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I was wrong about the Orlando Magic

An overdue mea culpa as the Orlando Magic wrap up their most successful season in a long time

NBA: Orlando Magic at Boston Celtics Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

I was wrong.

I said the Orlando Magic couldn’t produce an All-Star. Nikola Vucevic is an All-Star.

I said that Steve Clifford’s “tough” mentality and personality was overrated. The Magic are among the best defenses in the league.

I said that wins over teams like the Toronto Raptors back in December were hiding the truth about the team’s true skill level. The Magic built their season on wins over nearly every elite team in the NBA.

I said the playoffs were a pipe dream. The Orlando Magic are in the playoffs.

Time and again this season, I’ve been the curmudgeon among Magic writers and followers. When the Magic bounced back from a 4-game losing streak by besting the Raptors, I wrote that “I don’t believe in Magic.” About a week after that, when the Magic got rolled by the Sacramento Kings, my game recap was particularly scathing toward the team and the fans. Near the end of that month, I criticized the front office’s vision, writing that “Orlando Magic fans need to stop buying into a cycle of mediocrity.”

Naturally, this all looks very silly now. In fact, we had yet to see the best version of the Magic. Historically, the Winter Swoon that we’ve come to expect from the Magic has all but ended their seasons, but the team that emerged in February defied all my expectations.

I’m a firm believer in process, so more than just saying “I was a dumb idiot,” I want to look back on what I wrote before and see if there was anything I missed, to identify what objective factors I could have used to predict their meteoric rise (or, perhaps, to identify what nobody could have seen coming).

We’ll start with what I believe was the most important ingredient in the Magic’s winning season:

  • I didn’t think the Magic could fix their bench

December 29th:

I’m absolutely not out on [Mohammad] Bamba, and I love his potential, but there’s also little doubt that he’s incredibly destructive to the Magic’s chances of winning right now. It’s not fair to put all the bench struggles on him, but he may be the biggest contributor to the problems.

February 20th:

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.

By late January, Magic fans well-understood that the starters (Augustin, Fournier, Gordon, Isaac, and Vucevic) were actually pretty solid, often establishing big leads early in games. We also understood that the bench was among the very worst in the league, giving back what the starters earned, plus interest.

For perspective, the starting unit had a net rating of +4.2 through January 30th (the clearest dividing line between the bad and good parts of the season), and were actually just average after that, only a +0.9. That’s right: during the best part of the season, the starting unit was entirely unspectacular. Almost overnight, the bench flipped from a detriment to an asset.

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

What I didn’t anticipate was that the Magic would have a path to improve that bench, and in retrospect the changes they made were fairly dramatic. We associate good teams with playing good players, but it may be even more accurate to say that good teams give very few minutes to bad players.

The Magic seemed to have exactly that strategy in mind when they stopped playing their three worst players (Bamba due to injury). Voilà, suddenly the team is better! I should have expected that the coaching staff and front office would take steps to fix their greatest weakness, and they smartly targeted what wasn’t working (the bench) rather than try to upgrade what was already functional (the starters).

In fairness, what I don’t think I could have reasonably predicted was that they had answers already available on the roster. I know they had their fans out there, pushing for them to get opportunities, but Isaiah Briscoe and Khem Birch over-performed even the most optimistic expectations. Michael Carter-Williams was even less predictable, the ultimate wildcard to rescue the Magic’s playoff push when Briscoe went down.

(One mystery I doubt we’ll ever solve: Would Orlando have willing stopped playing Bamba in favor of Birch if Bamba never got hurt? They’re clearly better right now with Birch, but Bamba’s minutes were holding fairly steady right up until he stopped playing altogether, so there weren’t really signs they were trying to phase him out.)

  • I didn’t think Vucevic could continue playing at an All-Star level

December 29th:

Can Nikola Vucevic maintain All-Star caliber play throughout the rest of the season?

My gut says no. His shooting stats in particular are so far outside his norms that reversion to the mean feels inevitable. His defense has long been underrated, and statistics like DRPM and DBPM place him among the best in the league right now, but that too could easily regress. Even if Vucevic’s inherent play doesn’t decline, it’s not so far-fetched to imagine an injury sidelining him, and by extension the Magic’s entire season.

January 7th

Nikola Vucevic, who you thought would be an All-Star, was the best player for the Magic, with 18 points and 13 rebounds in just 25 minutes. He shot 50%, while the team as whole only hit 37% of their shots.

So, did Nikola Vucevic eventually regress, perhaps even after his All-Star selection? Not especially. Pre-break he posted 57.7 TS%, and post-break...56.3%. A small decline, but not enough to totally tank his production. His rebounding and assist percentages declined slightly as well, though his turnover rate improved a little bit. Overall, his individual metrics decreased slightly in the later part of the season.

