We’re one week into the season, which means it’s the perfect time to start thinking about some of the way-too-early overreactions doing the rounds! With the usual ‘small sample size’ disclaimer out of the way, let’s test the truth of Banchero’s offense, the Magic’s ball movement, and the likelihood of a losing season.
Paolo Banchero is going to finish his career as the NBA’s leading scorer
Four games. One week. Zero doubt.
In rapid fashion Paolo Banchero has demonstrated to the entire basketball world that he’s an elite bucket-getter, seemingly destined to shatter scoring records left and right for the remainder of eternity. 27 points in his debut set the tone, the highest total by a number one pick in 26 years. He added 20 more in game number two, the seventh-best scoring output across the first two games by the top draft selection ever. When he notched 23 in the team’s home opener he became just the fourth head of a draft class to score 20 or more in three consecutive to start their career. An additional 21 against the Knicks placed him as one of only three all-time to achieve the feat. It’s been a first-year offensive flurry the likes of which has rarely been sighted on an NBA court.
Although none of them have yet come in a winning effort, the Magic will take plenty of optimism from the manner in which the talented rookie has piled up the points. Through four games the vast majority of Banchero’s offensive output has been generated within 10 feet of the basket, whether that’s a shot attempt that the big man has already proven adept at creating for himself, or at the charity stripe after drawing contact. The combination of an NBA-ready body and smooth footwork has allowed the rookie to score in spades, even out of isolation set-ups; just 34.6% of his two point baskets have required an assist. He has shown that he can get his either with the force of his bulk or the finesse of his ball-handling.
The impressive free-throw rate is something that demands further attention, if only because of Orlando’s recent history in that area. Banchero is currently averaging 9.3 free-throw attempts per contest, a figure that the Magic haven’t come within shouting distance of in a decade; already it’s clear that the years of AG leading the team with fewer than four attempts a night are over. His free-throw rate of .544 is more than double that of the current league average, and speaks to the sustainable nature of his offense. That he’s shooting 81.1% on these attempts makes the whole circumstance positively intoxicating. Banchero’s willingness to first initiate contact, and then his effectiveness in navigating through it close to the hoop, bodes extremely well for his long-term scoring potential.
The hot scoring start to Banchero’s professional career has effectively erased any doubts that may have existed regarding Orlando’s draft night return. Sure, he needs to avoid the allure of the three-point line until such time that his accuracy aligns with his willingness to shoot from that distance. And sure, he needs to improve his overall efficiency. But the fact remains that in just one week Banchero has already provided some proof of concept regarding his best-case projection as a triple-threat offensive dynamo.
For years, Orlando has been yearning for a lights-out scorer who can be deployed as both the fulcrum of a modern offense and a dependable isolation scorer when the game begins to grind. And while it’s hyperbolic to believe that he’s genuinely on pace to eclipse the raw scoring totals of Abdul-Jabbar or Jordan’s ability to fill it up nightly, one short week is all it has taken to demonstrate that Banchero has a real chance to be the scoring savior the Magic have so desperately sought.
Without Markelle Fultz, this team has forgotten how to pass
Orlando’s roster construction is such that, even if the team were at full health, there’s a bit of a dearth of quarterbacks on the team. Markelle Fultz is a natural organizer at the point guard slot, but the other players with that positional designation don’t fit the traditional mold, either because of their score-first instincts (Cole Anthony) or their relative inexperience (Jalen Suggs and RJ Hampton). There are players who can playmake in a pinch – hello, Point Franz! – but precious few who can steer a side’s offense on a possession-to-possession basis.
As a result, there was a fair expectation that the Magic’s passing game might sputter out of the blocks to start the season. Still, the degree to which the ball movement has utterly cratered is surprising. Orlando currently ranks dead last in assists per-game with just 18.0 each night, and second-last in points created from these moments with a thin 48.3. The offense regularly stagnates, with infrequent off-ball movement forcing players to do more out of isolation than is probably healthy, whether that’s forcing a contested shot or getting into trouble with their handle.
(Of related note: almost one-third of the team’s turnovers so far have been of the ‘lost ball’ variety (as opposed to ‘bad pass’); last year that figure was just over one-quarter.)
The problematic feature of the passing game isn’t as simple as players failing to finish the shots that their teammates set up. In fact, the issue seems to be that the ball simply isn’t moving all that much on the court. Orlando is currently averaging just 255.5 passes each night, a figure that ranks 28th overall despite the team’s average pace (18th). Worryingly, the pair of teams trailing them are two of the most heliocentric offenses in the NBA, the Hawks (Young) and the Blazers (Lillard). What’s an understandable statistic for those sides simply doesn’t resonate for the Magic. Orlando is also languishing in the league’s bottom third in potential assists (42.3, 23rd) and secondary assists (1.3, 28th), two metrics which speak to ball movement and the general willingness of players to pass.
Purposefully frequent ball movement should be an offensive priority for a team already as bereft of long-range shooting threats as Orlando. If the ball doesn’t zip around then the spacing problem simply compounds, with little of the rotational pressure that could eventually burst a defensive seam being applied. Some of this responsibility must fall on the shoulders of the coaching staff, who would do well to install a more deliberate and directed offensive scheme. Otherwise Fultz’s eventual return won’t fix all of these ills, even if he figures to alleviate the issue to some degree. Instead, the Magic will have to adapt as a unit to overcome their collective assist amnesia.
The Magic are going to finish the season winless
We can probably start this entry by clarifying that no, Orlando will not finish the season winless. For starters, it’s literally never happened in the history of the sport, with even the most disastrous of teams bumbling their way to enough wins that it requires the fingers on two hands to keep count. We’re more likely to see a team go undefeated than we are to ever witness an entire season of futility.
Still, there’s no getting past the fact that the Magic are one of just four remaining teams – and the only left in the Eastern Conference – without a victory yet in the 2022/23 campaign. They’ve had chances to break the duck, with three of their four games so far remaining tight well into the final quarter, but the necessary composure and execution has ultimately been lacking in those critical moments. Add unavailability into the equation – particularly in the backcourt where any semblance of depth has been ravaged by early injuries – and the current record starts to appear pretty understandable.
However, if one eschews the contortion required to locate moral victories amongst the losses, there are specific signs that suggest that a level of genuine worry is appropriate even at this early juncture. Orlando is currently placed 25th by offensive rating and 23rd on the defensive side of the ball; add those two ranks together and the Magic are tied with Detroit for the highest total in the league – that’s not good! And while the team comfortably slides into the league’s middle third in the majority of offensive and defensive categories, there’s no denying that the shooting is precisely as big a problem as predicted. In a league that continues to sprawl further from the hoop with an increasing regularity, Orlando is shooting just 30.8% from beyond the arc, the 26th worst mark league-wide and a disadvantage that is a major contributor to the 12 point deficit from deep they’re currently facing down each night.
The Magic have an incredibly tough schedule looming come late November, but they’ll have plenty of chances before then to start racking up some Ws. Across the next four weeks they’ve got multiple games against both the Hornets and the Pacers, as well as tilts against Houston, Sacramento and OKC, all of which project as winnable. They also play 8 of their next 11 at home, a much friendlier allocation than the road-heavy start they’ve endured so far. Expect a win or two to come sooner rather than later.
Still, the team’s struggles during this opening stretch suggest that we probably need to pump the breaks on any dreams of dramatic play-in tournaments and deep playoff runs. The outline of a side primed for that sort of basketball is coming into shape, certainly, but the complete picture is still indistinct around the edges and lacking necessary substance. Expect a bunch of losses this season as the Magic begin to figure out what a winning effort looks like.