Orlando Magic had three seasons to build, learn from

Jalen Suggs had some strong moments especially on defense. The Orlando Magic improved as he did this year. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Jalen Suggs had some strong moments especially on defense. The Orlando Magic improved as he did this year. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

The Orlando Magic’s season ended up where everyone expected.

With an extremely young roster and after trading away the team’s only All-Star, the Magic were expected to go through some growing pains. Nobody had the team competing for the Playoffs or doing anything more than counting ping pong balls.

The team and management may not go as far as that statement, but they were open all year about how the team was not measuring itself on wins and losses. That is about as clear a statement as anyone can give that the team was focused on development, which is coded language for playing for the lottery.

Everyone knew this was what the season was about. So the team was looking for other measures of progress and other measures to build from.

The Orlando Magic’s growth and development came in stages this year. The team has taken to dividing its season into thirds to mark where the changes came.

Coach Jamahl Mosley talked early in the season about some of the things he wanted to see. This is the famed playing with space, pace and the pass on offense and playing together, toughness and talking on defense. Those terms are all vague enough that the team could come up with whatever measure it wanted to claim success.

Still, Orlando fans could see some of these ideas peaking through throughout the year. And especially as the season progressed to the end (before the team started to tank more blatantly).

Weltman, in his conversation with Mike Bianchi of Open Mike on 96.9 The Game, said much of these things in his first media availability since the season ended. The team showed important growth and they like the base they have to grow from. But there is a lot still to work on. That much is evident. And that includes adding some top-end talent through the draft or otherwise in the coming year.

Weltman is not ready to put a wins total or postseason goal on next year’s team. Even if fans are able to see a path to the Play-In Tournament next year. The front office still seems to be about tempering expectations.

But there was another interesting point Weltman brought up during this interview as the team evaluated its season. As Weltman tells it, the team’s analytics department essentially splits the season in thirds — before Jalen Suggs’ injury, during Suggs’ injury and after Suggs’ injury.

This is not to say that Suggs, who had a somewhat disappointing rookie season, is the most important player on the team. It was just a major moment for the team and easy dividing line to analyze the season.

There is something to this that speaks to both how Suggs improved through the course of the season and how the team improved through the course of the season.

Suggs was injured 22 games into the season as he was starting to get comfortable and pick up things in the league. He fractured a bone in his hand when Joel Embiid slapped down on it during a drive.

Suggs averaged 12.3 points per game and 3.6 assists per game while shooting 33.9-percent from the floor. His defensive prowess was already starting to be on display.

But this was clearly the getting comfortable stage of the season.

As a team, the Magic struggled out of the gate. In those first 22 games, Orlando had a 100.6 offensive rating (27th in the league) and a 111.4 defensive rating (28th in the league). The team played at a pace of 99.1 possessions per 48 minutes (15th in the league).

The team did not seem to have any concept of its identity quite yet.

While Suggs was out for 20 games, the Magic really just treaded water and the defense sank. Orlando had an offensive rating of 105.8 points per 100 possessions (a nice bump up considering how poor the offense was all year, but still 28th in the league during that time) and a defensive rating of 113.6 (23rd in the league, but still hardly encouraging).

More interestingly, the Magic’s pace sank to 97.8 possessions per 48 minutes. They were 19th in the league.

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When Suggs returned until the end of the season — the final 40 games of the season — Orlando saw its offense sink a bit again and the team’s defense find its footing.

The Magic had an offensive rating of 104.8 points per 100 possessions (29th in the league) and a defensive rating of 111.7 points per 100 possessions (11th in the league). The team’s pace ballooned to 101.0 possessions per 48 minutes (fourth in the league).

Suggs averaged 11.3 points per game and 5.0 assists per game with a 38.1-percent field goal percentage (17.0-percent 3-point shooting). That showed some improvement even though he played in just 27 of those final 40 games.

The effects of Suggs’ absence are pretty clear. The team plays at a slower pace and their defense struggled. But their offense is better.

Suggs proved to be a pretty big drain offensively throughout the season. The Magic had a 100.6 offensive rating with Suggs on the floor for the entire season and a 104.2 offensive rating with him off the floor.

Defensively, the Magic had a rotation-player best 107.8 defensive rating with Suggs on the floor compared to 112.8 off the floor. Suggs was clearly one of the best defensive players on the team.

But the interesting thing to note is how even the team’s defense was throughout the season. They settled in around 111-112 points allowed per 100 possessions as a team for any time that Suggs was playing. What changed is the rest of the league typically gets worse defensively as the year goes on.

It is encouraging to see the Magic play more consistently on defense. But it is also perhaps concerning that the team’s defensive rating number stayed virtually the same.

There is something to build on there.

But the offense’s complete inability to score at any phase of the season is still the biggest story. Orlando could not take advantage of its relatively strong defense — the team went 15-25 in the final 40 games — because the team could not score. Even at a time when offenses were improving.

Markelle Fultz’s return helped. He helped supercharge the Magic’s pace. And when he played with the starters, the team played better offensively. At least comparatively.

But there is still a lot to figure out.

Splitting the season into thirds gives some glimpse of how the Magic developed through the course of the year. And the team generally did get better in the areas they wanted to get better. They can clearly see the kind of impact Suggs can have for this team with hopeful improvement coming.

But even with improvements, the Magic have to develop these perceived strengths more too.

R.J. Hampton still carving out his role. dark. Next

Orlando still clearly has work to do.