After earning the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs — all behind the strong play of Nikola Vucevic — the Orlando Magic should have the optimism to improve during the 2019-20 season. The Magic were able to maintain stability within their ranks entering this year, keeping a large part of their core roster from last year. The biggest move the Magic made was to re-sign their aforementioned All-Star center to a four-year, $100 million deal ensuring that he finishes his prime playing years in Orlando.
The Magic added some intriguing new players to their roster with Markelle Fultz and Al-Farouq Aminu, players that could be difference-makers throughout the campaign. Aminu is a hard-working low post role player that will provide efficient scoring while contributing on the defensive end. Fultz will, hopefully, come back from his various shoulder injuries and display the promise upon, at long last. The Magic lack depth at the point guard position and Fultz can challenge a 31-year-old D.J. Augustin for the starting position. Look for the Magic to earn another playoff appearance again this season, with the goal of earning a higher seed and winning their first series since 2010.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
The Magic are the second-best team in the Southeast Division, but that shouldn’t conjure up too much excitement in Orlando. The Magic still lack direction pertaining to their ongoing rebuild – which feels like it’s been underway for a decade. They are still in dire need of a point guard, but instead, they continue to collect big men. They should be active in the trade market this year in pursuing a point guard if one becomes available. And, in exchange, they have incredible depth upfront, but not enough playing time to go around. There is the recently re-signed Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon and Mo Bamba, as well as Jonathan Isaac and 2019 free agent-signee Al-Farouq Aminu.
And to make matters worse, the Magic went back to the well and drafted 6-foot-8 Chuma Okeke this past June. Even if they don’t make a move, the Magic will still end the year around .500 and probably qualify for the playoffs again. But they won’t progress far forward until they find a point guard around whom they can build.
2nd Place – Southeast Division
– Drew Maresca
Steve Clifford’s first go-round as head coach of the Magic went better than some had expected. He got the best out of Nikola Vucevic in a career year, utilized the size of Jonathan Isaac on the defensive end and put Terrence Ross in the perfect situation to succeed as the leader of the second unit. Coming into this campaign, Orlando hadn’t lost any core pieces and actually gained a vastly underrated one in Al-Farouq Aminu. The conundrum will be finding ample playing time for the plethora of forwards on their roster while lacking a star point guard necessary to take the next step. It’s asking a lot out of D.J. Augustin to repeat what he did in one of his best seasons as a pro. And as far as Evan Fournier and Aaron Gordon are concerned, the status quo may be good – but in this league, good isn’t good enough. Improvements must be made. With that said, they should be in playoff contention — but how far they can go remains to be seen.
2nd Place – Southeast Division
– Spencer Davies
The Magic took a big step last season when they finished with a winning record and made the playoffs for the first time in seven years. They even managed to steal Game 1 of the first round from the eventual champions in Toronto. Aaron Gordon has taken a big leap forward and has emerged as a borderline All-Star talent. The Magic also have some intriguing young players in Jonathan Isaac, Mo Bamba and, yes, Markelle Fultz, whom they just picked up the contract option on. The real test for Orlando though is going to be to prove that last season wasn’t a one-year wonder and that this team is ready to be a perennial playoff contender. They even appeared to be the top team in their division until the HEAT acquired Jimmy Butler this summertime. Even though it’s the Eastern Conference, it might be a little difficult for them to replicate last season’s success. They’re going to need some real growth from their young guys to show they actually are headed in the right direction.
2nd Place – Southeast Division
– David Yapkowitz
The Magic may be the biggest “what if” team in the East. What if Markell Fultz can be the guy he was championed to be in the draft? What if Aaron Gordon takes the next step to All-Star status? What if Jonathan Issac can be the future star he looks to be? What if Mo Bamba can play valuable minutes all season? The great thing for Orlando is that if any of those things happen, then they should be better than the 42 wins they had last season. If two of them happen, they could be scary good; but if three happen, they could have home court. The downsize is the Magic still don’t have the franchise guy they coveted and desperately need to be considered a real contender. So if the “ifs” don’t pan out, the Magic do have lots of attractive trade chip if that star becomes available in trade. Overall, the Magic should be better. They found a solid identity down the stretch last year and have kept the core together, which should help them pick up where they left off.
