With the season rumbling on it’s time to take a moment and reflect upon the Magic’s play of late. When we last checked in there were a number of trends heading in a positive direction, balanced by a smaller handful of concerns. Unfortunately, despite being small in nature those worries eventually developed into significant impacts, with the team’s performance subsequently cratering as the warts became more pronounced. Still, even in the midst of a downswing silver linings remain evident, giving some hope for the games to be played in the days and weeks to come.
If we’re looking on the bright side, what exactly can we find? 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 falling out somewhere? Where are we hiding the bodies? Is anyone suffering through a protracted slump?
Let’s dive in and see what stories have emerged in Orlando of late.
Nikola Vucevic, All-Star
Here’s a terrifying question to ponder: what would this current Magic lineup look like without Nikola Vucevic? The Montenegrin big man has been in superb form this year, arguably putting together a portfolio of performances superior to those he accumulated in 2018/19 on his way to the midseason showcase. Should he keep up his torrid pace — and at this point there’s no reason to believe he won’t — a second All-Star nod is all but a certainty.
Vooch is currently enjoying the most prolific scoring campaign of his career, with averages of 23.1 points per game on an effective field goal percentage of 54.9%. He’s shooting more frequently and more accurately from deep than ever before, a development that has only served to further unlock the efficiency of his offensive arsenal. He’s legitimately turned into the deadliest trail man in the entire game, with more made threes from the top of the arc than any other player, from fellow centers to Steph Curry alike. Additionally, after an off night in the season opener he has barely missed from the charity stripe, helping to offset the slight decline in his free-throw rate. He’s also managed to be a little less reliant on his teammates for his looks, converting from two-point range without an assist 42.2% of the time. Simply put: dude gets buckets.
There are also indicators other than the traditional boxscore that only further emphasize the importance of Vucevic to the Magic. ESPN’s Real Plus/Minus metric (RPM) might not place Vooch among the absolute league leaders, but it does still indicate the importance of his position in Orlando; with a net point differential of 0.64 points per 100 possessions he’s one of only two players on the roster who push into the positive (the other is Evan Fournier, just behind Vooch at 0.41). He’s one of only a small handful of players the Magic can deploy who are guaranteed to improve the team’s odds of winning a basketball game. That’s an impressive, if scary, thought.
(An aside: relativity is key to an evaluation of these numbers. Vucevic ranks as the 15th best center by this metric, a solid position for a player on a team five games below .500 and sporting an ugly point differential. Fournier, by comparison, is 44th among shooting guards. Evidently, positional contributions should not be measured and adjudicated in the same way.)
Without Vucevic the Magic would have to turn to Khem Birch (-2.38) and Mo Bamba (-1.12) exclusively, the pair of whom rank 54th and 32nd by this measure, with severe negative offensive contributions undermining their capabilities on defense. The gap evident between starter and reserve on Orlando’s roster is easily most pronounced at the center position, just another way in which the contributions of Vooch are revealed as irreplaceable.
The recent tilt against the Bulls served as an exclamation mark for Vucevic’s campaign to date. The big guy dropped a career-high 43 points on absurdly efficient numbers: 17 of 29 from the field, 4 of 10 from deep, and 5 of 6 from the line. To this he added 19 points, 4 assists and a block for good measure, with just one turnover and only two fouls. The Magic won his minutes handily, with the veteran absolutely roasting a very green Daniel Gafford in their direct match up. After the game Vooch spoke of what a second All-Star nod would mean to him. The good news is that it’s now difficult to see how he doesn’t achieve this accolade.
In the first few games after Markelle Fultz’s injury, Cole Anthony ostensibly lined up as the team’s point guard but played predominantly off-ball. He spent a lot of time handing off and spotting up, ceding the playmaking duties to veteran teammates better acclimated to the rhythm and tempo of the NBA. But in the weeks since he has begun to more frequently take control of the wheel, running an increased number of pick and rolls and more frequently acting as the trigger man for the offense. His assist totals have steadily crept up, culminating in 6 or more in five of the last eight games and an average of 4.8 across his last ten. Also of note: his passes have directly led to more points (226) than any other player on the team. The rookie is finding his feet.
