Action & Reaction: Examining the Magic

by John Denton

ORLANDO – For every action, there’s a reaction. In this story, we look back at some of the Orlando Magic’s major storylines and developments from the 2018-19 season and look ahead to some of the actions and reactions that could come in the 2019-20 season.

The Magic will hold Media Day on Sept. 30, and training camp begins on Oct. 1. They play their first preseason game in San Antonio on Oct. 5 and host their first exhibition game at the Amway Center on Oct. 11 against the Boston Celtics.

The regular season opens on Oct. 23 against the Cleveland Cavaliers, and for a fifth straight year the opener will be played at the Amway Center. Season and individual-game tickets are on sale and can be purchased by calling 407-89-MAGIC, by logging onto OrlandoMagic.com or by visiting the Amway Center’s ticket office.

Without further ado, we look back and look ahead at the actions and reactions that will shape the 2019-20 season for the Magic:

ACTION: The Magic started last season a disappointing 20-31, looking as if they would miss the playoffs yet again. However, they gelled in late January and closed with a stirring 22-9 run to qualify for the postseason as the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference.

REACTION: Which team will the Magic be going forward? The one that had major troubles holding big leads and struggled with consistency in the early going of the season? Or the one that was seemingly never out of games – they had 11 victories where they rallied to win after going into fourth quarters trailing – and proved to be defensively dominant while crafting the strong closing kick?

By going 22-9 down the stretch, the Magic compiled a .709 winning percentage. If they could do that over a full season it would be slightly better than what the eventual World Champion Toronto Raptors (.707) did in 2018-19. The only team with a better winning percentage over the entirety of last season was the Milwaukee Bucks (.732), the NBA’s lone 60-win squad.

Over the final 2½ months of the season – a sizeable sample of 31 games – the Magic had the NBA’s top defensive rating (104.9 points per 100 possessions). That was no fluke considering that head coach Steve Clifford has always stressed the vital importance of defense and the Magic can put elite defenders such as Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac, Michael Carter-Williams and Khem Birch on the floor at the same time. That defense figures to only get better this season with free-agent defensive ace Al-Farouq Aminu added to the mix and shot-swatting center Mo Bamba fully healthy.

A student of the game, Clifford said NBA history told him that the Magic needed to be a top-10 defense and a top-15 offense to make the playoffs last season. The Magic somewhat bucked that trend, finishing eighth in defense and 22nd in offense. While the potential is there for the Magic to be a top-five defense, their offense must improve dramatically for the squad to seriously contend with the top teams in the Eastern Conference this season.

ACTION: Wanting to keep together the core of a team that finished strong and reached the playoffs for the first time since 2012, the Magic worked diligently this past summer to re-sign free agents Nikola Vucevic, Terrence Ross, Birch and Carter-Williams.

REACTION: In all, the Magic return 12 of the players from last season’s team – 13 if you include guard Markelle Fultz, who has yet to play for the squad because of a right shoulder issue. A whopping 86.4 percent of the minutes played from last season is back on the roster, giving the Magic the stability and familiarity that they have lacked in previous seasons.

Key among the returnees, of course, are Vucevic and Ross, who both authored career years and had plenty of offers to sign elsewhere but instead chose to stick with the Magic. Vucevic is the key cog in the offense because of his decision-making with his shooting and passing. Ross was Orlando’s go-to weapon off the bench, he was a much better pick-and-roll player than many expected, and it won numerous times last season after the guard got scorching-hot late in games. Orlando feels that both players are entering the primes of their careers and the franchise will look for big seasons from the two again next season.

There is danger, however, in bringing back the same team as one that finished just 42-40 and got whipped 4-1 in the playoffs by the Raptors. Do the Magic have enough playmaking to create double teams and defensive scrambles? Do they have enough firepower to keep pace with the league’s most offensively potent teams? Do they have enough 3-point shooting in a time when that weapon has never been more valuable?

