It’s July 1.
Normally at this time we’d be preparing for the NBA’s free agency frenzy and Woj bombs. Instead we are previewing the NBA’s (hopeful) return.
The Magic are slated to take the court for their first seeding game at Disney World on July 31. They currently sit in the eighth spot in the East, and trail the depleted Brooklyn Nets by just a half game for the seventh seed. The Magic hold a 5.5 game lead over the Washington Wizards, and under the NBA’s new restart format, they’ll have to maintain better than a four-game lead to avoid a play-in game(s) for the eighth seed in mid-August.
It’s been a while since we last saw basketball being played, so here are 13 things to know about the Magic while they prepare to take the court as the default home team of the NBA restart.
1. The Magic were at their best right before the league’s stoppage
Coming off their first playoff appearance in seven years, the Magic were expected to take the next step during the 2019-2020 season. The next step is relative of course, but by Magic standards, it meant maybe moving up a few seeds and having a competitive first round series. Following their most thrilling win of the season, a 119-118 road victory over the Lakers on Jan. 15, the Magic dropped 10 of their next 12 games to fall a season-worst nine games below .500 on Feb. 8. Then they took a sip of Michael’s Secret Stuff and everything changed…
The Magic won 8 of their final 12 games before the league was paused on March 11. And that was because…..
2. The Magic offense went from worst to best
Make no mistake about it, the Magic put together a thoroughly scorching 12-game burst before the hiatus hit, seemingly flipping the switch in the time found between heartbeats. Orlando emerged as the league’s most dangerous scoring outfit, morphing their moribund pre-February 10 offensive rating of 105.5 (26th) into a gold standard of 118.2 (1st). Across the last dozen games the team’s field goal percentage rocketed up to 48.6% (2nd), the long ball started dropping at 37.0% (13th), and they converted free throws at a rate of 80.1% (8th). 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 soared 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.
Perhaps the easiest and most impressive measure of their offensive improvement, however, is in the simple statistic of points per game. In the first 53 games the Magic put up an average of just 103.1 points each night (29th league wide), an almost unbelievable and forlornly limp number in the context of the 2019/20 season. Over their final 12 games that exploded into a figure of 120.8 points (1st), a truly remarkable leap for a team that had previously shown little aptitude for the skill of scoring the ball.
3. BUT…the Magic defense, expected to be the team’s strength, was among the league’s worst during that stretch.
Over that 12-game stretch, the Magic’s defensive rating dropped to third worst in the league at 115.6, trailing only the Timberwolves and Hawks. Prior to that point, over their first 53 games, the Magic held the league’s seventh best defensive rating at 107.1, trailing only the league’s elite. That’s that you call a drastic mid-season identity change. The question remains, as it does whenever the Magic find an unexpected offensive rhythm: How sustainable is it? Particularly against elite defenses and, you know, after a four-month layoff.
4. Aaron Gordon was developing into a playmaker
One of the keys to the Magic’s late offensive explosion was the apparent emergence of Aaron Gordon as a legitimate passing threat, with his assists per game more than doubling from 3.0 to 6.7 over the season’s final 12 games. The team’s improved shooting numbers certainly helped with this, but also evident was a shift in his own personal focus and deployment; despite a decrease in his overall usage rate (down to 19.3% from 20.6), AG found himself recording an assist on 28.0% of all possessions, a whopping jump when compared to his modest 18.2% figure from across the season’s first 53 games.
During this closing stretch Gordon put up assist totals of 4, 9, 7, 4, 6, 12, 6, 9, 4, 4, and 9. To put this into context, his previous season high was just 7 and he topped 4 assists in a game only eight times total prior to this - that’s a mark he achieved seven times in this stretch alone! AG went from being a slightly under-qualified offensive cog being asked to do too much, to an utterly indispensable playmaking wing. A close look at his passing exploits reveals much about why the Magic were able to supercharge their offense.
5. Markelle Fultz was hitting the peak of his comeback season
One of the brightest spots of the Magic season has been the comeback story of Markelle Fultz. His outside shooting woes haven’t been and won’t be corrected overnight, but Fultz has cleared multiple hurdles this season, the first of which was simply staying on the court. After playing in just 34 of 164 games over two seasons with the Sixers, Fultz has played in 64 of 65 games with the Magic, with his lone absence due to illness. Per 36 minutes, the 22-year-old point guard is averaging 15.3 points, 6.6 assists and 4.2 rebounds with an effective field goal percentage of 49.6. As for that elephant in the room, Fultz is shooting just 25.6 percent from three, on a meager 1.4 attempts per. Numbers that certainly impact the Magic’s spacing and need to be improved upon. In his last five games before the hiatus, Fultz averaged 15.4 points (58.2 EFG%) and 6.4 assists, telling the media on Monday that he felt he was in a “crazy rhythm.” The hope is that he regains that rhythm when play resumes.
