It’s been a long time coming. When they take the court this Friday against their primary foe for the seventh seed, the Brooklyn Nets, it will have been almost five months since we last watched a legitimate Orlando Magic basketball game.
In the time since we’ve witnessed team practices, half-speed scrimmages, an unexpected JI return, an AG diss track, Jordan fever, the emergence of Mo ‘Muscles’ Bamba, and even incredibly the drafting of Peter Pan to Central Florida. 2020 … it’s been wild.
Now, amidst a continuing period of global uncertainty, some routines and familiarity will slowly return alongside the NBA’s resumption of play. We’ve got twenty-two teams jockeying for the final sixteen playoff positions, with eight games on the slate for each before the scheduled start of the first round, August 17. And although the Magic likely feel pretty confident in their playoff odds — the depleted Wizards would have to gain ground on Orlando just to force a play-in tournament — they remain a side with plenty of questions still to be answered across the remaining contests of the 2019/20 season.
What exactly do the Magic have to prove? In this series, we will unpack some of the biggest storylines the team faces when the ball is once again tipped. First, we’ll examine the offense.
The Magic must prove that...
The offensive surge wasn’t a mirage
It’s fair to say that the Magic didn’t meet the expectations that most had of them during the season’s early stages.
However, there were clear signs that things were finally starting to come together in the lead-up to the hiatus, with the team finishing 8-4 across their last dozen starts. What was the secret to their belated success? Offense.
As we’ve broken down previously, Orlando unleashed some serious scoring firepower in the final month of the regular season. The formerly anemic offensive outfit was suddenly good for a league-leading 120.8 points per game across the stretch, generated on the back of an also first-placed offensive rating of 118.2. They were improved in basically every facet of this game, from field goal percentages to assist numbers, from pace to ball control.
Simply put, the Magic were an offensive juggernaut.
Some key lineup changes undoubtedly helped to spur this outcome. The injury to Jonathan Isaac, unfortunate as it was, had the unintended benefit of moving Aaron Gordon to the power forward slot exclusively, a position which better allows him to leverage his athletic talents and burgeoning playmaking, while also minimizing his lack of long distance accuracy.
The trade deadline acquisition of James Ennis injected an extra player into the starting lineup that opponents were forced to honor beyond the arc (even if he didn’t hit a heap of long range bombs when donning pinstripes).
Add to that a resurgent Terrence Ross and a deeper bench buoyed by the returns and strong play of Michael Carter-Williams and DJ Augustin, and you can begin to see how this all coalesced.
Isaac’s unexpected injection into the rotation during the most recent scrimmage naturally raises the question of whether the team can keep this torrid offensive pace up. He’s going to have to find a way to not be a relative liability at that end of the court, including the taking and making of three-point jumpers to keep opposing defenders honest.
His first game back made for an auspicious start in that regard, so the collective fingers remain optimistically crossed. Elsewhere, the team will also need to hope that their shared shooting touch remains hot, even as regression and the specter of rust after a long layoff threatens to derail previous momentum. Otherwise, areas such as unselfish ball movement, off-ball activity, and the hunting of transition chances are all theoretically elements of play that could be run back with relative ease.
When the games return on Friday afternoon it will be imperative that Orlando demonstrate that the late offensive gains made are, at least to a degree, firstly replicable and then sustainable.
The Magic don’t need to be the league’s absolute best — it’s unlikely that they’ll even be among the top eight — but they simply can’t afford to be the worst. However, if the output reflects their season-long form they will be, having ranked just 24th by offensive rating on the season and ahead of only six non-bubble teams. They took a decisive step out of the Stone Age in February and March.
Now they’ll need to prove that they are actually cut out for the modern game.
Check back soon for Part II, where the focus shifts to the Magic’s defense.