36 down, 36 to go.
At the exact midpoint of the season the Magic find themselves in an unenviable position, five games out of a guaranteed playoff spot and sporting some of the league’s worst metrics. The remaining schedule is about as far from friendly as it gets, an equation only made more complex by the specter of injury that has already loomed large over the campaign. After a two year reprieve it appears that Orlando are headed back to the lottery.
Still, there’s no reason that the back half of the season has to be entirely bereft of silver linings. Gains can be made, improvement can be solidified, and personal bests can be achieved. Additionally, some measure of success can still be attained, even if it does require the adjustment of goal posts to better capture the side’s current context.
So what are some of the hopes we might have for the back half of the schedule? Let’s dive in and break this down roster slot by roster slot.
The hope for the back half is that the big man keeps on keeping on.
Vucevic has been an absolute rock for the Magic all season long (and, well, for years now). He’s turning in a career-best campaign as the focal point of the offense, partnering his new found status as an above-the-break sniper with his usual pedigree of mid-range efficiency and soft touch at the hoop. It’s unlikely that he can be much better, but it would be more than enough for the pinstriped faithful if he were simply able to keep up the prolific pace of his productivity to this point. The responsibility now rests with the team’s leadership to put a winning supporting cast around Vooch while he’s still in his extended prime.
The hope for the back half is that Fournier nets a decent return.
The clock is assuredly ticking on Orlando’s long-time triumvirate, a fact which seems to point to a Fournier exit sooner rather than later. With the Frenchman’s contract expiring and the team salary cap an already tight squeeze moving forward, it’s difficult to see how the Magic shake things up without parting with their starting two guard. Subsequently the attention turns to potential deals; what’s out there that could be nabbed in return for a rental who projects to help a team already firmly in the playoff mix? The loss of Fournier’s three-point stroke would be devastating for the shooting-starved Magic — and is an argument perhaps in favor of more aggressively pursuing a Gordon trade — but the purpose of the transaction would be to better position the team for future success. Can they find a suitable long-term replacement at the trade deadline? There will be some fingers crossed tightly in Central Florida as we near the March 25 deadline.
The hope for the back half is that AG returns with a late season surge that then sticks.
Gordon’s developed quite a habit, one that is both reliably annual but ultimately infuriating. We’re talking, of course, of the teased leap, a development in counting stats and court presence that hints at the shape of greater things to come. Maybe it’s scoring punch, maybe it’s play-making prowess, maybe it’s defensive toughness … every year around this time it seems that fans of the Magic are able to start talking themselves into the possibility of AG elevating his performance in a way that will push him into a higher tier. Sure the fit with Isaac remains awkward, and sure we’ve been burned believing in similar bursts before, but maybe — just maybe — this is the year that Gordon finally enjoys a late season surge that simply becomes his new normal.
The hope for the back half is that the Human Torch burns brighter than usual.
For a guy who has cultivated a reputation as a dangerous outside shooter, it sure would be nice to see the Human Torch convert more consistently. This might surprise some but Ross has only finished one campaign in Orlando with a three-point percentage above league average, the 38.3% mark he nailed back in 2018/19. Instead, he’s been more likely to hover around the 35% mark, a figure well below the expected going rate in the modern NBA. Ross makes more than two long range bombs each night, but that’s more a function of volume than accuracy. The Magic would love to see him provide value for both parts of that equation as the season winds towards a close.
The hope for the back half is that MCW can stay on the court.
When someone plays with the absolute tenacity that Carter-Williams does, bumps and bruises become an inevitable part of the night-to-night experience. However, the once-dismissed veteran has established himself as an integral part of Orlando’s current rotation, a fact which means that the team now genuinely struggles to cover his absence. He’s one of the side’s most versatile wing defenders and a stabilising force at that end of the floor, as well as an off-ball cutting presence and dependable secondary play-making option when the situation calls for it. The problem is that, as the myriad injuries pile up, he’s seemingly a 50-50 proposition to line up on any given night. The Magic need MCW on the court, not on the sidelines in street clothes. Hopefully the season’s closing stretch features some level of self-preservation.
The hope for the back half is that the rookie is afforded the chance to steadily develop.
