With the Magic’s opening game of the 2021/22 campaign inching ever closer, it’s time to put our (figurative) money where our (digital) mouths are and make some bold predictions regarding how we see this season shaking out. Wins, losses, stats, awards, one-way tickets out of town … let’s consider it all! Having this column also means that there will be one convenient location to visit when, down the line, you’re inevitably looking for the receipts to prove how much of a basketball idiot I am (case in point: last season’s predictions!). Let’s dive in!
Okay, let’s get this one out of the way early — the Magic are going to be an eyesore on offense this season.
With a roster stuffed full of less-than-dangerous outside shooters and precious little in the way of dependably efficient bucket getters, Orlando figures to have a difficult time scoring the ball. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, with the Magic returning the majority of the post-trade deadline nucleus that contributed to the team’s 29th ranked offensive rating of 103.3. The team was so far off the scoring pace at the end of last season that even projections of improvement and positive regression, as well as the injection of new lottery talent, figures to still leave Orlando languishing when it comes to the scoreboard.
The identity of any side takes time to coalesce, and it’s clear that the Magic are still a long way from where they eventually want to be with the ball in hand. New Head Coach Jamahl Mosley has talked about a desire to generate both pace and space for the players to leverage, neither of which has really come to fruition for Orlando throughout the preseason. Although the team has obviously prioritized the three point shot — with 39.3% of all field goal attempts coming from beyond the arc in preseason, compared to 35.6% last season — they still lag relative to their peers, falling into the bottom half of the league by this metric.
Surprisingly, the team’s pace fared even worse during the lead-in games of the last two weeks. The Magic were the league’s ‘slowest’ team across preseason, generating an average of just 98.6 possessions per-game. Considering that the team actually finished with the seventh-greatest percentage of total points coming courtesy of fast breaks — 14.8% — the glacial pace feels like an indication of how badly they struggled once forced into a half court set. The ‘Seven Seconds or Less’ Suns these pinstriped players ain’t; take away the transition and they start bleeding the clock looking for a decent shot attempt.
These two sets of circumstances are intrinsically tied together. As a team that doesn’t spread the floor all that well there’s less space for dribble penetration and opportunities inside, the result of a defense that can stay closer to home. The forest of limbs that accompanies such a congested defense also decreases the team’s pace, as they’re forced to work harder and through more actions looking for a decent shot attempt. It’s a conundrum.
There are also some general NBA rules of thumb that point to an anemic Orlando offense this coming season. Youthful point guards have long struggled to helm competent offenses, and the Magic just so happen to have four players — Markelle Fultz, Cole Anthony, RJ Hampton and Jalen Suggs — who will be asked to handle plenty of lead playmaking duties despite collectively sharing just 211 games of experience. Expect some lumps to come as a result of that. Orlando also lacks a dynamic scoring wing in a time when more and more of a team’s success is dictated by what they can produce from that position, while neither of the side’s fourth-year centers are known for their efficient scoring in the post. Did I mention that the team’s traditionally minuscule free throw rate has remained staunchly in place? It has (0.182, 27th).
Let’s quickly take stock of what we know about the Magic’s offense: the point guards are inexperienced; there’s a dearth of dependably efficient wings; the centers aren’t threats in the post; the side lacks outside shooters; they’ve been playing at a snail’s pace; and they don’t draw free throws. That’s a tough foundation from which to be trying to build anything sustainable.
Let me be clear, I agree with the ‘pace and space’ intent that has been heard throughout the preseason. The Magic’s three-point shooting was a huge disadvantage last season, and while the accuracy hasn’t noticeably improved the desire to at least generate and take more looks from behind the arc figures to close that competitive imbalance somewhat. A defense forced to honor the outside threat also theoretically creates more space in which crafty ball handlers can ply their trade, a necessity for a guard-heavy team that figures to often play three of them at once. Elsewhere, players like Hampton and Fultz should be encouraged to utilize their sublime talents and get out into transition whenever the chance presents itself. All of that makes perfect sense!
As a phrase, ‘pace and space’ has become simplified shorthand for the gradual evolution that professional basketball has undergone over the last decade. However, it’s also a surprisingly adept way of describing an offensive philosophy that figures to help the youthful Magic — they should use their athletic pace to hunt out easy transition opportunities while also aiming to create space so as to simplify life in the halfcourt. Unfortunately, the team doesn’t project to be equipped to do any of that terribly effectively just yet; expect at least one more season of abject offensive futility.
Prediction: 29th ranked offensive rating.
Comparatively speaking, the Magic figure to be better defensively than they are at scoring the ball this coming season. The skill profile of the team favors this end of the floor, with a bevy of long limbs and some positional versatility at least suggesting a path towards competence when it comes to protecting their own basket. Even though availability remains an ongoing mystery we’ve already seen Jonathan Isaac’s all-world defensive potential, and he’s flanked on the roster by a number of other players with some serious disruptive potential — Bamba, Suggs, Fultz and even Wendell Carter Jr., who has been surprisingly stout as a one-on-one defender.
