So, I’m trying something new.
I’ve covered a fair share of games at the Amway Center already this year, and I couldn’t be more excited to see where the rest of the season takes the Magic. But to be completely transparent, outside of writing game recaps of contests I cover, I’ve had a bit of writer’s block lately.
I’ve done progress reports galore in the past, I’ve profiled half of the guys that have come into the league in the last three years over the summer (before the draft). I usually explore some possible trade scenarios leading up to the deadline (I actually predicted that the Magic would in fact trade for Fultz before it happened).
However, I’ve been looking for a different way to communicate with readers; something that was new for me.
I think I’ve found it with this “Four Corners” piece, a series that I hope to continue as the season progresses (if it’s well received that is). I promise, this article will not be the equivalent of the pre-shot-clock era stalling offense Dean Smith made famous at North Carolina like the name implies. So please, tell me in the comments section below if this is something that you enjoyed!
1) Is Khem Birch playing power forward hurting the Magic?
Yes...right? Well, I thought that was the case. I was wrong - and that can be the danger of making assumptions based solely off an “eye test”. Khem Birch is thriving y’all.
With both Jonathan Isaac and Al-Farouq Aminu (the two power forwards Steve Clifford had been using in his regular rotation) going down with likely season-ending knee injuries, Khem Birch has been playing out of position for the Magic as of late. Out of necessity, Birch has started eight of Orlando’s last ten games at the power forward position (playing alongside Nikola Vucevic).
It’s not like Coach Clifford has a lot of other options on the roster. Aaron Gordon is more of a natural power forward, and he’s been playing a lot of minutes at the “four” in the absence of Isaac (and Aminu). But sliding Gordon down exclusively opens up other holes at the small forward position that are difficult to hide. The team signed forward Gary Clark to a 10-day contract last week, but he’s not an answer to Orlando’s starting power forward problem - he’s more of a depth guy who’s just trying to stick with the Magic.
So the team has turned to Birch. Without the data to back up my assertion, again based solely off observation, it just hasn’t seemed like playing the third-year center from Canada at forward is something that’s working out for the Magic. Birch doesn’t fit the mold of a modern-NBA prototypical power forward who spaces the floor, quite the opposite (he’s attempted one three-point field goal this season). From the naked-eye, it just appears that Orlando’s offensive spacing and ball movement has suffered playing essentially two centers (Birch and Vucevic) together.
I was so wrong. Birch has been a combined +31 plus/minus in his eight starts since Isaac’s injury. His +24 in 28 minutes against the Wizards skews things quite a bit, but he’s been a positive plus/minus guy in six of those eight starts.
In fact, of Orlando’s seven five-man lineup combinations that have logged at least sixty minutes together this season, the current Magic starting lineup (including Birch) sports the best net rating (+6.5 in 75 total minutes), defensive rebound percentage, rebound percentage (53.3%), effective field goal percentage, and true shooting percentage (60%).
*Courtesy of NBA.com/Stats
|Fultz, Fournier, Gordon, Birch, and Vucevic||111.0||104.5||+6.5||83.8%||58.3%|
Clearly, going “big” has helped the Magic (so far) rebound the basketball and play more efficiently, while also not sacrificing the overall offensive spacing nor defensive team scheme.
2) What is the deal with the way the Magic have used Melvin Frazier Jr.?
Or I guess the better way to phrase that question is “haven’t” used him. It’s all just so very strange.
Frazier Jr., who Orlando drafted with the 35th overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, played in just ten games for the Magic his rookie season (44 total minutes). That’s nothing really out of the ordinary, most second round picks struggle to cut their teeth in the NBA right away, no big deal.
But you would think that if he wasn’t getting time with the big club, that Frazier Jr. would at least be playing for Orlando’s G-League affiliate right (especially since Lakeland is so close)? Nope, not really.
The Louisiana-native only played in 18 games for the Lakeland Magic last season (12.2 points per game in 30 minutes per game, 38.5% three-point field goal percentage) . For reference, G-League clubs play approximately 45 games in a season.
The Tulane product had surgery last June (right tibia) that caused him to miss valuable time on the court as the Magic competed in the Las Vegas Summer League. His injury undoubtedly set him back a bit in the off-season, but Frazier Jr. was ready to play by the beginning of training camp this season.
But once again, Frazier Jr. has sparingly seen the floor this season. He’s only appeared in 11 games for the Magic, but even more surprisingly, he’s only played in nine games for Lakeland.
He’s not playing for the Magic, he’s not suiting up for Lakeland. Somebody help me out here, what’s the plan regarding this second-year swing-man? I know Clifford leans on veteran players, but Frazier has barely scratched out any playing time of late - even with Orlando’s rampant injuries. And if he can’t log minutes for Orlando, why isn’t he playing everyday in Lakeland (16.2 points per game in Lakeland this season, 29.5% from beyond the arc)?
By the way, the Frazier Jr. pick in ‘18 came sandwiched in-between Devonte’ Graham (#34 to Charlotte) and Mitchell Robinson (#36 to New York).
3) If the Magic do make a move between now and February 6th, I think it will be for a point guard.
