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The Orlando Magic’s slow start: Who and what is trending up or down?

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A statistical look at the good and the alarmingly bad for the 2-6 Orlando Magic

NBA: Orlando Magic at Atlanta Hawks Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

With almost two weeks worth of action under our belt it’s a good opportunity to evaluate what we’ve seen from the Orlando Magic in 2019/20. Welcome to the season’s first installment of ‘Trending in the Magic Kingdom’, where we’ll be figuring out who’s up and who’s down and whether or not that glass is half full or empty.

If we’re looking on the bright side, what exactly can we find? What’s got hearts aflutter? Is there a trajectory we should be excited about? Who is trending in the right direction?

For the pessimists: any elephants in the room? Is the bottom falling out somewhere? Where are we hiding the bodies? Is anyone suffering through a protracted slump?

Let’s dive in and see what stories have emerged from Orlando so far.


TRENDING UP

Markelle Fultz

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Orlando Magic Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

If there’s been only a singular unequivocal bright spot sporting pinstripes to this point of the season, it’s Markelle Fultz. The former first-overall pick has already forced his way into the starting lineup, flashing an impressive feel for the game and a playmaking capacity that — along with bench unit spacing concerns — forced Steve Clifford’s hand early. It’s an obviously positive outcome for a player many envisioned being eased back into meaningful basketball.

At the moment the numbers are modest, but considering the context they still make for pleasing reading. Fultz is averaging 10.3 points per game, along with 3.3 assists and 1.3 steals. He’s taking more shots and making more of them than he ever has before, including a willingness to launch from deep on an okay looking stroke. He seems to have caught whatever apparently plagues anyone playing for Orlando in terms of his free-throw rate (which has dropped to just .137), but otherwise the early returns look good.

Best of all, he looks like he belongs. Fultz is posting a career high in minutes played, and really not a night goes by when he doesn’t have at least one sequence that reminds everyone of the potential he was considered to possess coming out of Washington. The Magic will be hoping this is just the start of a very bright future for their young point guard.


Jonathan Isaac

NBA: New York Knicks at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Elsewhere on the side there are other youthful players blossoming into key contributors. It was already evident down the stretch last season just how important Jonathan Isaac was to the team’s success, so his continued growth across the season’s first eight games is a real positive takeaway.

The minutes and opportunities continue to trend in the right direction, with improved production the result. A modest bump in scoring and rebounding has been coupled with both marginally stronger three-point accuracy and a slight uptick in free throw rate. It’s the 24 point performance against Toronto that stands out, but he’s generally looked a little more at ease at this end of the court. He’s taking small but noticeable steps.

Defensively, however, is an entirely different proposition. Simply put: Isaac is a monster. Steals are up. Blocks are up. Deflections are up. He leads the league in blocks per game, swatting an absurd 9.5% of all shots when he’s on the court. He’s had 5 or more stocks (combined steals and blocks) in a monstrous 4 of the 8 games played so far. He’s second in the league in terms of defensive box plus/minus, with a figure of 7.2. He’s a whirling dervish of limbs, hustle, help rotations, and deterrence.

At this end of the court Isaac isn’t just taking steps; he’s genuinely leapt into the Defensive Player of the Year conversation.


Defense

NBA: Orlando Magic at Dallas Mavericks Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Taking a cue from Isaac’s contributions, the Magic have established themselves as a legitimately scary defensive outfit. The team has been able to recapture the form they showed in the stretch run last season, consistently ranking among the league’s elite in a number of different defensive metrics.

Orlando currently sport the eighth-best defensive rating league-wide, restricting opponents to just 102.5 points per 100 possessions. The team is also sixth in field goal percentage against (42.5%), fourth in three-point percentage allowed (30.8%), and sixth in effective field goal percentage allowed (48.7%). They clear 79.7% of all defensive rebound opportunities (good for sixth in the league), while also placing third in blocks (6.4) and fifth in steals (8.6) per game. Additionally, they also limit the opposition in terms of the number of free throw attempts they give per contest, even despite the lopsided Denver game. All in all, it’s hard to score on the Magic.

When the Magic put the clamps down they look like one of the best defensive sides in the league. Perhaps the scariest element of this observation is that it looks like they still have ways to improve! Some of the guards struggle with containment on the wings. They’ve been torched when isolated in two-man action that drags Vooch out of the paint. There have been a few blips of poor awareness in giving up offensive rebounding opportunities. Each of these are areas they could conceivably clean up.

The season’s opening stretch has likely proven that the team’s defensive emergence going into the 2019 playoffs was indeed sustainable. The win/loss record may not yet make for pretty reading, but the team can take some consolation in the fact that at one end of the court they’re already positioned to start turning things around.


TRENDING DOWN

Made baskets

NBA: Orlando Magic at Atlanta Hawks Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Putting the ball in the basket is the key to the game of basketball. Unfortunately for the Magic, a professional basketball team, to date they have been exceedingly bad at putting the ball in the basket. Stupefyingly bad.

Orlando currently sports the league’s worst offense, generating just 97.7 points per 100 possessions. They’ve hit triple digits in just one contest, and it’s only the previously mentioned team defense giving them even a sniff of a chance in most games. With the ball in hand, it’s the most pessimistic pundit’s worst fears manifest.

