January 5, 2020, 7:59 pm
With news that Jonathan Isaac will miss at least two months, the bottom of the Eastern Conference playoff picture could become wide open.
The first six spots are very much spoken for, and the Nets figure to have a strong grip on the seventh spot given their .500 record and their spotty health so far.
Orlando, a strong second-half team from last season, and one of the tougher outs among the clear underdogs in last year’s first round, sits eighth at a disappointing 16-20. They have a two-game lead over the Hornets and a three-game lead over the Bulls and Pistons, clearly the top team in the East’s third tier, but their margin for error has thinned considerably with the loss of Isaac.
It’s safe to argue that Isaac is the Magic’s second most irreplaceable player, behind only All-Star Nikola Vucevic – and any discussion of Orlando’s current standing has to come with a mention that Vucevic missed multiple weeks with his own injury.
Isaac gives the Magic an elite, versatile defensive threat and is really the only player on the roster capable of making a significant impact out of the small forward slot.
Up to when Isaac got hurt on January 1, the Magic had a 105.1 defensive rating with him on court and a 105.4 mark with him off the floor. That’s not a huge gap but it’s safe to say that some of that is a result of the lineups and players that Isaac is defending. Among Orlando’s starters, only Vucevic also improves the team’s defensive rating when he’s on the floor, with Markelle Fultz, Aaron Gordon and Evan Fournier sitting at a differential of 2.9 or worse.
Among Isaac’s most frequent defensive covers (in terms of possessions per game) this season have been Lauri Markkanen, Kristaps Porzingis, Pascal Siakam, Julius Randle, Blake Griffin, Jaren Jackson Jr., Davis Bertans, Myles Turner, Bojan Bogdanovic and Anthony Daivs. That is a wide variety of offensive skill, and with Al-Farouq Aminu also shelved for a lengthy period, it’s tough to see how any one player can be counted on to even try and absorb Isaac’s defensive burden.
Most impressive among that list is Isaac’s performance against Davis, the one certified elite player on it. He shot 1-for-6 in 21.9 partial possessions while being guarded by Isaac, with the Lakers scoring 17 points as a team in that time.
While the big loss will be felt on that end, don’t let it overshadow Isaac’s growth as a more complete player in general.
Offensively, Isaac has been able to improve his efficiency even as his usage has increased. He’s sporting career-highs in field goal attempts (10.1), usage (18.1), field goal percentage (.463) and true shooting percentage (.542).
He’s getting a slightly different diet of shots as well, with more pull-ups and less catch-and-shoot looks, as well as more shots coming off longer periods with the ball in his hands. That extra activity may also be what’s driving a career-high in assist rate (7.0). Over a third of Isaac’s buckets have come unassisted whereas fewer than 24 percent of his makes were unassisted in each of his first two seasons.
Obviously the defense is going to be a major problem since that’s where Orlando has chosen to plant its flag. Under Steve Clifford, the Magic are aiming to be one of the league’s elite defenses and grind games to a mucky halt. That task becomes far more difficult with the team down its two best defensive forwards, and now the Magic won’t be able to push the limits of Isaac’s burgeoning offensive play to help make up for a defense that has been merely ‘pretty good’ so far.
While the Magic are still in the catbird seat in terms of the final playoff spot in the East, the loss of Isaac is significant. It’s at least cracked the door open for the teams beneath Orlando, who all are looking to make the postseason despite their differing organizational timelines.
For the Pistons, who have made bold moves to try and brute-force their way into the playoffs, or even the up-and-coming Hornets and Bulls, this could be a major opportunity to make legitimate forward progress. Maybe even the Hawks find their stride and mount a charge over the second half. Regardless of which low-tier contender has eyes on the spot, the absence of Isaac improves the odds. And while nobody in this field is likely to make much noise in the postseason, just getting there has the potential to save jobs, earn contracts, you name it.
The Magic have lost their rising star, and will now have to turn to their bench for a serious lift. Wesley Iwundu, Khem Birch, Michael Carter-Williams (when healthy) and maybe even Amile Jefferson are all going to be tasked with heavy lifting. Perhaps this larger role can get Aaron Gordon snapped out of his year-long funk. How they respond, and whether the teams below them can get their houses in order, could have a lasting effect on the Eastern Conference landscape.