2nd Place – Southeast Division
– Steve Kyler
Orlando is a team I just can’t quite figure out, which may explain why the Magic will be one of the non-California teams I will be keeping a close eye on this upcoming season. Aaron Gordon keeps improving and could be set for a big season. I don’t know what to make of the collective power forward-center combination of Jonathan Isaac, Al-Farouq Aminu, Nikola Vucevic and Mohamed Bamba but if either Isaac or Bamba takes a leap, things could get very interesting. And that doesn’t even include what this team can become if Markelle Fultz overcomes the issues that have plagued him early in his chaotic career. Orlando didn’t make any out of the box or completely unexpected moves this offseason, but did what was necessary to move forward with what is becoming an increasingly competitive team in the Eastern Conference. The team still has a ways to go to become a true contender, but there are some interesting parts in Orlando and I would not be surprised if the Magic exceed expectations this upcoming season.
2nd Place – Southeast Division
– Jesse Blancarte
FROM THE CAP GUY
The Magic remains the only team yet to sign their 2019 first-round draft pick as Chuma Okeke (16th) recovers from an ACL tear, reports are he may red-shirt in the G-League.
Orlando is close to the NBA’s $132.6 million luxury tax threshold, with $129.7 million in guaranteed salary. Okeke would earn at least $2.1 million as a rookie (80 percent of scale, when the norm is 120 percent), which might explain the delay. Look for the Magic to explore a cost-cutting trade at some point throughout the season if they do end up above the tax line.
The team has a hard cap at $138.9 million, after using their full Mid-Level Exception on Al-Farouq Aminu. The team isn’t especially close to that limit but still may not use its Bi-Annual Exception of $3.6 million, with tax concerns. (edited)
– Eric Pincus
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Nikola Vucevic
Nikola Vucevic earned his first NBA All-Star selection this past season as he averaged a career-high 20.8 points and 12.0 rebounds per game. Vucevic has always shown strong offensive capabilities during his career but he took it to a new level during the 2018-19 season. Vucevic also dominated from behind the arc last year as his percentage on two-point attempts, 54.9 percent, was the highest of his career. He also converted on 84 total three-pointers, averaged 36.4 percent from three-point range and earned a 51.8 field goal percentage
As the centerpiece of Steve Clifford’s offense last season, Vucevic was the first option and often had pick and rolls or post-up plays go through him, but it was his improved passing that helped the team’s perimeter game. Vucevic averaged a career-high in assists last year with 3.8 per game.
Vucevic draws a lot of attention because of his ability to score on the block but he scored just 0.93 points per possession on post-ups. Despite being one of the most-frequent post players in the league, Vucevic may need to improve points per possession in the post to become a more dangerous threat. Regardless, Vucevic will continue to be the focal point of the offense and has shown tremendous growth in the position last year.
Top Defensive Player: Jonathan Isaac
During the 2017 NBA Draft, Jonathan Isaac was a solidified lottery pick after one season at Florida State University, where he was seen a project player. At 6-foot-8 with a 7-foot-4 wingspan and good lateral mobility, he has an incredible defensive upside. Isaac struggled through injuries in his rookie season but is back on track after a solid sophomore season that saw him improve defensively as the season progressed.
Up until the All-Star break, Isaac’s opponents shot 45.5 percent and 39 percent from three-point range. After the break, Isaac’s opponents shot just 42.8 percent from the field, 32 percent from behind the arc and held the third-highest defensive win-shares on the roster.
Despite Isaac’s slender frame, he has become a more versatile defender both on the perimeter and in the paint. Isaac finished 20th in the league in blocks last season and 17th in Block Percentage. Moreover, the talented rotation piece finished the season with a Defensive Real Plus-Minus of 1.02 this season, well above average for his position. He was even more impressive in the limited sample size of his rookie season, ranking 14th among 83 qualified power forwards with a DRPM of 1.78.
Top Playmaker: Terrence Ross
Last season, the Magic — and their overall shooting prowesses — relied heavily on the first guy off the bench, Terrence Ross. His reputation for reckless shot selection hasn’t materialized during his time in Orlando. Ross attempted seven three-pointers per contest, even averaging a three-pointer every 3.5 minutes he was in the game. He made 38.3 percent of those attempts and they accounted for over 55 percent of his total shot distribution. No player has ever made as many threes in a season while playing exclusively in a bench role as he did — and he finished with 217 made three-pointers.
In 2019-20, he delivered the best and most consistent season of his career. He was a clear-cut candidate for Sixth Man of the Year, averaged 15.1 points per game and made 38.3 percent of his three-pointers. As part of the Magic bench, he was the guy they ran almost all their offense through.
Ross has always been considered streaky in his scoring and has not had reliable output. Ross’ ability has never been questioned, especially after scoring 51 points in a game during the 2014-2015 season. But Ross can go extremely cold when it matters, like, for example, when he averaged 13.2 points per game and shot just 37 percent from the field during last season’s playoffs. Look for Ross to work on consistency, an aspect he improved tremendously through the season last year.
