Orlando Magic Power Rankings Roundup: Numbers never lie

Nikola Vucevic, Orlando Magic, Charlotte Hornets

Dec 28, 2016; Orlando, FL, USA; Orlando Magic center Nikola Vucevic (9) holds back Charlotte Hornets center Frank Kaminsky III (44) during the second half of an NBA basketball game at Amway Center.The Hornets won 120-101. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

The Orlando Magic are still muddling around at about .500 since December began. Their numbers suggest they are defying the odds. And no one can figure it out.

The Orlando Magic are one of the most mystifying teams in the league.

One game they are up, the next they are down. Then they are up again. They play well one week and look like a Playoff team. The next, they look lifeless as if they barely belong in the league.

This has been the story all year long. And, nearing the season’s midpoint, it is quickly becoming part of the team’s identity. At 16-20, the Magic are still 1.5 games out of the Playoffs, but there is still plenty of skepticism about that Playoff bid.

And it is completely warranted.

If statistics and analytics are to be believed, the Magic are overperforming their play so far.

According to Basketball-Reference’s Pythagorean Wins formula, the Magic should be 13-23 this season. This is based on the strength of their schedule and the results in those games, using offensive and defensive rating as an indicator of the team’s strength. Orlando is playing three games better than their statistics suggest.

Indeed, net rating — the different between a team’s offensive rating and defensive rating — is typically a better indicator of a team’s overall health in the long term of a season than anything else. Orlando struggles mightily there. The team has a -4.5 net rating, 25th in the league.

By this measurement, Orlando is one of the 10 worst teams in the league and hovering near the bottom five. The teams similar to them in net rating are the 10-24 Dallas Mavericks and the 14-19 Sacramento Kings.

The stats do not favor the Magic. Certainly, the numerous blowout losses weigh down the Magic’s overall offensive and defensive ratings. But that is part of the team’s profile too. There is no hiding from the team’s struggles. And these numbers clearly show the Magic have some fundamental problems.

Or maybe they are a mirage. The only thing that matters at the end of the day is that record. And Orlando is right there fighting for the team’s playoff life.

Frank Vogel, Orlando Magic

Dec 18, 2016; Orlando, FL, USA; Orlando Magic head coach Frank Vogel reacts against the Toronto Raptors during the first quarter at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Marc Stein, ESPN.com

1

Cleveland Cavaliers

(25-7)

Last week: 2-1 record
Last rank: 1st

LeBron James awoke Friday on his 32nd birthday with 27,544 points, 7,289 rebounds and 7,057 assists in 1,015 regular-season games. Michael Jordan had amassed 21,541 points, 4,219 rebounds and 3,935 assists in 667 regular-season games as of his 32nd birthday. The better comparison, in terms of points scored, is where Kobe Bryant was at 32, since both he and LeBron turned pro straight out of high school, but Bron has the edge there as well (27,544 to 25,790). Wednesday’s home win over Boston, meanwhile, hiked the Cavs to 24-2 overall (regular season and playoffs) when James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love all score at least 20 points.
24

Dallas Mavericks

(10-24)

Last week: 1-3 record
Last rank: 23rd

Seven players out there actually sank more 3-pointers than Curry did in December. And Dallas’ Wesley Matthews was unexpectedly one of them, joining Eric Gordon, Kyle Lowry, James Harden, Ryan Anderson, Klay Thompson and Zach LaVine. Harrison Barnes, meanwhile, is now up to nine 25-point games — after just three in his first four pro seasons — having scored exactly 25 in his return Friday night to Oracle Arena. No one in Dallas, though, is getting too excited yet. The Mavs are 4-4 since falling a season-high 14 games under .500 at 6-20, but it takes a lot more than that to get noticed in Big D when the Cowboys are 13-3.
25

Orlando Magic

(15-20)

