The Orlando Magic have a quandary to go through with their duo of forwards Jonathan Isaac and Aaron Gordon. Their recent play suggests a path ahead.
Suddenly the ball started moving and zipping around the perimeter. Things moved inside-out and shots fell with regularity. The Magic suddenly had a functioning offense.
A full season of struggles gave way to something completely different. This was always how the Magic envisioned playing. They picked up the pace and moved in transition with more speed.
It seemed to unlock Aaron Gordon.
He became a strangely dominant figure, racking up counting stats quickly. Orlando changed some things tactically to unlock Gordon, parking him closer to the basket as a way to get more from him offensively.
This probably should not have been such rocket science. But that is part of the problem.
The Magic have two forwards who are not great shooters they can build around — along with a guard not considered a great shooter. To many observers, the duplication of position and skill from Jonathan Isaac and Aaron Gordon is going to force the team into a choice.
That choice may not come this summer, but it seems inevitable the two will not be able to play together. Not unless one becomes a knock-down shooter. And it is hard to make up an offense that allows both to flourish.
But Gordon’s recently playmaking bent and putting him closer to the basket has unlocked something the Magic had not seen when he and Jonathan Isaac shared the floor together. It could unlock how the duo can play together and how the Magic’s offense can grow.
Aaron Gordon it seemed was at the center of this offensive revival.
After the All-Star Break, Gordon averaged 15.4 points, 9.1 rebounds and 6.8 assists per game while shooting 47.7 percent from the floor. His 3-point field goal percentage decreased dramatically to less than 30-percent, yet he was shooting a whole lot better.
Gordon’s improvement after the break can be attributed in part to the team’s pace. The Orlando Magic were getting out in transition more and Gordon is always one of the bigger beneficiaries of increased pace.
But another thing also happened. The Magic started playing Gordon closer to the basket.
For the season, Gordon has shot 54.5 percent of his shots from outside of 10 feet, according to NBA.com. Since the All-Star Break, only 42.3 percent of his shots have come from outside of 10 feet.
He attacked more quickly too. For the season, he averages 2.88 seconds per touch according to Second Spectrum. Since the All-Star Break, he averaged 1.46 seconds per touch, suggesting Gordon is making more decisive movements and attacking quickly. It is a signal of how much quicker the Magic are playing since the break.
Add in Gordon’s playmaking and something has certainly been unlocked. Or at least it had been unlocked before the season went on break.
Getting Gordon around the basket is undoubtedly key. When he does not have to focus on shooting 3s or attacking from above the 3-point line, Gordon becomes a whole lot more effective.
Playing this way, especially with Nikola Vucevic and his passing in the high post, has Gordon playing more off cuts and in an open lane where he can get directly to the basket without devolving into his dribble moves. That confidence has moved everywhere else, especially with his passing which has dramatically improved.
But it starts with putting a focus on getting Gordon the ball on the move and deeper in the paint. Those are positions where he — and really anyone — can score easily.
Gordon is significantly better when he gets shot like this. When he has two feet in the paint and room to operate, he can score on even very good defenders like Jimmy Butler. The Magic have done a better job setting Gordon up in positions like this in recent games.
Simplifying Gordon’s touches like this and using him as the bottom half of a high-low set certainly does better for him. The uncertainty of where Gordon might break in stagger screens — to the perimeter or to post — also gives the Magic some unpredictability. Especially with the threat of the Magic’s guards attacking the paint.
But it only works if Gordon is cutting more effectively and if the team can space the floor better.
Certainly, a lot of Gordon’s passing has come because guys are hitting shots as much as it is Gordon drawing in the defense. Teams want Orlando to shoot and, at the season’s break, the team is hitting.
What Gordon has done really well is starting to slow the game down and reading the defense to make simple passes that end up in made shots. It is not like he is making a ton of plays off the dribble. But he is making decisions quickly and that timing is the difference for a lot of things.
That kind of floor spacing though allows for these simple passes. If players are patient and read the defense well, these things open up.
Shooting is the biggest weakness for the Orlando Magic this year. It is the biggest weakness of this team in general. Orlando only started to turn things around when the shooting started to turn around.
It is at the center of everything and it has led to the biggest question of the Magic’s current construction. How will Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac fit together?
According to NBA.com’s data, Gordon and Isaac played 482 minutes together this season, posting a 103.8 offensive rating and 107.2 defensive rating. The defensive rating is the most concerning, but that is about the team’s average. Undoubtedly the Magic’s offense struggled a ton early in the season when they played together.
