Jan 8, 2017; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers center Timofey Mozgov (20) defends a shot by Orlando Magic guard Elfrid Payton (4) in the first half of the game at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
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The Orlando Magic have reached the midpoint of their season. It has been a strange 41 games. The OMD staff looks back at the surprises and disappointments.
The midpoint of the season has arrived. Believe it or not, the team passed game 41 with the Orlando Magic’s 115-109 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers on Friday. The run to the Playoffs is officially underway.
Heading into Saturday’s game against the Utah Jazz, the Magic are 17-24 and 3.5 games out of the final Playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Getting to the Playoffs is not impossible, but it will take a massive win streak. The Washington Wizards currently sit in eighth place with a .500 record.
It would seem 41 wins would have to be the goal for the Magic to make the Playoffs — at a minimum. And that is a long road to go for a team that has been as inconsistent as this team has been.
The Magic entered the season preaching defense. Their offseason acquisitions of Serge Ibaka and Bismack Biyombo suggested they would be dominant defensively and start a block party. Really only one game this season has seen that kind of defensive mastery.
And, except for a two- or three-week stretch in November and early December, the team’s defense has been a massive disappointment. The offense, as expected, has struggled.
At the midpoint of the season, the Magic are 27th in the league in offensive rating, scoring 100.8 points per 100 possessions. They are, more disappointingly, 16th in the league in defensive rating, giving up 105.7 points per 100 possessions.
The team knew a league-average defense was not going to get the job done and help Orlando achieve its goals.
Inconsistency was the mark for the first half to the season. The Magic never seemed able to keep an identity or build any momentum from one game to the next. Bad weeks would follow good weeks and good games would follow bad games. That was about all the Magic could count on.
There have been some landmark wins that make everyone believe this team has Playoff talent and potential. There have also been some devastating losses — losses that are too tough to ignore.
The second half of the season will require change for the Magic to become successful. But before we dive deep into the final 41 games this season, we take a look back at the first half of the season.
We gathered the Orlando Magic Daily staff to discuss what went well and what did not in the first half of the season. And where the Magic need to go next.
Dec 23, 2016; Orlando, FL, USA; Orlando Magic forward Aaron Gordon (00) drives to the basket as Los Angeles Lakers center Timofey Mozgov (20) defends during the second half at Amway Center.Orlando Magic defeated the Los Angeles Lakers 109-90. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
1. What has gone right for the Orlando Magic in the first half of the season? What signs of encouragement are there?
Zach Palmer (@FmrTankCommandr): I would say the biggest sign of encouragement so far is that Aaron Gordon looks capable of playing the small forward spot. Gordon still struggles to drive by guys who play the small forward spot, and he clearly needs to improve his ball handling if he wants to stay there full time. But his improved shooting and ability to play perimeter defense allow him to play there. Honestly, I believe all of these improvements actually make him an even better option at the 4 but the fact he is capable of playing the 3 is a nice sight for the Magic.
Muhammed Jumani (@MuMuJumani): I would have to agree with Zach on this one. Aaron Gordon is the only one out of the young core the Magic have who has shown flashes of stardom. He has successfully guarded and contained some of the opposing offensive superstars. One recent example is James Harden, whom Gordon held to a poor 5-for-15 shooting night. Gordon has developed his jump shot very well, he has been knocking down open 3-pointers off the catch and has at times been able to create his own shot. He has shown he can take the ball in his own hands and make plays for not only himself but for others as well. As a forward, those qualities are always a positive trait to have on a team. However, Gordon would be more effective at the 4 due to his speed and athleticism along with the ability to defend and make plays.
Philip Rossman-Reich (@omagicdaily): Not a lot has gone right for the Orlando Magic in the first half of the season. There are pockets of positivity, but nothing cohesive. But I will give Frank Vogel some due credit. He is the brightest spot for the Magic so far, largely. Vogel was given a sort of misshapen roster with a win-now mantra and has done a lot to get them going in the right direction. He has wrung out Nikola Vucevic’s best defensive season of his career (all while a shot blocker like Bismack Biyombo seems very out of place). If there is hope, it is that the young players do seem to be thriving. Aaron Gordon seemed like a bad fit at small forward, and there were hiccups, but it seems like the experiment is working more and more. If Vogel has a weakness it is his inflexibility with his rotations. But as the team moves forward, Vogel should help the team tremendously.
