In the NBA, the passage of regular season time can feel very different depending on franchise context.
An up-and-coming team, bursting at the seams with potential and hurtling towards the playoffs? Time flies.
A rebuilding team, ultimately hoping to facilitate development but already with one (or two) eye(s) on the next draft? Time drags.
No two doubts about it, considering the current context of the Magic, time is dragging.
Although the Magic were rightfully expected to struggle this season, the manner in which the team has fallen so quickly to the absolute bottom of the standings has taken what little wind there was entirely out of the sails of the collective fanbase. Injuries have played a part, certainly, as has the relative youth of the roster. Unfortunately, such explanations don’t alter the fact that the team has largely failed to muster competitive basketball. When that happens, the passage of time can feel interminable.
Still, as the first step on what is hopefully a path to sustainable success, it’s worth our time to dig into the available data and draw some conclusions about the value of what we’re seeing. What exactly can we find if we want to look on the bright side? What’s got hearts aflutter? Is there a trajectory we should be excited about? Who or what is trending in the right direction?
For the pessimists: any elephants in the room? Is the bottom unexpectedly falling out somewhere? Where are we hiding the bodies? Is anyone suffering through a protracted slump?
With a shade over a quarter of the season now in the books, let’s dive in and see what stories have emerged in Orlando of late.
Wendell Carter Jr.
Through 23 games it’s fair to say that the Magic’s freshly re-signed center, Wendell Carter Jr., is enjoying a career year. Averages of 13.3 points, 9.5 rebounds and 2.2 assists are all peak numbers for the big man, while his turnovers (1.3) and fouls (2.6) are currently more meager than anything he’s posted before. Impressively, these totals haven’t been arrived at simply as a result of more minutes and greater usage, evident in the fact that, outside of blocks and steals, WCJ’s per-100 stats are all up across the board despite a usage rate that ranks behind both last season and his rookie campaign.
The biggest surprise evident in his evolving game? The relative proficiency of his outside stroke. Before this season Carter Jr. had never averaged even a single look from deep, a number that his current rate of 4.0 attempts per night obviously obliterates. More significant than the increased rate of fire from beyond the arc, however, is his accuracy when doing so, with a healthy 36.3% of all his three-point shots going down. He’s no Vooch, but he has developed an obvious comfort in either trailing or popping into wide open triples from the top of the arc in particular.
The long ball is now such a featured part of Carter Jr.’s play that it accounts for 40.0% of all his shot attempts, a staggering number for a guy who had previously topped out at 11.2%. The combination of this volume with the relative proficiency of his shooting stroke has also more than offset a diminished proclivity for drawing fouls, resulting in some serious love from the advanced metrics: career bests in PER (18.6), offensive box plus/minus (+1.9), VORP (0.6), and offensive win shares (1.2 already, compared to a previous high of 1.7 over an entire season). He’s genuinely pushed his on-court contributions to another level.
Has it been mentioned that he’s doing this primarily in jumbo-sized lineups alongside another traditional center? The transition has been so seamless that it’s now frequently overlooked, but WCJ barely played even a lick of time at the power forward slot before coming to Orlando. These days it’s a position that he functionally mans 72% of the time for the Magic according to Basketball Reference’s positional tracking data. It’s a shift that requires a world of difference — a willingness to chase smaller guys on the perimeter; an expectation of switchability; more sequences that call for him to face up against an opponent instead of jostling in the post — but it’s a shift that the eye test suggests he’s achieving with some success.
With a newly unlocked offensive repertoire, an emerging playmaking game, and a versatile defensive game that is stretching all the way out to the perimeter, Carter Jr. is looking more and more like a long-term piece worth building into the Central Floridian foundation.
Before the season started, it’s unlikely that anyone had the Magic’s second lottery pick as the one most likely to force their way into the Rookie of the Year race. Why would they have? Jalen Suggs was a top-tier recruit with a history of success, stepping into a yawning chasm in Orlando’s backcourt. He would have both the talent and the opportunity to post the sorts of numbers that make awards voters swoon.
Instead, as the Magic’s rookie guard has struggled to adapt to the professional game, so has their rookie forward taken flight. Again and again and again, in fact.
Franz Wagner has been an absolute revelation across the season’s opening stretch. Thrust into a starting role on night one he has made the position his own, cementing his status as both an already key cog on this young team and an integral part of its long-term future. In 31.2 minutes of court time each night he’s putting up averages of 13.4 points, 4.3 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.6 combined stocks, with just 1.2 turnovers each night and an on-off rating that speaks to his value to the current rotation. He’s converting an encouraging 36.0% from deep, attempts that currently account for just over one-third of his total shot diet.
Perhaps most impressively, he’s also more recently flashed additional layers to his game, including some capacity as both an individual shot generator and a playmaker for his teammates. From the outset he posted intriguing numbers as the ball handler in pick-and-roll situations, showing a proficiency for smart decision-making in the two-man game. There’s a variance evident to both the speed and stride of his dribble-drive game, a fact which helps him operate in the space created by screens and eventually find good shot attempts, either for himself or teammates.
