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Finding joy in a bad team like the Orlando Magic: Part II

A close look at some winning numbers in a losing effort

Orlando Magic v Detroit Pistons Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images

We’re back with the second installment in a two-part positivity project that aims to identify aspects of the current Orlando experience capable of provoking joy. Cole Anthony enthusiastically led the way in Part One, so without further ado let’s dive in and see what today’s entry has in store.


Intriguing output

Orlando Magic v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Have you checked out the Magic box scores recently? For those still paying attention, there have been a handful of intriguing figures screaming for attention from the screen, standing out amidst a stretch that has frequently made for tough viewing. But what should one make of these numbers?

Let’s start with RJ Hampton, specifically his splits over the last 6 games. In that time he’s averaged 16.3 points, 6.3 rebounds and 4.5 assists, along with 1.0 stocks for good measure. His shooting figures are up to 46.7% from the field and 38.9% from deep, while improved decision making and reliability is also evident in the slim 1.3 turnovers committed each contest. It’s also worth noting that his 4.7 free throw attempts each night (which he’s making at a rate of 75.0%) paces the team in that period.

They’re very healthy totals, in line with some of the peak production the Magic have gotten from any backcourt position in the last decade. Hampton is like mercury on the court, an incandescent blur when he hits the jets and an absolute terror in transition. He’s obviously still finding his way at this level of the sport — he has a tendency to pick up his dribble before he’s certain where the play is headed, he’s shown little in way of change of pace, and his shooting remains suspect — but it’s irrefutable that improvement is already evident in just his limited time in Orlando.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Orlando Magic Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images

There’s also Mo Bamba to consider in this context. The oft-maligned big man has posted some absurd rebounding figures lately, averaging 16.0 in the three contests before the Minnesota debacle, including a whopping 16 total on the offensive end (5.3 per game). Across that same stretch he also added 16.7 points despite a three-point stroke that entirely abandoned him (a wretched 8.3%), making up the difference on a swollen 5.7 free throw attempts each night. In addition, he also racked up 3.0 blocks and 1.3 steals alongside, most importantly of all, just 2.0 fouls per game. For that small sample of games he was able to both stay on the court and pump out the counting stats.

Bamba obviously still has a ways to go. The Vucevic trade theoretically cleared the way for him to seize the starting job but it was actually Carter Jr. who inserted himself into the first five, staying there until his recent eye abrasion injury. Even a cursory viewing of an Orlando game reveals some of the factors that have largely restricted Mo to a reserve role: his motor comes and goes, he has a bad habit of defending with his arms by his side, and is often out of position when it comes to securing defensive rebounds. Still, he’s clearly possessed of the ability to put up stats, with enough glimpses of figuring out a notoriously tough position to suggest he may still one day get there.

How valuable this production is in terms of future success remains a largely unanswerable question at this moment in time, but it’s safe to say that there is some serious noise evident in the box score. While it’s obviously pleasing to see young players on the roster churning out career highs and making the most of the extended opportunities, it has to be mentioned that the Magic haven’t played in a truly meaningful basketball game in months. Both Hampton and Bamba have also benefited from long stretches against reserve caliber opponents, either in matching up against bench units or deeper rotation players called into duty for teams managing the stretch run. How well will these numbers hold up in a more intense crucible of competition?

We’re not possessed of the divination skills necessary to solve that particular conundrum just yet, but at the very least it’s a nice question to be pondering. The Magic have been burned by late season glimpses from young talent before, but if they can get even just one of this pair to stick in the seasons to come it will provide a sorely needed salve for the rebuild.

The tank intentions

Minnesota Timberwolves v Orlando Magic Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

No two ways about it: since trading away the team’s core the Magic have been a bad basketball team. The results have certainly reflected as much, as has the actual on court product. This is a side struggling with cohesion, experience and injury, with an enormous gulf separating the momentary glimpses of brightness from the frequent depths of futility.

How bad has Orlando been? Well, consider this: since the last pre-trade tilt against the

Suns, the Magic have won only six of twenty-four games, a total that eclipses just three other sides. Across that stretch they rank second-last in offensive rating (103.6) and third-last in defensive rating (116.3), figures that combine to ensure they’re one of only two teams possessing a double-digit rating differential, a whopping -12.8 points per 100 possessions worse than their nightly opposition. It’s bleak!

It’s also worth noting some of the faces that have graced the court for Orlando in recent weeks. Chasson Randle and Moritz Wagner are both playing substantial minutes. Robert Franks and Donta Hall both enjoyed stints as important rotation cogs. Ignas Brazdeikis and Sindarius Thornwell are just the latest recruits, both of whom have immediately assumed significant playing responsibilities after pulling on the pinstripes. Even the most rabid NBA fans would be forgiven for not being able to correctly identify any of the half-dozen.

I get the angst around the recent pair of wins over the Grizzlies and the Pistons. In the race to the bottom victory equates to a losing franchise, but in reality even the worst teams are going to eke out an upset on occasion. I mean, if sporting contests weren’t inherently unpredictable we wouldn’t have to play the games in the first place. As it stands, the Magic have done basically everything within their power to ensure they’re in the best possible position to lose.

To wit: the team traded free-agents-to-be in Aaron Gordon and Evan Fournier, returning assets that at least figure to be of some value in the near future. They cashed in on Nikola Vucevic’s All-Star form, turning his production into draft capital and a significant downgrade in the current strength of the squad. They shut down veterans like Terrence Ross, Michael Carter-Williams and Otto Porter Jr. at the first glimpse of an injury, rubbing them out of the rotation entirely for the stretch run. They have been overly cautious with young players who figure to be part of the equation moving forward, keeping Chuma Okeke and Wendell Carter Jr. in street clothes lest they shift the fortunes of the immediate on-court product too much. They’ve even seemingly snipped the minutes of the blooming Cole Anthony who, since returning from injury, has registered three of his five fewest minutes totals in the last four games.

These are not the moves of a team prioritizing any sense of contention. In fact, it’s pretty clear that Orlando’s front office has positioned the Magic to lose every time they step on the court. That they haven’t actually speaks to the level of professionalism evident within the coaching staff and the grit of the youngsters still taking the court.

That the Magic are almost certainly going to miss out on a fistful of percentage points when the draft lottery hits isn’t the fault of these post-trade deadline wins. If anything, it’s an outcome that was cemented when they pushed the tough decisions facing the franchise to breaking point by running it back again (and again). The meaningless wins this season came in January and February.

With the campaign coming to a close the Magic are in an incredibly tight tussle over ping pong balls. A significant component of that final outcome, like the end result of any sporting contest, is actually out of their collective hands. However, the decision makers in Orlando have now done what they could to best position the franchise for the upcoming offseason and beyond. The Magic’s ultimate fate now largely lies in the hands of the basketball gods.

Even as the painful losses and loose possessions pile up for the Magic there are moments that encourage optimism. With the season finale looming let’s hope we see a few more yet.