The Orlando Magic have gotten off to a surprisingly solid start to the NBA season. Their current mark of 6-4 is good enough for third place in the Eastern Conference and two of those victories were blow out wins over the Cleveland Cavaliers and the San Antonio Spurs.
While the strong start has surprised many, it is far from inexplicable, and definitely not magic. To understand how the Magic have improved this season, we have to look at why they were bad last season, which is pretty easy.
The Magic started last season with Serge Ibaka on their roster and this led to head coach Frank Vogel running with a three big lineup for most of the season. The lineup Vogel used most was Elfrid Payton, Fournier, Aaron Gordon, Serge Ibaka and Nikola Vucevic, and it was downright atrocious.
That lineup posted a net rating of -3.0 and a true shooting percentage of 54.0 percent. Vogel didn’t have many options to mix it up either. With his bench consisting of Bismack Biyombo, D.J. Augustin and Jodie Meeks, he had to sacrifice attributes that are vital to victory — such as defending and rebounding — to help improve spacing which was what the team desperately needed.
At the trade deadline, Magic GM Rob Hennigan finally came to his senses and decided to retool the roster. He traded Ibaka for Terrence Ross and a first-round pick. The Magic performed slightly better to end the season, but after a trainwreck occupied most of the season, it was hard for players to be optimistic and they just let the season fizzle out.
So how does a team that was so catastrophic last season improve so much even though they changed so little? It’s easy. You strengthen within by playing players in their optimal positions to succeed.
This started with Gordon, who was forced to play the three for much of last season even though everyone and their mothers knew he should be playing the four. When Gordon’s out there, he can come out to the perimeter and attack slower bigs off-the-dribble. Being on the perimeter opened the paint for Vucevic, and oh, yeah, the two of them are shooting a combined 49.0 percent from 3 on 4.3 attempts per game. Those are career-highs for both of them.
The main key to their success, though, is Fournier. Fournier was an efficient needle in the inefficient offensive haystack that the Magic were last season. He averaged 17.2 points per game and had a true shooting percentage of 55.5. During this hot start, Fournier has been one of the best scorers in the league. He’s averaging 20.3 points per game now, has a true shooting percentage of 63.5 and is shooting with 47.4 percent accuracy from deep.
While those percentages aren’t realistically attainable, it’s easy to see how Fournier has gotten there when you watch the Magic this year and compare it to how they looked last year.
Jodie Meeks and Bismack Biyombo are running a wing pick-and-roll (or were trying to before Kent Bazemore stripped Meeks) while Payton stands in the opposite corner to attempt to space the floor, and Gordon screens for Ibaka. The result of the play doesn’t matter. The fact that it was a set gives you an idea of the shambles the Magic were in offensively last season.
Now compare that to this set from when the Magic blew out the Spurs.
Vucevic goes to work in the post and there are four legitimate shooters behind the arc, spaced properly. This made it easy for Augustin to catch, pump-fake and take one dribble in to bring over help which leaves Fournier wide open. Looks like this were a rarity for the former Nuggets man last season. Now he’s accustomed to them.
This is another great set from the Magic where the Nets are forced to commit defenders off-ball to Gordon and Ross, who are spacing the floor, which makes the short pass into a ball screen option a productive one.
That possession brings up another improvement for the Magic that has been vital to their success and Fournier’s. Fournier launched that 3-pointer seven seconds into the shot clock, a quick-trigger by any means but also a productive one. The Magic are currently playing at a pace of 104.4, the second fastest in the league. Compare that to last year when they played at a pace of 99.1, which was the second slowest in the league.
When you play quick, it’s usually because you’re moving quicker than the defense, which means you’re getting more open looks. Those open looks are what Fournier — and others — are thriving on. You see, the hot start isn’t magic. It’s just spacing and putting players in the best position to succeed.