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Can the Orlando Magic Make the Playoffs?

As I mentioned Tuesday in the Starting 5, every team feels optimistic about the new season, and that includes the Orlando Magic. With a new coach that specializes in getting the most out of his players (albeit by burning the candle at both ends), another year of development from core players with untapped potential and a conference that has to beg teams to make the playoffs, the Magic have the opportunity to significantly improve on their three-year average of 23 wins per season.

Last year, the Magic finished the season with a 24-year-old big man leading the team in scoring and rebounding (Nikola Vucevic with 19 and 11, respectively), a 22-year-old guard with a defensive reputation as their second leading scorer (Victor Oladipo with 18) and a 22-year-old swingman finishing third while increasing his efficiency (Tobias Harris with 17). The Magic are headed in the right direction, and the core of the team has yet to hit their prime with no significant contributor older than 27.

Jan. 31, 2015 – Orlando, FL, USA – The Orlando Magic’s Nikola Vucevic, top left, and Aaron Gordon, right, try to stop the Dallas Mavericks’ Richard Jefferson, middle, at the Amway Center in Orlando, Fla., on Saturday, Jan. 31, 2015

However, I’m not sold that the Magic are as well off as everyone seems to indicate. I don’t think the Magic did anything wrong with the current construction of their rebuild, but they may have gotten a bit unlucky with their timing.

The 2013 draft was the first draft the Magic had a top-5 draft pick, and it turned out to be one of the weakest drafts in the past decade. The Magic grabbed Oladipo with the second pick, and the only players in the first round that have as bright of a future as he does are Nerlens Noel (drafted 7th), Giannis Antetokounmpo (drafted 15th) and Rudy Gobert (drafted 27th).

In the 2014 draft, the Magic had the fourth pick when the top three were widely considered to be on a different tier from the rest. Orlando grabbed Aaron Gordon with the pick, and he missed a large chunk of the season due to injury.

Specifically referring to this season, the roster construction leaves the Magic with a few problems, none more important than what they have in the front court.

Nikola Vucevic

Jan. 31, 2015 - Orlando, FL, USA - The Orlando Magic's Nikola Vucevic, top left, and Aaron Gordon, right, try to stop the Dallas Mavericks' Richard Jefferson, middle, at the Amway Center in Orlando, Fla., on Saturday, Jan. 31, 2015

Jan. 31, 2015 – Orlando, FL, USA – The Orlando Magic’s Nikola Vucevic, top left, and Aaron Gordon, right, try to stop the Dallas Mavericks’ Richard Jefferson, middle, at the Amway Center in Orlando, Fla., on Saturday, Jan. 31, 2015

Vucevic’s stats last year were impressive: 19.3 points, 10.9 rebounds and 2.0 assists on 54.8 percent true shooting. He’s a more than adequate shooter knocking down 47 percent of his shots from the midrange, which makes up about 41 percent of his field goal attempts.

His improved ability to finish around the rim—he converted almost 67 percent of his shots within three feet—makes him a perfect pick-and-roll candidate for the Magic guards.  And he made 75 percent of his free throw attempts. The problem with Vucevic is that elsewhere in his game, there are huge holes.

Obviously scoring is a major part of basketball, but at the center position, a player like Vucevic has to be elite offensively to make up for his deficiencies on defense. Among centers that played more than 30 minutes per game last season, Vucevic’s assist numbers look more like those at the bottom of the list than those at the top.

Rarely does a Vucevic assist leave you nodding in approval due to the pass. Instead, the majority of assists came from defensive breakdowns that left a three-point shooter on the same side of the floor as Vucevic wide open. He wasn’t forced to make cross court passes out of the post on a regular basis, which is one of the few ways a post up can remain efficient.

However, offensively there isn’t much more to criticize him for. He shoots at least average from most areas on the floor, he’s one of the best offensive rebounders in the league and has soft hands that make him an easy target for guards on the pick-and-roll. Defense is where the opposition takes advantage of the young center.

