We’re almost down to using hours to count the amount of time left before the Magic’s season tips off, which means that my own anticipation and excitement is nearing a peak. Daydreaming about best case scenarios is a pastime occupying more and more of my waking thoughts, so I thought it appropriate to put that mental energy to good use. That’s right, as I do around this time every year, I’m once again rolling out a series of optimism-fueled projections that envision a world where the cookie crumbles definitively in Orlando’s favor.
With that in mind, settle in with a glass half-full of your favorite beverage and an appropriate holiday-themed snack or three as we optimistically envision how this season might play out in Central Florida!
For a number of years now Nikola Vucevic has been the Magic’s franchise pillar, the most talented player on the team and the one around whom game-to-game results usually ebbed and flowed. However, as just one part on a roster with a number of deficiencies, the level of team success rarely seemed to mirror his own individual output. It was the classic case of a player putting up good stats on a bad team.
The arrival of coach Steve Clifford in Central Florida has helped immensely in terms of aligning Vooch’s skill set and performance with the appropriate recognition it rightly deserves. On offense he has ensured that the team’s play is always funneled through his big man, while the installation of conservative but fortified defensive schemes have helped to minimize some of his limitations at the other end. He has also facilitated the continued evolution of Vucevic’s game, putting him in a position to stretch long-twos into more efficient threes, maintaining his effective post play, employing pick and roll sets with a variety of teammates, and even utilizing him more frequently as a passer from the extended elbow.
There’s no reason to believe that Vucevic’s contributions will be any less important for the Magic this coming season, and for that reason it’s safe to bet on a return to All-Star form for the big man. A slow start and niggling injuries dampened his case last year, but as the campaign wound on it became increasingly apparent that Vooch was still firing on all cylinders. The team’s need to win now pushed him into a heavier minutes load, to which he responded with sublime play culminating in a playoff masterclass. A shortened offseason likely means that he can pick up right where he left off, a fact which will almost certainly ensure his season will follow a trajectory direct to the mid-season showcase (whatever that actually looks like in 2021).
For many, this has to be it. This season simply has to be the one in which Aaron Gordon demonstrates, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that there’s another gear to his game that extends him beyond ‘good-but-not-great’. That he can be a trusted and reliably efficient scoring threat. That his obvious defensive chops manifest as an elite contribution to team success. That he places himself firmly in the All-star debate. That he finally takes the leap.
Could he do it? Of course! Remember, these are the ‘Positivity Projections’, so the fulfillment of promise and potential is basically guaranteed! Also working in AG’s favor is the fact that this season he has an uncontested path to the full-time four slot, the position at which he has undoubtedly been the most successful offensively in recent years. Don’t sleep on the frankly absurd closing stretch he posted pre-hiatus: improved shooting numbers all over the floor and a point guard-esque assist rate of 28.0%, an improvement of more than 150% over his regular passing figures.
The necessity of injury allowed coach Clifford to unleash Gordon as a legitimate playmaking forward, capable of finding teammates in dangerous spots as both a passer on the run in transition and out of side pick and roll action in half court sets. In this capacity he demonstrated a solid feel for the flow of the offense, quickly making clean reads of off-ball movement and showing a knack for the angles required to create advantage. Should he be empowered in a similar manner this season, it’s not totally shocking to suggest that AG could be looking at averages of 18, 10 and 5.
If some of this discussion feels disconcertingly familiar, it should; we pretty much go through this same predictive ritual every year with Gordon. It’s testament to his immediately apparent athleticism and occasionally breathtaking basketball skills that we continue to collectively talk ourselves into the possibility of a leap. And yet … you’ll have to forgive me for feeling like this could actually be the year.
The fact that Markelle Fultz is even playing, let alone contributing at a solid level, should be viewed as a major success for the young point guard. He has endured one of the oddest openings to a career of anyone in recent memory, a fact all the more painfully emphasized by his status as a first overall draft pick. Asking for any more from the man in his fourth year feels a little bit greedy.
Still, there’s evidently more to his game to be rediscovered and eventually refined, seen in the bursts of play when he elevates up the established pecking order. Case in point: what Magic fan could forget his sublime game-winning turn against the King in LA? Building on that and his strong clutch play in general, what might we expect from the mercurial quarterback as a best case scenario?
Even without an improved outside jump shot, Fultz figures to be in line for a general bump across the board in regards to his statistical output. 15, 7 and 5 with a pair of steals for good measure feels like a strong possibility, as does a minutes load around the 32 mark (compared to just 27.7 last season). Perhaps more importantly, this could be the year that he pushes his advanced metrics into more favorable territory; say, a PER above league average, a positive box plus/minus rating, and a greater contribution of win shares per-48 minutes relative to his teammates. Considering the odds Fultz has already overcome to this point, there’s a real risk in betting against him taking another sizable step forward.
As a franchise the Magic are in an awkward place, with a veteran cast that’s bumping up against its collective ceiling and no guaranteed stars among the early career players. That’s why it’s so important that at least one of the current rookie crop comes out strong and reignites the fanbase’s faith, providing some glimpse of play that predicts a snug fit and a promising future in Central Florida.
