With most of the collective NBA taking a momentary breather, it’s a good time to take a step back 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, which were unfortunately largely negated by a couple of significant concerns. In the time since, this sort of give-and-take dynamic has remained a part of the Orlando basketball experience.
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, two-time All-Star
After speaking about his desire to be recognized as an All-Star for a second time, Nikola Vucevic went out and proceeded to kick an already stellar individual season into overdrive. He’s admirably led an understrength Orlando side through an admittedly lean month, but it’s one that would have been all the more disheartening if not for the play of the Magic’s man in the middle.
The numbers, frankly, are starting to look a little absurd. Vucevic played in 13 games in the month of February, averaging 27.2 points, 12.7 rebounds and 3.8 assists each night. These are figures which all rank above both his season and career averages and, in fact, pace anything he’s ever put up across a single campaign. What we’re witnessing as routine is some seriously elite individual production.
Go beyond the immediate surface box score and it’s hard to be anything but seriously impressed, because he churned out these contributions despite some factors of resistance. It took Vooch only 34.8 minutes per game to arrive at these career-best figures, an increase of only 60 seconds over his season average. Despite a relatively wayward long range radar — just 36.7% for the month of February, a figure right around league average but well below the scorching rate in the mid-40s he was sporting for a while — he managed to push his conversion rate from the field up to 49.0% on renewed finishing touch on both mid-range jumpers and soft finishes at the hoop.
As the healthy bodies fell Vucevic shouldered a higher usage rate, generally excelling within the framework of this increased responsibility. He nudged his usage rate up 2.5%, a jump made up of more shot attempts (22.3 in February compared to 20.3 on the season), a higher number of assists (3.8 compared to 3.6), and an increased rate of trips to the free-throw line (3.4 compared to 2.6). Impressively, he also suppressed his already slim turnover rate even further: just 22 turnovers in 452 minutes of February basketball or, to put it another way, less than one turnover in each half of basketball he played.
Vucevic has established himself as the premier trail shooter in the game, firing away from above the break early in possessions at a prodigiously effective rate. He’s a league leader in total made baskets from that particular spot on the floor, even eclipsing names like Curry, Harden and Lillard. For a player who launched just 26 attempts from deep across the first half-decade of his career this is a nigh on unbelievable development. He demands defensive attention from the moment the Magic take possession; if not, opponents are basically gifting him another uncontested 26 footer that he’s proven he can make.
It’s hard to know what this Magic team would look like without their All-star centerpiece lining up to contest the opening tip each night. It’s safe to say that the answer would be some degree of ‘not great’, but whether we’re talking plain ol’ run of the mill bad or Process-era awful is unclear. Still, any guesses that err on the side of the latter would be understandable, cementing just how impressive Vooch’s play has been and how well-deserved the mid-season showcase accolade is for him.
I mean, something’s got to give, right?
The Magic, staggeringly, are currently the second worst team in the Eastern Conference, with just 13 wins from their 36 starts (.361). There are only two sides in the league with an uglier points differential than Orlando’s -6.6 per game, a figure arrived at courtesy of the 26th-placed offense (105.7 points scored per 100 possessions) and the 20th-placed defense (112.3 points conceded). Injuries have robbed the franchise of the chance to see how in 2021 the pieces fit, but even that’s a line of argument that has lost some luster as the evaluation period has seemingly lingered interminably. When the ceiling is first round fodder, the floor makes for a rough landing spot.
As a team torn between two timelines and still without a clear path moving forward, now is a time that calls for at least some semblance of vision and momentum. If the Magic aren’t going to be claiming victories the rest of the way — a fact that is made almost certain by the second most difficult closing stretch of any side! — the front office needs to be making moves now that allow for a greater likelihood of winning in the seasons to come.
Looming cap-related circumstances will necessitate some change soon, regardless of the sentiments of the decision makers. This is something we’ll explore further ahead of the trade deadline, but the most likely candidates to experience a change of scenery as part of this process project to be Evan Fournier, the oft-maligned shooter in the final year of his contract, and Khem Birch, a luxurious addition to a center rotation already featuring an All-Star and a recent lottery pick. There are also interesting veterans like James Ennis, Al-Farouq Aminu and even Terrence Ross, each possessed of the type of reasonable contracts and reputations that playoff contenders could talk themselves into. There’s even Aaron Gordon, the injured and momentarily forgotten forward who would be surplus to requirements if the team could trust in the health of their youth.
Don’t expect the Magic to execute a complete teardown before March 25. Even if it were obviously the most prudent course of action, the mid-season timing makes such wholesale changes difficult. Still, this current campaign has gone sideways in such a way that the initial movements of a soft reset are all but inevitable. Orlando should be looking for ways to return some value on expiring contracts (Fournier), excess assets (Birch), or awkward decisions from the recent past (Aminu).
In recent times the Magic have been active, if minor, participants in the deadline madness. This could be the year that they’re involved in a more substantial move that begins to shape the team for the seasons to come. Either way, trade machine enthusiasts can fire the software up with a greater sense of certainty this time round.
The Covid-interrupted nature of things meant that the 2020/21 campaign was always going to be a wild one, a respect in which it hasn’t disappointed. Peaks and troughs, swings and roundabouts, Jekyll and Hyde … there’s been something for almost everyone across Orlando’s season to this point. The penthouse views of the 4-0 start soon gave way to the cellar darkness of a record 10 games below .500, with a series of twists and turns in between.
If you’ve struggled to gain the measure of the Magic this season, you’re not alone. Orlando have had almost as many losses this year by 20 or more points (7) as they have double-figure wins of their own (5). They’ve somehow played in only 9 games decided by six points or less, being almost as likely to secure a win as they are to incur a loss in such games with a record of 4-5. Their best win streaks of 4 and 3, respectively, have been counterbalanced by futile skids of 6, 5 and 4 consecutive losses at various points. They’re giants in their own division — 4-2 at .667, a rate even with the East’s best — but weaklings of the conference (9-13, .409). They have more losses at home (12) than they do on the road (11).
And, of course, the coup de grace: Wednesday’s disasterpiece against the Hawks, which featured the Magic turning what was once a sizable halftime advantage and a 16 point lead with less than six minutes on the clock into just the latest disheartening loss. For much of the contest they were clearly the superior side before, ultimately, they … just weren’t. It was Orlando’s typical rollercoaster-level volatility packaged neatly within a single 48 minute contest.
It’s becoming increasingly difficult to know what to expect from the Magic quarter to quarter, let alone night to night. I mean, the team doesn’t even seem to know who the backup center is. The fluctuating performance levels were once good enough to have the team entrenched within the playoff picture while other teams figured themselves out, but the longer the inconsistency has lingered the more of a negative impact it’s had on the team’s chances of winning games.
Hopefully the silver lining to be found within the team’s currently volatile performance is the mathematical favor of certain ping pong balls in June. Let’s keep the collective fingers crossed.
And with that we’ve arrived at the end of the first installment. We’ve taken a deep dive into a number of upward trajectories experienced by the team recently, but what else is there that might be lurking just beneath the surface that should keep us up at night? Be sure to come back in the days to come as we uncover what has been trending down in Part Two.