Scott Skiles Has Orlando Magic Kids Thinking Playoffs

The Orlando Magic have never won an NBA title, but they did make the postseason from 2006-2012 when they had Dwight Howard. Since then, the franchise hasn’t appeared in the playoffs or even surpassed 25 wins in a season. The 2015-16 team is looking to change that, as they currently occupy the fifth spot in an Eastern Conference that’s more competitive than usual. A record of 19-13 puts the Magic ahead of Miami and Indiana and Boston.

Most pre-season predictions had Orlando out of the playoffs, but it’s not dumb luck that the Magic have piled up wins under first-year coach Scott Skiles. They must resolve to keep doing the things that have gotten them to this point in order to avoid the lottery.

First of all, the Magic have played strong defense thus far. They’ve been in the top ten in field goal percentage defense for most of the season, currently at 43.7%. As a result, it’s not surprising that they allow the sixth fewest points, 98.4. Their centers are part of the reason for this. Nikola Vucevic averages over a block per night, while Dewayne Dedmon swats 1.0 each game in only 13 minutes of play. Jason Smith is another source of blocks in limited minutes.

Orlando also ranks ninth in steals thanks in part to point guard Elfrid Payton, who swipes 1.5 per game. Four other players including French forward Evan Fournier average at least one steal as well.

This is a squad with solid guard play, which has led to a team average of 22.8 assists. That’s ninth in the league, and Payton leads the way with 6 per night. Shooting guard Victor Oladipo is second, dishing out 4 assists per contest. Shabazz Napier plays sparingly but is also capable of making plays while he’s on the court. Even Vucevic and Fournier combine for about 5 assists every night.

Vucevic admits that he’s still more likely to be on the receiving end of a pass, though. With regard to his teammates, he recently stated:

“They make my job so much easier when they move the ball. I just try to stay aggressive and make the right play.”

Somewhat surprisingly, this is a squad that ranks sixth in three-point percentage. The Magic only attempt about 22 per game, but they make a healthy 36.1%. Fournier is the team leader in this category at two makes per contest, but big man Channing Frye also contributes with the second most threes and an eye-popping 46% from downtown. Then again, Frye’s career high behind the arc is 44% and Fournier has made over 38% in his career. Orlando gets long distance shooting from Harris and fellow forward Andrew Nicholson as well. Even rookie Mario Hezonja has impressed, making 20 of 48 attempts for a 41% rate. It’s clear that this team is confident from long range.

With the possible exception of Oladipo, the Magic are also unwilling to force shots. It wouldn’t be shocking to see this sort of efficiency continuing as they go forward.

Orlando has made progress in terms of rebounding, pulling down 44.1 per contest. That’s 13th in the league but a certain improvement over their finish at 25th last season. For a small forward, Tobias Harris is a strong rebounder as he hauls in 9 per 48 minutes. Even Oladipo can redeem poor shooting nights by rebounding: he had 7 on December 23 against the Rockets despite going 0-9.

Defense, passing, three-point shooting, and rebounding are key reasons Orlando has beaten expectations to this point. With a bubble team like the Magic, health is going to be key down the stretch. So far Orlando has been fairly free of injuries, although they do miss C.J. Watson who’s still out with calf and knee ailments. Payton also suffered an ankle injury on December 28 against the Pelicans, but it’s not considered a major issue.

Another helpful recent development has been hot shooting: the team made 53% of their field goals from December 21-28 and surpassed 50% in each of those contests. That brought the season average up to 45.6%, good for eighth in the NBA. In the end it all seems to come back to Vucevic, who has converted 53% for the campaign and over 61% during that stretch.

The Magic have a tough schedule post All-Star break. They play the Heat three times, the Warriors twice, the Hornets twice, the Pacers twice, the Bulls twice, the Pistons twice, plus the Cavs, Mavericks, Knicks, and Celtics- all playoff teams. 19 of their last 29 games are against teams jostling for playoff position, as the Magic will be. How they handle the increased intensity will determine their playoff hopes and seeding, if they do get there.

photo via llananba