The Magic are banking on the internal gains of their host of young players as an avenue toward improvement. Gordon has talked about becoming a much-improved post player next season, while Isaac and Bamba have worked all offseason on bettering their bodies and growing their games. Isaac (for USA Basketball) and Bamba (in NBA Summer League) showed flashes of their improvement this offseason and they will be expected to carry much bigger roles going forward.

Fultz, the former No. 1 pick from the 2017 NBA Draft, is something of a wildcard for the Magic. He has yet to play much meaningful basketball in the NBA in the past two seasons because of a nagging shoulder injury, but if he can get back to being the elite athlete he was while becoming the nation’s top college player and the MVP of USA Basketball’s U-19 squad years ago, the Magic could have the difference-making point guard they have sought for years. Time will tell if he’s fully healthy and ready to assume a major role in the Magic’s rotation.

ACTION: The Magic had one of their healthiest seasons in years with six of their players – actually the top six in the regular rotation – appearing in at least 75 games last season.

REACTION: Undoubtedly, health played a major role in last season’s success, and for that the Magic’s Performance, Medical and Strength and Conditioning teams should be lauded.
Vucevic played in 80 games after appearing in just 57 the year before because of a broken hand, while Ross (81 games), Fournier (81 games) and Gordon (78 games) were available for significantly more than the 24, 57 and 58 from the 2017-18 season. Even, Isaac – whose rookie season was limited to 27 games – appeared in 75 games, including 66 straight at one point. Maybe the most important injury avoidance all season was veteran point guard D.J. Augustin being healthy enough to play 81 games last season. It was Augustin who steadied the team all season with his solid play from the point and he had the game-winning 3-pointer in the Game 1 playoff defeat of the Raptors.

All told, the Magic had 181 games lost to injury last season, but most of those were to Timofey Mozgov, Fultz and Bamba. The 7-foot rookie, the No. 6 overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, shined early in the season, but he was shut down in early February because of a tibial stress fracture that is now fully healed.

The Magic likely can’t count on having such luck again this season considering the fickle nature of sprained ankles and unexpected injuries in the NBA. That’s why the steadily improving depth on the roster will be key going forward.

If Fultz can return, he gives the Magic a potentially dynamic weapon at point guard alongside of Augustin and Carter-Williams. Signing the versatile Aminu gives the Magic greater depth at the forward slots behind Gordon and Isaac, while the return of Bamba and the emergence of Birch should allow the squad to take some of the pressure off Vucevic as the marathon-like season churns along.

That improved depth should prove handy in situations when the Magic will face some major hurdles in their upcoming schedule. The good news is that the Magic will play just 11 back-to-backs – their fewest in 19 years. The bad news, however, is that in 10 of those second games of the back-to-backs the opposing team will have had the previous night off to rest. Making things even more daunting, the Magic will play on the second night of a back-to-back six times this season when their foe will have had at least two days off to prepare.

ACTION: The Magic went 25-16 at the Amway Center last season, their most home victories since the 2010-11 season. Orlando ended the regular season with nine straight home victories, including wins over Golden State and Philadelphia to the delight of the fans at the Amway Center.

REACTION: If that dominance at home carries over to the season ahead, it could help the Magic get off to a stellar start and possibly finish strong once again.

Orlando plays nine of its first 13 games at the Amway Center and three of the first four are against teams that missed the playoffs last season. The Magic will be home from Nov. 8-17 for their longest home stand of the season, hosting games against Memphis, Indiana, Philadelphia, San Antonio and Washington. They will have another extended stay at home in January (four games over six days from Jan. 3-8) before the longest road trip of the season (six games from Jan. 10-20).

Late in the season, the Magic have what could be another pivotal stretch of games at home: a four-game, eight-day home spree from March 25-April 1 with a winnable stretch against Indiana, Brooklyn, New Orleans and Charlotte. The Magic close the regular season at the Amway Center on April 15 against the Raptors.