Last week: 1-2 record
Last rank: 21st

Frank Vogel’s second return to Indianapolis as a visiting coach (Sunday’s 117-104 setback to the Pacers) didn’t work out much better than the first (Orlando scored only 69 points in an 18-point loss there Nov. 14). Yet perhaps we should be complimenting Vogel, because most of the metrics frankly suggest that the Magic should be farther down the standings than they actually are, whether it’s the fact that they rank 25th in net rating at minus-5.0 (which is computed by adding up Orlando’s offensive and defensive efficiency ratings) or simply by looking at average point margin (10-25 Miami is at minus-3.5 compared to the 15-20 Magic’s minus-4.5).
26

Phoenix Suns

(10-24)

Last week: 1-3 record
Last rank: 28th

It’s easy to forget that it was almost exactly a year ago that the Suns lost Eric Bledsoe to season-ending knee surgery. Twelve months on, Bledsoe is playing some of the best ball of his life, most recently with his third 20-and-10 game of the season to nudge Phoenix to an unexpected win over the Raptors. And before you try to downgrade the W by pointing out that the Raps were on the second night of a back-to-back, don’t forget the host Suns had played on the road the night before. Rookie guard Tyler Ulis, meanwhile, has moved ahead of Brandon Knight in Earl Watson‘s rotation, signaling Knight’s availability to the league via trade with even greater volume.

Stein definitely goes harsh on the Magic, placing them between two 10-24 teams. The Magic are not even really that bad statistically.

It seems the emotions and feelings about the Magic go as the team’s last game went. It feels like the sky is falling after every crushing defeat, and it feels like the team is OK after every win. The Magic felt that between Sunday and Monday (Stein prints his power rankings on Monday).

This is the Magic’s season at this point.

Bismack Biyombo, Orlando Magic, Kemba Walker, Charlotte Hornets

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

Jeremy Woo, Sports Illustrated

1

Cleveland Cavaliers

(25-7)

Last week: 2-1 record
Last rank: 1st

Barring some unforeseen disaster, the Cavs are probably gonna hang on to this spot until the Warriors rematch on Jan. 16. That game comes at the end of a 10-day, six game Cleveland road trip.
19

Chicago Bulls

(16-18)

Last week: 2-2 record
Last rank: 15th

It didn’t take long for the predictable Rajon Rondo exodus to get going. He’s handling it like a pro, which is nice, but it would behoove the Bulls to be proactive for once.
20

Orlando Magic

(15-20)

Last week: 1-2 record
Last rank: 21st

The Magic had the NBA’s second-best defensive efficiency in November, then fell to No. 24 in December. Although the offense ticked upward, Orlando needs to find a happy medium sooner than later.
21

Portland Trail Blazers

(15-21)

Last week: 2-2 record
Last rank: 20th

It’s encouraging to see C.J. McCollum drop 43 and nab a win with Damian Lillard out. It’s also encouraging for his trade value, if the Blazers ever decide to break up that backcourt. Love them as an offensive tandem, but on the other end of the ball, you do start to wonder if it can work long term.

The Orlando Magic’s biggest problem is encapsulated in Jeremy Woo’s comments about the Magic in this week’s power rankings on Sports Illustrated. The Magic’s defense oscillates like crazy.

For now, Orlando is on a downtick defensively. In fact, the Magic have been down defensively for longer than they have been up. And that is the troubling part for a team that was trying to build a defensive identity.

Orlando still gives up 100 points with regularity. And the Magic do need to find balance.

Jan 2, 2017; New York, NY, USA; Orlando Magic guard Elfrid Payton (4) looks to pass being defended by New York Knicks guard Brandon Jennings (3) during the second quarter at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

Jan 2, 2017; New York, NY, USA; Orlando Magic guard Elfrid Payton (4) looks to pass being defended by New York Knicks guard Brandon Jennings (3) during the second quarter at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

Matt Moore, CBS Sports

1

Cleveland Cavaliers

(26-7)

Last week: 2-1 record
Last rank: 3rd

Kyrie Irving averaged over seven assists per game in December, becoming much more of a playmaker. They won their signature game on Christmas, and as of Monday have a three-game lead over the Raptors. You have to think LeBron’s annual sabbatical to Miami is just around the corner. The Cavs are running out of regular-season stuff to focus on.
14

