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Orlando Magic Season Review, Part I: Carter Jr. impresses, Bamba continues to puzzle

In the first of a four-part season review series, let’s explore the ups and downs of Orlando’s big man rotation

Minnesota Timberwolves v Orlando Magic Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

Although the on-court results certainly wouldn’t suggest so, the 2021/22 season was an important one for the Orlando Magic. If last year’s trade deadline teardown was Ground Zero for the latest rebuild, the team’s recently completed 22-60 campaign represents the setting of a foundation which, fingers crossed, is hopefully both solid and sustainable.

So how does one measure success for a franchise that cares little about the final numbers showing on the scoreboard? Well, as we do each year around this time, let’s take a moment to figure out Orlando’s winners and losers for 2022, free from the actual standings, unmoored from singular results, and filtered through a broader contextual lens. When it comes to pinstripes, who (or what) stood out and shone? Who (or what) crashed and burned? Let’s go!

Winner: Wendell Carter Jr.

Orlando Magic v Chicago Bulls Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

Across a long season of losing, there wasn’t a whole heap that stood out on a night-to-night basis as a genuine bright spot for fans of the Magic. Still on the ground floor of a major rebuild, the team was routinely forced to reckon with a talent deficit caused by equal parts design, inexperience and injury, certainly not the ideal environment within which one can thrive. To his credit, however, Wendell Carter Jr. was able to do just that, emerging as the team’s most valuable player this season and establishing himself as a vital part of the rebuild moving forward. For a guy whose inclusion in the Vucevic trade thirteen months ago was primarily about balancing the books and his status as a ‘lottery pick’ it’s been one hell of a ride.

By the boxscore it’s easy to see that Carter Jr. enjoyed a career-best season, setting new benchmarks in each of points (15.0), rebounds (10.5), and assists (2.8). He was a more effective scorer than ever before thanks to the combination of improved inside finishing (61.5% on two-point attempts) and a stretched out three-point stroke that resulted in 3.5 long-range attempts per game, an increase of more than 300% on his previous rates of long-range attempt. While his accuracy from deep was ultimately below league-average (32.7%), this new dimension expanded the big man’s offensive repertoire and even offset the small decline he saw in his free-throw shooting numbers, evident in his .601 true shooting percentage.

It wasn’t just accuracy and opportunity that resulted in the big man’s elevated production. Although WCJ was obviously higher up the chain of command in Orlando than he had been at his previous stop, he proved deserving of the extra chances by routinely doing more with them. He anchored the team’s defense by hauling in 29.1% of all defensive rebounding opportunities – a 4.5% increase over his previous best mark – while finishing 13th league-wide in the total number of contested defensive rebounds collected (157). He flashed genuine play-making chops with a 15.4% assist rate, 18th among all centers who played at least 41 games. He also earned the distinction of coupling an increased usage rate with a decreased likelihood of a turnover – a combination that suggests genuine improvement. Despite missing 20 contests he even set a career-high in games played with 62, a number that would certainly have been greater if the outcome of Magic games were even remotely relevant.

The value that Carter Jr. provides relative to cost may just be the most impressive aspect of his contributions. On the season the Magic’s big man was the 167th highest-paid player in the league, a smidge below Zach Collins and PJ Tucker and immediately ahead of Juan Hernangomez. A quick glance at catch-all metrics like PER, VORP, win shares and box plus/minus reveals that for players in such a contract range, WCJ was a pretty uniquely positive contributor across all of those measures.

Lest it seem like I’m simply cherry-picking observations created by the often value-laden rookie scale (which Carter Jr.’s contract this season still fell under), consider this: the $14.1 he’ll earn next year will eventually place him somewhere around 96th overall, a position sandwiched between the likes of Luke Kennard and Davis Bertans on the slightly more expensive side, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Doug McDermott on the other, marginally cheaper side. If Carter Jr. is able to just maintain, let alone improve upon, this season’s production he figures to be a relative bargain for years to come.

In spite of the team’s wonky record, WCJ turned in a genuinely excellent season. Let’s hope it’s just the first of many he puts together in pinstripes.

Winner: Mo Bamba, improved performer

NBA: Orlando Magic at Toronto Raptors John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

This season presented a massive opportunity for Mo Bamba. No longer playing behind an All-Star teammate and elevated to the starting unit, the fourth year rookie was also motivated by a desire to prove his value in the league and to secure his first non-rookie contract. Come season’s end, it’s fair to say that it was largely a case of ‘mission accomplished’.

