Friday, December 12, 2014

Orlando Magic

Given the number of injuries the Orlando Magic have suffered over the first quarter of the season, their tough early schedule should have buried them. Orlando has lost Victor Oladipo, Nik Vucevic, Aaron Gordon and Kyle O'Quinn for significant stretches of time, yet they still have a 9-15 record. That number is more impressive when you see they are tied for fewest home games in the league (8) and most road games (16).

Take a look at their last seven games:

at Indiana (-15)
at Phoenix (+3)
at Golden State (-1)
at LAC (-28)
at Utah (+5)
at Sacramento (+9)
Washington (-2)

Their 3-4 record in that stretch is downright heroic. Last year's team could have easily went 0-7. The wins weren't even the most impressive part - they lost by 1 at Golden State. You can't go into Oracle and almost beat the Warriors if you aren't playing really good basketball.

The big difference in this trip has been the emergence of Kyle O'Quinn. With Vucevic sidelined with back spasms, O'Quinn has been starting and he is earning every minute of his playing time. He is only playing 18 minutes a game right now, but in those minutes, he is playing at an astonishingly high level of basketball.

Per Game: 9.7 points, 4.6 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 0.8 steals, 1.3 blocks on 52.9% shooting
Per-36 Minutes: 19.6 points, 9.2 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 1.6 steals, 2.7 blocks
PER: 25.5

Keep in mind, per-36 minutes don't necessarily translate, especially for a big man as active as O'Quinn. For one thing, he is also averaging 5.2 personal fouls per-36 minutes of action. The point is that when he is on the floor, he has been about as valuable as any one player can be. In his first nine games of the season, 20 minutes of O'Quinn have been about as good as 20 minutes of anyone. You definitely want to see a little more of a sample size, but when a guy with O'Quinn's size (6'10 250 with a 7'4 wingspan) and athleticism is putting in work like that ... it raises a few questions.

1) How come we haven't been talking about him before?

If you go through his history, you can see how he slipped under the radar. Most potential NBA players get discovered in college, but O'Quinn spent four seasons at Norfolk State in the MEAC, as low a major as you are going to get. I never saw him play or had even heard of him before he lead them to a stunning upset of No. 2 Missouri in the first round of the NCAA Tourney. He put up good stats, but that doesn't necessarily mean anything when you are looking at a big man in a low-major conference. 

O'Quinn was drafted by the Orlando Magic in the second round in 2012 - his rookie season was their first without Dwight Howard. Unfortunately for him, it was also their first year with Nik Vucevic. O'Quinn has been stuck behind Vucevic, one of the best young C's in the Eastern Conference, ever since. His per-36 minute numbers were always pretty good - he just never played a lot of minutes. That, in turn, raises a few more questions. Is this another Marcin Gortat / Dwight Howard situation? And if it is, which one is Gortat and which one is Howard?

2) What does that mean for the Magic if he is anywhere near this good?

O'Quinn's on/off numbers are ridiculous. When he is on the floor, they have a 105.2 offensive rating and the other team has a 101.2 offensive rating. When he is off the floor, Orlando slides to a 101.2 and the other team bumps up to a 107.8. The Magic go from +4 with him to -6 without him. 

How sustainable are these numbers? If you look at his per-36 minute numbers for his first three seasons, the passing, shot-blocking and rebounding are all pretty consistent. The big improvement has come on the offensive end, where he is being way more aggressive in terms of looking for his offense and his shooting has improved. O'Quinn can score out of the high post and the low post and he's comfortable taking jumpers and attacking guys off the dribble.

When you watch him play, you certainly don't get the impression of someone who is playing above his head. He's big, fast and skilled and he has a really good feel for the game. Basketball isn't too hard for a guy like that. Even if his scoring numbers come down to earth, O'Quinn still profiles as a plus passer, shot-blocker and rebounder at the 5 position. It's not a very common skill-set. When you see big men who can do all those different things, you are generally looking at someone like the Gasol Brothers, Tiago Splitter, Joakim Noah. Those are the kind of guys that can have those types of huge swings on a team because they make everyone better on offense AND defense.

