About a month ago we checked in on the state of the Magic, pleasingly finding that things seemed to be steadily snaking in the right direction. The slow start was receding in the rearview, with players like Fournier, Fultz and Ross leading the way and the return of Vucevic from injury imminent. Blue skies from here on out, right?
Well … kind of. But we’ll get into that soon.
If we’re looking on the bright side, what exactly can we find? What’s got hearts aflutter? Is there a trajectory we should be excited about? Who is trending in the right direction?
For the pessimists: any elephants in the room? Is the bottom falling out somewhere? Where are we hiding the bodies? Is anyone suffering through a protracted slump?
Let’s dive in and see what stories have emerged from Orlando so far.
Eastern Conference positioning
Don’t look now but your pals in pinstripes are currently in shared possession of the Eastern Conference’s seventh seed, tied with the tumbling Nets and four games out in front of the ninth and tenth-placed Hornets and Pistons. The Magic have overcome a 2-6 start to now be within realistic striking distance of a .500 record, even when accounting for the current extended road trip and general January troubles. It feels like the team has steadied the ship.
There’s plenty of reason to believe the current clip can either be comfortably maintained or improved upon. With the recent blowout win over the Wizards, Orlando nudged their differential into positive territory for the first time since the season’s opening week. Currently there isn’t a single non-playoff team sporting a positive figure in this regard. The Magic should also benefit from one of the softer remaining schedules in the league. Tankathon ranks their slate as only the 22nd most difficult over the final 43 games, with an average opponent win percentage of .491. While Washington may not be around to prop up Orlando’s win column -- somehow the teams have already faced each other four times and won’t again barring some genuinely insane playoff machinations -- they’ve still got multiple dates with each of Atlanta, New York, Detroit, Charlotte, Chicago, Sacramento and Minnesota remaining.
This is good news because the Magic tend to perform to expectations, largely handling the team’s below them in the standings; just 6 of their 21 losses have come against team’s currently sporting losing records (the flipside of this is that just 3 of their 18 wins have come against teams currently above .500. But that’s a consideration for another column). It would appear that as long as the Magic take care of business as expected the playoffs will take care of themselves … even though, as Friday night’s result in Phoenix proved, it’s a proposition that could potentially prove difficult.
The best explanation as to why the Magic have been able to creep their way up the standings is a familiar one: defense. Last year’s playoff surge was built almost entirely on the team’s ability to shut down the opposition, and it turns out that this season is no different. After a lackluster start at this end of the floor Orlando have collectively locked in on D, clamping down and making life difficult for the opposition all over the court.
To this point of the season the Magic rank fifth overall in terms of defensive rating, giving up just 105.3 points per-100 possessions. This is only a few points behind the league-leading Bucks and miles ahead of some of the other would-be playoff-hopefuls in the East. It’s also reflective of some of the most optimistic takes fans had for Orlando coming into the season; many expected them to be a strong defensive outfit, but only a brave few would have pegged them as potentially league elite. While this season ranking is a strong one, it could actually be argued that we’re only just now seeing the best that this team has to offer at this end of the court.
Across the last ten games the Magic have actually been the most prolific defensive outfit in the whole league, restricting opponents to just 98.1 points per-100 possessions. Isolate just the last five contests and that figure shrinks even further, all the way down to 95.5. In the pace-and-pace era those numbers are virtually unprecedented! So the question becomes how have they managed it?
Interestingly, Orlando have arrived at one of the season’s best defenses despite giving up a perfectly average effective field goal percentage to the opposition - .515, good for fifteenth league-wide. When playing the Magic, teams hit both two and three-point field goal attempts at a middle of the road rate: 50.8% of two-point shots (12th), 35.2% of three-point shots (14th), for a combined field goal percentage of 44.8% (11th). So if there’s nothing particularly difficult about scoring on Orlando, why is the defense so good?
