ORLANDO - For championship contenders, typically what you see from them throughout an 82-game regular season are large stretches of excellence and small patches of struggle.
Last season, for instance, the eventual-champion Golden State Warriors started extremely hot, winning 18 of their first 21 games. They had a rough stretch about three-quarters into the season when they lost 14 of 20. But they closed the regular season with a five-game winning streak before rolling through the Western Conference playoffs and outlasting the Boston Celtics in the Finals. Boston, meanwhile, emerged as the best defensive team in the league midway through the year after a relatively lackluster start.
For young teams, the most important thing is steady growth. The way they finish is much more important than the way they start.
That is the track the Orlando Magic appear to be on. Dec. 7 was the date when things seemed to turn for the better. Before then, they were 5-20 and ranked near or at the bottom in many statistical categories. Since then, they are 17-12 and have skyrocketed up the statistical leaderboard in key areas.
What this all means big picture remains to be seen, but for now, the Magic appear headed in the right direction.
So, you are probably wondering, what has really changed the most since Dec. 7?
Well, the most obvious thing is health. The Magic were playing many games early in the year without any guards. Markelle Fultz, Cole Anthony, Jalen Suggs, and Gary Harris returning from their early-season injuries made a huge difference.
But it’s not just about who has been available to play and who hasn’t. The Magic have cleaned up a lot of things from earlier in the season.
Let’s start with the defensive side of the floor. Since Dec. 7, Orlando has the league’s 11th best defensive rating. Prior to then, they ranked 27th. That’s a massive jump.
What really stands out is their improvement protecting the paint, limiting points in transition, and preventing opponents from scoring a lot of second-chance points. Since Dec. 7, Orlando ranks fourth in opponent points in the paint, seventh in opponent fast break points, and seventh in opponent second-chance points. Before that date, they were 21st, 26th, and 14th, respectively, in those areas.
These are huge metric pieces. They generally tell us how well a team executes defensively. Even more significant is how tough it is for the other team to score near the basket in the late stages of games. In many of these last 29 games, the Magic have denied their opponents from scoring at the basket down the stretch. Since Dec. 7, the Magic have limited opponents to a league-low 10.1 points in the paint in the fourth quarter.
Something Orlando has done all year, but has been paying off more lately, is contesting 3-point shots. If you play basketball yourself, you know just how much harder it is to make a shot from any distance when there’s a hand in your face or an arm flying at you obstructing your view of the basket. The Magic just simply make it more difficult for opponents to make shots.
Since Dec. 7, the Magic are tied with the Celtics for second in contesting 3-point shots with 19.2 per game.
Offensively, we are seeing an upgrade as well, even if it’s not as large. Prior to Dec. 7, they were 27th in offensive rating. Since then, they are 18th. A closer examination, however, shows more sizeable improvement in critical areas.
For one, they aren’t turning the ball over as much. Over the last 29 games, they are averaging 14 turnovers per contest. Over their first 25 games, they averaged 16.5. As alluded to earlier, having their guards back has helped them be more organized.
The Magic are also shooting it better from deeper ranges. In January, in fact, the Magic shot over 38 percent from 3-point distance with over 30 attempts per game for the first time in a full month in franchise history. Now, of course, NBA teams just in the last several years started launching 30-plus threes in games regularly, so it’s not the most staggering stat in the world, but it’s something.
It's not just the 3-ball, though. It’s just simply shots from further out. Since Dec. 7, the Magic rank No. 1 in the league in field goal percentage from 20 to 24 feet out (43.5 percent). Fascinating is that last season Orlando shot just 34.9 percent from this range.
Steady all year has been the free throw rate. For the season, they are averaging 25.8 foul shots per game, fifth most. Over the last decade, the Magic have ranked near or at the very bottom in this category. This is where Paolo Banchero, the No. 1 pick in the 2022 NBA Draft, has lifted the team the most. He’s averaging 7.8 free throw attempts, tied for 11th most.
It’s an interesting thing with Banchero because he’s been extremely inefficient lately on floor shots (40 percent from field since Dec. 7) but continues to muscle his way to the stripe. Before Dec. 7, he shot 73 percent from the free throw line. Since then, he’s been shooting nearly 78 percent.
Beyond the stats, how teams perform on the road is big. The bottom line is good teams find ways to win in less familiar surroundings. In the NBA arguably more than any other major American professional sports league, game location is substantial. Unlike the NFL where teams play just once per week or MLB where teams stay in one city for three or four straight days, NBA players are constantly on the go.
Since Dec. 7, the Magic are 8-8 on the road. Before then, they were 1-11. Going 3-1 on their most recent trip is another sign of tremendous growth and resilience.
“We played some tough opponents in different circumstances that we found ourselves in and our guys are resilient enough to bounce back and continue to play the right way,” Magic Head Coach Jamahl Mosley said at the conclusion of the trip. “Play for each other and, again, hanging our hats on the defensive end of the floor.”
Orlando has also beaten several of the best teams in the league. So far this season, they have three wins over the Celtics, two over the Warriors and one each over the 76ers, Mavs, Suns, and Timberwolves.
Now, the Magic must prove this is just the beginning of something major that they are building. They are still a young team learning how to play the right way. But the good news is they are trending in the right direction and have plenty more room to grow even more.