Despite some roster turnover in the form of moving Elfrid Payton, the Orlando Magic have looked pretty good in recent games. But why is this happening now?
With the All-Star break looming, the Orlando Magic have managed to do something surprising recently and that is be an average basketball team. In fact, over their last five games, they boast a 3-2 record. Not to get ahead of ourselves here, but that is the same as what the Golden State Warriors have managed to do in their last five games.
Ridiculously placed optimism aside, the Magic did go on a recent three-game win streak, defeating the Miami Heat, Cleveland Cavaliers and Atlanta Hawks.
Even more surprising, those three wins tied a season-high unbeaten streak for the franchise, going back to those lofty early days of the season where they beat the Cavaliers, Brooklyn Nets and San Antonio Spurs.
Movement of Payton aside, what is it that has helped this team to become just a bit better in the short-term, and what should give fans hope that next season really can go much better?
On the surface, there is no one key stat that jumps out that explains their sudden ability to win games against playoff-caliber teams.
Let’s not forget also, they have now lost two straight, against the Milwaukee Bucks and Chicago Bulls. So it is not all good news.
Still, there has to be something to point to when talking about the sudden strides they are making in playing like a cohesive basketball team.
You could start with the fact that other players are now benefitting from receiving Payton’s minutes, only they’re 1-2 since he left. Mario Hezonja is one such player, as he has played 29 (Hawks), 35 (Bucks) and 30 (Bulls) minutes in their last three games.
Against the Bucks he scored 23 points, and against the Bulls he put up 24. The team still lost both games, but he did chip in 20 points in 32 minutes in that win over the Heat.
So is that it then? Are role players stepping up at a time when this team is supposed to be losing games to enhance its lottery positioning this summer?
It tells a small part of the story, but really what Hezonja’s scoring bursts do are feed into the belief that the Magic are improving right now because of how they’re playing offensively.
Those days haven’t quite returned, but over their recent five-game stretch the Magic have the 10th-best offensive rating in the league at 108.9.
Compared to the 104.7 mark they’ve averaged over the whole season so far(18th), that is a notable improvement.
Even if it doesn’t last (and really, with this group of players it’s likely it won’t), all is not lost because of another key number that stands out.
Orlando Magic Daily
The Magic have posted a defensive rating of 108.7 this season — a horrible number and good for 27th in the league.
Only the Cavaliers, Sacramento Kings and Phoenix Suns are worse, and we know Cleveland won’t be hanging around the basement much longer with their deadline day moves.
Yet over the last five games, the Magic have shot up to 12th (105.2) in this category. It has really helped them close out games (they’ve have allowed less than 100 points twice in this span).
What is fueling this surge up the defensive rankings then, and more importantly, can it last? In truth, it is probably a combination of two factors.
The first was moving on from Payton. As much as he may have been known as a defensive specialist entering the league, he was having his worst year on that end of the court. Giving him up for a second-rounder was still really silly, but there’s also no arguing that he was a poor defender in pick-and-roll situations.
Given that every team has that play as their foundation, it makes sense that the Magic would improve even a little bit defensively with Payton gone.
The second aspect of this is the introduction of Khem Birch into the rotation last month. The guy just works hard, and is already a clear factor on the defensive end.
His defensive rating of 101.2 is notable for somebody going through his first run in the league. For comparison, Bismack Biyombo, this team’s rim protector, has a rating of 110.7 this season.
Birch most certainly is, and his impact is being clearly felt on that end of the court. Another small help here is Wesley Iwundu, who could yet be the 3-and-D player this team desperately needs.
All of which is to say that the Orlando Magic have enjoyed a mini-revival of late, and although it may be puzzling to casual fans, it is clear why.
They are making their shots again, while also defending to a higher level thanks to the addition of guys like Khem Birch and Wes Iwundu and subtraction of Elfrid Payton.
It won’t last, a five-game sample size is tiny, and that’s probably good news since they should be tanking right now, but before the league breaks for All-Star weekend, it has been a welcome distraction from all the losing.