Yesterday we pinned down some upward trends in Orlando, leaving us now with the task of figuring out what’s headed in the opposite direction. There have been a few uninspiring noticings of late, expected of a team in rebuild mode but still worth considering for what they reveal about where the team is headed. Let’s dive in and figure out where our reservations currently rest.
The ‘Free Bamba’ movement
Mo Bamba’s return from his latest stint on the sidelines seemingly couldn’t have been timed any better. The All-Star center he had been perpetually stuck behind was no longer in town, the team’s focus had shifted from ‘win now’ to ‘youth movement’, and he would surely be afforded the chance to prove that his solid per-minute counting stats could be replicated when shouldering greater responsibility. The bandwagon was rumbling in the right direction!
As you can probably guess, it hasn’t really worked out that way at all. In the six games post-deadline Bamba has been largely underwhelming, failing to carve out a larger slice of the rotation for himself and generally exhibiting many of the same flaws that have inhibited his opportunities over the last few years. The already mentioned counting stats he’s put up in limited minutes have remained okay, particularly his scoring touch, but he hasn’t really demonstrated the level of play-to-play impact that the team is holding out hope for. Some lethargic possessions, some slow rotations, some poor awareness on offense … we’ve seen this before.
The other problem currently facing the Bamba Bandwagon is the emergence of Wendell Carter Jr. as a valuable contributor. When Khem Birch was struck down by illness it was actually the new arrival who snagged the starting vacancy, and in the three games since he’s seemingly cemented himself a spot in the first five with his strong post presence on offense and his energy and effort on defense. There’s a reason that Bamba has seen a drop of almost 10 minutes from the game against Portland to the most recent tilt against the Nuggets — he’s been outplayed.
Through his first three professional campaigns the Bamba experience has been a rollercoaster, with moments of optimistic projection inevitably being followed by the skewering of any star potential. What we’re seeing is hopefully just the latest valley, with a peak still to come somewhere among the season’s remaining 22 contests. Still, at this point, it’s difficult not to feel somewhat deflated by the lack of momentum generated by the ‘Free Bamba’ movement.
Let’s set something straight immediately: this is a critical appraisal of a job obviously being done under incredibly difficult circumstances. Terrence Ross is undoubtedly the most established and regarded veteran remaining on Orlando’s roster, and basically the only player with a reputation as an offensive force. As such, he’s had to shoulder an enormous load in terms of keeping the scoreboard ticking over. For a team as bereft of scoring as the Magic are, he’s often option A, B and C.
Still, he hasn’t been great since returning from injury. In four contests he’s yet to shoot better than 38.9% from the floor, going a combined 20 for 62 (32.3%) over the stretch. He’s made just 4 of his 21 three-point attempts in that time (19.0%), a woefully frigid mark significantly below his season and career averages. He’s leading the team in scoring, sure, but it’s without even a semblance of efficiency, as his ninth-ranked effective field goal percentage (35.5%) and seventh-ranked true shooting percentage (44.8%) attest. There’s also a little too much shot-hunting and hero-ball creeping into his game; Ross is at his most dangerous when attacking the nail and keeping the defense in two minds, as opposed to those possessions when he pokes around on the perimeter with footwork only ever intended to create the sliver of daylight needed to fire away from deep.
And yet, the case can still be made that he’s easily the side’s most important offensive contributor! The Magic’s offensive rating of 109.3 when he’s on the floor easily outstrips any of his teammates, and he’s one of just two players (the other being Otto Porter Jr.) currently boasting a positive net rating (4.4 points per 100 possessions). He’s also limiting his turnovers — just 5 total over the last four games — despite using a massive 27.1% of all Magic possessions.
Ross is in a tough predicament. The offensively-anaemic Magic need him to be the Human Torch each night, but such ignition is a temperamental state with few guarantees. In fact, the more one seemingly tries to strike a light the more difficult it is for the flame to take hold. For now, we’ll just have to trust in the process and hope he shoots his way through it.
