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Three important Orlando Magic storylines for the season’s second half

Let’s take a look at some of the New Year narratives to keep an eye on

Milwaukee Bucks v Orlando Magic Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

With a new year underway and the NBA about to hit its halfway point, now feels like a good time to consider the major storylines swirling around the Orlando Magic as they head into the season’s back half. What are the key narratives poised to emerge, and what should the pinstriped faithful make of them at this particular point in time? Let’s dive in and grapple with three of the biggest!

A race to the bottom

2018 NBA Draft Lottery Photo by Jeff Haynes/NBAE via Getty Images

With a record of 7-31, it’s not like there’s much mystery remaining regarding the Magic’s season outcome. The playoffs were never a chance, the play-in tournament a long-shot now long gone, and the lottery a certain lock. The only question remaining is how good the team’s odds will be when the draft order is determined.

As things currently stand, Orlando is the league’s worst performing team, with a winning percentage of just .184. If that rate holds they project to win 8 or 9 more times, a figure that would place them among the least successful sides of recent memory. With Detroit and Houston the only other teams to have completely let go of this season’s rope, it would seem that securing top three odds at landing the top pick is already a near certainty.

A selection of forecasts from major outlets seems to concur with this line of thought. FiveThirtyEight currently have the Magic slated to finish with a record of 20-62, second-worst league-wide. Basketball Reference’s Playoff Probability Report is almost identically in line with that assessment, with Orlando currently pegged for 20.3 wins, 1.7 games ahead of the Pistons at the bottom of the standings. ESPN’s BPI Playoff Index is a little more optimistic, projecting the Magic to climb all the way to 26 wins – even though they’ve arrived at the same lottery outcome! Finally, Inpredictable has determined that the contest for the top lottery odds is already just a two-horse race, with the Magic possessing a 34% chance of claiming pick one and a 66% chance at pick two. All of these predictive models basically agree that Orlando will finish with one of, if not the, worst record in the league.

There is, however, a slight dissenting wrinkle to consider: a look at Tankathon’s strength of schedule analysis reveals that the Magic project to face the 13th-most difficult remaining slate of games, a solid outcome in the race to the bottom of the standings but certainly not a home-run for losing. It’s a position also made a little more precarious by the fact that a number of teams who could be jostling for ping pong balls down the stretch – Detroit, Houston, New Orleans and Oklahoma City – all sit higher on this list than the Magic, meaning they have the ‘advantage’ of a tougher run home. Based on these still early schedule projections, the fistful of games head-start that Orlando currently enjoys in the standings could shrink more quickly than expected in the season’s closing stages.

Regardless of how the next few months shake out, the intense likelihood is that the Magic will finish the season with a record that secures them some of the strongest lottery odds on offer. It’s awkward to think of a sub-20 win campaign as a success, but in the first full year of an immense rebuild it’s really the optimum outcome.

Individual award season

Even in the midst of a campaign that has the potential to be one of the most futile in Magic history, there are a couple of players who have emerged as genuine bright spots. The team’s record certainly won’t win any accolades, but both Franz Wagner and Cole Anthony have impressed to such a degree that they should figure into the individual awards debate come season’s end. Neither is currently the favorite in their respective race, but if their strong play continues in the season’s back half they’ll make a genuine push.

Orlando Magic v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

Of the pair, Wagner is the one most likely to claim some hardware at the end of game number 82. He’s recently surged to the top of the Kia Rookie Ladder featured on the NBA’s website, a result of his iron man status and swelling box score contributions. The NBA Math Twitter account has pushed him into third place according to their calculations, although it’s worth noting that no rookie has improved their position on this list more than Wagner has since they first debuted their projections in the opening week of December. Finally, even the betting markets are starting to come around on Orlando’s young forward, with most books shortening his odds in such a way that he’s the clear fourth-placed favorite at this moment.

It’s certainly not hard to see why Wagner has made such a leap. His numbers on the season are already very good, ranking favorably compared to both his own draft class and a list of recent rookie award winners. He’s been ever better recently, with an absurd stat line in the month of December – 19.5 points on 47/40/88 shooting splits, along with 5.1 rebounds and 3.1 assists – vaulting him into the thick of the award race. That he was able to punctuate this ascension with a 38-point, career-best gem against the reigning champs and a well-earned Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month nod bodes well for his ever-increasing chances of claiming the crown.

New Orleans Pelicans v Orlando Magic Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

Anthony figures to have a tougher time of muscling his way into genuine contention for the league’s Most Improved Player award, but it’s still more than reasonable to expect him to snag some votes. He’s made a huge leap for a severely out-gunned and under-manned Magic side, emerging as a dependable offensive engine thanks to his improved finishing and play-making. The side’s losing record will ultimately hurt his search for individual recognition, as will availability should his injury issues continue to linger into the new year. However, most projections seem to have the dynamic guard currently on the margins of the top ten in the race for this award, odds which will surely shorten should he be able to get back onto the court and stay there.

Coming into this campaign fans of the Magic were realistic about what would constitute success for the young, rebuilding side – namely, steady development. The fact that the team has two players who have already garnered some deserved hype from the broader NBA community for the growth evident in their game – and who may yet claim ultimate individual recognition for their efforts this season – is precisely the type of progress the franchise was hoping to cultivate in the earliest stages of the current rebuild.

Game flow and competitive states

Denver Nuggets v Orlando Magic Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

Much discussion has been had amongst Magic fandom about the success of the team’s season-opening starting five, which to this stage remains among the association’s very best. Considering Orlando’s current placement in the standings – a record of 7-31, good for the lowest spot in the league’s basement – this should come as a huge surprise. If the players frequently tasked with shouldering the heaviest minute loads are comfortably claiming victory in their time together, why isn’t the team racking up more actual wins?

