April 28, 2020, 11:54 am
Before the NBA suspended games for the foreseeable future, the Orlando Magic had won three straight, including a 126-106 road victory over the Rockets. They occupy second place in a poor Southeast Division and their 30-35 record was nevertheless good for a 5.5-game edge over the next best team in the Wizards. By then, bumps in the road like blowing an 18-point lead during a December 30 loss to the Hawks seemed firmly in the rear view mirror.
Orlando was likely headed to the postseason by jockeying for position with the Nets to finish in the Eastern Conference’s seven or eight seed despite some notable flaws. It would have meant two postseason trips in head coach Steve Clifford’s first pair of seasons behind the bench for the Magic. Despite being forced to leave a game on March 5 due to dizziness, Clifford certainly can point to some positive developments no matter what the league decides to do going forward.
GM John Hammond did well to retain free agents Nikola Vucevic and Terrence Ross last July on contracts widely considered to be favorable to the organization. With the 16th overall pick, the team selected forward Chuma Okeke from Auburn, whose season was lost to a knee issue. However, he agreed to sign a G League contract to last for a year prior to agreeing to an NBA pact. Orlando’s second round pick, Talen Horton-Tucker, was sent to the Lakers for cash and a 2020 second rounder.
Hammond also signed Al-Farouq Aminu, who played just 18 games before suffering a season-ending injury. While Aminu barely made the top-200 in most predraft rankings, he was expected to provide depth. Hammond then inked Khem Birch and Michael Carter-Williams, both of whom have averaged under 20 minutes per game in 2019-20.
Emphasis on Prevention
Despite boasting the league’s most effective offense in the 11 games prior to the season being suspended, the Magic sit tied with the Jazz for 25th in the league when it comes to offensive pace. Their average number of possessions per game was 100.6. Despite sitting in the middle of the pack with 17.8 team assists per contest and a rebound rate of 49.7 percent, the squad’s offensive efficiency ranked 22nd in the NBA.
Their effective field-goal percentage of 50.3 percent bested only that of the Knicks and depleted Warriors, not the kind of offensive company one strives to keep. Orlando’s ostensible playoff position is a product of both a weak Eastern Conference and ranking among the top ten in defensive efficiency by allowing 106.6 points per 100 possessions.
They may not star in a Disney flick, but Vucevic and Aaron Gordon form a solid two-headed monster in the frontcourt. The pair teamed up to do some special things at times this season, especially during a February 28 victory over the Wolves. Gordon tallied his first ever triple-double by doing a variety of things well. He scored in isolation, made pinpoint passes to teammates, and used feeds from Vucevic to score at the rim. His final line read 17 points, 11 rebounds, 12 assists.
Vucevic certainly had his moments in 2019-20 as well, including a March 2 performance against the Blazers during which he posted 30 points and 11 boards. He also went for 30 points, 17 rebounds, and six assists at home versus the Wizards on November 17.
However, unlike teammate Evan Fournier, who we’ll get to shortly, both big men took something of a step backward statistically. Gordon’s best Player Efficiency Rating actually came during 2017-18, but his game improved after the Magic committed him to playing him at the four instead of small forward. Gordon is sometimes a target of trade rumors because, like Jonathan Isaac, he is a strong defender who isn’t known for his long-range game. However, Isaac’s issues staying on the court have in a way made Gordon seem far from expendable. Also, Gordon arguably put on the most impressive showing at the Slam Dunk Contest despite being declared the runner-up behind Derrick Jones Jr.
Meanwhile, Vucevic saw his true shooting percentage drop from a career high 57.3 percent in 2018-19 to 54.0 percent this season which was more in line with his usual production. Neither could he reproduce the 15.3 rebounds per 40 minutes posted the season prior, instead finishing at 13.5. Still, the tandem was headed in a positive direction during February and March. At age 24, Gordon has two seasons left on his current contract while Vucevic won’t become a free agent until the summer of 2023.
— NBA (@NBA) February 29, 2020
Evan Fournier shook off a subpar 2018-19 campaign to reward fantasy owners for selecting him at an average ADP of #135 in Yahoo leagues. His 56.4 effective field-goal percentage led the squad and ranked fourth in the league among starting guards playing at least 50 games. Fournier’s points per game jumped from 15.1 in 2018-19 to 18.8 despite receiving virtually identical minutes. The 40.6 percent conversion rate on 3-pointers was a major part of that, but his field-goal success rate also rose more than three points compared to the previous campaign. In short, Fournier enjoyed arguably his best production during his sixth season in a Magic uniform. Fournier was ranked among the top-50 players overall in many circles, although his rest of season value appeared to take a hit when he got hurt less than two weeks before the season was suspended.
A major part of Fournier’s success comes from uncanny body control. His quick cuts to the hoop make him a great target for passes. When driving the lane, Fournier is able to lean around a defender and score with ease. He’ll even guide his man into a screen and back up for an open three when the opportunity presents itself. Fournier’s fine crossover move and aptitude for finishing through contract make a tough combination for anyone guarding him. He’s also partial to the fadeaway jumper if the opposition seems too committed to preventing a layup.