6. Jonathan Isaac has been out since January and his potential return remains a mystery
Jonathan Isaac was (very quietly to those outside of Central Florida) having a breakthrough season. To appreciate Isaac, you cannot simply look at stats, you have to watch him. His suffocating man-to-man defense, his switchability, his reads, his anticipation, his deflections. Oh, and he was also leading the league in stocks (steals + blocks) at one point. Then came a devastating knee injury on New Year’s Day that seemed of the season-ending variety. The NBA’s hiatus has given hope to an Isaac return. Every member of the Magic, from Isaac himself to CEO Alex Martins to coach Steve Clifford, haven’t said anything overly encouraging but also haven’t ruled out the possibility. Here’s what Clifford told the media about Isaac and Al-Farouq Aminu on Tuesday:
“They are both in here (in the facility) working everyday. To be honest, I think it’s really hard to make any determination until (if) they get to the point that they can do contact. I wouldn’t be comfortable saying they could do that today. And then it’s, how do they feel after two, three, or four tough days of practice? There’s a lot of contact in five-on-five. I just think it’s really early to try and make an intelligent decision on anything like that.”
7. Nikola Vucevic was struggling, but could benefit from the break
The 2019/20 season was undoubtedly a tough campaign for the Magic’s most recent All-Star, with Nikola Vucevic’s counting stats and advanced metrics alike both suffering a noticeable dip when compared to his career-best form of the season prior. However, scratching beneath the surface reveals a few reasons to feel good about the prospect of a refreshed, rejuvenated, and more reliable Vooch emerging from the hiatus. After a serious ankle injury that robbed him of continuity and fluidity across the season’s first three months, he’s now totally healthy. Improved numbers also indicate that he was already trending in the right statistical direction in February and March. Finally, some positive regression in his shooting numbers can probably be expected sooner rather than later, a potentially huge impact for the player that takes the
most wide open shots per-game in the entire league. On 5.3 occasions each night Vucevic was able to launch a shot with the closest defender more than six feet away, including 3.9 times from beyond the arc. Bank on the big guy to start finding the bottom of the net with greater frequency, and for his output to look all the healthier for it.
8. Evan Fournier is having a career-year and his future is to be determined
Evan Fournier recovered from a down season in 2018-2019 to have the best shooting season of his career, just in time for him to decide whether he’d like to be an unrestricted free agent or not. Fournier, averaging a career-best 18.8 points per, holds a $17.2 million player option for the 2020-2021 season. With the financial implications and the uncertain market in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, it seems increasingly likely that Fournier could opt in. Whether that’s a good or bad thing for the Magic is up for debate, but for a team with limited replacement options I’d chalk it up as a good thing. Fournier’s team-leading 40.6 percent from three on 6.7 attempts per has kept the Magic from being a horrific three-point shooting team, instead making them just a bad three-point shooting team.
9. We have been promised a stronger Mo Bamba
We’ve all heard of – or worse, put on — the quarantine 15. Well, Mo Bamba doubled that. The lanky second-year center said in May that he put on 28 pounds of mostly muscle, a welcomed tip of the scale that Bamba could use to better stand his ground when going body-to-body. In addition to lifting weights and changing his diet during the hiatus, Bamba said he was also refining his jumper. Bamba, in his second season improved his long-range shooting from 30 percent on 1.5 attempts to 35.6 percent on 1.7 attempts. The 22-year-old has been limited to 14.5 minutes per game, but has per-36 averages of 13.8 points, 12.4 rebounds and 3.5 blocks. Each added pound should help him from being manhandled by opposing bigs and benefit him at both ends of the court.
10. Terrence Ross - a.k.a “The Human Torch” - was catching fire
Like the collective fortunes of the team, the shift for Terrence Ross was swift and striking. Across the final 12 games he simply started making baskets like his life depended on it; he attempted a pair of extra three-point attempts each game (8.8), converting them at a blistering 47.2%. He made 5 of 10 in a win over Atlanta, 4 of 8 when the team handled Brooklyn, 7 of 15 in a victory claimed over Minnesota, and 5 of 11 when the Magic toppled Memphis in the final game before play was paused. Ross also hit a ludicrous 8 of 10 attempts from beyond the arc in a tight loss against the Heat, a game that he almost stole for Orlando with his fourth quarter shooting heroics. He shot 50% or better from deep seven times during the stretch, a mark he met just 11 times in the season’s first 53 games.
