The Orlando Magic have been largely thought of as a tanking team ever since Dwight Howard was traded. In the three seasons following the Howard trade, Orlando has finished with records of 20-62, 23-59, and 25-57. Those records were bad enough to land them the 2nd, 4th, and 5th overall picks in the 2013-2015 NBA drafts.
Orlando, however, was the envy of the teams involved in the Howard trade, as they acquired young star Nikola Vucevic, while the other teams involved lost the pieces they received in the trade the year after, as Howard left the Lakers, Andre Iguodala left the Nuggets, and Andrew Bynum left the 76ers following the 2012-2013 season.
Along with the double-double machine Vucevic, Orlando has promising guards Elfrid Payton and Victor Oladipo, excellent wings Evan Fournier and Tobias Harris, a plethora of talented young big men like Aaron Gordon, Dewayne Dedmon, and Andrew Nicholson, and some veterans mixed in the bunch like C.J. Watson, Jason Smith, and Channing Frye. They also have rookie Mario Hezonja, a highly touted European prospect drafted 5th overall by the team in 2015.
The potential on this team was never questioned. The variable in this equation was timing. Just how long would this team take to gel? Well the answer appears to be now. Orlando has a 19-14 record (.594,) which is their best since the 2010-2011 season. The team’s record is even more impressive when one takes out the eight game stretch in the beginning of the season when Orlando was figuring out their starting line-up. Taking out the 2-6 record with one of their three total starting line-ups this season, Orlando is 17-8 (.680,) which would be the 5th best record in franchise history if expanded over an 82 game season. So the question has to be: what is different about this group than the previous three seasons that saw a cumulative record of 68-178 (.276.)
This Magic group is easily the best coached since the Stan Van Gundy teams. Scott Skiles came in to the coaching job with a reputation for making the most out of young talent and he sure has lived up to it. In similar fashion to how he turned the Chicago Bulls around (23-59 record in 2003-2004 to 47-35 in 2004-2005,) and the Milwaukee Bucks (26-56 record in 2007-2008 to 46-36 in 2009-2010,) Skiles now has the Magic playing hard and efficient basketball.
The Orlando Magic had three horrible net ratings during the years they were coached by Jacque Vaughn and James Borrego. They were outscored by 7.5, 5.7, and 6.1 points per 100 possessions the past three seasons. Under Skiles, the Magic are now the ones outscoring their opponents by 3.1 points per 100 possessions. Their defensive rating is 5.2 points better than last season, and relative to the entire NBA, the Magic are 8th in the league. Their offensive rating is 3.7 points better, and the mark of 105.3 is 13th in the NBA.
|2015-16||Orlando Magic||19||13||.594||94.7||105.3||102.5||S. Skiles (19-13)|
|2014-15||Orlando Magic||25||57||.305||93.8||101.6||107.7||J. Vaughn (15-37), J. Borrego (10-20)|
|2013-14||Orlando Magic||23||59||.280||93.6||101.7||107.4||J. Vaughn (23-59)|
|2012-13||Orlando Magic||20||62||.244||92.2||101.6||109.1||J. Vaughn (20-62)|
The effect of this increased efficiency is because of coaching adjustments to Orlando’s line-ups and style of play. As I mentioned earlier, Orlando was 2-6 with their starting line-up that began the season, and 17-8 with their two most recent line-ups. Skiles made an, at the time, questionable decision to remove Victor Oladipo from the starting line-up after that eigth game. Oladipo was Orlando’s second leading scorer last season, so it couldn’t have been an easy decision for Skiles, but the team has responded brilliantly.
|Net (Per 100 Poss)|
|1||A. Gordon | A. Nicholson | J. Smith||150:00||+.083||+.024||+.071||+18.3||+2.2||+3.4||-8.2|
|2||C. Frye | T. Harris | N. Vucevic||370:30||+.043||+.043||+.042||+15.0||+2.2||+5.5||-5.9|
|3||C. Frye | E. Payton | N. Vucevic||325:25||+.041||+.042||+.036||+14.5||+1.7||+6.1||-5.9|
|4||E. Fournier | C. Frye | T. Harris||362:36||+.047||+.079||+.052||+14.0||+2.8||+5.6||-5.0|
|5||C. Frye | T. Harris | E. Payton||355:56||+.044||+.044||+.041||+13.5||+1.8||+6.0||-5.4|
|6||A. Gordon | A. Nicholson | V. Oladipo||177:09||+.085||+.039||+.080||+13.2||+2.6||+3.0||-4.8|
|7||E. Fournier | C. Frye | N. Vucevic||336:15||+.035||+.058||+.035||+13.1||+2.0||+5.5||-5.8|
|8||A. Gordon | V. Oladipo | J. Smith||183:49||+.052||+.038||+.044||+12.0||+2.5||+2.9||-6.1|
|9||E. Fournier | C. Frye | E. Payton||328:21||+.033||+.062||+.036||+11.0||+1.1||+5.9||-5.1|
|10||A. Nicholson | V. Oladipo | J. Smith||195:47||+.057||+.083||+.055||+9.1||+2.0||+1.8||-3.4|
Each of the team’s top ten three-man groups are among solely the starters or solely the bench players. This is a major indication that Oladipo and the bench have tremendous chemistry, and so do the Oladipo-less starters. In all of the top ten three man groups, the other team is out assisted, outshot, and they are considerably outscored. Oladipo appears with the bench players in three of the top ten groups, and the player inserted in the starting line-up in place of Oladipo, Channing Frye, is in six of these top ten groups with the starters.
Oladipo is a great player nonetheless, but his score first style of play combined with his below average shooting is just not what the starting line-up needed. The team already has Elfrid Payton, Tobias Harris, and Evan Fournier as guys who can handle the ball. Payton, Fournier, Harris, and Vucevic needed Frye’s floor spacing (46.1% from three this year.)
Similarly, the bench needed a player who could create his own shot (especially with backup point guard C.J. Watson’s injury.) Oladipo was able to do this pretty effectively against starters (17.9 points per game on 43.6% shooting in 2014-2015,) and against bench players, Oladipo is even more dominant. From being a starter to being a bench player, Oladipo’s plus minus has gone from -4.4 to +10.2. His teammates are better too as shown by the three-man net points chart. This personel decision has made all the difference for the Magic, who are now playoff bound in the now-best Eastern Conference.
Another big part of this team’s development is maturity. The Magic didn’t have any significant off the court problems in years past, but instead this was, and in someways still is, a team full of kids. The magic have been a top five youngest team, and still are, every year since the Howard trade. A lot of them came into the NBA as teenagers whose bodies and skillsets aren’t fully developed. Younger players also have a reputation for playing worse defense.
Orlando only has three players this season with more than four years of experience, but those few years of experience their other players have have been meaningful, as evidenced by their record.
The Magic have simply transformed into a playoff contender through these past few years of learning. This franchise is one of the NBA’s brightest, and once they get their second string point guard Watson back, they will be even better. Not many people have gotten to see them this season due to the NBA’s national TV schedule planners not forseeing the Magic’s emergence, but come playoff time, the Magic will have a very sizable audience.