Dwayne Bacon, beloved teammate
It’s only the players in the locker room who can possibly know for sure, but Dwayne Bacon must be one hell of a good guy away from the hardwood. Why such a conclusion? Well, put simply: the dude doesn’t pass the basketball.
The single-mindedness for scoring that the two-guard routinely demonstrates - while averaging nearly as many field goal attempts per game (9.7) as points (10.7) - is something frequently joked about, at times even welcomed by a Magic team that can struggle to put up points. A failure to fire can be just as damaging to an offense as a forced shot attempt, and at least Bacon was ensuring the side stood a chance of ticking the scoreboard over with his aggressive offensive play. That’s a good thing, right?
Well, the recent trade deadline implosion has starkly emphasized just how ball-hungry Bacon is as a basketball black hole. In the first game of the realigned rebuild he actually established a career high for assists with 6 in the contest, a result of the fact that he spent long stretches of the game playing as the point guard for a woefully undermanned Orlando side. In the five games since, however? Just 7 assists total for an average of 2.2 per game, a mind-bogglingly low number for a guy that uses 22.4% of all offensive possessions he’s on the court for.
Please don’t think that this is a function of Bacon’s teammates missing shots and inadvertently keeping him off the boxscore. He ranks just eighth on the team for passes per contest (21.8) despite playing the third-most minutes (31.4), an observation supported by the meager 3.8 potential assists he generates each night. This number also places him eighth on the team, behind every non-center player racking up meaningful minutes. Finally, there’s also his assist percentage to consider: 10.5% across his last six games, good for only 10th on the Magic in that time. This is, phenomenally, a significant increase over his season mark of 7.4%. Scarily, what we’re currently seeing is Dwayne Bacon doing his best John Stockton impersonation.
To his credit, Bacon has recently maintained an excellent assist-to-turnover rate of 3.25; at least he’s getting to the end of possessions in his one limited manner. Still, the numbers verify the eye test: on any given possession this is a guy who has little interest in making the extra pass and every intention of firing away.
If it feels like the Magic have been battling injuries for almost two years now, it’s because it’s true. The blessed health of the 2019 playoff charge is now but a distant memory, with the better part of the two seasons since undermined by all manner of ailments to key personnel. Unfortunately, it’s not a phenomenon that has shown any sign of abating.
When discussing Orlando’s health it’s difficult to start anywhere other than the pair of torn ACLs suffered by Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz, although they were hardly the end of the bad luck. Both Evan Fournier and Aaron Gordon also missed large chunks of time, often simultaneously, a fact that undoubtedly contributed to the team’s decision to redirect into rebuilding. The absence of others was also felt: Chuma Okeke missed time early, as did Cole Anthony. Mo Bamba was sidelined on a number of occassions. Michael Carter-Williams couldn’t get healthy. Neither could James Ennis or Al-Farouq Aminu. That’s basically the entire rotation!
Perhaps the most unbelievable thing of all is the fact that the team just keeps staggering along, suffering blow after similar blow. Terrence Ross, the team’s primary veteran post-deadline, missed the first couple of games after trade season and has regularly featured on pre-game lineups with a questionable designation. Khem Birch was struck by illness soon after assuming a starting role and hasn’t been seen since. MCW has missed the last three contests. Otto Porter Jr. has already been sidelined. Mo Bamba didn’t finish one game due to sickness. Chasson Randle appears to be playing on one leg. It’s brutal.
In the grand scheme of things it probably doesn’t matter too much. The Magic aren’t going anywhere this season and in fact are better off valiantly losing games, a matter which an overflowing casualty ward actually helps with. Still, one would hope that the injury curse that has so cruelly and comprehensively decimated the team over the last twenty-four months will eventually abate. Orlando is due some serious luck in that regard.
And with that, we’re done. The Magic will be back in action tomorrow night against the Wizards, a team relatively close by in the standings. We’re almost at the point where wins and losses are scrutinized over on a nightly basis, but until then we’ll remain on the lookout for trends both good and bad. Let’s hope that we see more of the former than the latter, while still maintaining the lottery positioning that will be so important in the months and years to come.