Every team going through a rebuild has its own unique flavor, their own path toward relevance (or their own way of failing to achieve it). When I think of Philadelphia, I think of a team that had good players and clear potential, but never really looked like a good team until, suddenly yet unquestionably, they were.
The Orlando Magic’s path has been much more bumpy. Multiple hot starts have proven unsustainable, and progress one season has often led to regression the next. That’s why every time the Magic look “good” again, we inevitably ask ourselves whether it’s “real.”
We find ourselves in the same position as we wait through this All-Star break. Having won five in a row and 7 of 8, the Magic are on their hottest run since they traded Dwight Howard, officially signaling the start of a rebuild that’s lasted longer than most would have expected.
On the other hand, they just lost 7 of 8 before they turned things around. A smart analyst is wise to avoid recency bias, to recognize that the last 8 games don’t always mean more than the 8 before that. That’s why we’re going to dig deeper, to figure out if anything’s changed that makes recent history more meaningful. Let’s start with the most obvious critique of the win streak.
Not Real - The Magic’s opposition has been extremely weak
Every team the Magic beat the last few weeks has been A) Bad, or B) Suffering from a serious extenuating circumstance. The Pacers, Nets, and Bucks were missing some of their most important players. The Pelicans were victims of Anthony Davis drama. The Timberwolves, Hawks, and Hornets are just lousy. The only reason beating Charlotte was exciting was because the Magic literally never beat them. The one good team they faced was the Thunder, and they lost that game.
Real - The quality of the Magic’s wins has been extremely strong
On the other hand, if you’re a good team playing against easy opponents, you expect to win handily, and the Magic did just that, with almost every win in double-digits. Actually, it would be more accurate to say the Magic exceeded expectations, and we can measure that by examining their betting lines throughout the run. There’s a variety of sources we could use, but we’ll look at FiveThirtyEight’s CARMELO spreads.
It’s somewhat inexact, but as a rough method we’ll average the point spreads from the eight games the Magic played. For clarity, I’m describing these from the Magic’s perspective, so if they were favored it was a positive number, and if they were underdogs it was negative (reversing the convention in gambling, in which the favored team’s line would be described as “Magic -5,” for example).
|Opponent||Magic favored by...||Actual Win Margin|
|Opponent||Magic favored by...||Actual Win Margin|
As we can see, the Magic beat their spread in every single game, even the one they lost. If things played out exactly as expected, Orlando’s average point differential would have been about -1.7, but instead they came out way ahead, +15.5.
(Well, that’s not exactly true, since the earlier results affected the spreads of the later games, so the “expected” point differential would probably be worse, if you were trying to make a prediction before the win streak. There’s also issues of pace and such to consider, and whether you choose to buy FiveThirtyEight’s lines over actual Vegas books, but like I said, this is a rough estimate.)
That’s really good! Blowing out bad opponents is the hallmark of a good team, more so than close victories over good opponents. Plus, if we compare to the big losing streak...
Real - The Magic’s winning run was stronger than their losing run
Following the same method, when the Magic lost 7 of 8, their expected point differential was -3.2, and their actual differential was -2.5 (buoyed in large part by their 19-point win over Atlanta). In other words, they roughly fell in line with expectations.
Their sudden surge implies some good news and some bad news. The bad news is that regression is coming...which should be obvious. They’re not going to be the best team in the entire league for the rest of the season. The good news, however, is that such a drastic improvement suggests something is different now. They’ll regress, but they probably won’t regress all the way back.
Not Real - The Magic have avoided significant injuries
One thing working for the Magic throughout the season has been avoiding injuries to their most important players. In terms of total “injury games lost,” as accounted by Man Games Lost, they’re fairly average, but the Magic’s depth is tenuous. If Nikola Vucevic or D.J. Augustin go down for any significant amount of time, the Magic very quickly end up in a lot of trouble, the former because, well, he’s an All-Star (!!!), and the latter because his replacements are well below replacement level.
This isn’t to say the Magic are due for an injury. Rather, they’re very vulnerable to any kind of setback if they want to make the playoffs.
Real - The Magic have minimized the roles of their worst players
If we’re trying to pin down what’s actually different with the Orlando Magic, the players participating are probably the biggest factor. The number one culprit here was Mohammed Bamba, who’s been sidelined with a stress fracture. I speculated that Steve Clifford might be forced to reduce Bamba’s role if the Magic were serious about winning, and for better or worse, that choice was made for him by the injury.
Rookies are generally bad, but Bamba, for all his potential, was worse than normal. Really, he was among the most detrimental players in the league. He’s the worst center by RPM, and held the worst point differential of any player on the team, by far. Khem Birch has been a significant upgrade, but he could be mediocre and still offer a lot more.
Bamba’s not the only culprit, though. Jerian Grant and Jonathon Simmons had the second and third-worst plus-minuses on the team, and they’re also both out of the rotation (the latter by virtue of the Markelle Fultz trade, of course). Combined, they were part of the devastatingly bad bench that led to all those blown double-digit leads throughout the last few months.
Now, Isaiah Briscoe and Khem Birch have filled in those gaps, providing solid if unspectacular play. They’re probably about a net zero on the court, but that’s a dramatic improvement over what Orlando was working with before.
I don’t want to make this a denunciation of Mo Bamba’s development. I’m still very high on him, but I also think it’s fairly reasonable at this point to let him develop for a few more seasons as Vucevic’s backup (presuming the Magic resign their All-Star (!!!) center).
Real? - Jonathan Isaac’s Breakout
The most fun part of the run has undoubtedly been Isaac’s breakout play, and at the same time it’s the aspect I have the least confidence in. His scoring is way up, he’s shooting far better, and he’s more than doubled his block rate while actually decreasing his foul rate. For a long time now, he’s flashed moves that look good, but never quite get all the way there, especially around the rim. Now, a lot of those close misses are actually going down.
I’m not really sure he’s going to play like this the rest of the season, especially on the defensive end, but there’s a different element that encourages me. More than the increased production, I’m excited by the increased opportunity. He’s taking 11.1 shots per game, compared to 7.2 throughout the rest of the season.
The start of the New Orleans game was a particularly good example of the green light he’s getting. He started gunning right out the gate, going 1-for-4 in the first 3 minutes of the game, all three misses coming from distance. In another situation, it’s easy to imagine the Magic going away from the sophomore and feeding the ball back to their veterans. Instead, Isaac continued to get scoring opportunities, and he finished the quarter 6-for-10 for 16 points, leading the team and nearly outscoring the Pelicans on his own.
If the coaches and players are willing to put their faith in Isaac to carry a larger offensive load, then I consider that a good sign, both for his own development, and that of the team as a whole.
To go back to FiveThirtyEight’s projections, they give the Magic a 60% chance at making the playoffs. They project that it’s more likely than not that the Magic will make it there. I’m not the first to say this, but this is the best chance the Magic have had this late into the season.
Other factors outside the team work in their favor, too. As most Magic fans know, they had a fairly tough schedule to start the year, and therefore have one of the easiest the rest of the way. One of their rivals for the eighth seed was Washington, and they’ve likely bowed out of consideration by trading Otto Porter.
On the other hand, the specter of disappointment continues to linger over this team. This isn’t the first time they’ve looked like a real basketball team, and every other time it’s proven to be a short-lived fantasy. One thing certainly is different, however: the final two months of the season are important for the first time in years. By the low standards of the Eastern Conference also-rans, that counts as progress.