It’s been a little over a month since we took the temperature of the Magic, and things have certainly changed. When we first checked in the team was 2-6 and mired in an all-time shooting slump: things were grim!
In the time since, things have become … well, less grim. Welcome to the season’s second 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.
For the Magic, the equation was simple: when Nikola Vucevic went down they needed Evan Fournier to step up. The good news is that he has, and in the biggest way.
The French two-guard suffered through a tough shooting campaign in 2018/19, and after a handful of games this season it looked like he still hadn’t regained his stroke. Through the first nine games, both his points-per-game average and three-point accuracy were down, even compared to last season’s deflated numbers: just 14.8 points and a 33% conversion rate from deep, both of which would represent some of his worst output in pinstripes.
Since then Fournier has really taken his game to a new level, particularly in the eleven games since Vooch succumbed to an ankle injury. He has emerged as a reliable first option for the Magic, capably filling the role of offensive centerpiece. His shooting has been red hot, buoyed primarily by a three-point percentage of 46.9% across his last 15 games. In that same time he’s averaged 23.3 points per contest in a team-high 32.3 minutes of court time each night. He’s hit the 30-point mark on three occasions, including a career-high 32 against the Warriors. He’s streaking.
Although Orlando are mired in a tough part of their schedule, Fournier has been able to keep the ship afloat. The team remains in eighth place in the East, a half-game ahead of the Hornets and Pistons, largely thanks to the contributions of their two-guard. He’s been able to recapture the decisive and reliable game he displayed during the offseason at the World Championships, a boon for a Magic side that could have seen their season go sideways already. FIBA Fournier has arrived.
I’ve already spent some time digging into this, but it’s fair to say that Mo Bamba is having himself a moment. Vooch’s sprained ankle threatened to once again expose the Magic’s young center, who had been so brutal in limited minutes during his rookie campaign. Instead, the big guy has stepped up, looking cool and collected while reigniting hope laced with the potential of wingspan. He may yet emerge as an impact NBA player.
Let’s consider again his last few weeks: an extended sequence as the most impactful player on the court against the Pistons; a turn as Ray Allen incarnate against the Cavs; a defensive showcase and 18-minute double-double against the Suns; a three-game stretch that he finished with a plus/minus of +43; nary a whisper of foul trouble. Oh, and who could forget him dethroning the King’s dunk attempt?
Bamba still has a way to go before he can say that he’s met the lofty expectations the franchise had when they drafted him sixth overall in 2018. He’s undoubtedly still multiple seasons away from being ready to even start thinking about a starting position in the league. However, while he’s far from a finished product, the last few weeks have demonstrated that he’s got the skills necessary to make meaningful contributions to winning basketball.
Already a winner in the season’s first installment of this column, Markelle Fultz has continued his positive trajectory. A complete enigma coming into the opener, he has quickly established himself as a key part of this team’s present and future. He’s playing consistent and reliable minutes, displaying a growing confidence, and flashing plenty of play that shows why he was the top of his draft class only a few years ago. There are no longer any doubts: he’s going to make it in this league.
Fultz has pushed his season averages up to a tidy 11.7 points, 4.1 assists and 2.8 rebounds per contest. He’s playing over 25 minutes a game while shooting 47% from the field (despite an awkward 22.5% from deep). He’s nudged his free-throw rate back in line with his career average (.217), gets his hands on 1.2 steals per game, and has largely kept his turnovers down (logging one on 13.6% of all possessions) despite an increasing usage rate (now up to 21.8%). His numbers in December are even better again, with box score averages of 12.2 points, 6 assists and 4 rebounds.
The gains have been modestly incremental, sure. But they’ve also been reliably steady. Fultz looks a little better every time he steps on the floor. Although he may never possess a knockdown jumpshot his jerky dribble penetration, ability to slither through space, and keen passing instincts means he’ll always be able to impact the game. His ceiling still awaits.
The Human Torch was trending in the wrong direction last time, courtesy of a shooting slump that showed no signs of abating. He couldn’t buy a bucket from anywhere on the floor, providing just 8.3 points on 29% from the field through the season’s first 8 games. Things weren’t pretty for the explosive wing who was kicking off a freshly-signed four-year, $54 million pact.
