No Howard, No Problem: The Orlando Magicians
With all due respect, this Orlando Magic team should, by all conceivable logic, suck. This is a team that traded away its best player – a player who has anchored both their offense and defense for the past four years, the best center in the league- for loose change. The Magic didn’t even get the second or third best player in that blockbuster summer trade (that would be Bynum and Igoudala). And yet somehow, they’re 12-13 for the season, good for 9th in the East. To make matters even more perplexing, they have a 7-3 record in December, with quality road wins against the Lakers and Golden State (on consecutive nights) and Kevin Pelton, an analytics expert at the top of the pundit pyramid in the NBA, has made a legitimate case for the Magic being the best team out East in December. Turns out that when you adjust for the quality of opposition, Magic have posted a point differential of +4.6 this month – sixth best in the NBA and best in the East. This, after even the most ardent of Magic fans would have written them off as a bottom-5 team in the pre-season.
Just how special is this Magic run? It’s happened with Al Harrington – whom many considered a top-3 player on the roster – not playing a single minute this season and their ‘budding’ star Arron Afflalo not making any huge leap in productivity. In fact, trying to figure out what makes this team tick can be very confusing. They field a starting lineup of Jameer Nelson/ Afflalo/ Moe Harkless/ Glen Davis/ Nikola Vucevic. That lineup, with second year guys yet to get significant NBA minutes and washed up NBA vets, has no business being this close to .500 one-thirds into the season.
And in many ways, the Magic are running according to script. Their offense predictably functions like knee-high quicksand, and they’re shooting a paltry 33% from beyond the arc, good for 25th in the league. The team is tied for 27th in offensive efficiency (points scored per 100 possessions) at 97.7. Their biggest weakness is the (duh!) lack of a reliable scorer who can take it to the hoop. At one time, Jameer Nelson was as good as anybody at attacking the rim off the pick-and-roll, but the ravages of time have left him a step slower. Consequently, Magic are dead last in the league in free throw attempts per game, at roughly 16. The league leaders? That would be the Los Angeles Lakers, at 30 per game.
Now for the good: Coach Jacques Vaughn has proved a revelation for the Magic, especially on defense. If they can keep up this level of play till April, Vaughn should be a strong contender for Coach of the Year (and the Magic might well be a 7-8 seed!). The Magic are sixth in the league in defensive efficiency (points conceded per 100 possessions) at 98.8 and are doing a great job of forcing low-percentage shots by the opponent. The team ranks 7th in opponent field goal % (43.2) and 2nd in opponent 3-pt % (32). While starting center Nikola Vucevic has improved on defense this month, the real hero here is rookie Andrew Nicholson. His play has been so efficient that he merits being included in the Rookie of the Year discussion.
Though Andrew’s numbers don’t jump off the page at first glance (7.4 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 53% FG, 14.8 minutes per game), he’s been a revelation for the Magic when on the court. When he’s on court, the Magic only give up 96.6 points per 100 possessions. When he’s off the court? 105.7. That’s the biggest defensive swing for any Magic player. His minutes have steadily increased this month with his stellar play, and given the recent injury to Big Baby Davis (out 4-6 weeks), Nicholson should see more burn and bigger numbers. Of all the Magic players playing decent minutes, Nicholson has the best overall +/- for the season at +61.
The second best Magic player by +/- is also, not coincidentally, their (once) sharpshooter J.J. Redick, who is having a career year off the bench. He is averaging 14 points and a career-high 5 assists in 30 minutes per game, which should bring him some legit ‘most improved player’ consideration. JJ is often the life-blood of the Orlando offense, especially when Afflalo and Davis (who jointly lead the team in scoring at 16 ppg each) are on the bench and has nearly doubled his assists from last season. The Magic score nearly 14 points fewer per 100 possessions with JJ on the bench, which is perhaps the most telling stat of how indispensable he has been to the Magic.
The Magic’s success has been no fluke, and though Davis’ recent injury should hit them hard, they have a number of prospects (including Nicholson) at the 4 who should be able to step up and fill the void. Nikola Vucevic has improved from week to week and is showing signs of being an eventual 15/10/1.5 type of guy for the Magic, a Marcin Gortat sort of player. Moe Harkless and Gustavo Ayon, two players who have been touted as intriguing big men prospects should see more burn over the next month, and improved play from either could well fuel the Magic’s incredible run all the way into the playoffs.