What We've Learned About the Orlando Magic After the First Month
Abysmal. Dreadful. Without hope. Washed up. Irrelevant. Embarrassing.
That's just a tiny serving of the terms that were bandied about in regards to Orlando after Dwight Howard's trade to Los Angeles in August.
A team built around the NBA's most dominant inside force was to contagiously crumble. The city of Orlando was to forever be cast into darkness in Howard's immense shadow. The very team that spent almost half a decade among the league's elite was to wallow in the depths of despair for years to come.
To the NBA world, no other result was seemingly possible.
Yet amid all the sensationalized drama, the Magic have quietly conducted themselves honourably, humbly demonstrating a collective sense of fortitude.
While there hasn't been a breakthrough, watershed moment that has diluted the pain of Howard's ride into the LA sunset, Orlando has shown it is willing to embrace the immense challenge ahead.
At 5-8, the Magic have clearly separated themselves from the depths of the Eastern Conference. With each game that passes, steady development is evident across the team. That's not to say there haven't been any growing pains. There have. But that's all part of the process for this team, all part of the long journey back to the top.
So what has steadily developed? Who has embodied this best? Who has experienced the growing pains the most?
Here's what we've learned about Orlando after the first month of the NBA season, its first competitive month without Dwight Howard.
*All stats accurate as of Nov. 27.
Orlando Can Collectively Defend
Losing the league's best defensive player is supposed to severely hurt your team's defensive performance. Orlando, however, seems determined to make that point irrelevant.
While there is a major chunk of the season still to be played, Orlando has shown it's a gritty, defensive team under Jacque Vaughn so far this year.
The Magic are currently ranked ninth in the NBA for defensive efficiency (99.5) and points allowed (95.2), while they sit seventh in the league for opponent field goal percentage (.437) and first in opponent three-point percentage (.307).
In Howard's enormous absence, the Magic are doing just fine on that end.
Arron Afflalo is locking onto the opposition's biggest scoring threat, Nikola Vucevic and Glen Davis are bravely holding their own in the paint, Maurice Harkless is showing he's active defensively and E'Twaun Moore has the size to defend a lot of opponents at both guard slots.
Vaughn was determined to shape this team into a focused and hard-nosed defensive unit, and the early evidence suggests he is doing just that.
Of course, the defensive effort has unquestionably been helped by Hedo Turkoglu's forced absence, and in his return, the team will have some problem's when he's on the floor.
Yet, all signs have been immensely positive for Orlando on the defensive end so far this season.
Offensively the Team Has Really Struggled
As good as the team has been defensively, Orlando has struggled to find any rhythm or a consistent scoring threat at the other end of the floor.
Without a genuine go-to scorer on the perimeter or in the paint, the Magic are forced to find points through a community-type effort, relying on small contributions from each player on the roster.
Although it's their only real option, the results have been far from successful.
Orlando is ranked No. 29 in the league in offensive efficiency (95.6), No. 27 in points per game (91.7), No. 20 in field goal percentage (.438) and No. 24 in true shooting percentage (.507).
Although they have shown signs of significant improvement already, Vucevic, Harkless and Andrew Nicholson still lack the polish and variety to be consistent scoring threats at this point in their careers.
That has left Arron Afflalo and J.J. Redick, two very capable, yet hardly spectacular, shooting guards as the primary perimeter threats. The undersized Davis continues to battle away in the paint, regularly forced to take contested shots as the team's bail-out option.
With the defense clicking, time and energy need to be invested into the offensive end.
J.J. Redick Is Clearly Having a Career Season.
In the final year of his contract, J.J. Redick is certainly enhancing his own value, as he continues to show he is a much improved and versatile guard.
Always considered purely a distance marksman, Redick has grown to assume a significant ball-handling role this season under Coach Vaughn. He's regularly running the pick-and-roll with Davis and Vucevic, while also making plays curling towards the basket from off-the-ball screens.
This new role for Redick is seeing him post five assists a night, in addition to his 14.8 points, all while committing fewer turnovers than both Moore and Jameer Nelson.
As Redick continues to blossom in Orlando, the Magic will soon face the question of the shooting guard's future in central Florida.
