There are many questions that still need answering about the NBA’s return.
The schedule. The hotels. The testing.
Those answers will come in the near future. In the meantime, here are some questions related directly to the Magic...
1. Did the Magic get screwed?
My first thought is that there are far more important concerns in the world right now to even be asking or addressing this question. But if forced to give an answer, I’d say in a way they probably were, based on teams most adversely impacted by the NBA’s adopted 22-team format. The Magic had a 5.5 game lead over the Wizards and the league’s second easiest remaining schedule, starting with five games against lottery-bound teams.
Based on reports that the 22 teams at Disney will resume their schedules, skipping opponents who aren’t on site, the Magic’s schedule should look something like:
Sacramento, Brooklyn, Indiana, Brooklyn, New Orleans, Boston, Philadelphia, Boston.
There’s a lot more margin for error when you have a traditional 5.5 game lead, where the Wizards would have been forced to make up each and every one of those games. Now, they need only make up 1.5 games on the Magic to force a play-in. By opening up the field to 22 teams, whether to get Zion back on the court or more likely to add more teams and generate additional revenue from regional sports networks, the Magic are in a tighter race than expected and have a potential play-in game looming.
Bottom line, with a record of 30-35 you are entitled to nothing. Win a few games at Disney the way a playoff-caliber team should and this will be a moot point.
2. Will Jonathan Isaac return?
Heart says yes, brain says no. Seems likely and understandable that the Magic would take the cautious approach and look at the long-term benefits rather than bringing Isaac back in hopes of keeping a first round matchup more competitive. Still, Isaac is optimistic he will return and the Magic brass haven’t ruled it out.
Isaac joined Bleacher Report’s Howard Beck last week on his podcast “The Full 48 with Howard Beck” and offered an update on his potential availability.
“I’m feeling good,” Isaac said. “My left leg still has a little bit of work to do to catch up to my right one, with rebuilding that muscle that was lost with being injured like this. I’m working every day, I’m working hard. I can’t give you a timeline on exactly when I’m hoping to be back. My thing is just taking it day-by-day. When they say the league is ready to go i can have a conversation with them and say, ‘Look what do you think? Am I ready to go?’ And then we’ll go from there. But I’m excited. I’m definitely optimistic about the possibility.”
In an exclusive interview with The Athletic’s Josh Robbins, Jeff Weltman danced around the question but did not entirely rule out a return for Isaac or Al-Farouq Aminu.
Alex Martins, on the Heart & Hustle Podcast with Scott Anez and Nick Gryniewicz, also left open the possibility of Isaac’s return.
“I’d love to see it,” Martins said. “We’d all love to see it. But I’m always of the belief that the longer-term view is the most important view. We don’t know yet whether Jonathan will be ready and available to play during this restart. I’m certainly hopeful. But we don’t know yet, we won’t know until he gets back out there competitively with the rest of the guys. I will tell you that no one has worked harder during this period of time to try to get back than Jonathan Isaac has.”
3. Will the Magic pick up where they left off?
Over their final 12 games before the NBA hiatus, the Magic had transformed into a different team, posting a league-best 118.2 offensive rating since mid-February. It was a stark contrast to the offense prior to that point, which posted a 105.5 rating, fourth worst in the league. Our Garrett Townsend recently broke down the Magic’s offensive outburst…
After months of offensive futility the Magic started finding the bottom of the net like a team possessed. Across the last dozen games their field goal percentage rocketed up to 48.6% (2nd), the long ball started dropping at 37.0% (13th), and the team converted free throws at a rate of 80.1% (8th). They generated more than three extra possessions a game by pushing the pace (101.3 possessions per game, 13th overall), generally starting to look like something that resembled a modern NBA offense.
Orlando were also improved in other offensive facets. They evolved into one of the league’s most prolific passing teams, pushing their assists from a pedestrian 23.0 per game (24th) all the way to 29.1 (2nd). This wasn’t just a function of a quicker pace and more possessions either, as the side’s assist percentage climbed from 60.4% (13th) to 64.5% (7th), while the already good collective assist-to-turnover rate rate rocketed all the way to the top of the leaderboard (2.39 assists for every turnover, up from 1.81). Hell, the Magic even started grabbing more offensive rebounds, snagging an extra possession on 28.8% of their own misses (8th), a meaningfully improved number when compared to their previous rank of 17th by this metric.
4. Will Aaron Gordon pick up where he left off?
One of the primary orchestrators behind the Magic’s offensive turnaround was none other than Aaron Gordon, who again showed signs of a breakthrough. Over the Magic’s final 12 games, in addition to improving his shooting percentage from 41.9 percent to 48.6, Gordon channeled his inner John Stockton, more than doubling his season-average for assists per game from 3.0 to 6.7. As Townsend pointed out, that was thanks in part to the Magic finally knocking down shots. Hopefully a three-month hiatus doesn’t cause the Magic to revert back to their pre-February ways, and Gordon to start looking for turnaround jumpers rather than the open man.
