The team with the shortest commute to the NBA bubble is the Orlando Magic. They’ve got a firm grip on the 8th seed in the Eastern Conference and with the Nets falling apart, they’ve got a great chance to jump up to the 7th seed to avoid facing the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round of the playoffs. They’re 0-4 against the Bucks this season. They’re also 0-5 combined against the potential #2 seeds, Raptors and Celtics. But hey, it’s still one more spot up the ladder.
They have the fifth highest payroll in the league. And the only significant money that could come off their books next year is Evan Fournier’s $17M. But considering the uncertainty on the league economics, there’s no way in hell he’s not opting in for next season.
The Magic are led by Nikola Vucevic who averages nearly 20 and 11. Fournier is their second-leading scorer and I was shocked to see Terence Ross averages more points per game than Aaron Gordon. Orlando wants Aaron Gordon to be a superstar. The movie Uncle Drew did a pretty good job of that. But when you watch the Magic play, it just doesn’t translate. He’s a crazy athlete but a below average shooter so you need to stay in front of him and just make him shoot jumpers all day.
I think the key for this team going into the re-start as well as moving forward will be the development of Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz. Isaac has become a decent scorer from the wing and a dynamite defender, leading the team in blocks and steals. Fultz has recovered from a disastrous start to his career in Philly to show some flashes of what made him the first overall pick in 2017. His 12 points and 5 assists per game have been huge for the Magic this year. The next step for him will be improving his shooting, particulary from beyond the arc where he sits at just 25% on the season.
This team ranks in the bottom half of the league in free throw attempts which is odd for a group with so many big bodies. They don’t make up for that with perimeter shooting, sitting 25th in the league at 34% on three-pointers. But, as Steve Clifford teams normally do, they are one of the better defensive teams in the league and that is going to be crucial, especially early on when it’s safe to assume teams won’t be a sharp offensively coming off such a long hiatus.
The schedule works out really well for them in the sense that they get to play the zombie Nets first and then again later which should be enough to pass them for the 7th seed. They get a test against each of their potential first-round playoff opponents, the Raptors and the Celtics. I think they’re good enough defensively to avoid a first-round sweep but probably not quite good enough to do more than that.
Looking ahead, the East only gets tougher next year when the Nets and Wizards get healthy, leaving the Magic to once again battle for a playoff spot. They’ll need some big leaps forward from Isaac and Fultz to make any more noise than that.