We’re here today to put this trilogy to rest, anointing one last handful of winners and losers covering everything Orlando Magic in 2018/19. We’ve got six in each column at this point, so the result -- which is obviously more important than any meaningless score at the end of a basketball game -- balances on a knife’s edge. Let’s jump in and dissect things one last time!
Winner: Khem Birch
While Mo Bamba was deemed a loser during our previous installment, it’s easy to see that the player behind him in the big man pecking order should be considered anything but. Birch was forced to patiently wait for his chance this season, but when it did arrived he latched onto it firmly with both hands.
As our own Aaron Goldstone pointed out, Birch made year-two improvements in a whole stack of meaningful statistical categories: field goal percentage, offensive rating, defensive rating, PER, block rate, true shooting percentage, and box plus/minus, among others. His per game averages remained modest and his minutes similar to last season, but it’s also true that he was being asked to play in more meaningful spots. He flourished after the All-Star break, settling into a comfortable 15 minutes per contest and providing 6.3 points and 4.5 rebounds from the backup center slot. Most importantly, he played both effective offense and defense, showcasing a team-best capacity to finish at the hoop, and stoutly defending the interior as a rim protector.
For the second year running Birch found himself last in line in a crowded frontcourt rotation. For the second year running he also forced his way into the mix, earning minutes with high-energy and relatively mistake-free basketball. With Vooch and Bamba still around it won’t get any easier for him in Orlando, but he’s done plenty to make a case for himself.
Winner: Michael Carter-Williams
If at the start of the season I had told you that Michael Carter-Williams would come up with some clutch, season-extending plays for the Magic as they battled their way to an unlikely playoff spot, you probably would have been reaching for a straight jacket. Yet, here we are. MCW came in late in the season on a pair of ten-day contracts which he parlayed into an ongoing role with the team, filling the problematic backup point guard spot.
Defensively Carter-Williams was excellent, particularly in terms of his rebounding. A high level of energy and engagement was evident via his block, steal and deflection numbers, while his extra length on the wing contributed to a compelling defensive identity for the second unit. With the ball in hand he was able to do enough to make up for his poor shooting numbers (just 34% from the field), primarily by filling the role of an effective playmaker (4.1 assists per game in less than 19 minutes of court time). His solid play helped keep the reserves afloat after injury and underwhelming play threatened to derail the season.
All in all it was an admirable job by a player who, previous to his stop in Florida, was well and truly on his way out of the league. Realizing he was fast running out of them MCW seized the second chance that came his way. He might just have played his way back into a regular rotation.
Winner/Loser: Isaiah Briscoe
Briscoe winning his way onto the roster in the first place is a win for the rookie point guard, who originally went undrafted in 2017 before heading overseas to Estonia to embark on his professional career. He came in as a low-risk, deep bench option with limited upside, yet he comfortably outshone those expectations once the calendar flipped to 2019.
It was in January that Briscoe got his chance, stepping up and filling the role of backup point guard after underwhelming play from Jerian Grant and Jonathon Simmons, among others. He averaged almost 15 minutes per contest throughout the month, continuing to grow in confidence and competence with the second unit. By February he was entrenched in the rotation, playing over 22 minutes per game and averaging 5.4 points, 4.1 rebounds and 3.7 assists across 9 games in the month. He kept the turnovers down and the offense ticking over, and it was no surprise that the team’s second half surge coincided with his competent play quarterbacking the bench unit.
If things had continued in this manner Briscoe would have undoubtedly been one of the season’s big winners. Instead, injury cruelled his season, cutting his campaign short after just 39 games. The Magic’s dire need in the backcourt then forced the team’s hand, requiring them to cut Briscoe and his small contract to make way for a suitable replacement. There was some noise out of the front office about wanting to regain his services in the future, but with the addition of Fultz still to come and the uncertainties of free agency it’s not a sure thing. Still, he did enough that he can expect to pop up somewhere next season.