5. Will the Magic have a homecourt advantage?
The Magic won’t be playing in their arena. They won’t be playing in front of their fans. They won’t even be sleeping in their own homes. There is no such thing as a homecourt advantage for the Magic or any other team, no matter what kind of gimmicks the NBA trys to add. The benefit for the Magic – other than the fact they won’t have to make that pre-training camp flight to Orlando - is that they won’t have to play Game 1 and Game 2 (and however far they go beyond those “road” games) in a rowdy arena in Milwaukee or Toronto. The lack of a homecourt advantages in the 2020 playoffs is a win for the underdogs.
6. What will the Magic starting five look like?
The Magic in 2019-2020 have not had the starting lineup stability they enjoyed a season prior when they broke their postseason drought. Their optimal starting five of Vucevic-Isaac-Gordon-Fournier-Fultz have played just 14 games together, and in those games went only 5-9. Just prior to the hiatus, Evan Fournier missed the Magic’s last three games, during which both James Ennis and Wes Iwundu played with the first unit and Orlando went 3-0 (all on the road, two against playoff teams), averaging 126 points per game. The hiatus has given Fournier ample time to recover, and the NBA’s return and national spotlight gives him plenty of incentive to play well, if he does in fact elect to enter free agency. If Isaac is able to return, the Magic will have their starting lineup fully intact for the first time in since the calendar flipped to 2020. If not, Ennis will likely remain in his place, giving the Magic a volume three-point shooter.
7. How will Markelle Fultz perform under the national spotlight?
For Markelle Fultz, there was one regular season game that was guaranteed to have a playoff atmosphere. And that game never happened. It was scheduled for April 5, when Fultz was slated to take the court against his former team in Philadelphia for the first time. What “playoff atmosphere” will mean for the 2020 postseason is a mystery, but the games will still have added significance, the basketball world will be watching, and many will be getting their first glimpse of Fultz (assuming they missed when the Magic played on national TV that one time). The crowd and buzz will be absent, but the pressure likely will remain. Particularly for a 21-year-old playing meaningful playoff minutes for the first time. Of course, one of Fultz’s best games of the season came during the Magic’s most high-profile matchup.
8. Which Magic player could benefit most from the layoff and new format?
The obvious answer is Jonathan Isaac, whose season potentially gets new life. But having an offseason-like break right before the season’s most important games will be beneficial for many in terms of wear and tear. For a big man approaching the wrong side of 30 who holds as much importance to his team’s success as Nikola Vucevic, the rest could have added value. Following his disappointing performance in the 2019 playoffs, perhaps playing in front of 20,000 fewer people will ease his postseason jitters. Although Vooch’s playoff performance had less to do with jitters and more to do with….
9. Which team should the Magic want to face?
Those who are quick to say the Magic are better off facing the Raptors over the Bucks perhaps forget Vucevic’s struggles with Marc Gasol and the Raptors aggressive double-teams and how disruptive it was for the Magic’s offense during the 2019 playoffs. Vucevic was limited to 11.2 points on 36.2 percent shooting and turned the ball over at the highest rate of his career. But when faced with the alternative….
Advanced statistics aren’t needed to understand that playing a team that is 53-12, and owns a league-best point differential of 11.2 (only team in double figures), and swept the season series against the Magic by an average margin of 14.5 points per game is not favorable. The Raptors, despite having lost Kawhi Leonard and with Gasol battling a hamstring injury, beat the Magic in the three games the teams played this season by an average of 10.7 points per. Picking between the Bucks and the Raptors is a true pick-your-poison scenario, particularly without Isaac on the defensive end, but you have to go with Toronto.
10. What does it mean for the Magic broadcasters?
Sure, the NBA is having eight regular season games for conditioning purposes. The ulterior motive, of course, is to have as many teams as possible hit the 70-game mark to trigger revenue from regional sports networks. If the RSNs have the rights to broadcast the games, does that mean the broadcast crews will be granted entry into the bubble? With just eight games to broadcast locally before playoff games are nationally televised, I’d expect local broadcast crews to announce the games from a remote studio while watching a live feed, much like MLB reportedly intends to do for road games if the baseball season is actually played. With a proposed 1,600-person cap on the bubble, having local broadcast teams for 22 organizations on campus seems unlikely. But we should get to hear David Steele, Jeff Turner and Dante Marchitelli in some fashion.
As for public address duties, even with no crowds, I’d recommend the NBA have a local legend like Paul Porter behind the mic for every game to break the silence and add some normalcy to broadcasts.