We’ve reached the final 10 games of the regular season and the Orlando Magic are still playing meaningful basketball. Over the final stretch, many questions will be asked, some will be answered.
We’ll begin with the most obvious question of all...
1. Are the Orlando Magic playoff bound?
This is the mother of all questions for the Orlando Magic. In order to make the postseason for the first time since 2012, the Magic have to make up 1.5 games on the Heat, or 2.5 games on the Nets, or 3 games on the Pistons. FiveThirtyEight currently gives the Magic a 56 percent chance of making the playoffs with a projected record of 39-43, which just edges out the Heat at 55 percent. This is based mostly on strength of schedule, with Orlando’s remaining opponents having a combined winning percentage of .496 and the Heat’s opponents at .521, per Tankathon. The Nets have the most challenging remaining schedule in the league at .622, but FiveThirtyEight still gives them an 87 percent chance of making the playoffs. It all comes down to whether the Magic can win the games they are expected to win, something they have clearly struggled with this season, and how often contending teams plan to impact the playoff race by giving their star players the night off for the newest NBA buzzword: load management. My prediction: the Magic split their final 10 games and finish at 39-43, the Heat finish 40-42, the Nets finish at 41-41, the Pistons finish at 43-37. The Magic finish with their best record since Dwight Howard left, but just miss out on the playoffs. That can change though if…..
2. Can the Magic win on the road?
The Magic have already locked up a winning record on their home court, with 21 wins and four home games remaining. The most important games they’ll play over the remainder of the season will be on the road, where they are 13-22. The Magic are approaching what will be their biggest game since, I would say, Game 6 of the first round of the 2011 NBA Playoffs when they played the Atlanta Hawks (in the 2012 playoffs, even after winning the first game, they never really stood much of a chance of winning the series against Indiana without Howard). After they wrap-up their current five-game homestand, the Magic travel to Miami for a game that could very well determine who ultimately wins the eighth spot. It will be the second game of a back-to-back for the Magic, while the Heat will be coming off two days of rest. It’s the start of a stretch where the Magic close the season with six of their final eight games on the road, all of which they will not be favored in. If they steal some wins on the road and split the six games, AND win out at home, that could be enough to make the playoffs.
3. Does Michael Carter-Williams stick around?
Yup. I wrote earlier this week that MCW won me over on his very first possession in a Magic uniform. With his ability to defend the pick-and-roll, push the pace offensively, get to the line, and bring that high-octane energy the Magic’s often stagnant second unit needs, he has proved to be an upgrade over Jerian Grant (though, just about anyone would be). Carter-Williams’ flaws are well-documented. But based on the Magic’s needs, the options at this stage of the season, and the lack of experiment time remaining while in the playoff push, I’ll stick with the guy who is playing for his NBA life.
4. Can Evan Fournier finish strong?
No player on this roster has the ability to improve the Magic’s playoff chances over the final 10 games more than Evan Fournier. Offensively, many of his numbers this season are the lowest of his five years in Orlando. That includes his 14.6 points per game, his shooting percentages (42.5% FG, 34.2% 3PT%, 52.6% TS), his free throw rate (.15 free throws per field goal attempt), his offensive win shares (0.1 down from 2.4 last season). To his credit, Fournier has improved his assist rate and also on the defensive end. If he can provide steady offensive production and efficient shooting over the final 10 games, it will go a long way in helping the Magic secure the eighth seed. His 22-point, 9-for-13 shooting performance against the Pelicans on Wednesday was a great start.
5. Will we see Markelle Fultz or Mo Bamba?
Only on the bench in street clothes. There is no sense in rushing Mo Bamba back from a leg injury, particularly when Khem Birch has been an upgrade over the raw rookie at the back-up center position. Give Bamba the offseason to continue his rehab and bulk up. As for Fultz - as much as we would all like to see him on the court, even if only for a game or two out of sheer curiosity - the Magic won’t drop him into the middle of a high-pressure playoff race and force his assimilation into the team at such a crucial juncture. Plus, details on his rehab have been so vague, we still have no clue whether Fultz has even began shooting a basketball at this stage. Best case scenario: the Magic make the playoffs without them and then start the 2019-2020 season with Bamba and Fultz in uniform and ready for meaningful minutes. The Magic wouldn’tt be in the lottery, but they’d be adding two lottery picks who have played a combined 80 games (33 for Fultz, 47 for Bamba).
