What the first half taught us about the Orlando Magic

Frank Kaminsky, Charlotte Hornets, Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon, Orlando Magic

Dec 9, 2016; Charlotte, NC, USA; Charlotte Hornets forward center Frank Kaminsky (44) drives to the basket and is fouled by Orlando Magic center Nikola Vucevic (9) (left) and defended by forward Aaron Gordon (00) during the second half of the game at the Spectrum Center. Hornets win 109-88. Mandatory Credit: Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

The Orlando Magic were chock full of question marks heading into the 2017 season, and they still are. But the team’s rocky 16-23 start has taught us a lot about what will and will not work.

The Orlando Magic franchise changed directions this past offseason, abandoning a rebuild period in order to win now. Personnel shifted dramatically along with it. Orlando moved younger players and prospects, adding established veterans and former Indiana Pacers coach Frank Vogel took the reins completely changing the team’s identity.

An awkwardly constructed, frontcourt-heavy roster led to a flurry of debate and skepticism. Even with the season nearly half over, there are still a ton of questions left to answer.

The season’s first 39 games have been full of the inconsistencies that come along with experimentation. And experimentation is a necessary part of managing a roster that underwent so much turnover.

That said, it is hard to argue the team has not underachieved. Regardless of schemes and tactics, the Magic seemed equipped personnel-wise, at the very least, to put forward a strong defense.

It has not been all gloom and doom, though. Serge Ibaka is having one of the best offensive seasons of his career, Aaron Gordon has played great defense as a small forward and Nikola Vucevicc has taken a massive leap defensively.

We still have a lot to wonder about with this team. But here are four big preseason questions the 39 Magic games have answered.

Aaron Gordon is not Paul George

Before the season began, Frank Vogel said he intended to use Aaron Gordon similar to how he used Paul George in Indiana. This would mean playing him at the 3 while delegating more ball-handling, playmaking and shot creation duties to the young forward.

It did not take long for him, and pretty much everyone else, to realize that experiment was not working.

Gordon is simply a different player than George. He succeeds more when he gets to play close to the basket, instead of dribbling around the perimeter either to create his own shot or run a pick-and-roll.

Taking a look at the numbers from NBA.com he produced during this stint as a wing player and ball handler, it is clear Gordon needs to be able to take advantage of his athleticism around the rim to contribute offensively.

But this does not necessarily mean he has to play power forward.

Despite playing most of his minutes at small forward, Gordon has been able to showcase his blossoming post game from time to time. Especially when he plays alongside stretchy bigs like Nikola Vucevic and Serge Ibaka, Gordon still is able to get opportunities inside.

Importantly, when he is at the 3 instead of the 4, he often gets to play against smaller defenders.

Here, Gordon is matched up against Lakers guard Jordan Clarkson, whom Gordon backs down for an easy hook.

These mismatches have also allowed him opportunities for cuts and putbacks.

With Gordon playing on the wing here, he easily sneaks around Nicolas Batum for a tip-in.

On this play, Gordon blows by the smaller Kyle Korver who has no chance at preventing him from attacking the rim on a cut like this.

He also showed his defensive chops covering James Harden against the Rockets. His length and athleticism allowed him to stifle the MVP candidate on many possessions while his defensive IQ prevented him from getting into foul trouble, a fate that many of Harden’s defenders have suffered when trying to put hands in his face.

All that said, it is still clear this is a suboptimal situation. Gordon is on the wing not because it is his best position, but because his best position is overcrowded. This still shows when he turns the ball over and clanks open jumpers.

Aaron Gordon is Aaron Gordon, not Paul George. They simply have different skills and that is fine. He can succeed at small forward, given that he still gets to play like Aaron Gordon.

Mario Hezonja, Orlando Magic, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Charlotte Hornets

Dec 28, 2016; Orlando, FL, USA; Charlotte Hornets forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (14) defends a pass from Orlando Magic guard Mario Hezonja (8) during the second half of an NBA basketball game at Amway Center.The Hornets won 120-101. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

This might not be the team for Mario Hezonja

It is hard to improve and develop without getting your share of legitimate opportunities. Practice and occasional garbage-time minutes can only get a young NBA player so far before he reaches a crossroads: to break out, or not to break out?

For Mario Hezonja, 2017 looked to be the season where he might be able to show the Magic and the NBA universe what he is really made of.

Building off of a solid rookie campaign wherein he showed flashes of the dynamic, high-octane scoring that enticed the Magic to draft him fifth overall, a sophomore campaign would theoretically allow him more stability either to start flourishing or to stagnate.

Unfortunately for Hezonja, the jury is still out because he just cannot seem to get on the floor.

He is still a prospect. So naturally, he has his fair share of shortcomings he needs to work through — like his defense. But the win-now Magic have decided they cannot afford to let him make mistakes and learn from them as all prospects need to do.

Until the Magic decide to mail in the season, which probably will not be until the 11th hour with the playoffs completely out of reach, it is safe to say 2017 will not be Hezonja’s year.

