Magical Turnaround for Orlando or Likely Disappearing Act?

Matthew Jordan

Wednesday, November 1, 2017 10:51 PM UTC

Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2017 10:51 PM UTC

The Orlando Magic have been one of the pleasant surprises of the early NBA season. Does Coach Frank Vogel’s team have staying power or will it fade to expectations?

The Orlando Magic haven’t been relevant outside of central Florida since trading franchise player Dwight Howard to the Lakers in August 2012 – why do the Magic always lose their superstar centers to the Lakers? -- in a swap that also included the Nuggets and 76ers. Orlando hasn’t sniffed the playoffs since with a best record in that span of 35-47 two years ago.

Not a heck of a lot was expected this year after the Magic were 29-53 last season under first-year coach Frank Vogel. He tried a system that doesn’t really work in today’s NBA: two stationary big men and playing really slow. Entering this season at SBR’s top-rated sportsbooks, the Magic were given a win total of just 30.5, and Vogel was on among the favorites on those “first coach to be fired” props.

Well, we have to give the caveat that it’s still very early, but Orlando looks like a completely different club with impressive wins over the Cavaliers and Spurs – games in which the Magic led by 37 and 36 points. Vogel has ditched his old-school offensive approach and the Magic are playing at one of the fastest paces in the NBA – even faster than the Warriors – and among the scoring leaders.

The primary offseason additions under new GM John Hammond were first-round draft pick Jonathan Isaac and free agents Jonathan Simmons and Marreese Speights. Simmons has been a revelation in more than 25 minutes per night to energize the second unit (he’s an early Sixth Man of the Year candidate), while Speights and Isaac are solid role players. Isaac could be a star someday.

Thus far, the biggest differences, other than pace of play, have been Aaron Gordon developing into a star and the Magic crushing it from 3-point range. Gordon had been compared to Blake Griffin when Gordon was drafted No. 4 overall in 2014 from Arizona. The players had similar games and athleticism (and dunking ability) in college. For whatever reason, Gordon never broke out (except as a dunker), partly, perhaps, because the team tried to force him into a small forward role.

Now a full-time power forward, Gordon, still only 22, is playing like an All-Star, averaging around 21.0 points and 9.0 rebounds per game. He never shot better than 29.6 percent from 3-point range in his first three seasons but is well over 50 percent as of this writing.  

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Unfortunately, that’s not sustainable. Neither, likely, is Orlando’s 3-point percentage of around 44 percent that is by far tops in the NBA. Evan Fournier, the team’s leading scorer, isn’t going to shoot 55 percent from long range. Center Nik Vucevic won’t be hitting 40 percent. Just for a point of comparison, the Spurs were No. 1 last season in the NBA at 39.1 percent.

Another likely unsustainable number is that the Magic rank No. 1 in the NBA in opponent 3-pointers made (7.4 per game) and opponent 3-point percentage (27.8%). If teams were shooting even league average from long range, it would be a difference of around 6 points per game. That would drop Orlando from around the Top 10 in defensive efficiency to the bottom 10. As it is, the Magic rank last in points per game allowed in the paint.

What’s a realistic goal here? The 30.5-win total should easily be topped. Realistically, something along the lines of 40 wins and a playoff spot in the ultra-weak Eastern Conference are possible if the Magic, and specifically Gordon, stay healthy.

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