I love hypotheticals.
Like, I really love them.
My bookshelf is littered with texts singularly focused on the proposition and consideration of various hypothetical circumstances. The discussion on any road trip inevitably winds its way towards an evaluation of some shades-of-grey situation. My closest friends and I have a series of absurd debate topics that we return to time and time again with an equally absurd level of enthusiasm.
In fact, this love of hypotheticals probably goes a long way towards explaining my sports fandom. For as long as I can remember the process of supporting a team has seemingly involved just as much — if not more! — time spent thinking about possible permutations of the past, present and future than it does watching the actual games. What happens if Courtney Lee hits the layup in Game One? Could Chuma Okeke handle backup point guard duties on offense? How would it impact the ceiling of the Magic should Markelle Fultz return to his college three-point accuracy?
These are the sorts of questions I find myself grappling with daily, devoting significant time and cognitive energy to ponderous circumstances without clear cut answers. It’s the manner in which analysis, theory and creativity coalesce that I enjoy so much, combined with the elucidation of the thought process that comes when collaborating on such questions with like-minded individuals. Hit on an insight and it’s poetry in mental motion.
As I said, I love hypotheticals.
So, with that context established, let’s meld this love with another piece of our collective hearts: the Orlando Magic. When I was mid-tumble down some other hypothetical rabbit hole the other day it occurred to me that there’s a classic thought process that people love to digest and debate that feels particularly applicable to the Magic’s current circumstances. That’s right, it’s time for us to play ‘Date, Marry, Dump: Pinstripes Edition’!
A quick rundown on the hypothetical. I’ll identify three players currently on Orlando’s roster, between whom we have to apply one of three different designations. In this instance, choosing to date a player means that you’d like to see them stick around in the short term, but you’d be hesitant to commit big years and money to them. The player you choose to marry, however, is getting just that; this is whom you’d theoretically like to see spend the bulk of their career in Central Florida. Finally, the dump option is pretty self-explanatory — you’ll be personally driving this player to the airport to catch the next flight out of town.
One last wrinkle. The Magic’s recent roster turnover has created a group of players relatively new to the team, so we’ll be focusing our discussion on them. No Isaac or Fultz, because they’re more than likely here for the long haul anyway. No Bacon, Ennis or MCW, because as limited veterans they’re largely known quantities. As such, Part One will focus on some of the new faces in the backcourt, before we return in the days to come with a frontcourt edition.
Let’s get hypothetical!
The backcourt has long been an area where the Magic have been in need of an upgrade, with little high-end stability at the point guard slot and some defensive worries at the two limiting the side’s ceiling. The team’s seemingly traditional offensive woes and outside shooting deficiencies have their roots at these slots, a fact exacerbated by the fact that precious little of Orlando’s recent draft capital has targeted this part of the roster.
The 2020/21 season has injected three new backcourt players into the Magic’s ecosystem, each with a legitimate chance to carve out a lasting role on the team. Cole Anthony arrived at the last draft, using his scoring-minded approach to build opportunities as a key reserve and even a part-time starter. RJ Hampton came across from Denver in the AG trade, another young player selected in the back half of the most recent first round who’s now seeing more minutes in Orlando than he ever did as a Nugget. Finally there’s Gary Harris, a veteran by relative standards with a reputation for 3-and-D contributions.
Date, marry, dump. These are the three outcomes we’ve got for our trio of backcourt contributors, with an equal dispersal of each required among the group. Let’s get the hypothetical process started and figure out, by our own individual estimation, who can hang a while longer, who’s a keeper, and who’s getting the boot.
Date - Gary Harris
Now in his seventh season, Harris’s resume features two strong campaigns along with a pair of other solid years, providing the Nuggets with above average production for the majority of his time in Denver. The exceptions were his rookie season (understandable) and the two most recent injury-interrupted slogs. Unfortunately for Orlando, this is why he was available as a salary-matching contract in trades; of late he’s had some difficulty even getting on the court, let alone being a positive contributor once there.
Still, there’s an apparent fit for Harris on Orlando’s roster as it’s currently constructed. He’s a 35.8% three-point shooter on his career, with multiple seasons (2017 and 2018) at figures significantly above league average. He’s a corner three specialist, launching more than a quarter of his total attempts from the deep wings and routinely making them at a rate well in excess of 40.0%. Harris has also generally been a solid finisher at the rim, with a career conversion rate of 64.5% within three feet of the hoop, including a single season high of 71.8%. He’s also been reasonable at generating shot attempts with his dribble game, with almost 2 out of every 5 baskets inside the arc coming without the need of a direct assist. He’s not a like-for-like replacement with Fournier in that regard, but he’s serviceable.
Harris also contributes in other ways that can help the Magic over the next few seasons. He’s a willing passer who does a solid job protecting the ball — evident in the single digit turnover rate he has posted most seasons — with some ability to slide up and play the three in smaller configurations. He also has a reputation as a dependable and tenacious defender, something Orlando currently seem to lack in the backcourt. Harris supplements his reasonable size for the position with active hands and elite footwork, with a demonstrated ability to both contest shots and generate disruption. These are all factors of play that figure to help a young team aiming to develop good habits during the early stages of a rebuild.