6. Is this the end of the Nikola Vucevic era?
That all depends on how much, and how long, other teams are willing to pay a 28-year-old first-time All-Star. Is it true that the Mavericks hope to have Vooch join forces with Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis? If the Magic offered their longest tenured player a four-year, $80 million deal, frontloading the first two years as much as possible, would that be enough to keep him in Orlando? Keeping Vooch around at a reasonable salary while Bamba continues to develop would be ideal for the Magic. But with a marquee free agent class, and with teams ready and willing to spend, Vooch could benefit financially from a team that strikes out on the top-tier free agents and moves to Plan B.
7. What has Steve Clifford done right? Wrong?
Well, playoffs or not, Steve Clifford has guided the Magic to what will be their most successful season since the Dwight era. That doesn’t happen if Clifford doesn’t help make a first-time All-Star out of Nikola Vucevic by running the Magic’s inside-out offense through him. This season, 55.7 percent of Vucevic’s field goal attempts have come from within 10 feet of the basket compared to 43.6 percent last season under Frank Vogel. Last season, 24.3 percent of Vooch’s field goal attempts were threes. That number has dropped to 16.7 under Clifford, who re-positioned Vucevic to the post more frequently and made touches in the paint a priority, hence the reason Vooch has a career-high usage rate of 27.8 percent. Much like Clifford did with Charlotte, he has turned the Magic into a top-10 defensive team. Their defensive rating of 107.0 points per 100 possession is currently seventh best in the league (the Magic last season were 20th at 109.3 when scoring in the league overall was significantly lower). Another hallmark of Clifford’s disciplined teams, the Magic have a 13.5 turnover percentage, which is seventh lowest in the league. He has also held players accountable and helped eliminate the loser’s mentality of taking moral victory from losses. As for the negative side: At points this season, Clifford seemed to stick with pre-determined rotations for too long, rather than allow the game to dictate who should or shouldn’t be on the court. Injury (Mo Bamba) and prolonged ineffectiveness (Jerian Grant) helped remedy that and Clifford stuck with what worked.
8. With the regular season nearly complete, on a scale of 1 to 10, how successful was this Magic season?
Whether Orlando makes the playoffs or not, I give it a seven. The Magic will have made an approximate 15-win jump from one season to the next. There has been internal player development (Vucevic, Isaac, and in some areas, Gordon). And they have brought in an enticing young player (Fultz) without surrendering significant assets. Based on expectations coming into the season, that’s a pretty significant one-year jump. And there is still plenty of room for improvement.
9. So, if the Magic don’t make the playoffs, what do their lottery chances look like?
The only non-playoff team to currently have a better record than the Magic are the Kings at 34-36. Per Tankathon, as it currently stands, the Magic would have a 1.0 percent chance of getting the first overall pick, and a 4.8 percent chance of getting a top-four pick. If the Magic (34-38) miss the playoffs and somehow finish with a worse record than the Timberwolves (32-39), Hornets (31-39), and Lakers (31-40), they’d move back into the top-10 in the lottery and increase their odds to 3.0 percent for the first overall pick and 13.9 percent. At this stage, let’s just focus on making the playoffs.
10. Where do the Magic go from here?
If the Magic do make the playoffs, would they be considered an up-and-coming team? Let’s flashback for a moment. We’ll start in the 1994 NBA playoffs. A young Magic team is swept by the Indiana Pacers. Jump to the 2007 NBA Playoffs. The Magic were swept by the Detroit Pistons. Despite early postseason exits, there was a sense that both of those teams were on the precipice of annual contention. This current team, with a core that still has to prove they can co-exist, doesn’t have that feel (or the Hall of Fame caliber players). The goal form here, after deciding the fates of Nikola Vucevic and Terrence Ross, is to fill voids in the offseason (preferably a scorer who can create off the dribble), finalize their point guard depth chart for the longterm, see continued development from Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac, incorporate Mo Bamba and Markelle Fultz, and then aim for the fifth seed next season.