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Winners and Losers: 2019 Orlando Magic Edition, Part I

Who (or what) stood out and shone? Who (or what) crashed and burned?

NBA: Playoffs-Toronto Raptors at Orlando Magic Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

With the first round now a distant memory it’s time to reflect on the entirety of the 2018/19 season. It was a big one for the Magic, with a late season surge -- fueled by a stingy defense and improved shooting -- pushing the team into the playoffs for the first time in seven years. The league’s third-longest postseason drought was broken, and a renewed sense of optimism and fervor was evident within the fanbase. As we did at this time last year, let’s take a moment to figure out Orlando’s winners and losers for 2019, free from the actual standings and unmoored from singular results. Who (or what) stood out and shone? Who (or what) crashed and burned? Let’s go!

Winner: Nikola Vucevic, regular season All-Star

NBA: Orlando Magic at Los Angeles Lakers Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

2019 was ultimately a redemptive season for the Magic’s big man. Vucevic has had numerous doubters during his time in Orlando, with many openly wondering if he could ever serve as a central cog on a winning basketball side (myself included). The performance he turned in during the regular season put a definitive end to that speculation.

Across a career-high 80 games, Vucevic established personal best per-game averages in scoring (20.8), rebounds (12.0), assists (3.8) and blocks (1.1). He converted from both two and three point range at a better clip than ever before, setting marks of 54.9% from within the arc and 36.4% beyond. This evolution into a legitimate deep threat opened up his game, making him a more dynamic scorer while also creating a greater number of mismatch opportunities. Add to this his continued growth as a facilitator and passer from the elbow and one can see just how essential he was to the team’s offense.

He bounced back from a down year in 2018 in almost every conceivable way. A career-high true shooting percentage? He landed at .573 - check. An increased free-throw rate? Sure - he averaged an extra 1.2 attempts per game. Reckon you can trim your turnover rate while seeing more of the ball than ever before? Not a problem, as his career-high 28.0% usage rate and 9.9% turnover rate attests. Every single advanced metric that tries to broadly measure on-court contributions -- PER (25.5), win shares (10.1), win shares/48 (.193), box plus/minus (6.4), value over replacement (5.3) -- agrees that this was Vucevic’s most impactful season, and by a sizeable margin.

Vooch’s reward for his breakout season was an invitation to the mid-season showcase, an accolade that previously had been only a fever dream experienced by the most ardent of Orlando fans. He established himself as one of the best centers in the entire league while sending the Magic to the seventh seed and dragging them out of what had been an interminable rebuild. His status as an All-Star was well-deserved, undoubtedly one of Orlando’s major winners for the season.

Loser: Nikola Vucevic, playoff underachiever

NBA: Playoffs-Toronto Raptors at Orlando Magic Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Oh my, how quickly things can change. The playoffs were not kind to Orlando’s newly minted All-Star, who struggled to have any sort of influence at all in a match-up against one of the league’s best teams. He was nullified with the ball in hand, struggling both to make shots and limit turnovers. Marc Gasol and the swarming Raptors’ help defenders forced him out of his favored spots on the floor, while also taking away his time to carefully read the play and make crisp passes. He was also targeted on defense throughout the series, failing to offer much in way of resistance at the rim and frequently giving up the type of mid-range space that someone like Kawhi Leonard feasts on. It was an exceedingly tough baptism to endure.

The numbers really make for difficult reading. Vucevic scored only 11.2 points per game on a ghastly 36.2% from the field. His rebounding numbers dropped to just 8.0 per contest, as the total percentage of available defensive rebounds he grabbed cratered more than six whole points to 24.8%. His assists were slightly down and his turnovers way up, a lethal combination. His three-point stroke also abandoned him, seeing him convert at just 23.1% throughout the series. He really only had one stretch that looked like regular season Vooch, his third-quarter spurt in Game 3 that rallied the team to a short-lived lead.

The playoffs are a different beast, even for a player who had committed himself so exceptionally through the season’s first 82 games. This series was a reminder of that. Vucevic will be better for the experience, although the question now is whether or not his next chance will come here in Orlando or elsewhere.

Winner: Aaron Gordon

NBA: Playoffs-Toronto Raptors at Orlando Magic Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Although the raw numbers might not jump off the page, this was ultimately a positive season of growth of for Gordon. He made a series of incremental improvements to his game, and while it may not have added up to the undisputed leap many are still hoping he will eventually make, it was a cause for continued optimism.

Gordon finished with per game averages close to last season’s figures, but a closer inspection reveals a refinement to how these were arrived at. His usage rate came down a little, with the wing finishing 21.8% of Magic possessions while he was on the court. By asking him to do a little less with the ball in hand he was able to be more effective in what he did, particularly in terms of his playmaking. AG shone as a secondary playmaker for Orlando, averaging a career-high 3.7 assists per game. The percentage of possessions he recorded an assist on rose to 16.6%, as he showed an ability to both hit cutters and find the open shooter to kick the pass to. It was a much needed area of growth for a player who is best-served as a second or third scoring option.

