With the Magic’s campaign officially at the halfway mark, there’s no better time than right now to think about how things have shifted in recent times. We know what the opening weeks of the season brought: the bright spots of Cole Anthony, Franz Wagner and Wendell Carter Jr., contrasted with the reality of the team’s talent deficit and the haunting reminder of injury. Instead, what trends have been noticeable in December and January?
Specifically, what can we find if we want to look on the bright side? What’s got hearts aflutter? Is there a trajectory we should be excited about? Who or what is trending in the right direction?
For the pessimists: any elephants in the room? Is the bottom unexpectedly falling out somewhere? Where are we hiding the bodies? Is anyone suffering through a protracted slump?
With the first half of the season now in the books, let’s dive in and see what stories have emerged in Orlando of late.
ESPN story on the Orlando Magic extending the front office contracts of Jeff Weltman and John Hammond: https://t.co/pZsRXgUQTt— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) January 10, 2022
When Woj started tweeting about the Magic yesterday, the news likely wasn’t what many fans of the team were hoping for or expecting. Rather than a return to play timeline for some of the injured stars or confirmation of a talent-procuring trade, the word leaking out was that the team had extended the contracts of their front office duo, Jeff Weltman and John Hammond. The pair of decision makers are now theoretically locked in until 2026, giving them plenty of time to bring to fruition the final form of their current rebuild.
The new deals are a sure show of faith in the work that has been done to this point, and an indication that wins and losses are far from the only metric being used internally to measure success. As such, it stands to reason that the team’s currently cautious approach to the rebuilding process is one that will continue moving forward. Weltman and Hammond won’t be under any pressure to make a win-now trade in the near future or to blow every available free agency dollar on a big-name veteran next offseason. Instead, they’ll continue the methodical asset accumulation and meticulous talent evaluation process that has been in place since they blew things up last trade deadline.
Basically, this move signifies that the rebuild we currently know, with its emphasis on youth and maximizing lottery swings, will continue unabated … at least in the short term.
At some point the Magic will have to begin the process of consolidating assets, either because they’ve found their number one guy to build around or to facilitate a trade for such a player. These dual extensions just mean that such moves won’t come prematurely, as they remove the lingering pressure that is often the result of uncertain job security. They’re a vote of confidence in Weltman, Hammond, and the direction they’ve got the franchise gradually moving in.
As a pair, Orlando’s front office duo don’t have an entirely sparkling resume. But they are possessed of one with at least a handful of hits. Now they’re being afforded the chance to finish the job they started. Let’s hope they can eventually connect on the home run needed to tie this all together.
Fourth quarters that matter
Orlando went 4-17 across the season’s first 21 games, and have compiled an almost identical 3-17 mark in the time since. Despite the similarities evident in these two sets of results, the Magic have been a much more competitive team of late, generally doing a better job of hanging in games and making the fourth quarters a genuine contest to determine a winner. This is immediately evident in the final margins of games – Orlando only had 3 games that were decided by 6 points or less in their first 21 contests (they went 2-1); by comparison, 10 of their last 20 games have finished within a pair of possessions. That feels like real progress, even though, unfortunately, they’ve finished 2-8 in those games.
One can also see in some other broader performance numbers the gradual improvement to the Magic’s collective competitiveness. Through 21 games to open the season the team was operating at a net rating differential of -11.0, a mark that the team improved to -7.7 in the 20 contests since. It’s still obviously not a number worth celebrating, but it’s a leap in competitiveness that has moved the team from ‘abjectly dreadful’ to just ‘largely ineffective’; if they can muster the same sort of growth once again the team’s performance would suddenly be threatening ‘almost bearable’.
Additionally, the team’s exposure to clutch moments – sequences in a game’s final five minutes during which the margin is within five points – has become significantly more frequent in recent times. The Magic are up to 62 clutch minutes on the season, 45 of which have come in the 20 most recent games, including 34 across the last 15. It’s particularly interesting because it has occurred during a slightly more difficult stretch of the schedule, including 13 of 20 matchups that have taken place on the road.
No matter which numbers are being parsed it’s obvious that the Magic are a bad basketball team. But it’s also true that they’re a bad basketball team getting better at putting themselves in a position to steal some wins. It hasn’t happened yet, but it wouldn’t be entirely surprising to see the side benefit from a little more luck, generate a little more confidence in these late game moments, and eventually put together a little winning streak.
Fourth quarter execution
The awkward stinger to any conversation about Orlando’s fourth quarter competitiveness is that, despite the uptick in the frequency of such game states, the Magic have performed noticeably worse during these tight closing sequences. Of the 11 recent games that featured ‘clutch’ minutes, Orlando have won just 2. They’ve struggled to make baskets in these moments, with the 26th ranked field goal accuracy – just 36.1% on 26-72 shooting – including a disastrously ice-cold 13.8% from deep (4-29), the second-worst mark in the league in this time. Additionally, they’re one of just three teams with a negative assist to turnover ratio in these clutch moments, having coughed the ball up 10 times compared to their 8 registered helpers.