Precisely how bad is it? Well, the Magic are currently shooting just 40.7% from the field (ranked 30th league wide) along with 26.6% from deep (30th). Their 126 made free throws ranks twenty-first, with the frequency of trips to the charity stripe clocking in at an even worse number - they generate less than one free-throw attempt for every four possessions. The effective field goal percentage has only just crept above 45%, currently sitting almost 3 whole percentage points south of the 29th ranked team (Chicago). Evan Fournier and Isaac are the only rotation regulars sporting a healthier percentage from the field than last year. Terrence Ross can’t buy a triple. DJ Augustin’s finishing at the rim has crashed back to earth. Al-Farouq Aminu may never hit a layup again.

The Magic look like they’re an elite defensive team. However, if they can’t figure out how to shoot the ball at something closer to acceptable — say, at least in the ballpark of league average — it may all be for nought.


Terrence Ross, the Human Torch

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Any discussion of Orlando’s shooting numbers probably calls for closer inspection of Ross and his positively frigid start to the season. To say that he’s opened the year in a slump is an understatement: 28.2% from the field, 19.0% from deep, a mind-boggling effective field goal percentage of 33.8%, and just 8.3 points per game. He’s been more Iceman than Human Torch.

Considering his role on the Magic as a much-needed long range threat and scoring focal point of bench-heavy units, such a start is a legitimate concern. The distribution of his shots hasn’t shifted dramatically at all; in fact, if anything his shot chart locations look better this year than last, with some of the long-twos of 2018/19 now being stretched out beyond the arc. He’s just not hitting anything outside of 10 feet with regularity.

Ross is currently converting just 30% of attempts between 10 and 16 feet and 20% of shots launched from 16 to 23 feet, to go along with the previously mentioned three-point clanks. He’s yet to hit a corner three, nor has he supplemented this inaccuracy with a greater frequency of trips to the free-throw line. He’s not really getting the type of easy buckets that might kickstart things for him, despite a similar shot profile to last season.

The Magic need more from their recently re-signed wing. Even with Ross scoring at a career-best clip last season they were an offensively-challenged side, so it’s no surprise that a dip in his output has coincided with such a calamitous tanking of the team’s ability to generate points. It’s rarely a good idea to invest in past production that can be described as a generous outlier, and in the early going the Ross contract has started to resemble just that. Early returns in Orlando look a little singed.


Aaron Gordon, All-Star sleeper

NBA: Orlando Magic at Dallas Mavericks Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been a rough opening stretch for Gordon. Like most of his teammates, the most obvious thing afflicting his season is the inaccuracy of his shooting numbers. Before the bump in numbers from the Dallas game AG hadn’t ever shot as poorly as he did to open the season, with his current average of 13.3 points per game a significant drop from recent seasons. His free-throw shooting is continuing its odd every-second-year-below-70% trend, while his general usage has declined markedly from the last couple of campaigns. He’s both getting less opportunities and doing less with them.

It’s a worrying set of numbers for Magic fans, primarily because so much of the hope for team improvement is tied up in Gordon. Vucevic is the incumbent, but AG is an oft-mentioned name when it comes to All-Star hopefuls. He’s young, on a non-intrusive contract, and has seemingly been on a steady trajectory of development across his first five seasons. But if the team is going to build on April’s playoff appearance and be more than a side helping to make up the numbers, it’s almost essential that Gordon emerge as a more impactful and dependable player. And it just hasn’t happened yet.

While AG has fared well defensively — with a solid impact on the side’s defensive plus/minus figures and individual steal and block frequencies right around his solid career averages — he just hasn’t been able to get going at the offensive end. He’s twice had only single-digit field goal attempts in games, while never shooting more than 6 free throws. He’s topped 20 points just twice, while his assist numbers have shrunk when compared to last year. His feel for the game isn’t discernibly better, and although he’s curbed turnovers during the early going he does still occasionally revert to tunnel-vision possessions that end in ill-advised and forced shot attempts.

There have been glimpses. There always are with Gordon. But now more than ever the Magic need these glimpses to be sustained and turned into dependable, game-changing contributions. The jury remains unconvinced.


The obvious regression candidates

NBA: Orlando Magic at Oklahoma City Thunder Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

Okay, we knew there was a chance that Vucevic and Augustin wouldn’t be as good this season as they were last. But I’m not sure many would have predicted that the sting would be felt quite so soon.

Augustin has seen all of his major statistical contributions dip, along with his shooting numbers. His ability to finish at the hoop has dropped considerably from last season’s career-best rate (down almost 10 whole percentage points to 55%), while his three-point shooting stroke has seemingly abandoned him (26.3% on just 19 total attempts). It’s really no wonder that he’s already lost his starting spot.

Vucevic has regressed in a similar fashion. Outside of free-throw shooting there isn’t one single statistical category that is in line with his output from last season. Offensively, he can’t seem to find a rhythm and has been ineffective as the team’s playmaking fulcrum. He’s one of the team’s coldest three-point shooters (20.7% on 29 total attempts), which is saying something. Defensively, he’s already been shredded in high pick-and-roll coverage in a couple of games, dredging up nightmares from tanking seasons past. It’s hard to imagine he’s anywhere close to an All-Star spot.

A number of pundits had these two Magic veterans pegged for a dip in production this season. Still, the current numbers are both a little surprising and plenty dispiriting. If neither can get on track it could be a long season in Central Florida.


2 and 6. It’s a far cry from the start that many expected from the Magic this season. This, undoubtedly, goes a long way towards explaining why the players and factors trending down seem to handily outweigh those that are trending up.

Let’s hope the upcoming stretch of home cooking gets things headed in the right direction.