On the back of a four-game winning streak the Magic have climbed their way to a .500 record, consolidating their current standing as the Eastern Conference’s eighth-seed.
They’ve built a 2.5 game lead over the ninth-placed Pistons, a gap that they might need every inch of in the coming weeks. As much as Orlando have been taking care of business, it’s hard to overlook the fact that they’ve fattened the wins ledger by feasting on the league’s also-rans.
Although a statement of fact, it’s not one intended to demean the Magic’s current position. They’ve had to contend with their first significant batch of injuries in eighteen months, with the man-games lost of a kind that would sink many sides. Nikola Vucevic, their incumbent All-Star center and offensive focal point, is out for a month with an ankle sprain. Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac both missed time with similar maladies. Michael Carter-Williams was sidelined for a stretch with hip and nasal contusion problems. Al-Farouq Aminu has no timetable to return after suffering a torn meniscus in his right knee. Mo Bamba and Markelle Fultz have both been navigating minutes restrictions. That’s nearly the entire rotation accounted for!
And yet, with an incredibly tough slate of games beginning Monday night in Milwaukee, all of the good work done to this point might be nought but a moral victory come the New Year. It’s going to require a serious effort from the team over the next few weeks to keep their head above water in the race for the playoffs. Let’s take a look at their chances.
The Rear View
Despite only being a quarter of the way through the season the Magic have been 4 games under .500 on three separate occasions already. That they’ve fought their way back is admirable, but it’s come only by taking advantage of a soft spot in the schedule, with four straight wins against teams currently sporting records below .500. In fact, a closer look at Orlando’s wins to date reveals that this season they’ve only beaten one team currently boasting a winning record: a 15 point triumph over the Embiid-less Sixers back in mid-November. The other ten wins have come against Cleveland (thrice), Washington (twice), New York, Memphis, San Antonio, Golden State and Phoenix. Not to alarm anyone, but those seven sides are currently a combined 65 games below .500, with a cumulative winning percentage south of .300. To put it lightly, that’s not very good.
Still, a side can only play the competition that the schedule dishes up, and Orlando have largely taken care of business when they were expected to while putting in solid showings in other contests. The losses to the Hawks and the Pistons were mildly concerning and ones they’ll likely rue; however, they’ve largely avoided blowouts outside of tough losses to Milwaukee and Toronto (and a disastrous second half in Indiana). Point differential has traditionally been a pretty good indicator of a team’s capabilities (often more so than the traditional standings), and the Magic are in solid shape in this regard. They currently sit seventh in the East and thirteenth league-wide with a figure of +0.4, a number close to their playoff-securing differential last season. Simple Rating System (SRS), a figure intended to filter traditional plus/minus through the lens of strength of schedule, ranks them similarly with a final score of +0.23, an outcome remarkably close to last season’s +0.28.
Orlando may have played one of the softest schedules to date, with the average winning percentage of their opponents hovering just a shade over 48%, good for sixth-easiest league-wide. However, other metrics are a little more upbeat about the team’s performance, with ESPN’s Relative Percent Index (RPI) -- which takes into account record, strength of schedule and the opponent’s winning percentage -- placing them fifteenth (and well ahead of similarly placed Eastern Conference foes) with an estimated win/loss record that exactly mirrors their real-world position. The data suggests that the Magic have basically performed as expected, despite navigating a lengthy list of injuries. That seems like a good thing!
The Road Ahead
While Orlando may have done a solid job to this point, things are going to get demonstrably more difficult in very short order. How do we know? Because the stats don’t lie.
The first thing worth considering is the current combined winning percentage of remaining opponents. Three dates against the Bucks (20-3) and a pair against the Lakers (also 20-3) are going to inflate the final number, but as it stands the Magic can expect the fifth-most difficult schedule over their remaining sixty games with an opponent winning percentage of 51.8%. They’ve only got nine tilts remaining against the league’s worst quintet (by current record) but a whopping fourteen left against the five best (again, by current record). They’ve still got twenty-three of thirty games against the big brother Western Conference, as well as a smidge more road dates -- where they’ve won just 30% of the time -- than home contests. Add it all together and you’ve got a very tall order to overcome.
The next three weeks have the potential to be brutal. Just look at this for a schedule between now and the New Year: at Bucks, vs. Lakers, vs. Rockets, at Pelicans, at Jazz, at Nuggets, at Blazers, vs. Bulls, vs. 76ers, at Bucks, vs. Hawks. Seven games against teams currently with winning records. Seven contests involving an opponent who would view anything less than an NBA Finals appearance as a failure. If the results go to script -- as the vast majority of Orlando’s games this season already have -- the Magic would be starting 2020 once again well below .500. If they can’t make their own luck during this stretch they’ll be left crossing fingers and hoping other results go their way.
Can they do it?
Optimistic take? Sure! Just look at how well they played in the back half of last season.
Pessimistic take? Probably not. Those are some daunting names on the upcoming schedule.
Realists take? Maybe … hopefully. Probably … possibly.
Look, the Magic have a chance because they do a lot of things well that traditionally result in winning basketball. They’re top-ten in the league in defensive rating, limiting opponents to just 105 points per 100 possessions. They protect the ball on offense with the ninth-best turnover rate (just 12.5%), while ending defensive possessions by clearing the boards at the league’s fourth-best rate (79.5%). The team has improved its collective free throw rate (up to 21st) as well as generally nudging the offense in the right direction (up to 23rd in offensive rating after a truly disastrous start to the season). They give up very few free-throws (just .170 per opponent field goal attempt, the league’s fourth-lowest rate) and have also become a sneakily effective offensive rebounding side (snagging one on 23.2% of possessions, good for 11th). The underlying numbers are solid.
The hope would be that they have weathered the worst of the injury front, while some of the players continue to show improvement on their very early performance. Evan Fournier is streaking, Fultz is emerging, Isaac is arriving, and even Bamba is showing flashes. If just a couple of those guys can continue their ascendancy when Vucevic returns the team will maintain sizeable room for growth. This core has shown that they’re capable of consistent high-level performances as little as eight months ago. Now they’re just going to have to do the same again.
Coming into the season, the expectation was that Orlando would be looking to consolidate last season’s playoff appearance, likely hovering around the ninth to sixth seed as they jockeyed for position with a number of mid-tier sides. To this point, that’s been precisely how it has played out. While it might not seem like a demonstrable step forward when compared to the 2018/19 finish, it’s inarguable that the side has faced greater adversity during this campaign; as such, the .500 record probably shines a little brighter than it may appear at first glance.
The next three weeks won’t exactly make or break Orlando’s season. But they will tell us a lot about where this team is at and their ceiling in 2020. It’s time to see if the Magic are ready to stand up and be counted.