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The Magic ended a 10-game losing streak against the Celtics this past weekend, a streak which dated back to 2013. That’s a long stretch to go winless, and Magic fans are predictably perturbed. But this most recent losing streak shouldn’t make the fanbase catatonic with woe, since there’s a solid reason they were losing a lot: they’re not very good.
A string of losses can be tough for fans, obviously, but this is a unique situation with so many talented college players possibly entering the draft this summer. The Magic had the NBA’s worst record last year, and in turn they got Victor Oladipo in the 2013 NBA Draft.
Oladipo is one of five reasons Magic fans should still be happy right now.
21-year-old Victor Oladipo
‘Dipo is better than Alex Len, who’s only claim to fame is antagonizing the normally light-hearted Swaggy P. The guard out of Indiana is better than Otto Porter and Anthony Bennett (on that latter point, the poor Canadian is on pace to become the worst No. 1 pick in history).
‘Dipo is faster than a hiccup, as Jameer Nelson recently noted, and when seeing him in person, you’re struck by how much bigger and athletic he is when compared to watching him on TV, like a boulder of energy rather than simply a ball. He makes you gasp sometimes, with athleticism that’s like gunpowder waiting for a spark.
So cheer up, the Magic have basically won the 2013 NBA Draft — with their only competition coming from Philly’s Sam Hinkie, a benevolent Bond villain, with an exciting, lengthy point guard in Michael Carter-Williams. But if MCW is the best rookie this season, ‘Dipo is 1B in that discussion. Feel free to add Trey Burke to the mix if you’d like.
Arron Afflalo avoiding the law of diminishing returns
His shooting has dipped a little since a scorching opening to the season, but he’s still sporting a .586 True Shooting percentage (not to mention a career-high 18.1 PER, which doesn’t take defense into it as much as it should). He’s averaging 20.6 PPG without sacrificing efficiency. How many shooting guards are able to do that?
Even a more offensively gifted guy at the two-guard, like James Harden, doesn’t boast the defensive tenacity Afflalo brings most nights. And he’s not taking every other game off like Dwyane Wade. He warrants All-Star consideration despite all the losing, simply because he’s continued to score and shoot well even with opposing defenses keyed to stop him.
Arron Afflalo is not the meek third option many thought he was after last year’s drop in play from his best Denver moments. Nor is he a first option, but he’s in the middle ground somewhere between those two points, which makes him a valuable trade piece, or a strong rotation player on a championship contender. This is a good thing, and Magic fans should be pleased with his improvements.
Nikola Vucevic hasn’t regressed, at least
A comparison between Vucevic’s 2012-13 season and this year’s incarnation are close to identical. He’s again averaging a double-double (13.0 PPG and 11.0 RPG). He’s got a 17.8 PER, which is the exact same PER he finished with last season (the average NBA player sports a 15.0 PER). He’s not he best center in the league, or the dominating Moses Malone clone he morphs into when he’s playing the tiny frontcourt in Miami, but he’s not Kosta Koufos, either. He brings value, and at the center position, he’s going to grow.
To be honest, you just never know with big guys, but Vucevic has improved his jump shot a bit, with his percentages away from the restricted area inching up this season over last. He’s continued to be an above-average rebounder, ranked No. 9 in the league in total rebound percentage, primarily due to some superb defensive rebounding.
About the only thing you can complain about Vucevic is his head. No, by most accounts, he’s got it screwed on straight, but he suffered another concussion on January 6 against the Clippers, and after being listed as day-to-day, he hasn’t been back on the court since. He’s now listed as out indefinitely, which could be management’s way to assure the best odds this summer, or a more serious brain issue, which would be awful.
But Vucevic is a double-double machine and he’s shooting a career-high 78.5 percent from the free throw line, a percentage that Pistons fans would kill to see from Andre Drummond.
Second-to-last in the East
Listen, the Phoenix Suns are a great story. Jeff Hornacek has them playing some exciting up-and-down basketball and Markieff Morris is playing out of his mind off the bench. Miles Plumlee is making Indiana second-guess that tremendous trade they did this offseason to vastly improve their bench. The Gordan Dragic-Eric Bledsoe experiment was working until Bledsoe went down. But what are the Suns gonna do this summer when they don’t have any lottery picks? Are they gonna throw huge money at Bledsoe, an unrestricted free agent, when he’s coming off the biggest injury of his still-young career?
The delight Suns fans experience watching their team run up and down the court like the specter of Steve Nash is pulling their bodies as an ethereal puppeteer, might make watching the Magic seem drab in comparison, but at least the Magic have a plan, and Rob Hennigan doesn’t have to deal with a shocking twist like Phoenix storming for a playoff berth in the tough Western Conference. Philadelphia was in the same boat after starting the year so hot before crashing back to earth as fast as you can say, “Sam wants you to rest some more, Nerlens.”
Only the dreadful Bucks, and poor GM John Hammond (leave him alone Herb Kohl, he was just doing what you asked of him), have a worse record than the Magic, while failing to possess the long-term options the Magic have in place. Doesn’t that make you feel better if you’re a Magic fan? At least the Magic aren’t the Knicks, overloaded with head cases and a terrifying luxury tax bill, especially if they re-sign ‘Melo to a five-year deal this summer.
Sometimes you just need to look around the league to breathe a sigh of relief. The Magic are bad, and they’re not as much fun to watch as in the not-to-distant past, but they’re in full-on rebuild mode, and Hennigan has done a great job since taking over a couple years ago. Sure, Orlando might make some intriguing trades before the February deadline, but for now the team has to just sit tight and wait to see what they might do before this June’s draft, where they could conceivably have two lottery picks.
Possible coterie of second-year studs
Andrew Nicholson, Moe Harkless, Kyle O’Quinn and Doron Lamb are the remaining Magic from last year’s rookie haul. Evaluating them more in-depth is a piece for another time, but at least one of them will make the jump to starting rotation player.
While Harkless’ shooting has improved primarily due to his improved accuracy beyond the arc, his PER has dropped even while most of his numbers have stayed close to the same or even improved. He’s a master of the baseline cut, but there is some doubt as to whether he has the requisite ball skills necessary to succeed at the small forward position.
Harris is another story altogether. We waited for, what seemed like, an eternity for him to take the court again in his third year. The anxiety about the wait had to do with his numbers at the end of last season when he came over from the Bucks as part of the J.J. Redick deal. Harris showed a knack for getting rebounds and scoring in bunches.
He got most of his points in isolations and in the post last season, but with Glen Davis on the court, he’s getting the majority of his minutes at small forward. With Oladipo/Davis, and Nelson/Vucevic running pick-and-rolls and some weak-side actions to spring Afflalo, Harris has seen his usage drop along with most of his advanced stats. But he’s only appeared in 21 games this season after a severe high ankle sprain led to some forgetting he existed altogether.
But while this is Harris’ third year, I lumped him in with the sophomore bunch above because he never really saw any action with Milwaukee during the 2011-2012 season (his rookie year), and we’ve yet to really see him integrated with a healthy Magic team. Orlando can only hope his shooting improves, but I think it will when he becomes more accustomed to the ebb and flow of the Magic personnel he didn’t get to play with in preseason or at the end of last year.