We’re one week into the season, which means it’s the perfect time to start thinking about some of the way-too-early overreactions doing the rounds! With the usual ‘small sample size’ disclaimer out of the way, let’s test the truth of an ascending Bamba, the rookie hierarchy, and the width of the current margin between winning and losing.
Mo Bamba is a star
Big Mo has been running wild for the Magic across the season’s first week! As expected he’s currently pacing the team in blocks per game, but he’s also running second in points, rebounds, steals, field goal percentage and three point percentage. The advanced metrics also (continue) to love him, as he can be found at or near to the top of the team rankings in PER (3rd), VORP (3rd), win shares (equal 1st), true shooting percentage (2nd) and box plus/minus (2nd). As important as the production is the fact that he’s also been a mainstay on the court, almost doubling up his career average with 30.8 minutes each contest, an elevated figure that speaks to both his reduced foul rate and his rightfully earned perch atop the team’s current pecking order.
Beyond the numbers there are also the eye-test elements that bode well for the reality of a Bamba corner-turning. He appears to be more engaged, enthused and excited by basketball than at any other point to this stage of his career, with noticeable hustle plays and frequent efforts that speak to a player giving their all. He’s getting better at using his body to secure rebounding position, while the general defensive deterrence offered feels like it’s more meaningful; it’s his decision making and court awareness putting him in the right place to make a difference, as opposed to it simply being a result of his physical attributes. The minutes spent paired with his front court partner, Wendell Carter Jr., have also been a mild revelation, with some positional adaptability evident that suggests there are wrinkles to his deployment still to be found.
So that’s it, right? Bamba has finally been unleashed and everything is golden from here on out? Well, as much as I would love for that to be the case, we probably do need to pump the brakes a little on the MVP bandwagon. The fourth-year center put up his best numbers when matched up against Jakob Poeltl and Mitchell Robinson, solid players both but hardly world beaters. He then struggled with his outside shot in a return showdown against New York, before finding slightly tougher sledding against Bam Adebayo and the Heat. He continues to be a frustrating screener, unlikely to make decisive contact despite the oodles of body he has at his disposal. We’re also starting to see his shooting accuracy come back to earth some, an inevitability that will provide a better feel for what his production might be moving forward.
Still, despite the areas of justifiable concern, the projection of Bamba’s future feels pretty darn positive right now. He’s frequently been a per-minute beast shackled by limited opportunity, a fact which now appears to be holding up in a more sizable role. Big Mo’s big start to the season is the Magic’s big win from week one.
Franz Wagner is the best rookie on the roster
Wagner’s play has certainly stood out in a positive way across the first week, particularly when contrasted with his underwhelming summer league performances. He’s been aggressive knifing into space when the opportunity presents itself, while his quick trigger finger on catch-and-shoot opportunities from the perimeter has revealed a smooth looking jumpshot that looks like it will translate to the pros without a problem. He’s made confident contributions playing on the first unit, and already appears to be the type of glue guy that any team would love to have in the rotation.
As pleasing as Wagner’s immediate impact has been, in no way should it definitively suggest that he’s got greater potential than his rookie classmate. Suggs’ shooting numbers have been indisputably atrocious (a ghastly 28.8% from the floor), but already he’s taken on a noticeably more significant role for the Magic. He’s frequently filled the role of lead guard for the team, asked to generate looks for both himself and his teammates. He’s largely obliged, hoisting up a 13.0 attempts each night, leading the way with 4.0 free throw attempts per game, and collecting 3.5 assists as a facilitator (2nd on the team). All of this adds up to a usage rate of 27.7%, well beyond anyone else on the roster and likely significantly higher than the coaching staff had envisioned for the rookie at this stage of his career.
Despite the degree to which the team has been leaning on him in his debut week, Suggs has managed to remain pretty clean with the ball; in fact, it’s only been in the last two games that his turnover totals have looked a little sloppy (4 and 5, respectively). In addition to the numbers, there have also been a handful of sequences that amplify the level of playmaking that the young guard could eventually evolve into, with clean reads, quick decisions and some defensive manipulation already evident in his game. Suggs is being asked to perform a role that boasts an inherently high degree of difficulty, and despite the lack of team success there are clear indicators that it’s something he could eventually excel at.
Honestly, across the small handful of games to this point, there seems to be compelling evidence that the Magic hit on a pair of long term pieces at the most recent draft. We’re years away from knowing the absolute truth of that projection, but for now, at least, things are headed in the right direction.
The Magic are going to finish with the NBA’s worst record
Oh boy, it’s (mostly) been a very rough week on the scoreboard.
The Magic got absolutely pasted in their first two contests, failing to put up any sort of genuine fight on their way to losing to the Spurs and the Knicks by a combined 51 points. They churned out a classic revenge win in New York two nights later courtesy of some ridiculous streak shooting from Cole Anthony and Terrence Ross, before again losing handily when they traveled to Miami. Add it all up and you’ve got a 1-3 record with a differential that currently places them second-to-last overall.
Consider the Magic’s league-wide ranks in the following categories as a snapshot of the team’s general ineffectiveness:
- Offensive rating of 99.6 — 27th
- Defensive rating of 115.3 — 27th
- Field goal percentage of 40.5% — 28th
- Opponent field goal percentage of 45.8% — 20th
- Two point field goal percentage of 48.6% — 25th
- Opponent two point field goal percentage of 53.7% — 23rd
- Effective field goal percentage of 47.9% — 26th
- Opponent effective field goal percentage of 53.4% — 22nd
- Turnover percentage of 14.9% — 25th
- Opponent turnover percentage of 9.3% — 29th
If you’re looking for a succinct summary of what all those numbers mean, it can be found in this: as things currently stand, the Magic can’t score and they can’t stop the opposition from scoring. It’s a pretty bad combination, and that’s without getting into things like the side’s 27th ranked pace (a theoretical strength) or 20th ranked defensive rebounding numbers (a previous strength). This is not a mix of factors that wins basketball games!
Now, it’s clear that there are circumstances outside of the Magic’s immediate control impacting these outcomes. Depending on how the rotation shakes out, the team is currently missing three starters. They’re one of the most inexperienced outfits in the league, particularly in terms of where the minutes are weighted. The players are also still in the earliest stages of new systems at both ends of the floor. These observations provide some context.
However, there are some noticings that raise a little concern, even at this early juncture. The team’s early drop defense was absolutely roasted, with the Knicks capitalizing time and time again out of simple high ball-screen action and horn sets to feast on basically uncontested looks from deep. It’s no surprise they set a franchise record for threes made! The most worrying aspect of this is that, beyond junking things up with a zone for a stretch in the second half, the Magic weren’t able to find a meaningful in-game adjustment.
Some consternation is also fair regarding the offense. Long stretches seem to go by in each game during which the Magic don’t really run any sort of structured play, the action looking more like what you’d expect from an ad-libbed scrimmage than a real game. There’s little in the way of off-ball activity and a relative paucity of traditional pick-and-roll action, a fact which severely limits the chance that meaningful space is generated for the young ball handlers to work in. The result? Long sets that end in shots contested by a locked in defender who hasn’t had to work all that hard.
The Magic will eventually get better. They’ll make some progress. They’ll get healthier. The team’s shooting numbers, particularly in the paint, will bob back up closer to expected levels. When they do, expect Orlando to nab a couple more wins, even if they only come on nights when the opposition posts a clunker. Still, the underlying numbers from the season’s early stages suggest a lot of losing still to come. Hopefully you grabbed the under.