I feel… good (?) about the Orlando Magic

Death, taxes, and the Nikola Vucevic/Aaron Gordon/Evan Fournier core not getting split up by the deadline. For six and a half seasons, the Orlando Magic were lead by this group to rather mixed results. I’d be remiss if I didn’t express the frustration of the past three years in the Steve Clifford era. I fundamentally believe that the roster assembled could have been a 4 or 5 seed if they’d been able to remain healthy. There was always an untimely injury mid-season as the Magic were finding momentum; Vooch’s foot injury, Jonathan Isaac’s unfortunate injury against the Wizards last season.

No team has kept me up at night quite like the Steve Clifford Magic, making me ponder “Well if…” more than I care to admit!

However, it also has to be positted that this roster had seemingly been at war with itself for a few years now. An awkward hodge-podge of young talent and well-paid veterans. It was never Nikola Vucevic being paid that was the problem, it was the signing of players like Khem Birch that was frustrating as an observer. Khem Birch is a very good player, one of the better back-ups in the league, and I throughly enjoy watching him play. But, signing a player like Birch to fill out the rotation and block the path of younger talent picked 6th overall is vexing.

Mo Bamba needed playing time, but Khem Birch was better in a vacuum, and the Magic mandate was to win games. Bamba’s lack of development is a conglomeration of very difficult extraneous circumstances (injuries and COVID) and the front office simply not prioritizing his development. Could Clifford have found more avenues to play Bamba? There’s always a choice, but if that results in 3-4 less wins and the front office and ownership wants to make the playoffs, we know who’s going to play.

So while I don’t always agree that playing for the 4-6 seed is mediocrity, the Magic did it in a way that felt mediocre. They left very little to no wiggle room to move upward, which is what ultimately culminated in this trade deadline. Winning is a good thing, but capping your ability to keep improving is problematic organizationally. It’s not easy to simulatenously develop players and win games, but at the same time, if you’re going to draft someone with a lottery pick, you have to have a real plan or path to them finding meaningful minutes and significance in the rotation.

By moving on from their veterans and bringing in some intriguing young players with high-end upside in Wendell Carter Jr. and R.J. Hampton, the Magic have finally chosen a path that seems to align with their roster.

Last week against the Lakers, I watched the Magic roll out possibly the worst spaced line-up of the year in the association; Michael Carter-Williams/James Ennis/R.J. Hampton/Khem Birch/Wendell Carter Jr. with Ennis the only shooter above league-average at 45% (albeit on low volume), the next best shooter? R.J. Hampton who’s shooting a crisp 27.6% on the year.

And yet, I feel better about the future of the Magic today than I did before the trade deadline.

Chuma Okeke

Every time I watch Chuma Okeke play basketball, I grow more emphatically optimistic about his future. Chuma’s ascension up the ballhandling and shot creation food chain in Orlando over the past month has become almost ritualistic viewing at this point. Each game, he flashes something new that sparks curiosity.

I began to expect plays like this from Okeke roughly two weeks into the Magic’s season.

Now he’s starting to pull out late shot clock self-creation.

Off-dribble shotmaking.

And the floor vision that’s been apparent all year is getting utilized more in the half court (the two man game between Chuma and Wendell Carter Jr. is budding).

I don’t have a definitive guess or prediction on what Chuma can be, but his uptick in on-ball reps and creation opportunities this season will be significant for his development. It sounds cliche, but he quite literally is growing more comfortable as his skillset blossoms.

To give a frame of reference: Per tracking data, Okeke ran a grand total of 2 pick and roll possessions as the ballhandler in 58 games at Auburn. He’s run 14 just in the past 6 games since the trade deadline. Each possession is another high-level rep for Chuma to experiment and learn on the fly. It’s not just the ballhandling, as Okeke’s overall usage and scoring load have increased immensely over the past month.

Statistic/MetricSince March 12th (13 games)Since March 26th (6 games)
Minutes Per Game26.633.5
Per Game Averages10.6/4.7/2.416.2/6.3/3.5
FGA per game8.713
Shooting Splits46/37.5(3.7 pg)/9448.7/38.5(4.3 pg)/100
Usage %16.5%19.3%
Assist to Usage.87 (82nd %ile).83 (80th %ile)
Assist to TO Ratio2.4 : 1.13.5 : 1.5
Per Cleaning the Glass

While it’s certainly a small sample size, Okeke has only played in 34 NBA games after missing what would have been his rookie year. His offense is burgeoning, and if you haven’t seen Orlando play, I can assure you, the defense is here.

