As free agency continues to wind down across the league, it’s starting to look like things are just about done for the Magic.
Four key re-signings, a bench addition, and a necessary Mozgov stretching constituted the bulk of the team’s summer plans, with only the Chuma Okeke signing left to formalize. The front office evidently prioritized continuity, electing to maintain basically the entirety of last season’s playoff participating 42-40 squad. Run it back, hope for continued growth and development, and trust that the team will pick up a few extra Ws thanks to early season fit and comfort.
It’s tough to argue, however, that this was a perfectly executed offseason, even while acknowledging that the team had limited flexibility and options. On paper the team should be, at worst, infinitesimally better than the 2018/19 version; the key cogs are still in place, the youth should improve, and greater depth encourages healthy competition for playing time. But for a side clearly planning on getting back to the postseason, were the moves made the ones that offer the best chance for success?
The Magic have had a couple of easily identifiable areas of weakness over the last few seasons: specifically, shooting and point guard depth. Despite an above-average accuracy from deep last season the team still encountered cramped defenses reacting to their reputation as a team devoid of marksmen. However, if players like Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic can continue to improve their percentage, if Evan Fournier can experience a bounce back season, and if Terrence Ross continue to shoot literal flames from his fingertips, then Orlando might find themselves staring down a more spaced court.
So if a road map leading to better than league-average shooting exists, what about the other identified issue? Worryingly, the point guard spot should be one generating some level of concern for Magic fans. DJ Augustin and Michael Carter-Williams are back, while Markelle Fultz apparently continues to exist in some sort of nebulous parallel universe, but there’s precisely nothing else new and of note at the position for the team. It’s an obvious blemish that hasn’t been addressed in any capacity this offseason.
Point guard is currently a position of incredible depth in the NBA. Deep breath: Steph Curry, Damien Lillard, Kemba Walker, Kyrie Irving, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, Kyle Lowry, Mike Conley, Ben Simmons. Another deep breath: De’Aaron Fox, D’Angelo Russell, Spencer Dinwiddie, Trae Young, Jamal Murray, Ricky Rubio, Eric Bledsoe, Derrick White. We could go on. That list is an incomplete one, but it covers 75% of the incumbent playoff teams as well as a handful of others. As mentioned, incredible depth.
So, the question for Orlando fans is this: how do the Magic stack up at the point guard position? Let’s dive in and try to make sense of what’s going on when it comes to the quarterback spot in Central Florida.
When DJ Augustin was signed by the Magic back in the ill-fated ‘Summer of Biyombo’ the intent was for him to serve as a backup and mentor to Elfrid Payton, the franchise’s recently drafted future of the position. As we know all too well, however, neither Payton’s play nor hairstyle developed the way the front office envisioned; before too long Augustin found himself in the driver’s seat.
The 2018/19 season was the first time in almost a decade that Augustin started every game he played in. He responded incredibly well, turning in what was close to (if not) a career-year and guiding the Magic to their first post-Dwight playoff appearance. He was a dependable veteran presence on a team that needed it, putting up a steady 12 and 5 on his best ever effective field goal percentage numbers (.566). He managed to avoid the odd every-second-year shooting slump that has emerged as a pattern across his career, nudging his three-point accuracy up to 42.1% and converting over half of his two-point shots for the first time ever.
Elsewhere, Augustin was just as efficient. He committed a meager 1.6 turnovers a game despite playing almost 30 minutes a night, recording a turnover rate of just 14.3%. A little less of his own scoring was predicated on the three-point shot, evidence of a slightly more aggressive play style focused on probing the heart of the opposition defense. The percentage of his shot attempts at the rim rose to 26.7% of his total, up more than a staggering 10% on his first season in pinstripes. He was also fantastic finishing at the hoop, with a conversion rate of almost 65% despite his short stature. When the floor was spaced he was able to take advantage.
Another significant strength of Augustin’s game was in the pick-and-roll. He ran these frequently -- almost half of all possessions he initiated -- generating 0.96 points per possession as the lead ball handler in these sets. Among point guards playing significant minutes this was a strong result, just behind names like Lillard, Curry and Walker but ahead of Conley, Westbrook and Russell.
In fact, the only real weakness of Augustin’s 2018/19 season -- and the factor holding him back from being a featured starter-level talent -- was his minuscule usage rate. Despite the expectations of his position, he finished just 17.2% of Magic possessions when he was on the court, a figure that ranks him fifth on the team in terms of those who played at least 1,000 minutes. Some of this is obviously because of Nikola Vucevic’s role as the fulcrum of the offense, but even that is a necessity borne of the backcourt circumstances.
Last season Augustin was very good at what he was asked to do: be a dependable complementary piece. But the fact remains that, in a perfect world, he would be better suited coming off the bench.
Hands up those who had Michael Carter-Williams pegged for this role just six months ago? Hands up those who thought he would even be in the league at that point? The veritable absence of (hypothetical) limbs aloft speaks volumes about the state of Orlando’s reserve point guards. After flaming out during a short stop in Houston, it looked like it was curtains for the career of the one-time Rookie of the Year; as a non-shooter in the backcourt, the modern game had seemingly passed him by, particularly on an analytics-driven team like the Rockets.
