Achtung Panzer! The 6-25 Orlando Magic

The Orlando Magic inexplicably beat the Brooklyn Nets Saturday night to run their record to 6-25, still second-worst in the league ahead of only the dreadful Detroit Pistons, but they should’ve been 5-26 after playing the likes of Brooklyn, even with three Nets players in health and safety protocols and Kyrie Irving in anti-vaxxer hell.

But in the grand scheme of the 2022 NBA season, the Magic didn’t exactly upend the order of the Eastern Conference. Coming into the Brooklyn game, Orlando was 28th on offense, 29th on defense, and 30th for Net Rating…in a 30-team league.

They’re third up from the bottom in eFG%, fourth-worst in opposing eFG%, they commit too many turnovers (sixth-worst in TOV%) while not generating enough turnovers defensively (fifth-worst.)

The only offensive metric in which the Magic aren’t completely terrible is free throw shooting (17th in FT%), but they’re seventh-worst in FTR, so that doesn’t help them much.

They’re tenth in 3PAR, but they’re the fifth-worst 3-point shooting team in the league.

They’re 20th overall in shots taken inside 3 feet, but they’re the third-worst finishers.

And they play at the 13th-fastest pace in the league, which only amplifies their opponents’ advantage, offering more possessions in a game for the law of averages to take over and Orlando to lose.

Youth Movement

Of course, a big part of this is because Orlando is one of the youngest teams in the league. Like Detroit, they’re giving young players some run in hopes of turning them into quality NBA players someday.

Their five principal starters are all 23 or younger. They’ve got a couple of guys for bench leadership—Robin Lopez is 33 and Terrence Ross is 30, while Gary Harris, the sixth man, is 27.

But for the most part they’re running guys out there who are younger than a lot of college players.

The Weird Part

But here’s the thing. Orlando’s young guys are the only players on the team who aren’t complete trash. Five Magic players have measurable positive VORP (Lopez’s VORP rounds to zero.) Those five guys are Wendell Carter Jr. (22, 0.7 VORP), Cole Anthony (21, 0.4), Mo Bamba (23, 0.4), Franz Wagner (20, 0.2), and Moritz Wagner (24, 0.1.)

What this means in practice is that the Magic have a team they can build around, all on rookie contracts, just waiting for the right veteran spark plugs off the bench to take off and start winning in a hurry.

That’s not to say that the guys they’re running out there as starters are championship-caliber as a lineup—their starting lineup, if they had a league-average bench, would probably win 35 games, but 35 is a lot more than the 16 they’re on pace to win (and, had they not beaten Brooklyn, that would’ve been 13, like Detroit the fourth-worst single season in the 21st century.)

So What’s Wrong With This Team?

Part of it might be coaching—Jamahl Mosley, an assistant in Dallas, got his first-ever NBA head coaching gig this year, and he’s not off to a good start. He was an assistant in Denver when Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson were busy underachieving there in the late aughts. He was an assistant in Cleveland when LeBron James wasn’t there. And most of his tenure as a Dallas assistant came when the Mavericks were plug-awful.

The track record doesn’t exactly scream “guy who deserves a promotion.”

The front office is infamously bad, but at the same time, they’ve spent the past three years drafting guys who are, even at an age where they would still have eligibility left if they’d stayed in college, a 35-win team on paper, and that’s with pure, raw talent that shouldn’t be expected to be contenders independent of a strong veteran presence on the bench and a good coach on the sideline.

So What Does This All Mean?

Honestly? I have no idea. Because some things are self-evident. Players who are still years away from their prime don’t make the playoffs when you run five of them out as a lineup. The last thing a young team needs to develop is a completely untested coach. And it’s not like you can attract marquee free agents to Orlando, a city better-known for the players they drove out of town—Shaquille O’Neal, Anfernee Hardaway, Tracy McGrady, and Dwight Howard—than for the players they’ve kept on.

The Magic might be real good real soon, a sleeper for the 2024 playoffs. Or they might be a team going nowhere that will lose that core of players to other teams as soon as their rookie deals are up and the Magic can’t justify overpaying for guys who never won anything.

In any event, they’re 6-25 and fast-tracked for the second pick in the 2022 draft. So we’ll be seeing another guy possibly too young to drink in the starting lineup next season.