ORLANDO — At last year’s All-Star break, the Orlando Magic were winners of only 15 games and had gone through a pair of double-digit losing streaks.
By that measuring stick, their second season with coach Jacque Vaughn and general manager Rob Hennigan in charge of rebuilding what was once a perennial playoff team has been an improvement. But even with everyone in the Eastern Conference other than the Miami Heat and the Indiana Pacers hard-pressed to get to or stay above the .500 mark, the Magic face an uphill fight to escape last place in the Southeast Division and contend for a seventh or eighth seed in the second half of the season.
It’s hard to overlook the Magic’s NBA-worst road record of 3-23. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t positive takeaways since the season began in late October.
Until last week, Arron Afflalo was averaging better than 20 points a game, numbers that led to serious discussion about him being a possible All-Star reseve. The selection of Victor Oladipo with the second pick in the draft has proved to be more than justified. And both Tobias Harris and Glen Davis are showing no lingering signs of the injuries that kept them sidelined for the better part of the first month.
”We’re trying to do the right thing,” Vaughn said. ”We’ve had some hiccups because of injuries and things of that nature. But overall, guys have gotten better. We’re trying to play the right way. And that’s playing together.”
Losses at home before Christmas to Utah, Sacramento and New York — teams that can hardly be construed as the roughest part of anyone’s schedule — were followed not long thereafter by a 10-game slide that finally ended Jan. 19 with a two-point victory over Boston.
”Losing that many games in a row isn’t fun,” Oladipo said. ”You don’t go out there with the intention of losing.”
Events of the past week — back-to-back victories over the Western Conference leading Oklahoma City Thurnder and Eastern Conference leading Pacers — have raised hopes that better days lie ahead.
Tobias Harris, F — What was expected to be his first full season with the Magic didn’t get going in earnest until the second week of December because Harris sprained his left ankle during the preseason. His high points include a 28-point, 20-rebound outing against the Los Angeles Lakers and a two-handed dunk at the buzzer last week that enabled the Magic to upset the Thunder. It remains to be determined whether he’s better off at the small forward or power forward spot. One thing is clear: his 3-point shooting production (16 of 84, 19 percent) is down from when the Magic acquired him a year ago in the trade that sent J.J. Redick to the Milwaukee Bucks.
Glen Davis, F — After nearly a 10-month rehabilitation of his left foot, Davis returned with a bang three weeks into the season, scoring 20 points in 26 minutes as the Magic almost knocked off the Heat. But performances such as that have been few and far between. Even when he scored 33 points at Philadelphia, including a rare 3-pointer that forced a second overtime, Davis grabbed only one defensive rebound in 50 minutes. His scoring (12.6) and rebounding (6.6) averages are up from his first season with the Magic, but down from a year ago. Davis was also overmatched defensively at times last month when he had to play extensive minutes at center.
Nikola Vucevic, C — Vaughn has a habit of not wanting to talk about the knack of some players to steer clear of injuries. That was the case with Vucevic in late December. Not long thereafter, Vaughn’s worst fears came to fruition as the 7-footer sprained his left ankle and then, in his first game back from that injury, suffered a concussion against the Los Angeles Clippers. The Magic went 2-12 without him in January. While he averaged close to a double-double in his first six games after being cleared to play, he didn’t block a shot in any of those contests. Had he not missed 18 games, Vucevic’s average of 10.8 rebounds would rank him in the top 10 in the league in that category.
Jameer Nelson, G — Compared to a year ago, when he missed 26 games with an assortment of ailments, Nelson’s 10th season with the Magic has been injury-free. And his assists-to-turnover ratio of 2.68 is almost identical to what he registered last season. But since missing two games early this month with a sore left knee, he is playing fewer minutes than usual, particularly in the fourth quarter. The franchise’s all-time leader in assists could be watching the torch at point guard being passed to rookie Victor Oladipo. That being said, there are no indications of playoff-contending teams in need of someone at that position lining up to obtain the 32-year-old Nelson before the trading deadline next Thursday.
Arron Afflalo, G — It has become almost a cliche for those around the Magic to rave how efficient Afflalo has become in his second season with them. But it’s absolutely true. He is on track to join a limited group of players that includes Kevin McHale and Shawn Kemp who have improved their scoring averages in each of their first seven NBA seasons. Perhaps more impressively, he nearly joined Larry Bird and Detlef Schrempf as the only players since 1986 with six consecutive games of 20 or more points while shooting 50 percent or better overall as well as from 3-point range. Barring injury, his career high of 108 3-pointers made — set in 2009-10 with the Denver Nuggets — should fall by the end of the month or early March.
