Sitting at just 3-5, the Orlando Magic may not seem like a playoff team. Last season, they finished 25-57, which was the third-worst record in the Eastern Conference. Although they have been collecting young talent, they have struggled to find any consistency. They have not made the playoffs since the 2011-2012 season, their last with former All-Star Dwight Howard. This year though, the Magic look primed for a postseason run.
The Magic made the first step towards the playoffs in the offseason when they hired Head Coach Scott Skiles. Skiles is an accomplished NBA coach, having spent time with the Phoenix Suns, the Chicago Bulls, and the Milwaukee Bucks during his career. In six of his ten full seasons as a head coach, he has taken his team to the playoffs. He’s known as a defensive coach, which fits into the mold of the players the Magic have collected. With Skiles running the team, the Magic have a proven coach who knows what it takes to reach the playoffs.
Opponents are shooting just 46.4% against the Magic, a number in line with elite defensive teams such as the Cleveland Cavaliers (46.7%) and the San Antonio Spurs (45.7%). The Magic are 7th in the NBA in blocks per game with 6.3, and 12th in the NBA in steals per game with 8.3. Scott Skiles came to Orlando with a defensive mindset, and the team has responded by becoming one of the better defensive teams in the NBA.
This team is also becoming an offensive threat. ESPN’s statistic Player Efficiency Rating (PER) which “is a rating of a player’s per-minute productivity,” is a simple way to analyze the Magic’s performance this season. A PER of 15 is considered league average. The Magic have five players posting a PER of 15 or better, and another five players who are within five points of league average. To put it simply, the Magic have become a two-way threat. Nikola Vucevic holds the best PER on the team at 21, well above league average. Even more impressive is that of the top five players for the Magic, four of them are not three point shooters (which tend to have a more favorable response in PER).
The same critique offered for NBA Efficiency also applies to Hollinger’s PERs, except the problem is even worse. Hollinger argues that each two point field goal made is worth about 1.65 points. A three point field goal made is worth 2.65 points. A missed field goal, though, costs a team 0.72 points.
Given these values, with a bit of math we can show that a player will break even on his two point field goal attempts if he hits on 30.4% of these shots. On three pointers the break-even point is 21.4%. If a player exceeds these thresholds, and virtually every NBA played does so with respect to two-point shots, the more he shoots the higher his value in PERs. So a player can be an inefficient scorer and simply inflate his value by taking a large number of shots.
Victor Oladipo, however, is the Magic’s best player. Oladipo averages 16.1 points per game, along with 7.5 rebounds per game and 1.75 steals per game. He has become one of the league’s most well-rounded shooting guards, and this is only his third season. Oladipo is making a case to become a first-time NBA All-Star, and getting the Magic back to the playoffs will only strengthen his case.
The road to the playoffs in the East is much more difficult this season than in years past. The Cavaliers, Hawks, Raptors, Wizards, Bulls, and Heat are all considered surefire playoff teams. That leaves only two open spots left to make the playoffs in the East. The Magic will have some worthy competitors for those final two spots. The Bucks and Celtics made the playoffs last year, and only look better. The Pacers’ superstar Paul George has returned from injury, and the Pistons have won five of seven to begin the campaign.
The Magic have a chance to be better than any of those four remaining teams. Their ability to be both an offensive and defensive threat gives them an advantage over the Bucks, Celtics, Pacers, and Pistons, who are generally regarded as strong defensive teams that are lacking in offense. However, the Magic are not a sure-fire playoff team yet. As it stands they will be fighting for one of the last spots in the playoffs.
The Magic should, however, be open to trades if they really want to make a playoff push. Dewayne Dedmon is backing up Vucevic, and Dedmon is not an adequate backup for a player of Vucevic’s pedigree. Given the early impact Skiles has given Dedmon (shown in his improved PER), Dedmon may be a perfect candidate to sell early for a more established veteran big man. The same goes for Oladipo’s backup, rookie Mario Hezonja. Hezonja is backing up both Oladipo and starter Tobias Harris, so some depth on the wings and in the frontcourt would help the Magic keep their starters fresh.
It will be extremely difficult to make the playoffs this year in the East, but if the Magic continue to play the brand of basketball they have been playing so far this season, they will be in position to return to the playoffs. Scott Skiles is capable of getting the most out of his players, and he has some tremendous young talent that he can mold into a playoff team. For the first time in years, the future looks bright in Orlando.
*Statistics provided by ESPN
*Images from Turner, The Sports Quotient, and Fox Sports