Improvements to Gordon shooting were also evident. He established a career-best effective field goal percentage of 53.8%, buoyed by an improved accuracy from deep (34.9%) and the free-throw line (73.1%). A reduction to the rate at which he attempted three-pointers -- down from 39.5% of his total shots in 2017/18 to a much more palatable 33.2% -- helped ensure that the looks were invariably of a higher quality, coming more in the flow of the offense and with space to shoot than on a pull-up out of a one-on-one matchup. After a slow stretch to start the season he also actually finished with a career high number of dunks (104), reflective of the effectiveness with which he moved off ball and cut to the rim from the weak side.

Perhaps most importantly, Gordon showed up during the team’s first round playoff match-up. He was the player whose effort and attitude stood out amidst the demolition job being undertaken by the Raptors, even when they were staring down a sizeable deficit. AG looked like he belonged, with the increased intensity not overwhelming or dulling his play like it did for many others on Orlando’s roster. Best of all? Gordon will be just 24 when next season starts. He’s far from a finished product.

Winner: Terrence Ross

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Orlando Magic Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

A loser in this same column last year, Ross was able to show exactly what he’s capable of when able to avoid major injury. In 2018/19 he was a flamethrower for the Magic off the bench, a genuine Sixth Man of the Year contender who provided incredible scoring punch for a side desperately starved of it. He played more minutes per-game than at any point since his second season, putting the time to good use. Career-best figures in points (15.1), rebounds (3.5) and assists (1.7) are surface level proof of this, but it was also the manner in which he made baskets and sent the team on runs.

‘The Human Torch’ turned into one of the league’s most prolific three-point bombers, with 55% of his total attempts coming from behind the arc. He made 217 triples off the bench on the season, a total only 10 behind the NBA record mark that Wayne Ellington established last season. Ross also showed an incredible knack for drawing fouls while rising up from deep, consistently getting to the line from this spot on the floor and even claiming a healthy handful of four-point plays. He was a classic example of ‘instant offense’, a microwave scorer who could catch fire and turn a game in one short stretch.

Ross was an indispensable glue guy for the Magic, almost single handedly propping up the bench output and supplementing the lean offense offered by the starters. He’ll undoubtedly pick up some votes in the race for the Sixth Man award, and is likely to be rewarded with a solid contract this coming offseason. Magic fans must now wait and see whether or not this fan favorite gets that offer from Orlando.

Winner: Steve Clifford

NBA: Playoffs-Orlando Magic at Toronto Raptors John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

It took him a little time to figure it all out, but the appointment of Steve Clifford to take over as head coach may have been the biggest W the Magic chalked up this season. Since Stan left town, the team has cycled through a series of dispiriting hires, from the aimlessness of the Vaughn years to the desultory end of the Vogel era. Clifford is the fifth person to sit in the chair since 2015, and he’s the first to offer an indication that he could be a long-term solution.

Clifford found a way to leverage the mismatched nature of Orlando’s roster, coaxing a strong defense and a competent offense from a squad that hadn’t previously shown itself capable in either of these facets. On offense he empowered Vooch, running the play through the big man and featuring him as both a scorer and facilitator. He took some of the pressure off AG and Evan Fournier, asking them to do a little less than in season’s past. He stuck with Jonathan Isaac, eventually shifting him to the corners in a move that helped to build his long-range confidence. His defensive scheme masked some of the limitations of individual players and emphasized defensive rebounding as a means of closing possessions. In the back-third of the season he had the team humming at both ends.

Rotational changes were never made in haste, yet it seems that he consistently found the right combinations. Wes Iwundu eventually took over from Jonathan Simmons and the team improved. Jerian Grant ceded the backup point guard spot to Isaiah Briscoe (and then Michael Carter-Williams) and the team improved. Khem Birch played at the expense of an admittedly injured Mo Bamba and the team improved. Gordon and Fournier found their minutes more carefully staggered to feature them with the reserve units and the team improved. They were all relatively minor (and perhaps even obvious) moves, yet they added up to significant growth for the Magic.

Clifford might not have acquired all of the Infinity Stones in his first season in Orlando, as the playoffs proved so conclusively. But he definitely found at least one, and the seeds for an even further improved sequel have been planted. For the first time in a long while the Magic should feel good about the man they have in charge.

That’s it for Part One! We’ve got two more installments in the days to come, where we’ll be digging deeper and continuing the evaluation of all things Orlando Magic in 2019. See you back here then!