clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Three questions that will define the Orlando Magic’s season

A close look at a few of the major storylines that will shape the Magic in 2022-23

Orlando Magic v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images

With Training Camp complete, the preseason already underway, and the Magic’s season opener scheduled to tip off on October 19, it’s safe to say that the 2022/23 NBA season is already upon us. It’s good to be back!

As is always the case at the outset of a new campaign, there are a number of pertinent questions already beginning to percolate in an evaluation of any team’s chances in the contests to come. For the Magic, it’s a trio of quandaries already beginning to manifest – let’s dive into each of them now and figure out the lay of the pinstriped land at this admittedly still very early juncture.

Question one: How worrying is the spacing?

Orlando Magic v Washington Wizards Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images

As a collective, players across the league averaged 35.4% when shooting from deep last season, a mark which actually represents the most inaccurate NBA campaign since 2015/16. It’s a mark, however, that has almost always eluded the Magic across that same time frame, with the team only getting above such a rate once – 35.6% in 2018/19, not coincidentally the season in which they finished 42-40 and claimed the Southeast division. In every other instance one would be best served looking for Orlando among the darkest depths of the three-point percentage rankings, with finishes of – outside of the one year outlier, of course – 27th, 25th, 28th and 29th preceding last season’s 28th placed finish. It’s a resume that reminds contemporary Magic fans of a seemingly irrefutable truth – this team can’t shoot.

Last season Orlando’s regular rotation featured just two players – Gary Harris (38.4%) and Mo Bamba (38.1%) – who converted at a rate above the league average. Elsewhere Franz Wagner snuck in at 35.4% on the dot, while RJ Hampton was able to eschew his usual inaccuracy in nailing 35.0%, but they were the only others even within sniffing distance of league average. No other team struggled with a similar paucity of shooting non-threats.

Worryingly, it was some of the most voluminous outside shooters who offered the least bang for buck; Cole Anthony made just 33.8% of his 6.0 long range bombs each night. Chuma Okeke was even colder in hitting a frigid 31.8% of his 5.3 attempts from beyond the arc. Terrence Ross endured the worst long-range shooting season of his career as he limped to a mark of 29.2% on 4.2 shots per contest. And then there was Jalen Suggs, who at 21.4% on 4.1 attempts per night was almost certainly the long-range shooter most actively harming his team’s chances by hoisting away from deep.

Indiana Pacers v Orlando Magic Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Fretting about the 2021/22 numbers might seem a little uninstructive in a preview of the campaign to come, but the fact is that the Magic chose to return basically all of last season’s meaningful roster, with only a pair of rookie additions in Paolo Banchero and Caleb Houstan as a point of difference. Otherwise it’s the same mostly inaccurate faces, with Jonathan Isaac and Bol Bol – neither of whom are recognized as dangerous long-range shooters! – also entering the mix after having overcome their respective injuries.

Outside shooting, or at least the threat of it, is more important than ever in the modern NBA, an observation which should resonate all the more loudly in Orlando considering the manner in which this team is constructed. The Magic’s most impactful point guard, Markelle Fultz, has nothing in the way of his own three-point jumper, meaning he is entirely reliant on teammates stretching the floor and creating space in the paint that he can weave into and exploit. Wagner and Banchero are both jumbo-sized playmaking wings who project to face the same sort of collapsed defenses should the opposition not feel compelled to stay home on the perimeter. The cutting lanes where Wagner feasted as a rookie, and that other athletic youngsters could potentially leverage, close up without respected shooters spotting up behind the arc. The game just gets tougher on a possession to possession basis.

All of this doesn’t even account for the simple math of three being greater than two, an immutable fact that effectively leaves the poorer shooting teams playing catch up on the scoreboard before the ball has even been tipped. Last season, on average the Magic conceded one more three-pointer than they made each night, despite a greater number of attempts from deep than their opponent. Breaking even on that seemingly minor discrepancy would actually have been enough to overcome the difference in eight separate full-time results – a pretty major difference!

As a rebuilding team now keen on demonstrating meaningful improvement, the Magic’s decision makers should be doing whatever they can to lighten the load for the youngsters on the roster. In the modern basketball landscape, part of that is finding ways to open up the floor and create the type of space in which players can thrive. In choosing not to address one of the roster’s more obvious deficiencies they’ve increased the degree of difficulty that the side will face.

Precisely how cramped space is in the halfcourt – and how big of an issue it becomes – is a question that already looms over the Magic’s season. Expect it to be a topic that is returned to once the precise level of claustrophobia is visible for all.

Question two: Is this team injury cursed?

Atlanta Hawks v Orlando Magic Photo by Harry Aaron/Getty Images

‘Injury-prone’ is a term that often gets applied unfairly to players – professional athletes, remember! – who have suffered a series of unfortunate circumstances more to do with bad luck than any predisposition towards physical frailty. Likewise, the notion of a sporting curse afflicting a franchise as some sort of karmic retribution for affronts to the sporting gods is, upon reflection, usually just a narrative created by those trying to apply the rationality of cause-and-effect thinking to the inherently irrational nature of a zero-sum competition that crowns precisely one winner in a given year.

