Of all the early season NBA anomalies, the Orlando Magic are perhaps the biggest outlier. The second-best offense in the NBA? A top-10 defense? The same net rating as the Warriors? Frank Vogel’s beard?
Aside from letting the team use actual magic, it would have been difficult to fathom Orlando pulling off all of these feats before the season. But here we are, at the end of October, with the Magic at 5–2, with victories over the Cavaliers, Spurs and Pelicans.
It’s no secret that last year’s Magic team suffered from an incredible roster imbalance. After trading for Serge Ibaka last summer, Orlando peculiarly decided to add Bismack Biyombo in free agency, as well. With Nikola Vucevic and Aaron Gordon already on the roster, the Magic employed an army of big men in a league trending smaller by the day. Until Ibaka was traded to the Raptors, Vogel stubbornly played two bigs too often, shifting Gordon down to small forward with two other centers on the court. The result was awful spacing and another year of mostly stunted development for Gordon.
This year, the Magic have seen what a little spacing can do. With Ibaka gone, and Vogel seemingly embracing 21st century basketball concepts, Gordon has surged early this season, and the Magic have become much more threatening offensively. Gordon is playing with the freedom of a little brother who no longer has to share a room with his pack-rat older sibling, and the returns have been promising.
The Magic have a 10.0 net rating with Gordon on the floor, with the former No. 4 pick currently averaging career highs in points (21.0), rebounds (9.0), assists (2.2) and blocks (1.0) while shooting personal bests from the field (54.9%) and beyond the three-point line (59.1%). It’s the outside shot that’s really transformed Gordon’s game so far this year, with the big man hitting 13 of his 22 attempts from deep. Even if Gordon fizzles out and becomes just a 35% shooter from three, it would mark a huge improvement from his career 30.3% average.
So is Gordon’s jumper really improved? He certainly looks more confident than ever before. His threes aren’t only coming from spot-ups in the corner. Gordon is taking advantage of defenders who go under screens, rising up for open jump shots when being dared to do so. Against the Pelicans on Monday, he scored 17 points in 18 minutes, doing much of his damage as the ball handler in pick-and-rolls. With defenders still sagging off of him, Gordon is also finding some room to shoot when opponents sell out to stop him from getting to the restricted area.
In addition to the rapid improvement as a jump-shooter, what’s surprising about Gordon’s early play is he’s not relying solely on his athleticism for scores. Gordon should have a quickness advantage on most players he’s matched up against, but he isn’t exactly looking to dunk over his defender on every possession. If anything, he could probably afford to pick up some easier baskets, particularly if he focuses a little bit more on screening. Gordon still has potential to realize as a roll man, and solid picks would open up his offense even more.
Now, of course, is where we have to mention the caveats. Gordon’s early numbers have received a huge boost from one game, a 41-point, 14-of-18 shooting night against the Nets. And it’s really hard to imagine the Magic maintaining their Bad Boy Pistons-mentality on defense with Vucevic playing big minutes—though Vogel is a great defensive coach.
The real test for Gordon will be when his three-point shooting comes back to earth. Will he still have the confidence to rise up when he encounters something of a slump? Will he be focused enough to find easy scores when his shot isn’t falling?
For now, the Magic will happily take any improvement in Gordon’s game. After years of what seemed like an aimless rebuild, Orlando has at least a couple interesting pieces in place. Gordon is only 22 and perhaps finally blossoming, while Jonathan Isaac could be an intriguing option at center in the future. Evan Fournier is off to a hot start for the second straight year and Jonathon Simmons looks like a steal on the wing. Vogel has his team playing fast, and the roster finally makes a little bit of sense.
Gordon’s insane statistical bump certainly won’t last forever. But now that he’s actually been given a little bit of space to grow, at the very least, he’ll have a chance to find out exactly how high he can take his game.