The Orlando Magic had a bit more trouble with the Washington Wizards than they may have expected on Friday night, but they hung on for a 130-125 win. In doing so, they extended their winning streak to a franchise-record-tying nine games. Now at 14-5, they have the third-best record in the entire league as we approach the quarter pole. Just one game separates the Magic from the NBA-leading Boston Celtics (15-4) -- who made the NBA Finals in 2022.
While the Magic's young core had rightfully generated plenty of excitement coming into the season, the excitement largely hinged more on their future potential. Certainly, no one expected them to be this good, this soon. Can they keep it up and actually contend in the Eastern Conference? We'll see on that end, though we're moving past the point where you can dismiss their start as simply a small sample size.
In honor of their ninth consecutive win, here are nine thoughts on the red-hot Magic.
1: Defense, defense, defense
The immediate aftermath of giving up 125 points to the Wizards might not be the best timing for praise of the Magic's defense -- to be fair, the Wizards' extreme pace does often skew the raw point total in their games -- but this team can cause problems on that side of the ball. They have the third-best defensive rating in the league at 108.3, in large part because they force the second-most turnovers per game at 16.6.
Franz Wagner illustrates things perfectly:goes more in-depth on the Magic and their defense, but I believe this key quote from
"We have guys that want to guard, and take a lot of pride in that. We have guys that make it to the league because of their ability to guard, and I also think it's honestly the coaches' game plan. I think we have an identity on that side of the floor, and that's how we want to play."
That's evident when you watch, and also bodes well for their ability to keep this up.
2: A real pain in the ass
The "players don't try or play defense" stuff from the league's detractors is largely overblown, though there is some truth there. At least in the sense that guys simply can't go all out every single night because the season is just too long. The Magic, though, come close to doing so.
The two teams I follow most closely are the Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics. Earlier this month, the Celtics dominated the Bucks for the vast majority of their matchup, then struggled mightily against the Magic a few days later. While the Bucks have more top-tier talent and thus are a challenge in their own right, it was staggering how much easier life was for the Celtics in that game than against the Magic.
With their youth, length and activity, the Magic are a real pain in the ass to play, and that's a great quality to have.
3: Is Paolo underrated?
On the one hand, you have the thrilling exploits of Victor Wembanyama and Chet Holmgren from this year's rookie class, and on the other, you have the disappointment surrounding 2021 No. 1 pick Cade Cunningham. Caught in the middle is Banchero, who is flying under the radar on the national scale, despite being the reigning Rookie of the Year and a key figure for one of the league's best teams.
He's averaging 19.5 points, 6.7 rebounds and 4.7 assists, while dramatically increasing his efficiency from his rookie campaign. His 45.8% mark from 3-point land is both the most surprising and encouraging aspect of his play so far. If he's going to keep shooting 3s like that, there's not really much you can do to slow him down.
The list of players averaging at least 19/6/4 this season is, for the most part, a who's who in the league right now. Banchero is the youngest player on the list and also doing so on the second-lowest usage rate (25.7%).
4: Franz is the real deal
In Magic franchise history, there have been five players to score 30 points in at least three consecutive games: Shaquille O'Neal, Penny Hardaway, Tracy McGrady, Dwight Howard, and... Franz Wagner. The German phenom extended his 30-point streak to three games in Friday's win over the Wizards, becoming the first Magic player to reach that milestone since Howard in 2011.
(In case you were wondering, the next longest such drought is the San Antonio Spurs, who haven't had a player pull off three straight 30-point games since Kawhi Leonard in 2017. It's been since 2019 for the Pistons when Blake Griffin did it. Every other team has had a player do it in the 2020s.)
After a slow start, he's now up to a career-high 20.7 points, 5.7 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game on 47.1% shooting from the field. More so, that's without shooting the 3-ball as well as he did in his first two seasons. Once that comes around, good luck. Franz isn't as brash as his older brother, Mo, who is also playing a key role for the Magic this season, but he leads by example and has quietly become a borderline All-Star.
