Wait, I think the Orlando Magic actually are good

October 28, 2017

 

Toward the end of the third quarter on Friday night, Evan Fournier hit a falling and-1 three, then finished the four-point play to extend Orlando's lead over San Antonio. To 36.

 

The Magic went on to win 114-87, improving to 4-1, their best start in five years and the Eastern Conference's best start this season, period. Excuse my being blunt, but, what the hell?

 

Even granting that Kawhi Leonard was still out, the Spurs came into the game 4-0 and the Magic just buried them, mercilessly. And you can't even really chalk it up to a one-off fluke that happened to come against San Antonio - Orlando's trounced the Cavs by 21 and beaten a perfectly fine Miami team. 

 

Toss in their split of a pair of near-250 point games with the Nets, and the Magic actually boast a pretty beefy resume. They haven't scored fewer than 114 points in any game.

 

Orlando is: second in offensive rating (112.8 points/100 possessions), second in net rating (plus-13.5 points/100), first in three-point percentage (45.9), third in assists (24.4/game), fourth in pace (106.25 possessions/48 minutes), and fourth in field goal percentage inside five feet (68.1).

 

Statistically, the Magic aren't just basically like a Warriors-lite through the first five games. They're basically the Warriors.

 

Sorry, it needs repeating: What in the actual hell?

 

The two most obvious factors so far for the crummy Orlando Magic turning into the Sunshine State Warriors are Evan Fournier's off-the-charts three-point shooting and the frontcourt play of Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic, which might be the best in the league.

 

Let's start with the Gordon/Vucevic pairing. The two are the catalyst behind a true inside-out spacing scheme the Magic have been able to utilize. 

 

Vucevic, 27, has long been one of the most polished inside scorers in basketball, and that's no different this season. His footwork around the rim is impeccable, letting him work post up-and-unders, hooks and the like, and his shot is such that he can hit turnaround or fadeaway jumpers from the short mid-range easily.

 

Gordon, meanwhile, is a frightening leaper who, at 22 and in his fourth year in the league, is starting to get a much better feel for putting the ball on the floor, making him a serious dribble-drive threat and more creative post scorer.

 

Neither feasts inside, but Gordon is shooting 81.3 percent from inside five feet (5.3 attempts/game) and Vucevic is at 85.0 percent (4.0). Together, they have opened things up outside where the Magic are hitting threes at their league-leading clip.

 

To wit: Orlando has been among the teams most frequently attempting open (defined by NBA.com as with a defender 4-6 feet away) threes, 14.0 percent (sixth) of their attempts, and they attempt the second-least-frequent tightly contested (2-4 feet) threes (1.5 percent).

 

The greatest beneficiary of this has been Fournier, who is sinking a dumbfounding 56 percent of his 5.5-plus three attempts a game.

 

Orlando lineups with Vucevic and Gordon are shooting a very healthy 44.7 percent from three on over 15 attempts a game. This is one of those instances in which we see how spacing works both ways - just as you can generate easier paint points with a line of shooters on the perimeter, it's a lot easier to generate the kind of three-point diet teams make their offenses on these days if you have credible inside threats. 

 

It's more to that with Gordon and Vucevic, though. They pose such a particularly tricky assignment because they've both suddenly turned into marksmen themselves. Vucevic is hitting 45.5 percent of his threes, on 4.4 attempts a game, after he first really stepped out last season and hit 30.7 percent on a single attempt a game.

 

Gordon meanwhile is hitting a ludicrous 72.7 percent of his threes (3.7 per game) so far, after never topping 30 percent in a season to this point. 

 

These wild improvement have made it impossible to stack a defense against the Magic's front line. Check it out against the Nets last week, when Gordon went for a career high 41.

 

 

 

Here Gordon backs down Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, turns him to his right off the dribble and then exploits the wide open lane for a dunk.

 

Again:

 

 

 

This time, Gordon drives in from the perimeter, making Brooklyn pay off the dribble for smothering the arc (notice Timofey Mozgov doing nothing useful way out by Vucevic).

 

The flipside:

 

 

Later in the game, here's Gordon hitting a wide open three as Jarrett Allen makes sure the lane is occupied and Trevor Booker winds up flat-footed thanks to a back screen from Vucevic and the threat of Gordon driving.

 

 

Here in the second half, Brooklyn's clogging the lane in transition as Gordon starts his dribble before stepping back and draining another three.

 

It's impossible to win against Gordon when he's doing stuff like this. 

 

Add it all up, and you have Fournier making it rain, DJ Augustin shooting 53.8 percent from distance, Jonathon Simmons shooting 45.5 percent, and even someone who's generally been banished to garbage time like Mario Hezonja hitting practically every triple he takes (83.3 percent).

 

Only Terrence Ross (23.8 percent) among Magic wings isn't really getting in on the party.

 

Defensively, Orlando seems to have figured out a pretty good formula. Their defensive rating is in the top-10 (99.3 points allowed per 100) and they've developed a nice frontcourt rotation. Vucevic still isn't any kind of rim protector, but he's a big mobile body and that has its uses. Gordon has stepped up covering for him, averaging a block a game and defending shots at the rim to a highly impressive 36.4 percent.

 

Meanwhile in the second unit, the long-armed Jonathan Isaac pairs well with Bismack Biyombo inside (96.4 D-rating when they've shared the floor in 48 minutes). Isaac has also covered for Vucevic (94.0 in 46 minutes) while Gordon has served as a small-ball center with Simmons playing a kind of small-ball four next to him (that's experienced a little less success so far).

 

Overall the Magic have defended mostly well inside, holding opponents at the rim to a 62.3 percent rate (12th). On the wings Orlando is about average, around the middle of the league in three-point attempts against. They've probably been a bit lucky, right now opponents are shooting a league-low 27.3 percent from three against them, and you can't really point to a collection of true wing stoppers as being responsible for that. 

 

Broadly, is this sustainable in Orlando? Well, no, not in the most basic sense. Their defense will almost certainly regress a little bit, though there's reason to think they should be pretty stout inside. Fournier and Augustin aren't going to shoot over 50 percent from deep, Vucevic probably won't keep hanging over 45 percent, and Gordon most certainly isn't going to hit over 70 percent of his threes this season. 

 

But the new dimension to the Magic attack, so long as Vucevic and Gordon keep making their deep shots at least reasonably, is for real.  

 

Orlando's not going to remain the top team in the East, but it's also not too soon to start talking about them as an actual playoff threat.

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