With close to 60% of their campaign already in the books, it’s clear that the Magic’s eight wins to this point are going to leave them a long way from the playoff race as the regular season enters the home stretch. Instead of hoping to nudge their way into the play-in tournament they’ll be jostling at the back end of standings for ping pong balls.
These games will be defined by an inherent tension: a desire for the team to steal some victories while playing the role of spoiler, while also recognizing that it’s actually defeat that helps the long-term cause by improving the side’s lottery odds. It’s the paradox that afflicts fans of any team in the early stages of a full-scale rebuild.
Still, there’s no reason that the back half of the season has to be entirely bereft of silver linings. Gains can be made, improvement can be solidified, and personal bests can be achieved. Additionally, some measure of success can still be attained, even if it does require the adjustment of goal posts to better capture the side’s current context.
So what are some of the hopes we might have for the home stretch? Let’s dive in and break this down roster slot by roster slot.
The hope for the home stretch is that the exciting rookie continues to soar
With two selections inside the top eight of a well-regarded draft class, there was always a good chance that the Magic would come away with an immediately impressive rookie. That it was Franz Wagner who claimed such a designation, however, came as somewhat of a surprise. The first-year forward has arguably been both Orlando’s best and most consistent player this season, a phenomenal achievement for someone with less than 50 total career games on the resume. He’s basically a lock to finish top three in Rookie of the Year voting, with a genuine chance of nabbing the award should he maintain the steady trajectory of improvement that he has demonstrated to this point. If he can shoulder a little more in the way of usage rate, do a slightly better job of finishing contested shots in the paint, and continue to handle some of the team’s tougher defensive assignments, it would add up to a strong home stretch and a wildly successful rookie campaign overall.
The hope for the home stretch is that the first-year guard can find his shooting stroke
Despite the interruption of injury, Jalen Suggs has still managed to drop a number of intriguing and potential-laden performances this season, providing a great sense of hope for his place in the league in the years to come. He’s already a solid individual defender, with a tenacity and general ball awareness that serves him well at both ends of the court. However, he just hasn’t been able to make shots, with percentages of 36.4% from the field and 25.0% from deep combining for a positively garish effective field goal rate of .411, worst on the team among all rotation regulars. They’re numbers, particularly in regards to the three ball, that don’t seem to make a lot of sense – Suggs is possessed of a smooth stroke, and he’s already had a pair of games where he shot 4-8 from behind the arc, as well as another where he went 4-9. Add that to his college numbers – 33.7% on 3.5 attempts per night – and it’s clear there’s evidence of him being a significantly better shooter than what he’s shown so far. Let’s hope that the home stretch brings the young guard a little more bucket luck.
The hope for the home stretch is that Cole can get back to his early-season form
Cole Anthony shot out of the starting gate like a rocket this season, quickly finding his feet and emerging as the team’s first feel-good story. There was a dynamism and a maturity evident in his offense that simply wasn’t there as a rookie, the natural evolution of a score-first guard who was starting to take advantage of a professional game that was slowing down for him. Unfortunately, like so many on the Magic’s roster, injury got in the way, with two separate blocks of unavailability ultimately knocking his campaign off kilter. It’s been felt most resoundingly in his latest return, with the confident point guard managing to top 20 points just once after doing it 14 times in his first 24 games. This dip in output is also evident in his shooting numbers – he may have made 50% of his field goal attempts in 8 of his first 20 outings, but that’s a mark he’s reached just once in the last five weeks (4-8 in a 16 point blowout to Dallas). Anthony’s self-awareness is such that he has already acknowledged that he needs to recapture that early mojo – here’s hoping he can do so.
Wendell Carter Jr.
The hope for the home stretch is that WCJ can cement himself as a sustainable three-point threat
It’s been a great twelve months in pinstripes for Wendell Carter Jr. Since arriving in Orlando at the trade deadline last year he has cemented himself as a starter, extended his contract at a price that both sides can feel good about, and shown enough improvement in his game to suggest that the best is still to come. One of the most important individual developments has been the unleashing of a three-point stroke; this season he’s getting up more than four times as many long-range attempts as he has in any previous campaign (3.8 per night, compared to a previous high of 0.9), canning them at a career-best rate (33.1%). It’s a mark still currently below league average, sure, but the growth in and of itself is impressive. The Magic will now be hoping that when the center returns to the floor he can get his long-range radar back on track – through his first 20 outings the big man had eight nights with multiple threes and only two when he failed to connect from deep; in the 17 games since he’s hit two on only three occasions, failing to find the bottom of the net from beyond the arc five times. If WCJ can establish himself as a bonafide long-range threat it will serve to open up both his own game and that of his teammates.
The hope for the home stretch is that Bamba gives the Magic something meaningful
It’s probably fair to say that Bamba’s time in Orlando is close to running out. Across parts of four injury and illness-interrupted seasons the lanky big man has failed to establish himself as an essential part of the team’s long-term future, which at this stage really means only two options realistically remain. The first – which seems unlikely given all that has come before (but still cannot be discounted after last night’s first half outburst) – is that his on-court production pops and he emerges as the fluid scorer and dominant defensive presence his physicality suggests he could one day be. If that’s the case, the Magic aim to re-sign him and figure out what to do with the rest of their frontcourt later. The second (and more likely) course of action, however, is that the Magic move on from the former sixth-overall pick, recouping in the process something in the way of draft capital or a damaged-yet-intriguing asset from a team willing to gamble on his immense potential. Whichever way the winds of wingspan eventually blow, the success of Bamba’s home stretch will ultimately be judged based on what he brings to the table – either in person or in his wake.
