Free agency is almost upon us, which means it’s time for ardent Magic fans to start dreaming big and plotting improvements for last year’s playoff participants. How exactly can we turn 42 wins into 52 or, better yet, a parade in June?
Well, turns out the answer is ‘with great difficulty’.
Orlando are in a tight spot cap-wise, with sizeable holds for two important cogs and pending free-agents: the newly minted All-Star Nikola Vucevic, and sixth-man sparkplug Terrence Ross. The only means of opening enough room for a splashy addition would be to watch both of these players leave for greener (dollar) pastures, a scenario that would make significant improvement a seemingly difficult proposition.
It would appear that the treadmill of mediocrity often runs between rocks and hard places.
Our own Zach Oliver recently outlined the major questions that will determine the direction of the franchise moving forward, while Editor-in-Pinstripes Mike Cali considered the conundrum that is the Vucevic contract. It’s time, then, for us to tackle the Ross portion of the puzzle.
For if we’re going to dream of even better days, a good place to start is with a recent criticism of the team and consideration of how this could be addressed. The current basketball landscape places a premium on shooting, and it’s a skill that the Magic could stand to see improve. Ross begins to address this issue, but he’s not the entirety of the answer. Let’s dive in and see what June 30 could mean for the Magic in this regard.
It’s generally accepted that in the modern NBA there are two things that teams need to thrive at the offensive end of the court: playmaking and shooting. It’s been a number of years since the Magic had a dominant playmaker, either in the backcourt or on the wings (no disrespect meant, Point God), and in recent years they have also carried a reputation as a shooting-deficient team. So how the hell did they end up in the playoffs this past April?
Well, it turns out that the Magic actually enjoyed a reasonable shooting season in 2018/19, particularly in terms of the long ball, which had previously stood out as a blemish on the team for a number of years. They landed smack in the middle of the league in terms of attempts from distance per game (15th with 32.1 per contest), while converting at a clip that placed them 12th overall (35.6%). As a team they shot well from the line when they actually got there (78.2%, good for 12th league-wide), and they were solid enough from two-point range (20th at 50.9%) so as not to undo the good percentages elsewhere. Ultimately the true shooting percentage was rough (25th overall), but a slow pace, careful ball-handling, and a top-eight defense meant it was enough to propel the team to a winning record.
So, shooting woes solved, right? Well, not exactly. The main concerns regarding the Magic’s 2018/19 numbers can be found firstly in their relativity to the league’s real heavyweights and secondly in their sustainability. Toronto, Golden State, Milwaukee and Houston all ranked well ahead of Orlando in terms of three-point rate, total number of three-point attempts, the percentage of long-distance shots from the corners, true shooting percentage, and effective field goal percentage. Together they accounted for four of the league’s five best ranked offenses, with the other being the Western Conference Finals participating Trail Blazers. The inherent value of long distance attempts is evident.
The question of sustainability also shouldn’t be overlooked. Nikola Vucevic shot so far above his career average from distance (buoyed by an absurd opening month figure of 63.6%!) that some regression can be expected. In February and March, Jonathan Isaac began to resemble, by his own standards, a dude who just caught fire in NBA Jam on the Super Nintendo. Wes Iwundu went from being a collector of bricks to an above-average marksman, seemingly overnight. Aaron Gordon shot a career-high from deep. DJ Augustin connected on a greater percentage of triples than at any point since his rookie season. And then there was Terrence Ross, who cooked like a chef with a gallon of oil and a death wish. We’ll get to him later.
The good news for the Magic is that, even if some individual players come back to Earth, they seemingly left some points on the table that they could do a better job of leveraging this coming season. They were well behind the curve on the corner three, launching only 19.1% of their total long-distance attempts from the most efficient area behind the arc. Considering how few of their triples they attempted off the dribble (over 83% of their made threes are assisted), it stands to reason that sets could funnel more shots to these two areas of the court. They also ranked fourth in the league in terms of the percentage of shots coming from a distance of 16-to-23 feet from the hoop. By pushing just a handful of these each game a little further out they would likely see a bump in the efficiency of the overall offense. Last season doesn’t have to be a blip, as long as the team keeps looking for ways to effectively and efficiently end offensive possessions.