The combination of these theoretical on-court contributions with his veteran status and reputation as a positive locker room presence is what ultimately encourages me to tag Harris with the ‘dating’ designation. His presence figures to be a good thing for this team in the seasons on the immediate horizon, while his $21 million salary is palatable for a team in this stage of a rebuild. Heck, there’s even a non-zero chance of a best case scenario that sees him mesh with Isaac and Fultz in a way that makes the Magic a genuinely fun team as soon as next season. As such, I look forward to some fulfilling dates in the years to come with the man they call G-Money.
Marry - Cole Anthony
At first blush, Anthony might not appear to be the type of player that a team goes all in on this early in his career. Make no mistake, there are currently a number of warts evident in his game, perhaps none as viscerally apparent as his shooting. He’s been inefficient both inside the arc and beyond, posting some numbers eerily similar to those accumulated by his new teammate, Hampton. And although I’ll use those same numbers below to make a case for ditching his backcourt colleague, in Anthony’s case I’m willing to overlook them for other reasons.
Although the pair have had an almost identical success rate on three point attempts — 30.5% compared to 30.0% — leaning in Anthony’s favor is the fact that he’s racked up more than twice as many total attempts, including significantly more that are self-generated. Not all of his shots from beyond the arc are of the catch-and-shoot variety, suggesting that as he becomes more attuned to the nuances of the professional game he should expect a bump in accuracy. (That many of his misses appear to be left or right, as opposed to long or short, is perhaps a discussion for another time.) He’s also been a much more dependable free throw shooter, knocking down 83.6% of his 61 total attempts, both numbers that are easily superior to Hampton’s totals. The outline of a net-positive shooter exists if one squints hard enough.
Another key reason to hitch the team to Anthony long term is the fact that he has a knack for playmaking that simply isn’t evident in Hampton’s game. Across his rookie campaign he’s notched up an assist rate of 23.0%, a solid figure for any first year player that dwarfs Hampton’s contribution of 8.9%. It’s a facet of his game that reflects what the eye test suggests, which is a player alert to opportunities for teammates generated by his regular forays into the paint. His turnover rate of 13.8% also points to a solid level of reliability, a mark equivalent to that which Markelle Fultz posted before succumbing to injury and well ahead of veterans like Michael Carter-Williams and Aaron Gordon (both of whom have pinch hit at point guard for the Magic this season).
Anthony has been asked to do a lot of heavy lifting during his first year in the big leagues. He already plays an incredibly demanding position, on top of being pressed into a more significant role when the reality of injuries cruelled the roster. Despite these challenges he’s managed to flash some significant upside, with a scorer’s nouse, some playmaking acumen, and an exceptional rebounding profile for a point guard. Oh, and he delivered Orlando their game-winner of the season. He’s hardly a perfect longterm fit alongside Fultz, but he should at least always be a capable third guard in the rotation, with the possibility of something greater very much still alive. It’s more than enough to get me to say “I do.”
Dump - RJ Hampton
This is a seemingly tough call because of the exciting flashes that Hampton has already displayed in his brief time in pinstripes. However, that’s kind of the point of this hypothetical exercise, so in this instance I’m waving goodbye to the team’s youngest player despite some initial reservations about the potential being lost.
Any trepidation relating to Hampton begins with his shooting stroke, a concern that is simply all too familiar for Magic fans. The 6’4 combo guard has been a negative shooter in every conceivable way relative to the rest of the league across his rookie campaign. He shoots just 30.0% from deep on 3.5 attempts per-36 minutes, numbers well below average for his position and reflective of the hesitation he often shows beyond the arc. Although he’s been a more willing shooter since arriving in Orlando — venturing out from the corners where he spent the majority of his time as a Nugget and even attempting some off the dribble — he simply hasn’t displayed a fluidity from deep that suggests he will one day emerge as a reliable long-ball threat. For a team already wedded to one below-average backcourt shooter in Fultz that’s a potential death sentence.
It’s not just his three-point stroke that raises some red flags. Hampton has also been an inefficient finisher inside the arc, settling too frequently for mid-range jumpers that he converts at a poor clip. While he’s been better at converting at the hoop for the Magic than he was in Denver he’s still not fantastic, with a 60.0% mark on the season buoyed by the uncontested transition chances his legs can generate. There’s also his free throw stroke to worry about, with the young guard making only 61.5% of his attempts from the charity stripe this season on a deflated free throw rate of just .198. It’s a small sample size, sure, but one that also happens to align with some other worrying evidence.
There’s reason to think that Hampton will eventually develop into a serviceable NBA player, most likely as a change-of-pace combo guard who’s a key link in a reserve chain. He’s lightning quick, has kept his turnover rate down despite recently assuming extra ball handling duties, and is possessed of some physical traits that figure to intrigue defensively in the years to come. However, because of the realities of the roster the Magic need to prioritize outside shooting in the backcourt, which isn’t something that Hampton figures to provide. For that reason I’m hitting him with the ol’ “it’s not you, it’s me”.
Well, there you have it — the first edition of a pinstripes-themed ‘Date, Marry, Dump’ hypothetical exercise, this time with the aim of sorting through the freshest faces in the backcourt. Now the question turns to who you would keep around, who you’d lock down, and who you would leave behind. I’ll catch you and your take in the comments below!