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!
Aaron Gordon, 23 years-old (78 games played)
Aaron Gordon briefly experienced NBA free agency for the first time in his career last summer, albeit for only a few hours. The San Jose native was a restricted free agent, meaning the Magic had the ability to match any offer sheet that was thrown his direction. Gordon had his potential suitors (Indiana, Los Angeles, Phoenix), but in the end, he chose to re-sign with the Magic for four more years.
When any player in professional sports signs a new contact for the amount of money that Gordon signed for ($80 million) with the Magic, inflated expectations related to that player’s expected increase in performance always come with it.
Magic fans anticipated Gordon making another “big jump” in his career in 2018-’19. But in reality, for a guy who knows a thing or two about vertical leaping, this past season was just another bunny-hop in Gordon’s career. A positive one at that, which is always a good thing, but the takeoff is still to come.
Gordon was regularly available for Coach Steve Clifford, playing a career high number of minutes in 2018-’19 (third time he’s appeared in 78 or more games in a season in the last four years). He also shot a career-best 35% on three-point attempts this year, a part of his game that has been monitored under the microscope for some time now.
When you look at Gordon’s numbers in 2018-’19, there’s really no single area where you can point to and say, “here it is, this is where Gordon greatly improved.” Instead, there were tangible improvements to his overall game that came in more of a marginal sense .
The distance shooting was just a little bit better for Gordon than it’s been in the past. His assist percentage has steadily climbed throughout his career (from 6.3% his rookie season to 16.6% in year five). His corner three-point percentage was a career best 40% this season (25% of his 3PTA’s come from the corner). And for the first time in Gordon’s career, he was a net positive player on the floor for the Magic (+1.7 per/100 possessions, +2.0 per/100 better than when he was off the floor).
Casual fans will look at Gordon’s counting stats and assume that he didn’t improve at all this past season. But in reality, under the guidance of Clifford, Gordon was asked to do a little bit less on the offensive end - and a lot more on the defensive end.
And as we know, this is where Gordon really stepped-up his game for the Magic in 2018-’19. From Day 1, during the early days of training camp, Coach Clifford challenged the fifth-year pro to make the All-NBA Defensive team. Voting results for the All-Defensive team were released yesterday; Gordon failed to receive any votes from the national media (in fact, no one on the Magic received any votes). But the tone and expectations were set nonetheless; that’s who Clifford wanted Gordon to be for the Magic this past season: their defensive-stopper.
Gordon swung back and forth between the traditional “3” and “4” positions this year, depending upon who was on the floor with him at the time. Regardless, he usually drew the assignment of guarding the other team’s most dynamic offensive forward - Kawhi Leonard, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jimmy Butler, Blake Griffin, etc. The Arizona product had a career-best +1.2 Defensive Box Plus/Minus metric for the season.
There are still some legitimate aspects to Gordon’s game that need to be cleaned-up. His offensive mid-range game is still very much a work in progress, he turned the ball over this season at a higher rate than he has since his rookie season, and he needs to find a way to get to the free throw line more frequently than he did this year.
To be honest, I was sitting on a “B+” for Gordon based off his play in the regular season, but his efforts in Orlando’s five postseason games were enough to bump him up to an “A-”. Gordon led the Magic in scoring against the Raptors, scoring 20 or more points in a contest twice in the five-game series. He did this while being defended by Leonard, an All-NBA defensive player (and one of the strongest players in the league).
Gordon shot 40% from behind the arc in the series (8-20 3PTA’s). He led the Orlando playoff rotation players in Box Plus/Minus (+3.0) by a significant margin (Augustin was next closest at +0.8).
Best performance of the season: 3/30 at Indiana
23 points (4-6 3PTA’s), 10 rebounds, 7 assists, 2 steals
2019-20 Season Outlook
Gordon will be back next season playing out the second year of a four-year deal (4/$80 million) he agreed to with the Magic last summer. His contract is viewed by many as a “team-friendly” deal because it declines in value each season (he will make approximately $1.7 million less each year, base-salary). For example, last season Gordon made $21.6 million; in ‘19-20, he will make just under $19.9 million.
While I recognize that Gordon is probably capable of shouldering more of an offensive load for Clifford than he did this past year, I predict that his role next season will be similar to what it was in ‘18-19: guard the opposing team’s superior offensive forward, help out on the boards, create offense from defensive pressure, serve as a secondary scoring threat, and provide the team with another “secondary play-making” option. Basically, do a little bit of everything (again).
We all know that Gordon has the ability on any given night to score 25+ points in a contest. But to take that next step in his career, he needs to continue to hone-in on the things that he can do on the floor at a close to elite level. Continuing to develop shot-selection awareness, defensive awareness within Clifford’s overall scheme, and ball-handling ability in traffic will push Gordon’s game to another tier in this league.
Now, if the Magic fail to re-sign unrestricted free agent Nikola Vucevic this off-season, then sure - Orlando becomes Aaron Gordon’s team. In that type of situation, Gordon would have to be elevated into more of a primary-scoring role.
I think people forget that Gordon is still extremely young; next season will be Gordon’s sixth year in the NBA, but he’s still on 23 years-old. He’s still got time, while playing out his current contract that will take him through age 26, to become the All-Star forward he so badly wants to develop into.
In the meantime, Gordon will continue to be Clifford’s chameleon next season, a role that seems to suit him just fine.
Previous “Season in Reviews” in this series