Now that one of the weirdest NBA seasons on record is officially completed, it’s time to collect some final thoughts based on the last (almost) twelve months. A campaign that delivered a series of ups and downs — both on and off the court — ultimately ended in a fashion eerily reminiscent of 2019: a first round playoff loss to a superior opponent. Although the course the team followed was vastly different, the final destination was a familiar one. As we did at this stage last year, let’s take a moment to figure out Orlando’s winners and losers for 2020, free from the actual standings and unmoored from singular results. Who (or what) stood out and shone? Who (or what) crashed and burned? Let’s go!
Winner: Nikola Vucevic, playoff performer
Categorized as a loser as part of this very same exercise last year, no player on the Magic’s roster did more during the playoff exit to the Bucks than the Magic’s big man. Vucevic was an absolute stud across all five contests, putting up 28.0 points per game on 50.5% shooting from the field and 40.9% from deep. He averaged 11.0 rebounds, 4.0 assists and a combined 1.4 steals and blocks for the series, while also limiting both his turnovers (just 10.1% of possessions) and fouls (only 2.5 per 36 minutes). Put simply, Vooch balled out in a major way.
Without Marc Gasol completely suffocating his individual game, Vucevic was able to consistently establish himself as the Magic’s most effective and dependable contributor. He kicked off the series with a 35, 14 and 4 masterclass, short-circuiting Milwaukee’s elite help defense and lane denial strategy by knocking down long-range jumper after long-range jumper. He topped 30 in two other contests as well, and even managed to put up 20 and 22 respectively in the two games when his shooting numbers came back to earth somewhat. Remember, it was only last season that 22 points was the absolute most he could muster in a playoff game!
Exactly how pronounced was the improvement when compared to last year’s flop? Well, a deep dive into Vucevic’s output reveals a player who stepped up in basically every statistical measure, and significantly so in most. In fact, there were only two things that contribute to winning basketball that Vooch did less of against the Bucks than the Raptors: he didn’t block as many shots (1.7% of all attempts compared to 3.5% last year), and he didn’t generate as many free throw attempts (a free throw rate of .099 compared to .241). Considering the effectiveness of his three-point bombs and the fact that blocks are probably the most overrated defensive statistic of all, it’s an incredible trade-off.
His 2020 bubble performance should go a long way towards helping Vucevic shake off the failures of playoffs past. Although he shrunk in a poor matchup last season, this time round he was able to truly excel in slightly more advantageous game conditions. That it didn’t translate into any greater team success, however, is an indicator of his next hurdle: the coupling of individual achievement with a deeper Orlando playoff run. For there to be any chance of that the big man will need to make this recent playoff output the new norm.
Loser: Nikola Vucevic, regular season All-Star
As good as Vucevic was in the five games against Milwaukee, it’s impossible not to note that he struggled to replicate his All-Star form at many other stages this season past. He went from being a slam-dunk choice for the mid-season showcase in 2019 to a complete non-entity in the conversation just twelve months later, the result of an incredibly slow individual start that mirrored the Magic’s own sluggish record through the regular season.
Fresh off inking a long term deal for big money over the offseason, the cynical take on Vooch’s downward trending output was ‘of course’. More often than not professional sports is about paying for past performance rather than future production, and the early returns suggested this was a similar situation; there’s a reason that a Wikipedia entry exists for the ‘contract year phenomenon’. The big man got paid and was now regressing to something more in line with his career averages: a good but not great player.
The start to the season was particularly tough for Vucevic. He struggled to find any sort of offensive rhythm, accruing particularly poor shooting numbers on long twos and from inside the painted area. He shot just 36.9% from the field in October, followed by figures of 48.6%, 47.0% and 42.2% in the following three month stretch. In the 37 games across the season’s first three-and-a-half months he averaged only 18.6 points, a noticeable decline when compared to the All-Star form of his previous season, particularly considering he was both playing more minutes and hitting more threes and free throws. Even average finishing inside the arc would have juiced his scoring to a career best total.