However, despite the rays of optimism, the safe bet still feels like it can be found in Orlando finishing as a below average defensive outfit. Despite the fact that many players seemingly have the right tools, the relative inexperience of the squad is going to make high level team defense a difficult proposition. It’s going to be tricky for the team to stay connected, particularly with some in the guard rotation — perhaps most notably Fultz and RJ Hampton — who have a tendency to get hung up on screening action. When he’s back JI is capable of putting out all manner of fires with his active help defense, but asking one man to act as an entire fire department is a lot.
There’s also a genuine concern when it comes to the team’s ability to clean the glass, one of the most important features of any side that aspires to be effective defensively. The Steve Clifford-coached Magic were a certainty to feature in the upper echelon of team defensive rebounding rates, anchored by the carom-gobbling Nikola Vucevic who was admirably flanked by the athleticism of Aaron Gordon and Isaac. Only one of that trio now remains, and the replacements simply aren’t of the same standard — neither Bamba’s nor WCJ’s career-best figures on the defensive boards reach even the worst mark that Vooch posted under Clifford’s tutelage. Expect that area of resistance to take a hit.
Still, there’s enough in the way of raw tools and dogged commitment to suggest that Orlando can at least avoid being utterly embarrassing on the defensive end. The minute he was announced as the new face behind the clipboard, Mosley made it clear that the team’s identity would be forged at this end of the floor, and at least through preseason it appears that he’s got the roster buying into it. With energy, execution and a dash of elite individual skill courtesy of Bamba’s prodigious block rate and Isaac’s general brilliance, I’m going to tip the Magic to finish the season at least nudging up against the league’s middle ground.
Prediction: 21st ranked defensive rating.
When it comes to projecting the Magic’s win total for the coming season, the collective online wisdom seems to have settled on the low-20s as an appropriate ballpark, with 22.5 the specific number currently being bandied about by most agencies with some skin in the over/under game. It’s a tiny figure, a fact highlighted by the fact that all but five teams topped it just last season even with ten fewer contests on the schedule. Heck, even if we were to retroactively remove the final dozen games of last season from the record books, you’d still have 24 teams that easily accounted for the mark.
In fact, the last decade of NBA results have produced only fourteen outfits that failed to rise to the threshold of 20 wins, one of which was the 7-win Bobcats in the lockout-shortened year of 2011/12. In that same time we’ve had three entire seasons in which every side hit the mark, while no single campaign has concluded with more than three teams left adrift of this number. If it wasn’t already intuitively apparent, it’s really difficult for a professional basketball outfit to not stumble their way into at least 20 wins!
So, are the Magic really going to be so bad that we’re about to witness a season that falls somewhere below the 5th percentile in terms of winning? Unfortunately, the gut instinct seems to definitively be pointing in that direction. Consider:
- Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz remain sidelined either through injury or precaution, a circumstance that eliminates two-fifths of the projected starting lineup and two of the more impactful contributors on the roster.
- Jalen Suggs hopefully has a bright future ahead of him in pinstripes, but he’s a rookie ball handler on an outmatched team, a mix unlikely to facilitate winning.
- The Magic figure to face some long-distance woes, an alarming look considering the SprawlBall era we live in.
- There are some positional holes on the roster as currently constricted, a concern that projects to impact the defensive integrity of the side.
- Orlando’s rotation will feature five players in their first or second years in the league, and a total of nine with experience totaling three seasons or less. If you want to throw in Brazdeikis’ two-way contract that number gets to double figures. Unfortunately, young teams rarely, if ever, win in the NBA.
Looking at those factors and considering an improved Eastern Conference and Southeast division, not to mention the Magic’s incentive to rack up the Ls, it’s increasingly easy to envision a season in which Orlando finishes with the league’s worst record. We can probably count on one hand the amount of games they’ll enter as favorites (when the Thunder come to town and … is that it?), and even the randomness of sporting results can’t be counted on to turn the tide as frequently as the Magic might require. Orlando cratered down the stretch last season, and they’ve now returned with largely the same squad intact — there’s something they say about outcomes and madness that seems relevant here.
When the dust settles, it seems safe to assume that the Magic will, largely by design, be languishing in the basement of the league. I’m willing to bet that this year such an outcome sees the side just squeeze into a sub-20 win total.
Prediction: 19-63, fifteenth in the East.
With three predictions already in the bank we might put a pin in this one for a moment, returning just prior to the season-opening tip with one final batch. Before then, be sure to sound off in the comments below with your own predictions regarding the offense, the defense, and a projected win total.