What have we learned about the Orlando Magic this season?
The Orlando Magic were never about wins and losses this season. This year has always been about individual player development and figuring out exactly how all the team's young pieces fit together.
So if you're a Magic fan watching the squad inevitably stumble to one of the league's worst records, just sit back and be content knowing that the young guns are growing up and that Orlando is well on its way to adding a few more impact players in the 2014 draft.
The first few post-Dwight Howard years were never expected to be easy, and this one has been no exception. Still, there have been a few bright spots to the season, and good or bad, plenty has been gleaned from the Magic's first half. Let's take a look at what we've learned.
All statistics accurate as of 1/22/2014 and courtesy of Basketball-Reference unless specifically stated otherwise.
Oladipo is already a stingy defender.
Victor Oladipo hasn't set the world on fire this season. He's been an inefficient scorer, he's extremely prone to turnovers (3.2 per game compared to 3.8 assists) and the experimental move to point guard hasn't yet paid off.
So why is he a keeper? Because he's also a 21-year-old rookie who's forced to create a huge chunk of offense for a terrible team while playing out of position half the time.
Oladipo is using 23.8 percent of the Magic's possessions this season, second on the team behind Arron Afflalo. That's a lot to lay on a rookie, especially one who was never even responsible for that much offense in college, per Sports-Reference.
There are also some games—like this 35-point, eight-assist performance against the Chicago Bulls—in which he shows flashes of what he might look like as a player in a few years. And it's pretty impressive.
Victor Oladipo has been electrifying in this game. Rim attacks, floaters, Dirk one-leggers, crazy transition passes. 7 turnovers, but, wow.— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) January 16, 2014
Oladipo has a whole host of things to work on offensively. Three-point shooting, decision-making in the pick-and-roll, shot selection...you name it. But those things usually come with time, and Oladipo's already a solid defender—in fact, he's a downright good defender in the eyes of some advanced metrics.
The Magic are going to have to be patient with Oladipo, especially if they continue to try him out at the point when it looks more and more like he's a natural 2. But on the whole, Oladipo looks like the foundational player Orlando was hoping for when it drafted him.
Arron Afflalo has kept the Magic offense watchable.
Arron Afflalo will likely be left off the All-Star roster, as he's not a household name and plays for a basement dweller. But he's been terrific this season, and if not for him, the Magic would be unspeakably bad offensively.
Afflalo's averaging 20.6 points, 4.6 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game on 58.6 percent true shooting. The list of players putting up similar numbers is not long, and all of those players are considered among the best 10 or 15 talents in the league. Throw in the fact that Afflalo has little offensive help, and his play this season looks even more impressive.
Over the offseason, Afflalo mentioned on his website that he wanted to focus on his three-point shooting and post play, and he's improved significantly in both areas. Afflalo is hitting 42.3 percent from deep on 4.7 attempts per game and has been lights out from the corners, per NBA.com.
He's also shooting 51 percent (!!) on post-up attempts, per Synergy Sports Technology (subscription required). Afflalo has great footwork and a pretty turnaround jumper, and the Magic routinely go to him down low, especially if he's being checked by a smaller guard.
Afflalo's defensive reputation is overblown (he's not terrible, but he's not good either), but he means the world to the Magic offensively—when he's on the bench, they're by far the worst offensive team in the league, per 82games.com. What more can a guy do to get All-Star recognition? He's even had a 40-point game for crying out loud.
Afflalo may get stiffed because he plays on a bad team, but he deserves to be an All-Star this year, no question.
Will Rob Hennigan build on his success in the 2014 draft?
Considering how star-studded the 2014 draft is said to be, Magic fans have to be pleased about this one—even if it does mean another few months of terrible basketball.
The Magic started the year 3-2, recording blowout wins over the Brooklyn Nets and New Orleans Pelicans. And for the briefest of moments, it looked as though they might be competitive. But they've gone a healthy 8-30 since then, have lost nine of their last 10 games and are ahead of only the Milwaukee Bucks in the league standings.
The Magic, by virtue of a close-to-league-average defense, are unlikely to catch (is catch the right word?) the Bucks in the standings. Still, they're going to be in the running for next year's top pick regardless and should end up with a very nice selection unless the lottery gods are beyond cruel.
Orlando is a very, very bad team, but it has a lot of developing young players, and if it can end up pairing those players with a guy like this, a season of poor basketball is a small price to pay.
Nicholson as a stretch 4 is intriguing, but he's been far more valuable as a traditional big this season.
The Magic have had Andrew Nicholson experiment with the three ball this season, and though early returns were promising, he's regressed to the point that they might just end up abandoning the idea altogether.
Nicholson was shooting 37.9 percent from deep heading into the month of December, and lineups featuring both him and Nikola Vucevic, propped up by some stingy defense, were outscoring opponents by 11.7 points per 100 possessions, via NBA.com.
Since then, Nicholson's shot has fallen off a cliff—he's hit just 25 percent of his threes and shot just over 30 percent from mid-range and beyond, per NBA.com.
The Vucevic-Nicholson pairing has been outscored by an eye-popping 30.6 points per 100 possessions since that point, per NBA.com (though it's an admittedly small sample, as Vucevic has been out for a bit). As a result, Nicholson's averaging just 11 minutes per game in January after averaging 19.8 in the first two months of the season.
The Magic aren't crazy to experiment with Nicholson's range. Bigs who can shoot from the perimeter are extremely valuable, and losing teams can afford to roll the dice on this stuff—the Boston Celtics have tried the exact same experiment with Jared Sullinger to mixed results. Nicholson's shooting is down from just about everywhere, so this could just be a prolonged slump. Again, the sample is pretty small.
Still, Nicholson has real value posting up and in the pick-and-roll, and using him primarily as a spot-up shooter (as the Magic have, per Synergy Sports Technology) may not be the wisest course of action at this point. They have nothing to lose continuing with the experiment, but Nicholson's confidence seems shot, and he's proven to be effective in other roles.
Could Jameer Nelson be gone after the trade deadline?
Like many losing teams, the Magic are (wisely) trying to stock up as many future draft picks as they can. And though general manager Rob Hennigan recently told the Orlando Sentinel's Brian Schmitz that the Magic aren't going out of their way to shake up the team, they have a few veterans who could end up being moved if the price is right.
Jameer Nelson, Glen Davis and Arron Afflalo will undoubtedly have their names pop up in trade rumors over the next few weeks, and Afflalo in particular is likely to garner a lot of interest. Afflalo is signed to a reasonable $7.5 million a year through next season (with a player option in 2015-16, per ShamSports.com), and as mentioned earlier, he's been ridiculous this year.
According to ESPN.com's Marc Stein, the Magic have stiff-armed teams interested in Afflalo, but if any are willing to cough up a first-round pick closer to the deadline, Orlando would have to give it some serious thought.
Teams are hoarding first-round draft picks like crazy this season, and the Magic (who are already owed a first-round pick from the Denver Nuggets, per RealGM) would be in excellent shape for the future if they managed to acquire another. They're obviously not looking to move Afflalo, but if the right deal comes along...
The Magic have a ton of assets, including a few veterans whom the league's more desperate playoff contenders may be willing to roll the dice on. They're well worth watching at the deadline.