Is Kyle O'Quinn one of those guys? Is he really that good? It seems implausible, but it is theoretically possible. Long story short, if he continues to play this well, this could be the story of his summer:

Step into a world where O'Quinn is the building block at C and all the pieces start falling into place rapidly:

Size and speed for position?
Can he get his own shot?
Can he shoot?
Can he pass?
Oladipo (6’4 210)
Fournier (6’7 205)
Harris (6’9 235)
Frye (6’11 255)

O’Quinn (6’10 250)

* Oladipo is a better shooter than O'Quinn, but they are both question marks because the standards for shooting are so much higher at PG than C.

You might think that's a whole lot of check marks for a below .500 team, but that's where their A) tough early schedule and B) lack of continuity comes into play. 

From this POV, you can see why O'Quinn could be a better fit with the rest of the core than Nik Vucevic. The Magic have plenty of guys who can get buckets - what they need from their C is a guy who can move the ball, finish around the rim and protect the basket. Vucevic is bigger than O'Quinn but he's not as athletic and he's nowhere near the same level as a shot-blocker. On a team with so many young guys who are going to make mistakes defensively, you want someone who can serve as a second line of defense.

PG - Oladipo and Elfrid Payton (6'4 185)

The Magic have the biggest PG rotation in the league, with two recent lottery picks in Oladipo and Payton. When they drafted them, there were a lot of questions as to how these two would co-exist on the court, since neither is a consistent three-point shooter. Oladipo is the better scorer and Payton is the much better passer. Like most people, I figured that these two would spend most of the season learning how to co-exist and putting a firm ceiling on this team's offensive ceiling. Instead, the improvement that Orlando has gotten on the wings has made that a non-issue. 

What I wonder, given the current distribution of minutes, is whether it makes more sense for Payton to start and Oladipo to come off the bench. Oladipo is still primarily a score-first player, which is fine, but you would rather he take possessions away from some of the guys on the second unit. He does have a tendency to hold the ball - there was one sequence in the Wizards game where he dribbled it for all 24 seconds and then put up a fade-away. That can't happen with the number of weapons he has around him.

SG - Fournier (14 points, 2.5 rebounds, 2 assists on 44% shooting)

He doesn't have the pedigree of some of the other guys that Orlando has drafted, but he's playing way too well for them to even think about taking him off the floor. He just strokes the ball from 3 and he gives them the outside shooting this team desperately needs. Fournier passes the stats test and the eye test - he is a really smooth player with a high basketball IQ. Don't let his hairdo fool you. He knows what he is doing out there. 

SF - Harris (19 points, 8 rebounds, 2 assists on 48% shooting)

Last season, his 2nd in Orlando and 3rd in the NBA, was supposed to be when he broke out, but he struggled with injuries and never really got it going. He shot 26% from 3 and that put a real ceiling on his game. Without a consistent outside shot, Harris needed the ball in his hands and he had a hard time being as effective as a SF, since the defender could just concede the shot. He would still be a good NBA player as a small-ball PF, but it would severely limit the types of line-ups you could put around him.

This season, he is shooting 44% from 3 on 2.5 attempts a game. If he can maintain those numbers, he is going to be a serious problem. All of a sudden, there's no real way to guard him. At 6'9 235, he's really quick for a guy with his size and he's way too big for most SF's. He's always been very skilled, with the ability to handle the ball, finish at the rim and find the open man off the bounce. With a three point shot, he's a complete player.

At the moment, Harris is the closest thing to a star that Orlando has. What people don't realize about Harris is that he's still incredibly young for a 4rth-year player - he's only 22. He declared for the NBA draft after only one season at Tennessee and he was fairly young for his high school class. If he had been held back in school, his first season with the Milwaukee Bucks could have easily been his freshman season in college. That's the amazing thing about Tobias Harris - he's six months younger than Doug McDermott and he's a week younger than Mitch McGary. What kind of numbers would Tobias Harris have put up in the Big East last season? It's scary to contemplate.

