively squeezed him out of the rotation entirely, limiting him to just 59 total minutes so far this season.
Iwundu already proved himself capable of positive contributions in a limited role last season, and will need to do the same now for a bench unit that has been struggling. Down the stretch last year he demonstrated an improved three-point stroke, a willingness to hunt out transition opportunities, and an ability to generate free-throw opportunities with an aggressive mindset on offense. He also constantly made positive defensive contributions, giving some indication of the 3-and-D sensibilities that are so important in the modern game.
With both Gordon and MCW ailing, Iwundu is going to get a chance. A slow start to the season means the team will be counting on his ability to seamlessly and effectively step in; the roster depth must prove that it’s capable of keeping this team within striking distance of the playoffs. Iwundu has done it once before. Now he has to pick up where he left off last year.
No team can just replace an All-Star center. Few can easily account for the absence of a starting quality two-way wing. Sides always have to hope that the depth they’ve accumulated can stand up when the occasion arises. After a blessed run in 2018/19 the Magic are being forced to account for injuries early, circumstances that present challenges along with opportunity. Who’s ready to seize the moment?