At 1-2 the Orlando Magic have underwhelmed to start the season, but there is still no need to panic about this team.
Heading into the 2019-20 NBA season, the Orlando Magic had more written about them than in the previous seven seasons combined. They were seen by analysts and fans in the know as a sleeper pick as one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference. Some even saw them as top-four candidates.
The first three games on their schedule represented a good chance to begin the year 3-0, or at the very least 2-1. Instead they are 1-2, with an opening night win over the Cleveland Cavaliers followed by back-to-back losses away from home to the Atlanta Hawks and Toronto Raptors. Not ideal.
If you take a closer look though, you will see that although the final result hasn’t gone their way on two occasions now, there has still been a lot to like about the way the Magic are trying to play, while integrating both Markelle Fultz and Al-Farouq Aminu into their rotation. The following are areas of positivity for the organization, which will equate to wins sooner rather than later.
We start with Fultz, who has been like a breath of fresh air for the Magic in the three games he’s played in so far. He’s come off the bench and brought real energy, and might be the fastest player on their roster right now.
Despite his small frame he builds up a head of steam quickly and his finishing around the basket has already brought gasps of joy to fans who have warmed to him right away.
It was unclear if Fultz would even begin the season in uniform. Not only is he doing that, he has been one of head coach Steve Clifford’s best players so far and is rightly the first man off the bench.
The only thing keeping him from getting the starting job from D.J. Augustin full-time are the silly turnovers he’s made and how his undoubted enthusiasm to box out or catch opponents has led to the ball being moved around him and into the Magic’s basket.
Fultz currently has the third highest Player Efficiency Rating on the roster at 15.7, behind only Evan Fournier (17.8) and Jonathan Isaac (20.6). This would have been unthinkable even one month ago to see tangible contributions from him, while he’s also made three 3-pointers as well (he has taken 13 to give him an ugly 23.1 percent right now, but to know these can go in is great).
Speaking of Isaac, all of the preseason promise about him taking another notable leap looks to be correct and that is great news for the Magic. Against the Raptors on Monday night, a spirited 104-95 loss, he had a team- (and career-) high 24 points and made a career-best five shots from deep, on seven attempts.
Isaac is also tied for second in the league in blocks per game right now (2.7). Using numbers and stats at this stage of the season can be misleading because of the small sample size, but Isaac figures to stay relevant in this category all season long. He is also clearly a difference-maker on the defensive end, which brings us on to the key reason the Magic should not panic right now.
Defensively they have looked great for large stretches of their three games so far. They rank second in defensive rating (94.5) and they don’t figure to slip much on that end as the season continues. They built their identity around defense last season and have the personnel to ensure they remain hard to score against for 48 minutes each night.
Even if you don’t want to take that number into account just yet given the teams they’ve faced and how few games have been played, you only need to watch them play to see how active they are on that end. Everybody tries and it makes them difficult to break down. The Raptors found ways by probing with different guys like Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam, but they struggled at times too.
To add to this, the Magic also possess that quality of never knowing they are beaten, which is sure to get them wins as the season progresses. They very nearly pulled out a win over the Raptors, going on a 13-0 run in the fourth quarter to retake the lead for the first time since the first quarter.
It wasn’t enough on this occasion against a veteran heavy Raptors outfit, but on other nights it will be.
Clifford can sometimes appear too stuck in his ways when the Magic are losing and appear to be out of answers, but he tried something different against the Raptors which sparked a revival. Clifford went with a lineup of Augustin, Fultz, Isaac, Aminu and Terrence Ross and the unpredictability of this group — and how they meshed well together — threw the Raptors off.
It wasn’t enough, but even just trying things like this, with the Magic having a quirky blend of long and athletic guys as well as smaller guards who in this instance could play together because the Raptors had the same dynamic in Lowry and Fred VanVleet, means they are sure to stumble into new rotations that can be used against different opponents.
That is the sign of legitimate team when they are able to do that.
Really the only area of genuine concern right now is how the Magic are playing offensively. They rank dead last in offensive rating (93.8) and a lot of possessions have been ugly to watch or just ended up with players running into dead ends or hoisting up ill-advised efforts.
This is the area that needs to change quickly and they should be aiming to get back to around the league average by the time they’ve played 15 or so games.
Their defensive play will keep them in a lot of games, as it did against the Raptors, and it was a key factor in them shutting down a feisty Cavaliers outfit for the win. But if they can just get back to being even average offensively, that will make so much difference.
Center Nikola Vucevic hasn’t looked totally himself the last few games and with so much of the offense flowing through him, that needs to change.
That is the only major concern right now, with the 1-2 record reflecting close games that just haven’t gone their way. Soon they will and the defensive excellence they’ve displayed and the contributions of guys like Isaac and Fultz will help to swing things back in their favor. Even if a tough run of games now awaits.