We all know the NBA regular season is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s foolish to attempt to predict a team’s future success by any 20 game stretch, especially the first 20 of 82 with a young inexperienced team. Well, unless it’s the Philadelphia 76ers and Los Angeles Lakers. We know they’re going nowhere but the top two picks of the draft lottery.
In most cases it is difficult, but I’ll judge ’em anyway. Because, how you begin the season is a good indication of how you’ll finish. Look at a young team like the Orlando Magic. 1st-year Magic Coach Scott Skiles’ group is many “experts” sleeper pick to make the playoffs in the improved Eastern Conference. And, so far, they’re making them look good.
Orlando finished the first quarter of the season 11-9 after losing to the Los Angeles Clippers 101-103 on Saturday night. That record includes a 5 game winning streak, which is their longest since a 9-game run during the 2010-2011 season.
11-9 may not sound so great, but this is huge progress for a franchise that has missed the postseason the past three seasons. From 2012-’13 to 2014-’15, Orlando was 8-12, 6-14 and 7-13 in their first 20 games. This is the deepest into the season the Magic have been over .500 since 2011-2012.
These young Magic just finished November with a record of 9-6, their first winning month for the franchise since March 2012.The 9 losses have come by a combined 56 points (6.2 average), two of them went into overtime, with another going to double overtime.
Those opponents were, you ask? Four playoff teams from last season (Washington twice, Houston, Chicago & Cleveland) and a favorite for the 2016 NBA title (Oklahoma City). So why do I, and others believe this team is playoff bound?
First–and probably most important–defensively this group is vastly improved, which is to be expected of a Scott Skiles coached team, considering his tenure with the Phoenix Suns, Chicago Bulls and Milwaukee Bucks. Two major indicators of a strong defensive team is, rebounding and opponents field goal percentage. Orlando is 5th in total rebounding (46.6 pg), 11th on the defensive backboards (34.4 pg). They’re a strong rebounding team overall, coming in 3rd on offensive glass (12.2 pg), which has led to them being the 6th best team in 2nd chance points (14.5 pg).
Magic opponents are shooting 42.2% against them, that’s 4th best in the NBA behind notably strong defensive teams the Miami Heat, Chicago Bulls and San Antonio Spurs. How improved are they? Last season the Magic allowed teams to shoot 46.3%, that was 3rd worst behind the L.A. Lakers and the Minnesota Timberwolves, the teams who had the top 2 picks in the 2015 NBA Draft. The Magic are also only allowing an 11th best in 99.5 points per game.
They’re also doing a better job of protecting the paint. So far in 2015-2016, they have 3 games of 10+ blocks. They had 4 such games in 2013-2014 & 2014-2015 combined.
This is a very unselfish team, a sign of great maturity amongst a roster thats average age is 24.6, with 10 of the guys at age 25 and below. They’re 9th in assist, averaging 22.4 a game, and can score in multiple ways. 60.6% of the total points come on 2 pointers, with another 24.1% coming on 3’s and of those 2’s, 18.2% come off opponents turnovers.Starting shooting guard Evan Fournier, who’s in a contract year, leads the team in scoring at 16.3 points per game, but 4 others also average double figures and they’ve had 8 different leading scorers.
After juggling his lineup for much of the first 10 games this season, Coach Skiles appears to have found the right mix. The lineup of Elfrid Peyton and Evan Fournier in the backcourt, with Tobias Harris, Nikola Vucevic, Channing Frye in the front court, is 6-2. They’re also 5-1 with former number 2 overall draft pick, Victor Oladipo, coming off the bench for the first time in his pro career.
At this pace, the Magic will finish 45-37. Last season, 38-44 was good enough for the 8th seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Right now they’re holding the 8th spot in the conference, two games back of Southeast Division rival the Miami Heat for first place in the conference. That’s how close the East is this season.
After three years of rebuilding the Kingdom that Dwight Howard tore down on his way to L.A. then Houston, the Magic has finally returned to Orlando to one of the most crazed fan bases in the league. Take notes, that’s how it’s done Philadelphia.