Say what you will about Scott Skiles, but does he ever force players underneath him to play good defense or what? In the first year of Skiles’s tenure as the head coach of the Orlando Magic, the team went from having the 24th-ranked defensive rating (107.7) last season to the sixth-ranked (101.1) so far in the 2015-16 campaign, per Basketball-Reference.com.
The hard work on the defensive end has clearly paid off. The Magic are currently 14-11 this season, seem to be a year or two ahead of schedule with their young roster, and it’s likely only going to get better. We know that because their roster is incredibly young. Obviously, also, that hinges on the team staying together after the season.
The question moving forward for Orlando is less about how good will they be down the road — because the answer is “very” if they can keep the roster mostly intact — but if they can do true damage in the Eastern Conference and play some basketball late in the playoffs.
It’s too early to say for sure how much better Orlando will be by the end of the season. We can look at the information we have available to us now, however, to give some insights as to why many should get excited about them.
Lost in all the Skiles is a defensive genius hoopla, the Magic’s offense has also been better, too. With guys like Evan Fournier rapidly becoming a star, Orlando’s offense is currently sitting with a rating of 103.3, despite having some guys on the roster who can’t shoot — which is slightly better than the 101.6 under Jacque Vaughn.
A lot of the marginally better offense is a direct correlation of the much-improved defense. Their pace hasn’t drastically changed, but they’re getting easier buckets this season. Currently forcing just over 16 turnovers an outing and blocking shots at a rate of 5.5 per game, the Magic are getting some points in transition. Even if it’s such a minuscule difference between last season, any easy offense is welcomed.
It’s actually rather hard to pinpoint the key to Orlando’s success this season. It’s odd in that way, as a few of the players who Orlando were projecting to have huge seasons simply haven’t. Some have even regressed.
An example being Victor Oladipo, who was recently moved to the bench. While he seems to be fitting better in that role, his numbers aren’t all that swell this season. In fact, they’re rather bad. He’s shooting under 40 percent from the floor (a career worse), 23 percent from three (again, worst) and his minutes have dropped because of it. Oladipo’s defense, however, is something Skiles likely gets warm feelings in the belly over.
A similar statement can be made about Elfrid Payton. While not regressing as it seems Oladipo has, Payton continues to have as much luck shooting the basketball as I’ve had convincing Christina Ricci to go out on a date with me.
Only shooting 41 percent from the floor and 32 percent from three, Payton’s saving grace is he somewhat knows his limitations. Despite shooting too much (11.7 attempts per game), he’s at least attempting most of his buckets near the rim. While actually down from last year’s 46 percent of his attempts coming from within three feet, Payton is still attempting 38 percent of his attempts from that distance this season.
Depending on how you want to look at it, we can either say he’s starting to think he’s a player he’s not — as he’s moving away from the basket more this season — or he’s simply trying to diversify his game. Either way, it’s hard for teams to win with key players like Payton and Oladipo both being abominations on the offensive end of the floor. Except Orlando is. Mind-boggling, honestly.
It can’t all be Scott Skiles, though. It makes no sense. We can give him partial credit for the defensive bump, but that would be a disservice to the players actually participating in the events known as basketball games.
Fournier has been a revelation this season. There have been, at times, when he looks like he’s a legit budding super-duper-star. That’s the good news for Orlando. The bad being Fournier’s ability to about to get paid in his upcoming restricted free agency summer.
No matter. Not right now. Never Google isn’t consistently great this season, but he’s had six games over 20 points already. Somewhat alarmingly, though, is the fact that he hasn’t had one of those types of over-20 games since Nov. 18, 2015 — year of our Never Google.
It isn’t only Fournier who’s improved. Aaron Gordon, while getting slightly more minutes and still very much a work in progress, has seen his numbers all go up. Not only in production, but in efficiency. Tobias Harris and Nikola Vucevic, while not measurably improving, have provided a much-needed consistency to this roster, too.
Either way, to be honest, this team is a bit of a mystery to me. Is it the combination of the development of a few, offsetting the regression of a few others, plus Scott Skiles all adding up to the success so far this season? That’s a question I’ve failed to answer. That said, specifically for this season, it does seem as if Orlando is measurably better than last year, poised for the playoffs, yet not the type of team who’s capable of making it to the conference finals, or maybe not even the second round.
I can most certainly be wrong, though. Considering their youth and factoring in how bad some of their key players have actually played despite their success, we might be seeing the worst version of the Orlando Magic we’ll see for years to come…and that’s all types of scary for the rest of the NBA.