Still, it sure feels like this Orlando side is either prone, cursed, or both when it comes to injuries.

As a franchise, the Magic have spent more than their fair share of recent seasons among the league-leaders in man-games missed. The team has seen multiple players wiped out for seasons at a time, along with a long list of shorter-term but-still-significant maladies, illnesses and injuries. Ankles, knees, toes, shoulders, wrists and even eyes are all body parts that have waylaid pinstriped players in the last couple of years.

This season the injury ward began filling up even before training camp got underway. The torn meniscus in Gary Harris’ left knee has knocked the veteran guard out indefinitely, with no clear timeline yet for his return. It’s a major blow for a young Magic side that would have been counting on his three–point shooting and solid defense, likely as the fifth starter.

Orlando Magic v Denver Nuggets Photo by Ethan Mito/Clarkson Creative/Getty Images

More recently the team announced that Markelle Fultz, another presumptive starter expected to provide composure and direction, would be sidelined as he rehabs a broken toe suffered just prior to Media Day. He won’t be out as long as his backcourt running mate, but for a player with an unfortunate history of time on the sideline it’s an undesirable speed bump on the road towards preparation for this coming season.

In discussing these pre-camp ailments we haven’t even yet touched on the oft-injured 6-11 elephant in Orlando’s locker room. Jonathan Isaac continues his seemingly interminable recovery from a severe ACL tear, an injury that has already consumed more than two calendar years and cost him two full seasons (and counting). The news from the recent Media Day that JI was only just “ramping up” and still not yet cleared to participate in five-on-five action during camp was paradoxically both shocking and expected by invested Magic fans; perpetual absence has made it fair to wonder if Isaac will ever be a meaningful contributor in pinstripes.

That we’re already talking about injuries is a painful reminder of just what basketball in Central Florida has seemingly been defined by in recent memory. It’s why when Franz Wagner rolled his ankle at the recent EuroBasket Tournament Magic fans immediately expected the worst, even though he emerged relatively unscathed. Man games missed is an expected experience of any team in a given season – no one gets through without having to delve into the deep rotation at some point. However, it just feels as though Orlando is a team that has been forced to reckon with this reality at a frequency that extends beyond their fair share.

While it’s true that the Magic are going into the 2022/23 campaign as a theoretically improved outfit compared to last year, this is still a young side that will start more contests than not facing down some degree of a talent deficit. Injuries, particularly any suffered by the team’s top dogs, will further erode that disparity in a rapid fashion. Let’s hope that the already unfortunate start is not the sign of a curse enacted, but simply the team getting any bad luck out of the way early.

Question three: How good can Paolo and Franz be?

Orlando Magic Media Day Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

Ultimately, this is the question that matters most for Magic basketball this season, and also moving forward into the franchise’s next half-decade. In the grand scheme of things this year’s wins and losses aren’t terribly important, but the development of their two young studs certainly is. If this Orlando core is going to make a leap to genuine contention it will almost certainly be powered by the play of Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner.

We already know that Wagner is a special talent, a fact that was abundantly apparent in Central Florida – if not across the entirety of the basketball landscape – last season. He was the team’s best performer even as a rookie, a triple-threat option on the wing capable of shooting away from deep, slashing as an off-ball cutter, and slicing into the lane with the rock in hand. Add to that his burgeoning chops as a playmaker – Point Franz was more than a phase! – along with the solid individual defensive numbers he posted and it’s easy to see why the Magic believe they already have one ace in hand.

Orlando Magic v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

For this Magic team to ascend, however, they’re going to need to find a running mate for Wagner, one who projects to have an even higher ceiling than the German sophomore. That’s where Banchero comes into play.

The 6-10 Seattle native out of Duke is a jumbo-sized, playmaking forward, with a bulging bag of offensive tricks to utilize in search of his own bucket as well as the vision and decision-making necessary to one day develop into a true offensive hub. He’s comfortable operating in the post, at the elbow, and even to some degree beyond the arc, although he’ll need to refine his long-range jumper for this to be a featured component of his game as a pro. He’s got the physicality and the footwork to eventually hold his own as a defender in the NBA, although this will also require some work across the next couple of seasons.

If the Magic are able to turn both the Wagner and Banchero selections into true home-runs, then the entire trajectory of this current team shifts. With a pair of key components in place, others on the roster would only need to establish themselves as well-fitting cogs, as opposed to the ill-suited expectations of being the gear turning the entire machine. It would also mean that the franchise can move forward with greater certainty about how to best build a sustainable winning product, knowing that they have the centerpieces around which all decisions should revolve.

Like any NBA season, 2022/23 figures to elicit plenty of debate about the rebuilding outfit in Orlando. When all is said and done, however, it’s the discourse regarding their two young studs that will almost certainly require the closest scrutiny. If both Wagner and Banchero eventually emerge as legitimate solutions then the Magic will have significantly fewer questions to answer moving forward.