Earlier this week 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 entries on this side of the ledger is smaller; just two, in fact. The worrying news is that the pair of them are both pretty significant in scope. Let’s dive in and figure out where our reservations currently rest.
Aaron Gordon, point guard
This is a critical observation less about the player specifically than it is the predicament the team collectively finds itself in. Turns out, lining up for NBA games without an experienced and dependable point guard makes the proposition of winning basketball games difficult. It’s not so much that ‘Aaron Gordon, point guard’ has been a failure, but that it was never a tenable exercise in the first place.
Opening disclaimer: AG’s performance since being asked to step up and ostensibly become the team’s primary playmaker has been admirable and occasionally even impressive. Before succumbing to an unfortunate ankle injury he was shouldering an enormous burden, frequently facilitating the offense from his customary four slot and assuming many of the ball handling and decision making duties that come with that. He may not have been a fish completely out of water, but he was at least feeling the discomfort of partial exposure.
Many of Gordon’s numbers, in isolation, make for pleasant reading. An average of 6.0 assists per game over the last ten he played, and 4.2 for the campaign. Nine games on the season with 5 or more helpers. A double figure dime total as part of his triple double against the Knicks. A career high assist rate of 22.6%, good for 18th league-wide from the forward slot. He’s also supplementing the passing numbers with the best free throw rate (.376) and three point percentage (36.9%) he’s ever posted - two critical skills for point guard success. The Magic may have lost Markelle and even MCW, but it looks like AG has propped things up, right?
Well, not so fast.
Although Gordon has an instinct for passing, he’s not exactly a natural playmaker; his assists tend to come from good reads and timely reversals, as opposed to deliberate direction of the possession himself. As such, since being asked to instigate the offense he has also seen his turnover rate skyrocket: up to 17.6%, a monstrous number that outstrips even his very green rookie season figures (13.9%). This increase isn’t unexpected, but worryingly its growth has outstripped the rise in his assist numbers. He’s certainly getting a few more helpers but he’s bobbling away a heap more possessions.
There’s also the fact that Orlando’s precipitous dip in offensive output basically lines up perfectly with Gordon being thrust into the role of point guard. In the season’s first ten games the Magic put up an offensive rating of 106.1, a reasonable figure that placed them at a mild disadvantage after accounting for the team’s defensive numbers. In the ten games after that (keeping in mind that Fultz bowed out after eight), Orlando’s offensive rating dropped to 103.5, a calamitous decline worsened by the negative defensive impact also felt. Perhaps most condemnatory? Across the last four games — which, remember, featured just 24 minutes of Gordon — that offensive figure bounced back up to 107.9. Attributing the rise and fall of these figures to just one player is a bit reductive, but the coincidence is difficult to ignore.
Perhaps the most damning evidence is simply the team’s record. The Magic were 6-2 when Fultz went down; they’ve gone 3-14 since, including a record of 2-11 in the games that featured a good chunk of Gordon as quarterback. It’s difficult to win at this level without an experienced and natural point guard driving the play. Dribble penetration inevitably suffers. Pick and roll sequences inevitably suffer. The passing game inevitably suffers. In short: the offense suffers.
Again, this is not a condemnation of Aaron Gordon, the player. He has performed admirably after accepting a role that is, figuratively if not literally, above his pay grade. Instead, it’s an assessment of the team’s decision to push forward with options either out of place (Gordon) or inexperienced (Cole Anthony) at what is almost certainly the most fundamentally important position on the court. With limited obvious options at their disposal the team’s decision makers decided to not get creative, and the cumulative returns were as largely expected: diminished.
I still believe in AG. I still love the supplementary passing spark he adds to a team. I still feel there’s an extra gear to be unlocked. However, deploying a player out of position is always a process fraught with danger. As we’ve recently learned, it’s even more pronounced when it’s in place of your lead playmaker.
4-0 seems so long ago.
The Magic got off to a hellacious start this season, racing to 6-2 in the standings with four double-digit victories in the first two weeks. Vucevic was an All-Star, Ross a flamethrower, and Fultz an emerging difference maker. Things looked great.
Then they … didn’t.