With the team recently decimated by injury Wagner has even played meaningful sequences as the team’s point guard on offense, handling the ball and acting as the trigger man for whatever action the side is running. It’s not something anyone would have expected just six weeks ago, but the relative comfort and capability he’s shown in the role speaks volumes about both his versatility and potential ceiling as a player moving forward.
In what has been a tough season to date for avid consumers of Magic basketball, the play of Franz Wagner really stands out as a genuine high point.
One of the emergent stories of Orlando’s season so far has been the fact that we just don’t really know what we’re going to see from this squad on a nightly basis. There’s an inconsistency evident in the game state flow and results ledger, but also in the performance of the individuals.
Mo Bamba started the season like a man possessed, but ever since the impressive opening week has been a little more hit and miss. Even accounting for a lingering short-term injury, it was starting to look like some of the luster of the early performances had been lost. The fourth-year center has been held to both single-digit scoring and rebounding in almost half of his last fifteen contests (8 of 15). He’s hit 50.0% from the field in that stretch just twice. It’s been ten games without a single free-throw attempt, and he hasn’t shot more than a pair in a night since the season’s third contest. Even his block and steal rates had taken a dip more recently, before the six swat explosion against the 76ers nudged his defensive numbers back in the right direction.
It’s been a similar story for RJ Hampton. The young guard has been up and down in year two, with per-game averages below what he put up after moving to Orlando last season and a variable impact night to night. He hasn’t distinguished himself as a serviceable or even up-and-coming point guard, with some ugly offensive metrics matching what the eye test seems to suggest: a player without much feel for the nuances of the half-court game and a proclivity for awkward decision-making. His game log features two scoreless contests and five more without an assist. Four with 3+ turnovers. Eleven contests in which he shot 40.0% or less from the floor. Five where his personal plus/minus has been -15 or worse. Still, moments of optimism frequently punctuate his play. Blistering speed in the halfcourt. A seemingly improved outside stroke (40.0%). A pair of standout performances against the Bucks. Ultimately, such variance is frustrating; the most consistent part of his game has been inconsistency.
The concerns over reliability don’t end with this pair. WCJ has noticeably faded in some games after hot starts. Terrence Ross and Gary Harris have oscillated between ‘veteran presence’ and ‘basically invisible’. Chuma Okeke is still finding his way after an early injury slowed him down. Moe Wagner has flipped from playing meaningful minutes to being glued to the bench and back again (and again). It’s as though this lack of roster rhythm has seeped into the on-court product.
Such volatility is understandable on a roster like Orlando’s. The team is young and helmed by an inexperienced head coach, as well as afflicted by a seemingly never-ending litany of injuries. They enter every contest at a talent disadvantage, with few dependable scorers they can lean on when games get tight. In many ways that’s all the explanation needed to understand the team’s league-worst differential of -10.1.
More difficult to understand? The fact that the Magic’s five wins this season have come against teams either sporting records of .500 or better, or who’ll be there come season’s end (Denver). Conversely, they’ve lost every single game they’ve played against teams currently playing sub-.500 basketball. If not paradoxical it’s at least anomalous, and testament to the completely unreliable consistency of this team.
In many ways, Magic analysis is starting to feel more and more a process of trying to make sense of the inherently senseless.
Well, here we are again.
As has become the status quo in Central Florida, the Magic are currently suffering greatly under the weight of injuries. Jalen Suggs is the team’s most recent victim, with a fractured thumb that will potentially cost him the next two months. Cole Anthony missed six games with a sprained ankle. Mo Bamba and Terrence Ross were both recently out with back problems. Chuma Okeke and Garry Harris started the season on the sidelines. Michael Carter-Williams and E’Twaun Moore are yet to step on the court. Markelle Fultz remains out. Jonathan Isaac hasn’t played since August of 2020.
Somewhere out there in the multiverse there’s a reality where that long list of wounded accounts for all 240 nightly minutes in an NBA rotation. For a more visual representation of the same circumstances, consider the Man Games Lost website (which tracks injuries and their relative win value); that’s right, the Magic are such an outlier in terms of the number of games missed that their win value bubble doesn’t even feature on the graph — the team’s injury situation is literally off the charts.
If the Orlando Magic stopped playing basketball today it would take the Oklahoma City Thunder almost 350 more games to catch them in injuries, but they've only won 2 more games https://t.co/mKZRxEkw0E pic.twitter.com/20VCET53c5— Man Games Lost NBA (@ManGamesLostNBA) November 29, 2021
Injuries are an unfortunate reality of any NBA season, but it’s hard not to believe that the Magic have been unfairly dudded in this regard in recent years. The worst part of it all is that it seems to be happening again, and at a time when the incremental growth of players is almost solely contingent on their being able to get meaningful minutes in game situations.
Orlando’s roster features a half-dozen youthful players who, to this point of their respective careers, have basically been a 50-50 proposition to even be able to take the court. There’s no way that any team could effectively develop and evaluate talent under such trying circumstances. The Magic certainly haven’t been able to.
The hope has to be that more fortunate times are on the health horizon. Considering how cruel that side of things has been for Orlando recently it would almost certainly have to be the case. I mean, things couldn’t get much worse …
... could they?