Relax, relax. I’m not suggesting trading for a starting point guard, Markelle Fultz will (fingers crossed) be filling that role for a very long time.
But a 17-man roster (14 healthy bodies) legitimately competing for playoff positioning cannot go to battle every night in the NBA with two point guards on the team. That just can’t happen.
Well that’s the position the Magic find themselves in. Veteran back-up point guard D.J. Augustin will be out for at least the next three to four weeks with a bone irritation in his left knee. Augustin is being shut down, and the team will reevaluate his knee in February (after the NBA Trade Deadline). Coincidentally (prior to Augustin going down), the team also waived point guard Josh Magette last week to make room for Gary Clark (signed to a 10-day contract).
“To function, you’ve got to have an organizer on the floor,” Coach Clifford told Josh Robbins (The Athletic) after his team’s loss to the Los Angeles Clippers last week. “It’s hard to play without a point guard.”
Clifford told reporters that traveled with the team on their West Coast trip that he would speak with President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman about the possibility of adding a point guard.
As things currently stand for the Magic, you have a starting point guard who is finally getting healthy after two frustrating injury-riddled seasons in the NBA that caused him to miss a total of 131 games, and a back-up point guard who just returned to the lineup after missing 13 games (nearly a month) with a left shoulder injury. Might not be a bad idea to add a depth guy to the roster until Augustin is able to play again.
As far as some specific names that come to mind that fit what the Magic should be looking for:
Brandon Goodwin, Atlanta Hawks: Goodwin is on a two-way deal with the Hawks. I’m thinking Atlanta ultimately converts his contract to a full-deal. But they also just traded for Jeff Teague. If the Hawks were to waive Goodwin, the Magic should give the former UCF guard a look. Remember Goodwin’s 21-point outburst against the Magic in late December? Of course you do...
Yogi Ferrell, Sacramento Kings: Ferrell seems like a perfect insurance plan for the Magic to fill-in for Augustin. He’s a diminutive guard who’s known for his ability to shoot/score the basketball, and he would be more than capable of running Clifford’s half-court pick-and-roll offense. Ferrell might even be attainable at this point; De’Aaron Fox is healthy again, and the Kings gave a decent amount of money in the off-season to Cory Joseph to play back-up point guard on their team as well. The Indiana product makes just over $3 million this season, a contract that’s workable in any kind of deal (Orlando would probably have to throw in a future second round pick).
Shabazz Napier, Minnesota Timberwolves: Things were pretty rough for Napier during his first go-around with the Magic. But he’s a sixth-year veteran now who played relatively well during his two years in Portland. He’s having a rough shooting season this year in Minnesota, but his contract is very attainable (expiring deal, $1.8 million). I’m not sure the Wolves would trade Napier, but they’re going nowhere this season. The deal would probably have to bring a point guard back to Minnesota; he’s pretty much the only lead guard on their entire roster.
Jordan McRae, Washington Wizards: McRae is definitely not a true point guard, he’s more of a combo-guard (if not a true “2”). But he can score the basketball, something that the Magic need regardless of position. The former Tennessee Volunteer is averaging 4.5 assists per/36 minutes this season (18.7% assist percentage), not bad for a wing. McRae could theoretically provide the Magic with some lead guard depth (as an alternative option to Carter-Williams some nights) while also playing some shooting guard (38% career three-point shooter, 41% this season).
The names above won’t blow Magic fans away, I get it. But Orlando doesn’t have a whole lot to send out either. If they want to add without subtracting from their core roster, the addition is going to be pretty underwhelming (but still could ultimately prove to be useful).
4) Aaron Gordon’s 2019-20 shot chart
*Courtesy of NBA.com/Stats
Tracking where Gordon’s field goal attempts come from on the floor is something Magic fans (that have been paying attention) have been doing for some time. I thought I would check-in on this now that the Magic have officially crossed the half-way mark of their season.
Look, this is the worst shooting season of Gordon’s career - there’s no way around that fact. Gordon is one of the team’s best defenders, he’s vastly improved his play-making ability setting up others, and he can still dunk with the best of them around the league. But his shooting in Year Six is still very much a work in progress. I hate to think that a 24 year-old kid can’t improve his game, I know differently. But we’re quickly approaching “that’s who he is” territory with Gordon shooting the basketball.
According to his shot-chart, Gordon has been an above league-average finisher this season, and below league-average from just about everywhere else on the floor. Ouch.
Even more worrisome, he’s back to shooting long two-point attempts (and in a big way). 16.2 percent of Gordon’s shot attempts from the field this season have come from 10-16 feet (highest distribution of his career), according to Basketball Reference. Gordon is shooting 35.1% on such attempts from that distance in ‘19-’20, lowest since his second year in the league.
Gordon shot 40% on corner three-point attempts last season, but is back down below 30% this year.
He’s been playing through multiple injuries for most of the year, I definitely give him credit for that. Let’s hope Gordon starts shooting straighter sooner rather than later (and maybe cut out some of those mid-range jumpers).
You can find me on Twitter at @AaronGoldstone.