Another season has come and gone Magic fans. The 2018-19 version of your Orlando Magic provided the city and its fan base with many memorable moments to ring in the 30th anniversary of the franchise’s existence.
We were provided opportunities to celebrate big Magic road victories in Boston (twice), San Antonio, Los Angeles, Mexico City (against the Jazz and Bulls), Toronto, Milwaukee, Indiana, Charlotte, and Miami (twice). And don’t forget about those huge home wins against the Heat(opening night), 76ers (twice), Lakers, Raptors, Celtics, Rockets, Pacers, Nets, and the defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors.
But none of that compares to the emotions all Magic fans felt after coming to the realization that the team they’ve supported through so many tough losing seasons had finally clinched their first playoff birth since the conclusion of the Dwight Howard era.
My progress reports were back for another season on Orlando Pinstriped Post in 2018-19 (third season featured on this site, I’m blessed). If you missed the first volume, Nikola Vucevic earned the highest grade in the class after the team’s first fourteen games due to his stellar shooting and solid defense. Vucevic again earned the highest grade in my second volume (which covered the team’s next fourteen games). And prior to his first career All-Star selection, Vucevic earned the team’s highest midterm grade.
Let’s explore who on the roster pulled their own weight this season. As a teacher who is used to assessing on a regular basis, “grading” is right up my alley!
Included in this series of final grade reports are statistics from Orlando’s 82 regular season games played this season, along with some comments from yours truly that hopefully explain why I graded the guys the way that I did.
In the comments section below, please feel free to agree or disagree with any of my assessments, or simply just let me know if this is something that interests you. Credit for statistics goes to Basketball Reference and NBA.com. Enjoy!
Khem Birch, 26 years-old (50 games played)
Khem Birch was a pleasant surprise for the Magic last season. Birch came on late last year after Nikola Vucevic went down with an injury in mid-January. Orlando’s big-man rotation was crowded in 2017-’18, even without Vucevic. As a rookie, Birch battled veterans Marreese Speights and Bismack Biyombo for consistent playing time, but his stellar play stood out enough for the organization to elect to bring him back for another look.
Luckily enough for Orlando, Birch went through the opposite of a sophomore slump in 2018-‘19. The Canadian big-man was even better for the Magic in year two, but his season once again was slowed getting started. Speights moved on to China, and Biyombo was traded to Charlotte, but the franchise selected prized center Mohamed Bamba with the sixth overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft – effectively placing Birch once again on the outside looking in at regular nightly minutes.
However, Bamba was diagnosed in late January with a left tibia fracture, and Birch was left as the team’s de facto back-up “5”. Things could not have worked out any better. Similar to the situation with Wes Iwundu taking over Jonathon Simmons’ minutes/role, Orlando’s season started moving in the right direction when Birch became the backup center.
Birch ended up playing only 65 more minutes for the Magic this year compared to his rookie season, but the minutes he gave the team came in much more meaningful situations. In his second season in the NBA, the Montreal-native improved in the following categories: field goal percentage, two-point field goal percentage, points per/36 minutes, offensive rating, defensive rating, player efficiency rating, true shooting percentage, free throw attempt rate, block percentage, offensive box plus/minus, and defensive box plus/minus.
After watching him in person over the last two seasons, I can confidently say that Birch is an elite NBA “screener”. His numbers from the box score don’t always jump out at you, but he provided open looks for Terrence Ross, Evan Fournier, and Aaron Gordon every night by simply setting fundamentally sound screens. Birch is not the pick-and-pop player that Vucevic is, but he did provide the Magic with a down-hill pick-and-roll player that dives and rim-runs.
I would also conclude after this past season that Birch should be regarded as one of Orlando’s best finishers at the rim. Birch converted 71% of his field goal attempts inside of three feet this year. The formerly undrafted big man attempted 60% of his shots at the rim (by far the highest clip on the Magic this season, next closest player was Bamba at 35% of FGA’s inside three feet).
Birch led the Magic in 2018-’19 with an Offensive Rating of 134, a field goal percentage of 60%, a true shooting percentage of 64%, an offensive rebounding percentage of 13.0%, and a free throw attempt rate of 55%.
The former McDonald’s All-American played respectably in all five playoff games for the Magic. Birch finished a combined -4 (+/-) over five games against the Raptors, which is pretty solid considering his team lost three of the four games in the series by 19 points or more.
Best performance of the season: March 14th vs. Cleveland
13 points (6-8 FGA’s), 11 rebounds, 2 steals
2019-20 Season Outlook
Everyone knows the Orlando Magic organization will have two major decisions to make with Vucevic and Ross this upcoming summer as both veterans are set to become unrestricted free agents.
What’s not talked about nearly as frequently among Magic fans is Khem Birch’s impending free agency. Birch will likely become a restricted free agent this summer (his qualifying offer is for $1.8 million). By picking up his qualifying offer, Orlando would be able to match any offer sheet that another team offers Birch. Failing to pick-up his “qualifying offer” would effectively make Birch an unrestricted free agent.
The Magic will likely pick-up Birch’s qualifying offer because, procedurally speaking, it’s the right thing to do. With Vucevic free to sign with any team around the league that has enough available cap space to offer him a contract, keeping Birch as an insurance policy would be wise.
However, if the Magic were to agree to terms with Vucevic on a new contract, that would most likely signal the end of Birch’s days with the Magic. The organization is clearly committed to Bamba’s continued growth and development. With Vucevic (hypothetically) and Bamba in the fold, Birch would once again seem to be the odd man out.
There’s a whole lot to still be determined between now and July, but if that particular situation were to occur, I am more than confident in assuming that Birch wouldn’t be without a team for very long.
He absolutely belongs on an NBA roster.
Previous “Season in Reviews” in this series:
Wes Iwundu, C+