We’re back! Last time we singled out four winners and just one solitary loser from the Magic’s 2018/19 campaign, a pretty healthy ratio which speaks to the positivity generated by the season. Will that continue with the next seven entries in today’s installment? There’s only one way to find out ...
Loser: Draft Lottery Enthusiasts
Sorry to say, gang, but this year the basketball gods had a fate in store for the Magic that didn’t involve desperately believing in ping pong balls. For the first time since 2012 Orlando won’t be making a selection in the top half of the first round, courtesy of their run to the playoffs. So while the pre-draft prognostications will be focused on players who could conceivably come in and make valuable contributions, this time round it won’t be with stars in our collective eyes. At 16, the Magic will be drafting for fit and function, as opposed to foundational bedrock.
Lottery enthusiasts won’t get to spend weeks diving deep into projections for Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett and Ja Morant, because they’ll all be long gone by the time Orlando hit the clock at pick 16. Instead, lesser names like Romeo Langford, Nickeil Alexander-Walker and KZ Okpala will likely end up on the minds of Magic fans.
The good news here is that the drop from sixth (where the Magic have picked the last two drafts) to sixteenth isn’t as precipitous as one might think. There are a couple of different ways to try and measure the value of a typical draft slot, with nearly all agreeing that the difference here is nowhere near as great as the difference between, say, number 1 and 6. In 2017 Kevin Pelton tried to quantify this for ESPN, concluding that while the sixth pick traditionally generates approximately 50% of the value of the top overall pick, selecting sixteenth still provides teams with almost 30% of that same value.
Roland Beech, writing about 10 years ago on the same topic, estimated that 85% of players picked at 6 would develop into a role player or better, while those selected at 16 panned out as such approximately 60% of the time. The major difference is in the likelihood of a star emerging from either slot, with pick 16 only offering up a 1-in-20 chance of that occurring (compared to the 1-in-4 odds found at 6).
The likelihood declines, obviously, but there is still potentially value to be found in the middle of the draft. Lottery enthusiasts with dreams of Zion might be taking an L this year, but a later pick isn’t not the absolute worst outcome for a team looking to continue adding talent.
Winner: Jonathan Isaac’s second half surge
One of the defining memories of Orlando’s 2018/19 season is the strong play of second year forward Jonathan Isaac in the back half of the campaign. He emerged as a cog central to the team’s improved play after the All-Star break, at times flashing a game that hinted at the very real possibility of one day reaching his very high ceiling. It was a stretch that both helped to fuel the present while also providing optimism for the seasons to come.
Isaac’s surge was mostly related to improved shooting numbers, particularly in the month of February. Across 11 games in this month he shot 49% from the field, including 38.5% from deep and 83.6% from the line. These buoyed his figures and post All-Star break he ended up just below 44%, a modest improvement on the figure of 42.4% he shot during his first 53 games. Where he really exploded though was in his accuracy from deep, jumping almost 10 whole percentage points to a conversion rate of 38.2%. This was despite increasing the number of attempts per game from 3.1 to a figure closer to 5, a fact that speaks to the improved efficiency of his offensive game.
Defensively he was a menace, consistently putting to effective use his immense talents at this end of the court. He’s a disruptive presence on the floor, generating steals and blocks at a combined rate of more than 2 per game to go along with numerous deflections and strong close outs. He’s an anticipatory help defender, able to cover large swathes of ground to either double or recover.
Isaac cooled off a little at the very end, his season ultimately culminating in a very quiet series against the Raptors. Still, 2019 has been a period of significant development for the youngster, and one that certainly bodes well for his future. Let’s hope the trajectory remains firmly pointed up.
Winner: Jonathan Isaac’s ankles
In what was just the eighth game of the season Isaac landed on the foot of Clippers’ center Boban Marjanovic, rolling over his right ankle and immediately sending long-suffering Magic fans into a state of despair. After an injury-marred rookie season this seemed a cruel occurrence, and discussion around the long-term health outlook of the 6-foot-10 forward was laced with pessimism. Would he ever be able to stay on the court?
Turns out the answer is ‘yes’. Isaac returned to action just seven games later, playing at least 20 minutes in 64 of Orlando’s next 67 games before missing the season closer with concussion symptoms. His ankles -- previously a concern that had fans worrying about the specter of Grant Hill -- held up without complaint, and he finished the season having played almost 4 times as many minutes as he did as a rookie. It’s been said that the most important ability is availability, and in 2019 the concerns related to Isaac potentially being injury prone certainly subsided.
