It’s been an ultimately frustrating season for the players in pinstripes, with injuries and an inability of the team to elevate their play leaving them detached from the real competitors in the East. And yet, moments of positivity punctuate the schedule. Solid wins. Emphatic individual performances. Evidence of growth and development. Magic fans are often able to equally balance the prognostications of doom and gloom with optimism-fueled daydreams.
If we’re looking on the bright side, what exactly can we find? What’s got hearts aflutter? Is there a trajectory we should be excited about? Who or what is trending in the right direction?
For the pessimists: any elephants in the room? Is the bottom falling out somewhere? Where are we hiding the bodies? Is anyone suffering through a protracted slump?
Let’s dive in and see what stories have emerged in Orlando of late.
It’s surprising, but MCW has genuinely developed into one of the team’s most essential bench cogs. Against all odds he’s thriving with the Magic, despite only twelve months ago being only a heartbeat away from complete league irrelevance. It’s a testament to his tenacity and willingness to work.
Since returning from injury eight games ago, Carter-Williams is averaging 9.6 points, 3.1 assists, and 2.6 rebounds per outing, solid averages for a reserve seeing only 18.8 minutes during the stretch. He has shot at least 50% from the field in all but two of these contests, while also limiting turnovers to less than one a game. He’s generating clean looks for his teammates, demonstrating a willingness to attack transition opportunities, and contributing to the generation of turnovers (0.6 steals per game and a tendency to accrue deflections). He leaves an imprint on the game whenever he plays.
Unfortunately, MCW’s return to the lineup has coincided with a tough stretch of the schedule and a corresponding losing streak for Orlando. However, one can still build a case to demonstrate the positive impact he’s had on the side during this time. Firstly, in three of the six losses he’s recorded a positive plus/minus figure playing with primarily bench-heavy units. Secondly, he’s playing relatively efficient offense, evident in his consistent number of free-throw attempts (at least one trip to the charity stripe each game) and the 10% improvement in the accuracy of his three-point stroke (although this is on an admittedly small sample size). Finally, he’s once again providing the pesky and disruptive brand of defense that he’s known for.
In his first full season with the Magic Carter-Williams is proving his value, cementing his role as one of the first reserves to check-in. Let’s hope that he can stay injury free once the All-Star game is in the rearview mirror.
Although it’s been another slow season for Bamba in his sophomore campaign, recently he’s started to flash some evidence of having turned a corner. His minutes may have remained steady but he’s producing more during his time on the court, turning in performances that tease the potential the front office zeroed in on when they made him the sixth overall pick less than two years ago.
Across his last four games Bamba is putting up a stat line of 9 points, 4.5 rebounds and 2.5 blocks, including averages of 72.2% from the field and an absurd 71.4% from deep. The three-point figures are a little misleading, because he only has seven total attempts, but you would still rather see him hit them than not. Instead, what they do reflect is better balance; in three of the four games, three-point attempts have made up exactly 33% of his total field goal attempts, a more evenly spread number than some of his less efficient outings earlier in the season (and down on his season-long three-point rate of 37%). Bamba can evidently shoot the long ball, and a component of the modern big’s value is inextricably tied to their ability to stretch opposing defenses. In that regard, it’s good to see him confidently letting fly and cashing in. However, he’s not built to be a volume bomber because it negates many of his other talents; his recent shot profile is instead closer to the ideal.
Perhaps most pleasingly, Bamba’s defense has also been notable of late. The raw block numbers are impressive, and they pop even more when you consider them on a per-100 possessions basis: a swat every 12 sequences that he’s on the court (8.7 per-100). His rebounding has also been fantastic, both in terms of output (again, he’s the team’s most prolific rebounder per-100 possessions over the last four games) and general positioning. He’s getting to the right spots, creating space with his body, and shutting down second-chance opportunities. In short, he’s starting to look like he’s figuring some things out.
Bamba still has a long way to go. But recently he’s shown enough to suggest that he should unquestionably be the side’s backup center. If he can find another gear down the stretch it would be a real boon for the Magic as they target a second consecutive playoff berth.
The good news is that things should be about to get easier for the Magic. With 32 games left they’re projected to face only the 27th most difficult remaining schedule, with games against the Knicks, Hawks and Pistons all looming before the mid-season break. In addition, after the All-Star showcase there are another eighteen contests remaining against teams currently sporting a record below .500. It’s a favorable run, one that even could be more so once teams start focusing on lottery positioning.