Top Clutch Player: Evan Fournier
During the fourth quarter (or overtime), with less than five minutes remaining, and neither team ahead by more than five points — aka known as “Clutch Time” — the Magic have consistently relied on Evan Fournier. In the 2018-19 season, Fournier led the team with 32 points in 29 games played during these pressure-filled moments, converting on 11 out of his 20 shots and three of the nine attempts from three-point range.
Over the past three years, Fournier has scored 83 points in 74 clutch games, making 27 of 53 shots (50.9 percent) and 10 of 27 three-pointers (37 percent). Terrence Ross may be a secondary option for these clutch situations with 22 points on 7-for-20 shooting (35 percent), but he only hit three of his 12 three-pointers in those instances last season. Fournier has exhibited a knack for performing in these moments and will be the primary option going into the 2019-20 season.
Unheralded Player: D.J. Augustin
Acting as the only spark of offense in the playoffs last season, D.J. Augustin scored 19 of his 25 points in the first half of Game 1 in the first round against the Raptors, thus forcing head coach Nick Nurse to adjust his defense. By acquiring Markelle Fultz last season, the Magic have made it apparent that Augustin is only a short-term solution until they can develop the younger version to take over the offense.
Throughout the prior season, Augustin notched 11.7 points per game and 5.3 assists per game with a 56.6 percent effective field goal percentage. Augustin rarely turned the ball over and that composure helped the Magic through some tough games. By providing a steady hand and consistency, Augustine will be seen as a stabilizing force for the inexperienced team and an unheralded part of the Magic this season.
Best New Addition: Al-Farouq Aminu
With first-round pick Chuma Okeke expected to red-shirt the season in the G-League, Al-Farouq Aminu gets the nod as the best new addition.
Aminu has been seen as a wing that can shoot at an efficient level while defending against some of the best scorers in the league. Better, Aminu has shown versatility on the defensive side of the court by playing center and stretching the floor as a power forward on offense.
The Magic offered Aminu a three-year, $29.2 million deal despite having a “log-jam” at the power forward position. Aminu, Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac all have incredible, athletic upsides that have not been fully developed and, in turn, make their skillsets slightly repetitive. Each are lengthy wings that lack some technical skills and shooting ability, but each provides value in different ways.
The Magic already had the eighth-most efficient defense in the league last year. so Aminu will only contribute to the strong defense as he has ranked as a top-15 power forward in RPM over the past four years. What Aminu provides in the present is security for the team, a way to shore up the defense and provide depth to the frontcourt that has talent but little consistency. Aminu has only missed 35 games over the past four years, making his durability and stability an insurance policy for Jonathan Isaac and Mo Bamba.
– David Weissman
WHO WE LIKE
1. Keeping The Gang Around
Orlando’s president of basketball operations, Jeff Weltman, repeatedly said the team wanted to bring back Vucevic. The Magic re-signed Vucevic to a four-year, $100 million deal even though they could have offered him as much as a five-year, $189.7 million contract. Vucevic also had other options as another franchise was willing to offer him a four-year, $140.6 million deal.
The Magic also signed Khem Birch to a two-year, $6 million contract to add to the depth behind Vucevic. When Bamba went down with a season-ending leg injury last year, Birch helped the Magic earn a defensive rating of 102.7 when he was on the court during the regular season, making him the perfect insurance policy should Vucevic or Bamba fall victim to injury. Best of all, Birch is currently considered the best defender of the three.
One primary focus the Orlando Magic honed on this summer was bringing Terrence Ross back. They accomplished their goal by signing Ross to a four-year, $54 million contract, thus continuing the great fit with the added bonus of his veteran leadership. Last season, Ross averaged 38.3 percent from deep and became the first player in league history to make over 200 three-pointers without ever starting a game.
2. The Young Core
The Magic fielded the youngest starting line up in the playoffs last seasons with six of the players in rotation under the age of 25. With Gordon, Isaac, Bamba and Fultz all considered possible starters for the upcoming season, the Magic are sending up signals that their focus is on the future. According to FiveThirtyEight, the Magic have one of the most dynamic young cores in the league.
Using the CARMELO projection system and WAR figure, each of which evaluates a multi-season future forecast based on a player’s history and determines the number of wins above replacement over the next five seasons for every player on each team’s roster, the Orlando Magic rank 11th-best in the league. Aaron Gordon ranked highest with a 16.2 rating, but the rest of the young core looks more unpredictable, despite the hope that they will develop into starters on a playoff team.