Just listen to Phil Martelli, who has spent nearly 50 years as a college coach, and worked with Franz at Michigan:
"The first time that you're with him, you get the idea, he just has this basketball IQ. It's cute and quaint to use the word 'savant,' but that's what he is."
5: Will the lack of shooting become a problem?
As important as the 3-pointer has become, you don't have to be a high-volume team to have success. After all, the Nuggets won the title last season shooting the 25th-most 3-pointers per game in the league. But if you aren't going to shoot a ton of 3s, you have to make a high percentage of the ones you take. Case in point, the Nuggets were 4th in efficiency last season at 37.9%.
That brings us to the Magic and the concern over their lack of shooting. They are 28th in attempts per game (30.0), 19th in percentage (35.6) and 29th in percentage of points from 3-pointers (27.9). Of the teams with the 10 best records in the league, only the Sacramento Kings (34.9) shoot a worse percentage from beyond the arc than the Magic, and they make up for it by hoisting over 42 per game.
Banchero is actually leading the team in 3-point shooting this season at 45.8%, though it's unclear if he can keep up that kind of mark. Gary Harris has turned himself into a reliable threat, and Joe Ingles has historically been a strong shooter, but they don't have any serious marksmen who command attention and warp defenses.
At some point, that might become an issue, but for now, they are surviving on the offensive end by pounding the ball in the paint. They lead the league in attempts within five feet (36.5) and free throws (27.9) per game. As long as they can keep that up, they don't necessarily need the 3s. It will be interesting to see if they can, however, and what happens if they cannot.
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6: Isaac's defensive bursts are incredible
The past three years have been hellish for Jonathan Isaac, who has undergone a parade of surgeries, setbacks and rehabs. Now, finally, he seems just about healthy, though the Magic are understandably playing it safe with him. He's averaging 13.4 minutes per game and has hit the 20-minute mark just once. While the new arrangement isn't ideal, it has, in a way, turned Isaac into an even more devastating force.
He was looking like a potential All-Defensive First Team honoree before his first serious injury in 2020. Now, he's able to channel those talents into short bursts where he can fly around and cause havoc. The only Magic players who have played fewer than Isaac's 201 minutes are either injured or not in the rotation. And yet, Isaac is fourth on the team in stocks (steals plus blocks) at 30. With Isaac on the court, they have an outrageous 93.3 defensive rating.
Here's a sampling of some of his work:
7: Did they fleece the Bulls, or what?
This isn't a new point, but considering the state of the two teams, it's worth bringing up again just how badly they fleeced the Chicago Bulls with the Nikola Vucevic trade.
It's ironic that Vucevic was the key figure on those Magic teams in the late 2010s that were hanging around in the middle of the pack. Now the Bulls, with Vucevic, are doing the same thing. Meanwhile, the Magic have fast-tracked their rebuild and are by far the better team right now, let alone for the future.
Since the trade, the Bulls have won a single playoff game. There's a good chance the Magic will be in the process of surpassing that number this spring while the Bulls are preparing for a lottery appearance.
8: Ingles is a perfect fit
Ingles never totally found his stride with the Bucks last season as he made his way back from a torn ACL, but he showed that he can still be a useful player. The Magic agreed and inked him to a two-year, $22 million deal, which was such a smart move.
His numbers -- 4.4 points and 3.3 rebounds on 37.2% from 3-point land -- aren't special, and there's going to be nights he doesn't have it. But other times, such as Friday against the Wizards, when he had 14 points and seven assists, he'll change the game off the bench. His shooting is particularly useful on a team lacking in that department, and they have a plus-12.4 net rating when he's on the floor.
Perhaps even more importantly, he brings some much-needed veteran experience and an edge to this young team.
9: Look good, play good
Jerseys and courts don't really matter, but the better the aesthetics, the better the viewing experience. This season, the Magic brought back a retro look with their threads, which are a replica of the ones they wore from 1998-2003. They not only look great, but have an added coolness factor given that they're from the peak of the McGrady era. Plus, they're one of the few teams with a good City Edition jersey.
We've come a long way from the bizarre orange jersey experiment a few years ago.