Through the first 41 games of the season, there were ups and downs for the Orlando Magic.
- There was the win over the Lakers. There were the losses to the Hawks.
- There was the comeback story of Markelle Fultz. There were far too many injuries.
- There was a steadily improving defense reaching elite status. There were many alarming offensive struggles.
And of course, there were 20 wins and 21 losses.
Members of the OPP crew - Aaron Goldstone, Garrett Townsend and myself - got together to answer some questions about the first half of the Magic’s season....
Fill in the blank: The Magic’s first half of the season was ________.
Garrett: Pretty much what I expected.
At the start of the season I picked them for 44 wins and a sixth-placed finish in the East, and at the moment everything is tracking roughly in that direction (although seventh now seems more likely). They’ve largely taken care of business against inferior opposition, with a smattering of inspiring wins and perplexing losses for good measure. At the halfway point the Magic are right where I thought they would be: in the box seat for a lower playoff seed, but a long way still from meaningful contention.
Mike: Better than expected, under the circumstances.
Before the season started, if someone said that NIkola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac, Al-Farouq-Aminu and Michael Carter-Williams would all miss time, I think we all would have signed up for a near-.500 record. Much was made about the benefits of bringing back essentially the same team, a team whose rotation players combined to miss just 12 games in the first half of last season. Vucevic nearly matched that on his own this season, missing 11 games in the first half. Few of us expected Markelle Fultz to be the healthiest of all Magic players, or for the Magic to utilize a starting lineup that included Khem Birch and Wes Iwundu, but here we are. And the Magic, albeit with some glaring areas of concern, have weathered the injury storm better than I would have thought.
Aaron: Frustrating. Frustrating on a few levels.
I found it a bit disappointing how up-and-down the Magic began the ’19-’20 campaign. The motto or slogan surrounding this Orlando team all off-season was “run it back”. Orlando returned all of the players that were part of the playoff rotation last year (and added a couple pieces as well). The team’s familiarity with one another and continuity was supposed to vault them out of the gate, as the rest of the conference took time to familiarize themselves with new core rosters pieces (Miami, Philadelphia, Boston, etc.).
Instead, the Magic dropped seven of their first ten games – three of those losses coming on their home floor.
And yes, the most obvious thing that has been frustrating about Orlando’s season thus far has been the amount of injuries that have forced the Magic to play short-handed many nights. Starters Nikola Vucevic (11 games), Jonathan Isaac (eight games so far, likely out for the year), and Aaron Gordon (six games) have already combined to miss 25 games for Orlando. Veteran reserves Michael Carter-Williams and Al-Farouq Aminu have also missed significant time due to injury this season.
The two losses already this season to the Atlanta Hawks were damn frustrating as well, especially the contest in late December.
Who on the Magic impressed you most in the first half?
Garrett: I can’t imagine anyone will be picking a player here other than our new lord and savior, Markelle Fultz. Twelve months ago, no one knew if he would ever play again. Six months ago, no one knew if he could carve out a spot in the rotation. Now, he’s a legitimate star in the making. The box score numbers are good — 11.7 points, 4.6 assists, 3.5 rebounds, and 1.3 steals per game on 46.2% shooting — but it’s the poise, court vision and basketball instincts that impress me most. Also, the more he plays the more convinced I become that he can dribble his way to any point on the court at any time. Fultz is fun!
Mike: There are a few ways you could go with this answer but I think it has to be Markelle Fultz. His performance against the Lakers in the Magic’s 41st game of the season sealed it, and not just because of the triple-double. The way he maneuvered in the paint, essentially running circles around the Laker defense until he found the separation he needed to get to the basket and deliver such critical buckets, it just gives the Magic offense a dimension it has lacked. In our preseason roundtable I predicted Fultz would start three games this season as the Magic brought him along slowly. So, to see where he is now is quite impressive. As are Evan Fournier’s improved shooting percentages and assertiveness and Jonathan Isaac’s stocks total.
