Orlando Magic Coach Scott Skiles was named Eastern Conference coach of the month for December after the franchise logged its first 10-win month in nearly four years.
“If you win double digits every month, you’ll have a heck of a year,” Skiles said, candidly, about the honor. “We haven’t done that in quite a while and now we’ve got to turn the page and start another one.’’
That page is smoldering after the Magic dropped the first three games in January by an average of 21 points per contest. What was a defensive unit that ranked in the top eight in fewest points allowed per 100 possessions in December (101.2) has ballooned into a team allowing the fourth most in January (114.2).
“We’ve got to find a way to just get back out there and play the way we were playing,” forward Tobias Harris told the Orlando Sentinel after the loss to Detroit Monday.
Skiles’s outfit sits on the outermost edge of the playoff bracket, tied for eighth in the East with a 19-16 record. There have been shades of brilliance — a 113-98 waxing of the Charlotte Hornets — and shades of catastrophe — a 105-82 drubbing at the hands of the lowly Brooklyn Nets.
The team’s best-case scenario moving forward, like the New Orleans Pelicans of last year, is to chase the opportunity of being involved with the playoffs at all. Orlando can compete for the final playoff spot in the East, but the path won’t be tranquil and there are a number of shortcomings that will need to be addressed.
That starts with Orlando yet to play a number of division games, and the Southeast Division is arguably top to bottom the most competitive division in the East — although the Washington Wizards are doing what they can to falsify the belief.
ESPN’s Basketball Power Index gives the Magic, who haven’t been to the postseason the last three seasons, a 29.1 percent chance to make the playoffs. FiveThirtyEight’s model gives Orlando slightly more of a rose-colored outlook, pegging the Magic’s playoff odds at 50 percent.
Basketball Reference’s Simple Rating System takes average point differential and strength of schedule into account to find the number of points a team is performing above or below average, where zero equates to average. Orlando ranks 10th in the East in SRS (minus-0.23), but has its highest score in the metric since 2011-12, the last time the team qualified for the playoffs.
More impressive, though, is that the Magic has been this successful this season while playing the second toughest schedule of any team in the league thus far. They’ve performed better than ESPN’s expected win-loss and are one win away from the team’s 20th victory of the season; Orlando had to get through more than 75 percent of its schedule last season to notch its 20th win.
However, the pragmatic side of analysis leans away from Orlando being in the playoff picture come season’s end. ESPN’s BPI playoff odds projects Orlando to finish 10th in the East, rounding out the season with a 41-41 record. Skiles’s schedule isn’t exactly cupcake-laden the rest of the way, and there are two major red flags staring his team in the face: a dearth of playoff experience and offensive sluggishness.
None of the players on this year’s roster were on the team the last time the Magic qualified for the playoffs, and only four players have experienced more than four minutes of playoff experience. While newcomers and fresh faces arrive in the postseason most years, this is a roster that is not only brimming with NBA novices, but one that hasn’t pieced together a successful second-half to a season. Last year, for example, the Magic stumbled to the finish line with a 10-22 record over the final three months of the season.
While the aforementioned defensive lapses this month have been glaring, the consistently underwhelming production of the offense is more worrisome moving forward. The Magic rank outside the top 15 in offensive rating and three-point field goal percentage; it’s been held to less than 90 points in six games this season and have gotten to the free throw line at the lowest rate of any team in the league. Even in a climate where fewer teams are crashing the offensive glass, Orlando is among the worst offensive rebounding teams in the league, in both chances and secured rebounds.
In overall output, the regressions are starting to become noticeable on a monthly scale.
If the defensive hiatuses continue, Orlando doesn’t have enough firepower on the offensive end to keep the team buoyant. And with the team already posting the fifth lowest point differential of any team in the Eastern Conference, there isn’t any breathing room for Orlando’s surprisingly stout defense if the offensive end continues to run cold.
The Magic is night and day superior to last year’s unit, but will need to jockey with Detroit, Boston, Indiana, Charlotte and New York for one of the final spots in the East to crack the playoffs for the first time under Skiles. The remaining schedule is difficult — and Orlando likely won’t have enough to qualify for the postseason — but if nothing else, the franchise is again competitive and striving to reach something.