Victor Oladipo, G — With the possible exception of the 76ers’ Michael Carter-Williams, no rookie has made more of an impact this season than the 6-foot-4 guard out of Indiana. NASCAR drivers and team owners might not discuss motors as much as Magic players and coaches do when it comes to describing Oladipo’s high level of energy. Although he has made 31 starts, he showed recently in wins over Detroit, Oklahoma City and Indiana that he can be just as effective coming off the bench. He’ll still have an occasional 3-of-16 or 4-of-14 shooting night, and his 171 turnovers rank among the most in the NBA. But the small group of players with more than him includes LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry.
Maurice Harkless, F — After losing his starting job in late November, the 20-year-old’s playing time, effectiveness and confidence all fluctuated. Except for the three starts he made when Afflalo was out with a strained right foot, he’ll rarely play more than 20 to 24 minutes a game now. But he has become a key part lately of the group that supplies the Magic with a boost to begin the fourth quarter.
E’Twaun Moore, G — With Nelson, Afflalo and Oladipo having missed a total of only nine games between them, it’s uncommon for Moore to play in excess of 14 to 16 minutes except in blowout losses. He’s still making close to 34 percent of his 3-point attempts, which was what he ended up shooting in 75 games for the Magic a year ago, and remains an above-average defender.
Kyle O’Quinn, C — Like Oladipo, Harkless and Moore, it’s becoming no surprise to see O’Quinn as part of Vaughn’s lineup at the start of the fourth quarter. It might not be reflected in his statistics, but he’s an adept passer and runs the floor extremely well for a 6-foot-10, 250-pound guy. His six blocked shots last week against the Pistons were notable on a team ranking 27th in the NBA in that department.
Andrew Nicholson, F — His 18-point first half off the bench opening night at Indiana, including two 3-pointers, is becoming a distant memory. Nicholson has made only four starts, compared to 28 as a rookie, and both his scoring average and field-goal percentage are down. The Magic are getting more from O’Quinn, a second-round selection in 2012, than from the 19th overall pick in that year’s draft.
Doron Lamb, G — In 28 games, he has attempted more shots from 3-point range (41) than from inside the arc (27). There’s too much of a logjam ahead of Lamb at guard for the 22-year-old to get consistent minutes.
Jason Maxiell, F — Signed over the summer after spending eight seasons with the Pistons, Maxiell started the first 10 games at power forward but has pretty much disappeared from Vaughn’s rotation with the return of Davis and the emergence of O’Quinn.
Ronnie Price, G — Another veteran who was added in the offseason, Price has played in 21 games but only two since Jan. 4.
Jacque Vaughn’s even-tempered demeanor might continue to confound fans who grew accustomed to the sideline histrionics of Stan Van Gundy, and his distribution of playing time has caused a fair amount of head-scratching. But his emphasis on teaching remains an area of great importance, given that the Magic’s roster is the fifth-youngest in the NBA. Seven players were born after the Magic played their first-ever preseason game in October 1989.
Arron Afflalo — No question about it. Opposing teams are concentrating more on trying to slow him down, and a combination of that and Afflalo’s average of playing almost 37 minutes a game are having an impact of late. But not since the days of Tracy McGrady have the Magic had a guard (and occasional small forward) capable of scoring like he can. An MVP argument can be made for Nikola Vucevic, seeing that their record in games without him is 2-16. But they’re also 0-4 without Afflalo.
Few expected Afflalo to play at this high a level after a severe hamstring injury last March. Those who have become numb to Afflalo scoring 20 or more points a night can make a convincing case for Kyle O’Quinn, whose play off the bench over the past month has made him the full-time backup to Vucevic.
Going into February, there wasn’t much to choose from outside of an early three-game winning streak which included trouncings of New Orleans and Brooklyn. But the Magic’s back-to-back come-from-behind victories over Oklahoma City and Indiana, the top teams thus far in their respective conferences, might have been as exciting as anything to have happened since the team moved into the Amway Center in 2010.
With six road games in less than two weeks after the break, including trips to Milwaukee and Philadelphia, the Magic will have an opportunity to show they can finally accomplish something of note away from home. Topping last season’s 20-62 record is all but a sure thing.