Thankfully, since then Terrence Ross has managed to reignite the flame. He’s put up 15.8 points per game across his last ten, converting at 46.3% from the field and 39.7% from deep. He’s back to being instant offense for the bench units, a threat to both sink the long ball and to get to the charity stripe. He’s topped the 20-point mark three times in his last five outings, shouldering a more significant offensive burden as the Magic navigate injuries. Shooters shoot, and thankfully for the Magic, Ross looks to have pushed himself past the season’s early troubles.
This column is coming out at a time when the Magic are starting to see the cavalry return, but it’s fair to say that the last month has been a difficult one for the side in terms of health. Almost every integral member of the rotation has missed time, a series of circumstances that has required the coaching staff to go further down the depth chart than they would have hoped.
So how bad has it been? Well, Vucevic has missed the last 14 games thanks to an ankle sprain. Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac were out of the lineup on 3 and 2 occasions, respectively, with similar maladies. Al-Farouq Aminu is out for the foreseeable future with a torn meniscus in his right knee. Michael Carter-Williams has been inactive 9 times with a variety of injuries. Ross missed a pair back in early November. Fultz was ill recently. Bamba has been rested a couple of times. Fournier and DJ Augustin (who we’ll get to next) are the only players to make it to this point with a clean bill of health. For a team who could use their fingers and toes to count the number of games meaningful games missed in 2018/19 this has been a shock.
What’s a little trickier to do is to put this into perspective. Data collected by Man Games Lost goes some way towards capturing the impact of these injuries on the Magic, and contrasting them with those experienced by other teams. It’s interesting to note that Orlando -- one of the blue bubbles poking out from underneath Phoenix -- may not have one of the largest counts of total games lost. However, the size of their bubble is indicative of the Lost-Wins metric (wins ‘missed’ due to injured players); as one of the larger bubbles it indicates the quality and importance of the players who have missed time for the Magic.
Orlando have undoubtedly been significantly impacted by injuries during the season’s opening third. Let’s hope that the return of their All-Star big man marks the beginning of a change in fortune in this regard.
In a team filled with players not necessarily hitting the same heights as last season, DJ Augustin’s downturn has perhaps been the most noticeable. The veteran playmaker has already been shifted to the bench, an outcome of the side’s better play with Fultz in the backcourt. It would also have been the hope that his presence with the second unit would demonstrably boost the offensive output of the reserves, but it hasn’t really happened. It’s been a tough start to the season.
There are a number of meaningful ways in which Augustin’s output is down when compared to last season. He’s playing about 2.5 minutes per game less, during which his statistical output has dipped to 9.2 points and 4.6 assists, down from 11.7 and 5.3 in 2018/19). His field goal percentage has sunk to just 37.4% -- a decrease of 10% from last season’s career-best mark. This is largely the product of his putrid three-point shooting, a figure which currently sits at 29.4% and which represents the worst long-range accuracy of his career. He’s also lost his ability to finish at the hoop, with last season’s conversion rate of 64.6% within three-feet falling all the way to 55.9%.
To watch the games is to see a player who has lost the comfort of his security blanket. His most effective play last season was in the two-man game with Vucevic, a rapport he hasn’t been able to replicate with Bamba. At times he’s appeared indecisive and flappable, uncertain of when to push the pace or how to get the ball to teammates in scoring position. With a shooting stroke that has abandoned him and the absence of pet plays it’s been tough sledding for the point guard. The Magic will need him to get going if they’re going to ever meet their own internal expectations.
Orlando are currently on the right side of the playoff ledger, but it’s only by the slimmest of margins. The team’s 11-14 record is currently good for eighth in the Eastern Conference, with both the Hornets and the Pistons lurking just a half-game back. In fact, if Sunday’s matchup in New Orleans doesn’t go their way they could officially be on the outside looking in.
The Magic would have been expecting to start the season in a stronger fashion. However, a number of factors have conspired against this: the aforementioned injuries, slow starts by key veterans, a poor road record. Worryingly, the path forward has just gotten more difficult as the team enters a particularly brutal stretch. Where they sit entering the New Year will be interesting to see.
The regular season show rolls on, including a date Sunday with the woebegone Pelicans. If Orlando are going to keep things moving in the right direction, it’s essential that they capitalize against weaker opposition.
If not, there may be a little more anxiety next time we check in on the season’s trends.