His net rating, however, improved significantly, from +3.0 to +7.2. That’s especially remarkable considering what we learned before about how the starting unit wasn’t as effective from February onward. Khem Birch was good as the new backup center, but the lineups that were really killing it featured Vooch plus a few other bench guys.

Long story short, Vucevic has maintained a high level of effectiveness throughout the whole season, especially on offense, but with solid play on the defensive end, as well. I can’t predict whether this can keep up for more than one season, but he did enough to earn Orlando its first All-Star since, well, their last All-Star center.

  • I didn’t believe in role players like Wesley Iwundu and Isaiah Briscoe

October 20th

Oh hey, another Orlando Magic take that’s aged terribly. Initially, I thought Briscoe was unplayable, no better than Grant at the backup point guard position, and maybe even worse. He never really came around offensively, but he knew his role and played it better than Grant. More importantly, he stabilized the bench’s defense, providing much-needed juice on the perimeter that the Magic have lacked for years.

Wesley Iwundu fulfilled a similar role. I got to check him out during his first summer league, and I came away thoroughly unimpressed. Iwundu didn’t appear to have a single above-average skill. His middling shooting was particularly problematic to me, and I wrote that he would need to develop long-range capabilities if he wanted to stick around the league.

His shooting has crept up to borderline acceptable levels on the perimeter, but more importantly he’s become one of the Magic’s best individual defenders. Orlando’s backcourts have long made me anxious on the defensive end, particularly when it came to navigating screens (including players like Elfrid Payton and even Victor Oladipo), but Iwundu handles pick-and-roll action well.

Paired with the Magic’s best offensive players (particularly some DJ/Vooch/Ross combos), Iwundu fulfills an important role keeping shooters from getting free for open looks. He’s part of the reason the Magic are top-10 in opponent 3-point rate. A few players the last couple seasons have flashed defensive chops in Orlando, but Iwundu may be the most consistent among them.

  • I didn’t think Steve Clifford was making an impression on the team

December 29th

To me, “gritty” is just a synonym for “offensively inept.” Scoring 90 points doesn’t seem so good when the other team almost drops 130. The pair of Mexico wins weren’t cause for celebration; they were cause for concern, a sign that if they continued to play at that level, they were going to get burned when their opposition actually came to play.

He also sounds an awful lot like every other Magic head coach from the past five years when the Winter swoon kicks in. It’s just another flavor of bad.

Let’s wrap up with the Magic’s biggest offseason move. To be honest, I still sort of think people went overboard with the whole “Steve Clifford toughness” angle, but that’s not what’s impressed me, anyway. To me, Coach Clifford is just smart.

To the extent that he could say so without throwing the entire organization under the bus, Clifford pointed out pretty early what the Magic’s troubles were: the team fell apart whenever Vucevic and Augustin came out of the game. After the Kings game I recapped, he said, “You guys see the numbers. We have struggled when D.J.’s out of the game. We’ve struggled when Vooch is out of the game.”

As we’ve covered extensively, he was right! And eventually, he found a solution (and then an additional solution, when Briscoe got hurt). Unlike his predecessor, Clifford’s lineup tinkering and the opportunities he gave to bench players led to real change in the team’s effectiveness.

At times this season, I’ve criticized Orlando’s youth development (or lack thereof), citing their history of underperformers. Fellow OPP writer Aaron Goldstone rightly pointed out to me and on the Do You Believe in Magic podcast that it’s probably unfair to put that blame on the current coaching staff and front office, and at this point I have to agree. I was concerned he might bury Isaac after his slow start to the season, but instead he empowered the sophomore and helped him grow faster than I imagined.

To list some of Clifford’s other accomplishments:

  • He got the best out of Vucevic and Augustin late into their careers
  • He got Aaron Gordon to buy into a role on offense that improved his shot selection and emphasized his defensive talents
  • He balanced the need to develop young players and still focus on winning basketball games
  • He forged a defensive identity that has eluded the Magic for several years
NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Orlando Magic Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

So, where does this leave us now? Despite all the egg on my face, I can’t totally abandon all my skepticism. I’m still not sure how sustainable this all is. I still think the fanbase is overrating Markelle Fultz. I wonder about the course of Clifford’s tenure in Charlotte, how it started strong and slowly got worse from there.

None of that really matters right now, though. The Magic had a goal, and in spite of everyone’s expectations—especially my own—they reached it. They’ve demonstrated that they deserve the benefit of the doubt when it comes to overcoming these obstacles in the years to come.