Issac and Gordon have proven to be capable of starting on the Magic, but have not shown the dominance and game-changing play that made them both lottery picks. Fultz and Bamba have not played a lot, but are looking for a fresh start this season.
3. Magic Players In The FIBA Basketball World Cup
With the closing of 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup, the United States disappointed fans by finishing in seventh place — theIR worst showing in Team USA history. That is due, in part, to the newfound distribution of basketball talent at the global level. The Magic saw four players represent their national teams, with some of them even using their NBA experience to help bring down Team USA.
Evan Fournier captured his third bronze medal with the French national team, by defeating Australia in the third-place game. The 26-year-old averaged 19.8 points per game throughout the tournament, fourth-best among current NBA players. Fournier also helped France break the Team USA’s streak of 58 straight wins in international tournaments and was named to FIBA’s All-Tournament team.
Nikola Vucevic represented Montenegro in his first-ever FIBA World Cup. Vucevic was solid for his country, despite only winning one of the five games during the competition, and averaged 14.6 points, 6.4 rebounds and 1.2 assists per game.
Nigeria finished the 2019 FIBA World Cup as the highest-ranking African team and will go onto play in its third consecutive Olympics. Al-Farouq Aminu was arguably Nigeria’s most-stifling defender and was often his team’s secondary or tertiary playmaker. Despite only scoring 8.2 points per game, his experience in the NBA translated to his play in the tournament, thus helping Nigeria win three of five games.
With a large amount of their talented Canadians sitting out the FIBA World Cup, Khem Birch was able to have a prominent role with the team. Birch averaged 11.6 points on nearly 58 percent shooting from the field and seven rebounds per game. Despite his performance, however, Canada was not able to make it out of the first round.
It is clear that the Magic provided the world with a bevy of talent, especially Fournier. After the impressive showings that these players had during the FIBA World Cup, the Magic will hope that their international players continue to grow heading into the 2019-20 season.
4. Solidifying The Center Position
The whole offseason for the Orlando Magic revolved around Nikola Vucevic. The Magic had two options this offseason: (1) resign Vucevic, focus on re-signing Terrence Ross and retaining the same core of their roster; or (2) let Vucevic walk, leaving the team to find a way to fill the center position, but staying competitive in the Eastern Conference. The Magic, rightfully, went with option one.
Despite his overwhelming potential, Bamba still has a lot of growing to do, especially adding weight and developing strength. Experience will come with time, but taking the starting role from Vucevic will be a difficult task. After signing Vucevic to a four-year deal, it is clear that Orlando feels as Bamba’s development will take a few years. The team will look to Bamba to become a future starter but, for now, there is no pressure for him to be that guy.
– David Weissman
With the acquisition of Al-Farouq Aminu and the drafting of Chuma Okeke, many Magic fans felt confused by the number of frontcourt players that the team currently has on the roster. Pundits call the power forward situation a “log-jam,” but that take appears overblown.
Aminu will be the perimeter player with defensive versatility, similar to the sets that both Gordon and Isaac possesses. With Okeke set to spend all season in the G League, that rotation becomes a little bit leaner. Despite the notion that there may be a “log-jam,” the Magic can keep a versatile defender at power forward at all times while maintaining the ability to switch up to the small forward position.
The Magic played that way most of the year, with Isaac playing small forward and Gordon at power forward. That pairing raised some questions before the season began, but when both shared the floor last year, the Magic had a +1.7 net rating (108.3 offensive rating and 106.6 defensive rating).
– David Weissman
During the playoffs, the Magic tried to work through Nikola Vucevic — but the hard-nosed Raptors were able to swarm the center, close off his usual passing lanes and stymied his flow on offense. Then and there, the team’s biggest weakness was apparent. The Magic had no one who could break the Raptors’ defense down off the dribble.
The Orlando Magic have lacked that type of talent since the departure of Victor Oladipo, but they may look to Markelle Fultz to fill that role. Despite past injuries, he has already recorded a triple-double and is still an effective scorer off the dribble. Gordon and Isaac both have shown glimpses of perimeter penetration skill and can be alternatives to Fultz this season. Because the Magic lack perimeter playmaking last year, the team’s shooting was also negatively impacted.
Furthermore, Clifford must create an offense to cover up their shooting woes at the forward position. Shooting is still a major flaw for all three players there as Aminu shot 34.3 percent from beyond the arc last year, Isaac went for 32.3 percent and Gordon made just 34.9 percent.
Overall, the Magic shot 35.6 percent from beyond the arc, the 11th-best mark in the league last season, so there are signs of life there.