Aaron: Jonathan Isaac and Evan Fournier have both impressed me for different reasons so far this season. Isaac began this season on a mission defensively, swatting anything and everything that was within the reach of his lengthy wingspan. Besides the blocks and steals, Isaac simply disrupts even more plays with deflections, closing out on shooters, and preventing post-entry passes. I don’t know if he would have got the recognition this year (because he’s still so young), but the defensive campaign he was putting together was at least worthy enough for Isaac to be heavily in the discussion for First-Team All-NBA Defense.
With Fournier, I’ve just been so impressed with the confidence on the court he’s displayed, the swagger that has seemingly returned to his game, and the leadership role that it appears he’s taken on a bit more of this year. He’s bounced back from a horrid shooting season last year to now one of the best offensive seasons of his career. Fournier his shooting right at 40% from beyond the arc while sporting the highest offensive rating, player efficiency rating, and true shooting percentage of his career. Fournier leads the Magic in offensive box plus/minus (OBPM).
Who on the Magic disappointed you most in the first half?
Garrett: I feel a little bad singling him out because he’s been better recently, but for mine it has to be Aaron Gordon. Like all of us, I keep waiting for him to make the jump and force his way into All-Star consideration, but it just hasn’t happened. He’s been good, but not great. It’s evident that his coach and teammates still believe in him, so maybe the back half of the season is when we see AG finally take flight.
Mike: Al-Farouq Aminu. The signing never made sense to me, given the Magic’s more pressing offensive needs. And then Aminu shot under 30 percent before suffering what could be a season-ending knee injury. Perhaps if Aminu had stayed healthy, and had been able to step in for the injured Jonathan Isaac, he would have proved his value. But that won’t be happening this season.
Aaron: I think Mo Bamba might be the low-hanging fruit here, but I’m not sure that’s completely fair. Would it be ideal for the Magic to get a little more production from their former sixth overall pick? Sure, of course. Especially when you consider what Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is doing in Oklahoma City. But Bamba was always going to be a project. He had a pretty rough beginning to the season, but he’s steadied himself over Orlando’s last twenty games or so. It’s difficult to show more than random flashes here or there when you are solidly entrenched behind Orlando’s best player.
So, I’m going to go with Al-Farouq Aminu for most disappointing player through Orlando’s first forty games. Maybe that’s not fair either, considering he’s played in less than half of his team’s games so far. But things were going very poorly for Aminu before his knee injury occurred, a setback that’s likely going to cost the veteran forward the rest of his season. Eighteen games is decent enough of a sample-size, and the tenth-yeah forward was shooting 29.1% from the field for the Magic (25% on three-point field goals). Aminu’s points per 36 minutes, offensive rating, and player efficiency rating were all the lowest of his career. Most alarmingly, he was missing nearly three out of every five shots he took within three feet. Aminu’s -7.2 Net Plus/Minus per/100 possessions mark is the worst it’s been since his days playing for the Los Angeles Clippers (2010, Aminu’s rookie season).
I think Orlando’s brass may have overreacted a bit to Toronto’s forwards torching the Magic in the playoffs, so they went and signed another long/defensive-minded forward. Yeah, bit of a reach on their part. No one slowed down Kawhi Leonard and Pascal Siakam last season. But the Magic used their valuable mid-level exception on Aminu nonetheless, and now he’s signed with the Magic through 2021 (I believe ’22 is a player-option year, so perhaps even longer).
What changes would you like to see Steve Clifford make in the second half?
Garrett: All things considered, I feel like Coach Clifford has done a very good job this season. He has a bit of a reputation as an inflexible tactician, but he’s already shown a willingness to change the rotation, coach to matchups, and make in-game transitions that meaningfully impact the outcome. And he’s doing it all with a roster that still resembles a basketball Rubik’s Cube! The main thing I want to see over the final forty regular season games is more minutes for Fultz, which is probably going to happen regardless with the news that Augustin is out for at least three more weeks.
