Each month around this time I check in on the state of the Magic, aiming to locate pulses of recent positivity alongside any worrisome trends that appear to be forming. The ups and downs, the sweet and sour, the good and bad; what are Orlando’s most ardent supporters noticing right now?
Today? Well, that exercise seems a little less necessary. The Magic are a bad basketball team. In embarking on the latest rebuild the front office largely stripped the side of its meaningful veterans (whether via trade or cautionary rest), handing navigation duties to the youth that remained. It was an opportunity to both get a better read on who figures to be part of the long term solution in Central Florida, while also positioning the team for improved lottery odds by making victory a more difficult proposition.
For a team that had largely reached its ceiling it’s a win-win situation ironically fueled by losing.
Instead of looking for the rhythms of basketball heading in both directions, I thought it might be more prudent to pursue a different line of inquiry. For those still watching the games, what can we find to bolster the belief that the team ultimately made the right decision? What suggests that better days are eventually to come?
What joy is there to be found in supporting a demonstrably bad team?
Join me as we jump into the first of two parts wherein I aim to answer that very question, starting with a beacon of late-season light.
The development of Orlando’s rookie point guard is almost certainly the brightest moment of the Magic’s season, and it’s one that’s been shining all the more intensely recently. Since the trade deadline tear-down Cole Anthony has made a genuine case to be recognized as the team’s best player, an achievement for any mid-round pick regardless of team circumstances.
Across his last eight contests the confident quarterback has tossed up averages of 14.6 points, 4.8 rebounds and 3.8 assists, with a combined 0.8 stocks and one of the two best sets of raw on/off figures on the team. In that stretch he also has, of course, a brash game winner and one of the best post-game interviews in franchise history. It’s been a good run.
Most impressive of all is the improved efficiency with which he has been scoring the ball. After opening the season as a net negative scorer no matter which way you chose to evaluate his output, Anthony has started to put the ball in the basket with much greater regularity. The easiest point of comparison is his field goal percentage: across the last seven contests he’s made 41.7% of all field goal attempts including a very healthy 43.3% when shooting the three ball; before the All-Star break those figures were 37.5% and 32.5% respectively.
Looking at those same two stretches of play, one can see that his offensive rating has jumped almost 10 whole points all the way to 106.3 points per-100 possessions when he’s on the floor. Likewise, a true shooting percentage that once sat below 47.0% is up to 54.0%, third among rotation regulars in recent games (Bamba and Hampton lead him by a nose at 54.6% and 54.1% respectively). And while it’s true that his playmaking numbers have seemingly taken a hit — with fewer helpers, a lower assist rate, and an increase in turnovers — some of that can be chalked up to the inflated scoring burden he’s shouldering and the simple fact that he’s currently playing with teammates who are less likely to convert attempts into buckets. He’s generating points for a team lacking in firepower.
There are a few factors fueling this increase in offensive efficiency. The obvious one is his deadlier three-point stroke; although he won’t continue to make almost every second attempt from beyond the arc, there’s reason to believe that he won’t dip all the way back to his pre-All-Star form. Interestingly, the lion’s share of Anthony’s recent long-range improvement has come on pullup triples. Prior to the trade deadline he was converting just 30.0% of the 1.2 pullup attempts launched per game. Across his last seven contests? He’s making 58.3% of the 1.5 he launches off the dribble each night. It speaks to a player who is figuring out how clean a look each hint of space in front of him actually offers.
In addition, Anthony has been much more proficient at drawing fouls in games of late. In his last seven starts he’s pushed his basic number of attempts up from 2.2 to 3.5 each night, a sizable bump that he has further accentuated with a slight nudge in overall accuracy. Much of this benefit is derived from his aggressive penetration; Anthony has more than doubled his number of attempts from the charity stripe that are the result of a direct drive, up to 2.0 from 0.7. Worth noting is that his total number of drives, while also up, has increased at a noticeably slighter rate (12.3 compared to 9.2 earlier in the season). It’s not merely that he’s driving more frequently, but that he’s doing a better job of drawing contact when he does. That’s the sign of a player more attuned to the rhythms of both the contest and the whistle.
Tied to this is the general honing of his overall shot profile. More drives are leading to more opportunities within five feet of the basket, the result almost an extra pair each game (4.6 over the last seven compared to 2.9 before the trade deadline). He’s also largely eradicated the long twos that he had been making at a clip of just 27.0%, reducing the total number from this range to just 0.6 each night. As it stands, 66.4% of his total recent shot attempts have either been at the hoop or from deep, a share that is 19.2% greater than the shot diet he dished up in the early going. They’re the types of looks a team wants their backcourt scorer generating.
As with any young player, it’s still not certain what the future holds for Anthony. Based on the early returns, however, it would appear that the Magic picked up a steal with their 2020 first rounder. His destiny might be first guard off the bench in the role of offense-oriented spark plug, but if that’s the ceiling it’s one that Orlando would likely be extremely happy with. His late season surge suggests that Anthony has every chance of getting there in the seasons to come.
We’re going to close part one of this project of positivity here, with a promise to return in the days to come with the second entry. Until then, let’s keep looking for the silver linings that can be found in Central Floridian pinstripes.