THE BURNING QUESTION
What will Markelle Fultz become this year?
D.J. Augustin was a solid point guard for the Magic last year and will continue to provide stability as, ideally, the Fultz Era begins in earnest. As a steady veteran, Augustin was able to pace the team and provide perimeter offense creation. He was effective getting the team into its sets and working the pick and roll with Nikola Vucevic. He was a game manager, playing over 28 minutes a game with only 1.6 turnovers.
The Magic once had a strong playmaker with Victor Olidipo but, unfortunately for the Magic, he became an All-Star only after he left town. The Magic then acquired Elfrid Payton to fill Olidipo’s offensive production, but he did not live up to expectations. During this transition in point guards, the Magic relied on Augustin to maintain the offense, while also never considering him as a long-term solution.
Fultz now has the NBA world thinking that he may become the biggest bust since Anthony Bennett was drafted No. 1 overall in 2013. Fultz will be with the Magic for at least two seasons as they picked up his fourth-year option for the 2020-2021 season.
Even in a draft that produced Jayson Tatum, Donovan Mitchell and Kyle Kuzma, Fultz was seen as a tremendous athlete whose speed is rare even by NBA standards. The mere chance to add that kind of talent, even in a compromised state, was enough for the Magic to take on the financial risk. Fultz has played only 33 NBA games in two years for reasons that aren’t clear. He was diagnosed with Thoracic Outlet Syndrome last season, but that is a vague diagnosis that is made largely through the process of elimination. Many have attributed his struggles to the yips, a situation that the Magic can help resolve.
But if Fultz is even half of what he came advertised as, Orlando could take their biggest step as a budding franchise yet.
The X-Factors: Dallas
Drew Maresca continues Basketball Insiders’ X-Factors series by taking a look at the Dallas Mavericks’ most important pieces when the NBA returns in late July.
The NBA has zeroed in on a July 31st return – and it’s barely cracked news.
Well, that’s an exaggeration. It’s just that the confluence of civil unrest and the COVID-19 pandemic has morphed into a supernova of stressors that seem virtually insurmountable — and together, they’ve swallowed up the entirety of the 24-hour news cycle. It’s important to note that the loss of basketball pales in comparison to the many hurdles African Americans face with varying – but almost certain – regularity. And with 80.7% of NBA players being people of color (according to a recent study by the University of Central Florida), it’s obviously an incredibly personal issue for many of us close to the game.
But back to the NBA’s return…
The NBA is set on a 22-team solution that includes returning for eight games with the added bonus of a possible play-in tournament. Further, Oct. 12 will be the latest date for a potential Game 7 of the 2020 NBA Finals. But not only is the NBA officially returning, we now know how and when.
We also know who — and the Dallas Mavericks are in that group of teams that will return to regular season play. They are currently the seventh seed in the Western Conference and they possess a 7-game lead over the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies. That means it’s highly unlikely that they’ll need to compete in the play-in tournament, and they’ll instead focus on regaining midseason form and identifying their first-round opponent. But lots of things must work in their favor if they hope to get past that step.
The Mavericks entered the season boasting the 2018-19 Rookie of the Year – Luka Doncic – and they were finally ready to add Kristaps Porzingis back into their lineup. But no one knew how Porzingis would look upon his return from a 2018 knee injury; and while Doncic’s rookie season exceeded all expectations, his net effect was limited as far as team success was concerned (33-49).
But despite the doubt, Dallas has looked every bit the part of a playoff team. Doncic has put up MVP-caliber numbers and Porzingis acclimated nicely. But what must the Mavericks do to continue building momentum, and maybe even deliver a first-round upset? Let’s examine the most pressing X-factors for Dallas in their pursuit of a return to contender status.
First of all, the most important thing the Mavericks need to make a postseason run is their health. The Mavericks haven’t been entirely healthy all year. Porzingis tweaked his right knee only a few short months after returning from left knee injury that sidelined him for more than a year and a half. As a result, he missed six straight games and sat out a total of 16 games in 2019-20.
While missing games was the primary concern, Porzingis’s real hurdle has been ramping up from his extended hiatus. Porzingis was clearly not his old self immediately upon his return – and that’s reflected in his averages. He averaged only 15.8 points per game in 13 games in November and only 17.2 points per game in 20 games between December and January. But he found his groove in February, posting 25.2 points and 10.6 rebounds per game. And he followed that up with 23.2 points, 11.2 rebounds and 3.6 blocks per game in five contests in March before the shutdown. Porzingis clearly figured out where he fits with the Mavericks; and if he continues playing like he did in March and April, the Mavericks should boast a mismatch up front on most nights.