Across all five-man units that have played at least 100 minutes as a collective this season, Orlando’s fivedom of Anthony, Suggs, Wagner, Carter Jr. and Bamba currently ranks eighth by net rating, with a point differential of 11.4. It’s a mark built on the back of a mildly acceptable offense – 105.4, a shade above the Magic’s mark as a team this season – and an elite defense – 94.1, a figure that would be good for best in the league by an incredible margin were it a team rating.

A deeper dive into these numbers reveals a Magic line-up that has probably benefited from a dose of luck in maintaining its current spot on this lofty perch among the elite. If one isolates the top ten such units league-wide they will discover that Orlando’s quintet has compiled both the worst effective field goal and true shooting percentages from among the group, as well as being tied for the title of most turnover-prone. It is, however, a line-up that is snagging way more caroms off the offensive glass than Orlando has as a team on the season, a factor which is likely helping the unit keep pace when it comes to scoring the ball; they might not be super efficient, but they’re pretty good at generating extra possessions and therefore staying afloat with the ball in hand.

Orlando Magic v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

Defensive integrity is a little harder to measure in this configuration, but it does stand to reason that a unit featuring the disruptive limbs of Bamba, the one-on-one sturdiness of WCJ, and the already surprisingly effective individual efforts of Wagner and Suggs, is able to make scoring difficult for their opposition. Despite that (and the relative length of this line-up) this is a Magic group that doesn’t lock down the defensive boards, compiling the eighth-worst defensive rebounding percentage (73.3) among the top ten five-man units on a mark that sits well below Orlando’s team average (76.4).

So how can this unit be so good, but the Magic still so bad? Well, even discounting the devastation that injury and illness has wrought – remember, this is a line-up that has only played in 15 games together – it’s probably fair to say that a chunk of the starting five’s success has come during stretches of play that reflect more favorably on them than should probably be the case. Consider the ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ vibe evident in the fact that Orlando are among the league’s very worst first (-3.6, 29th), second (-4.1, 30th) and third (-2.4, 26th) quarter teams; shockingly, they completely reverse this trend in the fourth (+0.8, 8th). They go from getting completely waxed in the first 36 minutes to being victors in the game’s close.

This seemingly incredible turnaround can likely be explained by the fact that, more often than not, the result has been decided long before the final frame gets underway. Because of this, the Magic find themselves regularly matching up against deeper bench units, or playing against opponents who are operating in cruise control. Remember, as a team Orlando has compiled the sixth-fewest clutch moments all season, with only 51 total minutes coming during closing sequences where the margin is within five points. Most nights the sting is well and truly out of the contest before the final siren sounds.

This yo-yo like variance extends to the performance of the starting five, who oscillate wildly in their first and third quarter efforts. In 72 shared first quarter minutes they’ve been phenomenal, racking up a net rating of 10.1 in tussles against what is theoretically the opponent’s toughest five-man unit. However, such effectiveness doesn’t hold in the third quarter when such lineups regularly repeat, the group sliding to a -1.4 net rating in their 73 minutes together. The culprit? An offense that craters during a stretch of the game that frequently features tactical adjustments. This is a collective that routinely starts games well, but that falls apart completely in the third when games tend to go up a gear.

Orlando Magic v Toronto Raptors Photo by Cole Burston/Getty Images

Now, it is worth noting here that the Magic’s preferred starting outfit on the season is currently sporting a patently absurd and positively unsustainable net rating of 89.2 in the 10 fourth quarter minutes they’ve played this season. Context, however, is again key: it’s a number that features little in the way of tightly contested minutes and that is buoyed almost entirely by one fortunate spurt against the Raptors. There’s a reason, beyond simply injury, that Anthony, Suggs, Wagner, Carter Jr. and Bamba have played so few fourth quarter minutes together – Orlando’s general lack of competitiveness.

A clean representation of this frequent non-competitive state can be seen in a visual breakdown that isolates the time a team spends either leading or trailing by a certain margin. It shows that the Magic have spent more than 60% of the season trailing by 4 points or more, including a margin that extends to double-digits a whopping 30% of the time. Both of those marks are, unsurprisingly, the worst in the league. Orlando simply competes in fewer minutes when the intensity, the effort, and the execution of their opposition is at its greatest.

In fact, this highlights precisely why there should be some dubiousness about many of the Magic’s most optimistic numbers; they’re frequently playing in what is essentially extended garbage time, when there’s simply no way that opposing sides are giving it their all. Also, as a young team focused on development regardless of the scoreboard context, they are way more likely to actually be playing their key guys during these moments. Diving even deeper, there are also some extremely lucky outliers that the team is currently benefiting from; take, for example, the fact that Orlando’s opponents are shooting a positively arctic 24.3% from three during clutch sequences, a mark that speaks more of plain ol’ variance than anything else.

The Magic’s starting five is a unit absolutely stuffed with potential. It’s also a line-up that has done some solid work already this season, carrying the bulk of the team’s most impressive play. But their early world-beating status is a number that simply doesn’t appear entirely air-tight once scrutinized a little more closely. The non-competitive nature of most games makes it difficult to put too much stock in any of the rosier figures the team is generating, beyond being able to say that they are worth keeping an eye on moving forward. Such numbers are definitely something, but for the moment we don’t know if they’re anything.

Considering that the franchise is still closer to the rebuild’s ground zero than its finishing line, the fact that there are intriguing numbers at all might be enough to currently be considered a win for the Magic.