It’s undoubtedly an obvious observation, but the Magic desperately need some of the younger players on the roster to ascend to or even eclipse the most optimistic of early projections. The most likely path to genuine contention requires at least one bonafide draft homerun, a measure by which the Magic are currently languishing. Enter Cole Anthony, the potential microwave scorer thrust into a bigger role much earlier than expected. After a rocky start to his rookie campaign the first-year point guard was beginning to find a rhythm even as an unexpected starter, with month over month improvements evident in points per game, field goal percentage, three point percentage and his true shooting rate. If he can return from his own injury to a slightly more settled rotation and burdened by a little less responsibility there’s no reason not to think that the upward trajectory won’t continue.
The hope for the back half is that the young forward finds comfort at the three.
Despite an injury interrupted start to his professional career, the promise of Chuma Okeke is already evident. There’s a level of polish that shines through on his shooting stroke, part of an offensive fluidity that already seems beyond what should be reasonably expected after just twenty games. Defensively he’s still finding his way, but many of the raw tools to be a plus defender appear to be in place: length, awareness, reasonable strength. For the Magic, it would be extremely beneficial if he could prove that he’s got what it takes to hang at the small forward position: can he flash evidence of a reliable switchability when defending on the perimeter? Can he stretch the floor with sustained outside shooting numbers? Has he got some playmaking juice with the ball in hand? Can he develop the footspeed needed to trouble smaller wings? An effective Okeke at the three would be one step towards the much needed re-balancing of Orlando’s top-heavy roster.
The hope for the back half is that Bamba gets a chance.
The hope for the back half is that the Magic can return an asset for their feel-good story.
Big Maple is a genuine success of the Magic’s scouting and development, having plucked the hustling center from the relative obscurity of the Greek Basket League and molding him into an effective rotation contributor. However, it’s also true that he’s impacting the team’s investment in the aforementioned Bamba, contributing to the limited minutes and opportunities of the prized lottery pick. Orlando will unfortunately need to move on from Birch as a means of fixing a problem that he isn’t responsible for creating. Let’s hope they can return at least some sort of reasonable asset in the move.
The hope for the back half is that Ennis combines accuracy with volume.
Did you know that James Ennis is Orlando’s most accurate long-distance shooter? It’s true! On the season Da Menace is knocking down 44.7% of his three-point jumpers, more than three percentage points clear of his nearest teammate. This seemingly great news, however, is tempered by the fact that he ranks just 11th on the Magic in terms of three-point attempts per night, with a paltry 2.0 shots being unleashed from beyond the arc by the wingman. It’s his lowest number of per-game attempts since his rookie season, and for a shooting-starved team like Orlando almost an act of malpractice. He won’t keep the accuracy up with an increase in volume — I mean, he is a 35.6% career shooter from deep — but the man has to at least try. It’s time to let fly.
The hope for the back half is that Chief can rebuild his reputation and perceived value.
Aminu’s time in Orlando has been brutal, his addition looking more and more each day like a misstep. His presence adds to the team’s log jam at the four, while his on court performance has yet to return anything even resembling value relative to his contract. That being said, in the games before the break he exhibited a bounce that hasn’t been seen since he signed. With injury creating an opportunity for him to play a decent chunk of minutes moving forward, there’s a chance he flashes enough to entice a team to make an offer during the offseason.
The hope for the back half is that Bacon can sizzle in a reserve role.
Okay, who had Bacon penciled in for 23 starts this season? Better yet, who guessed that in the first half of the season he’d line up in the first five 64% of the time? If you did, you’re a far braver (and reckless) and gambler than most. Bacon hasn’t been atrocious in his time in pinstripes, but he also hasn’t done anywhere near enough to suggest that he should be sucking up more than 24 minutes per contest. As a scoring-oriented injection from the deep bench he’s fine; let’s hope that the back half of the season doesn’t again call him into any greater service.
The hope for the back half is that Clark does not play 19.1 minutes each night.
It’s no secret that Clark has been really bad this season, a one-dimensional three-point shooter who often hesitates to pull the trigger and then makes them at an insipid rate when he eventually does. The plan was never for him to play big minutes, but the confluence of injury and circumstance has meant that we’ve all probably seen way more Clark than we ever expected. His minutes were already trending down as the team ambled towards the All-Star break; let’s hope that continues to be the case.
36 down, 36 to go. Let’s hope that the Magic have got some positive surprises in store for the back half.