Outside of a pair of baffling losses to the Hawks and a small handful of road decisions the Magic have taken care of business as expected this season. It’s not enough to position them as more than a playoff speed bump (see the entry immediately below), but it does mean that the team should almost certainly consolidate the gains made last season. A late run reminiscent of 2019 isn’t out of the question at all.
Out of all the numbers we look at and discuss during the course of an NBA season there’s one that stands out in terms of importance from all the others: wins. Unfortunately for the Magic, it’s a figure that’s been in short supply recently.
Since getting back to 20-21 with a road win over the Lakers, the Magic have dropped seven of nine contests. They’ve lost their grip on the seventh seed, seen their record momentarily drop to a season-worst seven games below .500, and basically failed to be meaningfully competitive in any of the defeats. In fact, since toppling LeBron and his lackeys the Magic have only managed to take the spoils from the Hornets, winning twice in Charlotte against a team whose win percentage has dipped perilously close to just 30%.
It’s been discussed previously, but it’s worth again noting that just four of Orlando’s wins this season have come against what could be considered quality sides: teams with a current record in excess of .500. It’s a real problem, and speaks to the talent deficit that the Magic have to overcome when entering games against genuine playoff hopefuls. With the business end of the season looming it’s an issue that is going to have to be addressed sooner rather than later should they wish to do more than just be invited to the party.
After last season’s heroics, it’s been a brutal campaign for the Human Torch. He has frequently failed to ignite, seeing a dip across the board in his accuracy, production, and general on-court effectiveness. The Magic would have been hoping for more after settling on a four-year, $54 million contract with their swingman and bench spark plug.
Ross has found the sledding particularly difficult recently. Across the last five games he’s barely been able to hit the side of the barn, shooting just 25.8% from the field and 24.4% from deep. He’s still almost averaging double-figure points (9.2), but that’s a function purely of volume; despite the cold streak he’s the third most frequent shooter on the Magic, tossing up 20.9 shots per-100 possessions. Worse yet, many of these attempts have been of the unconscionable variety: amidst heavy coverage, early in the shot clock, off-balance, or simply ill-advised. He’s looking for a spark but the flame remains elusive.
Just to emphasize exactly how bad it’s been, check this out: 3 from 14; 3 from 15; 4 from 14; 2 from 11; 4 from 8. Those are the field goal lines for Ross from the last five games. Voluminous and inaccurate, a painful combination for a player the Magic rely on to generate offense. The figures go some way towards explaining the team’s recent funk.
Like most, Ross performs better in wins than losses; unlike many, however, the difference between these performances is chasmic. This season in wins he’s logged an offensive rating of 115 with 39% accuracy from deep and a true shooting percentage of .605. In losses those figures crater to an offensive rating of just 90, 27.6% three-point accuracy, and a calamitous true shooting percentage of .466. Ouch.
Ross would undoubtedly like to be making more shots. The Magic would love for that to be the case. If they’re going to gather any sort of late season momentum it’s an absolute necessity that they get a performance more like the Human Torch of old.
Trade Deadline Machinations
The pool of players likely available is dwindling. Malik Beasley was a popular target for armchair-GMs, but he’s off to Minnesota. D’Angelo Russell was also mentioned by those in the fandom community, but other teams are pursuing him more aggressively than the Magic and the word is still that the Warriors want to evaluate him alongside Steph. That’s a cookie that won’t crumble in Orlando’s favor.
Elsewhere, Atlanta’s decision to grab Clint Capela now will limit what they have to spend in free agency. As one of the few teams with plentiful cap space this coming offseason it shrinks even further the possibilities of a payday for Evan Fournier should he opt out; might Orlando’s front office now like their chances of getting him back on a team-friendly extension? If that’s the case, they would be less inclined to look for a deal this deadline. There’s also Houston’s decision to essentially play center-less basketball to consider; the Magic are flush with assets in the middle, but how many teams are clamoring for a big? What would Khem Birch or even perhaps Bamba return? Probably not enough for Orlando to bite.
There are other names out there that still make some sense. Spencer Dinwiddie is a marginalized asset alongside Kyrie Irving. Joe Harris apparently isn’t in the flat-earther’s plans. Alec Burks and Glenn Robinson III are still shooting away in Golden State. Marcus Morris is back on the table in New York. Still, in regards to the Magic the smart money appears to be on the status quo. If changes are coming it’s more likely to go down closer to the draft.
Last season the Magic were able to make their move in March and April, riding a dominant defensive stretch all the way to the playoffs. They’re in a position to get there again this year, but to do so in compelling fashion it’s going to require an improved trajectory for some of their key pieces. Let’s hope they can find that extra gear.