But even at his best, Porzingis alone doesn’t elevate the Mavericks to contenders. The Mavericks need more from their role players, too. With free agency remaining closed until the conclusion of the season (although it may open before the draft this year), teams must work with what they have at their disposal. That means that any solution must already be on their roster. And while options are obviously limited, there is one player from whom they could expect a little more – Seth Curry.
Let’s start with the elephant in the room – Curry is simply not on his brother’s level in terms of talent, and he never will be. But considering just how special Stephen Curry is, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. What he lacks in ability (relative to his brother), Seth Curry makes up for with fearlessness. The younger Curry has carved out a real role in his second stint with the Mavericks, taking and making shots at an impressive rate; Curry is shooting a scorching 45.3% on three-point attempts over the entire season. And looking ahead, Dallas should unleash him even more. While Curry is averaging only 12.6 points in 24.5 minutes per game, his scoring average jumps to 20.5 points on 67.6% three-point shooting when given 30+ minutes. If the Mavericks hope to be competitive (and maybe even advance) in the 2020 NBA Playoffs, Curry may very well be the key.
Last, but definitely not least, is Doncic himself – specifically, how in-shape he is upon his return. The Mavericks need a physically fit Doncic to return in July. And he very well may do just that. Remember, it was only about a year ago that he committed himself to lifting weights and conditioning – and this season he’s the sixth-leading scorer in the league and a (long shot) MVP candidate. Mavericks’ owner Mark Cuban joked about Doncic’s conditioning last Summer.
“He came (in the summer of 2019) and he was working out with coach,” Cuban said. “I actually saw an ab, so it was a step in the right direction. There may have been two. But he’s definitely in better shape (than he was last season).”
And that worked out pretty well for Dallas.
Recently, rumors have surfaced about Doncic and his physique and/or conditioning. Specifically, rumors claim that Doncic looks “puffy”, but ESPN’s Tim MacMahon reported the contrary.
“Anytime Luka (Doncic) goes overseas and people don’t see him there’s going to be these rumors, ‘He’s beefing up again, he’s looking puffy,’” MacMahon said. “That rumor’s out there. I asked. I was told that he looks fine on their Zoom calls, he’s been working out and he’s actually been playing pickleball over Slovenia.”
Doncic is a major wild card in that no one knows what to expect. We’ll know more soon.
Ultimately, the Mavericks are going to have a challenging time advancing past the elite teams in the league. But if Porzingis, Curry and Doncic don’t all return ready to play the best basketball of their respective careers, an early elimination is a near certainty. If they can all reach new highs, they’ll have a chance.
And that’s all anyone can ask for.
The X-Factors: Indiana
Matt John continues Basketball Insiders’ X-Factors series by taking a look at how certain aspects affect the Indiana Pacers’ chances.
There’s a lot going on right now. So much so that it’s overshadowed a positive string of news – the NBA is (hopefully) coming back. We don’t know when that is, and we don’t know how they’re going to approach the rest of the 2019-20 season, but at least we know that pro basketball is coming back.
If you’ve been keeping in touch with Basketball Insiders over the past week, we’ve been looking over X-Factors that can shape the chances of potential playoff teams. X-Factors like injuries, how teams figure out their rotation, getting past their internal issues, and so on and so forth. We’ve already gone over New Orleans, Portland, Brooklyn and Memphis. Today, we’re going over the Indiana Pacers.
Over the past three years, the Pacers have been unanimously crowned as one of the league’s more entertaining underdogs. Since they started their new era of basketball post-Paul George, their identity has centered around their scrappiness and effort. It’s what’s led to them having two consecutive 48-win seasons and being on pace to win 49 this season. If that’s not enough, they’ve done this while having their new face of the franchise Victor Oladipo fully healthy for only one season during that time.
There’s only one problem. In spite of them wildly exceeding expectations, it hasn’t led to much playoff success. In their defense, some of that came from factors that were out of their control, like having to face LeBron in the first round one year and losing Oladipo mid-season the next. This upcoming postseason is their chance to prove that there is more to them than being the little train that could.
For Indiana to take that next step, their chances start and end with how much of Victor Oladipo that we’ll get to see from Victor Oladipo.
First, let’s give props to the Pacers for being able to manage without ‘Dipo for the past year or so. Teams more often than not crash and burn after they lose their best player. Indiana can take pride knowing that they weren’t one of them. They’ve proven that they’re a good team without him – which definitely wasn’t the case his first year when he exploded. At this point though, good isn’t enough for them, which is why they still need him at full strength to achieve their full potential.
