The Orlando Magic won the Southeast Division in 2018-19 mostly because somebody had to. Late in the season, it looked entirely possible that the division winner would post a losing record, and the Magic made the playoffs as a 7 seed because there weren’t 8 good teams in the other two divisions in the East (it turned out there were seven, with the Bulls, Cavs, and Knicks finishing 13-15 in the conference. The Southeast Division took spots 9 through 12 inclusive.)
Thankfully, the NBA did away with division seeding a few years back, so the 42-40 Magic didn’t get a top four seed gift-wrapped to them, which would’ve made the playoffs interesting as they started on the road against Boston and the Pacers and Nets played the Sixers and Raptors. That would’ve been weird.
Anyway, the point of all this is that a mediocre team might not win the division again this year, not with Miami looking at least five wins better and the Hawks something of a wild card as Trae Young and John Collins continue to develop their chemistry on a promising young team.
Vegas seems to agree, as the lounge act of Nicky Vooch and the Scrubs is actually penciled in to drop a couple of wins in the standings; their over/under is 40.5.
Will the Magic get better (or at least not get worse)? Or are they doomed to miss the playoffs as everyone around them improved more than they did?
2018-19 record: 42-40
2019-20 over/under: 40.5
Mind you, Nikola Vucevic is a legit All-Star laboring away in that tiny market of forgotten dreams and echoes of Shaqtertainment in the mid-1990s.
With career highs in both counting stats (20.8 points and 12.0 rebounds per game) and advanced stats (5.3 VORP, .193 WS/48, double-digit raw Win Shares, even a 25.5 PER), Vucevic made the leap from role-playing center to centerpiece of a franchise.
Will he regress in his age-29 season and make last year a fluke? Or is his giant jump in ability for real?
We Still Don’t Know About Aaron Gordon
Gordon is an enigma. He’s an electric athlete—getting robbed in the 2016 dunk contest, one of the three best in the history of All-Star Weekend (depending on how you feel about 1988 and 2000, possibly the best), proved that—but he’s also suffered from injury problems and inconsistency in actual games that count.
He played just 47 games as a rookie and 58 in 2017-18, but last year saw him in 78 games posting the aforementioned (and career-best) 2.0 VORP even as he posted a WS/48 below the Mendoza Line at .093.
He’s not a good 3-point shooter (34.9 percent), and his .507 eFG% isn’t going to impress anyone considering he’s supposed to be a wing forward in the Magic’s offense.
Likewise, 17.0 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 4.0 assists per 36 minutes isn’t much when he’s supposed to be the second-best player on a playoff team.
Gordon will continue to soak up minutes and he’ll continue to do so as a 35-win team kind of player. That’s bad for Orlando.
Markelle Fultz? Really?
The Magic acquired Markelle Fultz, who looks more and more like he’s going to join Anthony Bennett and LaRue Martin in the worst first-overall-pick ever debate, from Philadelphia last year, and they’re going to try to turn him into a salvageable NBA player while Augustin, who turns 32 in November, holds down the fort.
But consider this. Great first-overall picks take garbage franchises and drag them to the NBA Finals the way LeBron James did in 2007 and 2018. Good first-overall picks post solid if “the best guy in the draft went later” type numbers, and that’s true even for rookies on woebegone franchises like Deandre Ayton in Phoenix.
Busts do…whatever it is that Fultz has barfed out onto a basketball court so far in just 33 career games with a plug-awful .421 eFG% and even uglier .452 TS%—Fultz can’t shoot free throws either, his free throw stroke looking like Charles Barkley‘s golf swing.
Count me among those who see Fultz trying to make a comeback, faceplanting, and watching his career eat pavement.
The Intriguing Jonathan Isaac
If you just looked at counting stats and saw Isaac, who posted 9.6 points and 5.5 rebounds a game in 26.6 minutes (or 13.0/7.4 per 36), you’d think “here’s a guy who does nothing when he’s on the floor.
But the advanced stats are far kinder. Isaac’s greatly improved (though still somewhere short of “good”) .537 TS% and 1.1 VORP suggest a serviceable starter, although an .096 WS/48 on a team with 42 wins suggests a bit more room for improvement.
But Isaac is also just 22 years old as of this Thursday and made a huge jump from his rookie to sophomore season. It’s hard not to see him breaking out and making noise under Steve Clifford, who helped him develop after taking over from Frank Vogel last year.
Consider this a prediction that Isaac is going to threaten the 2-VORP mark, which in turn would be good for two wins for his team.
The Elephant in the Room
The fact still remains, however, that the Magic are a team that largely stood pat on a 42-win season, and that’s alarming when, as mentioned, Miami and Atlanta just within their own division got much better.
It’s hard to see the Magic being extraordinarily competitive, and you certainly don’t want to bet big on a team whose roster isn’t all that much different from the ones that were perpetual lottery dwellers for years.
But then again, just look at the difference the right coach made for them last year.
And that’s ultimately why I think the Magic have a legit shot at a playoff berth this year. I think Vucevic is in the perfect situation in Clifford’s scheme, I think Isaac is going to make a huge leap forward, and I think Gordon’s just good enough to be the third-best player in this new order.
Does that mean I think the Magic will be contenders? Of course not. I’m just seeing somewhere between 42 and 46 wins for this team (with an average of 44), enough to beat that Vegas prediction.
I’m calling them Plausible and taking the over.
NEXT: Minnesota Timberwolves.