With the play-in games over and the playoffs proper now underway, the number of NBA fanbases dreaming of the ultimate success continues to steadily shrink. The most recent additions to those on the outside looking in are Indiana, Charlotte, San Antonio and, shockingly, Golden State; when asked whether Steph Curry or LeBron James posed a greater play-in danger, SB Nation Reacts responders overwhelmingly voted in favor of the Warriors’ backcourt maestro. However, the MVP finalist and his teammates now find themselves in the same place as the Magic — engaged in reflection and review.
In Orlando, any introspective evaluation is understandably anchored to the youth on the roster. With a number of intriguing players still on their first professional contract (or just about to enter their second next season), the team is faced with the complex proposition of figuring out who projects as a genuine game-changing talent. A significant part of that same equation is ensuring that the system and structures in place are such that developmental opportunities are maximized. Players need natural talent, but the team also has a responsibility to facilitate professional success.
The Magic finished the season with three first year players who had managed to carve out regular rotation minutes: Cole Anthony, Chuma Okeke and RJ Hampton. Not entirely unsurprisingly, however, none of them featured in the calculations of SB Nation Reacts responders when it came to end of season silverware. Instead, point guard LaMelo Ball was picked by 52 percent of NBA fans as the player who should win the Rookie of the Year award. Ball beat out the Minnesota Timberwolves’ top pick Anthony Edwards (36 percent of the vote) and Sacramento Kings rookie Tyrese Haliburton (who took home 12 percent).
Did Orlando’s trio of young guns deserve greater consideration? Honestly, not really. Anthony has the strongest case, with the injury to Markelle Fultz thrusting him into an early starting role and forcing him to learn on the fly. He did an admirable job, improving his shooting numbers, growing in confidence, and punctuating the resume with a couple of memorable game-winners. However, his overall impact and efficiency paled in comparison to Ball. Fewer points, rebounds, assists and steals in similar court time, worse shooting numbers, and a negligible contribution to winning basketball, with inferior results across the metrics of win shares, box plus/minus, VORP, PER, and team ratings. It’s a difficult argument to win.
Okeke and Hampton have even less of a foothold in this discussion. Although both flashed intriguing skill sets and stretches that belied their rookie roots, neither were the consistent and reliable contributors that this award requires. Okeke frequently played with the poise of a tested veteran, but was rarely, if ever, the straw stirring Orlando’s drink. Hampton received some deserved recognition for his late-season play with the Rookie of the Month nod for May, but that was a burst achieved in the fading light of a late-season tank.
Even though the Magic’s rookie contingent aren’t in the award mix, it doesn’t mean that their collective campaigns shouldn’t be considered a success. Anthony, Okeke and Hampton represent the 15th, 16th and 24th picks, respectively, draft slots from which star-making turns are in no way expected. That all three contributed in clearly identifiable ways in year one is in and of itself a major victory for a franchise that finds itself again in the initial stages of what will likely be a length rebuild.
Elsewhere, the top seed in each conference highlights the continued value of an elite defense, even in a league in the midst of a rapid offensive revolution. Out West there is the league-leading Utah Jazz, anchored by the stifling presence of center Rudy Gobert, the presumptive favorite among SB Nation Reacts responders for the Defensive Player of the Year award (49% of the vote). His two closest competitors? Philadelphia’s star duo of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, both of whom hauled in 13% of the remaining votes. Defense — and length — evidently still matters.
Defensive Player of the Year is an award that the 2020/21 Magic obviously don’t have anyone even remotely in the running for, a fact clearly evident in the team’s 26th ranked defense that surrendered 114.5 points per-100 possessions. It was a significant decline for a Clifford-led Orlando side, with their previous finishes of 8th and 10th nought but a distant memory once the wreckage of the rebuild was laid bare. The Magic were, to put it simply, a bad collective defensive outfit made up almost exclusively of bad individual defenders.
So what interest does an award like this hold for the current fanbase in Central Florida?
Defensive impact is difficult to truly measure at the best of times, but some of the numbers we do have available make for interesting reading when considering Jonathan Isaac’s potential as a Defensive Player of the Year candidate in the seasons to come. Somewhat forgotten because of the cruelty of injury, the lanky forward posted genuinely eye-popping individual counting stats across 34 games in 2019/20, including 2.6 steals and 3.6 blocks per-100 possessions. Those combined 6.2 stocks easily account for what Gobert (5.1), Embiid (3.6) and Simmons (3.3) posted across their respective campaigns this season. Put simply, Isaac was more likely to swat a shot (7.2% of all two-point attempts), record a clean takeaway (2.6% of all opponent possessions), or disrupt with a deflection (3.3 per game, a smidge behind Simmons but more than double the other two) than any of the major names in the running for the award this year.
Other measures of defensive impact are a little more mixed. Defensive box plus/minus favors Isaac, but defensive win shares place him last in that field of four. On-off figures suggest that Orlando was 4.0 points per-100 possessions stronger defensively in the minutes that Isaac played in 2019/20, a figure better than either of Philly’s pair but that is dwarfed by the gargantuan 12.7 point difference that Gobert’s presence contributed this season. There’s also this to consider: the 76ers and the Jazz were two of the three best defensive outfits this season; Isaac, comparatively, has never played on a team that rose above eighth by this measure.
Again, there’s likely no more difficult aspect of basketball to judge than defensive impact. Isaac is very clearly a special talent in this area, but there’s only so much he can do as one part of a five-man rotation. Still, evident even in the limited sample size is plenty of interesting data to suggest that his career is on a trajectory towards this type of recognition.
If the Magic can build a playoff contender and if his body plays along — and, honestly, that might be the biggest ‘if’ of all — there’s every chance that Isaac will soon feature prominently in these end of season discussions.
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