With the Magic’s opening game of the 2020/21 campaign only 24 hours away, it’s time to put our (figurative) money where our (digital) mouths are and make some bold predictions regarding how we see this season shaking out. Wins, losses, stats, awards, one-way tickets out of town … let’s consider it all! Having this column also means that there will be one convenient location to visit when, down the line, you’re inevitably looking for the receipts to prove how much of a basketball idiot I am. Let’s dive in!
With a condensed slate of 72 games coming up, just how many should fans of the Magic expect the team to win? In a perfect world the figure being bandied about would be 72, with Orlando steamrolling their way to the one seed before securing the franchise’s maiden title. But, as 2020 has so definitively proven, the world is currently anything but perfect.
So, with an unbeaten season seemingly not on the cards, where might our predictions land? FiveThirtyEight are one of the sites highest on the Magic, pegging them for a 35-37 record and a 63% chance of making the playoffs. I like those odds! However, other outlets are not as kind. ESPN’s collection of insiders have Orlando finishing just 31-41, a total that projects to scrape the side into the final spot for the play-in tournament. A bevy of writers over at The Athletic also have similar views regarding the team, with John Hollinger forecasting a 29-43 finish, Zach Harper slotting the team in for a similar 10th-placed finish in the East, and Danny Leroux leaning heavily towards the under on a wins total of 31.5. A perusal of other media outlets reveals a selection of guesses that continue to hover around the 28 to 35 range.
It’s easy to understand the pessimism. Orlando finished last season seven games below .500 with a winning percentage of just 45.2%. A similar outcome this year would land them at 32.5 wins, and without obvious improvement evident based on offseason maneuvering — not to mention the complete absence of Jonathan Isaac from the rotation — it’s difficult to see how the team could push themselves up the standings. It’s a sentiment I largely share, with the solid-but-unspectacular core installing a relatively low ceiling on the squad as currently constructed.
As such, I’m putting my name to a 32-40 finish for the Magic, a record just good enough to see them scrape into the play-in tournament. My guess is that they likely go no further than that, but that particular guesstimate — should the need for it eventuate — can come later. Until then, the treadmill of mediocrity continues!
Prediction: 32-40, tenth in the East
Orlando has been a very good defensive outfit since coach Steve Clifford’s arrival in Central Florida, posting finishes by defensive rating of eighth in 2019 and tenth last season under his stewardship. The team successfully plays a relatively conservative scheme that runs opponents off the arc while largely ceding the mid-range, a ploy to invite more inefficient and less potentially damaging shot selection from the opposition. Add to this excellent defensive rebounding, the ability to convert hustle opportunities into possession-ending sequences, and an aversion to shooting fouls — not to mention a minuscule turnover rate that minimizes transition opportunities against them — and you have the recipe for a team that can protect the basket and keep a lid on opponent point totals.
Even without the services of JI this figures to again be true of the Magic. Wingspan-gifted, defensive-oriented players can be found up and down the roster, with no single position projecting as an enormously significant detriment to the team’s lockdown prowess. For that reason I see another top ten finish in the team’s future, although pushing into the truly elite range probably isn’t going to happen. Let’s say tenth-placed on the dot.
Prediction: 10th-ranked defensive rating
While the team’s defense hopefully won’t be a concern, scoring the ball almost certainly will for Orlando this coming season. One has to go all the way back to the Dwight/SVG years just to find a Magic team that wasn’t one of the league’s ten worst by the offensive rating metric, and without significant changes to the playing roster for this coming campaign it would seem dangerous to predict any sort of meaningful offensive improvement.
Nikola Vucevic is a sublime scorer still experimenting with the full extent of his shooting range, but after that it drops off pretty quickly. Evan Fournier can certainly shoot but is miscast as a high-usage playmaker with top pair billing. Aaron Gordon often leans into his worst tendencies when trying to secure a bucket. Markelle Fultz cramps the team’s space as a shooting non-threat. Terrence Ross is high variance. Cole Anthony is a rookie. Ennis, Carter-Williams, Birch, Okeke, Clark and Bamba are all fifth options.
It’s fair to wonder where the points will come from on many of Orlando’s possessions this coming season. I’m going to optimistically assume that a few things break in the Magic’s favor — Ross experiences a bounce back; Anthony provides another dimension for the bench unit; at least a couple of the other veterans nudge their outside shooting numbers up — but even with those occurrences it’s unlikely that this team is anything but a below-average scoring outfit. Still, let’s call a Clifford-best 21st placed finish for the offense.
Prediction: 21st-ranked offensive rating
Let’s get the easy ones out of the way: no one on this roster is taking home the league’s MVP award this season. Isaac’s injury, unfortunately, also means that the Defensive Player of the Year is out of the equation. Clifford’s chance for the coach’s gong is also a non-starter, a result of his already having this team in the middle of the pack and the general ceiling of the accumulated talent. Everything else? Well, squint hard enough and you might be able to make a case.
Sixth Man of the Year traditionally goes to a bench player who puts up points, and Ross is going to have to do precisely that this year for the Magic to have the sort of success they’re chasing. When in the game he’ll shoot the ball early and often, and should he enjoy a career-year from beyond the arc he might just do enough to push his way into the conversation. The NBA’s Most Improved Award is a tough one to get a handle on, because it usually seems to go to someone who has simply benefited from greater opportunity rather than made genuine improvements to their game. Still, Fultz figures to be in a position to blend an increase in minutes and usage with strides in performance, plus he has a ready-made redemptive arc to make for a compelling narrative. Finally, the league’s best rookie is almost certainly going to be an honor bestowed upon a lottery pick (Malcolm Brogdon in 2017 and Mark Jackson in 1988 are the only two exceptions), a fact which makes Anthony’s chances seem slim. However, if he continues to pace all first-year players in scoring — like he just did during the preseason — the Magic might have found themselves a genuine bolter.
What’s been proven here is that it’s possible to talk one’s self into the chances of various Orlando players for some of the league’s end of season awards. That being said, each of these scenarios feels a little too far-fetched, and I’d be shocked if any of them actually came to fruition. However, I do still believe that some national recognition will come the way of the Magic. Should the league decide to select midseason All-Star sides (despite the game not going ahead), expect to hear Vucevic’s name called for the East. Also, come the end of the year I think it’s fair to predict that Anthony will force his way onto one of the two NBA All-Rookie teams by virtue of his points average.
Prediction: Vucevic named an All-Star, Anthony named to the All-Rookie second team
It’s happening, so lock it in now: the Magic will not finish the 2020/21 season with the same roster that begins it. The real question is how many players farewell the pinstripes and who they happen to be. It’s a drum I’ve been beating for a while now, but I would be shocked to see the triumvirate of Vooch, AG and Fournier all standing at the end. My guess: Fournier is moved at the deadline for some draft capital to ensure he doesn’t leave for nothing next offseason, while Gordon goes as part of a trade that returns a lesser player who theoretically balances the lineup a little more effectively (and leaves Isaac as the unquestioned starter at the four). A deeper rotation player also probably bids adieu as a means of matching contracts.
While I don’t think any moves the Magic may make will qualify as the blockbuster that many would be hoping for, I do believe we’ll finally see the front office pull the trigger on some foundation-shifting deals that speak more to the years to come than the 2020/21 season.
Prediction: At least two mid-season trades, with both Fournier and Gordon exiting
There we have it! A handful of predictions as the clock ticks down to Orlando’s opening tip. Be sure to chime in below to let us know if you agree or disagree and, of course, to share your own.