Ryan Doyle (@RDoyle27): This has been a rough first half of the season for the Orlando Magic. They are on the outside looking in when it comes to the playoffs and no one can tell which direction this team is headed towards. I have seen some positive signs from this team, however. First and foremost has been the development of Aaron Gordon. Gordon has not turned into a star player overnight but he has shown some great things on the offensive end. He has an improved jump shot and has been able to have some big scoring nights throughout the year. I also like the improvement from Nikola Vucevic. I was very critical of his defense heading into this season but he has really worked at it and has become one of the better defenders on this Magic team.
David Iwanowski (@davidiwan1): I really do not have much to add here, as Aaron Gordon’s step forward and Nikola Vucevic’s defensive improvement has been covered. Serge Ibaka’s play has also been encouraging. Although I do not expect him to remain on the team for the entire season, his play may have boosted his trade value to the point where someone might trade a decent amount for him despite his upcoming expiring deal. The new CBA has a higher incentive for players to remain on their teams, so perhaps someone will roll the dice and trade a strong package for him, which would help the Magic in the long run.
Dec 28, 2016; Orlando, FL, USA; Charlotte Hornets guard Kemba Walker (15) drives past Orlando Magic center Bismack Biyombo (11) during the first quarter of an NBA basketball game at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports
2. What is the biggest thing the Orlando Magic must improve to salvage the season?
Palmer: Defense. How in the world is this team so poor defensively? The Magic have their second straight defensive-minded coach, they spent a ton of assets and money this offseason to improve the defense and they are still awful on that end of the ball. In reality. there is a myriad of issues on that side of the ball for the Magic. The most prominent issue being outside of Aaron Gordon the Magic do not have a decent perimeter defender on the team. None of the perimeter players seem to have any idea how to navigate pick and roll defense, they do not seem to know when help needs to be brought, and nobody is capable of pressuring the ball. The bigs have disappointed on that end too, but part of that is on coaching. Bismack Biyombo is certainly capable of defending 4s from an athleticism standpoint, but when he is pulled out of the paint he is not blocking shots or rebounding. Frank Vogel also needs to be willing to matchup with teams instead of thinking he is going to force a mismatch. This past week against the Houston Rockets, Vogel attempted to have Nikola Vucevic defend Sam Dekker. It did not go well. Do not outsmart yourself, play Jeff Green or Aaron Gordon on him.
Jumani: Consistency while building an identity. When the season first started, the Magic for a couple weeks were ranked first in the NBA in defense while their offense struggled. This resulted in the Magic picking up good wins due to the tough defensive-minded identity they instilled within themselves. Even though their offense struggled, they were able to hold teams under triple digits and grind out ugly wins. As a result, the Magic had great success, especially on the five-game road trip where they went 4-1. After that road trip, the Magic were not consistent on defense, which resulted in the struggling position the Magic are in right now. The Magic have to have an identity of how this team plans to win games on a consistent nightly basis. If the Magic want to get into the Playoffs, they must play with consistency and get a few string of wins in a row to help them have a chance come April. A record of 17-23 is certainly not satisfying and, at this point, the Magic have to truly ask themselves, whether they believe aiming for the Playoffs is the best plan for the better of this franchise, both long term and short term.
Rossman-Reich: Defense first, defense second, defense third. The Orlando Magic wanted to build their identity on that end. They acquired Serge Ibaka and signed Bismack Biyombo to anchor what they believed would be a top-five defense. When the Magic were playing their best basketball, it was because their defense had risen to the very top of the league. That three-week stretch in November and December were frustrating for the low scores, but that kind of defense was what could carry the Magic forward. Why the team went from one of the best to one of the worst defenses in the league is the greatest mystery this season. And the one the Magic must reverse to accomplish anything this season.
Doyle: As Philip and Zach said, defense is the key. The Orlando Magic were projected to have one of the best defenses in the league but that just has not been the case. The addition of Bismack Biyombo and Serge Ibaka have not transformed this defense into an elite one. The Orlando roster is never going to score that many points so if this team can somehow figure out how to play great defense, things will change. It’s not a longshot for this team to make the playoffs if they can play great defense because the eastern conference isn’t that good.
Iwanowski: They need to focus their team around Aaron Gordon. Whatever that means, whether it be playing him more minutes, changing his role to more time at the 4, running more plays that bring out his strengths. To me, salvaging the season means not wrecking the franchise going forward as I do not see them making the Playoffs. Thus the team should focus on developing Aaron Gordon as much as they possibly can. Trading at least one of the three big men is a likely step towards this goal.