Alas, integrating an all-NBA caliber player following a devastating injury to a team that was playing fine without him is much easier said than done — the 2018-19 Boston Celtics can attest to that. It can really boggle down to two reasons why.
1. A star coming off a serious injury mid-season needs time to shake off the rust
2. Working him into a rotation that was doing fine without him is hard to maneuver
When Oladipo came back, neither he nor the Pacers could avoid those issues. Indiana went 7-6 and seemed to go hot and cold. After winning an overtime thriller against Chicago, they went on a five-game losing streak. They followed that with a six-game winning streak before losing to Boston in a close battle just as the NBA shut down. In that 13-game span, Oladipo averaged nearly 14 points on 39/30/78 splits along with three rebounds and three assists. Those numbers are to be expected knowing what’s happened to him, but not the ones you regularly want from your franchise player.
However, that last loss to Boston bred reason for optimism for Oladipo. He had his best game of the season by, scoring 27 points on 9-for-16 shooting including 5-for-7from three. Better yet, he single-handedly spurred a 9-2 run that helped the Pacers catch up to the Celtics late in the fourth quarter. He was the best player on the floor when it mattered, and he did his damage against a good team. He looked like Victor Oladipo again!
Unfortunately, his performance was like a show putting on its best episode just as it was about to go on hiatus. Because the NBA shortly put the season on hold afterward, we don’t know if it was all a fluke or if it was him trending upwards. We’ll get a better look when the season resumes.
If we get the Victor Oladipo that put the league on notice just two years ago, then the Pacers become one of the playoff sleepers with an ambiguous ceiling. Granted, Indiana has progressed enough as a team that they don’t have to rely on him as much as they did two years ago, but adding a two-way star to an already good team opens so many possibilities. It wouldn’t be the end of the world if they don’t get that version of Oladipo when the playoffs come around, but if they do, absolutely no one would want to face them in the playoffs.
If they believe that they can get the Oladipo of old, his presence would mean someone(s) else isn’t getting minutes. Playoff rotations always shorten because teams want their best guys out there. Jeremy Lamb’s awful season-ending knee injury does make things simpler in that regard, but Oladipo will have to absorb a lot of minutes if Indiana wants him to get his best form back, which means the back-end rotation guys in Indiana like TJ McConnell and the Holiday brothers might be riding the pine more than what they are used to.
Oladipo at full strength is obviously a lot better than those players, but as stated before, him coming back at full strength is not a guarantee. Giving him minutes at the expense of others who have been productive is a gamble especially now that it’s looking more and more likely that the NBA will start with the playoffs right off the bat.
Let’s be honest here: You probably already knew Indy’s playoff chances revolve around how Oladipo performs. You might be asking if there are other factors at play. There most certainly are for them. Although not nearly to the same proportion as Oladipo is.
A consistent subplot over these last three years has been the shaky pairing of Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner. Nate McMillan, whose coaching has been among the best in the league during that time, has tried his darndest to make the pairing work. The Pacers aren’t worse when they share the court together – they have a plus-2.1 net rating as a duo — but they clearly don’t make the team better together.
It’s clear that this team ain’t big enough for the two of ‘em, and this season, Sabonis has made it obvious that he is the better player of the two. Indiana should probably look into trading Turner this summer, but that’s not relevant for why this is all being brought up. The point is, if the Pacers want to go the distance, they have to mix and match those two to the best of their abilities.
In other words, they need to stop putting themselves on the court together for an extended period of time. It’s a shame because they are two of Indiana’s best players that just happen to play at their best at the same position. The playoffs are about playing the best lineups and exploiting the best matchups. In order to do that, they shouldn’t be playing at the same time.
Having two really good centers can be a positive though. It makes it so that the Pacers will always have at least one of them on the floor at all times. That can do wonders for them.
There are other factors at play here. TJ Warren will be getting his first taste of playoff action. He’s done an excellent job replacing Bojan Bogdanovic this season, but who knows if that is going to continue when the playoffs start? Aaron Holiday has a much bigger role than he had last year and did not get much playoff burn as a rookie. If the Pacers entrust him in the playoffs, is he going to fill in Cory Joseph’s shoes?
There’s also the playoff formatting that’s still very much in the air. If they do the standard formatting, Indiana will be facing Miami in the first round for what should be a very entertaining – not to mention nostalgic – playoff series. If they decide to do seeding based on league standings, they would face Denver, which would provide a fair amount of fun matchups. We may not even get that either.
