In Part One we tackled all things positive in Orlando, leaving us now with the task of figuring out what’s headed in the opposite direction. The good news is that there aren’t too many entries. The worrying news is that the ones featured are pretty important. Oh, and the looming Bucks. Let’s dive in and figure out where our reservations may currently rest.
The health of the troops
After a layoff of almost five months one of the silver linings to the interruption for the Magic was supposed to be the chance to get healthy. With numerous players banged up during the course of the regular season there was the opportunity to field a squad as close to 100% as at any point since opening night. Unfortunately, it just hasn’t panned out that way.
Al-Farouq Aminu, still rehabbing a torn meniscus suffered in December, never made it to the bubble. Markelle Fultz and Mo Bamba were both late arrivals, leaving them out of shape, further down the rotation than expected and, in the case of Bamba, scratched for the season as a result of ongoing complications. Wes Iwundu suffered a nasty fall during the scrimmages and was briefly sidelined with concussion symptoms. Jonathan Isaac lasted two games before falling victim to a devastating ACL and meniscus tear that yet threatens to muddy the team’s long-term future. Michael Carter-Williams joined him in the injury ward just one game later, and Aaron Gordon followed in the next contest.
For anyone keeping track at home, that’s a list that contains six players that have started games this season, five former lottery picks, three power forwards, two-thirds of the team’s wing depth off the bench, and a project that many were hoping was ready to turn a corner. And that’s without even considering the games that Evan Fournier and Terrence Ross lost to illness! It’s no wonder that the Magic faded after a strong start in the bubble, securing just one win in their last six games.
Orlando would have been major underdogs in any potential first round match up, even should they have had their full contingent of players. Now, with some major talent either on the sidelines or ailing in some regard, and facing one of the best performed regular season teams of all time, those are odds that have blown a long way out. No sporting result is ever guaranteed, but the Magic are going to need some major breaks to go their way if they’re to overcome the sapped momentum that injury has afflicted them with.
Mo Bamba’s playoff experience
It’s obvious that Bamba’s return to play experience in the bubble has been a disaster, and it’s one that we won’t dwell on too long. He has struggled with the lingering effects of the COVID-19 virus in his time back, losing his spot in the rotation and playing just 11 total scoreless minutes before the plug was pulled. He posted team-worst numbers in a number of categories in that time, looking little like a player ready to make genuine NBA contributions at any point in the near future.
It was an unfortunate outing, one made both more understandable and empathy-inducing by the recent status update provided by the team. First and foremost, the hope is that Bamba is able to fully recover and get back to the level of health and well-being he’s accustomed to. With so many uncertainties surrounding the virus and its long-term impacts this has to be the priority, and the collective fingers remain crossed for the young man.
From a more selfish basketball perspective, it’s also disheartening to know that, for the second year running, Bamba will miss out on the chance to gain some valuable experience in the cauldron of playoff basketball. For a team desperate to find out what they actually have with the lottery investment it’s another unfortunate setback. For the big man himself, it’s a lost opportunity to both figure out what it takes and to prove that he’s heading in the right direction. It will now be at least another twelve months before anyone has the answers that are sought.
Due to illness he only had a small chance to recapture the rhythm that had resulted in one of the best seasons of his career to date, but in the five cracks before illness struck Fournier simply wasn’t able to settle back into that same groove. While his statistical output elsewhere remained relatively consistent, a significant drop in his shooting numbers resulted in a noticeable decline in points per game. His field goal percentage fell to 43.3% (from 46.7%), with the three ball being the primary enemy as it tumbled all the way to just 28.6% (from 39.9% on the season). In short, the Magic’s best marksman became one of their worst.
Of the 16 players who took the court for Orlando in the bubble, Fournier finished 11th in three-point percentage. The only wings he shot more accurately from deep than were Michael-Carter Williams, James Ennis, and Vic Law, a triumvirate that are not known for their ability to break the backs of opposition defenses with the long ball. For a relatively shooting bereft team like the Magic, the marginalization of their previously most-effective deep threat could be catastrophic under the bright lights of playoff basketball. As is their style the Bucks will dare the Magic to shoot from the outside, and if Fournier’s radar is off you can bet that they’ll sag even further into the paint and hound passing lanes with impunity.
Fournier was having a fantastic individual season before the hiatus, and a five-game slump at this stage certainly isn’t enough to derail that verdict. However, for the team to entertain even the slightest chance of a round one upset, it’s imperative that he start shooting the ball at a clip closer to that which we became accustomed to expecting. Let’s hope it’s a tune he’s once again able to find the rhythm for.
Beating good teams
The Magic have a problem, and it’s one that’s about to be laid bare: they pretty much can’t win games when matched up against a side that is good at the game of basketball. What do we understand by good? Well, consider the following: Orlando have compiled a 10-33 record against the other 16 playoff participants (note, both Portland and Memphis remain alive at the time of writing), a cracking pace that reflects a win percentage of .233 that would be in line with the mark that the rudderless Warriors posted this season.
The numbers can be made to read even more grimly, if you’re into that. Of those ten wins the Magic fattened up on relative easy beats for half of them, with five coming against either the Grizzlies or Nets. This means that, over the course of the entire campaign, Orlando were able to count one one hand the number of wins that came over opponents who would finish the season with a record of .500 or better. Five: a Fultz-led masterpiece over the Lakers; an offensive explosion against the Rockets; a pair of victories at the expense of the oddball 76ers; and a comprehensive win over a Heat side that inexplicably racked up 16 missed shots and 6 turnovers in the fourth quarter alone.
Each of these Ws stand out as either an oddity or an extreme outlier, a worrying observation as the team heads into a first round matchup against the league-best Bucks. Stranger things have happened in the world of professional sports, but it certainly feels like a minor miracle might be needed to make this thing even slightly competitive. To inspire any sort of confidence in this nucleus moving forward the Magic are going to have to start beating decent teams.
And with that, the regular season is done. Playoff basketball is only days away, and once again the Magic will take their place among the field of hopefuls. In a year that has already delivered more than its fair share of surprises, maybe there will yet be one more unexpected outcome. In a week’s time the Magic will have their answer.