In Part I, we tackled all things positive in Orlando, leaving us now with the task of figuring out what’s headed in the opposite direction. The good news is that the number of entries is smaller. The worrying news is that the entries are pretty important. Let’s dive in and figure out where our reservations may currently rest.
Health … again
Coming into the season most expected the Magic to experience some regression in terms of health, but I don’t know that many would have expected it to be this pronounced. Listed as a downward trend last time, the injury outlook hasn’t really improved at all for Orlando. Sure Nikola Vucevic is back, but elsewhere the roster is being held together by equal parts players out of position and scotch tape. It’s a tough look.
Jonathan Isaac is likely lost for the season, with a scary looking knee injury (that luckily doesn’t require surgery) shutting down his promising campaign. Al-Farouq Aminu, sidelined since the start of December, will remain that way, with surgery now required to repair the torn meniscus he suffered. Michael-Carter Williams remains out with a shoulder sprain. DJ Augustin is currently unavailable because of a knee contusion. Aaron Gordon isn’t playing because of a calf complaint, on top of the other lower leg ailments he’s been managing. That’s half of the team’s expected rotation.
Once again it’s probably worth trying to quantify the impact of these injuries. To open the new year Man Games Lost posted collated data regarding both the number of games teams have lost due to injury, as well as the impact these absences have had on wins and losses. Like the last time we checked in, you’ll again notice that although the Magic aren’t among the league leaders in games lost they do have one of the bigger bubbles, representative of the total number of wins their injury absences have cost. Orlando’s injuries have impacted key rotational cogs, so it’s no surprise that this metric has them comfortably in the league’s top third.
The Magic aren’t going to be blessed with the same clean bill of health that they were last season as they surged to the playoffs. Instead, they’ll have to overcome a much greater level of adversity that will require contributions from players out of position and from all spots on the roster. Let’s hope that Coach Clifford has them up to the task.
Vucevic’s All-Star case
Nikola Vucevic won’t be an All-Star in 2020. This might seem like a harsh call, but it’s ultimately the correct one when considering the big man’s season to date. He just doesn’t have the resume to make it this time round.
By any number of important metrics Vooch’s performance this season is down on that of his All-Star campaign, often by a significant margin. Even accounting for the time missed due to injury doesn’t soften the blow. Through 28 games played the Montenegrin big man is averaging 18.5 points, 11.3 rebounds, and 3.4 assists per contest, with 1.8 combined stocks (steals and blocks) thrown in for good measure. They’re solid numbers, but when compared with last season’s All-Star worthy line -- 20.8, 12.0 and 3.8 with slightly greater defensive counting stats -- the dip in production is noticeable.
A close inspection of his shooting numbers goes some way towards explaining why this season has felt like a step back. Vucevic is converting at a clip of just 45.2% from the field, a figure which represents the worst mark of his career since his time as a rookie and a drop of over six whole percentage points on last season. Digging deeper into the numbers reveals that there are two key places from which he’s struggling: at the rim and in the extended mid-range. Vooch has finished just 63.5% of his attempts within three feet of the rim, a significant decline on the efficiency of his previous few seasons. And while he’s cut back on the long-twos he used to love so much -- with a significant chunk of those now being converted into long-range shots -- he just hasn’t sunk the ones he has taken; he’s making an arctic 27.5% of two-point jumpers attempted from 16 feet or further out. It’s a shame, because he’s actually been able to maintain last season’s strong three-point accuracy -- on significantly more attempts, no less -- while also nudging his free-throw rate up to something close to a career-best mark (.183).
However, even if those shooting numbers were to bounce back, it wouldn’t be enough to completely right the ship. Vucevic just hasn’t been as impactful on the court, either as a dependable, play-making offensive fulcrum, or as a steady interior presence. His raw box plus/minus impact isn’t as strong as last season (+4.8 compared to +6.4). His win shares per-48 are down to .175 from .193. His VORP estimate has plummeted from the giddy heights of last season (5.3) to a much more pedestrian 1.5 points per-100 team possessions. His PER is no longer among the league’s absolute elites. When compared to last season he’s not using as much of the ball for the Magic, and on any given possession is less likely to record a basket, an assist, a rebound, a block or a steal.
There’s also the fact that his competition has to be considered, and this might be where his case comes most easily undone. The Eastern Conference will likely send seven frontcourt players to the annual showcase, comprised of three starters and three reserves with that designation, as well as one of the two final wild card selections. Look at the names that have to be squeezed into those limited spots: Antetokounmpo, Siakim, Embiid, Butler, Tatum, Adebayo, Middleton, Sabonis, Drummond, Harris. Vooch likely has a case on par with some of the latter names, which is where team record and games played could be a determining factor. In both of those instances he’ll be found wanting.
Don’t get me wrong: Vooch has had a good year. He’s an All-Star incumbent. However, he hasn’t had a great year, and the team’s season story to this point doesn’t clamor for representation. Factor in the time missed due to injury and the emergence of some other frontcourt players in the East and you have a recipe for his absence.
Perhaps the most pressing concern facing the Magic is the fact that from here on out they can expect to spend more time on the road than at home. 23 of their final 43 games will be played away from Amway, beginning with the current six-game road trip they’ve just undertaken. The team has struggled when playing outside of the comfort of their own homecourt this season, currently tied for the third-fewest road wins league-wide with an away record of 5-13. In addition, the majority of the team’s egregious losses have come during contests on the hardwood of their opposition, a trend they’ll have to buck if they maintain serious hopes of challenging for a playoff spot that is more than just making up the numbers. With a road-heavy schedule remaining and a record of poor form away from home it will be a tough task for the Magic to overcome.
With the league’s midseason break quickly approaching, we’ll soon find ourselves in the throes of the playoff race. The good news for fans of the Magic is that the team has shown some steady improvement recently, putting themselves in a position to once again make it back to the postseason. Can they make some noise should they make it? Only time will tell.