Of the Magic’s 41 home games, 23 will be played on Friday, Saturday or Sunday nights, meaning there will likely be large and noisy crowds on hands for those home dates.

ACTION: According to ESPN’s Real Plus/Minus metrics, the Magic are projected to win 46.5 games and finish fourth in the Eastern Conference. Also, ESPN’s Kevin Pelton and Worldwide Leader’s projections are giving the Magic a 93 percent chance of being in the playoffs for a second straight season.

REACTION: Projections are all well and good, but President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman and Clifford have said repeatedly in the offseason that those types of things mean nothing if the Magic don’t come back a much better team in the season ahead. They both know that a lot of factors had to break right for the Magic to close the way they did last season so that they could sneak into the playoffs for the first time in seven seasons. And the Magic were harshly reminded of the improvements still needed when they lost four consecutive games to Kawhi Leonard and the veteran-laden Raptors in the playoffs.

Last season, the Magic won 17 more games than they did the season prior – easily the best improvement in the league. Making another jump, however, could prove tricky for a team still loaded with several young players.

For the Magic to contend for a top-four seed in the season ahead, the Magic will likely need to be one of the league’s top five defensive teams and a much more efficient offensive team that shoots better from the outside. Good health, which was enjoyed last season for the most part, will likely also play a major role in the Magic’s ability to be one of the league’s most improved teams once again.

If the Magic hit the ESPN projection of 46 wins, that likely won’t be good enough to earn homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Last season’s No. 4 team in the East, Boston, won 49 games, while No. 5 Indiana won 48. It would likely take another eight-win improvement – from 42 to 50 victories – for the Magic to vault themselves into the East’s top four.

Orlando’s belief is that veteran guard Evan Fournier will bounce back from a down year shooting the ball, while Vucevic, Ross and Augustin will avoid a regression to the mean and continue to function at the levels that they played at last season. Aminu was a mostly overlooked free-agency signing, but there’s a reason why he’s played on five playoff teams in his NBA career. If Gordon plays with more efficiency offensively and Isaac, Bamba and Fultz can display major gains, the Magic could be in a position to challenge Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Boston, Indiana, Brooklyn and Toronto for a top-four seed in the very balanced Eastern Conference.

ACTION: Despite finishing last season 22-9, toppling the eventual champion Raptors in the first game of the playoffs and returning the bulk of their roster, the Magic are scheduled to be on national TV just six times in the upcoming season – the 22ndmost national TV appearances in the league and tied for the fewest among teams that reached the postseason last spring.

REACTION: As of now, Orlando is slated to appear on ABC, ESPN or TNT just once – March 4 against the rival Heat in Miami (ESPN). They were on ESPN just once last season and it was the regular-season-ending defeat of the Hornets in Charlotte.

The Magic will be on NBA TV five other times, in addition to being televised locally in all 82 games on Fox Sports Florida.

Not surprisingly, the Lakers (43 national TV appearances), Warriors (42), Clippers (38), Rockets (38), 76ers (36), Celtics (34) and Bucks (34) lead the way in national TV appearances following their strong seasons and/or splashy offseason additions.

What has to gall Magic fans – and their players for that matter – is that the rebuilding New Orleans Pelicans are scheduled for 30 national television appearances, including a game at Denver on Christmas Day. (Didn’t a Portland Trail Blazer team that topped Denver in seven games to reach the West Finals deserve that date?) That is an obvious nod toward New Orleans snagging rookie power forward Zion Williamson, who was the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft last June following his spectacular one season at Duke University.

The number of national TV appearances, however, could change if the Magic start the season the way they ended it last season and become one of the feel-good stories in the league. Late-season games against San Antonio (Feb. 29), Houston (March 8), Brooklyn (March 23), Boston (April 3 and 10), Philadelphia (April 5) and Toronto (April 15) could ultimately become appealing to the networks if the Magic are competing to be a top team in the East.

Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Orlando Magic. All opinions expressed by John Denton are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Orlando Magic or their Basketball Operations staff, partners or sponsors.

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