Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images
One week into the 2013-2014 season, the Orlando Magic are 2-2. They’ve won two consecutive games against playoff contenders by more than 20 points, lost in overtime at Minnesota, and put a legitimate scare into the undefeated Indiana Pacers on the road in the season opener. The Magic currently rank in the top 10 in offensive efficiency, defensive efficiency, total rebound percentage, and True Shooting percentage.
This start, basically, seems like no fluke — Orlando has been very good. And while this sample size is so small as to render any takeaways close to meaningless, the eye test confirms what advanced metrics suggest. In a vacuum, without crucial context, the Magic would be considered a surefire postseason threat after these first four games.
The scary thing is that Orlando could be even better.
Tanking, rebuilding, constructing — call the big-picture goal of 2013-14 whatever you like, but winning games is just a small portion of it. This season, first and foremost, is meant to develop young talent and build Orlando’s stable of assets ahead of next summer’s loaded draft. But Rob Hennigan’s patient primary objectives differ from those of his coaches and players. There’s only so much big-picture perspective he can implement on game night from a press box above the floor.
Jacque Vaughn appears compliant with front office directives. No coaching staff — no matter how seemingly doomed its team prospects are for a current season — would ever employ on-court strategy that encourages failure, and Vaughn is no different. He has the Magic’s intricate half-court offense firing on all cylinders, and his players rarely deviate from the team’s strong principle values on defense. To that end, Vaughn’s done nothing to discourage those who saw his first season as a head coach promising. In fact, it’s actually quite the opposite.
When looking at things from a rotation standpoint? Hennigan might as well be calling the shots.
It began on opening night. Andrew Nicholson poured in 18 first half points against the ever-stingy Pacers, and the Magic led at the break. But Nicholson didn’t play at all in the third quarter as Indiana took the lead, then played several inconsequential fourth quarter minutes with the game’s outcome all but assured.
Vaughn defended his substitution patterns after the game, referencing Nicholson’s strengths and weaknesses with regard to individual matchups.
“I thought [Jason Maxiell] was unbelievable against David West, and [Pacers coach Frank] Vogel ended up playing David West the entire third,” Vaughn said afterward. “So I thought that matchup was great for us. Andrew scored all his points against Scola. And, so, [Luis] Scola wasn’t in the game, and so it was on me to make that call, and I did.”
Fine, Nicholson abused Scola in the first half and did so last season as well. Maxiell is clearly a better defensive option than Nicholson against West. None of that is up for debate, but that doesn’t justify Vaughn’s decision to sit the hot hand with his team struggling to score in the third quarter. Like a full season, games aren’t played in a vacuum. Perhaps there really would have been too much give-and-take in a Nicholson-West battle, but the alternative — Orlando was outscored by nine in the quarter — was just as hopeless.
To be fair, Nicholson’s playing time ballooned in the Magic’s wins over New Orleans and Brooklyn. Vaughn clearly understands the merits of his talented sophomore forward. But that doesn’t excuse opening-night’s “miscue,” and — cue the conspiratorial music — casts an even more suspicious eye on those circumstances.
Orlando’s in-depth treatment of prized rookie Victor Oladipo is similarly confounding. He’s averaging 28 minutes through the first four games of his career, and the flashes of stardom have sometimes even been longer than that. Oladipo’s first week of NBA life should be considered nothing but a rousing success. None of that, though, is to say Vaughn is putting him in the best position to succeed.
Under no circumstances should a player of E’Twaun Moore’s caliber be playing nearly 21 minutes per game, but that’s especially true in this specific case. The Oladipo-as-point guard experiment is an interesting one, and definitely worth carrying out on a game-to-game basis. As explained here previously, though, it’s unlikely the rookie ever develops into the kind of lead guard that’s at his best as a solitary ballhandler. Oladipo isn’t Rajon Rondo or Chris Paul, basically, and never will be. Another ballhandling guard will normally share the floor with him.
Why has that ballhandler been Moore this season more often than it’s been Nelson? Oladipo’s played 64 minutes with Moore opposed to 51 with Nelson so far, and the numbers suggest those distributions need reversing.
Not only have the Magic’s two best guards fared far better individually when paired with one another, the team as a whole has, too. Orlando has outscored opponents by 5.2 points per 100 possessions with Oladipo and Moore on the court together, per NBA.com. When Nelson and Oladipo man Vaughn’s backcourt, those already-solid numbers spike to elite levels, as the Magic outscore opponents by 14.3 points per 100 possessions.
Is Vaughn intentionally avoiding this devastating combination for longer stretches? Do his situational lineup motives extend beyond the realm of a single game? There’s no way to tell for sure, and the truth is that it doesn’t really matter. That the Magic are playing well enough — individually and as a team — that these questions bear asking is what’s really important. There’s been major development here from all sides, and Orlando is even farther ahead of the optimistic rebuilding schedule so many had in mind before the season.
If the Magic continue their winning ways into December and the New Year, it will be time to reexamine these suspicions. For now it’s simply fun in-season fodder, and indicative of this organization’s steady but rapid ascent since the summer of 2012.