PF - Frye

His numbers don't jump off the page, but he still provides two essential things for any winning team - good frontcourt defense and excellent three-point shooting. Frye is an ELITE shooter who has to be respected from the three-point line - he's opening up driving lanes for Harris and Fournier in much the same way that he did for Bledsoe and Dragic. Coincidentally enough, the Magic now have 2 of the most improved wing players in the league. Frye also has the size to slide down and play as a stretch 5, which really puts the D in a bind. The Suns are off last season's pace in large part because they haven't been able to replace all the things that he brings to the table.

That's what I was thinking when everyone was talking about how who could be this year's Suns. If Channing Frye was one of the real keys to their success, maybe you should check to see what team he is on this season? Everyone looks better when they can play with a PF who plays great defense and strokes 3's.

C - O'Quinn and Vucevic

Vucevic just got paid $54 million and he has been putting up All-Star caliber numbers, so it's hard to see him losing his starting job when he comes back. There's definitely room for both these guys in the rotation, though. All of a sudden, it looks like Orlando has two of the best C's in the Eastern Conference. Either way, my guess is that in the 4Q, O'Quinn's ability to impact more facets of the game will keep him on the floor.

Having O'Quinn out there just gives them so many different options. They can have him and Frye both operating out of the high post, creating acres of space around the rim for all their slashers. They can run offense through O'Quinn, who is one of the best passing big men in the league. They can play two-man game with him any of Oladipo, Payton, Fournier and Harris and they can have their other perimeter players spotting up, ready to attack the close-out. Most importantly, they can play much better defense, which allows them to go defense to offense and get out in transition, where their youth and athleticism becomes overwhelming.

The ideal scenario is that everyone gets healthy and they can use some type of 8-man rotation with Payton, Oladipo and Fournier at the guard spots, Harris, Aaron Gordon and Frye at the forward spots and Vucevic and O'Quinn at the center spots. For any extra minutes, they can throw Ben Gordon or Luke Ridnour out there for shooting or Andrew Nicholson and Dewayne Dedmon upfront.

The most encouraging part of it all for Orlando is that everyone is so young and they are all still brimming with upside. Payton is 20, Oladipo is 22, Fournier is 22, Harris is 22, Gordon is 19, Vucevic is 24 and O'Quinn is 24. While they have some old heads who are there for locker room stuff but probably shouldn't be playing too many minutes, the only older player who has a huge role for them is Frye and nothing ages better than size and shooting.

This is the ideal scenario for a young team - everyone grows together. They are all having to compete for minutes and they are all learning the right habits. For a team this young to be so competitive this early in the season is a very good sign going forward, both this season and into the future. Guys like Gordon and Payton may not get anywhere close to their ceiling until their second contracts, if for no other reason than there may not be a ton of shots or minutes for them. This same thing is happening to Terrence Ross in Toronto.

The Magic remind me a lot about the Raptors at this time last season. They were a young team who were still figuring out their identity and had been undergoing a lot of turnover after the trade of Rudy Gay. They hadn't gotten much publicity and none of their young guys had much of a reputation around the league beyond being a guy who could be good in a few years. Then, once they made the move that re-oriented their starting line-up (dumping Gay) and improved their depth (adding Vasquez, Patterson and Hayes), they started winning and they didn't stop until they won 48 games and got the No. 3 seed out East.

If the Magic can stick with O'Quinn and figure out a way to re-integrate Vucevic and Gordon into the rotation without disrupting anyone's chi, they can be a GOOD team this season. They can forget about playing for next season or trying to build for 2-3 years down the road. They don't need to worry about playing for draft picks either because they have high upside young players at every position on the floor. When guys develop fast enough, timetables for rebuilding get accelerated rapidly. That's what happened to Toronto and Phoenix last season and it looks like it could be happening to Orlando now.

It's time to buckle up because this thing could get real serious real fast.


  1. Maybe. But they still have the worst coach in the league...

  2. Jacque Vaughn's substitution patterns are ridiculous. There's really no excuse for not staggering minutes of your best players at this point.