Both Cole Anthony and Chuma Okeke have a chance to be that player. Anthony is a dynamic guard with a laser-focus on scoring the ball, while Okeke is a talented forward possessed of many of the traits of modern wings. Neither projects to significantly alter the fate of the franchise this coming season, but they could — either individually or collectively — demonstrate the capacity to improve the team’s standing in the years to come. For Anthony, confirmation of such would come by cementing his status as the team’s backup point guard, capable of directing an offense, scoring in bursts, and even playing alongside Fultz as an off-ball threat. For Okeke, he’ll need to earn his spot in the rotation with accurate shooting from deep, a willingness to put the ball on the floor and attack closeouts, and defensive contributions that belie his youth.
There are no guarantees with any young players in the NBA, so it’s a gamble banking on a pair of them in the same year. However, from limited preseason activity and the fact that both look like they’re stepping into limited-but-defined roles with solid support surrounding them it seems that the Magic may actually have a puncher’s chance to hit on both.
Last year I projected that Orlando’s starting two-guard would rediscover his stroke and shoot his way back into the hearts of Magic fans across the globe. And while I undoubtedly managed to nail the first component of that equation — Evan Fournier shot the lights out in a career year — I can’t say with as much confidence that the back end came to fruition.
Fournier has emerged as a lightning rod for Magic criticism, a talented player with obvious limitations pushed into a role of disproportionate responsibility due to the roster’s overall talent deficit. He’s miscast as option 1a or 1b, but is more often than not asked to be precisely that for the long offensively-anaemic side. It’s a tough situation for any player to find themselves in, and even though I personally believe that Orlando would be best-served moving on from the French national team player I also recognize that the side would be significantly worse in the immediate aftermath.
All things considered, what would the Magic faithful need to see from it’s backcourt veteran to consider 2020/21 a success? Well, how about we envision a world where the team gets to have it’s french pastry and eat it too: Fournier starts the season lights out from the field, playing increasingly more frequently off the ball and benefiting from spot-up opportunities created by others. The team is then able to parlay this into a significant transaction ahead of the trade deadline, flipping the two-guard for some smattering of draft assets, young pieces with potential and cap flexibility that better positions the side for the years to come. Win-win.
I could almost cut and paste the entry from last year here again for the Magic’s third-year center. Although there was some indication of a corner being turned, Mo Bamba’s sophomore campaign ultimately ended in frustration similar to that experienced as a rookie, with injury and illness coinciding with increasingly ineffective performances. As such, the world in which he emerges as a steady back-up, capable of playing 18 minutes of high quality team defense each night supplemented with a growing confidence on offense is the one in which his season will be considered successful. That Bamba is already a prodigious shot-blocker while also establishing himself as a reliable long-range marksman from the center position means such an outcome should be considered significantly less than a long shot.
In his best moments Terrence Ross is a buzzsaw, capable of slicing open opposing defenses with his combination of devastating long-range bombs and incisive forays down the lane that end in thunderous dunks. He’s instant offense, coming in off the bench for the often half-court plodding Magic and buoying their attack through sheer force of individual will. That’s why Orlando looked so adrift when his accuracy seemingly abandoned him during the early stages of last season; the Magic stay afloat based on the rising tide of his contributions. The good news here is that Ross gathered steam as the season wound on, with his numbers reverting back to something closer to his career averages after catching fire down the stretch. Should such reversion to the mean remain favorable for the sixth-man extraordinaire, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to think he could threaten the 200 made three-pointers mark even in what is a reduced season.
Rapid Fire! Al Farouq-Aminu makes it back onto the court and proves that his free agent acquisition was a solid decision, primarily by remembering how to hit a layup and seizing the corner three. Jonathan Isaac doesn’t make it back onto the court, but still proves that his drafting was a solid decision by being ready to go at 100% in 2021/22. James Ennis remembers that there are two components to being a ‘3 and D’ wing and recaptures the long-range stroke he demonstrated back in his Memphis days. Michael Carter-Williams combines his beloved disruptive tendencies as an agent of chaos with slightly refined self-preservation instincts, therefore spending more time in active pinstripes and less sidelined by injury. Khem Birch smashes all manner of things when the opportunity presents itself. Gary Clark fulfills his apparent destiny and goes the entire season without attempting a shot from inside the arc. Steve Clifford somehow squeezes even more juice from this roster. Orlando secures a third-straight postseason birth.
A fan in December can talk themselves into just about anything. A career year for a favorite player. A deep playoff run. A title. And although it’s unlikely that Orlando needs to start planning parade routes there’s still plenty to be said for looking on the bright side. Sports are meant to be fun! They’re meant to inspire awe and aspiration, but instead we — the collective basketball fanatics — seem to spend most of our time worrying about how things could be better. We’ll undoubtedly hit that point of the season, but for now I’m just happy to put my unfiltered optimism front and center. Let’s go, Magic!