Indiana Pacers

(17-18)

Last week: 2-2 record
Last rank: 18th

Paul George sounds depressed about his situation. Imagine if they get worse? They have a tissue-soft schedule in January. If the Pacers don’t go over .500 this month, they need to consider major changes.
15

Orlando Magic

(16-20)

Last week: 1-2 record
Last rank: 23rd

This team is the gnat of the Eastern Conference. They’re insignificant and easily defeatable, but they just keep buzzing around. They had won three of five before Sunday’s loss to Indiana, somehow. The Magic are the third-worst team in the East via Basketball Reference’s Simple Rating System, but keep finding wins like the loose change you pull together to get a burrito at midnight.
16

New York Knicks

(16-18)

Last week: 0-3 record
Last rank: 17th

They beat the bad teams (13-4 vs. teams under. 500) and lose to good teams (3-13 vs. teams at or above .500). That is New York’s model. Their playoff hopes may honestly come down to how their opponents are playing at the time they meet.

The Orlando Magic were the biggest climbers, moving up eight spots in Matt Moore’s rankings this week. But like he said they are a gnat.

By all measures, the Magic should be readying to tank or making a panic trade. They are not though. Orlando is right there in the Playoff hunt and trying to sneak in.

Weird, right?

Aaron Gordon, Orlando Magic, Mike Conley, Memphis Grizzlies

Dec 26, 2016; Orlando, FL, USA; Orlando Magic forward Aaron Gordon (00) shoots with center Nikola Vucevic (9) looking on as Memphis Grizzlies forward Jarell Martin (1) and guard Mike Conley (11) defend during the second half of an NBA basketball game at Amway Center. The Magic won 112-202. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

John Schuhmann, NBA.com

1

Cleveland Cavaliers

(25-7)

Last week: 2-1 record
Last rank: 1st

Kyrie Irving is one double-digit assist game (he’s got six, with five in his last seven) from tying his career high (seven), but the Cavs still haven’t figured out how to win without LeBron James, who missed Monday’s loss in Detroit. They have won the last 12 games James has played (and eight of the 12 wins have been over teams currently at or above .500), getting 33 points from Jordan McRae and Kay Felder when Irving missed Saturday’s win in Charlotte with a hamstring injury. And now they’re finally going to play a game outside the Eastern and Central time zones.
23

Minnesota Timberwolves

(11-23)

Last week: 2-2 record
Last rank: 23rd

Ricky Rubio has been a difference-maker for the Wolves in previous years, when they’ve generally been much better with him on the floor than with him on the bench. But with the offense being run more through Andrew Wiggins (using 14.4 ball screens per game, up from 8.8 last season) and Karl-Anthony Towns (4.7 post-up possessions per game, up from 3.1), there’s a greater need for a point guard who can shoot. Kris Dunn gave the Wolves a spark and did some fancy dribbling against Portland on Sunday, but has shot a little worse (31 percent) than Rubio (33 percent) from outside the paint thus far. The two combined to shoot 3-for-14 outside the paint in Wednesday’s loss in Denver as the Nuggets liberally double-teamed Towns in the post and dared the point guards to beat them.
24

Orlando Magic

(15-20)

Last week: 1-2 record
Last rank: 20th

A big game (30 points on 11-for-14 shooting) from Aaron Gordon against Memphis on Monday had the Magic just a game out of eighth place in the East. But they lost their two more important games last week, as their defense got eviscerated by the Hornets on Wednesday and by the Pacers on Sunday. Though they’re 8-14 in the conference, they have the worst NetRtg (minus-8.2) in games played between East teams. And that loss in Indiana was the start of what is the East’s toughest January schedule.
25

Dallas Mavericks

(10-24)

Last week: 1-3 record
Last rank: 24th

The Mavs won the pace battle against the Lakers on Thursday, but didn’t have as much success in slowing their opponents down in their other three games last week. Over the four games, they were outscored 72-15 in fast break points. Monday’s loss in New Orleans, in which the Pelicans had to take only seven shots in the last six seconds of the shot clock, was most damaging to any hopes the Mavs have of climbing into the scrum for eighth place in the West. The offense is there, but the defense won’t be until Andrew Bogut can start playing regular minutes. After logging 32 in his first two games back from a 11-game absence, he sat out Friday’s visit to Golden State, the second game of a back-to-back.