The hope for the home stretch is that Big Chum enjoys a big moment or three
There was plenty to love about Chuma Okeke’s game as a rookie. He had the look of a keeper almost immediately, with a composed and confident approach that belied his relative inexperience. Unfortunately, two of his most promising qualities – the threat of three-point shooting and his capacity to act as a secondary playmaker – have taken a hit in an interrupted second year, stalling the leap that many expected. The shooting woes have been obvious: a frigid 24.8% from deep and just 34.7% from the field overall, numbers contributing to his alarming .446 true shooting percentage and offensive rating of 92 (down from 107 as a rookie!). Less obvious but just as absent have been the helpers, with an assist rate that has plummeted almost 5 whole points to 8.5%. Let’s hope that Okeke can gather some momentum from recent tantalizing performances, like his five-assist, zero-turnover effort against the Wizards or his six of seven from long-range shooting against the Sixers. If he can, the Magic faithful stand ready to fall in love all over again.
The hope for the home stretch is that last night wasn’t as bad as it looked
In light of the awkward fall that he took last night against the Sixers, the only hope we have at the moment for RJ Hampton is that we continue to see him on the court as the team winds towards game 82. The fingers are collectively crossed.
The hope for the home stretch is that the Gary Harris renaissance continues
Gary Harris has been really good for the Magic lately. He struggled after arriving from Denver at last year’s trade deadline, something that continued through October and November of this season. Both his outside shot and ability to handle contact at the hoop had seemingly abandoned him, and he was largely unable to impact the game in any meaningful way. Then … things changed. Harris has scored in double-figures in 20 of the 23 games since December 1, making two-or-more long-range attempts in 17 of them. He has generated 56 free-throws in that same stretch, a shocking number when compared to the 5 (!) he attempted in his first 16 outings. He’s also upped his rebounding, assist and steal rates, further evidence of the fresh blooming of his game. As a sizable expiring contract it’s tricky to determine whether Harris holds more value for Orlando as a stabilizing presence on the roster or as a trade chip to be cashed in; either way, if this personal renaissance continues the team will count it as a win.
The hope for the home stretch is that the Human Torch ignites … for a contender
In the five years since he arrived in Orlando, Terrence Ross has provided the pinstriped faithful with many a highlight, earning the Human Torch moniker for the offensive explosions that could come at seemingly a moment’s notice. For the playoff-bound version of this team he was an incredibly valuable microwave scorer, tasked with propping up the second unit’s offense and serving as a three-point threat in clutch moments. Unfortunately, the Magic are far removed from those days of competition, which means that Ross’ basketball talents and his veteran status alike are both probably better served on the roster of a genuine contender. With another year remaining on a palatable contract, he’s also more than a mere rental for any team looking for an offensive spark. If Ross can deliver another Human Torch sighting or two and, say, a late first-rounder in a trade for his talents, that might just be the perfect outcome from an Orlando perspective.
The hope for the home stretch is that Brother Moe continues to bring posi’ vibes
Minutes allocation in the game of basketball is effectively a zero-sum game, in the sense that there are only so many to go around. When you’re one of the final roster additions, best suited to a position already occupied by at least three other players, and buried at the bottom of the depth chart, the only thing you can do is work hard, stay ready, and radiate positivity. To this point of the season, Moe Wagner has successfully done all three. His game log is up and down like a yo-yo, with DNPs mixed in with end-of-the-rotation minutes and starter-level performances alike. However, despite this lack of consistency he has, when afforded the chance, pretty reliably managed to do the things he’s best at on a basketball court – launching threes, scoring the ball, hyping up his teammates, and being a general irritant for the opposition. If that continues, there’s a good chance he stays in pinstripes beyond the season’s end.
The hope for the home stretch is that Captain Hook embraces every aspect of his new nickname
Look, at this point in a very long season in Central Florida, we need to find joy in any aspect of Magic basketball that we can. In the case of Ro-Lo – the veteran center originally brought in to mentor but play minimal minutes – that means taking advantage of the extra court time that injury and illness has afforded him and completing his transformation into the NBA’s undisputed Captain Hook. Is there any shot that Lopez could attempt that would inspire greater confidence in its likelihood of going in than a looping hook shot after a methodical back-down? Of course not, and there’s your answer: he already leads the league in hook shots as a percentage of overall shot diet, but let’s push this thing as close to 100% as humanly possible. And why stop with field goal attempts? Lopez should be required to throw every pass in a hooking motion; he’s already incredibly adept at finding cutters via this method! Embrace the madness. Embrace the hook. Unleash the Captain. Allow him to steer this ship home.
Also, can we get him a parrot and an eye-patch?
Markelle Fultz and Jonathan Isaac
The hope for the home stretch is that both Fultz and JI are able to get out from under the injury cloud
Seriously, can we just see these dudes play some basketball again?