Winner: the enigma that is Markelle Fultz
If the Magic bring back Nikola Vucevic and Terrence Ross this offseason it will mean that, thanks to the team’s tight cap squeeze, the major roster additions are basically done. Recognizing that, the front office went out at the trade deadline and did some shopping, adding former number one overall draft pick, Markelle Fultz, for a very reasonable sum.
Fultz was indisputably a distressed asset, with the drama and uncertainty surrounding his injury status, shooting form and general confidence stripping him of his perceived value to team front offices. He didn’t suit up for the Magic and wasn’t expected to this season, with some uncertainty about whether or not he would even report to Orlando or continue to rehab elsewhere. He did eventually take a place on the bench, albeit in street clothes, but the franchise is really no closer to knowing exactly what they have on their roster. He remains a total mystery.
Regardless, there is no way this swing wasn’t worth taking. Jonathon Simmons was providing negative oncourt value. The picks included in the deal don’t have anywhere near the same chance of returning a quality player (even with what we know about Fultz and his NBA career to date). If it pays off the Magic have added a once highly-coveted talent to a young, emerging core. If it doesn’t, the price was minimal. Until we find out, the potential of the enigma remains a captivating proposition.
Winner: Weltman and Hammond
Piggy-backing off the previous entry, it feels like it’s worth acknowledging the solid job that the Magic’s key decision makers, Jeff Weltman and John Hammond, have made in their time in charge. The previously mentioned Fultz deal was a high-ceiling, low-floor shot worth taking. The AG contract is aging like a fine wine as his play improves and the cost comes down. Jonathan Isaac’s play in the second half of the season feels like a tantalising promise of things to come. Smaller additions and retainments like Briscoe, Birch and Carter-Williams all paid off. Even their decision to stick with Vooch instead of trading him for cents on the dollar looks like an obviously smart decision in hindsight.
Every front office is going to invariably have some strikeouts amidst the base hits and home runs (see: Grant, Jerian), but Weltman and Hammond have done a solid job of extracting value from deals and working around the margins. Their job is a long way from done, but it at least now feels like it’s heading in the right direction.
Loser: Jerian Grant
When the Magic flipped Bismack Biyombo for Timofey Mozgov they were also able to land Grant as a throw-in, another low-cost move that seemed worth a flyer. The hope was that he would be the dependable and consistent backup option the team needed behind DJ Augustin. Well, you know what they say about the fleeting nature of hope.
Grant’s shooting was so abysmal to open the season that opposition defenses basically started daring him to shoot, sagging into the lane and clogging things up for the second unit. Even after he started to connect from deep the damage had been done, and another frigid shooting stretch in December (6 of 25 from three and just 38% overall) simply reinforced the belief that he was a lame duck beyond the arc.
He also showed limited competence as a playmaker, with his assist rate dropping calamitously compared to last season (down to 22.4% from 30.1%). Adding to these woes was the fact that his turnovers were up, while his free throw rate -- a positively anaemic .182 -- was way down. Turns out that not being able to shoot, not being able to get to the line, and not being able to set up your teammates is a tough combination for a point guard. He also seemed to struggle defensively, with an alarming lack of situational awareness permeating some sequences. There were few players on the Orlando roster who suffered as nasty an L as Grant did this season.
Winner: the Orlando Magic fan community
What a difference a winning product can make! For the first time in many, many years there was a real air of positivity around the franchise, particularly in the season’s second half as they surged towards the playoffs. Amway was positively rocking to open each of the first round playoffs games hosted there, the culmination of a simmering enthusiasm that had been building throughout a nine-game home winning streak to close the regular season. The Magic are clearly a team that the city of Orlando has been patiently waiting to get excited about, and the product is finally trending in the right direction.
It would also be remiss to not also mention the community here at Orlando Pinstriped Post. There’s a great collection of passionate, invested and insightful contributors to be found in the comments section of every column, preview and recap, with more making their way out into the blinding sun of optimism with every win. We’re certainly glad to have you all here with us.
Time to stick a fork in things: we’re done! The final tally ended up 12-8 in favor of the Ws, proving definitively that the 2018/19 season was a winning campaign for the Orlando Magic.