Optimism is guarded right now after the 109-103 win over the Wizards on Wednesday. And it should be.
The Magic's offense was horrifically bad -- that adverb is not strong enough -- the last week and one performance against a struggling Wizards team (defensive rating of 102.6 entering Wednesday's game, good for seventh worst in the league) is not going to fix that. In fact, there were still some of the same issues that plagued Orlando in that game despite the relatively strong effort and the copious amount of points -- including 40 in the final quarter.
Orlando committed 11 first-half turnovers and saw an 11-point first-quarter lead chopped down to five very quickly. Then the anemic second unit came in and led to a poor 5-for-14 effort in the second quarter. If it were not for making 8 of 10 free throws, the Magic might have been in trouble once again.
In that second quarter the Wizards' second-unit lineup of Kevin Seraphin, Chris Singleton, Trevor Booker, Jordan Crawford and Shelvin Mack turned that lead on its head by going +8 to start the second quarter and spearheading a 16-3 run overall. A lineup of Chris Duhon, Glen Davis, Ryan Anderson, Von Wafer and Hedo Turkoglu went -5 for one 90-second stretch in the second quarter. You would think with both Turkoglu and Wafer able to create off the dribble in pick-and-roll situations, that this lineup would free up some offense a little bit more.
It did not. And second quarters have been major turning points as Orlando's bench has failed to produce in any way, shape or form.
The stats are pretty harrowing for this last week-and-a-half stretch.
The Magic have just three games in the last eight with an offensive rating greater than 100 (all three wins). In that time, as we all know, Orlando set the franchise record for fewest points scored in a game, lost a 27-point lead in one game and repeatedly got embarrassed. Orlando had only five games with an offensive rating worse than 100 in the 14 previous games.
A telling stat to this point of the season: the Magic are 13-0 when they score more than 90 points. They are 0-9 when they do not.
This deep in the season, it is safe to say the team's defense is playing relatively consistent -- holding steady at 12th in the league in defensive rating -- it is the offense that is a great unknown. And as shots quit falling, even at alarming rates, the focus defensively wanes. The Magic are only going to go as far as their struggling offense can take them right now.
And right now, the offense is just plain bad.
In the last 10 games, Orlando has posted a 92.1 offensive rating. That number is weighed down with that 60.9 offensive rating from the first Boston game, a 75.3 offensive rating against New Orleans and an 80.2 offensive rating against Philadelphia.
Teams just do not play this poorly.
The hope is that this is all some random blip. That the fatigue of playing six games in eight nights brutally caught up with the Magic and snowballed without the proper time to correct mistakes in practice and rediscover rhythm. Orlando is not even really holding very many shootarounds as Stan Van Gundy has tried to conserve his player's legs.
But again, teams just do not play this poorly. You don't struggle to score 60 points two times in a week without some underlying problem.
Zach Lowe of The Point Forward showed how rare these kind of games are for the elite teams in the league:
"On average, [the past 12 conference finalists] played 15 games in which they scored at a rate lower than that of the league’s worst offense for that season. That would work out to about 12 such stinkers over the course of a 66-game season. As mentioned above, Orlando has played five such games already, putting them on pace for about 16 sub-Wizards stinkers over the full 66 games. That’s more than what we’d expect based on the play of recent conference finalists, but it’s at least in the same ball park. Some cause for encouragement, perhaps.
"But you begin to see a difference when you look at the very worst offensive performances — the ones in which Orlando comes in a dozen or so points below the league’s average per-game output. The Magic have played four games in the past 12 days in which they have scored at a rate of 87.5 points per possessions or worse — a full 12.5 points below the league’s average. Again: four such games in 12 days.
"Those conference finalists? On average, they suffered through about 4.75 such games per season – per 82-game season. The 2009-10 Suns skew that number a bit, since they experienced precisely zero such games. But even if you take them out, the average jumps only to about 5.2 — one more such game over a full 82 than the Magic have played in the last 12 days."
Safe to say, this season is a little unlike many others. But the best teams do not put up stinkers like the ones Orlando has put up. The just don't.
The reasons for these games is not easy.
It is a combination of the roster makeup, some fatigue (no excuses, but it is there) and lack of practice. The roster does not have a guy who can attack the basket without using the pick and roll. This is still an offense based on 3-point shooting and there is only one knock-down 3-point shooter in the starting lineup -- Ryan Anderson. And there are a few players who have just aged extremely and alarmingly rapidly -- Jameer Nelson, Jason Richardson and Hedo Turkoglu, to some extent.
Still, this is a team with Dwight Howard, a good coach and still some great spacing. There needs to be more cutting and movement, especially when Dwight Howard gets the ball in the post, and there still needs to be more attacking and less settling for 3-pointers. Sometimes it is a team seemingly walking on egg shells and not quite willing to attack with the same intensity on the pick and roll.
It also does not help that it nearly takes the entire eight seconds for the Magic's point guards to get across mid-court and that the team cannot get into its offensive sets. That is definitely one way to take Stan Van Gundy out of the game.
The question is whether this past week was something permanent or something random. The fact, as Lowe pointed out, it happened consistently and, even in a good effort, remnants of that horrible offense popped up and lay dormant.
Lowe had that post on how historically bad the Magic's offense was after writing a recap on Monday's loss to the Sixers where he suggested the schedule might have something to do with the tired legs and low scoring.
The bad news for Magic fans, who know this team lacks a go-to scorer and a player that can be the straw that stirs the drink, if you will, around Dwight Howard, is that Otis Smith said after Monday's loss that the team has no plans for any massive makeover. It seems like he learned not to panic a year too late. That is unless you believe WKMG's David Pingalore who is back at it again with a report that is (honestly) a little far-fetched.
The question remains: was this past week a blip of randomness or a sign of underlying problems with this team?
That is tough to say. It is probably a little bit of both.
Wednesday night was a strong offensive effort, but that one stretch still existed. But, on the other hand, Hedo Turkoglu has not been the same since that hip injury sidelined him a few weeks ago. Jameer Nelson is now out with a concussion. And Jason Richardson has had struggled getting going in the second half because of his sore knee.
The games will not stop coming and so it is likely momentum and rhythm will agument both the strong points and the weak points of the Magic's offense in stretches. What will be important for Orlando, in the meantime, is to get another good effort in the next game and continue to put this "blip" behind it.