The Orlando Magic have ‘found their lane’ and are finally building on a solid base, writes Sky Sports NBA analyst Mark Deeks.
There remains a lustre to making the playoffs that is hard to ignore, particularly at a franchise’s executive and ownership levels. After all, the only way to win an NBA title is to first make them.
More realistically, there is a tangible knock-on benefit to making the playoffs for non-competitive teams in helping establish a franchise on the free agency map.
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If a team can make the postseason, even as an underdog low seed facing a swift and simple first-round elimination, there is nevertheless something to be gained from doing so from a brand management point of view. It is surely reassuring for a player to know the team he is joining are trying to win, in a league where not every team is doing that.
With this in mind, there remains a competitive battle for the final three places in the Eastern Conference.
There are a distinct three tiers to the East. Milwaukee, Toronto, Boston, Indiana and Philadelphia fly clear at the top; New York, Cleveland, Chicago and Atlanta have fallen adrift at the bottom. The remaining six teams in tier two, then, are fighting for the final three playoff spots. And none of them are on a better run right now than the Orlando Magic.
The Magic entered the All-Star break on a five-game winning streak, and as winners of seven of their last eight games. Included in that stretch were important victories over their low-seed rivals, the Charlotte Hornets and Brooklyn Nets, and a couple of impressive scalps over the tier-one Bucks (albeit without the transcendent Giannis Antetokounmpo) and the Pacers.
The Hornets victory was by an impressive 38 points, to boot, and all but one of those seven wins were by a double-digit margin. Meanwhile, around them, the rest of tier two are muddling through at either .500 pace, or worse.
Form is invariably cyclical, and it is not for nothing that this seven-in-eight stretch comes on the heels of a two-month long slump in which they lost 19 of 28 games over the course of December and January. For the Magic to even be in this playoff discussion is surprising, considering they were a lowly 20-31 at the start of this seven-game stretch. For them to try, then, is somewhat admirable.
Then again, they could not surely settle for the lottery again. The Magic have not made the playoffs for six years, since the 2011-12 season, which not coincidentally was the final season of the Dwight Howard era. It is the third-longest current playoff drought in the NBA, and the longest in the Eastern Conference.
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The upside of such long droughts is supposed to be the riches of young talent that come via the high draft picks, and the opportunity to at least stockpile talent and establish a core. The Magic, however, have struggled relative to most of their peers, erred more than they have succeeded, and have not looked like being a contender.
In that time, the franchise has been through seven NBA drafts, utilising 21 total picks, five of which have been in the top 10 overall. Yet of those 21, only Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac, Wesley Iwundu, and this year’s rookies Mo Bamba and Melvin Frazier remain on the team.
Tier two status is supposed to be for those on the way up. With a substandard guard rotation, their best player headed for free agency, and a 20-31 record, Orlando were not supposed to be that.
That said, there is something to be said for the middle ground. Orlando may not have the franchise-pivoting talent of Anthony Davis despite the obsolescent years, yet such talents are not the only path to contention. Nor is contention the only thing that matters. Hope, passion, ambition – there is a lot to play for, even when so far short of winning it all.
The Magic know this as much as anyone given the furious late-season run of their 1999-00 team, termed the ‘Heart and Hustle’ group, who came up a mere one game short of the eighth seed in the East despite a stark talent disparity between them and the Bucks team they lost out to. The following summer, the Magic landed two premier free agents in Tracy McGrady and Grant Hill. Notwithstanding the myriad other factors in play, the previous year’s heart-and-hustle late run can only have helped.
Orlando changed head coach last offseason, bringing in Steve Clifford from the Charlotte Hornets. Having dragged the Hornets to two playoff seasons with a roster that had no great upside yet no freedom to bottom out, Clifford made the best of the situation and introduced a defensive style charged with the task of making the same core roster year-on-year into something approaching a tier two team.
Clifford joined Orlando with much the same remit, to produce the calibre of defensive unit that previous defence-first hires Scott Skiles and Frank Vogel could not. In the previous three seasons under those two, the Magic had finished 16th, 22nd and 18th in defensive efficiency, rankings which might have been enough to build a good team had the offence been potent enough to support it. Instead, it ranked even worse, with the team finishing 2st, 29th and 25th in the counterpart offensive efficiency respectively.
This year, though, they are finally having some success. On the season, Orlando are ninth in the league in defensive efficiency; since the start of January, they are third.
At the crux of the turnaround has been the play of starting forward, Jonathan Isaac. The sophomore, who missed the majority of his rookie season through injury, has demonstrated enough offensive development he can now take advantage of openings offensively, whereas before he was entirely allowed by opposing defences to shoot. Still needing to work on his finishing from all areas, Isaac is nevertheless more confident shooting the ball and driving into vacated lanes, as well as getting out in transition.
This, in turn, means Clifford is able to play Isaac more, and given his defensive abilities, any coach would want to do this. Isaac is a man of defensive intricacies, whose deflections and his ball/positional denial come from his endless length and mobility, now flanked as they are with his 14.7 points per game in February.
You can play Nikola Vucevic in a drop defence when you have free roamers of the length and versatility as the Isaac and Gordon duo to smother the rest of the frontcourt.
When they are able to run offensive threats at all five positions in this way, opponents can no longer pack the paint against the Magic, and All-Star centre Vucevic’s Jokic-lite passing game can come to the fore. Vucevic, an All-Star this season, is having a career-best campaign, scoring in the post, shooting from outside, able to function within small ball offensive line-ups and be the punisher to those who try to defend the Magic in the same way.
Furthermore, Gordon’s continuing development to his handle, defence, decision making and IQ have made the Big Line-up of himself, Isaac and Vucevic actually work. That three-man unit has a net rating in 658 minutes of +6.0; compared to last season, when Jonathon Simmons took the majority of what are now Isaac’s minutes, in a three-man unit that had a mere +0.1 rating in 583 minutes.
In an era when everyone else has gone small, Orlando (save for starting point guard D.J. Augustin) have gone distinctly long. While it has taken time to implement, individual improvements to each of the Gordon/Isaac/Vooch trio have seen the Magic take the step up on both ends of the court, but particularly defensively.
They now have a chance of making the playoffs and ending the drought, hence the desire not to sell their players (most notably reserve swingman Terrence Ross) at the trade deadline, as has been the M.O. in years past.
Indeed, at the deadline, the Magic actually found themselves as buyers, sort of. Notwithstanding his well-documented shooting and offensive struggles, the Magic traded for reclamation project guard Markelle Fultz from the 76ers. If healthy, Fultz ties into the length-length-and-more-length mantra that is behind the Magic’s roster construction, and buying low is a much better strategy than the previous one of selling low.
It may not have worked in the case of other reclamation projects Jerian Grant (who has struggled with overdribbling) and Jarell Martin (not in the rotation at all), yet it does not need to work every time to be a successful strategy.
The upside of this team remains to be determined. With Vucevic and Ross both expiring, the point guard position very wide open, and Evan Fournier never really moving the needle despite his big contract, there remains a ton of work to do in both the short and long-term futures. Regardless of this, though, the Magic have picked a lane.
It is a fairly unique one, and one that defies orthodoxy. When it has the right style and calibre of personnel within it, as it does right now with the Gordon, Isaac and Vucevic trio, it can be the foundation of a solid team. And solid will do.
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