This general ineffectiveness has seen the team’s overall fourth quarter numbers take a significant hit. As outlined in a column just over a week ago, the Magic recently ranked as the league’s eighth-best final period side with a net differential of +0.8. Their performance in the games since has reduced that mark to +0.2 on the season, now just 15th league-wide. In fact, Orlando have outscored their opponent in just one fourth quarter across their last twelve outings, beating only Miami in a perfunctory, 23-21 final frame (they never got closer than 8 points).
This inability to close when the game is on the line is seemingly exemplified in a handful of plays each night. Whether it’s the ol’ pinstriped favorite that is an inbounds turnover, or simply a poorly executed possession with the clock winding down, the Magic have found a variety of ways recently to shoot themselves in the foot. Remember, they’ve either led or been tied in four of their last five fourth quarters, the exception being the four-point loss to the Bulls in which they drew within a single bucket three times in the final five minutes. As a team they’re now finding ways to make these games contests, but they’re also finding ways to lose basically every 50-50 proposition they wind up in.
The Magic are a young and relatively inexperienced outfit, filled with players trying to find themselves individually at the same time as the team searches for its collective identity. Expect the fourth quarter growing pains to continue, even if a dose of luck eventually delivers a W or two.
Second year surges
When a team is 7-34 and ravaged by injury in what is already an unprecedented year of illness-impacted availability across the league, it can be pretty difficult to evaluate the genuine progress and development of players on the roster. Are the youngsters improving their individual games amidst the uninspiring losses? What impact is an under-strength roster having on such numbers? What’s real and what’s just noise?
Still, despite these circumstances there are a couple of players lining up for the Magic who haven’t yet made the leap that many envisioned. For various reasons, both RJ Hampton and Chuma Okeke have failed to show the same level of promise as sophomores that they did as rookies. There’s obviously still a very long way to go for both, but what should we make of their production through the season’s first half?
It’s been a tough sophomore campaign for Hampton to this point, who has largely failed to match the potential he flashed last season after arriving in Orlando at the trade deadline. Perhaps the most significant criticism of his game is evident in the minutes played: 19.6 per night as a second-year player compared to 25.2 as a pinstriped rookie. Obviously the team circumstances are different in 2021/22, but regardless Hampton has failed to carve out a more meaningful role for himself this season, despite the void of backcourt depth that is evident some nights. Whether it’s 10-day hardship signees or Franz Wagner, when the team has needed a backup quarterback they’ve often looked elsewhere.
On a per-100 possessions basis, Hampton has been less likely this year to make a basket, secure a rebound, or protect the ball, a combination of factors that has resulted in a stagnation of the advanced metrics that aim to measure the totality of his on-court contributions. In particular, it’s the failure to see possessions through to their conclusion – an increased turnover rate of 15.1% on slightly reduced usage – that has likely served to minimize his chances so far this season.
Hampton doesn’t appear to have a natural feel for playmaking, instead frequently becoming embroiled in plays before he’s had a chance to figure out how they should play out. The physical attribute that makes him unique – his blistering speed – is the same one that often gets him into trouble; his body appears to be moving more quickly than his processing of the game. It’s an unfortunate conundrum for the aspiring ball handler, and one that provides some explanation as to why his role has shrunk in year two.
Okeke similarly hasn’t been able to get going yet, with injury slowing his start to the season and then illness interrupting things more recently. What jumps out immediately about his play is the poor shooting – 35.2% from the field, including a disastrous 23.4% from deep on a significantly greater three-point diet (53.9% of all shot attempts, up from 43.5% last year). In fact, the shooting is so bad that it has depressed all of his various collective advanced metrics, despite modestly improved rebounding, ball security, and individual defensive numbers.
The end result of this inaccuracy is that, to this point, Okeke has scored in double-figures just seven times, including only seven contests in which he has converted from the field at 50.0% or greater. His secondary playmaking has also taken a hit, with the forward already having recorded seven games without an assist, something that happened only three times total as a rookie. He looks neither as smooth nor as collected on the court, two descriptors that came to define his composed showings as a first-year player. Perhaps more than anyone on the team he just needs to see the ball go through the net a few times, a result which could be the confidence jumpstart his game so desperately needs.
No one was expecting either Hampton or Okeke to emerge as bona fide stars in their respective sophomore campaigns. Still, it would be incredibly valuable for the Magic should the play of at least one of the pair confirm that they’re a long-term piece of the roster puzzle. Perhaps there’s still time for that to be the case in the season’s second half.