Orlando lost six straight after their hot opening salvo, skidding first to the fringes of the playoff seeds, then to the fringes of the play-in tournament, and then simply from the postseason picture entirely. The decline reached 2-12 at one point, with a series of blowouts ignominiously giving the team the worst points differential in the conference. There is undoubtedly a long way to go before we hit Round One, as well as a pair of recent wins over the Bulls that have tentatively buoyed the side in the standings, but it’s becoming increasingly difficult to see how the Magic figure to fit into that competitive mix.
A look at the statistical measure of the Magic really emphasises just how steep the recent decline has been. Watching the games it’s apparent that Orlando are struggling to score efficiently, an expected outcome for a side missing a starting caliber point guard and bereft of shooting at a number of positions on the floor. That they would be the league’s worst at shooting the ball — evidenced by a 30th ranked true shooting percentage (52.8%) and a similarly placed effective field goal percentage (49.1%) — is a bit of a surprise.
The brutal numbers continue. The Magic are ranked 27th by offensive rating, generating just 105.8 points per 100 possessions. That’s marginally better than the wayward Thunder (who fall short of 105), but a whopping 13.4 points worse than the league-leading Bucks (119.2) and some 5 points shy of what constitutes league average. Orlando remains great at protecting the ball (7th lowest turnover rate) and has evolved into a dangerous offensive rebounding unit (8th best at extending possessions on the glass), but even these factors haven’t been enough to juice the team’s impotent scoring punch.
Some of the answers to this predicament undoubtedly lies in the team’s collective shot profile. No side this season generates less opportunities at the rim than the Magic, with just 17.4% of their shot attempts coming within three feet of the basket. By comparison, the Hawks get an opportunity at a soft finish on three out of every ten possessions. Compounding the problem is that Orlando also ranks poorly by their three-point volume, attempting a long range bomb on only 35.3% of possessions. That places them 24th league-wide. Add in one last familiar deficiency — their 26th ranked free-throw rate of .225 — and one can surely understand their offensive predicament: compared to their peers the Magic just don’t get the types of looks that efficiently produce points.
If that all sounds bad, well, it is. Unfortunately, it’s also not where the bad news ends. Orlando have tumbled defensively this season, falling into the league’s bottom third by defensive rating (23rd, ceding 113.0 points per 100 possessions). This combined with their inept scoring saddles the side with the third-worst net rating, a team being outscored by the opposition by an average of 7.2 points per-100 possessions. It’s the equivalent of having to start every game by digging out of a three-to-four basket hole. ESPN’s Relative Percent Index — RPI, a metric that aims to balance the winning percentage of all teams in a single orbit — has a similarly dim view of the Magic, giving them a 28th-placed RPI rating of .444 and an expected win-loss record of 6-19, equal worst.
Worryingly, things will likely get even worse. The Magic have somehow benefited to this point from the league’s easiest schedule, with their average opponent to date being 1.38 points below average. Things will get nominally more difficult — they’ll face what is the 13th softest slate across the remaining known schedule, with an average opponent winning percentage of .490 — but it’s hard to take much solace from such an observation because they’ve already failed to leverage that exact same advantage. Somehow Orlando, despite having played just eight games against teams who win at a rate of .500 or better, are a paltry 9-16 on the season, with eight losses to teams currently sporting a losing record and zero wins against opponents whose ledger is in the black. That’s … a tough look.
(Side note: when you factor in the games that haven’t yet made it onto this season’s calendar, the Magic project to have the most difficult schedule remaining. Oof.)
As a collective representation of where the team is currently at, the numbers look bad. Like, incredibly bad. And although basketball is not a sport that is played out solely in the spreadsheets, without a serious reversal of fortune the undermanned and outgunned Magic are likely to continue proving the statistical profile correct.
The NBA season is now about one-third complete, which means we’re starting to get a pretty good view of the teams that are contenders and those who are merely pretenders. Unfortunately, Orlando would appear to be on the wrong side of that equation, sinking fast beneath a crippling injury toll and various talent deficiencies. Although the playoffs remain at least somewhat in view, it’s the sound of bouncing ping pong balls that now demands a greater chunk of basketball attention in Central Florida.