Elfrid Payton played well after the All-Star break, which means Orlando Magic management has to once again consider if he’s the solution at point guard.
It has become an annual ritual now. At some point in every season, the Orlando Magic will start to think about moving on from starting point guard Elfrid Payton (or at least decreasing his role). And then he will do some things that make the team reconsider.
This season had all those elements.
Before the start of this season, the Magic paid a somewhat hefty price (four years, $29 million) for D.J. Augustin, presumably because he would provide the team with some much-needed shot-making at the point guard position. At least off the bench.
It was a response to the league becoming much smarter about defending players with limited shooting ability and a sign management was cooling on Payton, at least a little bit.
D.J. Augustin was expected to push Payton for playing time, and through the holiday season, Augustin actually started over Payton for 20 games.
But Payton eventually reclaimed his starting spot. And since the All-Star Break, he showed why he still could be a solid point guard in the league.
Before the All-Star Break, Payton averaged 12.5 points per game, 3.8 rebounds per game and 5.7 assists per game while shooting 45.7 percent from the floor. After the Break, Payton upped his production. He averaged 13.5 points per game, 7.0 rebounds per game and 8.4 assists per game while shooting 50.8 percent from the floor.
Since the Magic came back from the Break and traded Serge Ibaka, Payton was a noticeably better player.
Sure, he and the team started pushing the pace a bit more (roughly three more possessions per 48 minutes after the break), so it makes sense his counting stats would go up. But some of that artificial inflation was also negated by a decrease in usage rate from 21.7 percent to 20.4 percent.
It also happens that pushing the pace is probably the best way to use Aaron Gordon at power forward, which is a move the Magic made after the break as well without Serge Ibaka. As a result, Elfrid Payton and Aaron Gordon, if nothing else, started developing nice open-court chemistry on the break late in the season.
By the end of the season when there was not much for the Magic to play for, Payton’s triple-doubles became something fans could watch for. He finished with five on the season (all after the break), which ranked him fifth in the league.
He hunted stats a little bit when the opportunities arose, to be fair. But it is still true he possesses a skill set that is somewhat unique in point guards.
During the stretch after the All-Star Break, Payton also cut down on outside shooting. Before the break, he averaged 2.2 3-pointers per game. But he took only 0.8 per game after the Break. Considering his career-low 27.4 percent shooting from beyond the arc, this was certainly welcomed.
Instead, Payton got to the rim and drew fouls slightly more. He averaged 2.4 free throw attempts per game before the break and 3.1 free throw attempts per game after. His field goal attempts within five feet increased after the break. Before the Break, 46.3 percent of his shots came within five feet. After the Break, 57.4 percent of his shots came within five feet.
For a player of his skills, this type of play will work. Payton got back to his roots, in a sense.
Payton’s defense still lacked at times. But if he offsets that with this kind of boost on offense, the Magic will gladly take it.
And of course, the Magic would like him to eventually develop his outside shooting. But until he does, he needs to be a pit bull getting into the paint and creating. The Magic can build around that version of Payton.
There were concerns about whether Payton was merely a “good stats, bad team” player. It is fair to point out that given the Magic’s irrelevance late in the season, he was free to chase more stats than he would have if the Magic were in the playoff picture.
But if his play was really just “empty calories” that did not help the team, then we would see evidence of that when comparing overall individual performance statistics before and after the break. As it turns out, Payton might have been one of the players keeping the team afloat while other players started checking out late in the season.
Payton’s net rating improved from -5.0 to +2.4 points per 100 possessions. His Player Impact Estimate increased from 10.5 to 14.1 (PIE is the NBA’s “catch-all” stat for overall player performance).
For reference, the league average for PIE is 10. Point guards like Kyrie Irving and Kemba Walker finished the season at 13-something apiece. And point guards like Stephen Curry and John Wall finished in the 15 range.
It is still obviously a stretch to assume Payton is comparable to these players. But Payton’s PIE rating to end the season hints he was making a valuable impact down the stretch. He was not just putting up stats.
His play after the All-Star Break seems to be part of a longer-term trend of improvement.
This year, he was the best version of himself according to almost any overall performance statistic: career highs in Box Plus-Minus, Value Over Replacement Player, Player Efficiency Rating, and Win Shares Per 48 minutes (and he was even better than those levels after the break).
It is easy to forget Payton is still just 23 years old and therefore still possesses much growth potential. He will probably be better next year too.
But from a larger perspective, what do his last 24 games and projected future improvement mean for the franchise moving forward? Can the Magic trust he will continue to take the next steps as a player? Or will this stretch prove to be a flash in the pan?
Payton will be eligible for a contract extension this summer. The Magic are going to have their first chance to put their money where their mouth is on Payton.
Payton was always going to be in an interesting spot with the Magic after this season no matter how he played down the stretch. But with his late run, things are going to be just a bit more interesting. The new Magic general manager will have a lot of things to think about.