After 143 days, Orlando Magic basketball is back.
The Magic’s four-plus month long hiatus between regular season games raises plenty of questions, many of which we have addressed in our story on 13 things to know about the Orlando Magic and our list of 10 questions about the Orlando Magic’s return.
With tip-off just hours away, we reconvened for a restart roundtable to ask some final questions about Magic basketball....
Which aspect of Orlando’s performance will you be paying close attention to?
Zach Oliver: I’ll be most interested to see how the Magic defense is. We’ve seen them struggle this season to put it together consistently on that end of the floor. They go through spurts where it’s really good, then spurts where it’s really bad. They have a tough schedule for the re-start, and they’re going to need to get the defense dialed in quickly to make some noise I think.
Aaron Goldstone: The team’s defensive performance, without a doubt. It’s been well documented that Orlando was leading the NBA in offensive efficiency over the ten games prior to the shutdown. It remains to be seen if they can pick up where they left off on that side of the floor. But what I do know is that Orlando’s identity is one of a defensive-minded club, not of a team that gave up over 110 points in a contest in 13 of 17 games since February 1st. This is a roster that has been constructed to stop the other team from lighting up the scoreboard, not one that was put together to out-shoot opponents on a regular basis. Getting Jonathan Isaac back into the mix will obviously help the team’s overall defensive performance, although it remains to be seen how slowly Coach Clifford and his staff will bring their franchise cornerstone along.
Mike Cali: Since defense was a popular choice, I’ll play devil’s advocate and say offense. It’s foolish to expect the Magic to resemble the explosive offensive team they were in the final 12 games before the hiatus. That version of the Magic shot nearly 50 percent from the field, pushed the pace, moved the ball, got to the line, posted a league-best offensive rating of 118.2, and outshot teams during an 8-4 stretch. This team doesn’t have the personnel to do that for anything more than an “Is-this-really-happening?” burst. But the Magic offense doesn’t have to produce at an elite level, they simply need to be adequate, giving their real strength (the defense) a chance to win games. So, just give us a consistently adequate offense: ball movement, smart decisions, a quality shot selection, and a team that doesn’t make scoring 100 points seem like climbing Everest.
Which player has the most to prove over these eight games?
Zach: I think Aaron Gordon does. We saw Gordon taking some strides forward as the season was unexpectedly stopped, and it’s going to be important for him to carry that over. He’s finally healthy after battling a myriad of injuries earlier this year, and is a major factor for the team on both ends of the court. With Markelle Fultz likely on some kind of restriction early on, Gordon’s playmaking is going to be needed even more, as well.
Aaron: I think the answer here has to be Nikola Vucevic. After agreeing to a four-year, $100 million dollar deal last offseason that will pay him through age 31, Vucevic has taken a step backwards from his career season in ’18-’19 that resulted in his first All-Star selection. That’s not to say that Vucevic has been outright bad or anything; he just hasn’t been as big of a difference-maker on the floor as he was last season. His defense has taken a step back in 2019-20, and the team is only performing +1.4 per/100 possessions better when he’s on the floor compared to when he’s off, his lowest mark since 2015. Vucevic’s offensive efficiency numbers have all taken a hit (compared to last season) as well: 52 percent from the floor last season to 47 percent this year, 36 percent on three-point field goal attempts last season to just 33 percent this year, and an effective field goal percentage of 55 percent last season to just 51.5 percent this year. Vucevic is being paid to perform at a very high-level, the type of level he was playing at last season. When considering how he played in the playoffs last year against Toronto (11.2 points per game, 36 percent from the field), a strong showing inside the NBA’s bubble would likely go a long way for Magic fans and their feelings toward the ninth-year center from Montenegro.
Mike: It has to be Nikola Vucevic simply because the ink on his recently-signed contract is barely dry and his performance this season have raised questions about being on the wrong side of the peak of his career. Vooch, coming off a career-year in 2018-2019, has regressed in just about every statistical measure. Efficiency wise, teams were leaving him open from the outside and daring him to shoot, and he simply couldn’t capitalize. Vucevic was turning that around as the season progressed and he distanced himself from a November ankle injury, with his true shooting percentage jumping from 50.8% in the month of January (19.4 ppg), to 56.5% during February (20.6 ppg), to 59.9% during March (23.0 ppg). So, he was trending in the right direction and hopefully that continues. Vooch, however, might actually start missing on purpose to tank and avoid Marc Gasol and the Raptors in the first round.