10.6 points, 8.1 rebounds, a combined 2.2 stocks, and a career-best 38.1% from deep on a greater number of attempts than ever before (4.0 per night) are figures that capture the general improvement in Bamba’s individual game. Although his per-100 possession numbers remained relatively consistent, consideration of context positions even those in a favorable light; as a starter Bamba was lining up against tougher competition, while also learning how to regularly share the floor – and the roles and opportunities of the center position – with another big man. His possession usage felt more in rhythm with the team’s offense, while defensively he occasionally flashed an adaptability that hadn’t always appeared evident in his game.

Bamba played in a career-high 71 games. He more than doubled his usual minutes total with 1824 on the season. The advanced metrics continued to appreciate his on-court contributions, with an above average ranking according to PER (16.5), VORP (1.22) and box plus/minus (0.7), along with personal bests in true shooting percentage (.582) and total win shares (4.5). He significantly improved both his three-point and free-throw accuracy, while also finishing 9th league-wide in blocks per game (1.7). He was generally a more impactful player, with genuine stretch-five applications on offense and his usual long-limbed deterrence on defense.

It may not have been the absolute slam-dunk that many were hoping to see, but Bamba’s play this season provided plenty of evidence to suggest he’s not simply going to fade out of the league any time soon.

Loser: Mo Bamba, long-term answer

NBA: Orlando Magic at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Despite the individual accomplishments and improvements noted above, did Bamba really do enough to convince anyone that he’s a long-term answer in pinstripes? The front office already punted on his rookie contract extension last offseason, and nothing they saw this year would likely have left them doubting that decision. Still, will the rebuilding Magic want to be left with nothing to show after four years of a lottery-level investment? It’s tough to say, and Big Mo’s play this past season unfortunately didn’t crystalize the desired answers.

Bamba’s game log reads … weirdly. Across 2021/22 he was a player who was almost as likely to score in single figures (30 times) as he was to hit the ten-point plateau (41 times), with the big man only topping 20 on four occasions. At one point he went two entire months without hauling in more than 9 rebounds, a surprising result for a 7-footer regularly clocking 25+ minutes of court time. He was also without a three-point make in 17 of his 71 games, going 0-44 in those contests yet still arriving at a long-range accuracy above league-average on the season.

In general there was a confounding uncertainty to Bamba’s performances. One could never really predict what they would get out of him on a given night, whether it was going to be a 2 point egg (of which he had five) or a 32 point explosion in which he went toe-to-toe with an MVP frontrunner. NBA players are in the league for the simple reason that they’re among the absolute best basketballers in the entire world, but what tends to separate the great from the good is the ability to consistently churn out performances closer to their ceiling than their floor. Cost relative to the dependability of a player’s production is where the value of any contract ultimately resides.

So what does all of this mean for Bamba and his future in Central Florida? Honestly, I’m not totally sure. It isn’t absolutely imperative that he be re-signed, even though much of what he offers the Magic – three-point spacing, solid interior defense, some cohesion alongside WCJ – is of particular value to this specific team. His numbers are generally ‘above average’, but any contract figure that threatens eight figures annually is sure to give pause. After four years has he proven himself a starter? Would he even entertain a move to a back-up role after starting 69 of 71 contests this season?

Much like the big man’s on-court play, Bamba’s future in Orlando is one that remains frustratingly unpredictable.

Winner: Moe Wagner, surprising contributor

Orlando Magic v New York Knicks Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Coming into the season it’s tough to imagine anyone other than Mr. and Mrs. Wagner who would have had Brother Moe pegged to finish near the top of the Magic leaderboard in total win shares. Well, 82 games later, here we are.

Moritz Wagner racked up 2.8 win shares for Orlando this season, a phenomenal figure that placed him fourth overall on the team. Somehow he was able to achieve this despite playing a mind-boggling 770 fewer minutes than each of the other guys who rounded out the top seven, a fact which actually left him with the team’s best rate of win shares per-48 minutes at .138.

The advanced metrics love for Moe didn’t end there. Among rotation regulars he placed second in PER (18.1), first in true shooting percentage (.623), first in offensive box plus/minus (1.5), equal first in overall box plus/minus (1.6), and third in VORP (0.9). Remember, this is despite finishing just tenth on the team in terms of total minutes played, with three DNP-CDs and nine games with fewer than ten minutes court-time in the season’s first two months.

Simply put, just about wherever Moe Wagner made it onto the court he smoked it. Whether the production is ultimately sustainable or replicable in a more prominent role remains to be seen, but at the least he has earned the chance to prove he’s more than just a deep bench piece moving forward.

With an evaluation of the Magic’s big man stocks now behind us, so we arrive at the end of our first installment. I’ll be doling out more Ws and Ls in the days to come, so be sure to check back in so you can check out my thoughts on the rollercoaster experience of the Magic’s rookie crop, the variability of veterans, and surprises from the second-year contingent. Until then, I’ll catch you in the comments.