So far, it hasn’t quite worked out as planned, with the Magic having a defensively efficiency rating of 105.8.
This is the 19th best mark in the league, and is a disappointing number given their apparent commitment to being a top 10 outfit in this area.
It’s not all bad however, as offensively this team has shown signs of life in recent games that it can be an above-average organization going forward.
With their defense floundering, perhaps it is this unexpected offensive cohesion that can see the Magic force their way into the playoff conversation?
Jan 6, 2017; Orlando, FL, USA; Orlando Magic center Nikola Vucevic (9) passes the ball as Houston Rockets center Nene Hilario (42) defends during the first quarter at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
It should also be mentioned that the Magic currently have an offensive rating of 101. Only three teams are posting a lower number in that category (Miami Heat, New Orleans Pelicans and Philadelphia 76ers).
So it’s not like there is cause for celebration here. But since the turn of the calendar year, there has been a stirring in the Magic’s offensive output each night.
In their first win of 2017, over the New York Knicks, the team shot 15-for-31 (48.4 percent) from three-point range.
They shot 49.5 percent from the field in total, and despite Jodie Meeks carrying the team that night (23 points), everybody got involved.
Orlando Magic averaging 98.9 points per game this season, among league's lowest. They have 92 against the Knicks thru 3 quarters.
Although they would lose to the Atlanta Hawks in their next game (a contest they probably should have won), they still shot 9-for-10 from the free throw line. They also managed to shoot 43 percent from the floor. In both games, they weren’t always getting stops, but they were trading baskets with teams featuring high level offensive players.
To me, there seem to be two key momentum shifters across both games (and the loss to the Houston Rockets Friday night) that have improved this team’s offensive diversity.
The most important is the decision-making of Aaron Gordon. I’ve been quick to criticize him here in the past, but against the Knicks (22 points, six rebounds, six assists), Hawks (15 points, 10 rebounds, 54.5 percent from the field) and Rockets (18 points, six rebounds, seven assists) he has played like a budding star.
Central to this has been his decision-making in knowing when to shoot and when to set a teammate up.
As recently as two weeks ago, he was taking shots like this, when the better option would have been to pass the ball (all video via 3ball).
Gordon was taking too much out of possessions, and trying to beat the opposing team on his own despite having guys like Serge Ibaka, D.J. Augustin or Meeks open and available to shoot.
Contrast that with the game against the Hawks, and Gordon was buzzing on both ends, getting stops and creating space for his teammates.
This is vital when guys like Gordon, Ibaka and Fournier go to the bench. Against the Knicks, with Fournier injured, both guards started and blew New York out of the water early.
Meeks made his first three long range efforts, and scored 14 of the team’s first 31 points. Against the Rockets, Meeks had 19 points off the bench.
They have a certain understanding from all of their years in the league, Augustin being as reliable as backup guards get and Meeks being slept on as a result of injury. Meeks in particular is looking like a spark every time he comes off the bench, and he’s got one of the sweetest shooting strokes you’ll see.
It’s clearly effective as well, as he’s shooting 40.9 percent from three point range, the second-best mark of his career. This despite not playing with an All-Star level player, or really many guys who can spread the floor for him.
It’s tough to give him more minutes when he’s averaging a shade over 20 a night night. This is even more true when you consider the Magic want their young players to grow and thrive.
But if they’re serious about winning more games now, there’s a strong case that giving him more minutes would help. This is even more true when you consider Meeks has a defensive plus/minus of -0.8, the best mark of his career.
It’s also better than that of Fournier (-1.9), which is worth considering as the season continues.
The Orlando Magic may still be losing games, but there’s a growing confidence and diversity to their offensive game that is encouraging.
They now look competitive on both ends each night, despite what the numbers may say. It’s not enough to get them back into playoff contention yet, but it is a start.