Whatever the case is, Indiana can at least sleep well at night knowing that this go-round, they’ll have their best player back on the team to lead the fight.
The biggest question is how much of the said best player will be there when they do.
The X-Factors: Memphis
David Yapkowitz continues Basketball Insiders’ “X-Factor” series by identifying potential difference-makers for the Memphis Grizzlies should the NBA return this July.
Developing news: the NBA is forging a path towards resuming the season, something that didn’t seem all that likely a couple of months ago. Now there are still quite a few things needed to be addressed before a resumption, but things have seemingly gained momentum within the past week or so.
Different scenarios have been floated around. But the ultimate question, should the season indeed resume, is how? Will the NBA opt to go only with the teams that were in a playoff spot before the shutdown, or will they include the bubble teams who had a fighting shot at the playoffs as well?
We’ve begun a new series here at Basketball Insiders in which, assuming those bubble teams have a legit shot, we take a look at not only the potential issues each team may face, but the x-factors that could swing their favor in their respective quests toward the postseason.
Today, we look at the Memphis Grizzlies, one of the regular season’s biggest surprises. Of course, nobody would blame you if you picked them to miss the postseason — they came into the season as an extremely young team with not a lot of experience. And they started the season about as you would have expected, 14 losses in their first 20 games. Come 2020, their record stood at 13-35 as they sat near the bottom of the Western Conference.
Then, on Jan. 4, something changed. A big 140-114 win on the road against the Los Angeles Clippers, a team many expected to represent the conference in the NBA Finals, set off a chain reaction. From there, the Grizzlies would go on to win seven straight as they cemented themselves a spot in the race for the conference’s last playoff spot. When the NBA suspended play on March 11, Memphis sat at 32-33 and 3.5 games ahead of the Portland Trail Blazers for the eighth spot in the conference.
So, what exactly could prove the Grizzlies x-factor should the season resume? First and foremost would be the health of budding star Jaren Jackson Jr.
After a pretty solid rookie season in 2018-19, Jackson appeared on an upward trajectory prior to his injury. The archetype of the modern big, he is an elite defender with a great range from beyond the arc. He may not shoot the prettiest ball, but it goes in nonetheless: the former Michigan State Spartan took 6.3 three-point attempts per game and knocked them down at a near 40 percent clip. He’s active around the basket and, given his size and potential in the pick-and-roll, Jackson is the perfect complement to the Grizzlies fellow phenom and future star, Ja Morant.
Prior to the league shutdown, Jackson had missed nine straight with a left knee injury. His absence was evident — Memphis went 4-5 in his absence after that aforementioned seven-game win-streak — and a potential return could give the Grizzlies the boost they need to solidify their position in the standings.
While Memphis would have almost certainly have preferred to have Jackson in the lineup, they may have stumbled upon another potential x-factor in his absence: Josh Jackson.
The former lottery pick had a humbling experience to start this season, as the team essentially told him not to show up to training camp and instead had him immediately assigned to their G-League team, the Memphis Hustle.
Down in the G-League, Jackson was given the opportunity to hone his craft, expand his repertoire and further build on the talent that made him the fourth pick back in 2017. Later in the year, the Grizzlies seemingly liked what they saw: recalled to the team in late January, Jackson proved a nice spark for the team off the bench as averaged 10.4 points, 1.7 assists 3.2 rebounds and a steal per game in 18 contests. In that time, Jackson also shot a career-high 43.9 percent from the field.
Of course, there was never any question about his talent — Jackson was a lottery pick for a reason — but in his short time with the Phoenix Suns, Jackson just couldn’t put it together. That said, he’s shown some serious improvement defensively and in terms of his shot selection and, still only 23-years-old, he could quickly become a major difference-maker for Memphis off the bench. In the short-term, his improvements should only serve to benefit the team’s postseason chances.
Their youth and inexperience, something that has often been regarded as their biggest weakness, could also serve as another wild card or x-factor for the Grizzlies. Only three players — Gorgui Deng, Jonas Valanciunas and Kyle Anderson — are over the age of 26, and the energy their young legs would bring to any potential tournament could serve as their ace in the hole.
Looking back toward the standings, the San Antonio Spurs and Portland Trail Blazers, two veteran-laden teams with significantly more experience than Memphis, loom large. Should the NBA give those teams on the bubble a real opportunity to reach the postseason, the Grizzlies’ youth will have to play a significant role. Of course, their inexperience may prove fatal, given the amount of time away from the game.
But, over the course of the season, Memphis proved a resilient bunch — there’s no reason to think that might change should the season resume.