Nov 9, 2016; Orlando, FL, USA; Orlando Magic forward Jeff Green (34) pumps his fist against the Minnesota Timberwolves during the second half at Amway Center. Minnesota Timberwolves defeated the Orlando Magic 123-107. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
3. What is the biggest need the Orlando Magic must address ahead of the trade deadline?
Palmer: The biggest need for Orlando right now is to free up playing time at power forward for Aaron Gordon. This means the Magic need to ship Nikola Vucevic out without blocking more time at that spot. The Magic need to see how effective a lineup with Ibaka at the 5 and Gordon at the 4 can be.
Jumani: The biggest need for the Magic is to free up time at the shooting guard and small forward spot. They must give Mario Hezonja playing time to see how he performs when given consistent minutes off the bench. The Magic must trade Jeff Green for this to happen. Green has been perhaps the Magic’s worst player on both ends of the floor. There is no reason to keep a player who cannot help a team win due to the lack of effort on defense and an inconsistent showing on offense on a nightly basis. Shooting 39.1 percent from the field and 29.6 percent from behind the arc is not worth giving minutes to. Doing all this just to have Hezonja, who has a possibility to blossom into a really good player as opposed to Green, who only has a few years left in his career. Benching Hezonja made sense at first when the Magic coaching staff made that decision. But with Green struggling, it only makes sense to finally give Hezonja some minutes.
Rossman-Reich: They need better perimeter defense, probably at point guard. Elfrid Payton has improved defensively from last year’s abysmal year. But he has struggled to hold down the starting spot. And D.J. Augustin is just not good defensively. Orlando’s defense is the biggest issue facing the team. If the Magic play better defense, they could easily climb back into this Playoff race. It feels like that is a long way away. Ibaka has seemingly returned to his defensive numbers of the recent past. The guards though continue to struggle to keep their man in front of them and recover and rotate. Orlando has Aaron Gordon manning the best perimeter scorer, they need a point guard who can lead defensively. This is probably the biggest area of need and upgrade.
Doyle: The biggest need for the Orlando Magic is as Philip said, perimeter defense. Far too often are the big men left on an island because an opposing guard blew by his man. The Magic have had a problem with perimeter defense for a while now and not one of their guards plays defense well. From Evan Fournier to D.J. Augustin, the Magic do not have a stopper up top. This is something the Magic should probably look to get through a trade near the deadline. With improved perimeter defense, the talented bigs can wreak havoc in the paint for the remainder of the season.
Iwanowski: I may not be the Tank Commander, but I have definitely been a fan of focusing on the future rather than this pipe dream of competing for current success. The Magic NEED to remember the path to the championship is a long process unless you can sign a top-five player. Thus Orlando cannot sacrifice the team’s entire future for veterans to help them MAYBE make a run at a bottom seed in the East and get embarrassed on national TV.
Dec 2, 2016; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Orlando Magic forward Aaron Gordon (00) and forward Serge Ibaka (7) celebrate a score against the Philadelphia 76ers during the second half at Wells Fargo Center. The Orlando Magic won 104-88. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
4. What player has been the biggest surprise for the Orlando Magic this season?
Palmer: The biggest surprise to me is just how futile Orlando’s defense has been. I am not sure how the defense is this bad. It honestly defies all logic but here we are.
Jumani: The biggest surprise has been Serge Ibaka. He has done well contributing as the Magic’s first or second option, at times. He has shot the ball really well from beyond the arc, shooting a career high 39.1 percent. He has done a great job at being patient on offense, he does not force up contested jump shots, he remains patient and looks for the best shot available. He has done well passing out of the post to shooters on the perimeter as well. It is only the second time in his eight-year career he is averaging at least one assist per game. Many fans, along with the national media, were unsure of what the Magic were thinking when they acquired Ibaka. But the Magic have gotten exactly what they expected from Ibaka.
Rossman-Reich: Aaron Gordon has been the biggest surprise to me. I started the year very skeptical of the idea of Gordon playing the 3. I felt the season would turn on the success or failure of this experiment. And, for sure, he still has a long way to go. But I have become a believer in this experiment. I think Gordon’s future in this league is as a 3. His perimeter defense is too valuable. And with another (healthy) summer to work on his ball handling and shooting, he can emerge as a strong offensive option too. I have never been higher on Gordon’s potential.