When the dust of the dozen-game spurt settled, he had racked up an average of 20.7 points per contest on 46.4% shooting from the field, with 3.8 rebounds, 1.5 assists, and 1.3 steals for good measure. His torrid shooting basically forced Steve Clifford to find more minutes for him in the rotation, and he was every part the offensive force Magic fans envisioned when he re-upped during the offseason. The complexion of the team looks entirely different when Ross is able to come in off the bench swinging like a wrecking ball.
11. Michael Carter-Williams has proven his value
There’s not a player on Orlando’s roster that provides more of the important intangibilities of basketball than Michael Carter-Williams. From the moment he checks in, his teammates, the opposition, and viewers alike are aware of his presence. He’s a hyperactive irritant on defense and an in-motion cog on offense. He hunts out transition opportunities, attacks the paint, and shows no hesitation in flinging the full extent of his physicality into every possession. He’s gone from the NBA scrap heap to indispensable glue guy.
Averages of 7.2 points, 3.3 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 1.1 steals and 0.5 blocks (in just 18.4 minutes per game!) speak to the consistency of the seven-year veteran’s campaign. His shooting figures across the board are career bests: he’s never been more accurate on two-pointers, three-pointers or free-throws than he was this season. His value to the Magic is also emphasized in other statistical data. He’s sporting a PER above league average (15.7), a positive box plus/minus rating (0.4 points per-100 possessions), and a VORP rating of 0.5. Again, all of these are arrived at in less than 20 minutes of court time each night. Orlando has also proven to simply be a better team when Carter-Williams is on the floor: 3.7 points per-100 possessions by Basketball Reference’s calculations and 3.4 points by those of the NBA Stats site.
12. Steve Clifford has some rotation decisions to make
Orlando’s roster has long been a veritable Rubik’s Cube, with a mass of mismatched, redundant or ill-qualified parts causing headaches for pinstriped coaches as far back as the Jacque Vaughn years. And although he had the offense humming when the season got slammed by the pause button, Coach Clifford undoubtedly will have his hands full once he enters the Disney bubble. AG has thrived with unrestricted access to the power forward slot, but what happens if JI is ready to go? He correctly pulled the ‘Fultz as starter’ trigger early, but how far does the young point guard’s rope extend if he finds the playoff sledding tougher than expected? Are the increased minutes for Ross and MCW that drove a lot of the team’s late success a permanent fixture of the rotation? Does he carve out minutes for Wes Iwundu and Khem Birch? What becomes of James Ennis and Gary Clark, the two in-season additions who made spot starts amid Magic injuries? With eight games in 15 nights, followed by the postseason, it sounds as if Clifford will break from his preferred nine-man rotation, as he had at times this season.
“There’s a difference between playing nine and playing ten,” Clifford told the media on Tuesday. “When you play nine, they all get enough minutes to play well. I don’t see us - by July 31st - being able to play nine guys, especially when you’re going to be playing eight games in fifteen nights. I think there will be nights when you play ten guys, nights you play eleven guys. Everyone has to be ready.”
Is it possible to squeeze more juice out of the side’s most effective players? Is there more funkiness like the three-PG lineup he once unleashed to tremendous success lurking within the roster? And, perhaps most importantly, can he find a way to overcome his own .250 postseason winning percentage?
13. The Magic struggled against good teams
When the league paused, the Magic were peaking at just the right time and were left with the league’s second easiest remaining schedule. During the eight-game restart that will determine their position, they’ll face mostly playoff-bound teams. The Magic have gone just 5-26 against teams this season currently holding winning records, meaning that 25 of Orlando’s 30 wins have come against mostly lottery-bound teams. The Magic control their own destiny with two games against the depleted Nets and should have an easy road to the seventh seed, but to do so they may be asked to beat a quality team or two. Unfortunately, the reward for avoiding the top-seeded Bucks, who swept the four-game season-series with the Magic, would be the Raptors, who made easy work of the Magic in the playoffs last season and won all three games this season in convincing fashion.
Maybe the Magic learned something from last season’s playoff experience. Maybe they will pick up where they left off before the hiatus and be competitive with (or even shock) one of the East’s elite in the first round. Maybe their struggles against quality opponents continue and their stay at the Disney bubble in their own backyard is a brief one.
Either way, it will be great to (hopefully) see the Magic back on the court and (hopefully) have NBA basketball once again.