Welcome to the latest in a new series that aims to keep the basketball conversation flowing as we patiently wait for the games to return. With each entry I’ll be zeroing in on a different player, examining a key talking point to emerge from either the wins and losses already banked, the looming playoffs, or the seasons still to come. Expect a little less in the way of statistical deep dives as we head more in the direction of dialogue, debate, conjecture, and prognostications. Let’s get started!
Hypothesis: Markelle Fultz is the key to Orlando’s postseason fortunes
The case in favor
Fultz hasn’t even been a fixture on the court for the Magic for an entire season yet, but he has already established himself as a key cog in the current machine and a potentially very important piece of the roster moving forward. He was inserted into the starting lineup in just his sixth game for the side, established himself as a 30+ minute per night player by the new year, and turned in the definitive performance of his career to this point in mid-January. In 64 games he went from a speculative gamble to a nigh untouchable asset. It’s a phenomenal turnaround for a player that many worried would never play meaningful basketball again.
Point guard has been a position of relative weakness for the Magic for a while now, a fact that makes Fultz’s emergence all the more important. Although DJ Augustin is a dependable veteran presence, he’s undoubtedly better suited to the backup role; the team certainly weren’t expecting him to be the long term starter when they signed him in 2016. Fultz’s acquisition was also undoubtedly made with an eye towards future success; in terms of postseason play, it’s always been hard for any team to go too far without an elite or at least well above average talent quarterbacking the team. In 2019, Augustin was obviously spectacular in Game One against the Raptors, but he faded badly in the rest of the series. That’s where Markelle comes in.
One of the more interesting stats related to the Magic’s play this season was the potential emergence of Fultz as an effective crunch time floor general. His output was demonstrably better in the closing minutes of close contests, as he showcased a knack for both scoring at the hoop himself and finding teammates for easy buckets. The young guard played more clutch minutes than anyone on Orlando’s roster and, importantly, provided a consistency of performance that some of the other veteran options struggled to replicate in 2019/20.
There’s also the simple fact that when Fultz plays well, so too do the Magic. Although it’s true that most players put up better numbers during wins than losses — I mean, it’s those stats that help the team secure the W in the first place — it feels instructive that Fultz’s performance is so much better in Orlando victories. Despite playing in four more losses than wins this season he accumulated higher raw totals of points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks when the team was on the positive side of the ledger. Additionally, he shot the ball more effectively from the field, coughed up less turnovers, and was more than 21 points better in terms of plus/minus. Whether or not Fultz was the straw or the drink it’s clear that those games were seriously stirred.
Also worth considering is this: when compared to last year’s playoff squad, Fultz is the only new addition to Orlando’s starting lineup considered a strict upgrade (James Ennis, for all that he brings, would be moved back to the bench in a heartbeat if Jonathan Isaac were cleared to play). The Magic chose to return the entirety of their 2019 core, running back the playoff squad and giving them a chance to grow internally. Fultz is the exception. This says something about how the front office perceives his potential, while emphasizing the fact that if the Magic want to be more than last season’s first round speed bump they’re pencilling in improvement from the point guard position as the key.
The case against
Probably the easiest place to start on this side of the argument is with the fact that there are numerous other players that the Magic will be more heavily reliant on if hoping to string together a few wins come playoff time. As good as he has been in clutch moments, the fact remains that Fultz is firmly down the offensive pecking order for Orlando. Even as the point guard he has just the fourth highest usage rate amongst those who see heavy minutes, with his figure of 20.7% placing him a hair above Aaron Gordon by that metric. As is usually the case, it is Nikola Vucevic and Evan Fournier who figure to do the heavy lifting with the ball in hand, and as such the team’s fortunes are much more tightly connected to their ability to raise their performance.
Looking at the other side of the basketball equation, it’s also hard to make the case that Fultz is the key to the Magic’s defensive potential as a unit. He’s been solid by most of those metrics this season, with his stout frame, long wingspan, and propensity for deflections and shot deterrence indicating he fits the mold of a backcourt nuisance. However, Orlando projects to see series matchups with a greater point of emphasis on the wings, where Gordon could find himself busy with elite talents like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Pascal Siakam and Jason Tatum. By comparison, the top of the East features a series of solid-if-unspectacular point guards waiting as a potential matchup for Fultz. He’ll play an important role, but he’s not the key.
Perhaps the biggest thing working against a hypothesis such as this is the fact that Fultz has, objectively speaking, been a pretty average point guard this season. Such a statement isn’t intended as a slight, because the fact that he’s established himself as a dependable rotation regular at all is worthy of recognition and testament to his ability and hard work. However, there’s a long way to go in terms of both development and general experience before he could even possibly be ready to lead a team to any measure of postseason success.
Let’s have a look at what some of the catch-all advanced metrics suggest about Fultz’s importance to the team. This season the Magic had seven players accumulate more than 900 total minutes. Of those seven, Fultz ranked fifth in PER (14.4), seventh in win shares per-48 (0.71), seventh in box plus/minus (-1.7), and seventh in VORP (0.1). He was, consistently, one of Orlando’s rotation regulars least impactful on winning. In many ways it was a remarkable season for the young point guard, but the fact remains that he is a long way from the type of polished, finished product that teams can lean on during the toughest games of the campaign.
I remain incredibly high on Fultz and his long term potential. He has charted an undoubtedly odd course to this point of his career, but there were enough flashes of play pre-hiatus to suggest he’s worth considering as a foundational piece, even if his jump shot never materializes. I can’t think of too many players who navigate and dribble the way he does, a staccato rhythm of movement with an almost imperceptible time signature that often leaves defenders flummoxed. It’s an innate talent that can’t be taught.
However, the fact remains that asking Fultz to be the key for a team hoping to demonstrate tangible progress when the playoffs start is a bridge too far at this early juncture. There’s basically no way to know how he’ll acquit himself when the heat is turned up, and he figures to have only limited chances to answer such questions anyway; the Magic will turn to some of their veteran faces when push comes to shove. His play is a contributing factor to the team’s consolidation of their playoff status, but he’s far from singularly responsible.
Even then, his performance this postseason should illuminate some aspects of the franchise’s future. Fultz may not currently be the key, but his development will go a long way towards unlocking the Magic’s fate in the seasons to come.