Four Key Questions Headed into the Final Stretch of the Season.
By: Ryan Brock
The Magic are trending in the right direction as they enter the final stretch of the season, here are four things to look for as the off-season inches closer.
All data is from Cleaning The Glass, unless specified otherwise.
Is this Defensive Improvement Real?
Like many young teams, the Magic have been searching for an identity since the start of the season. Jamahl Mosely came to the Magic with a defensive reputation, and many hoped that this is where he would immediately place his stamp on the team. While the defense has certainly taken a while to come together, healthier line-ups, better communication, and improved energy have helped the Magic take significant steps forward in recent weeks. The initial goal of coalescing the team’s individual defensive talent into a solidified unit that makes every night tough for the opponent is starting to come to fruition.
Although still a relatively small sample size, since the All-Star break, the Magic have ranked first in the league in points allowed per 100 possessions at 107.3. A sizable jump compared to their defensive rating before the break, where the Magic ranked 24th in the league at 113.8. In this recent span, they also rank third in opponents eFG% (effective field goal percentage) at 51.3 and first in ORB% (opponent offensive rebounding percentage) at 19.8. The youth on this team is starting to buy in, build chemistry, and develop an identity that can help them stay competitive on a nightly basis. Orlando is 5-4 since the break, riding the wave of defensive intensity that just wasn’t present in the first half of the season.
Of course, this shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise, as the Magic were the youngest team in the league coming into the season, with a rookie head coach, two rookie starters, and missing two of their best players in Markelle Fultz and Jonathan Isaac. It’s completely reasonable that the team would need substantial time to gel. The Magic have prioritized acquiring defensive minded players as they built their roster over the last few seasons, such as Jalen Suggs, Franz Wagner, Chuma Okeke, Wendell Carter Jr, and Mo Bamba. They hardly ever bring in players who won’t at least compete on defense, even Cole Anthony, who can struggle due to his lack of size, puts forth consistent effort on that side of the ball. That strategy is beginning to reap rewards, and evaluating the progress is something we should be monitoring closely as they look to gain momentum heading into the summer.
What will the guard rotation look like?
Much has been made about the plethora of guards on the Magic. After Orlando selected Jalen Suggs with the 5th overall pick in the NBA Draft last summer, many wondered how the guard rotation would play out once Markelle Fultz returned from injury. Who would start? Who would close? Who is the future at point guard? These are questions that haven’t really been answered yet, mostly attributed to the fact that Markelle Fultz only recently returned to the court after missing over 60 games recovering from a torn ACL. But now that the Magic have a healthy rotation of quality guards, we can look for clues about what could be in store for the future.
While Gary Harris and Terrence Ross are technically guards on the roster, we have already seen that both will most likely be given nights off, alternating playing time from game to game as the Magic prioritize development of their young pieces to end the season. Cole Anthony, Jalen Suggs, and RJ Hampton are all still 21 years old or younger, and the Magic would benefit from seeing which of those combinations work best with Markelle Fultz on the floor.
It’s abundantly obvious, even in the small sample size since his return, that Fultz is the best playmaker on the team. His ability to attack the paint with ease, dish from the pick and roll, kick out to his teammates in transition, and organize the team is unparalleled, relative to the other guards on the roster at this point in their careers. While Anthony, Suggs, and Hampton all have their various strengths, Fultz should be the guy running the show heading into next season. (See the article by Tim Lewis for more on Fultz).
But which player compliments the former number one overall draft pick the best? Thus far, we’ve seen Fultz play the majority of his time with Hampton, a combination that seems to work well as a result of Hamptons ability to shoot the three off the catch at a high clip (42.2%), according to NBA Advanced Stats. But the Magic need a snapshot of what Anthony and Suggs look like next to their talented point guard. Fultz can help create both young guards easier looks, increasing their confidence and production in the process. A lot may depend on if the Magic eventually lift the minutes restriction for Fultz, and if they do, they shouldn’t hesitate to enter experimentation mode and make this time valuable, in hopes of bringing a bit of clarity to the guard situation as they enter the off-season.
Can Jalen Suggs Take Another Step Forward?
It’s not unfair to say that Jalen Suggs, the Magic’s top selection in the most recent NBA Draft, has struggled this season. A player who many thought was one of the most “pro ready” prospects coming out of Gonzaga, Suggs has shown that the jump to the league doesn’t come without its growing pains. But that doesn’t mean the 6’4 combo guard hasn’t taken strides this season. Let’s break down his numbers.
Prior to injuring his wrist on November 29th, Suggs was shooting 43.6% on all 2P attempts, 21.7% on 3P attempts, while posting a 39.8 eFG%. He also shot 59% at the rim on a fairly large sample size, finishing 106/179 shots. This all at a 27.2% usage rate (how much of the team's offense a player is responsible for creating).
Following his return from injury on January 14th, Suggs has improved his 2P%, jumping up to 47.6%, while regressing from three, down to a dreadful 17.6%, placing him in the 34th percentile for all players at his position. The two changes in either direction largely leave his eFG% unchanged, up slightly to 40.9%. He’s also finishing better at the rim, using an impressive array of left-handed finishes to improve to a 63% finishing rate. His usage has remained virtually identical at 27%. Suggs' assist rate, or the percentage of made shots a player assists on, has also increased since his return, going from 25.1% to 28.1%.
It’s clear that Suggs has taken incremental steps in improving his game. He frequently displays flashes of the potential that got him selected so high in the draft, including elite level speed, excellent vision, and tenacious defensive effort, all while continuing to improve as a finisher at the rim. The game has clearly slowed down for Suggs since the first handful of games he’s played in the league, and It would be great to see the Gonzaga product begin to improve the most glaring weakness in his game right now, his jump shot. Once that happens, Suggs has all the tools to become a premier guard in this league.
Will the Magic Embrace the Tank?
As the season nears its conclusion, there is ongoing debate amongst Magic fans about what is best for this team: Play for the win or play for the tank?
It’s a question that has haunted Magic fans, and most likely the front office, for the last two seasons. Another season of 50 plus losses has taken its toll on the fanbase, and regardless of which side you fall on, most people just want to see the Magic put themselves in a position to return to contention in the Eastern Conference.
Last season, it was quite evident that the Magic brass were all in on the tank, dedicating heavy minutes to the likes of Ignas Brazdeikas, Chasson Randle, Dante Hall, and Sindarius Thornwell as they inched closer to the finish line. If the Magic continue to show signs of life as the tank wars draw closer, it will be interesting to see if they make a similar decision, choosing to rest their better players for their G-League counterparts.
Should they choose to do so, it would most likely come at the expense of players like Terrence Ross and Gary Harris, who have already seen their minutes diminish. Will they be shut down completely with “hamstring tightness” as the games dwindle down? Will Fultz continue to sit out back to backs and stay on a minutes restriction? Will the Magic simply rest a few of their players when facing other bottom feeders of the NBA like Detroit and Oklahoma City?
If the Magic string together more wins down the stretch, will the front office find value in establishing a winning atmosphere while simultaneously developing their young talent? Or will they prioritize the increased odds of finding a star that could bring it all together? The Magic have continually shown that they are willing to fight until the end to pull out a victory, the question is, will the front office continue to let them do so?
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