Gordon and Isaac rarely interacted with each other. Gordon averaged only 1.1 passes per game to Isaac this year. Most of Aaron Gordon’s passing involves Markelle Fultz, Nikola Vucevic and D.J. Augustin. That would be expected — the point guards and the center you run pick and roll with.
It would seem most of the Magic’s efforts are about distancing Isaac from Gordon because of their shooting inconsistency.
If they did interact with each other, it was because Isaac got a mismatch and the Magic looked to exploit it in the post.
Like Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac has gotten pretty good at picking out mismatches like this one against Will Barton and hitting that turnaround fadeaway jumper. Like with Gordon, it is a quick move and decision that allows him to get his shot off.
This decisiveness and timing are everything within this offense.
Isaac got more and more confident with this shot as the season went on. It is simple just to create this mismatch through a pick and roll and deliver the ball into the post. The trick will come when teams start to pinch down on Isaac and force him to pass it.
Like with Gordon, Isaac is going to have to learn to make reads and make simple and quick passes to find shooters. They should be open if the defense collapses around him.
This is more about the screen assist someone like Vucevic sets — and should show how important it is for the Magic to find good screeners at center and good cutters who can read those screens and hit those pin-down or flare screens.
Before his injury, Isaac was a lot more willing to attack off the dribble. And he showed some aptitude at making some quick reads. He was more assertive, but he was still not driving himself into too many traps — although he, like a younger Gordon, had some ill-advised shots.
Finding the fit
The Orlando Magic are probably better off looking to stagger minutes between Jonathan Isaac and Aaron Gordon.
They can play together, but it may be true they play more effective without each other. Both players probably do better when they are able to be used as a small-ball power forward who posts up and works from the paint.
With Nikola Vucevic’s ability to shoot from the outside — and even Mohamed Bamba’s outside shooting — the Magic could run a four-out offense with either Jonathan Isaac or Aaron Gordon as a bit of a post or mid-post fulcrum.
Gordon has become very good at his interior passing like this. He can make quicker reads and find open players willing to cut into space as the defense shifts its attention to him. A lot of that comes from experience. And his threat to hit this mid-range jumper forces the defense to stick with him.
But the key is getting him closer to the paint. The same is probably true of Isaac.
So long as Gordon and Isaac improve their 3-point percentage — Gordon is shooting 30.1 percent from deep and topped off last year at 34.9 percent while Isaac is shooting 33.0 percent from deep. Both need to get closer to 35-36 percent for defenses to respect them enough and give them space. The same goes for Vucevic if the Magic are going to work as presently constructed.
The easiest way to get both Gordon and Isaac going is in transition. That is where both players are ultimately best at both scoring and playmaking. Their length and speed helps them most score in transition — although even there, there is room to improve.
The two rarely interacted with each other even in transition. And that seems intentional because of their relatively poor shooting.
The Magic’s big issue is creating spacing. It is about giving their players the best chance to operate and make these quick decisions so passing becomes easy. Orlando still needs a primary playmaker — and even a secondary playmaker — to create holes in defenses.
And this goes double for the playoffs when defenses are more loaded up to stop these simpler actions the Magic have used to get players open.
Even on this play from Game 1 of last year’s playoff series, the Toronto Raptors defense is able to swarm Isaac as he catches the ball. The promise Isaac has is his ability to split the double team and get past smaller defenders to finish at the basket.
But as you notice, the lane is open. Finding a way to get Isaac or Gordon in the paint with freedom and space to attack is the key to unlocking either of them individually.
Pace undoubtedly plays a larger role. In most of these clips, the Magic are moving quickly through the offense or create a mismatch in secondary break. There is not a lot of slowing down in these clips. The passes and decisions come quickly.
The key to the Magic making their Isaac and Gordon experiment work then is a little clearer. The team has to play with pace, getting out in transition and moving quickly to seek mismatches and cut to open space. The ball cannot stick much. And the team has to have reliable shooting.
That latter part is the big question especially when it comes to those two. It still may be more beneficial to stagger their minutes so one can camp out in the paint and operate closer to the basket, limiting their shooting struggles.
With Gordon becoming a smarter passer and the Magic finding a formula to play at a faster pace, there is at least hope and a way for the Gordon/Isaac pairing to work. But the writing still seems to be on the wall. The Magic just do not have enough shooting to make such a system work long term or at the highest levels.
Orlando certainly should not feel the rush to change anything. The team should still be willing to try the duo. But without further development, the Magic might run out of options to make this duo work.