I didn’t know if I should write this column.
If I’m being totally honest, I didn’t know if I should write anything. I’m still not totally sure. It’s been about a month now since the NBA made the unprecedented decision to suspend the 2019/20 season, and at this stage we’re not really any closer to knowing when games will be back in action. We’ve got a campaign only three-quarters done, a playoff jigsaw puzzle frustratingly incomplete, and season storylines missing a final chapter. It’s a lingering state of basketball purgatory.
Worse than that, the time since has seen the situation go from bad to worse for the entire planet. COVID-19 continues to spread at a prolific rate, and the effects are starting to become staggeringly real. Illness. Panic. Unemployment. Death. Expending any sort of mental energy whatsoever on the trivialities of tossing a ball into a peach basket seems like it could be tone-deaf at best, potentially offensive at worst.
Out here in Australia the general consensus in the academic community is that we’re some ten to fourteen days behind a handful of the heavier hit locations, like Italy, Spain or the US. Things at the moment here feel frustratingly normal, with worrying global news reports making for an alarming juxtaposition with the tentative measures currently being employed by our government. My life as a high-school English teacher has seen me share a workspace with almost seven-hundred other people each day for the last two weeks, wondering and worrying when the first diagnosis would hit our community. It’s only been in the last week that I’ve started working from home.
Which brings me back to my original concern: is this a time when anyone should be writing about sport? Is it selfish to pour hours into this when many others are struggling with the harsh new reality of significantly altered circumstances? Should I be hitting the pause button like Adam Silver did?
It’s taken me a while to reach a decision, but I’m back in a space where I think I can write about the game that I love. The virus that is sweeping our entire planet and changing lives isn’t gone, or even yet in a state of decline. But for many of us we’re also looking for and valuing those moments when we can just switch off, even if only for a few minutes. Professional sports, the NBA, and Orlando Magic can be the respite that we’re all craving, even without games currently being played.
For that reason, I’m going to aim to pick up the (digital) pen again and get back to writing about the basketball team that has owned my heart for the better part of three decades. I’m keen to think and talk basketball with the fantastic OPP community, and to draw some strength from the relative normality of these digital interactions in a time of social distancing and increasing isolation. We don’t know what the remainder of this season will hold or even if it will resume at all, but I think basketball and the NBA still can be a positive distraction in a period of uncertainty. Let’s have some fun with this. Let’s talk hoops.
For all intents and purposes it’s probably worth assuming that the regular season is done as it relates to 2019/20. The league is committed to making the playoffs happen, but it’s unlikely that we’ll get much more in the way of non-postseason action beyond maybe some exhibition games to help reacclimate teams. The standings are as good as set in stone.
Also set in stone is the regular season performance of individual players. As a result, it means we can dig into the debate regarding awards knowing that complete resumes have been submitted. The body of work to this point is the totality of what will be assessed, so let’s go ahead and figure out where and how players from the Magic enter the equation.
That’s right: I’m going to be making a pinstripe-tinged case for every major NBA award! MVP? Straight outta Central Florida. Sixth Man? Orlando through and through. Top rookie? You bet they were drafted by the Magic. It’s going to be the first and only time that a single team completes a sweep of the end-of-season ceremony. History unfolding before our very eyes.
Without any further ado, let’s dive into this very serious endeavor.
Most Valuable Player - Evan Fournier
Evan Fournier is your 2019/20 MVP. Most seasons this would be a hotly contested award with at least a pair of worthy contenders being earnestly discussed, but this isn’t a normal season. Instead, the man who affectionately taught us to ‘Never Google’ runs away with it on the strength of a single solitary figure: 35.8.
The number 35.8 is not one that you will find when combing through Fournier’s season stats. In fact, you wouldn’t even find it if you were to plumb the depths of the entire Orlando team’s 2019/20 statistical database. But it is an incredibly important number in making the sweet-shooting Frenchman’s case for this prestigious award. So what exactly is the relevance?
35.8% is an accuracy threshold that only one solitary player on the Magic (who played at least 100 minutes) either reached or passed in terms of three-point field goal percentage this season. In a league currently defined by the long ball, Orlando could only muster a single shooter who was able to stamp their case as a significant outside threat. No other NBA roster was so bereft of the game’s most valuable shot.
Fournier shot 40.6% from deep over the course of the season, launching 6.7 attempts per game and nailing 2.7 of them. It was a true bounce back year for him from behind the arc, and the most accurate campaign he has enjoyed since his rookie season (on, it should be noted, significantly more attempts). The shot made up almost half of his offensive diet — 46.7% of his total shot chart — and he made them in a multitude of ways: coming around screens, off the dribble, from the corners, and in the clutch. Orlando needed every single one of them.
The Magic’s two-guard finished 21st league-wide in terms of three-point accuracy, and while that might seem a long way from a rank befitting an MVP case, consider this: to remove Fournier’s field goal percentage on triples from the Orlando lineup would see the team plummet from their current standing as an insipid three-point shooting team (25th league-wide on 34.1%) to truly awful (32.4%, a figure which would be good for dead last). In fact, one would have to go back five years to find a team that shot worse than the hypothetically Fournier-less Magic (the 2015-16 Lakers). In a rapidly evolving game he’s the only thing keeping the team from resembling a relic of a bygone era.
Fournier’s three-point shooting is proven even more valuable when you consider it alongside some of his marksmen contemporaries. Pulling his contributions drops Orlando’s long-range field goal percentage to a woebegone 32.4%, a decline of 1.7 percentage points that is unmatched across the league by anyone. It doesn’t matter which sniper you remove from their respective team’s data — not George Hill, not JJ Redick, not even the scarily voluminous and accurate Duncan Robinson — no absence of a single player has as significant an impact on their team’s overall shooting figures as Fournier.
It’s an unusual case befitting an unusual season. But considering the sprawlball nature of the current NBA it’s also an irrefutable case: Evan Fournier’s three-point shooting is so valuable to the Magic that he is inarguably, in 2019/20, the NBA’s Most Valuable Player.
With the case now made for one award winner out of Orlando, check back soon as I hand out the rest of the hardware, starting with the Magic’s Defensive Player of the Year.