Yesterday 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 the number of specifically named players is smaller. The worrying news is that the entries are still pretty important. Let’s dive in and figure out where our reservations may currently rest.
When we talk about shooting in the NBA it’s almost always in reference to those attempts that come from beyond the arc, and the impact that the threat of this long-distance shooting can have on the space and looks generated elsewhere for any given team. Unfortunately for the Magic three-point shooting is a metric that they have ranked poorly at for a good deal of time now, a fact which has continued largely unabated through the season’s first half-dozen games.
Let me throw some three-point numbers at you. Aaron Gordon is currently 3 of 20 from the season (15.0%), with one those few makes requiring glass from the corner. Michael Carter-Williams is a ghastly 1 of 10 (10.0%) and a genuine chance to break the backboard every time he fires away. Markelle Fultz is 4 of 15 (26.7%) and sporting the exact same shooting motion as last season. Before getting injured Chuma Okeke made just 2 of 7 (28.6%). Cole Anthony is 3 of 15 (20.0%). Dwayne Bacon is 3 of 11 (27.3%). Gary Clark literally hasn’t hit one yet. Outside of Nikola Vucevic, Terrence Ross and Evan Fournier, that’s the entire rotation who can currently only be counted on to maybe hit one out of every four three-point attempts.
Through six games the Magic have made just 31.4% of their long range bombs as a team, a woebegone rate that places them 28th league-wide. Considering they returned the vast majority of last season’s roster it’s not a surprise, and relatively speaking is in line with their 2020 performance (34.3%, 25th). Still, it’s a depressing observation to make, primarily because it is so expected. Orlando’s front office went into the offseason knowing that shooting was the primary area of need yet they’ve somehow managed to churn out a team that, relative to their peers, doesn’t attempt many threes (28.7 per game, 27th) nor hit the ones they do.
When the recipe remains the same one shouldn’t expect the dish to be any different, but the fact is that Orlando was hoping for that precise outcome. The team is now looking for ways to will that into existence, with more five-out sets anchored by Vooch and a stronger emphasis on the drive-and-kick game, and it’s true that some natural regression to the shooting mean should help lift the final product. But beyond greater creativity — like, say, more frequent leveraging of the corner three or the deployment of a ‘shooters only’ lineup without a traditional playmaker — this is something that’s ultimately going to come down to the cooks in the kitchen. And in a make or miss league, the Magic have to emerge as the former if they’re going to dish up enough offense to remain relevant.
The Magic entered the season already under an injury cloud, but it felt like one that was manageable to at least some degree. Missing Jonathan Isaac for the season was a genuinely devastating blow that lowered the team’s ceiling, but it’s status as a known factor reshaped the context of any analysis of the team. The temporary (although indeterminate) absences of James Ennis and Al-Farouq Aminu also fell into a similar category. Some of the cavalry would be coming back, it was just a matter of when.
What couldn’t be accounted for by the coaching staff and punditry alike was the health of the team once the opening tip was thrown. In the six games since the season started the already thin Magic have had to also weather a hamstring complaint suffered by Ross, a bone bruise that looks to have knocked Chuma Okeke out for a month, and back spasms that have currently sidelined Evan Fournier. There’s also the management of a lingering hamstring issue that has limited AG’s minutes and theoretically impacted his overall effectiveness. When you add those names to the list of those not yet sighted it accounts for half of the active roster.
What’s abundantly clear at the moment is that Orlando is already battling injuries, a tune depressingly familiar from the last campaign. And that’s without even getting into the following mess…
Steve Clifford said tonight would've been a perfect time to get Mo Bamba his first playing time this season. But Clifford said Bamba got hit in the head when he played 2-on-2 today and wasn't feeling his best.— Josh Robbins (@JoshuaBRobbins) January 1, 2021
There’s only one correct response to this, right?
If the playoffs started today the Magic would be opening up the First Round on their homecourt, courtesy of a 4-2 record (that actually feels a little low). Mission accomplished, right? Well, maybe not so fast …
Orlando have compiled this stellar record against less than impressive opposition, a fact which potentially undermines their current positioning in the thick of the playoff race. They’ve enjoyed the third most favorable schedule during this early stretch, racking up their four wins against three teams with a combined record of 5-11 (and, remember, one of those five opponent Ws was at the Magic’s ). They’ve played just one team with a winning record, a game which resulted in a 35 point first-half beatdown and an early contender for ‘most dispiriting loss of the campaign’. It’s an outcome eerily reminiscent of last season, when the Magic were generally able to beat up on bottom feeders but struggled to claim victory over legitimately good teams.
This should be of immediate concern to the Magic because of the nature of their upcoming schedule. After a back-to-back set against the surprising Cavaliers — two originally penciled-in wins that now look much more competitive — Orlando will face off against Houston, Dallas, Milwaukee, Boston, Boston again, and Brooklyn. It’s a brutal stretch against high-quality opponents, made even more difficult by the fact that five of the six are road dates. Even if they take care of business and sweep the Cavs there’s a chance the Magic return to Florida on January 24 (!) with a record below .500. With the aforementioned injuries that have ravaged the team, it’s certainly not the best time to see the schedule further turn up the pressure.
A shot at stardom
There’s something to be said for staking a claim on an island hoping to be rewarded with the riches that come with being an original inhabitant. There’s also something to be said — something much less flattering — for then remaining there long past the point of no return, when it’s clear to all that the bubble has burst and the projected value won’t be reaped any time soon.
Hezonja Haven. Nicholson’s Reef. Sasser Sanctuary. The Peninsula of Vasquez. There are a few areas of such real estate from Orlando’s recent draft history that perhaps still resonate in the minds of Magic fans. The worry, now, is that two more will soon be added.
Aaron Gordon, despite being just 25 years of age, is starting to look uncomfortably like a finished product in this league. He hasn’t really addressed the major flaws in his game that have been evident for a while now, nor has he developed significantly enough in other areas to cover up these concerns. He’s okay-to-good at a lot of things without being great at anything, and it’s not clear how he takes the next step. He can shoot … kind of. He can dribble … kind of. His individual defensive skills are excellent … but we’re seeing less of them these days. He’s flashed a passing game … but is sporting the lowest assist rate since transitioning from his rookie contract. He’s an athletic specimen and potentially dynamic cutter … but doesn’t really get to the rim nor threaten the offensive glass. What’s his path to greatness?
Mo Bamba is another name for Magic fans to worry about in this regard. He hasn’t done much of note on the basketball court since being taken sixth overall in 2018, and is yet to be sighted at all this season. When he does return he will likely have a fight on his hands just to reclaim some of the backup minutes, let alone be in a position to accelerate his development and start producing like an upper-lottery pick. At this stage is it more likely that his career trajectory is headed towards dependable starter or total bust?
It’s a little unfair to single either of these guys out for a number of reasons, including but not limited to injury, opportunity and the general constraints of this roster. However, it does seem fair to be looking at the clock on each of their respective developments and wondering when — if ever — we’re going to see the return on investment we once so optimistically envisioned.
That ominous note brings us to the end of this exercise, a look at the fortunes both flying and failing for the Magic just six games into a very long season. We’ll check back in after a few more weeks, but until then we’ll keep the collective fingers crossed that the trends are overwhelmingly positive.