Loser: Evan Fournier
No doubt about it: 2018/19 was a tough campaign for Orlando’s resident Frenchman. There were many instances where he was more cask wine than champagne, with the combination of lackluster performances and a sizeable contract moving forward turning him into a comments section whipping boy. A slow start seemingly doomed him, and although he picked it up as things went on he was ultimately a non-factor in the playoff series against the Raptors.
The vast majority of Fournier’s struggles this year can be put down to two things. Firstly, a down year for three-point shooting; and secondly, a continued struggle to supplement his scoring by getting to the line. In terms of the deep ball, he connected on a career-low 34%, making on average just 1.9 attempts per game. Fournier was launching triples as frequently as ever -- it accounted for 42.1% if his total attempts, a mark he only topped in his second season on significantly fewer total shots -- so the fact that he simply wasn’t finding the bottom of the basket as often was particularly noticeable. Add to this a down year in terms of free-throw attempts -- just 2.1 per game on a paltry rate of .159 -- and you can begin to see just how inefficient his scoring output was in 2019.
There are other blemishes to Fournier’s game; as we know, he has a tendency to force the issue and hunt out his own shot, he’s miscast as a closer and 1a scoring option, and he can cough up turnovers at truly inopportune moments. Yet, there are some positives that can be extracted from his performance this season, like his improved assist rate and the strides he made as an individual defender. Ultimately, though, it’s not enough to make us forget about the slow start and the unimpressive finish, ensuring his status on the wrong side of the ledger for this column.
Loser: Mo Bamba
Bamba is really tall and blocks a lot of shots when he’s on the court (7% of all two-point attempts), but that’s about all that we’ve seen to this point that suggests he can be a valued contributor on an effective basketball side. This isn’t to write off the possibility of such in the future, but at the moment it’s evident that the Magic’s young center is still a (very) long term project.
As a rookie Bamba averaged just 16.3 minutes per game in 47 contests, putting up modest totals of 6.2 points, 5.0 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game. He showed a willingness to stretch the defense by launching the three ball (1.5 attempts on 30% shooting), while his long arms and ability to challenge and alter shots was consistently evident. However, what can’t be ignored is that the team was simply better when he sat, punctuated by their record of 23-12 in the games he missed due to injury and discipline. He was also a prominent member of basically all of Orlando’s worst five-man units, a problem that certainly did not plague Khem Birch when he, thanks to injury, snagged the rookie’s place in the rotation.
Bamba is young and years away from reaching his potential. Still, it’s hard to not be at least somewhat disappointed by the 47-game campaign the sixth-overall pick put together. Magic fans will be hoping for a second year surge.
Loser: Playoff Competitiveness
After one game the Magic were world-beaters, veritable Davids both ready and capable of slaying a Canadian Goliath on their improbable march to the second round. After five games they more resembled a Dothraki warrior, extinguished with nary a whimper after charging into the Night King’s maelstrom.
Orlando were absolutely dominated by the Raptors, with Kawhi Leonard and Pascal Siakam in particular clearly separating themselves and rising to a higher level of play. The starters were comprehensively accounted for throughout the series, and it was hard to say that anyone (maybe outside of Aaron Gordon) even matched the output of their regular season performance.
The Magic did incredibly well to surge into the seventh seed, ending what had been the league’s third-longest playoff drought. There’s also now an optimism around the franchise moving forward, with some evidence to suggest that further gains in seasons to come are likely. Ultimately, though, there will need to be, because the team was thoroughly outclassed once the game’s started to really count.
Loser: Jonathon Simmons
‘Juice’ had a glorious run across his first 20 games in a Magic uniform, but it’s been downhill ever since. That trend continued in 2018/19 as he managed to first play his way out of the rotation, and then out of town entirely.
Simmons averaged just 6.9 points per game, somehow shot only 36.4% from the field, frequently coughed up turnovers, and failed to make the type of defensive impact he built his name on in San Antonio. He struggled as a featured cog on the reserve unit, flamed out when asked to tackle the backup point guard slot, and on occasion found himself out of the rotation entirely. It was apparent that Clifford couldn’t really figure out how to use him, and his play never demanded that the solution be found.
Ultimately, Orlando were better with Wes Iwundu in the role of backup swingman, so come the trade deadline Simmons was on the move. Attached to a protected first rounder and a second, he helped bring back the potential-laden reclamation project that is Markelle Fultz, so there’s a chance yet that his tenure in pinstripes will be fondly remembered.
We’ve now got two installments in the books and one more to go, which you can expect to see in the coming days. This one ended up a little heavier on the Ls which means, as luck and circumstance (I swear!) would have it, we’re poised at 6-6 heading into the final showdown. Make sure you join us when we put a pin in the Magic’s 2018/19 season!