Surveying the Extremely Depressing Stats of the 2017 Orlando Magic

Something about the Orlando Magic always suckers me in around this time of year. Year after year I find myself trying to get excited about the chances of this team making the playoffs. And every year they are absolutely abysmal.

I was starting to do it again this year. I’ve been rallying around the idea of Aaron Gordon finally playing the four, and the frontcourt rotation going back to normal now that Serge Ibaka and Jeff Green are gone. I think I like the Johnathon Simmons signing and I definitely like drafting Johnathan Isaac — though it is funny watching the Magic flail around to try and avoid adding any shooting to the roster whatsoever.

So today I sat down ready to write my “I’m in on the Magic, again!” piece. But then I took a good, hard look at their team from last year. And my god. This team was just awful. Like, truly awful to its core. I looked as hard as I could, and I found few diamonds in the rough, and only a couple of positive trends to latch on to.

One of my main theories about the Magic was that Nikola Vucevic has been at the core of their issues. Frank Vogel did some great stuff with some very flawed teams in Indiana, including making back-to-back conference finals. Elite defense was at the core of that success. Elfrid Payton, Evan Fournier, Simmons/Isaac (I’m going to call them The Johns), and Gordon should all be plus-defenders. But it‘s hard to win games as a defensive juggernaut when your starting center is an immobile non-rim-protector — opponents shot 61.5 percent within six feet of the basket when Vucevic was protecting the rim, the third worst among bigs that protected the rim at a comparable volume.

I thought the first step for Orlando would be to dump Vucevic and give more minutes to backup center Bismack Biyombo. As flawed as Biyombo is, he is at least the type of big the Magic need in that spot to be able to compete defensively. Taking a deeper look at the Magic’s statistical profile, it may be a bit more complicated than that.

The Magic sported a defensive rating — which is just points given up per 100 possessions, essentially points per game just with the variable of pace of play removed — of 106.1 in the 2163 minutes Vucevic was on the floor, which is right around league average. The Magic had an even worse 108.2 defensive rating with Biyombo on the floor (some of these minutes were shared with Vucevic), and an even WORSE 110.5 in the 1796 minutes Vucevic was on the bench. The Magic were great defensively in the 274 minutes the two bigs shared the floor, oddly enough, sporting an excellent 102.6 defensive rating (with an almost impossibly bad 95.5 offensive rating).

A lot of those positive defensive metrics for Vucevic are tied to, for some reason, new Cleveland Cavaliers forward Jeff Green. In the 751 minutes Vucevic and Green shared the floor, they were one of the team’s best defensive pairs, with a 103 defensive rating. About half of those minutes came with Serge Ibaka on the floor as well, and that’s where they found real success defensively with a rating of 98.6. When you replace Vucevic with Biyombo in that trio, you find one of the team’s least successful lineups. Those three gave up a defensive rating of 115.9 in 124 minutes, which is very, very bad.

Vucevic’s success with Green and Ibaka on the floor is one of the few positives available in the Magic’s statistical portfolio. Unfortunately, it isn’t that positive due to the fact that two of those three guys are gone, with only Vucevic remaining. But it does show that if you put Vucevic in the right lineups, he won’t kill you defensively. Those numbers also tell us Biyombo may be a lot worse than I thought.

What the Magic need to figure out for this year is how they can replicate what worked, and get rid of what didn’t. Most of this will come down to how Vogel manages the frontcourt rotation, which will now be Gordon, Vucevic, and Biyombo, with some stretch four minutes thrown in from the Johns, Damjan Rudez, and Terrence Ross. Simmons and Isaac will both be wild cards — Simmons showed a lot of defensive potential in San Antonio, but Pau Gasol played good defense for the Spurs too, so that doesn’t count for much — and Isaac is a rookie.

Let’s try to get an idea of how the returning pieces will fare in their new lineups. Biyombo and Aaron Gordon were awful on the floor together in 849 minutes, giving up 106 points per 100 possessions while scoring only 101. But about half of those minutes came with Ibaka at the four, and Gordon miscast at small forward. Those lineups were a disaster, getting outscored by 8.4 points per 100 possessions.

When the two instead shared the floor with Terrence Ross, the small forward who replaced Serge Ibaka, they found some positive results, outscoring opponents by 2.5 points per 100. That isn’t elite, but by 2017 Magic standards, it’s pretty good. When Gordon and Ross were on the floor with Vucevic, the defense was miserable, but the offense was fantastic in 465 minutes.

Those lineups are replicable this year, and the Magic can improve on them as well. Ross seems like the Magic’s savior based on the stats — but he isn’t really that good, necessarily. He is a fine defensive player and a fine three point shooter, finding the net 36.3 percent of the time from deep last year. That just shows how desperate the Magic were for competent wing play. So they were wise to go out and add Isaac and Simmons. If those guys give them elite defense and average or above-average scoring, lineups with Gordon and Vucevic could end up a net-positive.

If Vogel has the good sense to split Biyombo and Vucevic’s minutes at center and spread all of the power forward minutes between Gordon, Ross, The Johns, and Rudez — a career 37 percent three-point shooter who I just have a weird affection for for some reason — things could be looking up.