I am incredibly intrigued by what he and Jonathan Isaac look like together. As mentioned on the Premium Hoops Podcast today with Beyond the RK, it’s hard to imagine a better defensive tandem manning the starting forward spots. Okeke is already well on his way to becoming an elite point of attack defender, while flashing great instincts in help and some occasional weakside rim protection.

It is rare for a player of Okeke’s size to not only be able to fight through and over screens, but to also have the tenacity he does at the POA.

As his footwork improves on the perimeter, he’ll only improve; He’s got remarkably quick feet, but has a slight tendency to get them going to fast in the wrong direction and can get caught like he does by James Johnson here every now and again.

Okeke has cemented himself as part of the Magic’s core plans moving forward while also endearing himself to league pass junkies.

Future of the Magic

What’s most intriguing to me about the Magic is that this is the perfect year for them to make this move. One of the most unpredictable seasons in NBA history has led to the opportunity for this team to draft likely high in the lottery. This gives the Magic a swing at drafting a creator/initiator that they’ve desperately been searching for.

I do not at all anticipate this team tanking moving forward. Moving on from three mainstay players in a core shake-up gives the front office fantastic stealth tank stock to use this season. But, this team has never really been a team that tries to bottom out. Ever since the Dwight Howard trade in the 2012 off-season, this team has been trying to remain relevant while drafting, coupled with poor internal development and decision-making, and that didn’t play out until the new front office took over.

I also don’t thinkt this team NEEDS to bottom out, nor should they. That is not a viable strategy for the majority of NBA franchises. There is something to building up a consistently good team, developing well internally, and fostering something that has continuity (Read non-Tampa Raptors).

High level playoff contention is impossible without competency.

This young group of players should not be undersold.

The frontcourt of Chuma Okeke, Wendell Carter Jr., and Jonathan Isaac has the potential of becoming a dominant defensive unit.

Adding Isaac back into the mix with what this group is already capable of without him is tantalizing. It’s easy to forget how good Isaac is due to how the last year has gone for him. But, he was playing with legitimate DPOY impact last season (99th %ile in D-LEBRON and Defensive RPTOR as well as top 5% in Defensive RPM and Luck Adjusted RAPM) prior to injury and was a lock to make my All-Defensive team. His offense is still a work in progress, but he’s not just a solid wing defender, and he just recently signed a 4-year extension that starts next season.

He has a ways to go in regards to becoming a positive impact offensive player, but playing in a less crowded or at least more ideal front court for him along with better guard play (Yes, Cole Anthony and Markelle Fultz surpass the past three years of Orlando’s guard rotation) should ease the offensive pressure.

I’m higher than most on Markelle Fultz and still think he’s more than capable of being a plus starter with some All-Star upside. It remains to be seen how he’ll be impacted by injurt, but he had some brilliant flashes at the beginning of the year and I’m really hopeful for him. His journey to get to where he’s at now has been rough, and you just feel for him and hope that he can stay on the court. What he can do with the ball in his hands is the hinge that the Magic’s offense seems to rely upon at the moment, although that will likely change after the draft.

Cole Anthony plays basketball tonight! He’s been electric this year, but inconsistent, because he’s a rookie, so he’s suppose to be inconsistent! I really like what he brings as a shot-maker long term. I know the playmaking isn’t picturesque right now, but again, his individual scoring gravity is going to be a boon for this team as he progresses.

Wendell Carter Jr. and R.J. Hampton have both already flashed in Magic uniforms since joining the team. I don’t have a massive knowledge base with R.J. as I didn’t scout him in the NBL, but I’ve liked what I’ve seen from him thus far, but he clearly is pretty raw still. WCJ has been one of my favorite young players for a while, and I’ve been ecstatic with some of his renewed confience. He’s shooting *some* threes, and Orlando will undoubtedly need every ounce of spacing they can get. Process over results. He doesn’t have to hit them right away, but just taking them is huge for his development.

I’m not sure what happens with Mo Bamba. If he’s not part of the Magic’s future, I honestly hope they trade him somewhere he can get a real shot to develop. He’s getting more opportunity now post-deadline and has had some promising flashes, but largely has been a mixed bag.

And lest we forget, the team still has numerous solid veteran players. My biggest hope of the next year and a half is that Gary Harris’ offense is resuscitated in Orlando.

Regardless, this team has a brighter future today than it did two weeks ago, and I’m certainly intrigued by how they’ll start to gel and develop.

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