As the biggest player on the floor for the Magic, the center is usually responsible for protecting the rim. Vucevic, however, is one of the worst rim protectors at his position according to Seth Partnow’s Rim Protection metric. Among players ranked higher than Vucevic in Partnow’s Adjusted Points Saved per 36 Minutes are defensive stoppers such as Miles Plumlee, Amar’e Stoudemire, Marreese Speights and even Vucevic’s teammate, Channing Frye.

Some teams maintain a good defense despite not having an elite rim protector at the center position, but those teams make up for it in other areas. While the rest of the Magic team may be good on the defensive end in the future, Aaron Gordon, Oladipo and the rest of the Magic roster have yet to show much to indicate they are capable of redirecting drives, so Vucevic doesn’t have to worry about defending them at the rim.

Metrics aren’t the only way to evaluate a player, but this is one of the instances where the eye test tells exactly what the metrics say. Teams scored at will against the Magic, as they allowed 107.7 points per 100 possessions last season. And when Vucevic was forced to guard on the perimeter, his heavy feet allowed players to blow by him with ease.

Scott Skiles has a reputation for being a good defensive coach for his time with the Milwaukee Bucks, but both seasons the team finished in the top five of defensive rating, Andrew Bogut played most of the season and excelled on that end. During the 2011-2012 season, Bogut played only 12 games, and the Bucks fell 12 spots in defensive rating from 4th to 16th.

Those close to the Magic probably don’t expect to finish anywhere near the top of the league in defense like Skiles’ Bucks’ teams did, but there’s been little evidence to this point that Vucevic can anchor even a league average defense.

Victor Oladipo

The Atlanta Hawks showed last season that a team doesn’t have to have one player that draws the majority of the defense’s attention to have a good offense, but most teams that have success in the NBA have one guy that can carry the majority of the workload because it’s an easier strategy to employ. The Magic seem to be putting all of their eggs into Oladipo’s basket, and it’s not a bad start.

Oladipo averaged 17.9 points, 4.2 rebounds, 4.1 assists and almost 1.7 steals last season while playing 35.7 minutes per game. He usually took the most difficult assignment on the wing, although his offensive load may have affected what he was able to d defensively.

It too Oladipo 15.1 shots to reach that 17.9 points. His true shooting percentage rose from 51.4 percent in his rookie season to 52.7 percent last season, with his usage percentage increasing from 24.4 percent to 25.2 percent. It’s a positive sign that he was able to increase both his usage percentage and true shooting percentage as these two are usually inversely related (as one goes up, the other goes down), but that’s where the positives stop for Oladipo on the offensive end.

Among the 54 guards with a usage percentage over 20 percent, Oladipo was 20th in free throw rate last season at .295. Some of this can be attributed to Oladipo’s age, but of the 19 players that finished with a higher free throw rate, only Deron Williams, Jamal Crawford and Kyrie Irving had a free throw rate as low as Oladipo’s at the same age. Combining Oladipo’s less than stellar shooting efficiency with his average ability to get to the free throw line, one has to wonder whether he can be the main offensive threat on a title contender.

The obvious rebuttal to that last sentence is that he’s only 22 years old. No player is exactly who he is going to be at 22, but it can be a sign of things to come.

There are only 15 players that have averaged between 16 and 20 points per game, more than 4.0 assists and more than 1.5 steals in the season in which they were 22. Of those players, Kemba Walker, Brandon Jennings, Eric Money, Gilbert Arenas and Willie Anderson most closely resembled Oladipo’s offense stats. Outside of Arenas, none of those players are exactly models of consistent offense.

Oladipo has struggled some defensively, but only the truly elite produce on both ends of the floor. With Payton improving and Hezonja potentially bringing in a much-needed shooter, Oladipo may be able to use his lateral quickness and explosion to focus more on the Magic’s porous perimeter defense.

None of this is to say the Magic couldn’t be a decent team this year. People far smarter than me like the Magic as a contender for one of the last spots in the playoffs. But, potential problems caused by the lack of a rim protector, the lack of spacing that the team has even with the most optimal lineup and the troubles that usually come with a new coach are real. The Magic will be a playoff team soon, but expecting them to be one this year might be premature.

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