Hezonja might just have to hope for a trade elsewhere. He is under contract until the Magic have a club option in 2019.  Of course there is a strong possibility Hezonja simply has not shown in practice what it takes to play real NBA games.

But, in either case, he would probably prefer to play on a rebuilding team that has decided it can afford to let young players like himself make mistakes and lose games until he develops.

If Orlando does not trade him, then he will just have to cross his fingers the front office decides to undergo another rebuild process that will allow him to play meaningful minutes. Or for Hezonja’s hard work to show itself and force his way into the rotation.

Serge Ibaka, Orlando Magic

Dec 23, 2016; Orlando, FL, USA; Orlando Magic forward Serge Ibaka (7) reacts and celebrates against the Los Angeles Lakers during the second half at Amway Center. Orlando Magic defeated the Los Angeles Lakers 109-90. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Serge Ibaka is . . . Serge Ibaka

When the Magic traded for Serge Ibaka this past offseason, many wondered whether he would continue to regress, like he had the past few seasons in Oklahoma City, or if he would provide the Magic with the elite, versatile defense and scoring punch that they needed.

Turns out, moving to a team that would involve him more was just what the doctor ordered.

Ibaka is currently posting career highs in points per game, assists per game and usage rate while maintaining career lows in turnovers. If advanced metrics are your thing, his Player Efficiency Rating right now aligns with his very best years.

From almost every spot on the floor, he is making shots at a higher clip than he has since 2014.

His defensive rating is a career-worst 107 points per 100 possessions, but that should be taken with a grain of salt as individual defensive ratings can be skewed by a team’s overall defense (see next slide).

What should be more concerning is his continually regressing shot-blocking ability, which, moreso than shooting, can be a strong indicator of aging and decreasing athleticism.

Playing alongside another shot-blocker like Bismack Biyombo will inevitably reduce shot-blocking opportunities, but that alone does not account for his block numbers being around half of what they were at his peak.

That said, he is still a strong defensive player. He has a very strong case to be considered the Magic’s first-half MVP. If there were concerns about whether or not he could give the Magic a punch on both ends of the floor, they should be answered by now.

The Magic’s not-so-elite defense

One of the Magic’s biggest selling points for those who thought they would make a playoff push in 2017 was the defense.

Adding Serge Ibaka and Bismack Biyombo seemed to create an elite frontcourt defense, while Aaron Gordon could shut down opposing wings and Elfrid Payton could thrive being aggressive on the perimeter knowing he has excellent rim protectors behind him.

Not to mention, Frank Vogel earned himself a reputation for getting the most out of talented defensive players during his time in Indiana.

Even though Orlando’s roster seemed awkward and lopsided from the beginning, if there are any NBA coaches who could make sense of it, Vogel theoretically should be one of them.

But halfway through the season, the Magic have one of the worst defenses in the NBA and it is hard to figure out exactly why.

If “poor” is anything significantly lower than the 50th percentile, then the only play types the Magic are actually “poor” at defending are isolations, transition, putbacks and post-ups. All four of those plays combine for less than one-third of what opponents use against Orlando.

Yet the team sits near the bottom of the league in points allowed per 100 possessions.

Generally speaking, teams in the modern NBA rarely draw up those four play types. They usually happen when a play breaks down, a ball gets knocked loose, a shot misses or screens create a mismatch that a scorer can exploit.

Analytics-inclined teams such as the Houston Rockets consider post-ups to be the least efficient way to score, while isolations seem more and more like an ancient relic unless you are a ball-handling savant and/or midrange wizard like Demar DeRozan, James Harden or Carmelo Anthony.

Many coaches will say that if a team is turning to isolations and post-ups against a defense, their defense is winning. Baiting teams into these plays can take teams out of their offense, stopping the ball and encouraging teams to settle for less efficient shots instead of continuing to move it around for an open look.

The Magic’s defense clearly is not winning.

It might just come down to disappointing individual performances that opponents are persistently exploiting.

Bismack Biyombo, for example, has already had to defend almost as many isolations this year as he did all of last year. He has also fallen to the bottom of the league in defending isolations.

Teams with strong isolation players, like the Toronto Raptors and Demar DeRozan, set double screens against the Magic to move Aaron Gordon off of their guy and force Biyombo or Ibaka to take him one-on-one.

Toronto ran these all night to the tune of 31 points for Derozan and a crushing Raptors victory.

In past seasons, Biyombo and Ibaka were able to hold their own against quicker, smaller opponents. They are known for being versatile defenders that a coach can feel comfortable with matched up against almost any opponent. Their skill sets were crucial to the postseason success of the Raptors and Thunder.

This year, they just have not been the same, looking more and more like most other big men when they are forced to switch onto a guard or small forward. The solution here is not to change tactics or schemes, especially when a team like the Raptors will relentlessly use slip screens and double screens to force and exploit switches.

This problem comes down to underperforming personnel.

Coming into the season, a lot of people wondered if the Magic could be a top-10 defense even if they were not a playoff team. Unfortunately, that looks to be out of reach at this point in the season unless there is a personnel change.

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