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Winners and Losers, Part III: Lost seasons for Mo Bamba, Al-Farouq Aminu

Who (or what) stood out and shone? Who (or what) crashed and burned?

NBA: Orlando Magic at Washington Wizards Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

We’re back! Our first season review revealed a pair of winners and losers, and our second examined the curious case of Evan Fournier. Join me first here and then later in the comments as we continue to unpack the season that just was for the Magic.

Loser: Al-Farouq Aminu

Orlando Magic v Toronto Raptors Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

It might seem rough to label a loser a guy who, due to injury, played just 18 games this season, but it’s difficult to spin it any other way. Aminu arrived last offseason as Orlando’s major signing in free agency, but then proceeded to have a negligible impact on winning basketball even when he was able to take the court. It was an inauspicious start to his career in pinstripes.

The statistics make for grim reading. Aminu played just 21.1 minutes each night, the third-fewest in his time in the league. Each night he could be counted on only for an average of 4.3 points, the lowest figure of his career and a precipitous drop of more than 50% from his time in Portland. His shooting accuracy also cratered: 29.1% from the field, 25.0% from deep, and an effective field goal percentage of 34.3%. Each of those figures are easily career lows when accounting for a meaningful attempt threshold.

To be fair, Aminu wasn’t brought in by the Magic to turbocharge their offense; in comparison, his defensive metrics are actually quite solid. However, he was such a non-entity with the ball in hand — posting significant negative totals in win shares and box plus/minus at the offensive end — that his spot in the rotation undoubtedly made Orlando’s aim of winning games more difficult to achieve. Add to that the positional overlap and skillset redundancy he possessed in relation to the existing roster, and you might be right for thinking that the front office would like a do-over on last summer.

Winner: Surging after the All-Star Break

Orlando Magic v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

For a season that had many eerie similarities to the one previous, perhaps the most striking was the team’s strong play after the All-Star break. Orlando finished the season fast, surging for the second consecutive year once the mid-season festivities had concluded. In terms of replicable strategies it’s maybe not the easiest thing to pull off year after year, but it was again a welcome sight for a Magic team that hadn’t really been able to click into gear at any point.

In 2020 it was a supercharged offense that ignited the team’s push. Somehow, someway, Orlando morphed from one of the worst offensive teams into the league’s gold standard, racking up the top-ranked offensive rating (118.2) in the final 12 games before the hiatus hit. The team went 8-4 over the stretch as they averaged a ludicrous 120.8 points per game, confirming their postseason position on the back of elevated shooting accuracy, a more torrid pace of play, and precision passing and ball control.

Terrence Ross and Aaron Gordon were the most obvious contributors to the points explosion, with the pair both shaking off funks of varying degrees in a visibly obvious fashion. Nikola Vucevic looked more like his 2019 All-Star self during the season’s closing leg, while the arrival of James Ennis at the trade deadline added a balance to the Magic’s rotation that allowed them to better exploit space on the floor. Add that to a favourable schedule and one can see how they managed to achieve what they did.

Over the last two years the Magic have established a habit of closing the regular season on a real run. The hope moving forward would be that they don’t need to rely so heavily on such a stretch just to seal a low-seeded playoff birth.

Loser: Mo Bamba and the second year surge

2020 NBA Restart - All Access Practice Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

In his second professional season Bamba again ultimately frustrated, failing to establish himself as anything more than a major basketball project with what are still long odds. Although he continued to block shots at a prodigious rate he wasn’t demonstrably better at much on the court, posting slightly reduced numbers in most statistical categories when compared to his rookie season. He again looked a little lost on the defensive end in terms of rotations and positioning, while offensively his game (understandably) still lacks the refinement and nuance he needs to succeed.

Instead of getting more comfortable and performing better as the season went on, Bamba slipped in the other direction. His minutes dropped significantly after January, and by season’s end he had basically played himself out of the rotation. His struggles were immediately evident in the bubble once the team returned, and after two scoreless and noticeably lethargic showings he was shut down for the season.

It was another unfortunate end to a campaign for the big man. Although Bamba’s teams have never failed to make the playoffs, he has yet to taste a second of postseason action himself. Injury and illness are not things to be held against him personally, but it can fairly be wondered how much he would have played even if he had been available. Also, unfair or not, it’s difficult to overlook the fact that Orlando’s late season improvement the past two years has coincided with either his absence from or diminishment in the rotation. Where the team has surged, Bamba has stumbled. The hope now must be that third time’s the charm.

And with that we bring to a close the third installment in this process of review and evaluation. There’s more to come yet, including an evaluation of availability, a postseason postmortem, and the apparent fundamentally binary nature of the Aaron Gordon experience. Be sure to check back in for round four in the days to come.