Away from opponent shooting percentages, the Magic do a fantastic job of restricting the offensive opportunities they give up. They’re one of the slowest paced teams in the league (27th, with an average of just 98.1 possessions per-48 minutes), limiting the number of scoring chances in any game. They’re also a turnover-inducing machine, ranking second in steals (8.7), fifth in blocks (6.2), forcing the opponent into 15.6 offensive miscues per-100 possessions (7th league-wide). Add to this the fact that they protect the defensive glass -- ranking eighth in defensive rebounding percentage (78.1%) and fifth in second chance points given up (11.9) -- and keep the opposition off the free throw line with the fourth-stingiest free-throw rate (just .168 free throws per field goal attempt defended), and you can see how this team has turned into a nightmare matchup.
The Magic won’t maintain the same level of defensive effectiveness that they have established recently. No team could, because the numbers are absurd! But the underlying factors are things that this squad has been doing solidly for the better part of twelve months now, so any drop off will likely only be minimal. Orlando have established their defensive identity. Now they just need to maintain it.
If there’s a universal feel-good story to be celebrated in the NBA this season it might be Markelle Fultz. Written off as a bust and meme-ified by many, his emergence for a Magic squad desperate for elite backcourt talent is something plastering smiles all over the faces of those in Central Florida.
Already a two-time positive trend in this space, it’s basically impossible to keep Fultz from racking up a third entry. It’s self-evident at this stage that he’s putting up career numbers, but for Magic fans, the greater point of interest is that he continues to improve as the season winds on. He’s looking more confident, more composed, and more decisive. He’s clearly becoming more attuned with his teammates, who he’s shown a knack for finding in scoring position off the dribble. He’s more likely to be a factor in crunch time. He’s more noticeably a defensive pest. He’s more … noticeable.
Fultz recently posted a career-high 25 against the Nets. He had six steals against Miami. He was an unfathomable +40 against the Wizards, tied for the best Orlando plus/minus since 2009. At one point he was even the recipient of some modest-yet-earnest chants of MVP when he went to the line. No one would have had that on their list of predictions before the season opened. If there’s anything that Fultz has already definitively proven it’s that there’s more to come yet.
After a rough start to the year, DJ Augustin has finally started to look like last season’s version that was so important to Orlando’s success. While it’s a shame that a nagging knee injury has temporarily shut him down, Magic fans should be pleased with what they’ve been seeing from the veteran point guard recently.
Cold shooting through the months of October and November contributed to the early funk the team was in, ultimately resulting in Augustin’s demotion to a bench role. Although he struggled to immediately adapt to his new place in the rotation, recent signs have pointed to the fact that he’s growing more comfortable. His individual offensive rating has jumped to 121 and 120 points per-100 possessions in December and January, respectively, primarily the product of improved accuracy from deep. After hitting approximately just 30% of his three-point attempts across the first 20 games, he’s nudged his season figure up to 35% thanks to a long-range stroke of 37.5% in 15 games in December and 38.3% in five games in January. He’s starting to get his stroke back!
Outside of long-range shooting figures reverting to the norm, Augustin has also enjoyed marked recent improvement in terms of his ability to get to the free-throw line. After attempting just 38 total free-throws in the season’s first 18 games (2.1 per contest) he’s pushed those numbers up to 91 in the 20 games since (4.5), more than doubling the number of trips he’s taking to the charity stripe. This includes a whopping 13 attempts in the recent tilt against Washington. It’s great news for a player shooting almost 90% on such attempts, and for a team that has traditionally struggled in this aspect of the game. Such considerations make it pretty easy to see how in December (59.2%) and January (58.1%) he’s been able to inflate his true shooting percentage to a figure closer to the career-marks of the last couple of seasons.
Augustin still has some wrinkles in his game that need to be ironed out in this new role -- a tendency to overdribble, an awkward two-man game with Mo Bamba -- although his recent play suggests that he’s now trending in the right direction.
And with that we’ve arrived at the end of the first installment. We’ve taken a deep dive into a number of positive revelations enjoyed by the team recently, but what might be lurking just beneath the surface that could keep us up at night? Be sure to come back as we uncover what has been trending down in Part Two.