Solid Sixth Man
Ross turned out to be one of my better fantasy league pickups down the stretch this season. While he struggled early on, he came out firing on all cylinders after the All-Star Break and leveraged his bench role into plenty of meaningful contributions. During a seven-game streak in February and March, Ross hit over 50 percent of his 3-point attempts while averaging 23.7 points per game. Ross also garnered headlines in January when he changed his jersey number from #8 to #31 as a tribute to the late Kobe Bryant.
He is a superior shooter off of screen plays, leading the league with 4.3 such points per contest on those actions over the course of the season. All of his shooting numbers were down from 2018-19 in general, when Ross made a career best 87.5 percent from the charity stripe, but nevertheless, it was clear that Ross had turned a corner as the games became more meaningful.
Showing he’s a true man of the people, Ross solicited Netflix recommendations on Instagram Live after the NBA announced that it was suspending play indefinitely. And isn’t that what’s most important?
The Other Guys
The seventh Magic player to average double figure points was DJ Augustin. In 2018-19, Augustin started 81 games, shooting 47 percent from the field and 42 percent from deep in the process. However, the point guard made just 39 percent of field goals in a slightly smaller role this season. The good news is that his ball distribution and rebounding did not suffer on a per-minute basis. That didn’t stop him from being a lightning rod for fan disapproval, causing teammates to defend his value to the team. According to Vucevic: “To accept a lesser role when you had a great year starting last year says a lot about him.”
Despite an uneven season overall, Michael Carter-Williams had been on a tear in averaging 15.8 points in the four games before the world was seemingly brought to a halt. Carter-Williams has always been a solid per-minute source of steals and he had his second best NBA season shooting the ball, hitting 43.2 percent from the field. He’ll never be a world beater from further than midrange, though.
While Mo Bamba mixed in a bit more 3-point shooting, he was deployed in a depth role similar to that of his rookie year. He averaged 1.4 blocks, second on the team behind Isaac. That equates to a whopping 4.8 swats per 100 possessions. Improved free-throw shooting was also a bright spot. However, Bamba’s age is sometimes revealed by the errors he makes from time to time. Regardless, it was a quality return for a player limited by significant injuries as a rookie.
A February trade brought James Ennis to Central Florida in exchange for a 2020 second-round draft choice. He started 10 of the 12 games he played for the Magic, the seventh team for which he has played since the Hawks drafted him in 2013. While his numbers don’t jump off the page, Ennis made his share of heady plays and Gordon looked very comfortable in his presence. Even if he remains in Orlando, Ennis would be unlikely to start ahead of a healthy Isaac.
New Year’s Day proved to be infamous for Magic fans as Jonathan Isaac sprained his left knee and suffered a bone bruise while facing the Wizards. Isaac was far and away the squad leader in blocks with 2.4 per contest and added 1.6 steals per game. He improved his field-goal shooting more than three percent year-over-year and sat at 46.3 percent on the season. However, the sample size is a bit smaller than fantasy players would like because Isaac did not return to action after playing his 32nd game. Even with the small sample, expect Isaac to come at a hefty price in next year’s fantasy drafts after the defensive dynamo finished ranked 34/16 (8/9-cat) in per-game value.
As mentioned, Aminu’s season was derailed due to a knee injury that eventually required surgery in January. Despite some back and quad issues, Fournier appeared in 61 games before an elbow injury sidelined him on March 5. Vucevic was lost for 11 straight games in November and December thanks to a sprained ankle. In addition, Augustin was limited to 49 contests due to a knee ailment.
When the Magic dealt for former #1 overall pick Markelle Fultz at the 2019 trade deadline, President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman pointed to his high ceiling as the primary reason for the trade. While Fultz may never be able to live up to the original expectations, he did take a step forward a season after suffering from thoracic outlet syndrome while playing for the Sixers.
Fultz had a career best 17 points per 40 minutes this season with significant jumps in field goal and free throw efficiency compared to his statistics with Philadelphia. He shined in a January 15 victory over the Lakers while ending the night with 21 points, 11 rebounds, and 10 assists. As Clifford put it: “There’s a reason that he was the No. 1 pick in a really talented draft class.’’
Fultz has demonstrated the ability to finish in traffic and bury 16-footers when the opposition collapses on a teammate. He also leverages his size to obtain an edge against more diminutive point guards. He’s not a top-100 guy yet, but not many would have predicted Fultz to boast 57 percent ownership in Yahoo leagues.
— Orlando Magic (@OrlandoMagic) December 4, 2019
Carter-Williams and Augustin are set to become free agents in the summer. Wes Iwundu and Gary Clark are less impactful reserves who could also depart for greener pastures. In addition, Fournier and James Ennis hold player options for the 2020-21 campaign. Nevertheless, the Magic would rank sixth in the league in terms of cap space committed toward next season if Fournier exercises the $17 million option. With the salary cap expected to be set around $115 million due to lost revenue, they seem unlikely to make any major moves in free agency. However, a healthy squad seems likely to make another run at the postseason even if we have seen the last of the 2019-20 slate.