Every season it seems as if one team sneaks into the eighth seed of either conference. A team that was expected to be in the lottery coming into the year. A team that exceeded everyone’s expectations.
This season it is the Orlando Magic. The Magic have outperformed what everyone thought they would be. They’re currently 29-34 and they sit eighth overall in the NBA’s Eastern Conference. They’re a game and a half above the Detroit Pistons and a win ahead of the Charlotte Hornets. They’re right in the thick of the playoff race.
Their defense has surprisingly been their calling card. They only allow 106.6 points per game, which ranks third overall in the entire NBA. Their length and athleticism is proving to be their strength. They’re able to dominate teams on the boards and inside. Their only weakness is guarding elite offensive playmakers; though, that’s really a problem with the majority of teams.
They are one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the entire league. Per Cleaning the Glass, they rank fourth overall in the league. Opponents only shoot 51.7 percent at the rim, which ranks 10th overall in the NBA. Overall, their presence inside and their ability to switch on defense has allowed them to transform.
This is a huge jump from the season prior. Bringing in head coach Steve Clifford has allowed them to grow to their full potential. He’s helped refine the team’s philosophy in guarding the pick and roll. He’s also worked on improving their offense. And it’s all been around one man — Nikola Vucevic.
Vucevic this season has played to almost MVP levels. He has averaged 20.5 points, 12.1 rebounds, and 4.0 assists while shooting 52.0 percent from the field and 39.4 percent from beyond the arc. His career season in his contract year was quite unexpected. However, Clifford knew coming into the season Vucevic had this kind of play in him.
Much of the Magic’s offense runs through Vucevic. They’ll have him hold the ball at the top of the key, and run wraps and off-ball screens for cuts and shooters. It’s worked perfectly.
His assist percentage among all centers sits in the 96th percentile. His 21.7 assist rate per Cleaning the Glass makes him one of the most effective playmakers at the five. His rebounding rate sits in the 97th percentile. Not only can he score 20+ plus a game, but he’s a very impactful rim protector and rebounds extremely well.
But it’s not only Vucevic that has played well. Aaron Gordon for the first time in his career has been a net positive on both sides of the court, via Basketball-Reference. He’s averaged 15.9 points, 7.4 rebounds, and 3.6 assists per game while shooting 44.7 percent from the field and 33.6 percent from deep. Even though he spends the majority of his time at power forward, he has shown an ability to guard perimeter players better than ever. His long wingspan and quick feet are translating into defensive ability.
Evan Fournier and Jonathan Isaac are also both very rangy athletic players. Though the offense doesn’t much firepower, the team has still been able to compensate by playing good defense.
Many expected the team to deal away Vucevic at the deadline. They had drafted Mo Bamba this past draft with their top draft pick. It seemed like they should get value for his contract while they still can. However, it’s becoming unclear whether or not the Magic will on from the center. He’s proven himself to be one of the best overall centers in the league.
Whether or not they decide to retain Vucevic is one thing. The only thing on their mind should be a playoff run. The difficulty of their schedule is ranked 19th overall by Team Rankings. However, they only play four teams with a top four seed in either conference. The Philadelphia 76ers twice, the Boston Celtics, and the Toronto Raptors. Otherwise, their schedule is very winnable.
The Magic this season surprised everyone with their success. They’re at a crossroads of mediocrity and a rebuild. Their lack of a point guard will hurt them moving forward, a huge reason why they went out and acquired Markelle Fultz from the 76ers. This upcoming draft they’ll be looking for the point guard of the future. Perhaps they’ll go after Darren Collison, Rick Rubio, or Kemba Walker in free agency. But for now, they’ll have to accept D.J. Augustine at the spot.
The Magic may not have the best roster in the Eastern Conference. But they do have something to prove. Clifford isn’t coaching a team to tank. The Magic are for real. No pun intended.