Things picked up for Vucevic in the season’s latter stages, but by that point the damage had been done: he was an All-Star no more. The Montenegrin center is never going to be a defensive menace, so when he struggles with his scoring it inevitably leads to less than favorable evaluations of his performance. This is only more pronounced by the fact that he operates as the centerpiece for a team with some pretty stark offensive limitations; if the big guy doesn’t get rolling it’s unlikely the Magic will either. The hope will be that in 2021 both he and the team can generate enough momentum to get him back on the list of NBA All-Stars.
Winner: Markelle Fultz
It genuinely seems odd that only twelve months ago no one really knew what to expect from Fultz. He hadn’t yet played even a second for the Magic, but expectations for his performance ranged from ‘franchise pillar’ to ‘cut and now coming off the bench for a side in China’. After one season it’s evident that the reality is, thankfully, closer to the former than the latter.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Fultz’s performance this season was his availability: he played in 77 of a possible 78 games, starting 65 of them. He supplanted DJ Augustin as the team’s lead point guard in the first week in November and simply didn’t look back, going on to average 12.1 points, 5.1 assists and 3.3 rebounds on the season, with 1.3 steals and solid shooting numbers (46.5% on all field goal attempts) thrown in for good measure.
The mechanics of Fultz’s shooting stroke still don’t look great, but he at least demonstrated a capacity to score with relative efficiency at various points. Perhaps more importantly, his play grew to reflect a composure and confidence that no one could reasonably have expected from a player with his chaotic recent history. The staccato rhythm of his dribbling and discordant time signature of his playmaking style is already a headache for opposing defenses, and he’s evidently possessed of the natural ability to find seams and crevices to exploit when quarterbacking a team.
There are other reasons to chalk the 2020 campaign up as a huge win for Fultz. Interestingly, he emerged as one of the team’s strongest crunch time closers, a fact that bodes well for the future. He thrived in the mid-range, shooting almost 45% on shots between 16 and 23 feet from the basket. And who could forget his scintillating takedown of the Lakers in LA, where he usurped the King in his own palace? Even if he never discovers a reliable three point stroke, Fultz demonstrated enough this year to prove that he’s got a place in the league for years to come.
Loser: Jonathan Isaac
Absolutely brutal. What else is there to say about the Magic’s prized young forward and the outcome of his third professional campaign? Isaac’s first 29 games of the season included some genuinely electric performances, and seemingly painted a picture of a player who was well on his way to becoming a cornerstone worth building around. He was playing more minutes, scoring more points, shooting more accurately, accruing more rebounds, dishing out more assists, swiping more steals, and blocking more shots. He was, quite simply, more. More ready, more effective, more impactful.
And then … more injuries.
On New Year’s Day Isaac suffered a major knee contusion as a result of a hyperextension, an injury that initially looked like it would put him out for the season. The unexpected recovery time of the hiatus actually allowed him to return to the lineup in the bubble, but just three games in he again fell victim to the same knee, tearing his ACL and likely ending his fourth campaign in the league before it could even begin. It was a horrific end to what started as an incredibly promising season, with a long road to recovery now facing both Isaac and the franchise.
It sucks to think that, to this point of his career, so much of the digital ink spilled in relation to Isaac has been about either the risk or impact of injury. By all accounts he’s a humble and hardworking young man, possessed of prodigious basketball talent and the potential to be a genuine game changer. Collectively we’ll cross our fingers and hope he gets the chance to consistently demonstrate just that, even if it eventually has to happen on a timeline later than many had originally envisioned.
That somber note brings us to the end of our first installment. I’ll be doling out more Ws and Ls in the days to come, so be sure to check in so you can check out my thoughts on Fournier, Bamba, front office transactions, the recurring might of March, and Aaron Gordon the lightning rod, among others. Until then, I’ll catch you in the comments.