What lineup advice would you give Steve Clifford during these unprecedented times?
Zach: Don’t be afraid to go deeper. Clifford has said multiple times that he prefers playing a nine man rotation because it’s easier for guys to get a good rhythm playing more minutes, rather than 10 guys playing slightly fewer minutes. I think now, with a lot of guys, at least early on, not playing their full complement of minutes, going to 11-13 players deep could be important. They’re going to need to find some energy in some games, and going a little deeper could definitely help them find that.
Mike: Play Mo Bamba more than Khem Birch. I know that decision probably belongs more to the Magic’s performance staff, who are slowly conditioning Bamba to learn how to play with the 20 pounds he added during the hiatus. But what better way to learn how to play at a certain weight than to let him, you know, actually play at that weight? Being cautious and focusing on conditioning is fine, but being overcautious can be counterproductive, leading to development/career stagnation. This can be a valuable learning experience for a young player who needs minutes to improve. Cut the cord and make him the first center off the bench.
Which game are you looking forward to most?
Zach: If I had to pick a game, I think I would pick the game against the Philadelphia 76ers. The Magic have played the Sixers well, and I think that game will be at a point where we’ll see guys really finding their rhythm, and give us a good gauge on where the team is in their return to the court.
Aaron: Obviously the two matchups against Brooklyn (July 31st, August 11th) will be critical. And Orlando’s tilt against Toronto (August 5th) could prove to be a playoff preview. But selfishly, I think I’m looking forward to the matchup versus Zion Williamson and the New Orleans Pelicans (August 13th) the most. The Magic defeated the Pelicans back on December 15th in their only matchup of the season, but Williamson did not play in that game as he recovered from a knee injury. Of course, with that being the last of the eight seeding games, there’s always a possibility that players might be held out of the game (if Orlando has already secured the seventh seed at that point, if New Orleans has already been eliminated, etc.).
Mike: Today’s game. Being the first game back after an offseason-like break, I am so curious to see which version of the Magic comes out, and what the rotations look like, and how many minutes Jonathan Isaac plays, and so on. The fact that the game is against the depleted Nets, who sit a mere half game in front of the Magic for the coveted seventh seed, only makes it more intriguing.
Prediction time: What will the Magic’s record be over the eight games and where do they finish in the standings?
Zach: I think they go 4-4 and finish with the seventh seed. As I said on the Do You Believe in Magic podcast the other night, if the Magic don’t get the seventh seed, it’s a failure. The Brooklyn Nets and Washington Wizards both have rag-tag teams in Orlando, which clearly gives the Magic the upper hand. Plus, I think a matchup with Toronto is probably slightly better for the Magic, as well.
Aaron: I would hope that the Magic finish seventh in the Eastern Conference standings. They are currently just one half-game behind the Brooklyn Nets, who will be playing massively short-handed during the NBA restart (down four players in their rotation, not including Kyrie Irving). Failing to surpass the Nets in the standings would be a pretty big blow for the Magic. I think it’s actually a little difficult to predict which specific games the Magic are likely to win or lose during these eight seeding games. You just don’t know which players are going to sit out, suffer potential injuries, etc. I’m going to go with a 4-4 prediction for Orlando. Based solely off the team’s sample-size over the last two years (and the way they have consistently played inconsistently). Under Steve Clifford, the Magic have shown that they can lose to some of the worst teams in the league on any given night, and they’ve also shown they can beat some of the best teams in the league, as well (like the Lakers in Los Angeles earlier in the season).
Mike: I’ll say 5-3, powered by a three-game winning streak to open the restart (Nets, Kings, Pacers). As for seeding, look at it this way: Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, Spencer Dinwiddie, DeAndre Jordan, Wilson Chandler, Taurean Prince. That’s a list of players from the Nets who won’t be participating. Even the Nets’ replacement players (Michael Beasley) are unable to play. A nearly full-strength Magic team should have no problem making up a half-game on the Nets’ junior varsity team to land the seventh seed.