After Ibaka was traded at the deadline for Ross, the Magic’s two most played lineups were Payton, Fournier, Ross, Gordon, and Vucevic, and the same lineup but with Vucevic switched out for Biyombo. Both lineups scored the ball at an incredible rate but basically gave all of those points back at the other end. Both lineups outscored opponents by 1.4 points per 100 possessions, which is essentially within the margin of error for such a small sample size, only 410 and 105 minutes, respectively.

Quick fun fact, the Magic’s third most-played lineup post All-Star break played 61 minutes together, and is one of the absolute worst lineups I’ve ever seen:

How on earth this lineup was allowed to played in eight different games for a total of 61 minutes is beyond me.

Anyway, it is a huge struggle to find positive defensive metrics for the 2017 Magic that don’t include Serge Ibaka, which is a big time concern for the future considering Ibaka is gone, and they now don’t have anyone who can come close to imitating what he does on the court.

On the other hand, none of the Ibaka lineups that could play defense could produce on the other end. When Gordon replaced Ibaka at power forward, the team was strong offensively, but a disaster defensively.

It seems the best plan of action for now is to surround Gordon and Vucevic with the best perimeter defenders possible. Let Payton and the two bigs take care of the offense — that trio had an excellent offensive rating of 112.4 in the 514 minutes they played together after Ibaka was traded — and get Fournier, Simmons, Isaac, Ross, and others to compete defensively as well as possible. The Magic also have a small amount of cap space ($2.1 million) and the room midlevel exception ($4.3 million) that they can and should use on a remaining free agent — Ian Clark or Terrence Jones would be my picks.

The main positive for the Magic is the play of their young point guard Elfrid Payton. He and Vucevic were the only players on the roster who seemed to consistently make the team better. With Payton on the floor, the Magic were outscored by 2.9 points per 100 possesions — not good, for sure. But without Payton, they were outscored by a whopping 12.2 points per 100.

Payton is limited. He is lacking mainly in, of course, shooting, which is exacerbated by the fact that he is on the Magic. But he is an active defender and great at a lot of the pure point guard stuff. The Magic were actually an average offense when Payton was on the floor, and scored at a rate that was five points per 100 possesions worse than the worst offense in the leagu when he was on the bench. Orlando needs more, but that’s something.

Overall, it seems my original thesis about Vucevic was correct — I was just wrong about the Biyombo part. If the Magic ever want to become truly great, Vucevic will seriously limit them as he is incompatible with the rest of their parts. In order to compete defensively, he needs a second conventional big next to him who can protect the rim. Aaron Gordon is not that. But when you put Gordon at small forward and put a rim protector at the four, it becomes impossible for the team to score.

The Magic essentially have to choose between Gordon and Vucevic. They are two talented players that simply can not play together.

All these years of tanking post-Dwight Howard trade has allowed the Magic to collect a good deal of complementary talent. Payton, Simmons, Isaac, Fournier, even Ross is a solid ninth man. But what that tanking has not gotten them is their franchise player.

Vucevic and Gordon have both been thrusted into that role at different times. Vucevic’s shortcomings made it clear he wasn’t the guy, but if you look closer at Gordon’s numbers, his chances at becoming a franchise guy don’t look great either.

To be fair to Gordon, he has played out of position for most of his career. But after Ibaka was traded to the Raptors, he was given the keys to the car, and finally got his minutes at power forward. The results were just not all that different.

  • Gordon, before the All-Star break: 11.2 points, 4.6 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 42.8 FG%, 29.2 3FG%, 27.6 minutes.
  • Gordon, after the All-Star break: 16.4 points, 6.2 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 50.3 FG%, 28.0 3FG%, 31.2 minutes.

Gordon was indisputably better once he started playing the four. But what if that’s it?

Gordon’s most favorable comp coming out of college was Blake Griffin. And the dunks and athleticism are there, for sure. But Blake is a ball handler, a willing and smart passer, and shoots at a decent efficiency at a good volume from all over-the-court. Gordon seems to have no passing instincts at all, isn’t much of a ball handler, and has shown basically no shooting ability. On top, Blake Griffin’s 2017 shooting splits, and on the bottom, Aaron Gordon’s:

It’s not encouraging for Gordon. Griffin’s percentages aren’t outstanding, but his volume is much higher, and he shoots 35 percent or better from five different places on the floor. Gordon can basically only score when he is in the restricted area — which makes it even more egregious that he was ever stuck playing small forward. But that just isn’t enough to carry a franchise.

Gordon is about to start his fourth year, with his restricted free agency looming next summer. He still needs to develop a jumpshot, passing, rebounding, and elite defense in order to maximize his potential. It’s a tough proposition — but that’s probably why you aren’t supposed to waste three years of a player’s career playing him out of position.

There’s only room to get better after a dismal 2017 campaign for the Magic. But if their future rests on Aaron Gordon and a million guys with potential who can’t shoot — things may just keep staying the same.