Doyle: The biggest surprise to me has to be Aaron Gordon. I truly felt Gordon was just going to fall flat on his face at small forward. For a short time, it looked like he might. But he turned it around and has played pretty well there. There are still some glaring holes in his game, but the development he has gone through is amazing. The Magic have to hope this type of play will continue. Because if it does, things may change quicker than anticipated in Orlando.
Iwanowski: My biggest surprise is Jeff Green. I thought this was FINALLY the year he puts it all together and becomes a star scorer! In all seriousness, I am surprised Evan Fournier has not taken the step forward to becoming the offensive player the Magic had hoped he would become after signing him to an $85-million deal. His shooting percentages have regressed, and the four percentage points decline in his 3-point percentage, despite his volume being the same, is alarming. The Magic considered him to be a core part of their franchise because of his offense, and he has not progressed the way the franchise had expected, although he is still 24 years old.
Nov 19, 2016; Orlando, FL, USA; Dallas Mavericks guard Seth Curry (30) controls the ball against Orlando Magic center Bismack Biyombo (11) as guard Justin Anderson (1) looks on during the second half at Amway Center. The Magic won 95-87. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports
5. What player has been the biggest disappointment for the Orlando Magic this season?
Palmer: Jeff Green for me. I was actually one of the few people who liked and defended that signing, but I was definitely wrong about this one. Green is a bipolar player and it seems to stem from effort. I mean, yeah Green has not been able to shoot from the perimeter this year, but his defense is all effort. Some games he looks like a reasonably good defender and others he just kind of stands in place and goes through the motions. In addition to playing extremely inconsistent basketball, he is taking minutes from Mario Hezonja. That is not really Jeff Green’s fault, it is more on Frank Vogel. But it certainly makes the signing even more disappointing than it already has been.
Jumani: Due to the big contract Bismack Biyombo signed and looking at his lackluster performance on the defensive end this season, I have to say he has been the biggest disappointment. Biyombo has the fourth-worst field goal percentage allowed at the rim on the team, at an even 50 percent. The Magic players worse than him are C.J. Wilcox, Damjan Rudez and Stephen Zimmerman — and these players rarely get minutes. This year, Biyombo has been very ineffective on defense plain and simple. Last year his field goal percentage allowed at the rim was a very impressive 43.7 percent. Biyombo, who is a one-dimensional player who only contributes on the defensive end, simply has to be better than this poor performance in order for the Magic to even have a crack at making the Playoffs.
Rossman-Reich: Bismack Biyombo has been the biggest disappointment. Salary certainly plays a part of it. But I think everyone expected him to be strong defensively. The fact the Serge Ibaka-Nikola Vucevic defensive pairing has looked better than the Serge Ibaka-Bismack Biyombo defensive pairing says it all. Biyombo and Ibaka are not erasing everything at the rim — save one game against the Los Angeles Lakers. Instead, they are overplaying and giving up shots around the basket. There is a lack of discipline in the way Biyombo roams. Biyombo wants to be a leader on this team and says a lot of the right things. His energy is good. But I think the Magic expected a lot more from him for what they signed him for.
Doyle: Bismack Biyombo is the biggest disappointment. After signing a huge deal in free agency, he just has not had the impact I was expecting. It really seemed like he turned the corner in that series against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the playoffs last season. Sadly, he has not been the deterrent many felt he could be. Biyombo was never going to do much of anything on the offensive end, but his work on the glass has been abysmal. There is still plenty of time to turn things around but the key for Biyombo is going to be discipline. If he can stay disciplined and hone in on making the smart play, things will get better.
Iwanowski: I was a Mario Hezonja believer, I truly was. I always thought it was because of Scott Skiles‘ harsh treatment of rookies he was not able to thrive last season, and I thought it was because of Croatia’s coaching staff’s questionable decision making that he did not play a huge role in the Olympics. But the fact every coach has reserved Hezonja to a bench role, including current coach Frank Vogel, is very alarming. Hezonja has flat out not been good when he has played. I expected him to play a significant role in the offense this season, and he has not even played well enough to get playing time over Jeff Green and Damjan Rudez. If he continues to disappoint, that draft pick will end up being a key reason for the sad state of the Magic franchise, especially with the quality of players in that draft.
Who are your surprises and disappointments from the first half of the season. What do the Magic need to do to right the ship? Join our roundtable by answering these questions in the comments below or interact with us via our Twitter accounts and @omagicdaily.