Anthony has shot greater than 45.0% from the field seven times in his last ten games after hitting that mark just once in his first fourteen professional contests (the season opener when he converted 3 of 5 attempts). He also has long range makes in thirteen of the last fourteen games, contributing to a blistering three-point conversion rate of 47.6% (20 of 42) across his last twelve games. The rookie is finding his range.
There are still some genuine concerns with Anthony’s game, even beyond those you would expect of a rookie learning a tough position under trying circumstances. His size could ultimately make life as a defender difficult. Finishing among the tall timber might be a skill he never masters. He doesn’t seem to be possessed of elevated play-making instincts. But through 24 games the Magic faithful have seen enough to confidently believe that the team has unearthed a genuine rotation contributor for years to come.
It’s been another solid showing to this point for Evan Fournier. Despite an injury interruption he’s largely managed to replicate his career-best form from last season, providing the Magic with dependable points and secondary playmaking from the backcourt. His absence from the lineup for nine games and change was keenly felt, a sobering reminder of what Orlando stands to lose when his seemingly inevitable departure finally occurs. He might not be the elong term answer, but he’s responsible for a decent chunk of the team’s current output.
Fournier’s return to the lineup helped to immediately snap a six-game losing streak — he poured in 24 in a one point win over the Timberwolves — and while the wins haven’t exactly flowed since then it’s difficult not to believe that his presence has made the team more dangerous on a night to night basis. Before a recent cold spell his outside shooting was again buoying the Magic’s collective accuracy from deep, with a rate near 40% after coming back from injury helping to propel the team to some of their best shooting nights of the season. His mere presence on the perimeter creates cleaner looks for his teammates.
The two-guard has also found success this year at the free throw line, getting there with a frequency not seen before. He’s currently averaging 5.4 attempts from the stripe per night, career-best figures courtesy of an astronomical free throw rate of .421. Fournier is generating a free throw look on almost every second shot attempt, an enormous boon to a team that has traditionally struggled in this regard. Credit the increase to his 8.5 drives per game, a figure second among active Orlando players and that places him among the 15 most prolific shooting guards by this measure. Easy points are good points.
Fournier is a lightning rod for Magic criticism, sometimes with good reason. However, both his performances and his absences amidst a crumbling season have served as timely reminders of his talent. When his time in Florida eventually ends the team will almost certainly struggle to replace his contributions.
Impressive three-point shooting performances
The Magic haven’t miraculously emerged as a team of long range snipers, but there sure have been some inspiring three-point shooting moments in the last few weeks. Across a blistering three-game stretch Orlando knocked in an almost unfathomable 53 triples at a ludicrous rate of 47.3%, starting with 17 apiece against the Pacers and Hornets before setting a season-high of 19 in a return match up against Charlotte. Nine different players connected from beyond the arc during the onslaught, emphasising just how contagious the bug of bucket-making had become.
Preceding this was undoubtedly the most iconic three-pointer of the team’s season to date. In a game against the Timberwolves that the Magic had seemingly let slip away, Anthony pulled off a miraculous last-second recovery by drilling the very first game-winner of his career. After securing a loose rebound he rocketed into the front court, recalibrating his body as he launched into a fading shot attempt. His jumper found nothing but the bottom of the net, a triple that in retrospect served to kickstart the team-wide three-point spree. The Magic may not be a side of shooters, but recently they’ve at least managed to bomb away in a memorable fashion, even if they have come back to earth somewhat in the most recent contests.
The Bamba Bandwagon
All aboard The Bamba Bandwagon (patent pending). #FreeBamba
And with that we’ve arrived at the end of the first installment. We’ve taken a deep dive into a number of positive revelations enjoyed by the team recently, but what might be lurking just beneath the surface that should keep us up at night? Be sure to come back tomorrow as we uncover what has been trending down in Part Two.