Mike: The clockwork-like substitutions for Fultz have been annoying at times. Fultz checks out with four or five minutes left in the first and we don’t see him again until around seven minutes remain in the second, at which point he will play a few minutes alongside D.J. Augustin. That has changed of late because of injuries, but I’d like to see Clifford base his substitutions more on game flow than these preconceived rotational strategies. Also, Khem Birch should not play any other position than center, and Michael Carter-Williams should not play any other position than point guard. And Clifford must find a way to create open looks for Terrence Ross to get him going.
Aaron: I’m choosing not to be overly critical regarding Clifford’s chosen rotations so far this season, because honestly – he hasn’t been dealing with a complete roster for some time. The Magic were only at full-strength for a handful of games through the first half of ’19-’20. It seemed like scrambling to put eight or nine NBA-competent guys out on the floor together was a nightly occurrence for Clifford.
My suggestion is one that I’ve had for a couple seasons now, and that is to encourage the team to play with more pace. Orlando has been a bottom-five “pace” team under Clifford (and that’s probably not going to change anytime soon). I realize that Clifford values transition defense, defensive floor-balance, and taking care of the basketball. Therefore, it’s naturally part of his game-plan for the Magic to play at a slower pace than many other teams around the league.
But I also realize that this team is flawed offensively, deeply flawed at times. With a lack of abundant shooters and/or efficient scorers, it seems to me that adding a few possessions each quarter as a result of pushing the ball a bit more couldn’t hurt. Markelle Fultz is obviously a guard that thrives playing in transition, as does Aaron Gordon. I much prefer those two weapons being utilized in the open floor (opposed to in the half-court).
Should the Magic buy, sell or stand pat at the trade deadline?
Garrett: I remain more interested in the seasons to come for the Magic, so as long as any potential moves are made with the long-term in mind I’ll be cool with them. I can’t see a trade out there that significantly shifts the needle on their chances of winning a playoff series this season, but they’re also too good (in a weak conference) to blow it up and try to slide down the standings. It’s an awkward spot for trade machine enthusiasts! And this is before we get to the question of how the team handles Evan Fournier and his (likely) looming free agency. My best guess: the team makes a small move at the end of the rotation to ensure they go down swinging in the first round.
Mike: Last season, standing pat at the deadline proved to be the right move because it helped the Magic rid themselves of the stigma that came with ending a lengthy playoff drought. But now, the goals need to be more ambitious than making the first round of the playoffs. This Magic roster as presently constituted likely won’t go any further, though getting the seventh seed and avoiding the Bucks would drastically improve their chances. Still, if the Magic can get something of value in return for Evan Fournier, D.J. Augustin or Khem Birch, I would sell. Fournier has been invaluable this season, but assuming he opts out of the final year of his deal and becomes a free agent, I don’t see how he fits in the Magic financial plans long-term. And honestly, with the current state of the Eastern Conference, the Magic would probably make the playoffs without him, particularly if Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon and Terrence Ross play to their full potential in the second half.
Aaron: Definitely not “sell.” The current iteration of this Magic team is facing more adversity than last year’s bunch at this point of the season, and I thought the Magic should sell then (remember, they were eleven games below .500 at one point). But the landscape in the East has changed this season. I don’t see any other choice for the Magic moving forward this season than to compete for a playoff spot. A lot would have to go right for Orlando to be in play for the sixth seed, but I think the seventh or eighth seed is a very safe bet when considering the amount of implosion happening to nearly half of the Eastern Conference at the moment. Orlando is going to do what Orlando’s management wants to do, it’s that simple. Management wants to continue to keep this team in the playoffs.
“Buying” is also a strong “no” for me. The way I’m looking at this, if the Magic were buying at the deadline, then they would probably be giving up a piece that is part of their long-term future. And there’s no way they should be doing that this season. You’re short-handed already without Isaac, let Vucevic and Fournier guide you to a 7/8-seed, and re-group next season with hopefully better luck.
So…”stand pat”. Ding, ding, ding. That’s my answer. Of course, there is nothing wrong with perusing the bargain bin. A waived player could be out there that could ultimately help the Magic (provide them depth at the very least). I’m talking minimal move, think Michael Carter-Williams at the end of last season.