With many contending teams in need of a scoring punch from the bench, the soon-to-be free agent looks likely to be hotly pursued in the coming months.
In putting together the beginning of a career season, Redick has positioned himself nicely, whether or not his future lies in Orlando beyond this year.
Gustavo Ayon Won't Be a Part of Jacque Vaughn's Long-Term Plans
While Orlando saved itself a hefty chuck of cash by swapping Ryan Anderson for Gustavo Ayon, the Magic certainly didn't win the battle of quality and production in that deal.
From the season's outset, Ayon has struggled to find a way to impact the game in any form on either end of the floor.
Averaging just 2.9 points and 2.9 rebounds per game, Ayon is unlikely to be regarded as a long-term project for Vaughn in Orlando.
With Vucevic showing development in his all-around game and Kyle O'Quinn patiently waiting for his turn, time is quickly running out for Ayon to show he can be a beneficial piece on Orlando's roster.
The Mexico native lacks awareness on the defensive end, struggles in man-to-man situations, is a poor rebounder for his size and possesses little in the way of guile going the other way.
Despite some nice interior passing work against Detriot, Ayon has had too many games with little to no production, highlighted by failing to score a single point or grab a single rebound in 11 minutes against Chicago.
Although he's still tender in terms of experience, at 27 years of age, time is quickly running out for Ayon in Orlando.
E'Twaun Moore Was a Complete Bargain
If NBA players were ranked on production per dollar, Moore would rank rather well on that list.
With just $762,000 owed to him this year, the 23-year-old is averaging 10.8 points and 3.6 assists in his first year with the Magic. When he was forced to step up and start, while Jameer Nelson sat out with injury, he put up 13.3 points and 4.5 assists in six games as the team's leading point guard.
Although he's naturally a combo guard, Moore has shown significant improvement as the leader of an offense, looking increasingly at home with the ball in his hands.
Yet, while he's working hard on his ball-handling and distributing skills, he hasn't forgotten what his real strength is. At 45.5 percent from downtown, Moore currently ranks No. 8 in the league in three-point percentage for players with at least 40 attempts this season.
Magic GM Rob Hennigan has obviously done his homework on the former Celtic, quickly recruiting him to Orlando without anyone around the NBA blinking an eyelid.
Hopefully Moore's acquisition is just the first of many smart transactions by the new general manager.
Glen Davis Can't Carry the Magic
Despite that great display in last season's playoffs against Indiana, Glen Davis is gradually showing that as the focal point of the team, he simply can't carry Orlando.
It is undeniable that Davis has made great strides in recent times, showing he can score in a variety of ways and that he's more than just a back up power forward.
However, his complete lack of athleticism and size will always prevent him from becoming a consistent force for the Magic.
Unable to blow by any of his opponents, "Big Baby" relies on throwing his weight around and initiating contact on his way to the basket. Although it worked effectively in the season's opening games, Davis hasn't topped 20 points since the team's win at home to Phoenix on Nov. 4, despite taking 15.1 shots per game.
With his efficiency continually on the slide, Orlando needs to look at ways to reduce Davis' touches slightly if he is considered part of the team's long-term plans. This would see an increase in the involvement of Vucevic and Nicholson on the offensive end. While both men lack polish at this stage, their upside is substantially higher than that of Big Baby, placing their development at a higher importance at this stage in the Magic's season.
However, if the Magic plan on cashing in on Davis' increased worth, then maximizing his touches and stats before the trade deadline could be the way to go.
Hope Still Resides in Orlando
The beginning to this season could have been an utter disaster.
With Al Harrington unable to take to the floor and Turkoglu and Nelson missing time, the youngsters in Orlando could have been flattened night in, night out.
But they haven't been.
By showing a collective resolve, the Magic have managed to overcome a vast array of obstacles to post a very respectable record to this point, given their situation.
Orlando has used the dire predictions of those around the NBA as motivation, drawing together to form a tightly knit group ready to tackle the challenges of the post-Howard era.
Given everything that has happened in Orlando over the past 12 months, fans weren't expecting wins. They just wanted heart. They wanted to know their team cares.
Gladly, that's what they've got.
Hope hasn't departed them yet.