Yet, when Carter-Williams arrived in Orlando with just 12 regular season games to go he was able to make a considerable impact. He immediately supplanted Jerian Grant in the back-up role, helping to steady the second unit and provide direction after the untimely injury of Isaiah Briscoe a few games prior. Worrying losses to lightweights like the Wizards, Grizzlies and Cavaliers were soon forgotten as the Magic finished the season on a 10-2 surge, clearly benefiting from the energy and effort that MCW brought to the table.
With MCW it’s hard to start anywhere other than with his shooting, or relative lack thereof. In a league seriously discussing the merits of a four-point line, he stands out as an anomaly, a throwback to a time B(S)CE -- Before (Steph) Curry Era -- when floor spacing was a misunderstood luxury and not the central tenet of every offensive possession. Put simply: the dude can’t shoot.
In his 12 regular season games with the Magic Carter-Williams converted just 34% of his attempts from the field, including an absolutely frigid 15.8% from deep. He was okay closer to the hoop -- 55.6% on attempts within 3 feet -- but the fact remains that he was essentially treated by the opposition as a non-threat, someone to sag off from defensively and to dare to let fly. Dare they did, and rarely was it that he made the opposition pay by putting the ball in the hoop himself.
However, there are ways to make up for this offensive deficiency. He was aggressive in his pursuit of contact, routinely driving to the hoop and getting himself to the charity stripe. In fact, if maintained over the course of the entire season his free throw rate of .435 would have been second among Orlando’s rotation players (behind only Khem Birch), a clear boon for a team ranked second-to-last league-wide in this statistical category. Carter-Williams was also the most bountiful distributor on the side, as his 4.1 assists per game (in less than 19 minutes) and team-best assist percentage of 28.9% attest. Although he was an inefficient individual scorer, he was still able to find ways to make a positive contribution at this end of the court.
There might also be something to be taken from his numbers in Houston. The sample size is again minuscule, but in his 16 games in Texas, he posted career-best figures from deep - 36.8% on 19 total attempts from behind the arc. The interesting thing here is that almost half of these attempts came from the corners, a spot that the Magic haven’t really been able to leverage to great effect in recent seasons. Carter-Williams actually hit 3 of his 5 corner three attempts in Orlando, so it might be that off-ball sets that utilize him as the spot up man in this position are a way to minimize this weakness. Again, the data set is ridiculously small, but if Orlando are committed to MCW as the back up they’re going to need to experiment with this.
Elsewhere it’s easier to see the benefits that the rangy point guard’s place in the rotation brings. He’s a defensive nuisance, consistently recording metrics that rank him as an above-average defender. In Orlando he logged close to a steal and a block per game (0.9 and 0.8, respectively), with good deflection numbers and an evident ability to make things difficult for opposing ball handlers. He was also an excellent defensive rebounder, closing possessions for the Magic by securing opposition misses. He pulled in 4.8 rebounds per game, accumulating a defensive rebounding percentage of 19.6% that ranked behind only Nikola Vucevic and Mo Bamba in regard to rotation regulars. Put simply: the dude can play defense.
It’s hard to believe that Carter-Williams is the perfect backcourt back up for the Magic. However, by recommitting to the core the front office had limited options, so running it back with the guy that came in and immediately made a difference probably isn’t the worst outcome. Still, the hope will be that his obvious flaws aren’t made more painful by extended exposure, particularly on a second unit already bereft of quality scorers.
The Question Mark
It’s honestly not clear what can meaningfully be said about possible basketball contributions from Markelle Fultz beyond this: he once played well on a poor team in college; he was selected first overall in 2017 by Philadelphia where it was envisioned he would be the perfect backcourt complement to Ben Simmons; and he remains the central figure in a bizarre mystery that may or may not feature a professional-level talent forgetting how to shoot a basketball. That’s the sum total.
Penciling the Magic in for any contributions from Fultz this season would be a fool’s errand. There still isn’t even any certainty that he’ll get onto the court in 2019/20, let alone that he’ll be able to provide meaningful production for the franchise. Still, the trade bringing him to Orlando was worth the risk for a player of his college pedigree, simply because the potential ceiling is so high.
A common take is that the front office, by not addressing the point guard position elsewhere this offseason, must like what they’re seeing from Fultz behind closed doors. However, it’s just as likely that Weltman and Hammond prioritized talent regardless of positional fit, a move that makes some sense for a squad operating at a bit of a deficit in that regard. Or, of course, there’s the chance that they’re leaning into the gamble of the initial trade, optimistically forecasting a contribution reflective of the investment. None of these scenarios are crazy.
Regardless of the reasoning behind the Magic’s offseason machinations, the fact remains that any expectation of production from Fultz this season carries risk. Soon enough we’ll know whether or not the team was right to roll the dice.
But if you listen to Caron Butler....
More from Markelle Fultz’s Insta story pic.twitter.com/eJZTxFLtQt— Orlando Pinstriped Post (@OPPMagicBlog) July 15, 2019
It’s hard to say with absolute conviction what the Magic have at the point guard spot. Last season the play of both Augustin and Carter-Williams was somewhere between competent and good, but should we be banking on each of them replicating this success? Remember, it was only eighteen months ago that DJ’s contract looked like a burden, and only six months ago that MCW looked like he was headed to Europe. Regression wouldn’t be a shock.
And then there’s Fultz, who could be nothing just as easily as something.
There are no certainties with this group. However, what is almost certain is that the Magic will once again require dependable play from this position if they’re to make it back to the postseason. That they didn’t meaningfully address this during the offseason should be cause for some concern.
The preseason is less than three months away. Let the point guard prognostications begin.