Lighting the (Human) Torch
Any 2018/19 discussion about the Magic and their shooting almost necessarily starts and ends with the first guy off the bench, Terrence Ross. He’s long had a reputation as a three-point bomber but it hadn’t yet been truly evident in his time in pinstripes. He started slowly after a midseason trade in 2016/17, while 2017/18 was a season cruelled by injury. So his ability to seemingly flick a switch and go supernova was a sight to behold for Orlando fans this season past. The Human Torch was a moniker well-earned after his numerous scoring avalanches and even an ice-cold game-winner against the 76ers.
The numbers really were something. Ross got up seven attempts from distance per contest, meaning that roughly once every three-and-a-half-minutes he was letting fly. He made 38.3% of these attempts, and they accounted for over 55% of his total shot distribution. No player has ever made as many threes in a season playing exclusively in a bench role as he did (217). He also showcased a particular knack for generating contact from beyond the arc; he had the second most four-point play attempts on the season (10, trailing only James Harden’s staggering 20), while finishing third in terms of total fouls drawn while attempting a three-point shot (behind Harden and Kemba Walker). We already know how valuable the long ball is, so when a player starts supplementing it with a higher frequency of visits to the free throw stripe good things tend to happen.
As we hurtle towards the opening of free agency it’s worth remembering that Ross is an unrestricted free agent. There will be a number of teams ready and willing to cough up a serious chunk of change for his services, which means that any potential return to Orlando won’t come cheap for the front office. He’ll certainly be expecting a bump on his old salary of $10.5 million per season, and with minimal room to maneuver within the cap any failure to get a deal done will leave the Magic with a gaping hole both on the roster and in their game plan. This lack of alternatives, coupled with Ross’ apparent desire to stay in Central Florida, means that it’s likely the details of a palatable partnership get hammered out; something around three-years and $40 million doesn’t seem like a stretch for the man that firmly established himself as a fan favorite in 2019.
Can anyone else save us?
Even if, as expected, Ross does re-enter the fold, are there any other names out there that would help the Magic in their bid to add more shooting to the roster? The good news is that there are plenty of deadly scorers and long range bombers about to hit the market. The bad news is that Orlando basically can’t afford any of them.
Dreams of Durant, Leonard, Irving and Walker were only ever fevers in the minds of the most unrealistically fanciful. Some of the ghosts of Magic past like Redick and Harris have well and truly left the franchise in the rear view mirror. Even less sexy names like Malcolm Brogdon and Bojan Bogdanovic are going to command far too many dollars for Orlando to get into the bidding.
After that the options start to get a little less inspiring. How do you feel about an aging Trevor Ariza? Or the current, post-injury version of Wes Matthews? Omri Casspi has always been able to stretch the floor but hasn’t actually been able to get on the court in recent years. Reggie Bullock is a pretty one dimensional long-range shooter who somehow faded into obscurity on a Lakers team that needed shooting in the worst way. Plus, you know … Mario Hezonja is out there (let me know if this sounds familiar). As previously said: uninspiring.
A name floated last season on message boards and in Twitter threads is one that continues to make some sense for the Magic: Seth Curry. He’s an unrestricted free agent coming off a deep playoff run in Portland, and while he might only be the third best shooter in his family (behind his otherworldly brother and long-retired father) he would immediately emerge as the preeminent marksman in Orlando’s backcourt. However, he played out last season on a bargain contract ($2.75 million) and will be looking for a raise, which makes getting him to Florida a difficult proposition. Still, where there’s a will there’s a way (to pull off the necessary cap gymnastics). A healthy portion of the mid-level exception might be enough to get his ink on a contract.
Jeremy Lamb is another name worth watching. He would be a taller backcourt option, with a demonstrated ability to slide to the three in shorter lineups. He has increased both the rate and accuracy of his three point shooting across the last two seasons, emerging as a solid complementary scorer with some playmaking skills and reasonable defensive instincts. Lamb also enjoys a recent connection to Head Coach Steve Clifford, under whom he experienced steady development as a player and shooter during their time together in Charlotte. He wouldn’t come cheap, but he at least exists in the realm of possibility for an Orlando side expected to be operating right against the cap.
The next few days are going to be interesting for fans of the Magic. Depending on the moves made, the team could essentially be locking themselves into the familiarity of the current core for another half-decade. Does that team have the potential ceiling to be more than first-round fodder in the modern NBA? Or would a lack of shooting keep them closer to the floor of lottery purgatory?
There’s only one way to find out. Free agency is the time for the front office to shoot their shot before the games tip off.