Whereas the Orlando Magic were the biggest riser in CBS Sports’ power rankings, they had the biggest drop of four spots in John Schuhmann’s power rankings this week. Like we always say, this team is weird.

Aaron Gordon is a big part of that inconsistency. His 30-point game against the Memphis Grizzlies was a big sign of all that is good. And then his poor performance against the Charlotte Hornets was about as low as the team could get.

Orlando’s inconsistency is seen in many places. And no one seems capable of figuring out this team.

Elfrid Payton, Orlando Magic, Brandon Jennings, New York Knicks

Dec 22, 2016; New York, NY, USA; Orlando Magic point guard Elfrid Payton (4) controls the ball against New York Knicks point guard Brandon Jennings (3) during the second quarter at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Gerald Bourget, Hoops Habit

1

Cleveland Cavaliers

(25-7)

Last week: 2-0 record
Last rank: 1st

Here’s a scary thought for the rest of the league: Despite just reaching his 32nd birthday, LeBron James might be as good as he’s ever been for the Cleveland Cavaliers. Every time the Cavs face a supposed Eastern “threat,” the King and his increasingly dangerous court dismantle it.

This week featured wins over Boston and Charlotte, with Kevin Love dropping 30 and 15 and Kyrie Irving supplying a 32-12-5 stat line against the Celtics. Speaking of which, although Kyrie missed the Hornets game with a hamstring injury, we should mention that he’s averaging 10.0 assists per game over his last seven contests and has reached double-digits in that category in five of them.

19

Detroit Pistons

(16-20)

Last week: 1-2 record
Last rank: 16th

The Detroit Pistons aren’t down and out just yet, but forgive us for not being particularly excited about their lone victories in their last seven games coming against the Heat and the LeBron-less Cavaliers.

Reggie Jackson is starting to look more like his old self, and Tobias Harris is averaging 21.8 points and 8.0 rebounds per game since he was moved to bench duty, but the wins haven’t been coming. Keep an eye on this team as the trade deadline creeps closer, because Stan Van Gundy hasn’t been shy about his disappointment with this team.

20

Orlando Magic

(16-20)

Last week: 1-2 record
Last rank: 17th

As the 2017 NBA Trade Deadline approaches, we have to wonder whether the Orlando Magic will kick the tires on Nikola Vucevic and/or Elfrid Payton. Would it be foolish to give up a young player with upside like Payton? Undoubtedly. But that didn’t stop the front office from doing the same with Victor Oladipo and Tobias Harris, so why stop now?

The Magic are only two games out of the eighth seed in the East, but after so many shortsighted moves, a first round sweep at the hands of the Cavaliers can’t be the end game here. Welcome back to that lottery life, Orlando.

21

Denver Nuggets

(14-19)

Last week: 1-1 record
Last rank: 20th

Oh, Denver Nuggets. Every time we get close to trusting you to overtake Sacramento’s playoff spot and bring some semblance of sense back into the world, you go and pull a fast one on us.

This week was the perfect example, when a well-balanced win over the Timberwolves — capped off by Wilson Chandler‘s game-saving block and a 16-11-8 stat line for Nikola Jokic — was completely undone by a loss to the lowly Sixers. Jokic and Gary Harris are fun, but some consistency for this team would be nice.

The Orlando Magic will create plenty of intrigue as the trade deadline approaches. They have a ton of movable assets. But their goals are still unclear.

Actually, their goal is clear — to make the Playoffs. The question is how much are they willing to tie their franchise down to do that. And can they actually improve the roster with the assets they have?

Orlando will be a team to watch for the next month and a half with the deadline on the horizon.

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